What Is Beef Brisket?

A Guide to Buying, Cooking, and Storing Beef Brisket

Brisket Grill Prep

The Spruce Eats / Lindsay Kreighbaum 

In Texas, barbecue means brisket—in fact, barbecue is the only way to eat brisket in the Lone Star State. But no matter where you live, barbecued brisket is a real treat when it's done right. 

What Is Beef Brisket?

Brisket is cut from the underside of the cow, which is tough and filled with fat and collagen. Collagen is a fibrous protein that connects tissues together and is very strong. As collagen cooks, it breaks down, turns into gelatin, and dissolves into the meat. This is one of the things that makes smoked brisket so good. Brisket is also used to make corned beef and pastrami.

How to Cook Beef Brisket

A properly cooked brisket comes off of the grill looking as if it has been burnt to a crisp, but don't be fooled—beneath that outer crust is juicy, tender, deliciously smoky meat. A brisket that hasn't been cooked right will have an unpleasant texture: dry, chewy, and leathery.

A great smoked brisket starts with the best raw materials—the right cut of meat, a savory marinade or rub, and good wood for smoke. Mastering the proper preparation and smoking techniques will also guarantee a winning barbecue brisket. Smoking is the ideal method for cooking brisket; to keep this meat from drying out and becoming tough, you need to cook at a low temperature.

What Does Beef Brisket Taste Like?

Long, slow cooking gives brisket rich beef flavor and a tender texture. Marinades intensify the flavor; marinate your brisket for a minimum of two hours but ideally overnight.

Beef Brisket Recipes

Brisket is a versatile cut of beef that makes it easy to produce decadent meals without a lot of fuss. You can smoke it, slow cook it, braise it, or barbecue it—just remember that the longer you marinate it, the more complex the flavors will be.

Prepping Beef Brisket for Smoking

Before the brisket hits the smoker, rinse it in lukewarm water and pat dry with paper towels. If desired, you can marinate the meat or apply a seasoning rub ahead of when you plan to begin smoking. If you are going to marinate the meat, place it in the mixture and refrigerate at least 12 hours before cooking. If you are going to apply a rub, do so at least an hour before you smoke. But no matter which seasoning method you use, let the brisket come to room temperature before cooking.

To enhance the tenderizing effect of smoking, marinate the brisket with lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, or any other acid-based marinade. This will help break down the tough fibers in the meat and the acid will carry any flavor you add to the marinade deep into the meat. You can still apply a rub to your brisket if you marinate it—just let the marinade run off the surface before you apply the rub.

Where to Buy Beef Brisket

The brisket champions of the cook-off circuit will tell you that you need to get an expensive cut of brisket—it's USDA Prime from grain-fed cattle or nothing. Unfortunately, the highest quality beef tends to get shipped off to Japan because there they are willing to pay for it. But you don't have to sink a lot of money into a brisket, especially if you're just starting out—you can have success with meat that's $1 per pound. Whatever you buy, try to get a brisket with good marbling, white fat, and deep color in the meat. There should be good fat throughout the meat and not just in one place.

Don't be shocked by its size—briskets easily weigh in over 10 pounds or more but will lose about 30 to 40 percent of its weight during smoking, so plan accordingly when calculating how many pounds to buy.

Choosing a "Packer's Cut"

Brisket is sold in two different ways—either whole or divided into two parts, the flat and the point. The flat cut is also called a "first cut," and the point can also be labeled as "second cut" or the "deckle." For barbecue brisket, it should be undivided, which is sold as a "packer's cut." This type of cut is also untrimmed and will have a strip of fat running through the middle and a layer of fat on the top called the fat cap. The fat cap should be about 1-inch thick, so if it is more than that you might want to trim it down; it is best to have a single even layer. Though the fat cap will add moisture to the meat during smoking, the fat spread throughout the meat will be much more effective. When smoking, cook the brisket fat-side up so that the melting fat will run over the brisket and keep it moist.

Storing Beef Brisket

You can store cooked brisket with or without the liquid you cooked it in. Without liquid or gravy, cooked brisket will last up to four days in the fridge, and up to two months in the freezer. If you store your brisket with its liquid or gravy, it may be refrigerated up to two days and frozen up to three months. Wrap the meat well and place it in an airtight container.

The Spruce Eats / Joshua Seong