The Changing Shape of Brisket

Chris Allingham

Administrator
Staff member
I read an interesting article about Camp Brisket 2015 by Kelly Yandell who was lucky enough to attend this event in January. Tickets for Camp Brisket sold-out in less than 5 minutes...I know, because I was unsuccessful in getting one. So I jealously read Kelly's lengthy article about her experience at the event where she got to sample all kinds of brisket and rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in Texas barbecue.

I wanted to bring to your attention an interesting passage from her article. It explains something I have noticed in stores but never questioned...that briskets are getting longer and narrower. No, cattle are not getting longer and narrower. It's just that briskets are being cut from the carcass differently in order to maximize profits for the meat packers.

Here's an excerpt from Kelly's article. Just to set things up, earlier in the article Kelly writes that a brisket consists of two overlapping muscles, the pectoralis profundi (the flat) and the pectoralis superficialis (the point).

(There has been) a big change in the way the brisket is harvested, too. (On the carcass), the profundi (flat) is a very long muscle. But traditionally, it was cut between the 5th and 6th rib, so that squares off that end a bit. And then (the brisket) goes on up toward the head. At some point somebody figured out they could make a little more by selling the side edge of the brisket as a cut called “pectoral meat” so now the brisket is a narrower cut, but longer to compensate for that loss of mass, up past the 6th rib where it gets very thin. So if you are confused that briskets look very long and have a skinny bit at the end, whereas they used to look more rectangular, you are not alone. It is just beef economics.
Here's a photo of a 13-lb brisket I bought in 2004 (top) and a 12-lb brisket I bought today (bottom). The scale between the two photos may be off a bit, and there's always variation between briskets, but you get the sense that the top brisket is more squared-off on the flat end and somewhat wider than today's brisket.



So if you have noticed that briskets seem longer and skinnier than they used to be, it's not your imagination. "They just don't make them the way they used to."
 

Robert-R

TVWBB Diamond Member
I'm not an Old Timer Brisket Cooker, however I'm thinking part of the "New Brisket" should be regarded as "sacrifice" & trim it - no sense in trying to cook it to "probe tender"?
Newby thought, here.
 

KenB

TVWBB Fan
I'm sticking with pork for now. Brisket is ridiculously overpriced at this time. I've always enjoyed brisket, but the bottom line is that it's a crappy cut of meat. Beef as a whole is overpriced.
 

Mark Q

TVWBB Member
In addition to the shape of the old brisket I like the price on it better as well! I haven't cooked one in almost 2 years myself. I looked a few times last summer, but the price was high and they were shaped like picture #2 as well. It's more of a challange to get a uniform tenderness when there is such a big variation in thickness between the 2 ends. We have a BBQ restaurant here that does a good job with their brisket (for being "mass produced" that is) at a reasonable price. If I want brisket I go there and have it. For the price of a decent sized brisket you can get a bone in prime rib. Brisket is good, but bone in prime rib better.
 

J Hasselberger

TVWBB Pro
I've noticed this as well. We get a good selection of prime briskets at the Austin Costco, but all of them have a thin end on the flat. I have gone to buying a big one and then trimming the end of the flat to a more barbecue-friendly shape. Sometimes I take 3" or 4" off. I grind it up with with an equal weight of chuck steak and add pork rib trimmings when I have them and make some tasty burgers.
 

Teddy J.

TVWBB Pro
Chris, that article was a great read. Thanks for sharing. For those that haven't clicked on it and just read the post, go up and read the article. It's worth your time.
 

Dustin Dorsey

TVWBB Platinum Member
It seems like the price of brisket would catch up to the point where the brisket is more profitable! I'm champing at the bit to cook another one soon.
Sadly I lived in College Station/Bryan for about 15 years but that was about 6 years ago and before I got into smoking meat. Every once in a while I go to a cookout and find some amazing brisket. Typically at the restaurants there it wasn't that great.

In those days I was only good for turning hamburgers into hockey pucks...
 
