Vikings called it gristle or cartilage. In Old English the word is brushk, meaning tough. You can just see a lot of serious gnawing going on, right? Yeah, good times.
But the brisket we know and love today is, well, centuries beyond what was served in drafty dining halls along with tankards of mead and ale. And thankfully so.
In this article, we’ll answer the question: What Is Brisket? We know it’s one of the best meats for smoking, but exactly what is it? Where does it come from? What is the history of use for this cut of meat?
Along the way we’ll take a close look at one of the best transformation stories in meat cooking.
- Where to Find It
- What is Connective Tissue?
- Three Cuts of a Beef Brisket
- Where the Fat is and How Much to Trim
- Softening Up One Tough Customer
- A Word on Corned Beef
- A Word on Pastrami
- The Many Ways to Bring Out the Best in Brisket
- A Final Word on Safe Brisket
- Brisket – Tough No More
Where to Find It
Brisket comes from beef (cows or steers aged 2 years and up) or veal (milk-fed beef calves aged 2 to 4 months). If you’re looking at the animal side-on, it’s the area right above the front leg. Front on, it’s the area between the front legs. This is called the breast, (lower) chest, or pectorals.
Cattle don’t have collarbones which help support the body’s weight, so these pectoral muscles are all that’s keeping the front half of a 1,200 to 1,400-pound animal off the ground. Supporting about 60 percent of the animal’s weight calls for dense and tough muscle. Which is why it consists mostly of connective tissue.
You can see where the brisket comes from on the cow, and many tips and tricks from the pros on how to prepare and cook a brisket, in the following video from Jess Pryles:
What is Connective Tissue?
Found in tendons, silverskin, and ligaments is a rubber band-like material which mainly works to hold muscle fiber and sheaths together. Also called cellular glue, they give shape to and strengthen tissues. There are two forms of connective tissue –
A protein that is flexible and, well, elastic – able to stretch and resume its original shape. As it loses moisture through aging or the cooking process, it can become brittle, tough, and unchewable – and called gristle.
The most abundant type of protein in all mammals and one of the strongest. The Accidental Scientist of Exploratorium.edu explains collagen’s rope-like structure of 3 molecule chains braided together hold fiber and sheaths together. It also makes collagen strong.
It’s found in abundance in the legs, rump, and chest in cows and pigs. It turns into gelatin in the cooking process.
The gelatin gives the meat a silky, moist texture. Besides connective tissue, collagen is found in ligaments, blood vessels, bone, and skin. Yes, the very thing whose absence brings on wrinkles and crepey skin.
This combination protein team is the reason beef brisket must be cooked low and slow. The connective tissues relax, allowing water to evaporate instead of being squeezed out like wringing a sponge. And it takes time for the collagen to break down with long exposure to heat, to eventually become gelatin.
Three Cuts of a Beef Brisket
Full packer is the Flat and the Point separated by a layer of fat. It weighs between 8 and 20 pounds. A layer of fat covers the top; this fat cap can be trimmed to ¼ to 1 inches.
The flat is the main part of the brisket. Also known as the first or flat cut or the deep pectoral, it lies toward the inside of the cow, against the ribs. Being worked the most, it is lean, or low on fat content.
The Point is the lower portion which sits ‘outside’ above the leg, it is the superficial pectoral. Also called the fat end or second, point, or triangular cut.
Where the Fat is and How Much to Trim
Fat should be white in color and evenly distributed throughout the brisket, advises Chefsteps.com, a resource for professional chefs. The website displays a good picture of what not to get.
Never completely remove the fat, it’s an important for the cooking process, helping to prevent drying out. If having the brisket professionally trimmed, the terms to know are:
Packer – entire fat cap left intact
Trimmed or Super-Trimmed – depending on who you ask, this is leaving on half to an inch (1/2” – 1”) of fat.
The fat and the low-n-slow cooking method are what make the difference between gnawing gristle with great exertion and chewing brisket, relaxed and blissfully happy. Keep reading to learn how the toughest part of the cow became the most prized.
Softening Up One Tough Customer
There was a time when tough, chewy, and stringy were commonly used words to describe a cooked brisket. So it was left behind at the meat processing plant. No one believed anyone would buy it on purpose. But there’s always someone hungry enough to take what’s considered the worst of meat and put it to the fire.
At some point in time, it was ‘discovered’ that the low-and-slow cooking method – perhaps boiling, stewing, or roasting – transformed those dense muscle fibers into a delicious, tender cut of meat.
Smoked brisket, says Max Bonem in Food & Wine magazine, dates back to the late 17th century here in the States when Eastern European and Jewish immigrants traded ideas with local ranchers.
But it wasn’t until the 1960s that brisket became a standard cut commercially sold to restaurants and stores. By the 1980s, demand for it skyrocketed, and lines at restaurants with it as the main attraction began extending around the corner. There are many workshops and even more competitions devoted to brisket, with it becoming almost synonymous with Texas barbecue.
But there’s more to brisket than the smoker. There are two preservation methods (one wet, one dry) which turn it into two cultural favorites: corned beef and pastrami.
