The Importance of Cooking Fat-Side Up

As an extension of Part 6 of our BBQ & A with our Pitmasters and Chefs, Tim McLaughlin and Damian Avila, we tackle another very controversial topic, "Whether to smoke a brisket fat-side up or fat-side down."

BBQ Student: Should I cook my brisket fat-side up or fat-side down?

Tim:  I think that this debate may have escalated when backyard BBQers started burning the bottom of their briskets and drying them out.  Because the cooking surface area of many backyard and mobile smokers is too small and/or the heat often enters from the bottom....the heat gets concentrated on the bottom (lean part) of the brisket and dries it out.    

However, authentic Central Texas style brisket was and is still cooked in very large pits or offset the problem of burning the bottom did not exist.  Plus, cooking the brisket fat-side up is actually very important in our process as we want the seasoned fat to drop down into the meat as it cooks.

BBQ Student:  Hmmm.  I've read this is a myth.

In fact, some BBQ writers suggest that they have scientific evidence that the benefits of cooking fat-side up are a myth.  One writer states that "scientifically speaking, fat can’t penetrate the meat. When it melts and turns into a liquid, it will run off the sides and drip into your pan or smoker taking with it any rub you added earlier."  His proof..if you slap a slab of butter on a grilled steak, it just runs off.

Tim:  Well, first...there is a difference between how butter melts on a seared steak reacts versus how fat cooks on an uncooked brisket.  Plus, pitmasters in Central Texas have been smoking briskets fat-side up for generations and this method has yielded a world-famous product.  

BBQ Student:  OK, but what about dispelling this myth?

Tim:  Well, I am not a scientist, but I have studied proteins for 25 years, experimented with hundreds of different techniques and smoked over 200,000 Central Texas style briskets.  To me, logic and this experience dictate that when you cook a brisket fat-side up...some of that fat on top breaks down and seeps into the space evacuated by the rendered fat within the brisket.

BBQ Student:  So, if all you have is a small surface, you may need to cook fat-side down?

Tim:  If you are trying to smoke a brisket on a small surface with a concentrated heat source, either from the bottom or top, it makes sense to place the fat side towards the heat.  Thanks to the design of our smokers and our smoke room...we don't have this problem.