Lean vs. Moist Brisket: Is The Trade-Off Worth It?

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lean vs moist brisket

Which is more important to you: enjoying a brisket that’s juicy and moist, or not having to worry about fatty bits? In this guide, we’ll explore the trade-off between lean vs moist brisket—and how you might be able to tell the difference.

Lean vs Moist Brisket

“Lean” brisket typically refers to the flat end, which has less marbling than its fattier sibling, the point. When you choose the “moist” option, you should be getting meat from the point end. Instead of “moist,” some pitmasters may describe the point meat as “fatty,” “juicy,” or “well-marbled.”

Is Brisket A Lean Cut?

Not particularly. However, that’s not the end of the story. Every cut is different, and the texture of the finished product is dependent on several factors.

The brisket comes from the underside of the cow, and the muscles are responsible for bearing a great deal of the animal’s weight. As such, they get a good workout, which can render the meat tough once the steer is butchered.

When the brisket is left untrimmed, it includes a sizable fat cap that runs along one side. The forward-facing portion, called the point (see section below for more info), also contains a lot of the intramuscular fat that butchers call “marbling.”

Despite the natural toughness of the cut, brisket can be delectably tender when you cook it right. The flat end, which is the cut you’re most likely to find on supermarket shelves, is also relatively lean, especially if you trim the meat beforehand.

Lean vs Moist Brisket: Breaking It Down

Most of the time, it’s possible to choose between moist or lean meat even if you’ve only smoked a single brisket. Here’s why.

Brisket on Chopping Board
Credit: Shane Morton

The brisket is made up of two muscles, or subprimals. The larger one, which is called the flat, has a fat cap on top, but not much marbling. The point, which is slightly smaller, contains plenty of marbling, which provides the cooked beef with more moisture.

Once upon a time, the point end was viewed as inferior. Many chefs opted to use the meat from this section to make baked beans or other side dishes. This stigma has lessened somewhat, but it’s still easier to find a brisket flat than it is to buy the point alone.

When you order brisket in a barbecue joint, you may be asked if you would prefer your meat “lean or fatty.” If you answer “lean,” you’ll be served with slices from the flat. Those who respond with “fatty” will receive meat from the point, which is often shredded.

The problem with this phrasing is that the word “fat” has negative connotations that many restaurant owners would prefer to avoid. Therefore, at some places, you’ll be asked if you prefer “lean or moist” brisket instead.

Which Is Better?

That depends on your own taste buds—or even the kind of mood you’re in.

The flat end of the brisket is easier to carve, and the slices are aesthetically pleasing. That makes the flat a good choice for sit-down dinners, or any formal gathering.

On the other hand, true barbecue aficionados are crazy about the superior flavor that the point end provides. The meat may be fatty, but if the brisket was cooked properly, most of that fat will render, providing a depth and richness that the flat end can’t match.

We should point out that the flat still has plenty of flavor, and that the meat should be nice and tender—assuming the pitmaster has done their job correctly. When the meat is overcooked, or if it doesn’t sell quickly enough, the slices might dry out.

The point is more forgiving when it’s held for long periods of time. This is true especially if it’s shredded and served with barbecue sauce. That’s another reason why the point end remains popular among barbecue enthusiasts.

“Lean” is the universal term for the meat from the flat end. “Fatty” and “moist” are probably the most common euphemisms for the point meat, but you might come across a few others as well.

“Marbled” or “more highly marbled” are alternate terms for the meat from the point end, and easier for some consumers to understand. If you know the difference between Prime and Choice cuts of beef, you know the positive effects that marbling can have.

lean vs moist brisket

Some places might describe the moist or fatty meat as “juicy” instead. This is a good advertising tactic, as the word is both descriptive and enticing. “Full-bodied” is another possibility, but one that might confuse amateurs.

Since “moist” is a common stand-in for fatty, you might expect “wet” to be acceptable too. However, in Memphis barbecue, the terms “wet” and “dry” are reserved for ribs that are either slathered in sauce (“wet”) or coated with a spice rub (“dry”). It might confuse people if you were to refer to moist brisket as “wet.”

How Do You Keep Brisket Moist?

First and foremost, you need to cook the brisket at a low temperature. 225 degrees Fahrenheit is a good target for smoking brisket, but you can also opt for the 250-275 degree range.

If your smoker includes a water pan, consider using it to keep the brisket from drying out as it cooks. Just be careful not to overdo it, as excess humidity in the cooking chamber can prevent the brisket from forming a good crunchy bark.

Another option might be to spritz the brisket with apple juice, cider vinegar, water, beer, or another liquid of your choice. Wait until the meat has had a chance to cook for at least 2 hours, and don’t spritz too often. Every 45 to 60 minutes should be enough.

Finally, don’t overcook the meat. If brisket climbs past the target temperature of 210 degrees Fahrenheit, it may be tough and dry when it’s time to serve it. Pull the brisket from the smoker when the internal temperature hits the 195-200 degree range.

How To Keep Brisket Juicy When Carving

As we’ve pointed out, it can be difficult for sliced brisket to maintain its integrity during long resting periods. Fortunately, there are certain tricks you can use to ensure that your slices remain juicy and tender.

Start Low

Experts recommend slicing “low to high” in order to preserve the juices. That means you’ll start on the lean side of the cut, which you now know is the flat end. The slices will be smaller, meaning the exposed edge will have less surface area.

Go Against The Grain

Make sure you’re slicing against the grain of the brisket. That means carving across the muscle fibers. It’s easier to do this on the flat end, which is why the flat carves up better than the point.

To make sure you’re cutting in the right direction, start by carving off a small corner of the flat end. This will show you the direction in which the grain is running.

You might even want to take this step before you cook the brisket. The grain is easier to see when the meat is raw.

Wrap It Up

lean vs moist brisket

If you’ve opted to “hold” the brisket by wrapping it in foil, try slicing only as much as you think you’ll need before re-wrapping the rest of it. The meat will stay moist longer if it’s left whole, and the foil will hold in any residual heat, which creates steam.

Keep It Together

Another method is to cut the brisket in half, then press the cut ends together when you’ve finished slicing. This helps hold in the juices. You can also position the cut end (or ends) against the cutting board, which will have a similar effect.

Handle With Care

Don’t be tempted to create a show by pressing down on the point end when carving into the brisket. This causes a wash of rendered fat and juices to spill out onto the work surface. While it’s an impressive display, you want those juices to stay where they are.

Watch Closely

When you approach the center of the whole brisket, you’ll notice that the grain starts to run in a different direction. Now is the time to stop cutting, as you’ve reached the point end.

At this juncture, you have two choices. You can rotate the brisket about 90 degrees and continue to carve the meat into slices, or you can shred the point meat and use it as a sandwich or taco filling.

Alternatively, you can separate the point and the flat as soon as the brisket is finished cooking. Some pitmasters even opt to smoke the two separately, thereby speeding the cooking process along.

We prefer to smoke the whole brisket whenever space and time allow. This makes for a more well-rounded finished product. That said, feel free to divide the point and flat when you’re ready to start carving.

The Bottom Line

When a restaurant asks if you’d prefer “lean or moist” brisket, there’s a good chance they’re planning to serve you meat from either the flat or the point, depending on your answer.

In our opinion, each end of the brisket has its own fine qualities to offer. If you’re having a hard time deciding, ask to be served a little of both. Better yet, serve yourself some of both the next time you smoke your own brisket.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar


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