Feature

How to Slice a Brisket

From the time you buy a brisket to the moment you pull it off the smoker, you have many chances to mess up the meat. Don't let that last step trip you up.

by Daniel Vaughn · July 5, 2013
Franklin brisket 02

When I’m watching a brisket being sliced, a few things make me shudder, like the aggressive purr of an electric knife, the whine of a deli slicer, and, the worst offense, watching the fat cap being discarded (but we’ll save that for another column).

I’ll concede that there are several ways to slice a brisket, but I should note that some of them are just wrong, like slicing with rather than against the grain. But again, there isn’t necessarily one right way to do it.

whole raw brisket

Underside of a raw brisket showing the grain direction of the flat

One of the challenges is that a whole brisket is made up of two muscles: the point and the flat. Slicing perpendicular to the grain of the muscle is the last defense against tough brisket. The most perfectly smoked brisket will be tough and stringy if sliced parallel to the grain, but the tricky thing is that the grain of the point and flat run in different directions. They also sit on top of one another, so how do you ensure that both are sliced against the grain?

Justin Fourton’s method for trimming, seasoning, and slicing the briskets at Dallas’s Pecan Lodge is to cut the front portion of the flat (that is uninterrupted by the point) against the grain until the point starts to get in the way. Fourton then separates the point and the remaining portion of the flat from one another along the thick seam of fat between the two muscles. This allows him to slice each of the two muscles directly perpendicular to the grain for maximum tenderness.

Tim Byres, of Smoke, just published a book by the same name, and in it he provides a few visuals on slicing a brisket. His method differs from Fourton in that Byres removes the point. (Some barbecue joints do this and save most, if not all, of the point for chopped beef and only slice the flat. I personally do not endorse this, and I know Byres endorses eating good fatty brisket as well.)

Smoke brisket

Brisket with point removed from Smoke

KLRU produced a series of barbecue how-to videos with Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue. In the final video (at the 7:00 mark) he demonstrates his slicing technique. Franklin starts slicing the flat the same as Fourton, but when he gets to the point he turns the whole thing ninety degrees and continues slicing straight through both muscles. This results in cuts that are against the grain of both muscles, but they are at a forty-five degree angle instead of perpendicular.

Franklin brisket 01

Franklin slicing the flat

 

Franklin brisket 02

Franklin about to turn the intact point

 

Franklin brisket 03

Franklin slicing the point

The thickness of a brisket slice also varies considerably. If you hear that electric slicer going then chances are the brisket isn’t very tender. Thin slicing is to tough brisket as sauce is to tasteless brisket. Sometimes it’s required. A thicker slice might be required to hold together an overcooked brisket. At other times a thick slice can be a detriment. I sat down for lunch this week to a plate of sliced brisket. It was a bit undercooked, but the toughness was exaggerated by very thick slices. A bit thinner slice would have improved the texture.

Work Brisket

Thick slices of undercooked brisket

What is the optimal thickness for a slice of brisket? This is one of a few areas where I agree with the standard of the Kansas City Barbecue Society. For competition brisket the target is the thickness of a No. 2 pencil. Having a standard in competition keeps competitors from being able to hide over/under cooked brisket in their slicing method.

Woodshed Brisket

Overcooked brisket sliced thick

Let’s examine the equipment. Any good chef’s knife works well, but I like using a long serrated knife. You can get them for about $25 at any restaurant supply store. If the brisket is cooked to a good level of tenderness, it shouldn’t overwork your forearms to slice it manually.

brisket knife

Serrated brisket slicing knife

I rarely see deli slicers used in Texas, but the famous Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City uses them to build their enormous sandwiches of thinly sliced brisket. Maybe they know it’d be tough to eat otherwise. Snow’s BBQ in Lexington uses electric knives, as do others. It helps make the slicing an easier task when it’s your singular task for hours at a time, but I can’t stand the noise. When an electric knife is in action, its whine is all you hear while waiting in line for barbecue. It also doesn’t do much to help aesthetics. Even if the brisket is moist, the appearance of the shaggy meat makes it look dry as a bone.

Snow's Brisket

Good Snow’s brisket looking dry

There are so many ways to screw up a brisket from the time you buy it until the time you take it off the smoker, so don’t let the last step ruin a good thing. Slice only the flat, slice the point with the flat, but please, please, please do NOT slice with the grain.

Comments

4 Comments

  • twinwillow says:

    My mouth was drooling while Justin was carving that gorgeous brisket!

  • Andy Goodman says:

    Brisket slicing story: About a month ago, my family and I dined on an assortment of smoked goodness from Slow Bone. I had instructed my uncle to purchase the brisket uncut as I knew it would lose much moisture on the drive from South Dallas up to McKinney. Thankfully I had a copy of Tim Byres’ Smoke at the ready that I could use as a resource. What we got was primarily the point (I think) as it was deliciously fatty, and while I may not have sliced it according to KCBS standards, just getting an uncut brisket and tackling the task myself was another in a long list of amazing bbq experiences. Also, when you do the slicing, you get first dibs for the sugar cookie!

  • Darryl Dickson-Carr says:

    I figured out how to slice a brisket more or less on my first attempt. Slicing with the grain was obviously wrong, but getting the thickness right and keeping the fat cap on at the same time was difficult. I’ve cut briskets with thinner slices mainly to have more to serve guests, not to disguise flaws. It’s challenging and a little fun, especially when you make mistakes and have to eat them. OK, so you don’t have to eat them. But I do.

  • CWP says:

    Was interesting to see Justin put that brisket on fat side down. “Wrong” wood, “wrong” fat placement, yet comes out great.

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