Smoked brisket is a barbeque staple. If you're getting into making your own brisket, you may have run into a debate over whether brisket should be cooked fat side up or down.
Cooks are divided over which method is best. Both sides have their points and will harshly defend them.
For a beginner, this can be very confusing. In this article, we will help you by showing you the pros and cons of both sides so you can make an informed decision on how to cook your brisket.
Why is there even a Debate?
For years the conventional wisdom was to cook fat side up so the fat bastes the meat as it melts. However, competition wins with the fat side down have called this into question.
Another reason no one can agree is that smokers don't always have the heat coming from the same side. Most smokers have the heat come from the bottom. Some have it come from above.
Generally, you want the fat between the heat and the meat. Because of this, people have different responses to how the fat should face.
Where your heat source comes from is the biggest predictor for where the fat should be positioned. The flavor you're going for is also important.
But, let’s dispel some myths regarding which side you should cook your brisket.
A lot of people think that melted fat can penetrate the meat, increasing its flavor.
If you take it in a scientific way, the fat cannot penetrate the meat. When fat starts to melt, it turns into a liquid and will run off the meat into your pan or bottom of the smoker. Sometimes, the melted fat can also wash off the dry rub you have put earlier.
One thing that melted fat does is that it will prevent some parts of the meat from drying, but not the entire brisket.
Another very common myth is that the fat breaks down the meat as it cooks, increasing its tenderness and juiciness.
The truth is that it’s not the fat that breaks down but the collagen. Collagen is found in the connective tissues of the meat and hold muscle fibers together. It will take a lot of cooking to break it down.
That’s the main reason why many experienced pitmasters recommend to cook the brisket at a low temperature for 4-8 hours, or even more instead of going for a high and quick cooking technique. Slow and long cooking will give the collagen enough time to break down and tenderize the meat.
As for braising, most of the people refer to it as braising the meat but in fact, braising is just a cooking technique where you sear the meat and then slowly simmer it in a flavored liquid. So, when smoking, there is no braising taking place at all.
- Also Read: BBQ Science - From Texas A&M University
Quick Conclusion: Which Side is Better?
If you are in a hurry, then here is a quick and simple answer to either you should cook your brisket fat side up or down:
It totally depends on what type of smoker you have and where the heat is coming from.
If the heat comes from the bottom, then cooking the brisket with fat side down will protect the meat from exposure to direct heat.
Also, fat side down will have a better chance to render and drip onto your coals, vaporize and turn up into flavor for the meat.
Since most people have smokers which heat comes from the bottom, the fat side down is the way to go.
As a rule of thumb, have in mind the fat side to face the direction from which the heat is coming from.
Cooking Fat Side Up
Cooking fat side up is said to baste the meat while it is cooking and keep it moister. However, melting fat can wash away seasoning.
Melting fat also won't baste the meat. Fat is an oil, and the meat acts most like water. Therefore you won't get a moister brisket by cooking fat up.
You may hear that cooking fat side up gives more tender meat. However, fat melting away isn't what makes a tender brisket.
Collagen is what needs to break down for a tender brisket. This is achieved with a low, slow method of cooking your meat to give the collagen time to break down.
You will end up with a stronger beef flavor if you cook with the fat side up. While it won't keep it moist, it will give a good flavor.
Fat side up generally won't develop a nice bark. This can change depending on where the heat is coming from.
Your smoker will also determine whether you cook with the fat side up. If your smoker has the heat coming from the top, you want the fat cap up so it can protect the meat from direct heat.
Cooking Fat Side Down
Cooking fat side down tends to be the favored method among experts in brisket. If you have a typical smoker with heat coming from the bottom, you want the fat side down.
Given most home smokers have the heat at the bottom, you may want to stick with the fat side down.
With fat side down melting fat won't wash away all the seasoning you've added like a dry rub.
If you like to spritz your brisket while it cooks to get a better bark, cooking fat side down is the only way to go.
Another factor to consider is that the fat won't stick to the grate like the meat might during cooking. If your meat sticks, it will ruin the look of your meat. Keeping the fat side on the grate can prevent this and give a better presentation in the end brisket.
Fat dripping onto the coals can also help flavor your meat with that rich smokey taste that brisket is known for. If your heat comes from below, this gives a better flavor.
Flipping the Brisket on Both Sides
Some pitmasters stand by the idea of flipping the brisket in order to get the benefits of both cooking methods with fewer drawbacks.
