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Does Your Smoked Brisket Make the Grade?

Posted by Craig A. Morris, AMS Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program Deputy Administrator in Food and Nutrition
Feb 21, 2017
Cooked brisket
Official USDA quality grade labels provide assurance that your beef cuts meet specific quality thresholds that are individually assessed by a select staff of just over 140 skilled and highly trained USDA beef graders.

I live for barbeque season. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of getting that meat done just right, and nothing like the gratification that comes with sharing it with friends and family gathered on a sunny summer’s day.

When it comes to successful barbeque, I have a bit more skin in the game than most.  You see, for me a quality eating experience at a family or community function isn’t just a personal goal – it’s a professional calling.  My agency, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), is committed to helping meat and poultry producers market their high quality products to consumers across the nation (and the world), and quality is the name of our game.

As the Deputy Administrator of the AMS Livestock, Poultry, and Seed Program, one of the programs I take considerable pride in is the quality standards and grades we develop and administer for beef products.  We officially grade 18.4 billion pounds of beef each year according to these standards, supporting farmers and ranchers, and promoting an industry that is committed to quality products.  These USDA beef quality grades also serve as a beacon to consumers looking for quality beef products to serve their families.

Success with barbeque meats isn’t always easy, but that’s what makes it fun.  The classic beef brisket is a good example.  A beautifully smoked beef brisket is sure to please and will keep people talking about your barbecue skills and gatherings for years to come.  But it can be a challenge to get it right – it takes a combination of the right technique and the right ingredients – and no ingredient is more important than the brisket itself.  So, take a tip from a professional: look for the USDA grade mark when you shop the meat section, and choose either a USDA Choice or USDA Prime brisket to ensure drool-inducing results!

Official USDA quality grades provide assurance that your beef cuts meet specific quality thresholds that are individually assessed by a select staff of just over 140 skilled and highly trained USDA beef graders.  And, most importantly for all of you who love perfectly smoked meats as much as I do, shopping by these USDA beef quality grades are a sure-fire way to select the right beef for your ‘que.

So, go grab a USDA Choice or, if you want to splurge, a USDA Prime beef brisket, get your smoker stoked and ready, and prepare to bask in the eternal glory of a good barbeque you put together for those you care about!

Raw brisket
Look for the USDA grade mark when you shop the meat section, and choose either a USDA Choice or USDA Prime brisket to get the best results.
Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition

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Jun 30, 2016

Great article. The meat looks delicious. Must get the other ingredients. Thanks for sharing.

Dan Zinkand
Jun 30, 2016

Nice article. How about sharing several of your favorite BBQ recipes?

douglas mallach
Jun 30, 2016

Would love to, if you'd agree to tell me which products are GMO.
Douglas Mallach

Bill n DC
Jul 01, 2016

So 140 Quality Graders check 18.4B LBs a year. That breaks down to about 500K LBs per worker per day. What type of evaluation of performance is done to assure that all 500K/18.4B LBs are done correctly?

Jul 03, 2016

What USDA grade labels? There are none on any meat I buy in the grocery store. Why?

Jul 06, 2016

If you smoke a brisket for 12 hours over low heat, what indicators do you need to know to make sure it is safe, just the final temp?

Ben Weaver
Jul 07, 2016

@Bill n DC - thanks for the comment. Meat Grading supervisors correlate with graders on a regular basis. As an added measure to ensure accuracy and uniformity throughout the country, USDA holds an annual correlation with supervisors and has a National Meat Supervisor who travels extensively to plants.

Ben Weaver
Jul 07, 2016

@Harvey - thanks for the comment. Many primal cuts (like beef loin or round), are sold in grade label bags; however, this isn’t the case for every packing facility or every retailer. Retailers often remove the product from the bags, cut into smaller retail cuts that are then packaged in the store. If the product is graded, the store will often attach grade labels to the individual packages; however, they are not required to do so. Additionally, the retailer may use other signage to denote the grade of the product. If the grade isn’t apparent from the packaging, ask the meat manager to verify that it has been graded.

Ben Weaver
Jul 08, 2016

@Julie – thanks for the question. Generally speaking, the danger zone for meat is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. I try and keep my smoker around 225 Fahrenheit for the entire smoke, and that keeps the surface of the meat out of the danger zone while the inside slowly comes up to my desired final temperature of 190-195 degrees Fahrenheit. - Craig Morris

Ben Weaver
Jul 08, 2016

@Clifton and Dan Zinkand - thanks for the comments and questions. My brisket rub recipes are honestly never the same. They can be as simple as a 50/50 kosher salt and coarse ground pepper rub just before cooking to a rub 24 hours before that includes not only the salt and pepper but also paprika, garlic powder, and dry mustard. Also be sure to mop. My favorite mop includes apple cider vinegar, apple juice and a little brown sugar. I might need to make this an ongoing blog. My smoked lamb ribs, smoked pork shoulders, and smoked venison legs always seem to please. – Craig Morris

Matt Meagher
Mar 30, 2018

When did brisket become eligible to be graded as USDA Prime? Growing up, it was never eligible as it was too fat, was from a muscle that had too much exercise, and is a “tough” muscle, thus necessitating slow cooking.

What happened?

Ben Weaver
Apr 02, 2018

@Matt Meagher - thank you for your comment. Briskets can be labeled as USDA Prime provided that it comes from a carcass that was graded USDA Prime. If it came from a USDA Choice carcass, the brisket could be labeled as USDA Choice. Although it is a tough piece of meat, that does not exclude it from being labeled with the USDA grade of the carcass that is came from. We are not grading the individual cut, but the entire carcass.

Larry Tooker
Feb 08, 2019

Will each packaged brisket in the grocery store be marked with the grade?