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What is brisket? The best way to cook the special cut of beef

One of the nine primal cuts of beef, brisket is a prized piece of meat among barbecue enthusiasts for its flavor and tenderness when prepared correctly.

The succulent beef brisket
Paulo WhitakerREUTERS

As summertime rolls around Americans bring out their grills and get them ready for the season, if they ever put them away in the first place. There are many cuts of meat that are great to cook on the barbecue but one that has become king is the brisket.

This once highly affordable cut of beef has seen its price rise as the popularity of smoking one’s own meat at home has surged among barbecue enthusiasts. So what is so special about this particular piece of the cow?

What is brisket?

Brisket is the front-end breast meat on beef cattle and one of the nine primal cuts of beef. Since cattle lack a collar bone, explains Ronald Lemenager, professor of animal sciences and beef cattle Purdue Extension specialist, this deep pectoral muscle has to support roughly 60% of a cow’s weight. That results in brisket being one of the toughest cuts of meat on the cow.

It can be a finicky cut of meat to cook as it is packed with fat and tissue. However, those who select a well-marbled piece and have the patience to cook it correctly the result will practically melt in your mouth proving why it is king among barbecue platters.

The best way to cook beef brisket

The key to turning a raw brisket into a succulent and tender delicacy that will be fork-tender and melt in your mouth is to cook it low and slow. There are several methods, from cooking it in your oven, a slow cooker or on the grill using indirect heat.

The low-temperature, slow-cooking technique gelatinizes the high collagen content in the brisket as well as breaking down connective tissue in the meat explains Lemenager. Because of its thickness, a brisket can be cooked for several hours without drying out if done properly.

Depending on which method you use, expect it to take anywhere from three hours to ten hours for your brisket to be properly cooked and tender. That doesn’t include marinating time, which can be between 24 and 48 hours for Texas BBQ brisket, nor letting it cool off over night to let it soak in the juices.

The Food Network also advises letting it rest so that it is easier to remove the solidified fat off of the meat. Likewise slicing it while cold “is your best option for nice, even slices”. And remember to slice across the grain.

There are two types of cuts from a whole brisket explains the Food Network, “the leaner piece, usually called the flat brisket or first cut, and the more marbled piece with the most fat, often called the brisket point or second cut.” The latter is more typical for barbecuing while the former is generally used for corned beef, but you can use the whole brisket if you choose.