How to Trim a Brisket: An Interview with Arnis Robbins
We recently got to spend some time with Arnis Robbins, Owner and Pit Master of Evie Mae’s Pit Barbecue in Wolfforth, Texas. He went over—in great detail—how to trim a brisket, and we want to share this expert advice with you! Read on to learn his method for getting the perfect bark, how to shape the brisket for even cooking, and what to do with all the trimmings. Then once you know how to trim a brisket, you’ll want to read up on how to smoke a brisket, and how to slice and serve a brisket!
Big Plate: It’s a pleasure to speak with you, Arnis, and get to learn from one of the best. Congratulations on being rated one of the top ten barbecue joints in Texas by Texas Monthly! Thanks for talking with us today. We are excited to learn how to trim a brisket.
Arnis: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Big Plate: So, let’s start at the beginning. How do you pick a good brisket?
Grading the Brisket
Arnis: At Evie Mae’s we only serve certified Angus beef prime briskets. It’s hard to cook barbecue in West Texas because there’s very little moisture in the air, and the wind is an absolute killer. Therefore I want to start with high quality meat and control the variables I can since I can’t control the weather.
Big Plate: For those who don’t know about USDA grading, can you explain a little bit?
Arnis: Sure. USDA grades every side of beef on a cross section between the 12th and 13th rib on the carcass. So, a lot of times we’ll get a prime brisket that came from a prime head of beef that’s more or less prime than what we would expect it to be. That system seems a bit antiquated to me because there are so many other cuts that are being used for specialty restaurants and things at this point, but that’s the way it is.
Big Plate: So until that system changes, what do we need to know?
Arnis: All USDA beef should have the grade printed on the bag. Those grades are Prime, Choice, and Select. No Roll means the grade is expected to be low so the packer didn’t pay to have the carcass graded. Watch out for retail marketing programs like “Rancher’s Choice,” because those don’t count. They have nothing to do with USDA grades and are for marketing purposes only.
Aging the Brisket
Big Plate: People talk about aging their meat. Can someone cooking a brisket at home get aged brisket?
Arnis: We like 30-40 days on our briskets. The manufacturer stamps a date on the box, so we know how old they are. But unless you have access to the box, you’re not going to know how old the grocery store briskets are. My advice is to look for more purge in the bag. If there’s no liquid in the bag, it’s probably very fresh. Make sure the bag is tight, the seal is intact, and the bag isn’t puffed out.
Big Plate: Ok, that’s helpful. Any other advice about choosing the raw brisket?
Arnis: Also don’t buy briskets that show the meat where you’d expect to see fat. That means they pulled off the fat with the hide, and you need that fat to protect the protein. You can learn how to perfectly trim a brisket, but if you start off with a bad brisket, it won’t do you much good.
Big Plate: Got it. So, we’ve picked out a good brisket. Now what?
Arnis: Next you’re going to want to get a big cutting board, some plastic tubs for your brisket and trim, and some sharp knives. My personal go-to trimming knives are a 6” curved boning knife and a 6” straight. Also, a cut glove is cheap insurance because no one wants a trip to the emergency room.
Big Plate: We just happen to carry those items! (Laughter.)
Trim Where the Carcass was Split
Big Plate: So you’ve gone to Big Plate, gotten your supplies, and then what do you do?
Arnis: When looking at the brisket, the long end with the fat is the outside (shoulder side). The carcass was split on the long side with the discoloration and fibrous tissue. The hot steam used to decrease bacterial load on the kill floor may have slightly cooked that edge. Cut that off. All that fibrous material can be a bit tough. Evie Mae’s makes burnt ends from what is left of that side.
Trim the Point to be Aerodynamic
Big Plate: Mmmm, burnt ends.
Arnis: Everybody loves burnt ends. So, brisket comes from the shoulder to chest portion of the animal. There are two muscles in a brisket: the flat, which is the lean, and the point, which is the moist. Next you want to trim the backside of the point to be round and aerodynamic, so the air goes over it evenly in the smoker.
Remove Fat Kernels on Either Side of the Point
Arnis: Next you want to take out the fat kernels on either side of the point.
Trim Flap on Point
Arnis: At Evie Mae’s we cut off the portion of the point that will—on a small brisket—burn up in the smoker, because it will just end up in the chopped pile. Therefore we cut it off and either grind it for sausage or cook it to make burnt ends. You may or may not want to do that at home. Part of learning how to trim a brisket is knowing what works best for your purposes.
Trim the Flat
Arnis: Then trim off the thin part of the flat that will burn up & turn to jerky in the smoker. Round off the points and corners on the flat.
Trim Fat Cap to 3/16″
Arnis: Up until now I’ve been trimming with the 6” curved boning knife. Now I’ll switch to the 6” straight knife and trim the fat cap down to 3/16” of an inch. That’ll render down into a nice bark. Back when you cut the strip off the side of the brisket, it exposed a cross section which can give you an idea of how thick the fat is. Put your knife in to establish a 3/16” thickness, and follow the profile of the muscle to give it a nice curve with an even fat covering. The side with thick muscle has thicker fat. Be careful trimming where the two muscles seam—the fat can be very thin there.
Big Plate: Anything else we need to watch out for?
Arnis: There can also be a feather thin muscle in there, which is deceiving. It can make you think you’ve trimmed down to the muscle, when in reality there’s another ½” of fat underneath it. So, keep an eye out for that superficial muscle; not all briskets have it.
Big Plate: There’s a lot to this trimming process.
Arnis: Finally, know that the depth of these layers is different on every brisket. If you get a brisket with a wide seam of fat all the way through the point, that indicates the presence of another muscle that isn’t nearly as good, so cut that off. If you leave it, it’ll dry out and keep you from developing a good bark on that point of your brisket that you’ll want to use as your moist. Once you’ve trimmed it to this point, run your hands over it to smooth the fat and feel for any other spots that need trimming. Clean up little areas as necessary. Round all the edges.
Big Plate: Wow, that’s a lot of trimming!
Arnis: Yes. Learning how to trim a brisket is difficult when you just do it occasionally at home. You need a sharp knife, a good cutting board, and you need to work slow.
Big Plate: How much do you typically trim off?
Arnis: We trim 30-35% off our briskets. Now, you don’t have to trim that much at home, but you also don’t have to waste what you trim. You can grind up your lean trim for sausage, hamburger patties, or chili. Grind up the fat trim and heat it over your fire, on the stove, or in the oven to yield a very fine cooking oil.
What to Do With Beef Fat
Big Plate: What would you use that beef fat cooking oil for?
Arnis: I have it on good authority that several barbecue joints will introduce rendered tallow to wrapped briskets to give them extra moisture. While we don’t do that, you could. McDonalds used to fry their fries in it. We basted our Thanksgiving turkeys with a mixture of beef tallow and honey; they were very good.
Big Plate: That was a lot of very helpful information, Arnis. Thanks for walking us through the brisket trimming process.
Arnis: Of course. Come see us for lunch at Evie Mae’s on Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 am until sell out!
Big Plate: We can’t stay away. It’s a whole lot easier to let you do all the work!