In the world of bbq, it's well known that cooking brisket is quite the challenge. A whole brisket is made up of two separate muscles that never seem to want to finish up at the same time.
The parts of the brisket include the flat, the point, the fat cap and internal fat, and the connective tissues. The skill of coordinating all these parts into one glorious smoked brisket is truly an art form.
Brisket can be cooked to varying levels of doneness, from medium rare to
very well done. Internal temperature is one indicator of the tenderness
of a brisket, but it's not perfect. The best final "done test" is to
check the meat with a fork. With a little practice you can feel when
it's done to your liking by the way the meat "gives".
Individual briskets vary in toughness. Those with less connective tissue, from younger or less active animals, will reach tenderness with less cooking time and at a lower internal temperature than briskets from older, more active steers.
The blessing and the curse of beef brisket is connective tissue. It's
got a lot of it, and depending on how the brisket is cooked, can cause
toughness. If cooked to between 135 and 145 degrees (medium done or
less), it's fairly tender when sliced thinly across the grain. But
because the connective tissues haven't broken down, there's a lot of
trapped flavor left inside.
The flavor of brisket really begins to shine when it's temperature slowly comes up to around 185 degrees and above. Collagen breaks down, releasing flavor, increasing moistness, and loosening its hold on the meat fibers.
The downside of brisket cooked this way is the time it requires. It can take six, eight, ten hours or more to get brisket to this altered state. Some feel the time spent cooking is worth the results, and others prefer to suffer less cooking time in trade for less flavorful, less tender brisket.
The flat and point can be separated before smoking. Doing this, the
overall cooking time is decreased because the pieces are smaller, and a
little more of the excess fat can be trimmed away.
Since the point has a lot of internal marbling, most if not all of the exterior fat can be remove with no ill affect. Additionally, the temperature and doneness of each section can be monitored separately so each piece can be removed when it's at it best.
Fat cap up or fat cap down? That depends on how it's cooked.
When brisket is cooked low and slow with low to moderate heat, the fat cap is best positioned on top. It will slowly melt, basting the brisket as it cooks.
If a brisket is being cooked over medium to high direct heat, then the fat cap should be place to the bottom, to provide a layer of insulating protection between the fire and the meat.
Since each brisket is unique, with varying amounts of fat and connective tissue, and from older or younger cattle, giving an exact internal temperature that tells you "Your brisket is done!" just isn't possible. The different levels of doneness lie within a range. Use the fork or thermometer probe to know for sure when it's ready. When the internal temperature of your brisket reaches 190 degrees, check with a fork for tenderness. If not to your liking, cook it to 195, or even 200 if necessary.
Additional Brisket Information