With its mouthwatering interplay of flavor and texture, beef brisket is one of the most popular choices when it comes to good barbecue. However, even the most seasoned pitmaster might not stop to think about the origins of this delicacy. Just what part of the cow is brisket, and what makes it taste so good? In this guide, we’ll provide you with an in-depth answer to these questions.
What Part of the Cow is Brisket?
Brisket is one of the eight primal beef cuts. This means that when the steer goes through the initial butchering process, the brisket is one of the main cuts that’s separated from the carcass. These primal cuts are then separated into sub-primal cuts, like steaks and roasts.
The brisket is a triangular cut located in the lower chest portion of the steer. Due to its location, it includes both the superficial and deep pectorals. Because cows don’t have collarbones, the brisket muscles are responsible for supporting nearly two-thirds of the animal’s body weight. As a result, the meat of the brisket contains a great deal of connective tissue. In fact, the word brisket is thought to be derived from the Middle English brusket, which is itself a variation of an Old Norse word meaning cartilage.
Because of the large amount of connective tissue, brisket should be cooked for a long time at low temperatures. Otherwise, the meat will come out tough and stringy.
Often, butchers will combine brisket with chuck to make a flavorful batch of ground beef for burgers. The high fat content means that you’ll lose a significant portion of the overall weight during cooking—typically about 30 percent.
Point vs Flat: Understanding the Difference
A whole brisket includes two sub-primal cuts known as the point and the flat. Here’s what you need to know about each one.
About the Flat
The flat cut is the leaner of the two, with a long, thin rectangular appearance. This portion is taken from the interior portion of the brisket, the part that sits agains the ribs of the steer.
The flat is distinguished by a layer of fat called the cap. As the fat renders, the drippings will help to keep the meat moist and flavorful. You can trim some of it away if you’d like, but the majority of the cap should be left in place while the meat cooks. A fat cap of 1/4-inch to 1 inch is customary.
Because of its lean texture and uniform appearance, the flat can be carved into beautiful slices. If presentation is important for the dish you’re preparing, then you should go with the flat over the point.
About the Point
The point, which is sometimes called the deckle, comes from the lower portion of the brisket. This section is thicker, with more connective tissue and marbling running through the meat.
Although the point contains less meat than the flat, the extra fat gives it an irresistible beefy flavor. This is the portion of the brisket that’s commonly ground into meat for hamburgers. If you’re making shredded barbecue beef sandwiches, the point is the way to go.
Whichever cut you decide to buy, make sure the meat is a deep red color and the fat is pure white, with no traces of gray or yellow.
If you’d like to buy a whole brisket and separate it yourself, the process isn’t all that difficult. Take a look at this video for tips on how to do it properly. A whole brisket may be labeled as a whole packer cut.
Is Corned Beef the Same as Beef Brisket?
While corned beef is usually made from the brisket portion, the two aren’t interchangeable.
Corned beef is brisket that’s been cured in a brine, which is what gives it that distinctive pink hue. The large grains of salt that were traditionally used for curing are about the size of a corn kernel, hence the name. Corned beef can also be smoked and transformed into the deli classic known as pastrami. Brisket, meanwhile, is sold raw—either whole or separated into the point and flat, as described above.
There are several preparation methods that will bring out brisket’s best qualities. In the United States, the most popular version involves rubbing the brisket with a robust blend of spices, then slow-smoking the meat over a charcoal or wood fire. Smoked brisket is well-known in many regions of the country, but it’s a hallmark of the South in particular. In fact, brisket is renowned as the national dish of Texas.
Once the brisket has been fully cooked, you can return smaller pieces to the smoker to crisp up even further. These well-done pieces are known as “burnt ends,” and they’re commonly found in Kansas City-style barbecue. In this region, the burnt ends are served on white bread to make an open-faced sandwich.
Other countries have their own traditional methods for preparing brisket. In Britain, for example, the meat is slowly braised and served in gravy, similar to American pot roast. Germany uses a similar technique, but hearty beer is often used as the braising liquid. Meanwhile, it’s common in many Asian cultures to slow-cook the brisket and serve it in soup or noodle dishes.
How Long Does Brisket Take to Cook?
The answer depends largely on the size of the cut. A whole packer brisket usually weighs between 8 and 14 pounds, but they can weigh as much as 20 pounds. When divided into the point and flat, the cuts are correspondingly smaller.
As a rule of thumb, you should allow for at least one hour of cooking time per pound for smoked brisket. Allow for extra time if you choose to marinate the meat beforehand. Remember that the meat will lose nearly one-third of its weight during the cooking process, so err on the side of caution when cooking brisket for a large group.
As every good pitmaster knows, each cut of meat has its own unique characteristics. Understanding exactly what part of the cow is brisket will help you bring out the best qualities in this tasty and venerable classic.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!