There are some topics in the world of barbecue that have never really been put to bed. Whether to cook your brisket fat side up or down is one of them.
If you are new to barbecuing, this may be a burning question that you have not been brave enough to ask out loud.
Or, it could be that there are so many conflicting opinions out there that you have given up on finding a straight answer.
Let’s get to the bottom of this.
What Is the Debate About?
Briskets have two distinct sides – one is covered in fat, and another is bare meat.
Aside from these two distinct sides, briskets are made up of two distinct muscles. The Point and the Flat. The pointed end tends to have a thicker covering of fat, while on the flat end the covering of fat is a little thinner.
Sometimes pitmasters will cut the brisket in half before they cook, but most times it’st best left whole.
But the real point of contention, is which way that fat should be facing. Up or down.
Why Cook Brisket Fat Side Up?
Advocates of cooking fat side up claim that the fat will “melt” into the meat, making it moist and juicy.
However, this is a myth.
The truth is that meat cannot absorb fat. Instead, the fat melts and runs off the meat into the drip pan, taking any seasoning you may have put on the meat with it.
To make matters worse, cooking fat side up won’t leave your brisket looking its best.The fat will not form a uniform bark like the bare meat would, leaving you with a not-so-appetizing looking brisket.
However cooking brisket fat side up is not a complete no no. If you use a horizontal offset smoker, or any other smoker wherein the heat comes from above, cooking fat side up is the way to go.
We will have a closer look at why under the section “Where is your heat coming from?”
Why Many Say Fat Side Down is Better
Most of the time, the fat side down team have got it right.
Because the fat is on the bottom, when it melts it will not wash the seasoning away, and the bark retains all the flavors you added.
Additionally, the smoke produced as the fat hits the hot coals will add a great flavor to your meat.
In most cookers, the heat comes from underneath the meat. Fat acts as an insulator. So as your meat cooks it is protected from the intense heat of the fire by the fat that does not melt away. As a result, your meat doesn’t dry out.
Also, the top of the brisket will form a uniform bark, leaving you with a brisket which looks great.
Where’s your heat coming from?
We have touched on this already, but when deciding whether to cook your brisket fat side up or down the determining factor really is the origin of the heat for your cooker.
Most of the time, the heat comes from the bottom (like on a Weber Smokey Mountain Bullet Smoker), so fat side down is the way to go.
But there are exceptions.
For example, horizontal offset smokers send the heat in from above. In that case you want to use those insulative properties of the fat cap to shield the meat from the top. Thus, fat side up is the way to go.
So have a look at your cooker, determine where the heat is coming from and you are most of the way to working out which way to sit your brisket.
It is still a good idea to check that the unprotected side of the meat is not drying out. If it is, you can always wrap the brisket in foil or butchers paper roughly halfway through the cook.
What The Pros Say About Fat Up or Down
You can find experts who sit on both sides of this debate. But now that we know that it largely depends on the type of cooker you use, this makes sense.
For instance, Malcom Reed of ‘How To BBQ Right.com’ likes to cook his everyday ‘eating’ briskets fat side up.
He explains his reason why like this:
We had a look at the smoker he used in the recipe, and it does appear to be a horizontal offset style smoker, so the direction from which the heat comes in has likely also had a role in this decision.
Similarly, Aaron Franklin, known for cooking a mean brisket, goes fat side up.
But the fat does have a flavor all of its own, and when it drips onto the coals it can impart that flavor to the meat. Meathead Goldwyn, of amazingribs.com says:
“And what about the fat dripping into the fire and being resurrected as flavorful droplets mixed in with smoke? I save the fat cap and put it on the grate over the fire and let it drip away.”
Cooking your brisket fat side down will have a similar outcome, with the fat dripping directly onto the hot coals, and the resulting smoke flavoring your meat.
Wrapping It Up
So no, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question of fat up or fat down. But we have discovered some vital facts.
No, the fat will not penetrate your meat as it melts, but it will wash off your rub.
Yes, the smoke coming off the melted fat hitting the coals will flavor your meat.
And yes, the fat will act as an insulative barrier between the heat source and the meat, protecting it from drying out.
The long and short of it? Know your smoker, identify where the heat is coming from, and place the fat cap between the heat and the meat.
Ready to do your own tests? We highly recommend the American Wagyu brisket from online butcher Snake River Farms.
We hope you have found this article helpful. Do you have any additional questions or suggestions? Make sure you let us know in the comments section below. And if you did enjoy this article, be sure to share it!