It’s the age-old question, and there are as many perspectives as there are sparks from a ready chimney. Who knows best? Is it the competitor who’s won numerous competitions? Is it the guy down the street whose BBQ draws friends and neighbors from near and far every weekend? Is it your dear grandpa, who was barbecuing the day you were born and was right about everything else in the world? What about the Internet blogger, he’s gotta know something, right? Everyone who has ever thrown some smoke at a brisket has a preference, but WHY do they choose to do it the way they do? The question pops up at least daily in every barbecue forum on the Internet, and the answers are almost always just as redundant as the question itself. Those in favor of fat-up often state that the fat cap renders and penetrates the meat, making it juicier and more flavorful. Fat-down fan club rebuts instantly, and sometimes even without provocation, that this is scientifically a myth, and that fat does not penetrate the meat, therefor it only makes sense to smoke a brisket fat down. The proverbial dog continues to chase his tail, and we get nowhere.
Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn (amazingribs.com) has a well-circulated blog post on the very subject, particularly discussing the “myth of the melting fat cap”, going into detail about how a rendering fat cap does not penetrate meat, and fat-down advocates in this debate always link to this article. For one, there is still no scientific evidence of this, only speculation (as he clearly states in his article). Not only that, but there are OTHER theories, such as: when intramuscular fat renders throughout a cook, it creates passages for rendering fat to then run through the meat. Which is fact? Neither have been proven or disproven scientifically. Meathead’s scientist and consultant in the article states that a muscle is largely water, and that water and oil (fat) don’t mix, however he fails to mention that a large portion of the other percentage of the muscle is fat (oil) itself! Secondly, he makes many claims that good ol’ fashioned experience invalidate, such as a fat cap not allowing spices to stay on the meat (those of us who smoke fat up frequently can attest to the opposite). But, regardless of which side of the science spectrum you lean towards, for sake of this conversation, let’s say fat does NOT penetrate the meat. It DOES baste the meat. As a fat cap renders, it “pours” over the meat, adding that amazing flavor, and preventing dry-out. Also, simply stating that fat does not penetrate meat is not a REASON for smoking fat down. What would the benefit be to fat-down – in other words, instead of stating what DOESN’T happen fat cap up, what DOES happen fat-down that makes it better? Crickets.
There IS an indisputable reason for choosing to smoke a brisket fat-down, and that is to provide a heat shield against direct heat. In a smoker where the heat source is below the meat, smoking fat cap down makes beautiful sense. In this case, it absolutely does protect the meat from scorching and helps ensure even cooking. But in an offset, smoke surrounds the meat, and heat rises, making the top of the brisket actually hotter than the bottom (even in a reverse flow – heat rises). Since I personally cook on offsets, as do many others, this is the answer I’m seeking, and the inspiration for this experiment.
The Best All Around Knife For Slicing Brisket
Experiment: Fat Cap UP or Fat Cap DOWN on brisket in an offset (standard flow)
I started with two nearly identical Natural Angus Choice Briskets, trimmed to very nearly the same size, weight, and shape. Same rub (Kosher salt, coarse pepper, granulated garlic and onion, and paprika). Smoked side by side on an Oklahoma Joe Highland, equal distance from firebox. Lid was not opened until well past the stall (almost 10 hours in) when it was time to wrap. Smoked at 250 with post oak and cherry. Wrapped after the stall at 165 on DOWN and 168 on UP. DOWN lagged in temp entire smoke, and really slowed down after wrapping. Took one full hour longer to reach IT 203°.
Blind Judging: I ended up with 7 judges. Their experience and knowledge of BBQ ranged from winning competitors to “I like to go to BBQ restaurants sometimes”, and everything in between. One couple took my brisket class last January. The judges were not told what the experiment entailed, or what the differences were in the briskets. They got really into it! I wish I had recorded the commentary! I apologize for the backdrop; I’d originally planned to do this outside, but it was chilly so we did it in my campground laundry room. DOWN was brisket A (and pictured first in collage pics) and UP was B. Results are in the photos, but to sum it up, DOWN received 38% overall votes while UP received 60%.
MY final assessment: if doing a brisket on a cooker where the heat source is beneath, I would always smoke fat-down. If competing, I would smoke fat-down, BUT I would rather spend some time finding a way to get the flavor, juiciness, and texture of UP brisket with the appearance of DOWN brisket, which is what winning competitors already do. If serving brisket, to paying customers or personal friends and family, I would 100% smoke fat UP. The flavor and texture is just not comparable. As with anything, one should do what works best for them. Don’t be afraid to research, to learn, and to experiment. Barbecue is as much science as it is art.
Fat Cap UP or DOWN? by Rita Olsen
Last Updated on May 15, 2019 by Judith Fertig
JR Burns says
I’ve been arguing this for forever .
I’ve been doing fat cap up for forever .
With the fat trimmed to 1/4″ then scored down to the meat.
That being said I’ve always used indirect heat , generally by using a water pan between the meat and the heat .
I won’t say the fat renders into the meat but it does keep the meat moist .
It also runs down and over the meat keeping it moist and adding flavor.
Moist meat attracts smoke so it’s a win win.
If you are using direct heat the fat should go twords the heat source .
There is one guy that uses the trimmed of fat as a heat barrier .
Get ready for the next 200 opinions and theories .
Zachary Fouts says
Always put the fat towards your heat source. On pellet grills…that’s down.
Matthew Timothy says
Depends on smoker. Some say if using a WSM fat side down. Some say fat side up so the juices render back into the meat. i think in comp they remove the cap so it doesn’t matter.
John Hunt says
Down my preference. When the fat melts it won’t infuse in the skin, more like run off and may ruin your bark and rub you used
Glenn Gay says
You just started a whirlwind.
Jesse Larocque says
Up. You want the fat breaking down and basting that meat.
Jesse Larocque says
In the link. The guy admits there’s nothing to back up that the fat won’t penetrate the meat. They go on to say there is one reason why people put fat cap down and it’s to shield the meat from heat. Your Kamado conveniently comes with it’s very own heat deflector. How about that.
Brent Pye says
My opinion is there is a heat deflector and drip pan under it, the heat goes around the deflector, up the top and then back down to the center. So I do fat side up to protect it. If you are trying to use the fat protect it from heat, I would think you would actually want the cap up. I’ve done 3 and have done both ways. I will likely keep going fat cap up
Steve Wall says
It depends on what type of smoker you’re using, Use the fat cap as an insulator between the meat and the heat source sometimes that’s up sometimes that’s down depending on what type of smoker using.
It also depends on how important the bark is to you fat side up does not leave the most bark on a brisket in a KJ.
Jason Leyva says
Fatty side down. Unless you’re OK with burning the best part of the meat.
Just an FYI, the heat deflectors don’t completely protect the bottom of the brisket.
Darrell Simonds says
I was told to have the cap at the top to help keep it moist while cooking. I am not sure if it’s right or wrong but I do it that way.
Kirk Olson says
Imma duck after I say this. A lot of people think bbq is like a recipe….(smoke till an exact temp then wrap then pull at an exact temp) paper vs foil….cap up or down …..there isn’t ONE person in here that can tell if your fat cap was up or down or what you wrapped it in……meaning it ISNT a big deal…just use what you got…..relax….enjoy it…..try it both ways…..on a vertical I prefer it up but not for self basting…..more about if I have anything going under the brisket…..
ChrisTopher J Courtney says
I start it wrapped down. Cook 1/2 way then flip and open for the other 1/2 and let the juice seep in keeps it moist.