Should You Cook Brisket Fat Side Up or Down?

brisket on smoker with fat side up

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Let me guess, you’ve got a brisket trimmed, seasoned, and ready to throw on the smoker, but before you do you want to know if you should have the fat side facing up or down?

There are many conflicting opinions out there, so we’ll give you the quick answer so you can get on with your cook, and then get into the theory and science and look at both sides of the debate.

Let’s get to the bottom of this.

Brisket fat side up or down?

Briskets have two distinct sides – one has a thick fat cap while the other side may have a few thin bits of fat but is mostly bare meat.

Brisket fat cap

Some people like to remove all of the fat cap, while I prefer to leave a thin layer of fat 1/4″ to 1/8″ thick.

I recommend pointing the fat cap towards the main source of heat.

On a smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain or a pellet grill, this will mean fat cap down.

On a well-insulated offset smoker, the heat will mostly be coming from above, so in that case, you would go fat side up.

Now that we’ve answered the question you can go get your brisket on, and come back and learn what the whole debate is about

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.

brisket fat side up

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 log burning offset smoker or any other smoker where 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 fat dide down is better

Most of the time, cooking brisket fat side down will taste and look better.

1. Fat side down tastes better

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.

Fat side down looks better

A rich licorice bark is the ultimate goal when smoking a brisket

A good looking brisket has an even, licorice bark all over. For the Maillard reaction to happen the meat needs to dry out so the proteins on the surface can bind.

Fat side up will result in constant rendering fat washing your rub away and preventing the bark from forming.

If you cook your brisket with the fat side down, the bark will be free to form evenly, giving your brisket that characteristic metorite appearance.

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:

malcom-reed

Malcom Reed, Easy Smoked Brisket Recipe

“At a contest I would cook brisket fat side down the entire time. But you have to remember with my competition briskets I’ve trimmed off most of the fat, and I’ve injected it with at least 16oz of liquid….

For this “Eating Brisket” we’re not worried about the extra fat or what it looks like after it’s cooked, so I’m going to cook it fat side up the entire time.

I want the final product to have a “beefy” flavor but not be enhanced or artificial. ”

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.

However, he also uses a smoker with a heat source from above. You can follow Aaron Franklin’s Brisket Guide here or check out our review his BBQ Masterclass.

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.

Should you remove the brisket fat cap?

The brisket cut comes from the breast of the animal. The side facing outwards is covered with a layer of fat known as the fat cap.

This can be up to one inch thick, depending on the animal and how it was butchered.

Some people like to completely remove the brisket fat cap. They argue that it prevents your rub and smoke from hitting the meat.

If you are cooking a high-end brisket like a Wagyu, you can get away with removing all the fat cap.

I would still always leave at least 1/4 of an inch though, as fat is flavor.

Fat up or down? Look at the heat source on your smoker

Now you know that there is not a ‘one size fits all answer to this question of fat up or fat down. But you should understand 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. You’ll also want to check out some of our other brisket guides including our guide on how to wrap brisket, and how to slice brisket.

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