The Primal Cuts of Beef: Brisket

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If you like barbecue, you like brisket. It’s that simple. Whether it’s seasoned savory or sweet, brisket provides the fall-off-the-bone tenderness that is a hallmark of great barbecue.

 Thanks to places such as Kansas City, Memphis and the entire state of Texas, the cooking of brisket has been raised almost to an artform. Arguing over which style is best is also a hallmark of barbecue brisket.

The truth? They’re all good, just in different ways. Dry-rubbed, drenched in sauce, spicy enough to make your eyes water – if you’re a brisket fan, you want to (and should) try them all.

But you’ll also be interested to learn that brisket doesn’t have to be grilled or smoked. It’s used in far more than just barbecue. And barbecue itself long ago stopped being just a “southern thing.”

The Cuts of Beef

Before getting into brisket, here’s a look at the primal cuts of beef. Typically, beef is divided into eight primal cuts. Each has its own flavor profile. That means each is perfect for certain types of dishes and recipes. The cuts are:

  • Chuck
  • Rib
  • Loin
  • Round
  • Flank
  • Short Plate
  • Brisket
  • Shank

Within each of those primal cuts are “sub-primal” cuts, which are the large cuts of beef from which the portion-sized cuts are eventually made. That’s what you usually buy when ordering beef.

Where Brisket Comes From

Brisket beef comes from the lower chest, just below the chuck. This part of the body supports a lot of weight, and so needs to be cooked longer to tenderize. That’s why slowly smoked barbecue brisket became a classic.

Brisket is often listed as primal cut, or a sub-primal cut of a large portion of beef that includes the brisket, flank and plate - basically the underside of the cattle.

Like other, less expensive cuts of beef, brisket has a long history in diverse cultures beyond just its use in smoked barbecue. People looking to create new dishes have experimented over the years. When it comes to beef, experimentation is a good thing.

Dishes That Use Brisket

Barbecue, which varies in the particulars from region to region (something people will argue about for many hours), is clearly the first thing that leaps to mind when you think about brisket.

However, not for everyone. For example, brisket has long been the beef used in traditional corned beef. That’s created by salting beef to preserve it longer. It became popular during the years when meat was rationed in the United States during both world wars last century. It’s still used in many dishes today.

The Jewish community also used (and still uses) brisket to create braised pot roasts for holidays. Also, according to the Archivist Emeritus of the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, brisket was the meat used to create Montreal smoked beef in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In Asian cuisine, brisket is spiced and cooked over a low heat, then served over noodles. Vietnamese-American chef Dennis Ngo combines smoked brisket with herbs and spicy mayonnaise to make summer rolls, according to the New York Times.

But if you want to try your hand at barbecue, brisket is the way to go. It includes applying a spicy rub and/or marinade and slow cooking the meat over indirect heat. Substantial flavor differences are made by what is added to the fire. This includes charcoal and a large variety of wood - mesquite ranks as a popular choice, as does pecan and hickory.

In Kansas City-style barbecue, brisket is burned at the ends and then served open-faced on white bread.

And don’t think of brisket as just something to make if you live in the South. The editor of Texas Monthly magazine told the New York Times: “The brisket I’ve had in New York lately is better than a lot of places in Texas.”

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