What is a Brisket?
risket. It’s barbecue royalty. You wouldn’t be blamed for dreaming of hearty slices of tender, low-and-slow beef and a generous serving of tangy barbecue sauce. However, the truth is that brisket goes back a lot farther than a patient Texas pitmaster tending the coals. This big, versatile slab of meat has been feeding people all over the world for centuries.
What is a brisket, exactly? The word has its root in early 1300s middle English with brusket which goes farther back and farther north to the Old Norse brjosk, which means “cartilage”. Not tasty, and not conjuring that mouth-watering image of tender-to-the-bone beef courting your coleslaw.
The humble brisket didn’t come by this name unjustly. This specific cut of beef is one of the toughest on the animal. The long cooking, curing, and brining methods that soften brisket up have given us an array of delicious and very different foods.
Despite the popularity and versatility of the brisket, it still intimidates many home cooks. With a practical approach and a little planning, delicious brisket meal need not be complex or difficult. Read on to discover more about the history of this cut, how it’s used today, and tips for bringing big beefy brisket into your barbecue repertoire.
The Anatomy of a Brisket
The cut called brisket comes from the breast of the cow, above the shank of the front legs. A full brisket can weigh up to 20 pounds and comprises two muscles which each have different characteristics. Two cuts of brisket are typically sold: a flat and a point.
That flat, “first cut”, or pectoralis profundus, is what you’ve probably seen in your grocer’s meat case. It’s large, lean, and roughly rectangular in shape. The point, “second cut”, or pectoralis superficialis, is fattier both on the outside of the meat and throughout.
Cows are heavy, with the typical Angus bull weighing around a ton. These chest muscles bear as much as 60 percent of the animal’s weight when it’s walking or standing. That means it’s a load-bearing structure for up to 1,200 pounds. Beefy indeed! These muscles are strong, well-nourished, and riddled with connective tissue. This is where we get back to that Old Norse word for cartilage. Without proper handling, you’ll be gnawing on that brisket for a while.
What Does This Mean for the Meat?
Consider the filet mignon. Soft, small, and delicately flavored, this frontal tip of the tenderloin is not a weight-bearing muscle at all. That very fact gives it its signature tenderness. It’s typically served as steak with a short, hot cooking time to sear flavor into the outside and leave the interior of the serving relatively undisturbed.
Brisket is on the far opposite end of this spectrum. If a cow was a turkey, brisket would be dark meat. The hard work that builds all the tough connective tissue into this cut also infuses it with a rich, distinctly beefy flavor.
We’ve all heard some version of the adage “quick, cheap, good — pick two”. In the beef realm, brisket ticks the second two boxes. The more tender cuts of beef that we associate with steak dinners aren’t riddled with those tough connective fibers, which enables them to cook quickly and maintain mouthwatering tenderness. They’re also smaller, and with desirability and scarcity comes expense.
Our friend, the brisket, has historically been one of the most affordable cuts of beef around. According to recent retail reports from the USDA, brisket is one of the least expensive cuts of beef throughout the country, even amid rekindled passion for barbecuing the stuff.
A big slab of brisket is an economical way to feed a crowd, provided you can make that meat edible. The secret to that is time. Brisket needs long, slow cooking at a low temperature in a grill or smoker, or a patient brining such as the process of making corned beef. This allows the muscle fibers to loosen up and become tender, transforming the tough cut into a succulent meal.
When meat is cooked, the connective tissue or collagen dissolves into rich, soft gelatin at around 160°. Trying to cook meat in a very hot environment but reach that kind of internal temperature would cause much more moisture loss from the outer layers of the cut, resulting in a tough, dry, or even burnt exterior.
A long cooking time at a lower temperature allows the whole piece to heat through, and the temperature throughout to rise more slowly and evenly. Less moisture is lost, and collagen is allowed to break down throughout the tissue. Results: Tender and juicy.