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Alan Mathews

TVWBB Member
I find this article interesting because I live in the UK, I can't buy a "flat" brisket. I have only actually done aprox half a dozen now as I just don't get the results from the brisket in Scotland as I do when I cook a flat brisket in the states. Also brisket in Scotland costs nearly as mush as what we would all consider a much high cut of meat, talking sirloin or even a 3Kg rib of beef off the bone can cost the same as a brisket so like some of the comments above, I tend to cook allot more pork and ribs than beef. The only comment I can add is I have found a butcher who will cut the brisket the way we all consider to be correct but again its costly.
It is certainly noticed that the brisket is changing shape according to the butchers requirements.
 

Tommy B

TVWBB Pro
I'm sticking with pork for now. Brisket is ridiculously overpriced at this time. I've always enjoyed brisket, but the bottom line is that it's a crappy cut of meat. Beef as a whole is overpriced.
Brisket is very expensive at the moment. The beauty of brisket is you take a bland cut of meat and bbq it into a beautiful delicacy. I don't know how good the brisket is in the bbq joints around the north east but I promise when you take a bite of a perfectly done brisket it will change your bbq life! Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but nothing compares to a perfectly smoked slice on fatty brisket.
 

Dustin Dorsey

TVWBB Platinum Member
Brisket is very expensive at the moment. The beauty of brisket is you take a bland cut of meat and bbq it into a beautiful delicacy. I don't know how good the brisket is in the bbq joints around the north east but I promise when you take a bite of a perfectly done brisket it will change your bbq life! Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but nothing compares to a perfectly smoked slice on fatty brisket.
Most brisket I get in the average bbq joint is pretty bad. I agree 100%. A perfectly smoked slice of fatty brisket is life changing. I only cooked pork until I had the brisket at Pecan Lodge.
 

Chris Allingham

Administrator
Staff member
Here's a more detailed explanation from Daniel Vaughn, BBQ editor of Texas Monthly. This comes from his 2014 post "What I Learned At Brisket Camp".

The system used to butcher a beef carcass in the US follows a rigid process. Rather than just using the natural seams between muscles, a chart of subprimals is involved. The forequarter of the animal is separated from the rest of the animal by a cut between the fifth and sixth ribs. The thin, exposed edge of a brisket flat looks like a muscle cross-section because it is one. It’s only a portion of what is referred to as the Whole Deep Pectoral Muscle. You won’t find this cut listed on any order form from a meat supplier because that whole muscle isn’t a marketed cut of beef. It is divided into three separate cuts that all fetch a different price.

On the other side of rib number six is the continuation of that muscle. This is the beef navel. It’s a cheap cut that is commonly used for pastrami, and was used as such long before brisket became popular for pastrami.

The Whole Deep Pectoral Muscle is further separated from the brisket by a cut along the top. Above that cut line you’ll find a less familiar cut called Beef Chuck, Square Cut, Pectoral Meat (NAMP Item 115D). While a whole, boneless beef brisket (NAMP Item 120) is the more familiar cut, the pectoral meat actually fetches a higher price. As of this week, the Choice version was selling on the wholesale market for $2.82 per pound compared to brisket’s $2.21 price tag.

All of this rather long-winded (and super inside-baseball) explanation is to help understand the market forces that create long, skinny briskets. As Davey Griffin explains, the goal of a beef processor is to cut more valuable meat away from less valuable meat. While separating the brisket from the carcass, a processor can cheat a bit by separating the brisket and the pectoral meat a little lower on the animal giving more weight to the more expensive pectoral cut. To ensure consistent weights on their brisket they’ll just steal a bit of the cheap navel meat from across that sixth rib to make up the difference. Pitmasters hate these long skinny briskets because they’re too long for the shelves of a rotisserie, and the meat at the end of the flat is so thin that it becomes jerky by the time the thick point is done smoking. Because of this most folks will just trim it off right at the start which creates wasted beef and hurts a barbecue joint’s already thin bottom line. At least with this explanation a pitmaster will know what to complain about to their supplier if those skinny briskets become commonplace.
 

