One of the most critical elements of great BBQ is the meat. Choosing the right cut of meat can make all the difference in the final product. But with so many different options to choose from, it can be challenging to know where to start.
In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into the different cuts of meat used in BBQ, and what makes each cut unique. So, grab a napkin, and let’s get started.
Brisket is one of the most popular cuts of meat used in BBQ, and for a good reason. It’s a tough cut of meat that requires low and slow cooking to break down the connective tissue and turn it into a mouthwatering masterpiece. Brisket is typically divided into two parts: the flat and the point. The flat is leaner and makes for excellent slicing, while the point is fattier and makes for fantastic burnt ends.
When picking the best brisket at the store, consider the following factors to ensure you get a high-quality cut of meat:
- Grade: Look for a USDA Prime or Choice grade brisket, as they have higher fat content and better marbling, resulting in a more tender and flavorful end product. If you can afford it, try a Wagyu Brisket.
- Marbling: Examine the brisket for a generous amount of marbling (white flecks of fat within the meat). More marbling leads to a juicier and more flavorful brisket.
- Fat cap: Ensure there is a thick, even layer of fat (fat cap) on one side of the brisket. This fat cap will help keep the meat moist and tender during the cooking process.
- Size: Choose a brisket with a consistent thickness from end to end. This will help the brisket cook evenly. A full packer brisket typically weighs between 12-18 pounds, while a smaller flat cut can be between 4-8 pounds.
- Color: The meat should be a bright, cherry-red color. Avoid briskets with grayish or brown hues, as this may indicate an older cut of meat.
- Flexibility: Gently bend the brisket to test its flexibility. A more flexible brisket usually indicates better marbling and tenderness.
- Packaging: Check for any punctures or tears in the vacuum-sealed packaging, as these could lead to oxidation and spoilage.
- Expiration date: Always check the expiration or sell-by date to ensure the meat is fresh.
- Smell: If possible, smell the brisket to ensure there are no off-odors, which could indicate spoilage.
- Price: Compare prices between different cuts and brands to find a brisket that fits your budget without sacrificing quality.
Remember that finding the perfect brisket may take some time, and you might need to visit a few stores or even specialty butchers to find the best option. Don’t be afraid to ask the butcher for recommendations or assistance in choosing a high-quality brisket.
Pork shoulder, also known as pork butt or Boston butt, is another popular cut of meat used in BBQ. It’s a fatty cut that works well with slow and low cooking methods. Pork shoulder is typically divided into two parts: the picnic shoulder and the Boston butt. The Boston butt is preferred for BBQ because it has a higher fat content and more marbling, resulting in a more tender and juicy final product.
When choosing the best pork shoulder in the store, consider the following factors to ensure you’re purchasing a high-quality cut:
- Freshness: Check the ‘sell by’ or ‘use by’ date on the packaging. The fresher the pork shoulder, the better the flavor and texture will be. If possible, purchase pork shoulder on or before the ‘sell by’ date.
- Color: Look for a pork shoulder with a reddish-pink color. Avoid meat that is pale, grayish, or has a brown tint, as this may indicate that the meat is old or has been exposed to air for too long.
- Marbling: Examine the fat distribution throughout the meat. The best pork shoulder will have a good amount of marbling (white streaks of fat) evenly distributed. This fat will melt during cooking, providing flavor and tenderness.
- Fat Cap: A layer of fat on one side of the shoulder, known as the fat cap, is desirable. This fat will baste the meat as it cooks, keeping it moist and tender.
- Moisture: The surface of the pork shoulder should be moist but not wet. If the meat is slimy or excessively wet, it may be a sign of poor quality or improper handling.
- Odor: There should be little to no odor coming from the pork shoulder. If the meat has a strong or sour smell, it may be spoiled or of low quality.
- Packaging: Ensure that the packaging is intact, with no punctures or leaks. This helps to maintain freshness and prevent contamination.
- Size: Choose a pork shoulder that suits your needs. If you are cooking for a large group, a larger cut may be necessary, while a smaller cut is suitable for fewer people.
- Bone-in vs. boneless: Bone-in pork shoulders tend to be more flavorful and may be more tender due to the connective tissue surrounding the bone. However, boneless cuts are easier to carve and may cook more quickly. Choose based on your preference and cooking plans.
- Origin and farming practices: If possible, opt for pork shoulder from a reputable source that practices humane and sustainable farming methods. Look for labels such as “organic,” “free-range,” or “pasture-raised” to ensure a higher quality product.
By considering these factors when purchasing pork shoulder, you’ll be well on your way to selecting a high-quality cut that will deliver excellent taste and tenderness in your recipes.
Ribs are a classic BBQ favorite, and there are several types to choose from. Baby back ribs are leaner and smaller than other types of ribs, making them a great option for quick cooks. Spare ribs are larger and fattier, making them a great option for low and slow cooking. St. Louis-style ribs are a trimmed version of spare ribs that are easier to cook and have a more consistent size and shape.
When picking the best pork ribs in the store, consider the following factors:
- Rib type: There are two main types of pork ribs – baby back ribs and spare ribs. Baby back ribs are smaller, leaner, and more tender, while spare ribs are larger, have more fat, and require longer cooking times. Choose the type that best suits your preference and cooking plans.
- Meat quality: Look for ribs with a good amount of meat on the bones. Avoid ribs with exposed bones, as they will dry out during cooking.
- Freshness: Choose ribs with a bright pink color, as this indicates freshness. Avoid any ribs that have a grayish or brownish tint, as this may indicate spoilage or poor handling.
