Brisket: Tips from the Butcher

A brisket will probably be the largest and most challenging piece of meat you’ll ever barbecue. It is truly the ultimate barbecue meat! A whole untrimmed brisket will weigh 12-18 pounds. It’s a pretty intimidating piece of meat; thicker and fatter on one end and leaner and thinner on the other. The challenge is to properly cook the entire thing to be tender and delicious throughout.

Photo of raw brisket

Believe me, it took me a few tries to get a proper brisket trimmed and seasoned, then all my smoking techniques down. This can definitely be unforgiving for the novice, but with some great tips and ideas, you too can have great success smoking your first brisket!

Where is the brisket located on the cow?

The brisket is located on the breast, or lower chest of the steer just below the shoulder. There are two of these on the entire animal, one on the left and the other on the right. This muscle gets a lot of work every time the animal bends down, lays down, or walks. The brisket contains lots of connective tissue which will break down when smoked “low and slow”.

Chart illustrating where each cut of beef comes from on a cow

Many years ago, this cut was not very popular and was often cut for beef stew or used for ground beef. It got popular when folks discovered that smoking the brisket at a low temperature for a long period of time breaks down the connective tissue, and makes it tender and delicious.

Buying a brisket for the smoker

By now you know, I’m a butcher… been doing this for a pretty long time. The best part of my job enables me to personally help people out with their meat purchases. When a customer comes to the meat counter and says “I want to buy a brisket to smoke” my eyes just light up, and say “I’ll help you!!” Then, the conversation starts.

Photo of raw beef brisket with the fat side up

First, I will explain what the “packer-cut” is. Basically it is whole, untrimmed, and vacuum-sealed from the packer or producer. This is what you should be looking for when buying. Next, we’ll talk about the different grades of briskets that are most commonly found in the marketplace. There is USDA Prime, Choice and Select. Prime will have abundant marbling, Choice will have moderate marbling and Select will have slight marbling. Marbling is the intermuscular fat within the meat that primarily determines the quality grade.

Always buy the best brisket that you can find; the quality of the meat does matter! Also, choose a cut that has an even amount of white fat across it without any gouge marks. Make sure the seal on the packaging is tight and doesn’t have a lot of dark liquid (purge) in the bag. Any liquid in the bag should be clear and red.

How to trim a “packer-cut” brisket

Properly trimming a brisket is such an important step in achieving successfully smoked meat goodness. If there is too much fat, the smoke will have a hard time penetrating the meat. If there’s not enough fat or there are gouge marks exposing the meat, it will be dry. It will take some time and effort to trim your brisket. You can do it!

Make sure to plan ahead when preparing your workstation. Your cutting board should be large enough to handle the whole brisket. If your cutting board slides around on your countertop, simply place a damp towel underneath to help secure it from moving around. You’ll also need a sharp knife preferably a curved blade 6 to 8 inches in length. Using a sharp knife is very important as a dull knife will require you to apply more pressure to the meat, and can roll off and result in an accident.

Next, remove the meat from the packaging and dry off with some paper towels and place it fat side down onto your cutting board. Now let’s get trimming. First, trim off any loose or dangling pieces that may have been left on from the packer.

Photo of raw beef brisket being trimmed with a large knife

Next start with the larger end of the brisket, called the deckle. The deckle is the fattier end. Notice the large chunk of fat on one side. You’re going to want to remove a good amount of it. Trim any remaining fat on this side down to a ¼ inch. Flip the meat over and you'll again notice a large amount of fat where the deckle meets the flat part of the brisket. Like the top side, go ahead and remove a good amount of this fat as well.

Photo of raw beef brisket being trimmed with a large knife

Evenly trim down the remaining fat down to a ¼ inch. Take your time and go little by little, making sure that you don’t take too much off and expose the meat.

How to season a beef brisket

Now that you have successfully bought and trimmed the meat, the next step is to season it.

Photo of raw beef brisket covered in barbecue dry rub seasoning

A brisket can take on many different spices and herbs in the rub. You don’t need some fancy “best brisket recipe” here either. Simply use a Dead Rooster Co. dry rub (Black Gold is the perfect smoked brisket rub), your favorite rub recipe, or go with classic Texas Style (kosher salt and ground pepper). I like to season my brisket the night before so when I wake up at the crack of dawn, it’s ready to go!

How to cook a beef brisket

There is nothing better than smoked beef brisket. This cut of beef will take a decent amount of time in the smoker at a lower heat of 225 degrees to break down all the connective tissue. How long to smoke a brisket is easy – a general rule is about one hour per pound. You can smoke brisket in an electric smoker, a charcoal grill, or a standard setup.

Photo of beef brisket on a Weber smoker

Once the brisket cooks to an internal temperature of 155-160 degrees, I like to wrap the brisket in butcher paper (similar to the Texas Crutch) and put it back on the smoker until I hit a brisket internal temp of 203 degrees. You can also wrap it in foil.

At this point, I remove it from the smoker and let it rest for about an hour (even if you lose patience at 15 minutes). Resting is an important part of the process for cooking perfectly tender brisket. It allows all the natural juices to slow down and get redistributed into the meat. It will also bring it down to a good temperature for slicing.

How to slice a beef brisket

A serrated knife that is 8-10 inches long works best when slicing a brisket. Start at the flat end of the brisket and slice against the grain of the meat in ¼ inch slices. When you reach the halfway point or the brisket, where the flat part meets the deckle (fatty end) you’ll need to turn it 90 degrees and slice across that grain. The grain in the deckle does run at a different angle. Now you can enjoy your barbecue!

Photo of cooked beef brisket partially sliced

Mark Holzkopf

About the author:

Mark Holzkopf

Contributing Writer

Mark Holzkopf has been in the meat business for over thirty-five years. He started as an apprentice meat cutter and over the years has worked his way up as a meat manager, meat buyer, and even owned his own meat market. Being around meat all day has sparked and heightened Mark’s passion for grilling and barbecuing over the years. Mark enjoys using his expertise as a butcher to help spread more knowledge about meat, tips on buying, grilling, and smoking those prime cuts!