Confused about brisket? This brisket buying guide is here to help. Thanks to the ever-growing popularity of brisket, it has gone from a slab of beef frequently ground into burgers to one of the most sought-after cuts for barbecue. Once upon a time, there were few options in brisket. Now there is a wide range of prices and choices. So let’s explore all the selections of brisket available on the market.
- Anatomy of Brisket
- Meat Grades – Brisket Buying Guide
- Brisket Brands
- Talk to Your Butcher – Brisket Buying Guide
Brisket is a mainstay of barbecue, and today, most people think of it in this context. However, many years ago, brisket meant something else. If you lived outside of the influence of Central Texas Barbecue, briskets that didn’t turn into pastrami, corned beef, or a Passover dinner were often ground up.
Today, ground brisket has become a rare commodity, as more and more are sold for barbecue. The biggest problem with the supply of brisket is that while a single cow may fill your freezer with steaks, it will yield only one brisket. So when there is a beef shortage, brisket becomes one of the first cuts to ration. Unless, of course, you are willing to pay for it. Brisket has gotten expensive and not simply because of its popularity. Now consumers can purchase briskets of varying grades, breeds, and handling and have them shipped anywhere across the globe if they are willing to pay the high ticket prices.
Anatomy of Brisket
What is Brisket?
Brisket is a cut of beef from the pectoral muscle of the cow located at the lower breast section. Each cow has one brisket that can weigh between 12 and 16 pounds. In the language of beef cuts, the brisket is its own primal and very distinctive from other sections. The term brisket is derived from the Old Norse word brjósk, meaning cartilage. Since cows do not have collar bones, the brisket supports a great deal of the animal’s weight. Because of its location, there is a high amount of connective tissue in the meat.
In some parts of the world, ordering a brisket might evoke a confused look. In Canada, Brisket is often referred to as poitrine, which comes from the French, pointe de poitrine. And in Germany, you might try ordering Rinderbrust.
Brisket is listed as one of the primal cuts, or at the least, a subprimal. Some definitions combine the brisket cut with the flank and the plate cuts. This primal would be the complete underside of the cow. This area contains a large amount of fat and it is this higher fat content that makes brisket so good for smoking. Smoked Brisket can retain moisture during extremely long cooking times.
Common uses for Brisket
Aside from being smoked, brisket is most commonly used to make corned beef. Corned beef is preserved via salt brine so that it can be stored for longer periods. Slow smoking corned beef will produce pastrami. Finally, brisket is often the main course served for a traditional Jewish Passover meal.
Traditionally, brisket has been cooked by braising. Put simply, imaging placing a cut of brisket in a Dutch oven. Add some liquid and cook at a low temperature for a long period of time. Today, this could be done in a slow cooker. It doesn’t make barbecue, but it yields the best results for this cut without taking it to the smoker.
Characteristics of Brisket
Keep in mind that brisket is a tough cut of meat. It is a working muscle loaded with plenty of connective tissue and a large muscular grain. It takes long, slow cooking times to make it palatable. But this is what barbecue is all about. Low and slow smoking takes the worst cuts of beef and pork and turns them into something truly fantastic. It has taken centuries of development to produce the barbecue we enjoy today.
The secret with brisket is that the connective tissue makes it ideal for smoking. At around 160° F, connective tissue starts to break down, turning into gelatin and water. This water adds moisture, and the gelatin creates a sweet flavor and silky texture. In barbecue, this is referred to as the stall, or when the internal temperature of the meat holds steady for an hour or two. The stall is nothing to fear; this is when the magic happens.
Parts of a Brisket
A whole brisket divides into two parts—the flat and the point. The flat is, well, flat. It is the large section of meat that covers one side. It is rectangular in shape and may contain fat or silver skin on the surface (which I recommend removing). The flat can be lean, but when selecting, look for an even distribution of small flecks of fat.
The point is an oddly shaped section of meat on the opposite side of the flat cut. A layer of hard fat separates the flat from the point cut, though it can run together at one end. In some areas, the point is trimmed away after smoking and served as burnt ends.
Brisket is available trimmed or untrimmed. Trimmed is usually the flat section. For barbecue, we look for an untrimmed or packer brisket with the fat cap intact. While you can make delicious barbecue with a trimmed flat, it will need a little extra moisture in the form of an injection. I recommend wrapping it for a portion of the cooking time. Smoking the flat is a fast way to make a smaller portion of barbecue brisket.
What to Look For in a Buying a Brisket
When buying a whole packer brisket, there are a couple of things to consider. First, look at the thickness of the flat. You want one that is thick enough to produce decent slices. You might find that the flat tapers to nearly nothing by the time it gets to the thinnest section of the brisket. The way brisket is cut and packaged; it can be difficult to determine thickness. Try your best to find a thicker cut, or ask your local butcher to help you make the best selection.
Briskets should have a thick layer of fat over the top, point side of the brisket. Though the fat must be trimmed away before smoking, look for a decent layer when buying. The fat you’re looking for should be white and hard. This fat is an excellent choice if inclined towards using beef tallow. Avoid briskets that have an overwhelming fat to meat ratio.
