What’s so special about the fourth slice of brisket?

Barbecue nerds around the state may have found a new standard for measuring the quality of a smoked brisket.

By Casey Cheek and Patrick M. DavisJuly 6, 2023 2:21 pm, ,

It started as a theory between two friends, but the result may speak to the subtle science of a staple of Texas cuisine.

Heady stuff, right?

Where there’s smoke, there’s Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly. He joined Texas Standard to discuss the fourth slice phenomenon. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: So for those of us who aren’t barbecue nerds, what is this debate all about, exactly?

Daniel Vaughn: So we’re talking about the fourth slice here. And “the fourth slice” refers to the fourth slice of brisket from the fatty side of the brisket.

It’s really an inside baseball story here, but it started as a text battle between Leonard Botello IV, who is the pitmaster at Truth Barbecue, both in Brenham and in Houston, and his good buddy Burt Bakman, who is a pitmaster at Slab Barbecue in Los Angeles.

So they would text these photos back and forth anytime they thought they had smoked a really great brisket. And then I think Burt made this suggestion: “Hey, you know what? We keep showing each other this slice and that slice. Let’s even up the odds here. Let’s compare apples to apples. We are going to select one slice to represent our entire brisket.”

And that became the fourth slice.

Is there anything magical about the fourth slice or is it just that they tried to reach some kind of standard? 

Well, to them – and I agree with them– you start with that first slice and it’s really the burnt ends. And so it’s super juicy and fatty. And then the next couple of slices might not have any of that lean part that’s underneath that fatty brisket.

With the fourth slice, you get an ample amount of the fatty brisket. You also get a nice slice of the lean brisket underneath to really compare both of them and make sure that both of them look juicy, not just the fatty part. 

You know, this sounds awfully scientific for barbecue. What do you think?

Well, I guess when you’re having a Twitter battle hundreds of miles apart, you have to find some common ground. I think the biggest argument that I’ve heard against this is from other pitmasters who are like, “great, now I’m going to have people coming in and asking for the fourth slice here.” And Leonard’s answer to that was, “well, you just got to make sure that they buy the first three. And there you go. There’s a pound of brisket.”

But that speaks to a larger question. Or an issue perhaps, depending on which side of barbecue nerdom you sit on. If you are a pitmaster and if this idea picks up more steam or smoke, as the case may be, do you find that everyone will be trying to cook to a fourth-slice standard? And if so, what does that even mean? What can you see there?

Well, I don’t think that the fourth slice itself can be cooked any differently than the rest of the brisket. But I do think it is a good representation of how that whole brisket is cooked.

I’ll say that when the story first published, the amount of fourth-slice Instagram photos that I was copied on was astounding. And I shared nearly all of them. And some of the comments back from people who shall remain nameless were “I’m really surprised that some of these people are proud of these fourth slices.”

So, there was definitely some judging going on.

Now, wait a minute, though. What can you see in the pictures? I get that some slices look better than others. Coloration? What are you looking for?  

There’s a lot you can see.

You can see the bark formation. You can see the fat that’s just underneath the bark and how well-rendered it is. You can see the fat that’s in between all the different muscle fibers of that fatty slice. Are they overcooked and all that fat melted out? Are they undercooked and still opaque and white? Or is it that perfect in-the-middle where you’ve got that supple smooth fat?

Is the fat in between the lean and the fatty? Is it well-rendered? Do you have the lean part of the slice underneath? Does it also have a nice bark on the underneath side or is it all washed out and gray? Does the lean slice look super dry or does it also have some of that inner muscular fat, some of that marbling dripping through there?

The back end of that slice – is it overcooked and dried? Did the smoker just have too much heat pounding into the brisket and drying it out? So there is a lot that you can tell from that one slice.

You think this is a flash-in-the-pan that will be forgotten in five years or is it the wave of the future? What do you think?

“Wave of the future” is probably pretty strong. But I can guarantee you there will be plenty of barbecue joints that I visit here in the near future showing off their fourth slice to me on the tray.

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