Whether you should do this depends heavily on your smoker. If you know you get hotspots in your smoker, flipping and moving your brisket can prevent uneven cooking. This also helps prevent parts of your brisket from drying out too much.
One thing to note is that every time you move your meat while it is cooking, you will drive out some moisture from the meat. This can be minimized by being careful, but can't be fully prevented.
A benefit of flipping your brisket partway through cooking is that you can get the benefits of both the fat side up and down. Your brisket will also end up more evenly cooked.
- Also Read: How Long to Smoke Brisket
However, your bark won't be as thick as it would be if you left it alone.
You also need to baste if you intend to flip your brisket. This helps to counteract the moisture loss.
Flipping the brisket can be a good choice if you've had issues with uneven heating before.
Does Your Smoker Type Matter?
As for your smoker type, we think that it plays an important role to decide on which side you should cook the brisket.
You should understand how the heat moves through the smoker and the meat to have a better answer on which side you should place the brisket in the smoker.
Most smokers produce two types of heat: radiant and convection.
The convection heat is very similar to you standing on a desert highway and seeing the road image shimmers and moves around like a reflection on a pond. This is convection heat moving from the hot road surface to the open air.
As for radiant heat, it travels to a more straight line, from the sun to the road. In your smoker, it moves in a straight line as well, from the coals/heater to whatever is in front of it, such as brisket, fire box wall etc.
Most pitmasters recommend to place the brisket so the fat and the point get set toward the heat source.
For specific smoker types, such as vertical models like Kamado, Weber Smokey Mountain etc., where the heat comes from the bottom, you would put the brisket fat side down.
For offset smokers, the heat is directed under the meat with a baffle before rising and circulating on top of the meat. Basically, the heat will radiate from one side and downward from above.
For horizontal smokers, such as offset models or Traeger pellet ones, the fat side up is recommended.
Which Side is Better?
Which is better really depends on your cooker. If you have a vertical smoker with the heat on the bottom, cook fat side down.
If you have one with the heat coming from the top, you need your fat facing up.
The rule of thumb is to keep the fat towards the heat source. If you can get fat to drip onto the coals, this is also a good idea.
If you aren't sure or deal with real issues with uneven cooking, you need to flip your meat. Even just rotating briskets can give better results when you know the heat in your smoker is uneven.
Keep the point, the thinner end, of the meat towards the heat is also a good idea. If you have an offset smoker where one end is hotter, make sure you position the point to the heat. If you notice the heat isn't even, don't be afraid to move your meat around.
If you ever notice that your meat is drying out too much, you can also wrap the meat side in foil or butcher paper to help keep in moisture while cooking.
If you aren't sure which is best for your smoker cooking a few briskets with different techniques can help you nail the best cooking method quickly and easily. You can easily have a few cooking at once to test out your smoker.
Remember, smoking is an art and requires a lot of trial and error to learn how to make the tastiest brisket. Even if you aren't entirely happy with a result, you're still learning and making delicious meat.
What Professional Pitmasters Say?
If you are curious to know what professional pitmasters say regarding the Brisket Fat side up or down discussion, here are the opinions from some of the most known pitmasters:
One of the most well known pitmasters, especially for its famous ‘Brisket Recipe’ says: “Fat side up, the point towards the fire box, using an offset smoker.”
Another well known pitmaster for its “Brisket Recipe” says: “Fat side down, water smoker. It protects the flat side because the heat coming from the bottom. There is no way two inches of fat is going to run down through the middle of the meat and come back to the other side.
9x World Champion BBQ Expert says: “Fat side down. The fat molecules can’t work their way back into meat. Makes greasy slices and poor presentation”
9x World Champion BBQ Expert
Fat cap down, if the heat is coming from the bottom, especially in a pellet grill.
Troy 'T-Roy Cooks' Smith
Fat Side Up
Fat Side Up, using an offset smoker
What have we learned? Simple, which method is best depends on your smoker. You need to know where your heat is coming from and put the fat between the heat and the meat.
If you can, get the fat melting into your coals so you end up with a deeper smokey flavor in your end product.
Once you understand that, it's just a matter of practice to learn how to make the best brisket you can. Don't be afraid to try something new.
If you don’t have a lot of experience in smoking meat, then remember to cook with fat cap toward the heat source. If you have a small smoker or you are unable to keep a consistent temperature, flip the brisket every couple of hours to avoid dry spots.
We recommend to experiment with both techniques to find out which one works best for you and your smoker model.
So, in conclusion, there is no exact answer to smoking brisket fat side up or down. It comes down to trying out both methods and finding out which one gives you better results.