Brisket is a challenging but rewarding cut, as tough as old leather in its native condition but a rich and flavorful meal when properly prepared. It's come to be a rite of passage for many cooks, symbolic of their transition from novice to skilled handler of utensils and ingredients. Brisket is packaged and sold in many different forms, so it's helpful to know what you're looking for when you head to the store.
What It Is
The brisket is part of a group of muscles that form the chest and abdomen of a cow. It also includes flank steaks, commonly used for London broil, and the flat "plate" muscle used for corned beef. The brisket itself is the steer's chest muscles, two relatively large pieces of tough, stringy flesh that cross each other at an angle. It is sometimes sold whole, but in most parts of the country you're more likely to see it cut and trimmed for retail sale.
The Packer's Cut
If you live in an area where barbecue ranks somewhere between an obsession and a religion, you might be able to find whole, untrimmed briskets. This is called a "packer's cut" brisket, or sometimes just a "packer." They're seldom in the showcase because of their size, which can be up to 16 pounds. If you want to buy one you'll need to ask your butcher. They're normally sold in airtight cryogenic packages, with up to an inch of fat protecting the meat. If you're going to barbecue the meat you'll want to leave most of that in place, to protect the brisket from drying out. If you're braising or slow-roasting the brisket, you can trim it.
The point is the smaller of the two muscles that make up the brisket, and it's easier for inexperienced cooks to work with. It's better-marbled, more tender -- although that's a relative measure with brisket -- and thinner than the flat. A whole point muscle is large and triangular, thicker at the side and tapering toward the angle of the triangle. It's sometimes cut in half for retail sale. The point can become tender after as little as two to three hours' braising, or three to four of slow roasting.
The flat is larger and tougher than the point, forming a slab up to five inches thick at one end and tapering to approximately two inches at the other. It has little marbling, but is surrounded by a thin layer of fat that protects it during cooking and separates it from the point. It's usually sold in pieces because of its size. You'll know pieces of the flat because of their rectangular shape and long grain when they're cut.
In many supermarkets or butcher's shops you'll often see portions of brisket ranging from two or three pounds to five or seven. These are often cut directly from the full packer's brisket, trimmed of fat but containing a portion of both the flat and the point. You can recognize these easily by looking at the cut edge. If you see two distinct muscles running in different directions, you've both point and flat on your brisket. The simplest technique is to cook them together until fork-tender, then separate the point portion from the flat for carving. This way you can carve each portion across the grain, making it more tender, and easier to eat.
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