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So you’ve come home from the meat market with a full on packer brisket, and you’re ready to throw it on the smoker.
But you might not have realized that there is one under the radar decision in the meat smoking process that can definitely make a difference in the ending taste and texture of your BBQ.
A longstanding debate in the meat smoking community is whether brisket should be cooked with the fat side up or with the fat side down. In this article, we will go over both sides of this argument and present you with our ultimate conclusion.
The Relatively Short Answer
If you are in a hurry and want just a quick and simple answer to your question, here it is: cook your brisket with the fat side down. For most smokers, the heat comes from the bottom of the cooker, so cooking brisket with the fat side down will protect the meat from exposure to direct heat.
On top of that, the fat will have a greater chance to render and drip onto your coals, vaporize, and rise back up into your meat to flavor your food.
The above answer applies to most people, but if your smoker happens to be a horizontal offset style smoker or another kind of cooker in which the heat comes from above, then in that case, it would be best to cook the brisket with the fat side up. The true answer to the question is that the fat side of the brisket should face the direction from which the heat is coming.
A More Detailed Look at the Debate
What Is the “Fat Side” of a Brisket?
If you look at a brisket, you will see that one side is covered in a thick layer of fat, while the other side will be relatively lean.
The fat that covers one side of the brisket is known as the “fat cap.” So the “fat side” of a brisket is the side of that brisket which is covered by the fat cap.
Why Do People Argue that a Brisket Should Be Smoked with the Fat Side Up?
The theory behind cooking a brisket with the fat side up is as follows:
As the brisket heats up, the fat on the top begins to melt or render, and the meat will absorb this fat, thus staying moist and being basted by the melted fat.
The fat from the fat cap, as it is cooking, serves to break down and tenderize the meat as it cooks, leaving you with a tender and juicy brisket.
What Are the Problems With That Theory?
Here’s the major problem with the above theory – meat does not really absorb the melted fat. It will not act like a sponge. The red meat contains water, and the melted fat will not mix with the water in the meat. Oil and water simply do not mix. So basically all of the rendered fat will simply drip down the sides of the meat and into the grease pan.
The second part of the theory, which is that the fat supposedly tenderizes the meat, is also false. It is not the fat which tenderizes the meat; it is actually the breaking down of the collagen which does this.
Collagen, otherwise known as the connective tissues in the meat which hold together the muscle fibers, is broken down through a process of long, low, and slow cooking.
This long, low, and slow cooking process is what actually gives that collagen the proper amount of time and conditions in order to be broken down, thus allowing the brisket to get tenderized.
So let’s set the record straight here and now: the melting fat from the fat cap will not moisten, braise, baste or tenderize your brisket. The theory above in its entirety is a complete myth.
Not only will your meat not be basted, tenderized, or effectively moistened by the melting fat from the fat cap, but, as it drips down the side of the brisket, that fat will also wash away some of the brisket rub with which you have painstakingly seasoned your brisket.
That means your seasoning will end up in the grease pan or in the fire with that melted fat, not on the brisket where it belongs.
Furthermore, cooking the brisket with the fat side up presents an additional problem: it will not result in the most visually or aesthetically appealing of briskets. This is due to the fact that the presentation side of your brisket will be down, in contact with the grill grate, which will prevent that lovely uniform bark from forming.
(By the way, if you are wondering what “bark” is on a brisket, it’s that super tasty dark crust on the meat which ought to form as a result of a combination of the chemical reactions between the spice rub with which you seasoned your meat, the protein from the meat, and the smoke and heat from the smoker. Check out our complete resource on what BBQ bark is and how it forms right here)
But if the brisket is cooked with the fat side up, then such a uniform bark will not form, which means that your brisket will not look as appetizing as it could be. Also, the presentation side of your meat could get stuck to the grill grate, which could potentially ruin the presentation of your brisket.
What About Cooking with the Fat Side Down?
Cooking your brisket with the fat side down has a number of benefits. Not only does it avoid all the problems created by cooking with the fat side up, namely, the washing away of the spice rub on the brisket, the inability to form a uniform bark, and the unappealing and less appetizing brisket appearance, but it also has the following advantages:
The fat cap of the brisket, when it is face down, will serve as a heat shield for the meat itself. That is, since the heat in most smoker types comes from the bottom of the grate, the meat will be protected from burning and from drying out.
This is due to the fact that fat has insulating properties. So the fat cap will protect the meat from the fire’s intense heat, keeping the meat from drying out or burning.
Also, when a brisket is cooked with the fat side down, as the fat melts and drips down (without taking your spice rub with it), the melted fat may come into direct contact with the fire, creating more delicious smoke with which your brisket will be infused and which will add to the flavor of your brisket.
Remember the exception to this rule of cooking your brisket with the fat side down: If you have a horizontal offset style smoker such as a log burning offset smoker, a pellet smoker, or an offset wood burner (basically any cooker in which the heat comes from above the meat), then you should cook your brisket with the fat side up.
Ultimately, the key to figuring out whether you should cook your brisket with the fat side up or with the fat side down lies in where the heat in your cooker is coming from. The fat side of the brisket should always face the direction from which the heat comes.
If you have an offset smoker and need to cook your brisket with the fat side up but you are worried about the disadvantages which have been described above (such as the dripping or washing away of the spice rub on the brisket, the inability to form a uniform bark, and the unappealing and less appetizing brisket appearance with the potential for the presentation side of the meat to get stuck on the grill plates), there are a few solutions.
You can wrap your brisket using butcher’s paper or foil. You can also flip your brisket, which is a topic deserving of its own section.
Flipping a Brisket
Flipping your brisket might look something like this: you can start by cooking the brisket with the fat side down. Then you can flip the brisket and cook it with the fat side up for the rest of the cooking time. This seems to allow that much sought after uniform bark to form and also gives a chance for the spice rub to get into your brisket.
You can also try cooking your meat with the fat side up and flipping it to the fat side down later on, but you still risk the presentation side of the brisket getting stuck to the grill grate, and some of your spice rub will still be washed away.
But if your smoker is an offset smoker and you start cooking your brisket with the fat side down, that means your meat is left unprotected for about half the time. Wrapping it with foil can help to protect your meat to a certain degree.
Another disadvantage of this compromise solution of flipping the brisket is that the flipping action can cause the fat to tear, which may result in more moisture being released from your brisket, when a dried out brisket was precisely what you were trying to avoid.
But the overall advantage of flipping your meat include the fact that it evens out the exposure of the brisket to the heat source and allows your brisket to cook more evenly, resulting in meat that is ultimately juicier. Some chefs even flip the brisket as frequently as once every two hours. (Our editors personally prefer flipping the brisket just once, if at all).
The Bottom Line
The answer to the question of whether you should cook your brisket with the fat side up or with the fat side down ultimately depends on which direction the heat in your smoker is coming from.
The main thing you should do is to place the fat side so that it is facing in the direction of the heat source. Flipping the brisket is another method which may result in a more evenly cooked brisket but which comes with its own set of disadvantages.
But don’t just take our word for it. Figure out where the heat in your cooker is coming from and make your own determination of the best way to position the fat in order to protect your meat from drying out. You can experiment until you find the method that works best for you and which results in the tastiest and most appealing brisket.
Looking for more brisket expertise? Check out our resources on how to trim a brisket and the brisket point vs the flat next!