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