It’s a good idea to trim some of the fat from a brisket before you season it and add it to the smoker. But how much fat should you trim off, and what should you do if there’s not enough left on the meat?
Over Trimmed Brisket
A properly trimmed brisket should have about 1/4 inch remaining on the fat cap. If it’s been removed completely, the meat might dry out as it cooks. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ensure that the brisket retains enough moisture, even if there’s not a lot of visible fat left.
A Word About Brisket Fat
During the long cooking process, some of the brisket fat will render out, giving the interior of the brisket a lovely juicy texture. If there’s too much, however, the excess will turn rubbery, so the meat will be tough and unpleasant to chew.
A lot of the fat you’ll trim off a brisket will come from the fat cap. This is a thick layer of fat that runs along the flat end of the brisket. The fat cap can make up a significant portion of the flat, but you should trim it down to about 1/4 inch.
If you’ve purchased a whole packer brisket, the deckle will likely be included as well. That’s the term for the large strip of fat and cartilage that connects the flat to the rib cage.
It can be tricky to trim away the deckle without removing the entire point, so many pitmasters opt to keep it in place during the smoke. You can always carve away any excess fat when you’re dividing the point and the flat just before serving.
Of course, if you opt to smoke the point and the flat separately, you can remove the deckle when you divide the brisket. Slice along the fat seam until the two halves are separated, then trim away as much of the white fat as possible.
The point also contains a lot of intramuscular fat, which is known as “marbling.” This feature is key to the success of your smoked brisket point. The thin ribbons of fat should render out and make the point meat more juicy and flavorful than the meat from the flat.
About Trimmed Brisket
When you see a brisket that’s labeled as “trimmed,” it means that the butchers have carved away the excess fat.
A trimmed brisket should have at least 1/8 to 1/4 of the fat cap remaining. Otherwise, there won’t be enough fat left for the brisket to develop a good crunchy bark.
The fat cap plays another important role during the cooking process: It shields the leaner meat of the flat from the direct heat. This ensures slow, even cooking. It’s why we recommend positioning the brisket so that the fat cap faces the heat source.
Some butchers may take the trimming step too far, leaving you with a brisket that has no visible fat left on the exterior at all (or very little, anyway). When this occurs, you end up with an over trimmed brisket.
Is Over Trimmed Brisket A Bad Thing?
As we’ve determined, a small amount of fat can lead to a tastier finished product. If the meat is overtrimmed, though, it’s not the end of the world.
This is true especially if the point end is still attached. The marbling will provide enough fat to flavor and moisturize that portion of the brisket. If you buy an overtrimmed whole packer, we would suggest leaving the cut intact while the meat cooks.
Overtrimmed flats might turn out a little bit drier than what you’re used to. Still, we would suggest going ahead and smoking it as you normally would. There may be enough marbling left to give the meat a sufficient degree of juiciness.
Options for Over Trimmed Brisket
While it’s fine to smoke the meat as is, there are certain steps you can take to boost the moisture content.
The Tallow Method
For flat ends that have been overtrimmed, one option is to baste the meat with leftover fat from another brisket. If you’ve salvaged the trimmings and used them to make beef tallow, you can add some of this rendered fat to the wrapper.
Of course, this step assumes that you’ll be wrapping the brisket in the first place. Since the lack of fat can promote dryness, the wrapper might be a good idea–especially if you add a measure of tallow.
It’s preferable to use butcher paper for the wrapper in this case. We recommend butcher paper over foil anyway, but it comes in particularly handy when tallow is involved.
You have a few options when it comes to applying the tallow to the wrapper. You can smear a layer of fat around the surface of the paper, leaving a border around the edges, then add the brisket to the center and wrap it as you normally would.
Another method is to add about 1 cup of tallow to the center of the butcher paper and leave it there in one large dollop. Set the brisket on top and wrap the paper around the meat.
The Water Pan Method
Another technique for adding moisture involves adding a water pan to the smoker for the first stage of the smoke. Some smokers even come equipped with built-in water pans for this very purpose.
Use about 1 gallon of water to start, then replenish if necessary. At 225 degrees Fahrenheit, this amount of water should last 2 to 3 hours. Don’t check on the water level too often, or the smoker temperature might drop significantly, prolonging the cooking time.
You don’t need to use the water pan once the brisket’s internal temp gets to about 150-160 degrees. This is true especially if you opt to wrap the brisket at this point, since the added moisture won’t be able to penetrate the wrapping anyway.
Pull When Meat Is Probe Tender
This is good advice even when you’re not dealing with overtrimmed brisket. When the thermometer probe slides in and out with no resistance, it’s time to take the meat off the smoker. If you leave it in much longer, the brisket will be overcooked and dry.
Be sure to insert the probe into the thickest section of the flat end. That’s the best place to get an accurate readout. When the meat is probe tender, the internal temp will probably register in the 195-205 degree zone.
Buying Trimmed Briskets: Pros and Cons
When you see a trimmed brisket on the shelf, all it means is that the butcher took the time to remove the excess fat in advance. Assuming the job was done properly, this label shouldn’t have any real bearing on your preparation technique.
That said, having the brisket already trimmed can save you a great deal of time and effort. Since it takes such a long time to cook a brisket properly to begin with, this can be a nice asset.
Bear in mind that a trimmed brisket will usually fetch a higher price per pound. You’ll have to pay for the added convenience. Only you can decide whether the trade-off is worth it.
Many pitmasters prefer to do the job themselves, as this allows them to customize the brisket to their liking. In addition to saving money, they can hone their craft and enjoy a finished product that’s tailored to their personal taste.
As a bonus, it’s usually easier to find an untrimmed brisket. You might end up spending more time searching for a trimmed cut than you would carving the fat away yourself.
How To Use Brisket Trimmings
There’s one other perk to trimming the brisket fat yourself, and it’s a major one: You’ll be able to save the trimmings for a later use.
In addition to the aforementioned technique of adding tallow to the wrapper, there are many things you can do with leftover brisket trimmings. You can add it to homemade ground chuck or sausage, or use it to make delicious Yorkshire pudding. It’s even possible to make candles or homemade soaps out of the fat.
Can I Leave The Fat Intact?
Those of you who are worried about accidentally overtrimming their whole packer briskets can rest easy. There’s no need to trim the brisket at all if you don’t want to. You may have to remove some once the meat has finished cooking, but it won’t do any harm to leave it where it is in the meantime.
In fact, some folks prefer the flavor of an exceptionally fatty brisket. You might want to try smoking one without trimming it sometime, just to see if this applies to you.
The Bottom Line
When you buy a trimmed brisket, there’s always a chance that it might be overtrimmed. The easiest way to avoid this pitfall is to do the trimming yourself. However, even seasoned experts might accidentally remove too much of the fat from time to time.
The good news? An overtrimmed brisket won’t necessarily ruin the barbecue. As long as you cook it low and slow, the meat should still be tender–and there are methods you can use to prevent it from turning too dry.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!