When to Cook Brisket Whole or in Parts
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As different opinions make horse races, so it is with Brisket. Some folks prefer the outcomes of Brisket cooked whole, others prefer the results of Brisket cooked in parts. At Smart Kitchen we have fans of both methods so we can highlight the pros & cons. Ultimately, you will decide which method you prefer.

The biggest challenge when cooking a whole Brisket is to achieve both a perfectly cooked Brisket Flat and a perfectly cooked Brisket Point with the same cooking time. Though they are both Brisket they don’t cook the same. The Point is thicker and fattier requiring longer cooking. The Flat is leaner and thinner requiring less. By the time the Point is done, the Flat may be overcooked and dry. Bringing them to optimal tenderness together takes skill, and a little practice. If it is done together though, the whole brisket benefits from the retained flavor and juices that baste the whole cut during cooking.

The codicil, or second argument, against cooking the two halves together is that the Meat Grain in the two halves doesn’t run in the same direction. They are actually perpendicular, crosswise to each other, so cutting straight through a whole Brisket will result in cutting one half properly, against the grain, for improved tenderness, while reducing tenderness in the other half by cutting it with the grain. In the end, the argument is easily solved and not worth a long fight.

Whether you go whole or separated, your Brisket should be cooked Low & Slow, either with a Moist Heat Method like Braising or Pot Roasting or with a Dry Heat Method like slow Roasting or Barbecuing.

Cooking a Brisket with a moist heat method is pretty straightforward. Using a dry heat method requires a bit more care because to make the Brisket tender the internal temperature has to climb fairly high to 180° F to 205° F (82° C to 96° C). The trick is to get the internal temperature up high enough to break down the Connective Tissue into soft Gelatin, without drying out the meat.  The conversion of Collagen in connective tissue into gelatin does not even begin until an internal temperature of 140° F (60° C) is achieved and the conversion is most efficient as internal temperatures approach 212° F(100° C).

Cooking the Brisket “Low & Slow” at oven, smoker or grill temperatures around 225° F to 250° F (107° C to 121° C) for hours, while Basting, is the best way to achieve a tender Brisket. Some moisture will be lost to evaporation but the gelatin will compensate and how you work with the fat cap can also help. As a very rough rule of thumb, figure  1 1/2 hours per pound of Brisket for a whole, 8 to 12 pound (3.62 kg to 5.44 kg), Packer Brisket (a single, whole Brisket sold in its cryovac “pack”) trimmed of excess fat. Be forewarned that this is a rule of thumb, only. Actual cook times will depend on Brisket thickness, density of connective tissue, actual oven, grill or smoker temperatures, weather and even how often you open the oven door to turn, baste or check the Brisket.

If cooked properly to Where the Brisket is Done, both sides can be right and cook the Brisket however they prefer. When ready for plating, just separate the two halves before Carving Brisket for Service. Separating them along the Seam, the fault line of fat that divides them, allows chefs to slice each in the proper direction and to cut them as specifically benefits that portion. The Flat does better with thin slices that the Point, with its marbling and connective tissue may not be able to handle. The Point is often chopped or cubed and used for sandwiches. It can also be used for Burnt Ends.

Brisket Fat Cap Up or Fat Cap Down? Flip It?

What is the controversy about? It is really about which method best protects the meat from drying out under heat, while allowing in added flavors, and which method does the best job of naturally basting the meat with the melting fat of the Fat Cap.

Originally, consensus was that cooking Brisket, with the Fat Cap facing up, allowed the melting fat to drip down and into the meat enhancing its flavor and keeping it moist. The shortcoming is that meat, which will absorb small amounts of moisture (if the temperature, salt content and pH are right), is not a sponge. But, if while cooking a Brisket you look at the drip pan, you will see much of the melted fat has run off the Brisket, taking loads of your precious rub with it, to form a pool below the meat in the pan. It is easy enough to capture with a Baster or a Barbecue Mop and periodically redeploy but the Fat Up Theory has flaws.

Conduction means heating through direct contact, which should not be relevant for most methods of cooking Brisket. The tough Brisket meat should not be subject to a Dry Heat Method where it is even within one degree of separation of a heat source.

Radiant heat from a heat source, on the other hand, travels in a straight line out from the heat source and raises the temperature of anything in its path. Radiant Heat is very relevant for Roasting or Barbecuing. Radiant heat can dry out the meat, unless it prevented from doing so, to the extent possible, by the Fat Cap. That being said, with the profusion of modern grills, ovens and smokers, “down” is not always the direction of the heat source and radiant heat doesn’t do the bulk of the cooking in a low slow method.

The bulk of the cooking in a low slow method is done by Convection or indirect heat, which surrounds the meat with even heat from all sides. Having the Fat Cap facing a single side doesn’t protect the others.

Does flipping periodically (usually every 2 hours) solve all the problems raised?  Flipping and basting circulates the melted fat and/or juices and shields various sides of the cooking meat. The drawback is that handling the Brisket to flip it drops melted fat into the drip pan and exerts pressure on the meat that in turn forces moisture out of the brisket.

Like many other scenarios in cooking life, there is no right answer. The solution is to use your best judgment about what works for you given your tastes, your equipment and your ingredients. If you are happy with your results don’t fool with them. If your results could use some specific improvement, scrutinize your set up and consider how you might improve upon it.

Some general tips that might help are: 

  • What goes into your Brisket makes a great difference. Start with the highest grade or quality brisket you can procure. It should be well Marbled and have a thin fat cap.
  • Keep your heat around the brisket low. Cooking Heats around 225° F to 270° F (107° C to 132.2° C) are optimal.
  • Consider flipping your brisket at least once, so that each side has limited exposure to the radiant heat coming in from the heat source. If flipping is not a palatable option, would rotating your meat, at least once, work better for you? With many indirect heat sources, and their imperfect air flows, rotating helps even out the exposure and keeps one side from facing the heat during the whole cooking time. In general, let the fat shield the meat from the heat source as much as possible.
  • Keep the meat lubricated with melted fat by basting it periodically. At some point, frequent basting reaches a point of diminishing returns, as all the opening and closing of the cooking vessel or chamber impacts cooking temperatures. Use judgment and moderation.
  • After cooking, let the Brisket “rest” covered in foil for 15 to 30 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute.
  • Experiment with what works for you. Have fun.