Mostly about food, this blog is just a place for me to throw things that are of interest to me. I appreciate you taking the time to stop by an look around. This represents just some of the stops on the various pathways that this amateur home cook finds himself.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Brisket Prep 101

This is a tough topic to discuss. For some it will be far more than they want to know, and for some it will be old hat and nothing new. That doesn't make it any less valuable or worth going over one more time. Today’s topic is brisket – popular in many ethnic schools of cooking worldwide, and the pride of Texas BBQ masters. Brisket is known as the most difficult meat for BBQ smoking this side of a whole hog, and frustrates many a home and competition cook. Picking a brisket involves a lot of variables, including weight, shape and grades. All these things may have an affect on your final result, regardless of how you choose to cook it. Brisket is usually available three way: as a whole or "packer" brisket, found sealed in a heavy cryovac bag; as a brisket flat, or less often as just the deckle or point. I always buy packer briskets, as they are usually significantly less expensive per pound and I can prep them how I like. They also have a longer refrigeration/freezer life and less of a chance of contaminants as they are handled fewer times. The packaged flat and points are generally made up at the market, which means they are packaged and handled locally and not as sanitary as the factory anaerobically-bagged ones. Here is a 10 lb. typical ‘packer’ brisket:

On top of all that, I’ve seen briskets from as small as 7 lbs. to as large as 16 lbs. This raw weight can’t be directly used as a measure of how many portions you will end up with, because there is significant loss when cooking a packer brisket. Between all of the excess fat and some shrinkage in cooking, you can only expect to end up with between 50%-60% of the raw weight when you are done.

Brisket, like other cuts of beef, is also available in three grades: Select, Choice and Prime. This is determined primarily by the amount of marbling, or intramuscular fat, which is present in the beef, but also to some extent by the age of the animal. This type of fat equals flavor, tenderness and juiciness, so Prime beef is the most-marbled – and most expensive grade of beef. In most cuts, it is also the most difficult to find as a great deal of it goes straight to restaurants, and only 2% of beef is graded Prime. Choice is the next highest grade, and is perfectly acceptable for cooking. Select is third-highest grade, and usually the lowest grade found in stores. Meat that is not shown as graded is usually Select, but may be even lower. In my experience, It is worth buying Choice over Select, but except for a few great steaks, the price premium you’ll pay for Prime over Choice is rarely worth it. Try and buy Choice briskets if you can. Notice the imprint (below) on the cryo bag – the ink color is different depending on the grade of the meat. If present, this will either say USDA Select (black ink), USDA Choice (blue ink), or USDA Prime (red ink). If you can’t find the grading stamp on a cryovac bag, go elsewhere. Remember, this system is for beef. There is no comparable grading system for pork, you just have to use your eyes and your experience.

So, let’s get it out of the bag and look at what we have. The first thing you'll notice is that the brisket cut is roughly a long triangle. The brisket is actually parts of two different muscles, held together by connective tissue, and it comes from the breast area of the cow - one on either side between the front legs. Think chest muscle. The wider but thinner part is referred to as the 'flat', and the thicker, more pointed end is known as the point or deckle end. It is important to understand the difference between these two muscles, as you will see shortly. There is also a considerable amount of fat on the surface and within the brisket. One side of the meat (the top) seems to be entirely covered by fat, and the other side (the bottom) usually has some spots and one giant hard knot of fat. If you examine this fat more closely, you’ll see that there are three different ‘types’ of fat on the brisket. The two large muscles are held together by connective tissue and considerable fat. If you have ever had a large slice of brisket, chances are you’ve noticed a strip of fat running down the middle lengthwise – this is that layer.

The first type is a white very hard fat. The second type is like regular deposits or layers of a softer fat, and the third is a thin, membranous fat. You can see examples of these pointed out in the pictures below. The red circles outline some of the hard fat, and the blue circles some of the regular type fat. Once you identify the different types on your meat, you’ll be able to recognize it anywhere it occurs on the brisket.

Top (point side up)

Bottom (point side down)

Trimming a brisket for cooking really depends on the demands regarding how it will be prepared. When it comes to me, however, I always trim it very closely, discarding almost all external fat. This is a source of some amusement to some of my BBQ friends, as it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom. The mantra of cooking brisket low & slow is to cook untrimmed and fat side up, so that the melting fat cap “bastes” the meat below. Apologies to all, but that's hooey.

In my experience, the only way in which the exterior fat enhances the moisture in a brisket is that it hinders moisture from escaping, like a waterproof ‘blanket’. Unfortunately, if you are putting it on a smoker, the fat will also prevent the smoke making it’s way into the meat, and will keep any mop or rub you use from actually penetrating and seasoning the meat. As a result, I trim my briskets rather drastically, regardless of how I’ll be preparing it. As long as you pay attention to your cooking methods, you shouldn’t have an issue with drying your brisket out.

First I check to see if there is any patch of old brown surface (shoe leather) on the brisket. This is an artifact from the processing / aging process and is definitely not good eats. This usually occurs along the side, and you’ll want to remove this from your brisket wherever you find it.

Next, I remove all of the hard fat and large globs of regular fat from both surfaces of the brisket. These two pictures below correspond to the two smaller pictures above – same meat in the same position, just with the fat removed. In the pictures below, there are some patches circled in blue. Here you see some thin, light fat areas – this type of stuff is fine to leave behind.

Top (point side up)

Bottom (point side down)

Top (point side up) after trimming off the fat:

Bottom (point side down) after trimming off the fat:

Next, I remove all the hard fat I can from the area between the flat and point. Usually, I actually separate the two pieces completely for cooking, even if I am putting them on the smoker. The point end has much more marbling in it than the flat, and they tend to cook at different rates. Furthermore, the grain in the point runs at an angle of about 45° from the grain in the flat. This is important because brisket is something that you always slice across the grain to serve, just because of all the fibers. If the grain is running in two different directions, that is rather hard to do. Here you can see that I have hem separated, and all the large fat in between removed.

I know this is a lot of trouble, but if you pay attention you will have delicious meat without all the extra fat involved. If you are planning on removing the fat after you cook, I suppose you can, but it will be soft and much more difficult, in addition to all the other negative aspects of cooking with it intact.

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