Cooking a brisket isn’t hard but it can get confusing. Everybody and their cousin has pretty strong opinions about the best way of doing things. The frustrating thing is that about half the folks say you have to use Method XYZ and half of them will say that Method XYZ is completely wrong.
One of the classic points of confusion is whether you should smoke a brisket with the fat side up or down on a pellet grill like a Traeger or Pit Boss.
I believe that there are five reasons you should cook your brisket fat side down on a pellet grill. In reality, which side goes up makes a slight difference but is not a major factor in how your brisket will turn out.
Why You Should Smoke Your Brisket With The Fat Side Down
The five reasons to cook a brisket with the fat side down are:
- Protect the meat from the fire
- So you can spritz or mop the meat
- So the fat doesn’t wash away the bark
- So the bark doesn’t stick to the grate
- 30% more exposure of the meat
Let’s look at each of these reasons in a little more detail.
Protect The Brisket From The Fire
The primary reason people give for smoking a brisket fat side down is to protect the meat of the brisket from the fire. Smoking a whole packer brisket takes many hours, even if you are cooking it Hot and Fast. If you have the meat side exposed to the fire then it has a greater chance of drying out or getting bitter from exposure to any puffs of dirty smoke.
When the fat side is exposed to the fire then it can take the abuse and the meat side can gently cook away. On a Traeger or Pit Boss the heat comes from underneath the meat so you want the fat side down.
This is not as important a factor on a Traeger as these grills use a heat diffuser over the firepot as well as the grease tray to even out the heating.
This is more important on a Pit Boss as most of these grills do not have a heat diffuser and rely solely upon the grease tray to protect the meat from direct heat.
So You Can Spritz or Mop The Brisket
Many pitmasters apply either a mopping sauce or a spritz to their briskets at multiple points during the cook. The addition of the liquids have several benefits:
- Keeps the brisket moist early in the cook.
- Adds layers of flavors
- Helps with bark formation later in the cook.
- Gives you a reason to open the lid and peek at your brisket!
Some people claim that keeping the brisket moist helps develop a better smoke ring but I have not found that to be true using my style of smoking briskets.
If you are cooking the brisket with the fat side UP then you are not going to be able to mop or spritz the meat. You can apply liquids to the fat but that really is going to help with anything.
You want to cook the brisket fat side down so you can mop the meat and add you layers of flavor.
So The Bark Doesn’t Wash Off
One of the reasons that people give for cooking a brisket fat side UP is that the fat will melt into the brisket and make it juicy.
The reality is that melting fat does not go INTO the brisket, it flows AROUND the brisket and drips off.
Although this is not a major consideration one thing you should be aware of is that while the fat is flowing around the brisket it can wash off some of the bark that you are trying to develop. This is especially true on the sides of the brisket.
If you foil your briskets then you will absolutely mess up the bark if you put the foiled brisket back on the pit with the fat side up.
When the brisket is cooked fat side down there is no chance of the fat washing away any of the bark.
So The Bark Won’t Stick To The Grate
It is frustrating to spend 10-14 hours smoking the perfect brisket and have the presentation get messed up when the bark sticks to the cooking grate.
This won’t impact the flavor or tenderness of your brisket but it will impact how it looks when your gets see it. And the reality is that we first eat with our eyes.
If you cook your brisket fat side down then bits of fat will stick to the grate and your bark will not get damaged.
30% More Meat Exposure
Here is the sneaky bit that a lot of pitmasters miss.
If you are cooking with the fat side up then the meat is in direct contact with the cooking grate. And while the gaps in grate the lets through smoke an heat the parts of the meat that are in direct contact with the grate are actually blocked.
A typical cooking grate the area is about 70% open/exposed with about 30% closed/blocked by the rods that make up the grate.
Flip that brisket over so the fat side is down and let ALL of the meat get exposed to the smoke!
Other Factors Are More Important
While I am a strong proponent of cooking your brisket with the fat side down on your pellet grill I don’t believe that this is a detail that will make or break your cook.
The three biggest factors that will determine how the brisket turns out are:
- The quality of the meat
- Cooking the brisket until tender
- Resting the brisket for a few hours
As an example, here is a great video from Matt Pittman of Meat Church BBQ showing how he smokes a brisket on a Traeger and he cooks fat side up.
After you get the basics details of smoking a great brisket right then you can start fussing around with little details like:
- Fat side up vs down
- When to wrap
- Competition brisket rubs
- Brisket injections
- Mopping sauces
- Best knife for slicing
- Smoke woods