A Word on Corned Beef
Coarse rock salt looks more like grains or seeds than teeny crystals issuing from a nearby salt shaker.
Sometime back in 1570 or 1580 AD came the first recorded use of the word “corned” used to describe meat being preserved in a bath of salt.
This wet preservation method usually also includes things like peppercorn, garlic, and cloves. Today we call it brining. We’ll take a more detailed look at this another time.
A Word on Pastrami
“Beyond the brine lies the smokehouse” could be the subtitle for The Story of Pastrami.
The name comes from the Romanian word pastrami taken from pǎstra, which means to preserve. This delicatessen staple takes the dry preservation route of a salt and spice cure followed by a stint in the smoker.
The trademark pink color comes from the curing salt. This one also deserves its own article, so more on this later.
The Many Ways to Bring Out the Best in Brisket
Brisket in the Smoker
We discuss smoking brisket at length elsewhere, so, for now, we’ll just say that the process of seasoning (marinade / injection), smoking (1 to 1 ½ hours per pound at 250° F) and slicing brisket correctly leads to wonderful results.
Brisket in the Oven
Pot roast is another cultural favorite rendering of brisket. Quality time in the oven or slow cooker with carrots, onions, and – okay, I’ll stop drooling if you will.
Another cultural favorite, Betty Crocker, recommends for a 2½ to 4-pounder, roasting for 2½ to 3 hours covered in liquid at 325°F until the internal temperature reaches 135° F. For a well-done brisket, carryover cooking should bring the heat up to 170° within 15 minutes.
Brisket the Sous Vide Way
A water bath at 131 to 133° F for 2 to 3 days melts the collagen into gelatin, creating a tender roast.
Clint Caldwell of AmazingRibs.com explains the brisket will shrink by at least 40 percent in this cooking process.
After seasoning, the meat is placed into a heavy plastic bag and then vacuum-sealed. The airtight package goes into the water-filled sous vide cooker where the low, steady temperature gently cooks the meat, turning it pink. It can be served to the table straight from the cooker, but some will put a crust on it by searing it in a dry skillet on the stove or under the broiler for a few minutes.
Clint explains how to create smoked sous vide brisket, a true study in patience: After trimming, dry brine the cut for 12 to 24 hours, sous-vided for 30 hours, and then rapidly chilled in a 50/50 ice-water bath for a mere 30 minutes. At this point, it can be frozen or refrigerated until grill time.
Then, a 2-zone grill or smoker is fired up, the brisket leaves its plastic pouch and goes on the grate to be smoked for an hour at 225° F. Strain the juice in the bag to create an awesome sauce. And then, it’s done.
Is There a Right Way to Serve Brisket?
Yes. We’ve devoted whole articles on cutting and serving brisket, so we’ll be brief here. Having so much connective tissue, a beautifully smoked brisket can be ruined by what happens at serving time. You’ll want to:
- Cut against the grain. Going in the direction of the meat fibers will take you back to the Days of Gnaw, as the muscle fibers. Generally, cut quarter-inch strips for the flat and three-eighths for the point.
- Minimize air exposure. The longer the brisket is in one piece, the longer it will hold onto its juices. A platter of brisket may make a nice picture for Instagram or Pinterest, but it will be at the cost of quickly turning your moist and tender meat dull and dry. If it isn’t possible to slice as needed, simply keep the slices together instead of fanning them out. The less exposure to air, the slower the oxidation process (meat turns dry and brown).
A Final Word on Safe Brisket
There will always be a variety of temperature recommendations for cooking meats. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) is the official setter of food cooking and storage guidelines for the country. For brisket:
- Can be refrigerated up to 5 days before cooking
- Can be frozen up to a year and retain its best quality
- Thaw a trimmed brisket in the refrigerator for 24 hours; a whole packer will need several days
- Cook 2 to 3 hours until the internal temperature is at least 160° F (though far higher, around the 203° F mark for smoked brisket.)
- Allow it to stand 20 minutes before serving
- To serve hot (chafing dish, slower cooker, warming tray), keep the temperature at or above 140° F
- No more than 2 hours at room temperature (without a heat source as noted above)
- To serve cold (on an ice bed or small, frequently replaced platters), keep the temperature at or below 40° F
- Can be refrigerated up to 4 days after cooking
- Can be frozen up to 3 months after cooking and retain its best quality
Brisket – Tough No More
The picture painted of beef’s toughest muscle group is no longer the gray-tinted, cold and windy scenario of tough customers relentlessly gnawing on tough, leathery meat. Oh no. The picture is warm – the blue of smoke, the pink of a smoke ring, and the deep brown of an awesome crust.
Brisket is the whole point of having a smoker, some would say. In its many forms – pastrami, corned beef, or pot roast – it has staked a permanent place on the American menu. Tried and true recipes can make way for the inventive.
We hope you enjoyed your journey through beef brisket history and will share it with others. If you have a favorite recipe, please share and encourage more of this wonderful cut at the table.