When you bring a brisket home from the shop it will almost always be covered with hard fat and silverskin.
No matter how long you cook it, it will just not render, and your rub will not flavor the meat.
This is why trimming your brisket is one of the most important steps.
Hacking away this large, expensive cut can be intimidating though, so we’ve broken it down into simple step-by-step instructions.
In the video below, I cover the step-by-step process for trimming a brisket for home use, or keep reading for some great tips.
Tools for trimming brisket
These are the main items that I find help make the brisket trimming process stress-free. You don’t have to rush out and buy new gear, but it does make the process easier.
- Boning knife – A sharp knife like our 6.5″ Smoke Kitchen boning knife helps get the job done nice and fast before the fat can warm up.
- Large wood butcher block – A full brisket is a huge hunk of meat, so ideally, you’ll have 16×24″ butcher block or bigger.
- Nitrile Gloves – These help you grip the meat, and you can remove them when you are done.
Out of those items, a super sharp trimming knife is the most important because it allows you to make lots of small, easy slices and shape the brisket.
A blunt knife will struggle with some of the harder fat, and make it harder to make precise cuts.
How to trim a brisket
Trimming isn’t just about taking off fat. You should think about how you can shape the brisket.
Trimming off the smaller thin corner pieces of the flat muscle that will dry out, and shaping it into a more oval shape. This allows the heat and smoke to roll over and around the meat.
You can always trim a bit more off, but you cannot put it back on.
1. Make sure the brisket is cold
The soft fat on the brisket becomes a bit like jello when it warms up. The colder the fat, the easier it is to slice, so before you start trimming, make sure your brisket is cold.
The best practice is to bring the brisket out of the fridge and start trimming straight away.
Slice open the plastic and place the brisket on a large chopping board.
2. Start trimming the soft fat
Using a sharp knife and angling it away from yourself, start making small slices of fat at the top of the brisket.
Be careful, but try and work quickly as the fat will heat up and become difficult to trim.
I always start by trimming the softer fat all over the brisket, and then once that is all trimmed, I’ll start on the harder deckle fat.
This fat is very dense and there is no chance of it softening up, so you can leave it to the last bit of trimming.
You can trim as close to the flesh as possible as this will get more rub on the meat, although it is perfectly acceptable to leave around ¼ an inch of fat, as some people love the flavor. This is a personal preference, but read on and I’ll go into more detail on this debate later.
Keep trimming away at the fat, trying to avoid cutting deeply into the meat
3. Trim any fat edges or seams
As you work away you’ll notice some edges that are made up almost entirely of fat. You want to trim these away. Cutting on an angle to help shape the edge.
You should also look out for any fat seams, that run through the meat and carefully trim these out.
Spin your cutting board around to easily work at the brisket from different angles.
As you work be extra careful to remove any hard fat. The soft fat will render down during the cook but the hard fat needs to go.
4. Round off the corners
The thin corners will dry out over the cook, so round off any corners. This isn’t as important as removing the hard fat because you can always discard these after the cook. But I like to tidy it up now.
Once most of the fat has been removed and your brisket looks something like this it’s time to flip it over.
5. Flip your brisket and trim the underside
Flip your brisket over and you’ll see a large seam of thick fat that needs to be trimmed off.
There won’t be as much fat on the underside of the brisket, but you’ll still want to remove any of the hard fat and tidy up any loose bits.
Have a final look at the brisket from different angles and clean up any final pieces. Don’t overthink it, especially if this is just a backyard cook.
Should you leave any fat on?
There are so many thoughts on this. Some people like to leave a ¼ to ⅓ of an inch of fat on the bottom as they feel it protects it from the direct heat of some smokers. Others like to leave the same amount on the top, feeling it bastes the brisket as it cooks and keeps it moist.
I’ve tried both those ways and also trimming off all the fat and I feel at the end of the day I want to season meat, not fat and I have not seen any difference in finished meat quality by leaving any fat on the brisket.
So I trim quite aggressively, meaning to remove all of the fat I can see on the outside.
Other ways to trim
So far we’ve focused on trimming a brisket for home use when you want to keep as much to eat as you can.
If you are trimming brisket for a competition or for serving in a restaurant, there are a few differences.
Trimming brisket for a restaurant
This style of trimming is all about consistency. A restaurant can have multiple briskets cooking at the same time, and they need them to cook at the same time day after day.
So they generally require a little more finesse when trimming to keep them roughly the same size. Quality is obviously a factor, but so is the meat yield for profit.
Trimming brisket for competition
This is by far the most aggressive trimming style.
The brisket slices and burnt ends need to fit into a square 9” hand-in container at competitions.
Generally, the flat and point muscles are separated, then trimmed to accommodate shrinkage during the cook, this way, they fit perfectly inside a hand-in box.
Yield isn’t a factor, since pitmasters are only competing on the taste of the final product.
Keep the trimmings
Do not throw the trimmings away. Brisket isn’t cheap and there are ways to use the trimmings that you will love.
The meat and fat trimmings collected from a couple of big brisket trims when ground up, make the best burgers you have ever tasted.
The fat alone can be rendered down to make beef tallow.
Just place the trimmings into a zip lock bag and write on it and put it into the freezer. When you have enough meat and fat trimmings, you can make the next batch of brisket burgers or if you are mainly getting fat trimmings, you’ll be making up a big batch of beef tallow.
Can you separate the brisket?
A full packer brisket is a primal cut made up of two muscles, the flat and the deckle, also commonly referred to as the point.
If you’ve ever eaten brisket burnt ends, these tasty treats are created by using the point muscle.
The point muscle tends to have a lot of outer hard fat on it, this is the stuff we need to remove as it is just so dense it will not render down. Not to be confused with the softer outer fat that a lot of people like to keep some of it on a brisket.
The flat and the point muscles are joined by a large fat vein, if you wanted to separate these two muscles and cook them separately like it is done in a BBQ competition. You can just work your trimming knife carefully following the fat seam and then trimming the excess away once separated.
That way you will be left with the flat for slices and you could turn the point into burnt ends.
Looking for more brisket resources?
Brisket is one of the most difficult barbecue cuts to master. We’ve got you covered recipes and deep dives into the most common brisket questions.