Lean or Fatty . . . Or Moist? Or Marbled?

Hector Sanchez; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey

It used to be that if you wanted to sample good smoked brisket you had to book a flight to Central Texas and drive out to a small town like Lockhart or Taylor. These days, barbecued beef has spread far beyond The Lone Star State, and you can find prime brisket on menus as far afield as Seattle and Manhattan.

And that means barbecue fans increasingly are asked this when they step up to the counter to order: “lean or fatty?”

This question doesn’t phase diners in Texas, where the Department of State Health Services issues a small booklet entitled “Know Your Brisket” to each newborn along with their birth certificates. But as brisket has spread like kudzu across the South, not all diners are sure how to answer.

Robert Moss

What the counterman wants to know is which side of the brisket to slice your meat from. A whole packer brisket is made up of two muscles called the point and the flat. The point, which sits on top, is more generously marbled (that is, “fatty”), while the rectangular flat beneath it is denser with less intermuscular fat (hence, “lean”.)

There was a time when the lean was widely preferred, and Texas joints had to chop up the leftover point to use in sandwiches or beans. That’s not the case these days, as barbecue aficionados not only accept but even prize a big dose of fat in their meat. As one commenter put it on a barbecue blog, “Lean shouldn’t even be considered bbq . . . the fat is where its at.”

But apart from the hardcore barbecue junkies, our food culture still has an aversion to anything with “fat” in the name. Years ago, restaurateurs in Texas figured out that they could move a whole lot more of the brisket point if they called it “moist” instead of “fatty.”

One of these restaurateurs is John Lewis, who apprenticed under Aaron Franklin at Franklin Barbecue and oversaw the pits at La Barbecue in Austin before heading east to Charleston, South Carolina, to launch Lewis Barbecue. “Fatty”, Lewis says, “gives a negative connotation.”

WATCH: How to Make Smoked Brisket

“Moist” is his usual euphemism, but he’s prone to using  “juicy” or “marbled,” too. Customers in pork-centric South Carolina have been wowed by Lewis’s Texas-style beef ribs and brisket, but he says the “moist” vs. “lean” question still puzzles many. “I usually just say ‘more highly marbled’ if the customer doesn’t understand,” Lewis says. “And sometimes compare a sirloin and ribeye steak.”

Some folks have taken things a step further and concluded that if “moist” is good then “wet” must be even better. (Most of these places, I must note, are far outside the South, like Big Pinks BBQ in Bridgewater, New Jersey and Baldy’s Barbeque in Bend, Oregon. I’ve not yet seen anyone offer “sopping wet” or “soaked” brisket, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.

Such watery language gets us into dangerous territory, though. As anyone who has sampled barbecue in Memphis knows, when you’re eating pork ribs, the terms “wet” and “dry” have nothing to do with the meat itself. Instead, they indicate whether the finished ribs are dressed in sauce or just with a dry spice rub.

Perhaps my favorite euphemism for the point comes from right here In my hometown of Charleston, where the folks at Black Wood Smokehouse have coined a term worthy of a TV beer ad: “Lean or Full Bodied.” That, my friends, is marketing.

But whether it’s called “moist,” “marbled,” or “full-bodied,” the more brisket I eat, the more I think that the recent preference for the point is largely a matter of quality and consistency. Properly cooked, lean brisket is perfectly tender and flavorful, but it dries out quickly when overcooked, and it doesn’t stand up well to long rests while waiting to be carved, The fatty end is far more forgiving and, therefore, more reliable, especially if you are eating at a barbecue joint that just recently added beef to the menu.

Robert Moss

I just re-read my notes from my last visit to Cattleack Barbeque in Dallas, which cooks some of the best slow-smoked brisket in the country (I tap those notes out on my iPhone’s between bites, which is why the screen is always a smudged, greasy mess—an occupational hazard for a barbecue scribbler.) Instead of deciding between fatty and lean, I ordered a little of both, and the sequence of my observations is telling.

“Brisket is superb,” I noted, just after carrying my tray to a long picnic table in the dining room. “Esp[ecially] the fatty. Iridescent sheen of fat, nice texture, great tangy pepper bite to the bark.”

But as I continued to eat, I began to reassess the other end of the brisket. “The lean might have the better flavor,” I wrote, “once you get past the big fatty first burst of the moist.”

So the next time you’re ordering brisket, you may want to take a cue from Jack Spratt and ask for the lean. It may well be the superior cut, and you won’t have to worry about what to call the other half.

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