There are a few questions you can ask at your summer cookout that will ensure some animated conversation without ever changing the overarching topic from smoking barbecue. One of those questions is “Should I smoke brisket fat side up or down?” The answer is more complex that a simple Up or Down, and it largely depends on your style of smoker. Ask people who know their way around a smoker and you can sit back with your favorite beverage and watch the debate unfold.
As for truly answering the question, as I said above it largely depends on your style of smoking. If you are using a vertical-style smoker like a Weber Smokey Mountain, an electric smoker, or a gas smoker, you’ll definitely want the fat side down to help shield the surface of the meat from the heat source. If you’re using another type of smoker that offers more indirect heat, like a traditional offset smoker or a pellet grill, you may want to put your brisket fat side up. In fact, Michael Haas here at Angry BBQ prefers this way as described in his How To Smoke Brisket article.
We’ve spent plenty of time with briskets here at Angry BBQ, so we feel like we know a thing or two about making good brisket. So let’s dive into some knowledge about briskets and give you as much information as possible so you can make the best decision for your brisket and smoker!
What Is The Brisket Fat Cap?
If you’ve ever heard of the term fat cap when talking about brisket, it means the thick layer of fat running across one side of the brisket. Brisket comes from the chest of the cow, and that layer of fat sits directly under the cow’s skin. It’s usually one inch thick on a full packer brisket, so it’s a substantial piece of fat. Hence why we have such an important topic when it comes to a legendary cut of meat in the barbecue world. The picture below shows that thick fat cap perfectly.
Should I Trim The Fat Off The Brisket?
When you first open that packer brisket and are greeted by this thick layer of fat on one side, it can be daunting for a first-time brisket smoker. You may find yourself wondering if you’re supposed to leave it all there. After all, the butcher did. Or should you remove all of it? That’s a ton of fat.
The answer lies somewhere in between. That much fat won’t render out, or melt, properly, so you’ll be left with a partially cooked layer of fat that won’t be enjoyable if you leave it all there. If you remove all of the fat, the meat underneath could overcook. You want a nice layer of bark, but you might end up with extremely hard, almost burnt meat.
Also, trimming a brisket isn’t just about trimming down the fat cap. It’s also shaping the brisket to be a fairly uniform shape. When you pull that brisket out of the packaging, you’ll notice right away that there are parts that are extremely thin that could easily burn. You’ll want to trim those parts off while also trying to round the brisket a bit.
In the article linked to above, Michael Haas details his trimming process. He targets a quarter-inch-thick fat cap while also shaping the brisket to the proper dimensions. Needless to say, don’t be afraid to carve off a couple pounds so you just leave the parts you can actually eat.
What Do I Do With The Trimmings?
You might be concerned with the amount of fat and meat that you’re trimming off your brisket. After all, you paid good money for that brisket and you don’t want to throw money away.
If you plan on smoking a lot of briskets, you might want to invest in a meat grinder so you can turn those trimmings and extra fat into homemade sausage or burgers.
If you trimmed a lot of fat off, you could also render that down for beef tallow. You can either cook the fat in a slow cooker on medium-low until it completely renders down or put it in a drip pan on the smoker next to your brisket until it melts.
Do You Smoke Brisket Fat Side Up Or Down?
We’ve covered what the fat cap is and how to trim all that extra brisket fat. That still leaves the question of do you cook brisket fat side up or down? As we said earlier, there isn’t one straight answer for every person, every brisket, and every cooking method. We’re going to take a look at each of the arguments and find out if there’s truth there.
When To Cook Brisket Fat Side Up
You probably have heard people say that smoking beef brisket fat side up will help keep the brisket moist and juicy. At surface level, that would make sense. You’ve got that fat rendering down and dripping over the meat. Surely the meat will absorb some of those juices, right?
