Cooking brisket low and slow is the best way to help it achieve the proper texture. Since these muscles get a lot of exercise, the meat has a high collagen content, and collagen doesn’t transform into gelatin until it reaches a certain temperature. At what temperature does collagen break down in brisket? Read on to learn the answer.
What Temperature Does Collagen Break Down in Brisket?
Collagen begins to break down at 160 degrees Fahrenheit and continues to do so until the temperature hits the 180-degree mark. When it reaches this point, the collagen will transform into gelatin, which keeps the meat moist even though the muscle fibers will be dry and stiff at this point.
What Is Collagen?
The word collagen refers to a number of structural proteins that are found in connective tissue. As we pointed out, muscles that get a good workout will have more collagen than weaker areas. Since the brisket muscles are responsible for supporting about 60 percent of the steer’s weight, it definitely falls into this category.
Note that while some of the collagen in brisket will dissolve at high temperatures, all that exercise can transform it into an insoluble version of itself. The insoluble collagen might get softer after a long time in the smoker, but it won’t turn into gelatin.
Breaking Down The Process
Low-and-slow cooking is the best way to break down the maximum amount of soluble collagen and wind up with tender, tasty meat. That’s where the smoker comes in. While we enjoy using this method whenever possible, it’s especially well-suited to tougher cuts like brisket.
Some chefs prefer to use a slow cooker for brisket so that it’s continuously basted by its own braising liquid. However, the smoker gives the beef a fantastic flavor and texture that you can’t achieve any other way.
At around 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the natural fibers in the meat will shrink rapidly and release a great deal of moisture. This is caused by the denaturation of the collagen, which forces out fluids. At this point, the meat will be chewy and tough, as the fibers continue to dry out.
When the temperature of the brisket reaches 160 degrees, the collagen begins to melt and transform into gelatin. This process continues at a rapid pace until the thermometer hits 180 degrees, when the collagen is fully melted.
During this time, the muscle fibers will relax, although they’ll also remain very dry. However, as the fibers spread out, the gelatin will saturate the meat, so it will be moist and tender when it’s time for carving.
At What Temperature Does Brisket Fat Render?
Denaturation is not quite the same as rendering, which takes place when fat reaches 130 to 140 degrees. This means that the fat will begin to dissolve and impart its rich flavor shortly before the collagen breaks down. Both processes will contribute to the overall success of the brisket.
Not all of the fat will render out during cooking, which is why it’s a good idea to trim the brisket beforehand. Leaving about 1/4 inch of the fat cap intact should help you achieve the right texture.
We don’t recommend trimming much fat from the point end, as you might end up carving away a lot of perfectly good meat in the process. However, if there are any ragged bits around the edges, it’s fine to remove them so that they don’t burn.
If you’ve saved your brisket trimmings and are hoping to render them to make beef tallow, try placing them in a slow cooker set to low. The process will take a few hours, but it should yield good results.
Achieving The Right Internal Temperature
It’s best to allow beef brisket to cook to an internal temp of 210 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s when the meat will be tender enough to pull apart under gentle pressure. You don’t want it to cook for so long that it falls apart at the slightest touch. If it does, then the meat will probably be too dry.
Between 180 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit, the collagen has broken down, but the meat is still well below the boiling point. This allows all that rich gelatin to stay right where you want it. When the thermometer hits the 200 degree mark, it’s time to pull the brisket off the smoker.
Wrap the brisket in a layer of foil and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes. The temperature will continue to rise slightly as it rests, so it should reach the 210-degree threshold by the time you’re ready to serve it. The resting period also allows the juices to redistribute, so they won’t spill all over the work surface at the first slice.
The Probe Test
While we always prefer to keep a quality thermometer on hand, sometimes it’s better to test the brisket’s level of doneness by feel rather than temperature. Every cut is different, and a brisket that contains a relatively high amount of connective tissue might not be quite ready to come off the heat when the thermometer reads 200 degrees.
Once the brisket reaches 195 degrees, start paying attention to the feel of the probe when you insert it into the thickest portion of the flat. Is it meeting a lot of resistance, or is it sliding in and out as if the brisket were a stick of butter? If it’s the latter, the meat is ready to go.
We should also mention that the flat is often finished cooking before the point end. That’s because the point is a fattier cut, and the connective tissues need more time to break down. If the flat is done but the point is not, separate the two and allow the flat to rest while the point goes back into the smoker.
The Bottom Line
You don’t have to be a science expert to understand the breakdown of collagen and how it affects your barbecue. Since it’s the key to achieving perfectly textured brisket, it’s in your best interests to familiarize yourself with the basics.