When examining the meat portion, check to see if it is well-marbled. Marbling is the intramuscular fat that keeps the meat moist and tender while it smokes. It appears as small flecks of fat interspersed throughout the meat. We’ll get to grades next, but really, it is the marbling that determines the quality of beef.
Size – Brisket Buying Guide
Bigger isn’t necessarily better. I know there is a temptation to get the biggest brisket in the store. The number one thing that increases the weight of a brisket is the amount of fat left on it during the butchering process. Keep in mind that the brisket is adjacent to a large section of fat, but it is really up to the butcher how much of it comes off.
Also, larger, longer briskets can have a flat that ends in a very narrow strip of meat. Since you want good slices, you want to avoid a brisket like this. Shorter can be better. Again, examine the squared end of the brisket to see how thick the meat is. Thicker is better.
Meat Grades – Brisket Buying Guide
Prime is the highest grade of beef on the USDA grading scale (as well as the Canadian grading system) and is considered the best 2% of beef produced. There is a high degree of marbling in the meat, and when looking at a prime brisket, it comes across as a very fatty cut. Remember, the important fat is located within the meat, not around it.
Prime grade is not only more expensive than other grades; it can cost considerably more. Prime briskets may not be widely available; however, Costco sells USDA Prime briskets. You can also special order a prime brisket online. I have a few great suggestions listed below.
Choice grade is widely available in most grocery stores. It is more reasonably priced, and the best part is that choice brisket still has a small amount of marbling. Where a prime brisket might need very little in the way of preparation, a choice brisket should be injected to ensure that it stays moist throughout the smoking process. In Canada, this is the same as the AAA grade.
Above I mentioned that real barbecue traditionally takes tough, cheap cuts of meat and makes them tender and delicious. Select grade briskets are not common in many areas, but they are the most economical choice. Are you just starting out or practicing your new brisket smoking skills? A select brisket might be the right option for you.
Most of us don’t think much about the brand when buying meat. Grocery stores like to maintain the idea that they do their own butchering and packaging. Yes, there is still a lot of this, but usually, when you buy a brisket, it is packaged and shipped to the store. However, there are many new beef brands of late, and they have done an excellent job of marketing themselves to the barbecue community.
The truth is, there are too many brands to cover, but I will highlight a couple to illustrate how they have changed the brisket landscape.
Certified Angus Beef
Angus is a breed of cattle. After a lot of serious marketing, many people believe that it is better than other breeds. When it comes to the meat at the butcher counter, Angus is the most common breed. Technically, cattle are considered Angus if they have physical characteristics of the breed or have a linked genetic heritage.
Certified Angus Beef (CAB) is a brand promoted by the American Angus Association. They use their own rating system for beef to receive the CAB logo (administered by USDA inspectors). As a general rule, any beef labeled as Certified Angus Beef is on the upper scale of Choice grade. However, ranchers would rather get the prime label than the CAB label, so trust that almost all this beef is Choice.
In Austin, Texas, Franklin’s Barbecue is considered one of the best barbecue restaurants globally and uses USDA Prime Black Angus beef briskets from Kansas’ Creekstone Farms.
Snake River Farms
While many people who partake in barbecue competitions were still picking up their briskets from Costco, a secret weapon emerged in the form of Snake River Farms. By offering high-end Prime and American Waygu briskets via “mail” order, they quickly became the brisket of choice for those who had the money to spend and wanted better quality.
The Briskets from Snake River Farms will cost well over $100USD and can reach twice that amount. Many people swear by this brand. If you have been relying on lower-grade briskets from your grocery store, I do recommend giving Snake River Farms a try. You will certainly notice the difference. This is a Brisket Buying Guide recommendation.
Angus Cattle are the most common breed of beef in the United States, not counting dairy cattle. But, there are heritage breeds and breeds from around the world that may be available to you depending on where you live.
Wagyu and Kobe
Lately, Wagyu has been receiving a lot of attention. There are a few things to know about Wagyu and Kobe beef. Many of the top competitors on the BBQ circuit swear by Wagyu, and many popular BBQ joints rely on this brisket.
Several years ago, there was a Kobe craze. A whole myth emerged about this beef, and while it is fantastic, it is a high-end luxury item. This beef is native to Japan and comes from a herd of cattle that number in the thousands. It is quite rare.
Kobe is a special version of Wagyu beef. The word Wagyu translates as Japanese beef, and the cattle that bear this name come from one of four breeds raised in Japan. You can import a Wagyu brisket, but it is quite expensive to buy.
For this reason, American Wagyu emerged. It is these briskets that you can buy in specialty stores and online, which include the popular Snake River Farms Brisket. I want to be honest with you about this beef. Cuts labeled as American Wagyu may contain some DNA from Wagyu cattle. It does not imply that these cattle have purely descended from the Japanese breeds.
For competitions, Darren Warth of Smokey D’s BBQ Team (and restaurant), one of the winningest BBQ competition teams, uses Wagyu Briskets.
Talk to Your Butcher – Brisket Buying Guide
The best advice anyone can give you is to talk to an expert. If you have a specialty meat market in your area talk to them. If not, the butcher at your local chain grocery store can be of great help. Few things in life are better than a knowledgeable butcher. While you might not see the brisket you want on display, most meat markets and grocery stores can do special orders for you. Frequently, this can save you money since they can source wholesale.