There's brisket, and there's Texas brisket. Read on if you're confused about the difference.
Anatomy of a Brisket
Brisket is cut from the breast section just below the chuck (there are two per carcass), and consists of two distinct areas separated by a layer of fat. The point (also called the deckle) is the richly marbled, fatty section that sits on top of the flat, the bigger, leaner bottom section.
When you're talking Texas brisket, you're talking about a full, packer cut brisket (point and flat intact) that weighs anywhere from 8 to 12-plus pounds. This is what pitmasters smoke at "low and slow" temperatures (225°F to 250°F) via indirect heat for 8 or more hours. If you're browsing the meat section of the average grocery store, the 2- to 6-ish-pound hunk of meat labeled "brisket" is most likely a trimmed flat (also called the first cut). This is the cut for slow cookers, braising, and other moist heat cooking; if you cook it for hours and hours like a Texas brisket, it will have the textural appeal of leather. It's rare to find the point or deckle sold separately, but it exists and you're more likely to see it around St. Patrick's Day because it's an ideal cut for corned beef. It's also the piece you remove from a cooked brisket to make burnt ends (see below).
Texas-Style Smoked Brisket
Here's the dirty little secret about Texas-style smoked brisket: Most formal "recipes" are bogus because they focus on some fancy rub or sauce and give you zero guidance in setting up your charcoal or wood smoker and running it between 225°F and 250°F for eight or more hours. If you've never actually cooked a full, packer cut brisket or run a smoker for half a day, Aaron Franklin's no-frills breakdown is a great place to start.
Slow Cooker BBQ Beef Brisket
For the cooks who will never attempt a Texas brisket, nor lose any sleep over this fact, this is your pitch-perfect, fall-apart-tender brisket recipe. Some of us would prefer you not ever refer to the outcome as "barbecue," but the same "us" would gladly accept an invite to eat this at your house, anytime. Get our Easy Slow Cooker BBQ Beef Brisket recipe.
Grandma Irma's California Brisket
Food snobs, take note. There's much to love about this back-of-the-box recipe, and it starts with Irma, who was too busy bringing home the bacon in the '70s (protesting the Vietnam War and fighting for equal rights) to fuss over artisanal, frou-frou ingredients. We also love producing a melting-tender brisket in less than three hours. It's a good reminder of why we cook: to feed the people we adore, but more importantly, to have the time to enjoy their company. Get Grandma Irma's "California" Brisket recipe.
Burnt ends happen when a pitmaster surgically removes the point from a smoked brisket, cuts it into cubes, and tosses those cubes back on the cooker in a pan, where they turn into spicy, charred, fatty nuggets of bliss. When you've aced the art of the Texas-style smoked brisket, burnt ends are the next step in barbecue bravado. If you're not cooking a full brisket, keep an eye out for point cuts (ask your butcher to save a few) and you can make burnt ends from scratch.
There's no easy way to say this: Making pastrami is not for weenies. It is a time-consuming endeavor that requires a huge hunk of brisket, a few special ingredients, and some MacGyver-ing in the kitchen. Truthfully, though, it's not laborious; most of the time involved is just you waiting 10 days while the meat cures in the spice mix. And you can skip the oven-smoking rig if you own a smoker or large kettle-style grill that can be set up for indirect cooking. Get our Oven-Smoked Pastrami recipe.
Slow-Cured Corned Beef
Yes, you can make a St. Patrick's Day corned beef with the eye of round, but what would your ancestors think? The point cut is traditional (although a trimmed 5-pound packer cut would work fine, too) and yields fatty, seasoned slices perfect for a sandwich year-round. Get our Slow-Cured Corned Beef recipe.
Red Wine Braised Beef Brisket
Say what you will about his hokey dispatches from the backwoods of southwestern Vermont, but Cook's Illustrated founder/editor/publisher Christopher Kimball doesn't mess around when it comes to rigorous recipe trials. If you want to go a little more highbrow than Grandma Irma's brisket, this is how you get there.
Colleen Rush is a food and travel writer who eats, drinks, cooks, and writes mostly in New Orleans, but also ... everywhere else. She is the author of "The Mere Mortal's Guide to Fine Dining" (Broadway Books, 2006), and coauthor of "Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons" (Running Press, 2009) and the upcoming "Low & Slow 2: The Art of Barbecue, Smoke Roasting, and Basic Curing" (Running Press, 2015). Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.