Most barbecue experts would agree that beef brisket is one of the best cuts you can buy for the smoker. The question of whether it’s considered lean, however, might have different answers, depending on the circumstances. Why is that?
Is Brisket Lean?
Brisket can be divided into two subprimal cuts. The first cut, or the flat, is considered lean. However, the point end, or second cut, has a lot of intramuscular fat. If you’re concerned about fat intake, consider buying the brisket flat alone and trimming the fat cap to 1/4 inch thick.
The brisket is one of the eight primal cuts of beef. That means it’s one of the large pieces that are separated from the carcass during butchering. Primal cuts are usually divided into subprimals, and sometimes into portions after that.
A whole beef brisket is called a “whole packer,” or sometimes just a “packer.” The cut is huge—it can weigh 20 pounds or more, depending on the size of the cow. That translates into a long cooking time.
The two subprimals on a brisket are called the flat, or the “first cut;” and the point. Although smoking a whole packer has its rewards, it’s faster to cook either the point or the flat—or to smoke them both, but separately.
Point vs. Flat
The point end of a brisket is a fatty cut of meat. It contains a high percentage of the intramuscular fat called “marbling.” This contributes richness and flavor to the cooked brisket, but it also prevents the meat from being classified as “lean.”
The meat-to-fat ratio on the point end can skew higher than 70-30, though it’s more common for cuts to fall into the 80-20 range. This makes the point one of the fattiest sections of the whole steer.
A brisket flat, on the other hand, is considered lean. In fact, it’s leaner than the tri-tip, which is one of its hottest competitors as far as grilling is concerned.
In order to attain this label, a 3.5-ounce cut of beef has to contain less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat and less than 10 total grams of fat. The flat end of the brisket meets these criteria with 2.7 grams of saturated fat and 6.8 total grams of fat.
You might be interested to learn that a trimmed portion of brisket flat (see below) is nearly as lean as the tenderloin. As the tenderloin has 2.5 grams of saturated fat and 6.7 total fat grams per serving, the two are nearly even on the scale.
If you’re concerned about fat content, it’s important to understand the various labels of the subprimal cuts. Both the flat and the point go by several different names. You don’t want to get them mixed up, lest you wind up with the wrong cut by mistake.
The flat is often called the first cut, and it’s the one you’re most likely to find in the butcher case. Other labels for the brisket flat include deckle off, nose off, or brisket half.
Butchers sometimes label the point as the second cut, but it’s not as easy to find the point sold by itself. More often, you’ll have to ask the butcher to separate the point from a whole packer if you’re looking to smoke the point alone.
The point may also be called the “deckle.” The deckle is the layer of cartilage and fat that connects the flat to the ribcage. Since this portion is removed when you divide the point and flat, the term is often used to refer to the point itself.
There’s also a thick seam of fat that connects the point and the flat. This fat layer is called the “nose,” and it’s best to remove it before adding the meat to the smoker. Some butchers also refer to the point as the nose, as it’s the forward-facing segment of the brisket.
Should You Trim Brisket?
One of the best ways to cut down on the fat content is to trim the meat before cooking it. You won’t be able to remove the marbling without damaging the cut, but there are other layers of fat that can be trimmed away easily.
If you’ve purchased a whole packer, take a close look at it. The nose, which we mentioned earlier, consists of tough, yellow fat. The deckle has a similar consistency. This type of fat won’t render out during the smoke, so it should be removed beforehand.
There should also be a sizable band of fat running along the length of the brisket. This is known as the “fat cap,” and it’s lighter in color than the nose or the deckle. Some of this fat will render as it heats up, lending moisture and flavor to the meat.
Our recommendation would be to leave about 1/4 inch of the fat cap in place. While a small amount of fat is necessary to achieve the proper texture, large chunks of it will remain behind. This means you’ll just have to remove them afterward.
Other Suggestions for Cutting Back on Fat
The most obvious suggestion would be to purchase the brisket flat alone. This cut is naturally leaner, and you won’t have to go to the trouble of separating the point and the flat yourself.
You can also ask the butcher to trim the brisket for you. Just be careful—an overtrimmed brisket will turn out tough and dry. You want to make sure there’s a sufficient amount of fat left behind to provide flavor.
Once you’ve chilled the leftover brisket, it should be easy to scrape away any trace amounts of excess fat that have hardened on the surface. At this point, you can either discard the fat or save it to use in another dish.
Is brisket lean? Yes—as long as it’s taken from the flat end. The point isn’t considered lean, but in its defense, it does have a lot of flavor. It’s up to you to decide whether the trade-off is worth it.