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Understanding Brisket: From the Cow to Your Plate

by Greg Yarrow

When it comes to enjoying a mouth-watering brisket, understanding its origins and how to prepare it is essential. Let’s dive into the details of what makes this cut of meat so special and how you can cook it to perfection.

Where Does Brisket Come From?

To truly appreciate brisket, it's important to know where it comes from. Contrary to common belief, brisket doesn’t come from cows but from steers, which are neutered males. Most of the graded beef we enjoy today comes from young steers and heifers (females that have not had a calf).

The Primal Cuts of Beef

Beef is divided into eight primal cuts: chuck/shoulder, round, rib, brisket/shank, short loin, plate, sirloin, and flank. These primal cuts are sold wholesale and are broken down by butchers into the cuts we buy at the store. 

Brisket, specifically, comes from the chest of the animal. It is divided into two main portions:

Flat: The flat is the deeper portion of the brisket, attached to the rib cage. It is relatively lean but still contains some fat.

Deckle (Point): The deckle sits above the flat, closer to the surface. It is thicker and has a higher fat content.

When you buy a whole brisket, often referred to as a packer brisket, it includes both the flat and the deckle. This whole cut is preferred for barbecuing due to the fat, which helps keep the meat moist during the cooking process.

Cooking and Cutting Brisket

Whether you’re braising, barbecuing, or making corned beef, keeping the brisket whole during cooking is generally the best approach. However, once it’s done cooking, you will need to separate the flat from the deckle. This is because the grain of the meat in each part runs in different directions, requiring different slicing techniques to ensure tenderness.

The Importance of "Low and Slow"

Brisket is a tough cut of meat because it comes from a highly exercised muscle. As a rule of thumb, the closer a cut is to the back of the animal, the more tender it is. The forequarters, including the brisket, chuck, and round, are tougher due to their involvement in movements like walking, grazing, sitting, and standing.

Muscles contain collagen, or connective tissue, which binds the muscle fibers together. Tough cuts of meat have a higher collagen content. Cooking these cuts "low and slow" is essential because the extended cooking time at a low temperature breaks down the collagen, transforming a tough brisket into a tender, flavorful masterpiece.


Understanding brisket from its origins to the proper cooking techniques can make a significant difference in your culinary results. By appreciating the cut, knowing how to cook it correctly, and understanding why it requires a "low and slow" approach, you can ensure your brisket is always tender and delicious. Whether you’re a seasoned pitmaster or a home cook looking to perfect your brisket game, these insights will help you on your journey to brisket excellence.