J Hasselberger

TVWBB Pro
Corned beef briskets are about all I buy anymore. Maybe 2-3 times per year when they are on sale.
Those little "bricks" of brined brisket flat are a great way to make pastrami. Throw away the "spice pack", rub it with coarse pepper and some cracked coriander, smoke it to probe tender and slice it. Mmmm.
 

Lew

TVWBB All-Star
This makes me wonder about all this: who decides what constitutes a brisket, and what are the legal consequences? What's to keep a store from selling chuck steak labeled as New York Strip? If you are including meat from "across the sixth rib" in a brisket, is it still a brisket? Is it a legal thing or more of a self regulated thing?
 

Donna Fong

TVWBB Fan
This makes me wonder about all this: who decides what constitutes a brisket, and what are the legal consequences? What's to keep a store from selling chuck steak labeled as New York Strip? If you are including meat from "across the sixth rib" in a brisket, is it still a brisket? Is it a legal thing or more of a self regulated thing?
How an animal is trimmed here is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) through its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) which develops and maintains the Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications (IMPS) for meat. This entire series includes beef, pork, poultry, lamb, veal, goat, calf and sausage. This document is what I refer to whenever I am curious about a cut of meat.

http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3003281

Beef brisket, as I buy it in the store, is item number 120. Item 118 includes the sternum bones.

Item 126 actually describes the cut between the rib end of the chuck and the brisket as being a straight cut at a right angle. It also does say that the brisket shouldn't end beyond the 5th rib. So from my interpretation, they do have some wiggle room above (dorsal) to the brisket but the thin end of brisket really shouldn't cut into the 6th rib. I guess on a cow, there is a good number of inches between rib 5 and 6. Seems to me that if you make the primal cut between the 5th and 6th as required and lean towards the 6th, this would cut down on your rib eye steaks between the 6th and 12th, no?

The brisket side and rib end shall be straight cuts forming an approximate right angle. On the brisket side, the M. pectoralis profundi shall extend to the 3rd rib mark but not past the 5th rib mark. If specified, the blade portion shall be separated from the arm portion (after separation of the Shoulder) by a straight cut, approximately perpendicular with the rib end, which is ventral to, but not more than 5.0 inches (12.5 cm) or less than 3.0 inches (7.5 cm) from, the M. longissimus dorsi at the rib end.

If you're a visual person, like I am, this photo here helps to guide you on what the brisket cut looks like, relative to the other cuts around it.

http://buttonsoup.ca/beef-cutting-breaking-beef-forequarter-into-primals/

Chris, I read this article too but didn't pick up the nuance of the cut. I thanked the author for a well written article. I can see why the change is being made and will pay more attention next time I'm shopping. Thanks Chris!
 
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Craig Wallace

TVWBB Member
Brisket substitute

I'm sticking with pork for now. Brisket is ridiculously overpriced at this time. I've always enjoyed brisket, but the bottom line is that it's a crappy cut of meat. Beef as a whole is overpriced.
Brisket is pricey, I get mine from a butcher because I do not like the Costco cuts. I usually have to order them in advance, otherwise they won't have them. What I've been doing lately is cooking a whole chuck roast. They have a couple cuts, but it is basically a whole shoulder coming in around 22 to 26 lbs. Cut them in half and smoke them same as a brisket. The whole chuck is almost as good as a brisket. Lately, a whole chuck is a little cheaper than the brisket by a buck, buck in a half.

CraigW
 

JRAiona

TVWBB Gold Member
I agree wth Dustin. I have family in Dallas and every time we go to visit we get barbecue from Pecan Lodge. Their brisket is it's own food group.
 

Ron Fisher

TVWBB Member
I know for sure that at even worse thing is happening to beef ribs. Beef ribs are one of my favorites. They are not for everybody unless you're a Fred Flintstone type like me. I used to have a reliable source for good beef back ribs that HAVEN'T BEEN TRIMMED! They were a think of beauty just like a rack of baby backs only beef. Now all I can find is the crap that has been whittled down to nothing but nearly meatless dog bones. I'm told that this is the same maximize profits for the meat packers. I guess you can't blame them but it still sucks.
 

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