In a state currently obsessed with brisket, the lean side appears to be always the bridesmaid. The bride, of course, is the fatty stuff. (As the tired saying goes, “fat is where it’s at.”) Further evidence of this love for adipose was on full display in a recent article for Maxim magazine, where Texas barbecue expert Robb Walsh wrote, “It’s the fatty end brisket that discerning barbecue aficionados desire most.” (See also The Evolution of Fat in Barbecue.) Aaron Franklin, who was featured in the piece along with Killen’s, Pecan Lodge, and others, spoke to his experience of slicing brisket for his long line of patrons. Most of them have a preference, and Franklin estimates that “the ratio is probably seventy percent fatty to thirty percent lean.”
How did lean brisket get so unpopular? The short answer is it’s dry. As soon as brisket is sliced it begins to deteriorate, and the lean is particularly sensitive given how little fat exists between the tight grains of beef. Also, unless the lean side of the brisket is smoked perfectly, the fat and moisture quickly evaporates from this side of the cut. Noted barbecue fan and food writer Josh Ozersky simply refers to it as “Texas tofu.”
But lean doesn’t have to be dry; it just takes a little extra know-how from the pitmaster, and maybe a better grade of beef. A Select grade brisket just doesn’t have the intramuscular fat within the lean side to keep it juicy, which is why pitmasters like John Lewis at la Barbecue are choosing to use Prime briskets. No matter the grade, getting a decent slice from the fatty end is easy enough, but it takes a steady fire and a watchful eye to find the sweet spot in the lean end. “The point has a much wider window of perfection than the flat does,” is how Franklin explains it.
A good slice of lean brisket, no matter how moist, is made better by leaving the fat cap intact. The cap holds smoke and gives each bite a juicy boost. There’s also a greater amount of surface area for seasoning to cling to when the fat cap remains. Lean, when done right, is desirable too. I’m not downplaying the deliciousness of fatty brisket, which I enjoy immensely, but giving half of the brisket short shrift is a potential waste of some really great eating.
Here are a few places doing lean really well:
Again, it’s all in the preparation. I was reminded of this while watching the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi (hear me out). Jiro Ono is a sushi master with strong opinions about fatty and lean cuts. His opinions just happen to be about tuna. “When you compare fatty tuna and lean tuna these days, most people prefer the taste of fat…The taste of the fatty tuna is simple and predictable, but the flavors of leaner cuts are subtle and sophisticated…It is the leaner meat that carries the essence of the flavor.” In brisket, the tighter grain of the flat eats more like a steak where the loose structure of the point is closer to a roast. The flat is simply beefier – maybe even the essence of smoked beef.
Whether you prefer one over the other in flavor, it can’t be denied that the flat is more difficult to cook properly. A good slice of lean brisket is harder to come by and should be appreciated. It’s also a better way to judge the capability of the pitmaster. Even Aaron Franklin, the man made famous by his fatty brisket, agrees: “Any brisket where you can cut the end off the flat and it’s super moist, not over-rendered, not dried out, that’s certainly the mark of a perfectly cooked brisket.” And it’s also the mark of an equally skilled pitmaster. Love the lean.