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For millions of people, the absolute highest form of smoking involves beef.
However, cows are not small creatures, meaning that there are a number of different parts of the animal that can be smoked.
Beef ribs, oxtails, and even hamburgers can all make great centerpieces for any meal.
However, the real question for most people looking to smoke beef is the choice between roasts, especially chuck roasts, and briskets.
While they both may be big cuts of beef, there are plenty of differences worth being aware of before and during smoking.
Smoked Chuck Roast vs. Brisket: A closer look
If you walk to your butcher’s counter and ask to see a chuck roast and a brisket, you’ll immediately notice a number of differences.
For starters, the chuck roast looks like any roast you’ve ever seen, in that it is shaped more like a cube or sphere than a flat cut of meat.
On the other hand, a brisket is relatively flat; it is thick, mind you, but there is a flatness to it.
The differences don’t stop there. Chuck roast has pockets of fat, and relatively short muscle fibers running a number of different ways.
This lack of coordination between fibers makes for horrible steaks, but amazing roasts.
This is especially true when you keep the meat as close to 165-170 degrees as possible; beyond that and the fatty juices start to leave the meat.
On the surface, you might think that a brisket would make a great steak.
After all, while there are two chunks of brisket, all the muscle fibers tend to run in one direction, just like a flank or a skirt steak.
However, while those two cuts of meat don’t have much in the way of connective tissue, brisket is intertwined with connective tissue that will not taste good if not cooked to 195 degrees.
Going too far, like past 205 degrees, will dry the meat out, though. In short, you’ve got to be careful.
While both are big, smoked pieces of meat, there is one big element that causes a difference between chuck roasts and briskets when smoked – bark.
Bark refers to the quarter of an inch or so crust around the meat that is formed when volatile compounds in smoke react to salt, spices, natural sugars, and moistures from the meat.
When done right, it is heavenly.
When done wrong, through using additional sugar or cooking too high, it tastes burnt.
Remember, any good brisket will have a great bark, while only a few roasts will develop one of note.
Crucial to making the most of your beef, whether it is brisket or chuck roast, is giving it a good rub.
While every pit master has his or her own recipe, a good mix of salt and spices is sure to do the trick.
Unlike ribs, where you’d only smoke for a few hours, you’ll be smoking these pieces of meat for ten (or more!) hours, so it is imperative to limit sugar.
You’ll get plenty of bark on your own.
Some mainstays include paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, and plenty of salt.
Equal portions of those four makes for a great starting point to explore different tastes.
No matter what kind of rub you use, make sure to cover the meat evenly.
If you’re able to let it rest overnight, do so, but don’t feel the need to rub the meat more than 24 hours in advance.
If you can only manage right before you put it on the smoker, that’s fine too – there’s no risk of searing or burning the spices, after all.
As with any type of smoking, low and slow is the name of the game.
Expect to spend at least 10 hours with either type of meat, with brisket taking considerably longer.
After all, these are not slender pieces of meat, and even though brisket is skinnier, it also has significantly more connective tissues to melt into delicious meaty juiciness.
Keep your temperature between 225 and 250 degrees; under no circumstances should you let it rise above 275.
While some increases in temperature are unavoidable, at this point you’re beginning to roast the meat rather than smoke it.
It’s for this reason that many advise keeping brisket closer to 225.
Also, make sure that your cut of meat has exceeded a minimum temperature of 140 within four hours.
This is to prevent any nasty bacteria from growing. As long as you keep the temperature above 225 and don’t lift the smoker lid, this won’t be a problem.
With both cuts of meat, you’ll likely be going well beyond where you’d cook a steak.
For chuck roast, that means taking the meat to 165 degrees, or about medium well.
Remember to take the meat off at around 160 or so and let it rest, as carryover cooking will make sure that it gets above 165.
Once it has rested for at least 30 minutes, shred the meat with forks.
Consider adding a bit of apple cider vinegar if it appears dry.
Brisket, on the other hand, is technically done at 165, but you won’t want to stop cooking it there.
Instead, keep smoking the meat until it is 190 degrees, allowing for carryover cooking to 195.
The reason for this extra cooking time is that brisket has a lot of connective tissue, while chuck roast primarily gets its juiciness from fat.
That gelatin in connective tissue doesn’t melt until 195, and until it does, brisket is still especially tough.
Types of wood
Because both brisket and chuck roast are big chunks of beef, you’ll be able to use a lot of the same types of wood.
As a rule, anything fruit-based is out, unless it is paired with another wood.
The reason is simple; the flavors of the smoke will not be able to stand up to the taste of the meat.
Instead, consider these big chunks of beef an opportunity to use mesquite, acacia, or hickory.
Also, nut woods (but not almond) stand up well here.
If you are going to use a fruit wood, use oak, pecan, or hickory with it; mesquite would simply overpower it.
Serving the meat
Finally, there are considerable differences in how to serve chuck roast and brisket.
The best way to think of chuck roast is that it is, in many ways, similar to a pulled pork.
While pulled beef sandwiches are not as common as their ham-carrying barnyard companions, they can be delicious.
Therefore, shredding the beef is a great way to make sure that you get the most out of this cut of meat.
On the other hand, brisket is made to be sliced. After all, those pesky muscle fibers would simply sabotage all your efforts.
Be sure to slice the meat across the grain, and thin slices are ideal.
As long as you’ve let the meat rest, there will be plenty of juiciness to go around.
Also, this preserves the bark.
Speaking of bark, don’t forget about burnt ends! Throw any knub pieces back into the smoker (or even on the grill!) to cook again; they’ll become little barky nuggets of goodness.
When you’re considering the question of smoked chuck roast vs. brisket, keep in mind that despite both being big cuts of meat, there are some real differences between the two.
Muscle fibers, connective tissues, and fatty deposits all make for two incredibly different types of end product.
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