Since this is our first post of this series, we thought we would make things simple and start at the front of a cattle- hence, the brisket.
Most of us have encountered brisket in one form of another – usually at the deli counter (as corned beef) or from the pit of our favorite BBQ joint (my personal favorite application of brisket, but we’ll get to that another time.) Brisket is largely neglected by the home cook for a number of reasons, and this is a shame. Cooked properly, a brisket is a tender, flavorful cut of meat that will yield enough food to feed even the hungriest families, and still have leftovers for lunch the next day.
What is brisket?
Brisket is a beef primal (primal= basic cut from which other cuts such as steaks are derived) from the breast section of a side of beef. Each beef carcass yields two briskets. The USDA Institutional Meat Purchasing Standard further defines a brisket as a cut from a side of beef to
“include the anterior of the sternum bones, the deep pectoral and the supraspinatus muscle. Evidence of the cartilgainous juncture of the 1st rib and the sternum and the cross-section of 4 rib bones shall be present.”
The brisket that makes it into our grocery/butcher shops has two sections: the flat and the point. The flat is the deep pectoral muscle, which gets its name from the fact that it is a flat, rectangular piece of meat that makes up roughly 75% of an average briskets weight. Many of the briskets that you see in the store that look completely lean are simply a “flat” that has been removed from the point and trimmed- the flat has a fat covering (“fat cap”) but is otherwise fairly lean.
The point is more of a “round” piece of meat that partially overlaps one end of the flat. A brisket is likely to be of uniform thickness, as the flat tapers from thick to thin. The point sits atop the thinning flat end. While the flat is fairly lean piece of meat, the point has both a fatty covering, as well as fat within the meat. The point also contains a significant amount of connective tissue (collagen) that is going to be critical to our final results.
On a brisket the flat and point are held together by a thick vein of fat running between them. This fat extends over the point to cover the entire surface of the flat, becoming thicker at the end of the flat opposite the point. This layer of fat is sometimes referred to as the “fat cap.”
If you happen to be looking at a brisket and are still having trouble figuring out which is which, a simple tip is to flip the meat over and look at the grain. The grain of the flat and the point run almost perfectly perpendicular to one another. If you follow along the meat until your grain changes, the bigger of those two pieces is your flat and the smaller is the point.
What/where to buy?
There are a couple of things to consider when buying a brisket. The first and foremost is yield. Since there is so much fat and collagen contained within a raw brisket which will render out during cooking, you are going to lose between 40 to 60% of you pre-cooked weight during the long cooking process. A good rule of thumb is to have at least 1.5 lbs of pre-cooked brisket/person if serving as a main course. The other things you want to look for is a good layer of fat covering the meat (the fat cap) and a dark, deep red (almost purplish) color. As with any piece of meat, you should buy your brisket from a reputable purveyor, preferably your butcher. When I buy a brisket, I almost always pick up a whole, untrimmed brisket- also known as a “packer’s cut.” (10-14 pounds, usually.) I prefer to trim it up myself, so I can ensure that the proper amount of fat is retained to add flavor to the meat during cooking. Never, ever buy a brisket you see packaged with a brine mixture for making corned beef- even if you plan on making corned beef – trust me on this. If you are buying a pre-cut brisket, ensure that you are buying a piece of the flat that retains the layer of fat covering the meat. The only reason to buy the point only is if you plan on making chopped brisket sandwiches. (Since the point is almost entirely fat and connective tissue, it loses its structure when you cook it and doesn’t take well to slicing.)
A last side-note on what to buy: there is a debate whether the brisket from the right side of the cow or the left side of the cow is more tender. Yes, I’m serious. Some people believe that the cows proclivity as left or right-handed makes a difference in the brisket tenderness. This is a myth. Cattle are neither left nor right handed. The two briskets are identical in nearly every way from animal to animal.
Methods of cooking
I know I’m going to get in an argument with someone out there about this, but there is only one way to properly cook a brisket. What is the magical formula? A brisket must be cooked at a low temperature in the presence of liquid. That’s right, the only way to properly cook a brisket is to braise. The reason for this is quite simple. Collagen. Collagen is a tough connective tissue that serves many different purposes within the body. A brisket is chock full of collagen, which is good for us. When collagen is heated long enough and in the presence of liquid, the protein structures break down into gelatin. (Yes, gelatin.) The gelatin disperses throughout the meat (and liquid) lubricating the otherwise tough strands and fibers and giving everything that “lip smacking” texture that we are looking for in a brisket. It is also only upon the complete conversion of the collagen in a brisket to gelatin that we will get our brisket to the “fall apart” tenderness that we are looking for. The great side effect of braising a brisket is that when you’re done, you have the absolute best possible base for a sauce. Can you smoke a brisket? Absolutely. (In fact, this is my preferred method of preparation- but that’s for another post.)
Another benefit of preparing your brisket in the presence of liquid: it is almost impossible to over-cook and needs little to no attention once the cooking process has started. In fact, one of the easiest ways to ensure that you have enough time to cook the brisket is to throw it in the oven or slow cooker before you go to bed. In the morning, you will have both a deliciously cooked brisket and a wonderful-smelling house.
While there is only one way to properly cook a brisket, the serving possibilities are limitless. It can be sliced across the grain and served over pasta or rice as dinner. It can be chopped and thrown on top of a salad. It is unbeatable as a nacho topping. It makes possibly the best sandwiches known to man. I think you get my drift. If you follow the basic rules above, whatever you decide to do with your brisket will be delicious.
A brisket is a wonderful, tender and delicious piece of meat that will not break your bank. The purchase of a $30-$40 brisket will feed a family of 4 a great dinner and lunch for the week, so it is extremely cost effective to boot. So do yourself and your family or friends a favor. Go out, pick up a brisket and enjoy!