When it comes to buying meat, consumers are often faced with the difficult task of wading through massive amounts of labeling information in an attempt to find "the best" option. Unfortunately, lots of the labeling that is out there doesn't really give you much information about what you are buying and an alarming amount of the labels that packers use are deliberately misleading.
One of the labels that you'll find when you are shopping for the perfect brisket is Prime and Choice. These are two labels that indicate quality and they can only be used by processors when the beef carcass they are using has been graded by certified United States Department of Agriculture inspectors. While it is common to say that Prime is a better grade than Choice, this doesn't always mean that you'll get a better brisket when you select Prime over Choice.
Which is Better: Choice or Prime Brisket?
On paper, Prime is a better grade than Choice. We say 'on paper,' because there are lots of variables that go into a brisket grade. The first thing to keep in mind is that the USDA grade you see is determined by an inspector looking at one specific cut, not the entire carcass of the animal.
When a carcass is graded, the inspector looks at the cut made between the 12th and 13th ribs where the ribeye steaks come from. The inspector is specifically looking at the marbling of fat through the muscle at this point. Often, grain-fed beef boosts fat in the rib area and increases the grading (and thus the value of the carcass). However, it is possible to have a Choice brisket that has more intense marbling than a Prime grade brisket.
This is why other labels you'll see also matter. You can have a low-quality dairy cow that has much higher marbling at the ribs than an Angus steer, but the beef itself won't have as good flavor. Paying attention to other labels like grass-fed beef, organic or free-range, and labeling that indicates the specific breed of cow from which the cut was taken is equally or more important than selecting your brisket based just on the USDA label.
Choice Beef Brisket
According to the USDA, Choice grade briskets are moderately marbled cuts that are high-quality but feature less fatty marbling than Prime. These cuts are superior in quality to USDA Select beef brisket. Unlike many cuts, you aren't looking for lean meat when buying brisket.
Prime Beef Brisket
Prime brisket is the highest grade and is given only to young cows that have exceptional marbling. Prime is the grade that is sold to restaurants and hotels, though you occasionally will find it in your local grocery store. Prime grade beef tends to cost more than other grades.
Why Is Prime Brisket Cheaper Than Choice?
It isn't uncommon to find Prime brisket for sale at a lower per-pound cost than Choice. So, if Prime is better, why is it cheaper? There are a few reasons for the price difference, starting with the store you are buying your meat at. Often, big-box locations like Costco can offer high-quality cuts of meat at lower per-pound pricing than local grocery stores because they are buying in larger quantities.
Another reason for a difference in the per-pound pricing is the amount of labor that goes into the processing of the cut. It is common to find Choice briskets that are separated into the flat and the point, typically with the excess fat already trimmed. There is no way to get around the cost of processing. The longer someone has to be paid to trim and cut, the more expensive the cut of meat will be. On the other hand, a whole packer brisket, even one that is designated Prime, might be a cheaper per-pound product compared to a trimmed and separated Choice brisket.
Consumers tend to purchase the size of meat they need rather than the best per-pound deal, particularly when it comes to a massive undertaking like brisket. A whole packer brisket can weigh as much as 16 pounds, and not everyone has that kind of space on their smoker or in their oven. However, a trimmed Choice brisket point is typically around six pounds. That makes it much easier to handle, sized appropriately for most smokers, and less intimidating of a cut of beef to cook.
What Is the Best Grade of Brisket?
All things being equal, a Prime brisket is better than a Choice brisket. What we want to point out more than anything else is that there are a few tricks you can use to ensure that the brisket you buy is high-quality, regardless of what the label says. In order to make the best choice, you'll use your senses of touch and sight to make an educated decision.
Looking at the Cut
Prime cuts are supposed to have more marbling than Choice cuts, so that is the first thing you should look for. When looking at a brisket, you'll notice the heavy cording of muscle that shows the grain. You'll also see plenty of fat content. If the brisket you are looking at is mostly red, it has very little marbling and won't turn out very good. A proper brisket has plenty of connective tissue and fat content that renders down when you cook the meat which is what gives you the best flavor.
The most notable difference in the appearance of a good cut over a less desirable cut will be the intramuscular fat. It's important to understand the difference between a fat cap and desirable fat. A fat cap is smooth fat on the outside of the cut and is frequently trimmed off by the butcher. Intramuscular fat content is thin lines of fat in the meat itself.
Feeling the Cut
Next, you'll want to handle the brisket as much as possible. Prime grade brisket is quality meat and will have a tender feel without hard spots. If you can fold and bend the cut, you'll feel the difference between the highest grade beef and cuts with less marbling. USDA Prime brisket should feel tender, bend easily, and have a relatively thick flat and point. Thinner briskets are more likely to be tougher, and even when cooked correctly, may result in tougher brisket.
Making the Best Choice
A well-fed beef cattle that is appropriately raised will develop a thick, muscular brisket – which comes from the chest of the cow. Among the best you'll find are USDA-certified Angus beef briskets. Angus is a type of beef cow that is raised specifically for eating. Prime briskets are more tender than Choice beef because they have more fat marbling. They are often more tender because the cattle are younger as well. A USDA choice brisket is still an excellent cut and using your sense of touch and sight, you can find many choice grade brisket cuts that are more heavily marbled than some Prime brisket cuts.
A prime grade brisket might be a better deal, however, since they tend to be sold as a whole packer brisket. Since you aren't paying for the labor to trim and separate the two cuts, you might get a cheaper brisket while also getting higher quality grades.
No matter what grade of brisket you start with, your cooking method will have a lot to do with the finished product. We've had good results from the lowest grade brisket and terrible results from the highest grade brisket. Abundant marbling isn't going to fix mistakes in the cooking process.
The real secret to cooking excellent brisket is being patient. It takes a long time to cook brisket low and slow, and that is the only way to get the tough connective tissue and marbled fat to break down while creating the tender, juicy, fall-apart goodness you are seeking from your brisket. A whole brisket will take approximately one hour per pound of beef, so you need to consider that the cooking process might take as long as 16 or 18 hours using dry heat cooking in a smoker.
Bottom Line on Choice vs Prime Brisket
The differences between Choice vs Prime brisket are often not as great as the differences when buying prime rib simply due to the differences in the cut. Prime cut beef typically has more intense marbling, but doesn't always have more flavor. Angus beef is the preferred choice for getting the best flavor, while Wagyu beef from Japan typically leads the list of Best Marbling cuts. Prime beef brisket is usually sold as a whole brisket, while Choice and Select cuts are most often trimmed and separated into smaller pieces that result in a more affordable cut.
The main thing to remember when making brisket is to use your senses and don't rely on labels as the only source of information. Touching the beef and looking at the way the marbling is on the particular brisket you are buying tells you more about how good your brisket will cook than a label from USDA.