Answering the Age Old Question: Brisket Fat Side Up or Down

September 13, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton

The brisket can be placed either fat side up or down, depending on specific factors such as the smoker.

Even coming from a dedicated BBQ family, trying to figure out whether to place brisket fat side up or down took a great deal of time and effort. Fortunately, we were able to figure it out and now I can share the trick with you too.

In this post, I will show you whether one method is really better than the other and which one you should try out for yourself. Let’s get started!

brisket fat side up or down

Smoking Brisket: Fat Cap Up or Down?

You should know that the question of whether you should place the brisket fat side up or down has been a hot debate for a long time. And, to make things more confusing, few people can seem to agree on an answer!

Just as many pitmasters that say you should place the brisket with the fat side up advise the reverse as well. You will realize why there is so much disagreement as you read on…

Cooking Brisket Fat Side Up

Lets take a look at what you can expect when you cook brisket fat side up:

For the longest time, this was the only way used when smoking brisket. This was because people assumed that a particular process was taking place when the meat

person holding smoked brisket

As you are well aware, when the temperature is high enough, fat melts. For the longest time, everyone imagined that the meat below the melting fat acted like a sponge, soaking in the juices.

However, this theory has its limits and much of that melted fat simply slips off the meat. As you can imagine, there is little use to the fat dripping off. Thus, little moisture is absorbed this way.

This doesn’t mean that cooking fat side up isn’t the way to go. After all, the highly celebrated pitmaster Aaron Franklin follows this method. You simply have to remember that there are pros and cons associated with this cooking process.

The Advantages

It doesn’t matter that the meat doesn’t absorb moisture in the way that everyone assumed. This is because the fat on the meat can work to protect the meat from excess heat, particularly if the direct heat source is from top. There is also more rendered fat.

In doing so, you get a delicious and juicy brisket. This is great for this type of low and slow cooking when smoking beef brisket.

The Disadvantages

It isn’t all smooth sailing when cooking with the brisket fat cap side up, though.

The biggest issue here is with the melting fat that falls either on the drip pan or the coals below. Not only does this take a lot of the flavor off the meat, but it can also cause the seasoning in your rub to slide right off as well.

As for the bark, it only really forms on the bottom, creating an uneven appearance and crunch.

Cooking Brisket Fat Side Down

An increasing number of people are beginning to cook brisket fat side down. Here are some of the reasons why:

The Advantages

When the heat source is below the meat, placing the brisket fat side down protects the meat from an excess of heat.

The other benefit of this is that you can’t really smoke fat. Therefore, when the meat and not the fat cap is closer to the smoke, the brisket is infused with a far better smoke flavor.

There is also better bark formation with this method and the meat doesn’t stick to the grill grates as much. Since presentation is important with competition briskets, this method is being adopted by many.

The Disadvantages

The main downside with making smoked brisket with the fat side down is that there is a greater risk of the meat drying out. Thus, you have to find ways to counteract this problem by spritzing with liquid on a regular basis.

The Role of the Smoker

As mentioned, I struggled to figure out which side I should place the fat cap on when smoking a brisket for a while. After all, each method has its own set of disadvantages.

After enough of research and testing, though, I realized that the main variable to focus on was the smoker’s heat source. See, some smokers, such as the horizontal offset style smoker produce top heat Others such as the vertical, Weber Smokey Mountain, and Kamado grills produce it from the bottom.

Smokers also produce two types of heat – convection and radiant heat. Convection heat is what flows around the brisket, gently smoking the brisket. Radiant heat travels in a straight line, however, and it risks searing the the meat more quickly.

Therefore, when you place the fat cap closer to the heat source, the fat acts as a barrier or as a form of insulation. The fat cooks and melts first and the meat is allowed to cook at a lower rate.

This is why I would argue that there is no “right” answer when it comes to fat cap up or down as brisket cooks. Rather, you have to think about what kind of smoker you have.

