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.
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
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