What Part of the Cow is Brisket? Complete Explainer

September 7, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton
Edited by John Smits 

The brisket is a cut of beef that comes from the pectoral muscles of a cow. A full-packer brisket is made up of two muscles – the point and the flat. There are two briskets per cow.

Working as a professional chef involves picking out the best and freshest meat. After many years of practice, I can pick out a mean brisket. And I’ve fiddled with different cooking techniques until I mastered preparing brisket. I’ll share my favorites with you (including the king of ‘que-smoked brisket).

Let me fill you in on cow anatomy and where brisket comes from. I’ll teach you how to choose an excellent cut yourself and drop tons more valuable info. Let’s go!

What Part of the Cow is Brisket

What is Brisket?

Beef brisket falls under the category of forequarter cuts – the front half of the animal. It is a triangular cut taken from the breast or lower chest portion of the cow. It is essentially the deep pectoral muscle. 

Beef brisket is also one of the primal cuts of beef. That means it’s one of the first muscles removed when the carcass is butchered. These primal cuts are usually then sold to grocery stores and butchers, where they are broken down further.

It is a notoriously tough cut to cook. This part of the animal is well-exercised. Butchering 101 tells us that well-exercised muscles are typically tough, fatty, and full of connective tissue. Brisket is a thick and coarse-grained meat.

Here’s the good news. Brisket is one of the most flavorful cuts of meat on a cow. For my money, it’s the tastiest protein on the planet when smoked to perfection. That fat and connective tissue can be transformed into meltingly tender meat when it’s cooked using the right methods (I’ll get to those soon).

A good brisket requires time and patience to cook just right. It can seem overwhelming. A whole-packer brisket is huge (usually 12 to 16 pounds). It’s a hefty commitment of finances and time. If you’re smoking a brisket, it’s an all-day chore. It can take 16 hours, plus resting time. BBQ glory awaits you if you do it right.

I know many pitmasters who have failed at their brisket cooks and have given up. They go back to more foolproof fare like ribs or pulled pork. Don’t let that be you. 

With the right instructions, you can master brisket in no time. I’ll teach you how.

Brisket Location

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How to Choose Beef Brisket?

Now that you know what part of the cow is brisket, I’m going to fill you in on how to select the perfect brisket. Here are the top tips to follow:

Know Your Cut

The first thing that you should be aware of is that there are two muscles that make up a beef brisket. These are known as the flat and the point. Together, these two cuts make up a whole beef brisket, which is also known as a full-packer brisket. 

The point cut is a knobby piece of meat that extends over the triangular flat cut. It has more marbling and is considered the premium cut. If you’re buying a partial brisket to cook, try to get a point.

The flat cut of meat is leaner, and it is topped with a thick fat cap. It also has a more uniform shape. The fat cap on this slab should be trimmed. Try taking it down to around ¼” or have your butcher do it for you.

Note: Most grocery stores sell the flat and not the point. It’s worth asking your butcher if you can buy a point. If you’re smoking the brisket, the point is fattier, and you’ll be rewarded with a better BBQ.

Choose the Proper Size

These cuts of beef can vary quite a bit in size. A flat or cut will typically weigh 6 to 8 pounds, while a whole brisket is usually in the 12 to 16-pound range. 

If you’re cooking for a group, the rule of thumb is half a pound of meat per person. You should have some leftovers. The leftovers are what I call “Texas Gold.” Leftover brisket is 10 out of 10. Absolutely amazing. Use leftovers in a hash, tacos, or omelets – the sky is the limit!

Consider the Appearance

Pay attention to the color. The brisket should be a deep, rich red. The fat should look clean and white. Stay away from gray meat – it’s getting long in the tooth.

Know the Grade

The three USDA grades, from highest to lowest, are Prime, Choice, and Select. I avoid Select briskets. They lack sufficient marbling to make truly divine BBQ. USDA Choice is my go-to. Prime is great if you’re splurging.

Wagyu is a specialty breed of cattle that comes from American cows that are bred with Japanese cows (“gyu” is Japanese for cow). It’s pricey but has exceptional marbling. It’s absolutely a show-stopper. Spring for some at least once in your life, if you can afford to.

What is Brisket Called at the Grocery Store?

