How to Smoke a Brisket

Sometime this summer, use our expert’s secrets for how to smoke a brisket and prepare and smoke the juiciest brisket you’ve ever made.

| May/June 2017

First-time barbecue cooks often try their hand at pork ribs or chicken. And these are great places to start. But eventually, they may start looking for a challenge. If so, one of the more challenging staples when smoking and barbecuing beef is brisket, a cut of meat that even the most seasoned cooks are continuously striving to perfect.

The cut

Beef brisket is most often a boneless cut of meat from the cattle breast or lower chest of the animal. It is longer in one direction than the other — often about 18 to 20 inches long by 12 to 13 inches wide — and usually about 1-1/2 inches thick. Brisket usually weighs 9 to 13 pounds. A full brisket includes two pectoral muscles — the pectoralis profundi and the pectoralis superficialis — separated by a layer of fat. These are the large muscles the cow uses to stand and walk and are very flavorful, but also full of fat and connective tissues. In cooking terms, the two muscles are called the “flat” (pectoralis profundi) and the “point” (pectoralis superficialis).

The flat is the larger of the two muscles. Its thickness varies, tapering off to a thin edge. When selecting a brisket, choosing one in which most of the flat is roughly the same thickness throughout will help it cook more evenly. Also, better marbling will yield a tastier brisket. The point partially overlaps the flat, is more fatty, and contains more connective tissue. Both the flat and the point are covered with fat. If you lay a brisket with this “fat cap” facing upwards, the point lies on top of the flat, and frequently is covered with less fat. The fat is on the side that would face the outside of the cow, the lean side is the side that would rest against the ribs. The grain of the meat in these two muscles runs at approximately a 90-degree angle to each other.

Sometimes a layer of hard fat, called the deckle, is present between the two muscles on the nonfatty side. Some sources confuse the deckle with the point. They are not the same thing. The deckle is generally removed on more expensive cuts of brisket, but may be present in packer cuts.

There are two briskets per cow, a right-sided brisket and a left-sided brisket. Popular barbecue folklore holds that the left-sided brisket is more tender. This is based on the idea that cows lay on their right side, and thus — as the story goes — use their right legs more in standing, which makes the right side of the cow tougher. This makes for a good story, but is mostly dismissed by serious brisket enthusiasts.

Incidentally, almost all of the advice here also applies to cooking beef ribs — a similarly tough cut of beef located close to the brisket on the cow.

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