BBQ Anatomy 101: Know Your Brisket
From packer cuts to Certified Angus Beef, all you wanted to know about that succulent, juicy, tender, and tasty brisket you tear through at your favorite barbecue joint.
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If you’re eating brisket in Texas, chances are that your favorite pitmaster is ordering Item No. 120: a beef brisket, deckle-off, boneless. The number corresponds to the cut of meat defined by the Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications, or IMPS. No. 120 is “boneless,” meaning that ribs one through four have been removed (Item No. 118 is just “Beef Brisket” and the bones remain intact), and the “deckle,” or the hard fat between the rib cage and the pectoralis profundus muscle, also known as the brisket flat, has been removed. Even hardcore meat geeks may sometimes mistakenly refer to the brisket point (pectoralis superficialis) as the deckle, but that’s not what IMPS cut description means here.
The cheapest way to buy a whole brisket is to purchase the packer cut; this leaves all of the trimming to the pitmaster. For a little extra money, a beef processor can trim to the customer’s specifications and make it ready for cooking. (At one time, Angelo’s in Fort Worth served so many briskets with a special requirement for trimming that you could order an “Angelo cut” brisket from some meat purveyors.)
Procuring the proper cut is important, but these days pitmasters (and savvy customers) are paying as much attention to the beef grade. Beef handled at a USDA-inspected facility base the grade on the degree of marbling and the age of the animal at slaughter. The three most well-known grades, in order from highest degree to lowest, are Prime, Choice, and Select. (There are grades lower than Select, but we’ll leave those out of this discussion.) The beef is graded primarily on the marbling of the ribeye between the twelfth and thirteenth rib bones. Since the inspectors are basing their decision on a cut from a different part of the animal, there’s no guarantee the brisket will be marbled in the same way, .but since the meat comes from the same carcass, there’s a good chance there will be some correlation.
Each of the three grades can be further broken down into Upper, Middle and Lower grades. To use an example, Certified Angus Beef—one of the most popular brand names in the beef industry—must grade out as Upper Choice, or the top third of the Choice grade. This means a CAB brisket should have a decent amount of marbling, which is why plenty of pitmasters, like Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge, in Dallas, smoke CAB briskets. “They hit a real sweet spot of marbling and cost,” Fourton says. CAB briskets cost around $2.80 per pound on an ever-changing wholesale market. Wayne Mueller, of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, is also a CAB man, and goes so far as to say he can’t find a difference between the marbling on the point end of a CAB brisket versus a Prime. The one drawback, he notes, is that he sometimes has to deal with cooking very small and very large briskets in the same batch. The demand for CAB is high so Mueller just does the best with whatever arrives. Some days he’s forced to cook Selects if it’s the only thing available. He compensates for the lower fat content by wrapping them a little earlier to keep in the moisture.
Gaylan Marth, of Big Boys Bar-B-Que, in Sweetwater, opts for Select briskets. His direct-heat cooking method uses hotter temperatures for a shorter time period, so, he says, there’s no need for the additional marbling found in a Choice or Prime brisket. In fact, Gaylan’s afraid that he’d never render out all the fat in a Prime brisket and it would be inedible if cooked with the high temperatures he uses.
John Mueller, of John Mueller Meat Co., in Austin, also uses Select: “I chose it because it’s all I’ve ever used, and it seems to work okay.” Simple enough, but it seems to make sense given his smoking temperatures can reach upwards of 400 degrees. Others that I spoke to agreed that Selects respond best to higher heat but would dry out if cooked low and slow.
Dirk Miller at Miller’s Smokehouse, in Belton is using Select briskets from National Beef both for cost reasons (Select is about $2.25 per pound), and because he’s just used to them. When I spoke to him he was looking to experiment with some other grades to see if he could improve his smoked brisket. I’ll keep you posted.
Miller is probably a good representation of the majority of rural barbecue joints. They don’t all carefully consider their beef supplier or the grade of beef because they don’t necessarily have the luxury. After a conversation with Aaron Franklin, Miller considered the differences between Select, Choice, and even CAB, but the selection of meat by the rural pitmaster often comes down to cost. If someone is willing to wait an hour or two in line at a place like Louie Mueller or Franklin, chances are they’re not going to gripe about the $17/lb price tag for brisket when they finally reach the front of the line. But many of the regulars at Miller’s in tiny Belton griped when he recently raised his price from $13.90 to $14.15 per pound. Even if that customer is a cattle rancher who knows that beef prices are currently at an all time high, that extra quarter per pound is often cause for complaint. Such is the plight of the smaller joints serving a more thrifty clientele.
John Lewis, of La Barbecue, in Austin, is one of the few in the state using Prime grade Angus beef exclusively. He has cooked Select and Choice briskets too, but he likes Prime’s fat consistency. “It’s like cutting through cold butter” when trimming the meat, he said. The fat also has a lower melting point allowing more of it to render out properly. The high amount of intramuscular fat also allows Lewis too cook longer before the meat dries out. The problem is that this creates loss of mass; the more fat that renders out, the less meat there is to sell when it comes out of the smoker. There’s an initial higher initial cost for the meat, but the moist and beefy flavor makes it worth it, in Lewis’s opinion.
Prime Angus would also be the choice of Aaron Franklin, of Franklin Barbecue, in Austin, but it’s hard to get a consistent supply to fill his many smokers so he uses Upper Choice Angus beef. The meat is hormone- and- antibiotic-free and certified natural and humane, and Franklin claims that this contributes to better fat quality in the meat. Even buying this at Choice, this product can be more expensive, so bumping up to Prime would likely prove too costly anyway. But sometimes Franklin can’t even get the Choice stuff. Earlier this year his supplier had some weather-related delivery issues, and Franklin was forced to use Select briskets for several days. Because of their lower fat content he was worried about them drying out, so he wrapped the meat early and to try to keep them as moist as he could. Of course that was the week a critic came through and said the brisket was the consistency of “Sunday dinner-table chuck.” Franklin agrees. “I was happy to put that week behind me,” he told me with a sigh.
Franklin wouldn’t share his beef cost, but I learned from Local Yocal meat market in McKinney that they charge about $4.15 per pound for a similar Angus brisket to their wholesale customers. Tim Hutchins, of Hutchins BBQ in McKinney, is one of those customers. Hutchins is proud to serve quality beef, and the change in supplier was just one of the ways he has changed up the smoking process at his joint. I can’t say it’s all about his brisket choice, but a few years back Hutchins was putting out barbecue that was average at best, but this year that brisket helped them make the Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ joint list. Maybe a good brisket can.
This story also appears on tmbbq.com, which is also the source for more barbecue news, reviews, and stories.