Brining in a salt solution also breaks down collagen fibers. The salt enables more water to enter the muscle cells in the meat, helping it to hold in more moisture when it’s cooked or smoked. When an acid such as vinegar is introduced to a marinade, the acid helps to break down the collagen bonds.
The Brisket Throughout History
Texas barbecue may be a comparatively recent invention, but humanity has been using bovines for food for around 10,000 years. The cattle we know in America today are largely descended from Spanish breeds that arrived in the 1500s and British breeds that arrived in the 1600s. Prior to that, North America’s wild bovine population mostly comprised buffalo and aurochs, a wild cow that went extinct because of hunting and habitat loss in the 1650s.
In the days before industrial farming, you couldn’t just stop by the supermarket and pick up your favorite cut of beef on the way home to make supper. You might be hunting that animal on foot, or at least raising and slaughtering it yourself. Getting the most out of that investment made using every part of the animal a matter of practical necessity.
While not exclusive to the brisket cut, the need to address difficult parts of the animal gives rise to a variety of ways to prepare these tough portions. Smoking, braising, or thin-slicing these cuts allowed people to make satisfying meals without fighting through all that stiff collagen. Smoking brisket started in North America long before settlers from Europe began raising cattle here. Native Americans had been pit-smoking meat in the ground as a traditional preparation for hundreds of years.
Brisket itself is a natural fit for occasions that bring people together because it’s big. Preparing a dish with a large volume and long hands-off cooking time means you get a large, tasty main dish with time to focus on preparing for the rest of the celebration or gathering.
Brisket Traditions in Modern-Day America
This crowd-pleasing inclination and the unwieldiness of a 20-pound slab of beef usher brisket into the hallowed designation of a special occasion food for many families. Traditions in the Ashkenazi Jewish culture helped brisket develop its popularity in America.
For Jewish families keeping kosher, brisket serves dual purposes: It’s an economical way to serve a group a nourishing meal, and it comes from the front of the animal. A cow’s hindquarters are not kosher, limiting the availability of cuts.
Often braised all day with hearty root vegetables until it’s fall-apart tender, brisket is a staple dish for many families celebrating important holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah. In and outside of Jewish culture, traditions like these are how we see the development of truly beloved heirloom recipes infused with the care of generations.
With immigration of families from eastern Europe in the late 1800s, brisket started to break free of the pot roast. Corned beef and its smoked sibling, pastrami, started appearing in delis. The state of Texas was a new segment of the nation and its open ranch land lent it great usefulness as a producer of cattle. Many immigrants moved to that area as well, owing to a lower cost of living and higher availability of land.
The mingling of Texas cattle ranchers and new arrivals from Germany and Czechoslovakia sparked new ideas for cooking brisket. Smoking brisket is a slam dunk, with simple seasonings and smoke saturating the meat with flavor and that long, slow cooking time providing results that are tender and delicious throughout. Smoked brisket started popping up in Jewish delis by the early 1900s. Brisket-dedicated barbecue soon followed.
As a side note, if you’re wondering why Texas barbecue traditions are still so influential, the Lone Star State still produces twice as much beef as the next highest producer, Nebraska. That’s close to 14 percent of the total number of cattle in the entire nation. Texans know their beef.
Brisket, it’s What’s for Dinner
You were hungry for an answer to the question, “What is a brisket?” and hopefully by now you’ve got a solid idea of the practical and cultural significance of this hunk of meat. We’d like to cover some ground about the different preparations of brisket and their uses in and beyond barbecue.
Traveling abroad once again, we can find brisket as a star in the beloved French stew called pot-au-feu. In pot-au-feu, the connective tissue in tough meat isn’t just a hurdle to be climbed over with a long cooking time, it’s actually an essential part of the texture and taste of the dish. Marrow bones and other cartilaginous pieces are added to the collagen-rich meat, resulting in a thick, silky consistency that sometimes contains enough gelatin to solidify completely when it’s allowed to cool.
