Ready to try your hand at delectable smoked brisket? Once you start, you’ll be tempted to return to the recipe again and again.
Before you begin, however, let’s explore the most basic of questions: Is brisket beef or pork? It’s important to understand the distinction in case you have guests with dietary restrictions.
Is Brisket Beef or Pork?
Brisket is a cut of beef taken from the lower chest region of the steer. It consists of two smaller sections, or subprimals, called the point and the flat. The corresponding section of a hog is known as the picnic shoulder.
Brisket is one of the eight primal cuts of beef. That means it’s one of the major pieces of flesh that are separated from the carcass during the initial phase of butchering.
The brisket is located in the lower pectoral region of the animal, beneath the chuck and just above the foreshank. That means there are two briskets on each steer, with one located on each half of the carcass.
The muscles in the brisket region get a great deal of exercise during the steer’s lifetime. Since these animals spend a lot of time lying down, the brisket muscles are often used when the steer returns to a standing position.
All this exercise toughens up the muscle fibers. That means brisket can be stringy and chewy if it doesn’t cook long enough. If you’ve ever wondered why brisket needs to cook for a long time over low heat, that’s the reason.
When all that tough connective tissue is exposed to low heat, it gradually breaks down and converts to gelatin. This imbues the beef with rich flavor as well as moisture.
The slow cooking process allows the fat to render slowly as well. Once the brisket is done, it should be juicy and tender, with plenty of beef flavor.
When the brisket is divided into sections, these pieces are known as “subprimal cuts.” In this case, there are only two subprimals, although it’s possible to divide them into steaks if necessary.
Brisket’s two subprimals are known as the point and the flat. When sold undivided, the brisket may be called a “whole packer.”
Cutting the brisket in half along its natural division point makes it easier to handle. As a bonus, the meat will reach its optimal internal temperature more quickly.
The point end of the brisket is slightly rounded, with a great deal of intramuscular fat. Called “marbling,” this fat makes the meat from the point end especially juicy when it’s cooked.
A brisket point will usually weigh between 4 and 7 pounds, depending on the size of the whole packer from which it came. It’s not always easy to find the cut sold separately, but you can either divide the brisket yourself or ask at the butcher counter.
The flat is the cut you’ll find most often in the meat section of your local supermarket. Long and flat, with a rectangular or oval appearance, the flat carves up beautifully when cooked to the proper temperature.
A brisket flat will have a generous fat cap along the edge, but the meat itself doesn’t have as much marbling as the point end. For best results, leave 1/4 inch of the fat cap in place when smoking the flat separately from the point.
Expect the flat end to weigh between 6 and 10 pounds. You can smoke the point and flat at the same time once they’ve been separated, but make sure you know the approximate weight of each one beforehand. That way, you can plan the cooking times accordingly.
Which Is Better: The Point or the Flat?
There’s no definitive answer to this question. The flat is more popular with novices, but that may be because it’s more widely available. Serious pitmasters, on the other hand, swear by the richer beef taste that the point end offers.
In general, we prefer the flat end if we’re hoping to carve the brisket into neat slices for an impressive presentation. The point has an irregular grain, which makes it harder to slice. It’s better to reserve the point end for dishes that call for shredded beef.
If you’re having a hard time deciding, go ahead and smoke a whole packer brisket. That way, you’ll get the best of both worlds. The point will share some of its moisture with the flat, and you’ll be rewarded with meat that’s tender and full of flavor.
Is Brisket Always Beef?
As we mentioned, brisket comes from steer. That means it’s a cut of beef, not pork.
That said, some butchers have taken to advertising cuts of pork as “pork brisket.” Although the meat is cut from a similar spot on the hog, this isn’t technically correct.
A pork brisket consists of one lean end and one fatty end, similar to the flat and point ends of a beef brisket. However, the makeup of this cut is markedly different.
For starters, the leaner end of a pork brisket is taken from the belly region. If you’ve ever eaten pork belly before, you’ll know that it’s actually a fatty cut in itself.
The “fattier” portion, pork brisket’s answer to the point end, comes from the picnic shoulder. This is the lower section of the whole pork shoulder, which consists of this segment and the Boston butt.
The problem with this setup is that the picnic shoulder doesn’t really resemble the point end of a brisket. It might have a similar shape, but the meat doesn’t have the intramuscular fat that distinguishes the brisket point from the flat.
What’s more, the cuts advertised as pork brisket only weigh 1 to 4 pounds on average. A whole packer brisket, on the other hand, might top out at 20 pounds.
Finally, as pork briskets aren’t a traditional cut, it’s hard to find them for sale. You might be able to seek them out at specialty online retailers, but grocery stores and big-box stores like Costco don’t typically carry them.
Does Brisket Come From The Cow or the Steer?
Cow is often used as an umbrella term for heifers, steer, and cows alike. If you want to get technical, though, it isn’t accurate.
A cow is a female animal, and one that’s previously given birth. A heifer, meanwhile, is a female that hasn’t yet borne any offspring, although they may do so in the future.
When male calves reach 2 years of age without being neutered, they’re classified as bulls. However, in many cases, the animals are neutered, often when they’re 3 to 6 months of age. At this point, they become steer.
The neutering is done in order to make the cattle more docile, in addition to preventing reproduction. The meat from steer is considered to be especially tender and well-marbled, which is why butchers take briskets from these animals.
Cows have the brisket primal as well, but the meat from breeding females isn’t ideal for this cut. When you buy a brisket, it’s likely that the meat came from a steer, not a cow.
The Bottom Line
If you happen to see a cut labeled as “pork brisket,” know that it actually includes portions of the picnic shoulder and the pork belly. A true brisket comes from a steer, and in our opinion, the pork version isn’t the best substitute.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!