When I first heard the term “left handed brisket,” I was stumped. What makes a brisket left- or right-handed? Does the distinction have any bearing on the flavor and texture of the beef, or is it just one of those things that barbecue aficionados say to intimidate their friends?
In this guide, we’ll provide you with the answers to these questions so you’ll learn all there is to know about this unusual term–and what it means for your next barbecue.
Left Handed Brisket
A left-handed brisket is a beef brisket that was cut from the left side of the steer during butchering. Because the muscles on this side aren’t used as often as the right-side muscles, some people claim that the meat is more tender and flavorful as a result.
What It Means
While the difference may not be visible to the untrained eye, longtime brisket fans will often seek out the cut that’s known as the “left handed brisket.” Here’s why.
Brisket is cut from the lower rib cage of the steer, just below the chest. When the steer is in the field, it usually rests on its left side. This means that when it gets up, it uses the powerful chest muscles on the right side to propel itself into a standing position.
Since a mature beef cattle specimen can weigh over 1,200 pounds, this action gives the chest muscles quite a workout. All that activity can toughen the meat, which leads to a brisket that’s considerably less tender and delicious than the one cut from the left-hand side.
Despite the name, which is somewhat misleading, this term doesn’t actually have to do with the cow being left- or right-handed. Instead, it refers to the side of the steer from which the cut was taken.
How To Tell The Difference
The distinction might be clear enough on paper, but how are you supposed to know which side of the cow the brisket was cut from? Only the butcher who made the first cut will have that information, and you probably won’t be able to ask them. Fortunately, there is an easy and reliable test.
When you pick up a whole packer brisket, lay it fat side down on a cutting board or another flat surface. The narrow point end should be facing you. Now take a look at the way the point end curves slightly where it meets the surface. If it curves to the left, it’s a right handed brisket. If the curve points to the right, the brisket is left handed.
Left Handed Brisket vs. Right Handed Brisket: Does it Matter?
Some pitmasters swear by left-handed brisket, claiming that the cut is far more flavorful and tender than right-handed cuts. While the logic is sound, others are convinced that the difference is negligible. So is it worth your time to seek out a left-handed cut?
We would say that it’s worth a look for the novelty factor alone. It’s always interesting to test these theories, so you can make an informed decision the next time you shop for a brisket.
That said, we think a right-handed brisket can be just as delicious when it’s cooked properly. Since you’ll be smoking the meat for a long time at a low temperature, it should be nice and tender anyway, even if the muscles were tough to begin with. After all, brisket is already a notoriously chewy cut, no matter which side of the cow it came from.
We should also point out that a left-handed brisket is slightly easier to wrap than a right-handed one. If you plan to employ the “Texas crutch” by wrapping your brisket in foil partway through the cook, then you might want to look for a left-handed cut.
If you’ve ever shopped for a whole packer brisket in a supermarket or other big-box store, you’ve probably already spotted one major problem.
When the meat is in Cryovac or some other type of sealed-air packaging, it can be hard to tell whether the point end is curving to the left or to the right. That’s because the seal is too tight to allow the meat to lie completely flat.
Obviously, you won’t be allowed to take the brisket out of its Cryovac packaging unless you buy it first. If you have your heart set on a left-handed cut, it’s a good idea to shop for a whole packer brisket at your local butcher shop instead. Some online retailers might also specify whether the cut is left- or right-handed.
Prime, Choice or Select?
Personally, we think the grade of the beef itself is more important than the distinction between left- and right-handed brisket. If the meat doesn’t have enough fat on it, your brisket might turn out too dry, even if it’s cooked at the right temperature.
Prime beef has the highest percentage of fat and marbling, but it’s also the priciest grade on the market. Also, less than 2 percent of beef is graded Prime to begin with, so it can be difficult to find a brisket with this label.
Fortunately, Choice brisket also has a great deal of fat, which helps to keep the meat tender and moist during cooking. This is especially good news if you plan on preparing the point end, as this cut has more marbling than the flat end. We would recommend buying a Choice cut whenever possible.
The Select grade represents the next step down in terms of quality. While the beef may still have a small amount of fat, it tends to be less flavorful than Choice or Prime selections. Because the meat is so lean, it’s a popular choice for health-conscious buyers, but it doesn’t make for great brisket.
How To Make Smoked Brisket
Here are a few tips on how to smoke your left-handed brisket so it turns out marvelous and juicy.
Check the Weight
A whole packer brisket usually weighs between 10 and 16 pounds. If you buy either the flat or the point end, they’ll weigh about half as much as the whole brisket. Bear in mind that the flat end may cook more quickly than the point because the meat is leaner.
You’ll want to base your total cooking time on the weight of the brisket, so it’s important to get an accurate number. If you choose to trim some of the fat off the meat, it’s a good idea to weigh it again afterward.
Make Your Mark
Like many pitmasters, we recommend cutting the flat against the grain. However, it can be difficult to tell the direction of the grain after the meat is cooked. Before adding the brisket to the smoker, trim a small section off the flat end, making the cut perpendicular to the grain. This will serve as a guide when it’s time to slice the meat.
You can season the brisket with a 50/50 blend of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, or use a seasoning rub with more ingredients. We think a blend of brown sugar, cumin, kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, smoked paprika, and cayenne pepper works well.
If you’d like, you can leave the seasoned brisket in the refrigerator overnight to give the spices a chance to adhere. Just be sure to bring the meat to room temperature for an hour or two before putting it on the smoker.
Brisket should cook for 1-1/2 to 2 hours per pound at 225 degrees Fahrenheit. If your smoker’s temperature is too high, the meat will cook more quickly. That’s why we recommend keeping an instant-read thermometer on hand. After the projected halfway mark, start checking the internal temperature of the brisket every 30 minutes or so.
Once you’ve pulled the brisket from the smoker, allow the meat to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. This allows the juices to redistribute, so the meat will be moist and tender.
While it’s an interesting talking point, the difference between left- and right-handed brisket is a minor one. As long as you’ve employed a low-and-slow cooking technique and followed all the proper steps, your brisket should turn out fine.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!