Beef brisket can be one of the most difficult cuts of meat to cook properly, especially on a barbecue pit. Do it right, and it’s like heaven…do it wrong, and it’s like eating your shoes. Everyone has their secrets on the best way, and brisket secrets are held near and dear, especially by those who excel.
Briskets came into popularity after the decline of the local meat markets, when beef was shipped off to feedlots in boxcars to be fattened, slaughtered, and processed into primal cuts, only to be boxed up, and shipped back. The old time markets were often teamed up with local beef ranchers, as a way for the rancher to market his product, and many of the Texas BBQ joints were started by butchers who were bankrolled (either directly or indirectly) by the ranchers. If you were raising cattle, it only made sense to sell them locally if possible. Back then all anyone wanted to eat were the best cuts: ribeyes and rib roasts, sirloins and strips, porterhouses, and round steaks. Nobody used hamburger yet, so all the leftovers and trimmings were made into sausages, usually smoked sausages, because they had a long shelf life and few folks had refrigeration.
Once the markets changed, beef BBQ was no longer limited to the cuts that nobody wanted: the forequarters and shoulders. There were other cuts to explore. Edgar Black Jr. of Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, Texas was one of the first to decide that the brisket was a nicely marbled and inexpensive cut to barbecue, and others soon followed in his step. There are still holdouts that stayed with the shoulder clod, but today most of the clod smokers also barbecue briskets. Think of the shoulder clod as the bovine equivalent of the pork shoulder (AKA Boston Butt, shoulder roast). In West Texas they still favor the sirloin, but there’s brisket out west as well. If you’re a clod fanatic, you can skip the 20-pound chunk that is the clod and get a more manageable shoulder roast instead.
If you look at a cow, the brisket is the chest area, between the front legs and up a tad. It gets a lot of exercise from walking, so it’s tough meat. It’s also fatty and loaded with collagen (fibrous connective tissue), which turns gelatinous if you cook it right: low and slow. A brisket is divided into two separate parts or muscles, the “flat” and the “point”, with a layer of fat in the middle that doesn’t render. For barbecue brisket you will want it whole and undivided, and you want a “Packer’s Cut”, meaning it’s untrimmed, with a 1” layer of fat on the top called the fat cap. This fat cap self-bastes the meat while it cooks, helping to keep it moist.
When picking out the brisket that’s right for you, remember that the bigger the brisket, the bigger (and tougher) the cow it came from. A good size is in the 8 to 10-pound range. You want a brisket that is flexible, which simply means it droops down on both sides when you hold it in the middle. Look for the most marbling you can find running through the meat, fat that’s white in color, and deep red meat. It’s going to lose around 35 to 40% of its weight in the cooking process (one reason cooked BBQ brisket isn’t cheap to buy). Trimming of the fat cap ranges from ¼” to 1”. Judge the fat content of the meat to determine how much fat cap you should trim off. Take off too much and the meat will be dry. A lot of folks just leave the whole thing on, and trim it after cooking, but then the area trimmed will have little smoke ring, and no spice crust. You might also want to remove some of the middle fat layer, again, depending on how well-marbled your brisket is.
Most folks cook briskets indirectly at 225 to 250º, and figure about 1½ to 2 hours per pound of starting weight. Make sure that the meat is at room temperature or close to it when you begin. The cut is big and dense, and you should start it out so the center isn’t cold. Brisket marinades tend to be on the acid side, the theory being that the acid will break down connective tissues and help get some flavor inside. Briskets will absorb a lot of smoke as they cook, so be sure to avoid over-smoking syndrome by using burned-down coals only, and never any green wood with briskets. Always cook the brisket fat cap up, so it bastes the meat below as the fat melts.
Always allow the meat to rest at least 15 to 20 minutes after you remove it from the fire, even a little longer is better. Always slice brisket against the grain, in slices that aren’t too thick. If you cooked it right, it’ll be smoky, moist, and flavorful. If you blew it, you have no one but yourself to blame for your cretinous ways.