Brisket is a large, tough cut of beef that comes from the breast of a cow. It is most often prepared using a slow cooking method like smoking, braising, or barbecuing. Unlike some other meats, you will want to cut away parts of the brisket to make sure it cooks properly and you maximize your flavor. In this article, we’ll show you how to trim a brisket before you cook it.
Anatomy of a Brisket
A brisket has two main parts: the flat and the point. The flat (left of the diagram) is the thinner part of the brisket. It contains less fat than the point, and is sometimes sold on its own at grocery stores because it requires less preparation.
The point of a brisket (right of the diagram) is the thicker part of the cut. It overlaps the flat, with membranes of fat separating the two parts. This hard, excess fat located in the point will need to be removed.
When it comes to cooking meat, you’ve probably heard that “fat is flavor.” So why not leave it all on? The answer has to do with the science of cooking. The rich flavor, moisture, and melt-in-your-mouth texture we associate with high-quality meats comes from fat that has rendered in the cooking process. Rendering is the process of melting down hard animal fat.
Ever notice how grease accumulates when you cook something like bacon? That’s all rendered fat. Ever wonder why Kobe beef is so expensive and sought after?
Photo by City Foodsters
Just look at that intricate marbling. All that fat renders when the meat is cooked, resulting in some of the most delicious and tender beef there is.
Unfortunately, the thick, hard layers of fat on a brisket won’t render like the finely marbled fat in Kobe beef. Thick layers of fat prevent any seasoning or marinade from sinking into the meat itself. And if you’re smoking your brisket, that fat will also prevent the smoke from penetrating and flavoring the meat.
On the other hand, taking off too much fat can make the meat dry and less flavorful. Properly trimming the fat will help the meat cook consistently while maximizing flavor.
What You’ll Need
- A brisket (with both point and flat)
- A large cutting board or butcher paper to lay over a flat surface
- A trash can or bowl for trimmings
- Sharp knives (emphasis on the “sharp” part).
A longer knife (about 6 to 8 inches) works great for removing long pieces of fat that run along the surface. When you need to get into crevices, use a paring knife. Some professionals like Aaron Franklin use a thin boning knife for even greater maneuverability. Whatever knife you use, make sure it’s sharp. Using dull knives increases the risk of injury, especially when you’re cutting something tough.
Trimming a Brisket
Now that you’re equipped with tools and know-how, it’s time to trim. Keeping your brisket cold will make it easier to cut through, so try to keep it refrigerated for several hours before you get to work.
Before you start trimming, feel free to rinse off any extra juices from the surface of the brisket. Lay it on your cutting board, fatty half down, and take a look at it. It should be fairly easy to distinguish between the point and the flat. Confused? Let Chef David Payne show you:
If you’re inexperienced, then it’s best to start small. You can always remove more if you need to, but you can’t add it back. To start:
- Trim any meat on the surface that is gray or brown from processing. The meat underneath that should be a deep red.
- Remove any large pieces of skin from the flat. This is often called “silver skin“. Like excess fat, it prevents rendered fat and seasoning from penetrating the meat.
- Flip your brisket so the fatty side faces up. Notice how Chef Payne distinguishes between the soft fat covering the flat, and the harder fat on the point — that’s what needs to go.
- Aim to leave between ¼ and ⅛ of an inch of fat.
- Create “windows” of meat that show through the remaining soft fat, which will allow rendered fat and seasoning to penetrate and flavor the brisket. Chef Payne gives a great example of this in his video walkthrough.
- Avoid over-trimming the soft fat. It will render in the cooking process and contribute to the flavor, moisture, and texture of the finished product. Remember, fat that will render is fat that will flavor.
Some people go out of their way to remove all of the fat on the less fatty side of the brisket. Why? Directly exposing meat to heat allows the Maillard reaction to occur. This reaction simply refers to the chemical process of browning, where amino acids react with sugars under heat to form a delicious crust. We see this reaction in cooking everything from fresh, crusty bread to meats like Gordon Ramsay’s pan-seared steak.
If this is your first brisket, feel free to skip this extra prep work — your brisket should turn out just fine. But if you want to go above and beyond you can take a few extra steps.
Trim the Deckle
As you trim, keep feeling the firmness of the fat to help determine what you need to remove and how much. You may also notice a thick, hard membrane of fat located where the point meets the flat. This is called a deckle — use your short knife to remove it. If you don’t find it, don’t worry. Sometimes the deckle is removed in processing. If you notice any deep cuts in the point before you started trimming, that’s probably where the deckle was.
Aaron Franklin does a great job of explaining how to find the deckle and why to remove it in this video:
After you’re done trimming, inspect your brisket. It should be rectangular, and the point should be closer in thickness to the flat, now that you’ve removed the hard fat membranes. Make sure to flip it over a few times to look for any thick chunks of fat that you might have missed. You’ll need to cut between layers of meat to remove all of it. Finally, check to see that you have a few “windows” of exposed meat dispersed across the soft fat surface, and cut off any bits of meat hanging off the outside that could burn.
And that’s that. Congratulations — you’ve just trimmed a brisket! If you’re looking for a great recipe, we recommend the Franklin Barbecue Brisket recipe. It’s a great recipe for beginners and expert pitmasters alike. It’s the perfect mix of juicy brisket with a crunchy bark, we can’t get enough of it.