One of the many things I love about barbecue is that there is always debate about the best way of doing things.
Arguments over smoking temperatures, meat preparation, and food serving have raged for years.
One of the topics that still won’t go away is should you smoke brisket fat side up or down?
The short answer flies in the face in a lot of mythology around fat rendering and retention:
Brisket should be placed with the fat side facing down. Brisket does not absorb moisture from fat when cooked, so placing it fat side up does not help keep your brisket moist. It will also wash away any seasoning on the meat, and won’t let you form a nice bark on it.
This might be a surprising question to hear for a newbie. Surely if you’ve done all your meat prep right, and have the right cooking temperature in place then everything else should take care of itself? Apparently not.
In today’s guide I’m going to walk you through the debate, and try to get a straight answer from one of the BBQ world’s burning questions.
Why is there disagreement?
The main argument comes from the fact that beef brisket has two parts. One is covered in fat, called the point. The other part is called the flat, and is much leaner in comparison.
The fat composition in these cuts is so different, which makes smoking or cooking them difficult. For this reason, many seasoned barbecue fans prefer to separate them and cook them separately. This is why most guides on how to cut brisket will advise separating the two parts.
However, many experts prefer to leave them intact and cook the brisket whole. For example, Aaron Franklin’s famous brisket recipe calls for doing minimal meat preparation and cooking the beef cut whole.
With two very different approaches, it’s natural that there’s a disagreement over whether it should be placed fat side up or down.
Why cook brisket fat side up?
The main argument for putting meat fat side facing up is that the fat cap will render, causing it to melt away over the meat. The argument is that this will meat into the meat, making it more juicy and delicious.
It sounds like solid science, but the fact is that it’s a complete myth (source). Meat can’t absorb fat, and instead it will funnel it to run off into the drip pan underneath your barbecue brisket.
While this is a shame, it also presents a bigger problem: The fat will wash away any seasoning across the surface of the briket.
It also presents a problem for presentation. A lot of competition pitmasters aim to develop a beautiful bark across the surface of their meat, but having the fat placed on top and washing over the brisket will prevent this from happening.
Why cook brisket fat side down?
If the fat cap is placed at the bottom of your brisket, you’ll be able to reap the benefits of the fat much better.
One is that the fat will not wash away any seasoning along the surface of your brisket. The other is that the fatty run-off that drips into the water pan or hot coals will create smoke. This smoke will then rise through the chamber and infuse your brisket with added flavor and aroma.
Another benefit is that the fat cap can act as a shield against direct heat exposure for the main meat of your brisket. This is particularly helpful if the coals in your smoker are placed near your meat, and the shield can help keep your food moist. This should also help the remainder of your meat develop an attractive bark across its surface.
What kind of smoker are you using?
While fat side down or up each have their proponents, the decision might be made for you depending on the style of barbecue smoker that you own.
The reason for this is that the positioning of the firebox and direction of airflow will impact how heat is directed towards your brisket.
In most cases, your heat will be coming from underneath your smoking racks, in which case you’ll be better off placing your brisket fat side down.
If you have an offset smoker, you can place it fat side up. This is because the firebox in the smoker is offset to one side, placing the heat source almost horizontal to your meat.
The final verdict
So what have we learned in the great debate? Are better off placing brisket with the fat cap faced down, or up?
My personal opinion is that it’s better to do it facing down, even if you are using an offset smoker.
Any run-off from the fat of your meat will wash away the seasoning on your brisket, even if you are using an offset smoker with the firebox built to one side. If you do have concerns about moisture retention, then you can try using a good brisket injection recipe.
Furthermore, the fat cap will help shield the meat of your brisket from drying out, and will help it come to temperature slowly and in a way that ensures tender, juicy beef.