Brisket is referred to by various names. The flat is sometimes called the “thin cut” or “lean,” while the point is also called the “deck” or “moist.” Terms for cuts can vary by state and region

When in doubt, ask the butcher.

Fresh is Best

Check the packaged-on date on the packaging. It’s always best to buy fresh meat – preferably packaged the same day you’re buying it.

Raw Brisket with Bone on a Chopping Board

Trim the Fat Cap Before Cooking

When preparing brisket for the cooking process, your first order of business involves trimming any extra fat. Remove some, but not all, of the fat cap – I try to leave around ¼”. 

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How to Cook Brisket?

There are many different ways to cook brisket – it is a versatile piece of meat. The key to cooking brisket is cooking it slowly over low temperatures. I think brisket is best when it’s smoked.

Brisket muscles are incredibly tough. There is plenty of connective tissue. The meat is best cooked over low temperatures to break down the meat fibers and create next-level meat. These low and slow temperatures mean brisket will take hours to cook. Smoked brisket can take a full day. (16 hours of smoking. Then the meat needs to rest. More on how to rest in a bit.)

Here are some of the different methods for cooking brisket:

Smoked Brisket

This is probably the most popular way to prepare beef brisket. It’s absolutely my favorite cooking method.

The first step is to season the meat. Since the smoker will infuse the meat with an enchanting smoky flavor, keep the seasoning simple. My go-to is salt, black pepper, and garlic powder.

Let the seasonings sit for as long as possible. Overnight in the fridge (uncovered) is great. You can leave the seasonings on there for up to 24 hours. This is known as dry brining, and it will increase the meat’s juiciness and flavor. Use ½ teaspoon of Kosher salt per pound or ¼ teaspoon of table salt per pound of meat.

Time to preheat the smoker to 225°F. I use oak or hickory for brisket. Feel free to add apple or cherry wood, or your favorite smoking wood to the smoker. Once the smoker has heated up, place the brisket in and smoke for several hours.

Sit back. Grab a beer or coffee. Brisket takes around an hour a pound to smoke at 225°F. You’re in for at least 8 hours of cooking if you have a flat or point. If you’ve got a whole brisket, you’re looking at up to 16 hours of cooking. Or more. 

The brisket is done if a probe or toothpick easily slips in without any resistance. You can also use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature to make sure that it is cooked all the way through. 203°F is a good target temp. Let the brisket rest after cooking (I’ll cover how to do that in a bit).

Pot Roast

Pot roast is another popular preparation technique. Here, the brisket is prepared in the oven. 

Start off by browning a 6-pound brisket – around 5 minutes per side. I do this in a Dutch oven or roasting pan on the stove. Then, it’s time to create a sauce from broth, tomato sauce, red wine, carrots, and seasonings. Add this to the brisket pan, then stick it in the oven set to 300°F for about four hours. The brisket will be toothpick-tender when it’s done.

The remaining liquid and ingredients can be strained and cooked up as a serving sauce.

Delicious Pot Roast in a Crock Pot

Slow Cooker Brisket

This is a popular cooking process because requires very little work. Grab your favorite rub and work it into the beef brisket. Add BBQ sauce to your slow cooker. Place the brisket inside and cook for 8 to 10 hours on low for a 6 to 8-pound brisket. The finished brisket should be very tender.

I’ll admit. I’m a barbeque snob. I think putting brisket in a slow cooker is not the best use of brisket. But don’t just take my word for it, give it a go yourself.

Sous Vide Brisket

This method of cooking the brisket is a little bit more unusual but still worth a try! You get the smoky flavor of a traditional smoked brisket with the added bonus of moisture and tenderness from the sous vide cook.

Make a rub and work it into the brisket. Vacuum seal the whole brisket. Set your sous vide cooker to 155°F and add the brisket to a water bath.

Then allow the meat to cook for 24 to 36 hours until it has reached the desired level of tenderness.

Finish the sous vide brisket on your smoker at 300°F for 2 to 3 hours. A toothpick should glide into the meat with no resistance.

Can You Make Corned Beef at Home?

Yes, you can make corned beef at home, but the process takes a week. I’d recommend just buying it from the butcher.