In Vietnam, brisket is one of the popular ingredients of the traditional broth soup, pho. Raw brisket is sliced wafer thin and cooked in the hot, aromatic broth right in the serving bowl. In this preparation, chewy connective tissue is dealt with mechanically. Thin slices break up the stringy muscle tissue and become easy to eat.
Jangjorim is a Korean dish made with soy sauce. Cooks braise the beef until it’s falling apart and usually served as a side for rice and vegetables. It keeps well, meaning a large batch can be prepared in advance and eaten in portions throughout an entire week. Jangjorim is perfect for on-the-go lunches at work or school, and an ideal candidate for a big brisket.
We find long-cooking, large-capacity beef dishes all over the world. Stews, roasts, and curries appear in the ranks alongside our mouthwatering American barbecue.
Recipes for preparing brisket abound. You can tour the world with methods and seasonings while preparing a meaty feast your friends and family won’t soon forget. Keep reading for a small collection of tips that will guide you in purchasing, preparing, and storing brisket. Armed with this information, you’ll have no trouble tackling this Big Daddy of beef cuts.
If you can, get to know your butcher. This individual knows the meat and will always be able to help guide you in picking out the best cut for the results you want. If you’re on your own in the grocery store meat case, here’s a quick primer on what to look for.
The USDA uses a grading system that describes the quality of meat. This doesn’t mean that a lower grade of meat is “bad” or unsafe, just that higher grades contain more marbled fat, making them more tender and flavorful.
Select: Accounting for about 40 percent of the beef sold, select grade is very firm, lean meat.
Choice: The most common grade you’re likely to see in most stores, making up almost 60 percent of the brisket on the market. The amount of marbling throughout can vary, with the most marbled cuts of Choice beef being marked as Prime.
Wagyu: Not a grade in and of itself, Wagyu beef comes from a special breed of Japanese cow that’s raised and handled very carefully. It is extremely marbled and fatty, resulting in the most succulent and juicy cooked beef. It can also cost as much as five times more than other types of beef.
Remember that briskets lose a significant amount of weight in the cooking process due to fat rendering out and moisture loss. When choosing the size of brisket that you need, don’t calculate for the weight of the cooked portion. Instead, aim for around one pound of raw meat per person you will be feeding.
If you can, buy a whole, untrimmed cut. This may be called a “packer cut” and is the entire brisket, both flat and point. This way, you’ll get the big piece of lean meat from the flat but also the delicious fatty “deckle” attached to the point. You can always trim the cut at home the way you like it, controlling the amount of fat that goes into your chosen cooking method.
Picking out a brisket that has an overall even thickness and some flexibility when raw will help you avoid big pieces of hard fat and other flaws that can be difficult to cook down. Don’t be afraid to examine the meat before you buy it. Starting off your meal with a good foundation will make your life easier and the results tastier.
We cannot stress enough the importance of low-and-slow cooking. You don’t need fancy equipment, but you do need time. Cook your brisket with the fatty side up so that the melting fat bastes the meat for you. This is another great reason to look for a brisket that still has the point attached.
Raw brisket should be kept in the coldest part of your fridge, and will last around five days before cooking. If you find a great deal but will not be cooking a big meal this week, wrap your brisket air-tight and freeze immediately. It will stay good for six to twelve months in the freezer.
Brisket is a meal-prep dream, and the flavor often improves a day or two after cooking, making the leftovers absolutely irresistible. If you’ve cooked your brisket with a liquid sauce or gravy, remove it from the liquid for refrigerator storage of up to four days. If you plan to freeze your leftovers, freeze them in the gravy for up to three months. Cooked brisket freezes and reheats well, just make sure you wrap it up in an airtight container.
This concludes our whirlwind tour of the brisket. Next time you see one of these big, beautiful cuts of beef in your local butcher shop or grocery case, don’t be afraid to carry it home and fire up the grill. Knowing a little about the ins and outs of this cut of meat will enable you to create a good meal for your family and friends whether for a big holiday dinner or the neighborhood block party.