- Expiration date: Always check the expiration date on the packaging to ensure the ribs are still fresh and safe to consume.
- Fat distribution: Look for ribs with a good amount of marbling, or white striations of fat throughout the meat. This fat will render during cooking, keeping the meat moist and tender while adding flavor. The striations of fat can be identified as thin, white lines running through the pink meat. Good marbling should be evenly distributed throughout the meat.
- Fat thickness: Choose ribs with a thin layer of fat on the exterior, as this will render more easily during cooking. Avoid ribs with a thick layer of fat, as it may not render properly and could result in a greasy final product.
- Smell: Fresh pork ribs should have a mild, almost neutral scent. Avoid ribs that have a strong or unpleasant odor, as this can be a sign of spoilage.
- Packaging: Ensure the packaging is clean, well-sealed, and free from punctures or tears. Check for any signs of excessive liquid or blood pooling in the package, as this can indicate poor handling or packaging issues.
By considering these factors and tips, you can make an informed decision when choosing the best pork ribs for your next meal.
Chicken is a versatile meat that can be cooked in many ways, but it’s a staple in BBQ. Chicken thighs and legs are preferred because they have more fat than chicken breasts, making them more forgiving during cooking. Chicken also benefits from a good dry rub or marinade to add flavor and moisture.
When selecting the best chicken at the store, it’s essential to consider factors such as freshness, quality, and sustainability. Here is a list of what to look for when choosing the perfect chicken:
- Expiration or Sell-by date: Always check the expiration or sell-by date on the packaging. Choose the freshest chicken with the furthest date.
- Appearance: The chicken should have a healthy-looking, pinkish hue without any discoloration or bruising. Avoid chicken with gray or greenish tones.
- Skin: The skin should be smooth and free of blemishes, cuts, or excessive feather remnants. It should not appear slimy or sticky.
- Odor: Fresh chicken should have a mild or neutral smell. Avoid any chicken with a strong, unpleasant, or sour odor, as it may indicate spoilage.
- Packaging: Inspect the packaging for any leaks, tears, or damage, which could compromise the quality of the chicken.
- Labeling: Look for labels indicating the chicken has been raised without antibiotics, hormones, or steroids. Terms like “antibiotic-free” or “no added hormones” are helpful indicators.
- Animal welfare: Consider choosing chicken from producers committed to animal welfare. Look for certifications like “Certified Humane,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” or “Global Animal Partnership.”
- Free-range or pasture-raised: Chickens raised in these environments typically have access to the outdoors, which can result in better flavor and texture. Look for “free-range” or “pasture-raised” on the label.
- Organic: Organic chicken is raised without synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, or growth hormones. Look for the “USDA Organic” or similar certification on the label.
- Air-chilled: Air-chilled chicken is processed using cold air rather than water, which can result in better flavor and texture. Look for “air-chilled” on the label.
- Local or regional options: Support your local economy and reduce the environmental impact of transportation by choosing chicken from local or regional producers.
By considering these factors, you can make an informed decision when selecting the best chicken at the store. Remember that quality, freshness, and ethical production practices can greatly impact the taste and nutritional value of the chicken you purchase.
Beef ribs are another popular cut of meat in BBQ. They’re larger and meatier than pork ribs, and they require a more extended cooking time to break down the connective tissue. Beef ribs can be cooked in a variety of ways, from smoking to braising.
When selecting the best beef ribs in the store, consider the following factors to ensure you get high-quality, flavorful, and tender meat:
- Freshness: Always check the expiration or sell-by date on the packaging. The fresher the meat, the better the taste and quality.
- Color: Look for a deep, rich red color. Avoid ribs that have a grayish or brown tint, as this can indicate that the meat is no longer fresh or has been exposed to oxygen for an extended period.
- Marbling: Choose ribs with good marbling, which refers to the white flecks of fat throughout the meat. Marbling enhances the flavor, tenderness, and juiciness of the ribs.
- Fat content: A thin layer of fat on the exterior of the ribs helps retain moisture and adds flavor during cooking. Make sure there is not an excessive amount of fat, as this can lead to a greasy final product.
- Rib size: Larger ribs tend to have more meat and are ideal for slow cooking methods like smoking or braising. Smaller ribs may be leaner but could become tough if not cooked properly.
- Bone shape: Look for ribs with relatively straight bones, as they will cook more evenly and be easier to handle during preparation and cooking.
- Cut: There are two primary cuts of beef ribs—back ribs and short ribs. Back ribs are leaner and come from the rib section of the cow, while short ribs are meatier and come from the plate and chuck sections. Consider your desired cooking method and recipe when choosing the cut.
- Packaging: Ensure the packaging is intact and free of punctures or tears. The vacuum seal should be tight, with no visible air pockets.
- Odor: There should be no strong or off-putting odors coming from the meat. Any unpleasant smell can indicate spoilage or poor quality.
- Price: Compare the price per pound of various beef rib options to find a balance between quality and affordability. While more expensive ribs may offer better quality, you can still find good-quality ribs at a reasonable price if you pay attention to the other factors listed above.
By considering these factors, you can confidently select the best beef ribs for your next delicious meal.
What we learned
Choosing the right cut of meat is crucial to making great BBQ. Each cut has its unique properties that require specific cooking methods to reach their full potential. Brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, chicken, and beef ribs are just a few of the many options to choose from. Experimenting with different cuts, cooking methods, and seasonings is part of the fun of BBQ. So, get out there, and start cooking!