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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Barbecue Secret Number 11 - How to Trim a Brisket

Beef Brisket is the toughest cut of meat on the steer. It takes some finesse to be able to barbecue it so that it is tender, juicy, and delicious. But, before the cooking begins, how does one trim it? And, is trimming even necessary?

A "full packer brisket" is made of two sections: the point (deckle) and the flat. Often, super markets separate the sections and only sell the flat portion as brisket. That's too bad because the point is the best part of the brisket. The point is the portion of the brisket from which cooks nowadays make burnt ends.

As depicted above, you can see that a "full packer brisket" is composed of two different cuts. One is fatty (the point) and the other is more lean (the flat). For best barbecue results, get a packer brisket that comprises both the point and the flat.

Notice the fat between the two muscles? You have a decision to make. You can leave it alone, barbecue the brisket, and remove the fat after it's cooked. Or, you can remove it before the cook. The fat doesn't really add anything to the meat. The stories told by some barbecue cooks that the fat on a brisket bastes the meat as it cooks and makes it moist is just not true in my experience. The fat that is marbled inside the the meat of the brisket is what matters. The fat on the outside doesn't really bring much to the party as far as moisture is concerned. It makes a great heat shield though. 

Personally, I prefer to remove the fat between the point and the flat. Doing so allows me to have more bark (more Maillard reaction going on) on the brisket which, unlike the fat cap, imparts a lot of flavor.

In the photo above, you can see what the brisket should look like once the fat between the point and flat is removed. I tried to remove only the fat without any of the lean meat. I also trimmed up the edges of the brisket.

The next step in the trimming process is to remove all of the fat and membrane from the top of the flat. The fat and membrane on the brisket inhibits the Maillard reaction and the formation of bark. So, I like to remove as much of it as possible. Again, remove only the fat and membrane without removing the lean meat. It will take some practice so don't get discouraged if you remove a little more lean meat than you would like on your first few briskets.

The photo above shows a brisket that has been fully trimmed and ready for seasoning and cooking. One other detail here is, if you look closely you can see that I "roughed" up the surface of the flat using a fork. This makes for more surface area to hold rub and to create more bark which in turn produces more flavor.

Once the brisket has been barbecued and is ready for slicing, you have to make sure you slice it against the grain of the meat. If not, the meat will be stringy. The photo below illustrates the grain of the meat with yellow lines and the direction you should slice the brisket with red lines.

When a properly trimmed and smoked brisket is ready to eat, you have some good barbecue!

So, that's how to trim a brisket. Now, go forth and cook some barbecue!


  1. hey joe,

    when you say you "roughed up the surface of the flat with a fork", could you elaborate a little bit?

    are you scraping with the grain in order to expose more of the surface?

    and by the way, i've seen pro's (pete from yazoo's delta q) trim firsthand and you my man, trim a fine lookin brisket.

    thanks man!
    a dude that trims brisket

  2. Thanks, Blake!

    Yes, I run a fork over the top of the flat in the direction of the grain. The fork puts little grooves between the meat fibers which increases surface area.


  3. Ok wait, secret #6 is knowing which way to cook with the fat cap, but here you're saying cut the fat cap off?

  4. Hi skotdee:

    A brisket's fat cap is on the bottom. All of the fat I trim from a brisket is on the top, sides, and between the point and the flat. If you take a look at the next to last pic, you can see the fat cap still on the cooked brisket flat.

  5. Do you pull it off the smoker @ °165 wrap it place it back till internal temps is slightly over 200°

    1. As far as the internal temp of the meat when it's "done," again, I go more by the tenderness of the brisket rather than the internal temperature.

      The lower cooking temp, the lower the internal temp of a brisket will be when it's tender. So, internal temperature isn't a good guide. Generally, about 2 hours after I wrap a brisket, I start probing it with my Thermapen for tenderness. I've had briskets at the perfect temperature at 205 degrees and others as high as 215 degrees.

      So, go more by tenderness than temperature. When a small probe like a Thermapen probe or an ice pick can pierce the meat with very little resistance, it's ready to come off the pit. Some people are more comfortable using a fork to check for temperature. When you reach into the brisket with a fork, imagine that you are getting ready to take a bite and it will help you gauge the tenderness.

      One other important step is to let the brisket rest for at least an hour before slicing.

  6. I don't care what the internal temp is when I wrap. The decision of when to wrap is made based on several factors. The top two factors are color of the bark and grade of the brisket. I believe that cheaper grades of brisket such as select and poorly marbled choice grades like an earlier wrap than prime or better. Generally, I'm cooking choice or prime most of the time so, at 275 pit temp, two hours is generally all it needs to get the color that I like. I use plenty of smoke wood (hickory or hickory chunks depending on the pit I'm using) so there is a nice, gentle smoke flavor imparted in only about 2 hours.

    Internal temp at wrap time is irrelevant to me. It's more about color and grade of meat. The less fat in the meat, the earlier I wrap.

    Thanks for your question and I hope it's helpful.