However, meat does not absorb that fat. Due to the moisture content of the meat, that brisket cannot absorb the rendered fat from the fat cap. So no dice on that fat cap adding extra moisture and flavor to the meat. What makes brisket so tender is the low and slow cooking process that breaks the connective tissue throughout the brisket down. This occurs fully at an internal temperature of 180°F (82.2°C) which is also when the muscle fibers in the brisket relax, allowing the rendered internal fat and connective tissues to spread throughout the brisket, giving you that moist and tender brisket.
What the fat cap can do is help shelter the meat from too much top heat. If you’ve got a smoker that has great heat circulation for convection cooking (like a pellet grill) and you’ve noticed that the top of your smoked meat might dry out after a while, keep the fat cap up.
One issue that can come up with smoking brisket with the fat cap up is that you can’t see the bark forming on the surface of the meat that is against the grill grates. That can lead to all sorts of issues. So if you aren’t smoking brisket fat side up in order to protect the surface of the meat, cook it fat side down so you can ensure better bark formation. More on that in the next section.
When To Cook Brisket Fat Side Down
The obvious reason for smoking your brisket fat side down is to protect the side of the meat closer to the heat source like on a bullet smoker. We want good bark and tender, moist brisket, not crispy layers of meat.
One of the other issues with the fat cap up is that rendering fat can potentially wash some of your dry rub off. Now if you’re smoking Texas-style brisket, your spice blend may be minimal in variety but you want to cover the brisket thoroughly. That fat cap being up could potentially cause some of your rub to simply run off the surface of the brisket. We want as much flavor as possible, not watching it drip away.
Also, a number of pitmasters spritz their brisket (or really any meat they’re smoking for a long time.) It helps prevent the meat from drying out and also help attract more smoke flavor. Remember, smoke likes moisture! What you’re using to spritz the brisket can also help form a better bark. However, most people start spritzing after around 45 minutes to an hour and a half after putting the meat on the smoker which allows the rub time to adhere to the surface of the meat.
Wrapping It Up
At the end of the day, what type of smoker you have is one of the most important parts of deciding whether to put the brisket fat up or down. If you’ve got a smoker where the brisket will sit almost directly above the heat source, smoking it fat cap down will help prevent the bottom of the brisket from drying out and overcooking. If you’ve noticed that your smoker creates more heat across the top of your brisket, then you’ll want to smoke it fat cap up.
However, you can always take this information and experiment with which method gives you the best result for your personal preferences. That’s the beauty of smoking in your own backyard. You can make barbecue how you want.
What is your preferred way to smoke brisket? Do you do fat cap up or down? Let us know in the comments! If you’ve got leftover brisket, check out our recipe for leftover brisket tacos or our roundup of some of the best leftover brisket recipes.
Question: When cooking a corned beef brisket, does the fat side go up or down?
Answer: It depends on your method of cooking. If you’re cooking it in the stove or crockpot with liquid, you’ll want the fat side up so the liquid is surrounding the meat. If you’re smoking it, you’ll want to choose based off the style of smoker you’re using as detailed above.
Question: Should I put the fat side up or down when wrapping brisket in paper?
Answer: Wrapping your brisket in butcher paper or aluminum foil can help keep your meat from drying out, but it’s mostly done to combat the stall where the internal temperature seems to stay put for an agonizing length of time. However, should the fat cap be up or down when you wrap the brisket and put it back on the smoker? Some people recommend fat side up so the brisket can sit in the collected juices, but that can cause the bark to completely soften. When wrapping, I would recommend fat side down regardless of where the heat comes in to help preserve the bark as much as possible. Though Michael prefers fat side up when wrapped, but he uses offsets and pellet grills.
Question: If I’m cooking a brisket in a slow cooker, should I put it fat side up or down?
Answer: Just like when choosing which way to put the brisket in a smoker, you want to protect the brisket from the heat source with the fat cap. So you should put the fat cap down. You will likely see a lot of recommendations for you to put the brisket in fat side up, but remember what we learned earlier: meat does not absorb the liquid as the fat melts.