If you’ve got heat coming from the top, then place the brisket fat side up. In case, the heat comes from the bottom, then place the fat side down.

Related Reading

Flipping Brisket: Best of Both Worlds?

Instead of only smoking brisket fat side up or down, should you alternate between the two?

As stated, each of the positions have their own set of cons. Thus, some people got to thinking, what if you flipped from one side of the brisket to the other other during the smoking process.

grilling beef

Well, this can work to an extent. This is because whenever you flip the brisket over, the other side gets to reclaim some of the moisture that it lost. Thus, neither portion of the meat really dries out.

However, if you do this, you will have to baste each side every time that you turn the brisket. This is because when the brisket is allowed to rest for a while, juices pool on top of it. When you flip the brisket over, though, you lose all of them. Therefore, you have to add moisture back in.

There is also the fact that when you physically flip the meat, you are exerting force on it. This, too, causes it to lose moisture, increasing the risk of drying out the meat.

Last, but not least, every time you open the lid of the smoker, you are causing cold air to rush in. This can mess with the internal temperature of the smoker. In turn, this can result in a longer cook or uneven cooking.

The Final Verdict: Is There One?

So, is one method better than the other for you?

Well, as I have shown you, it is all about the smoker that you are working with. Using an horizontal offset smoker? Then, place the fat side up. For other types of smokers, the fat cap should be facing down.

While this is certainly important advice for you to follow, I would consider your smoker as a starting point more than anything else. To really understand if you should have preference over one position or the other, you need to try both methods out.

This is exactly what I would recommend that you do.

Understand, a lot of the advice that you hear from pitmasters is for the competition circuit. Here, they have so many things to worry about from the way the brisket looks, smells, etc.

When you are preparing a brisket for yourself or just your family, though, this aren’t issues for you. In fact, you may have an entirely different criteria.

This is why I urge you to try switching between the top distinct sides for each cookout. This is the best way to decide which one works for you.

Tips for Preparing Smoked Brisket

Here are a few tips that you can follow to ensure that your brisket is as delicious and as moist as possible:

Wrap the Brisket

Have you ever heard of the Texas Crutch? It is a technique where you wrap the meat in foil or butcher paper several hours after the meat has been smoking.

In most cases, this method is utilized because of the stall – a point at which the interior of the meat cooks at a slower rate. Wrapping the meat helps to raise the temperature and cook the brisket faster.

This isn’t all that it does, though.

When you wrap the meat, you prevent moisture loss. In fact, you make sure that the meat juices are trapped inside the wrapping. This results in a more moist brisket.

Using the Texas Crutch will help you to enjoy a juicy brisket regardless of how you place your meat.

It should be noted that the bark may not be as crunchy as you like it, though. You may be able to solve this problem by wrapping the brisket a lot later on.

Check on the Brisket

The worst thing that you can do when you smoke your brisket is to simply let the brisk sit in the smoker without any intervention. When you do this, you have no idea of how it is faring. As such, you aren’t certain about which move that you should make next.

To avoid such a situation, check in on the brisket, at least at the halfway point. Does one part feel too dry? Do you feel like one side is significantly hotter than the other? If so, you might want to think about flipping it over.

If you do this, make sure to baste the meat carefully with every flip. In case there doesn’t seem to be any issue, then you can continue to cook the brisket in the same manner. I would advise you to keep checking on the meat, however.

With enough practice, you will get a feel for your smoker and how to go about preparing a brisket as well. After a while, you may not need to check on it as much as you will now know what is going on instinctually.

As you can see, this isn’t a simple topic at all. There is so much to understand regarding smokers, heat sources, and more. To be able to make the right decision regarding how to place your brisket, you have to understand all the different factors at play here.

The good news is that you now have a proper understanding of all of this. Therefore, figuring out the right method for you should be easier than ever before. At the very least, you know what your starting point is and this is good enough!

So, without further ado, go ahead and put all this knowledge to good use. You will be a pro within no time at all!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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