If you’re determined to make corned beef, here’s a crash course. Make a salty curing brine. Add pickling spices to the brine. These spices can include whole coriander, allspice berries, mustard seeds, cloves, peppercorns, and more.

The brisket will then be placed in the brine for 5 to 7 days. Store it in the fridge. Every day, flip the brisket over to the other side. This ensures that the entire piece of meat is corned equally well.

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How to Slice Brisket the Right Way?

Slicing the brisket is almost as important as how you cook it. Here is how to do it:

Let the Brisket Rest

This is key – never cut into a brisket right after you remove it from its heat source. It needs to rest so that juices can redistribute throughout the meat. It’ll be juicier and more tender.

A 2 to 4-hour rest is ideal after smoking. Wrap the brisket in aluminum foil and stick it in a well-insulated cooler. Wait. Patience, young grasshopper.

Pot roast and slow cooker brisket will not need to rest since they’re cooked in liquids. Those serving sauces will keep the roast nice and juicy. You can also shred the beef if you use one of these cooking techniques. 

Don’t slice the brisket until you are ready to eat. It will begin to dry out once sliced.

Use a Good Knife

Look for a long, sharp, and serrated blade – around 14 inches should work. A longer blade ensures that all the meat is cut at once. If there are any tough parts, the knife’s serrated edge will easily tackle these. This Cutluxe model has excellent reviews on Amazon.

Slice Against the Grain

Slice the brisket against the grain (all meats should be sliced against the grain, by the way). Slicing against the grain shortens muscle fibers and makes the meat taste more tender.

If there is still any excess fat, now is the time to cut it off. 

The first thing that you will need to do is to find the grain. It’s easier to spot when the brisket is uncooked. Snap a pic so you remember the grain direction.

Cut the meat gently – use the same technique as you would if you were cutting a slice of bread. Don’t cut downwards – a good knife will glide through the meat. Use a light sawing motion.

Juicy Sliced Beef Brisket Roast

How to Serve Brisket?

There isn’t a set list of sides for brisket – the sky is the limit. Mashed potatoes, white bread, coleslaw, and corn on the cob are all traditional fare at BBQ joints. Mac and cheese is another staple. Roast vegetables and potato salad are a great way to go as well. 

You can serve shredded brisket over noodles or rice.

Think about the sides that will work well with a barbecue, and go from there!

Storing Brisket

Brisket shines when it’s hot off the BBQ, although leftover brisket is absolutely amazing, too.

Cut the brisket into slices before freezing or refrigerating it. Then you can pull out as many slices as you need when you go to reheat it. Pour any meat drippings into the container, too. The meat will soak up the juice.

When reheating the brisket, you have two options. The first is to place the slices in a pan with some cooking fat and heat them up. If you have frozen a large chunk of brisket, then reheat it in the oven, adding sauce, broth, or some other kind of flavorful liquid.

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Why is Brisket So Expensive?

There are several reasons that brisket is expensive. There are only two briskets per cow. 

To add to this, cuisine such as Texan and Korean barbecue has become insanely popular recently. Brisket is the favorite meat of many BBQ fanatics. So you’ve got home chefs cooking brisket on their backyard smokers. Brisket is used at competitions and at restaurants, as well.

Economics 101 tells us that higher demand leads to lower supply. Retailers fight the demand by nudging the price up.

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How is Brisket Used in Dishes?

Brisket is a lot more versatile than you may have realized. When you think of beef brisket, you are probably thinking of braised or smoked brisket. It’s also the cut of beef that corned beef and pastrami are made from.

Briskets can be used for pot roast. It’s also commonly used in Vietnamese pho. (PSA: Pho is pronounced like “fu,” as in “fun.” Not “pho” like “phone.”)

Traditional Vietnamese Pho Soup

Putting It All Together

“What part of the cow is brisket?” can seem like a simple question, but there is so much to learn about this type of meat. Amazing BBQ starts with good meat. Picking a good cut is critical to your success in cooking.

I went through cooking school and experimented with different cooking techniques for brisket. It was all worth it to share it with you! Now you know exactly what to do every step of the way. You’re ready to cook up the brisket of your dreams. You even know how to cut and store the meat as well. Thanks for reading, and happy cooking!

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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