Burnt ends have become popular in Texas and other American barbecue hubs but their history is in Kansas City. They have always been associated with Kansas City barbecue and continue to be a crucial part of that community’s food culture. They are exactly what their name suggests — the heavily charred exterior portions of a smoked brisket.
The first burnt ends were placed on the counter in Kansas City barbecue restaurants as free snacks for customers waiting in line. They were the least prized and fattiest parts of the brisket that had been unintentionally charred, which is why pitmasters often gave them away for free.
These days, burnt ends have come into their own and are now widely regarded as a barbecue delicacy so pitmasters make burnt ends deliberately to satisfy the strong demand for them. They often cut their burn ends from all ends of the brisket thus ensuring that burnt ends consist of both fat and lean meat.
One technique that some cooks use is to remove the ends from smoked briskets and return them to the smoker for extra cooking. The idea behind this is to break down the fat and collagen even more and to concentrate the smoky flavor. They are enhancing the qualities that make burnt ends special. Some Kansas pitmasters remove the point from the rest of the brisket and smoke that by itself to manufacture burnt ends without having to cut them from a whole smoked brisket.
What do burnt ends taste like?
Despite the name, burnt ends are actually charred not burnt. Because they consist of the brisket’s exterior, burnt ends are extremely smoky and caramelized. The fat renders down and helps to brown the outside of the brisket due to the Maillard reaction while the inside gets a rich, almost buttery flavor. When the fat melts, it also becomes infused with the spices in the rub and coats the meat.
Along with the complex flavors, you get a range of textures including crunchy and tough along with tender and juicy. The smoky, dense bark protects the flavorful and succulent interior.
The concentrated smoky flavor of burnt ends makes them perfect for flavoring dishes ranging from gumbo to beans. The wet cooking method tenderizes the bark and causes the meat’s smokiness to be infused into the whole dish.
Because of the intense smokiness, burnt ends are not for everyone. They are prized by serious barbecue aficionados but may be considered an acquired taste for people accustomed to milder barbecue.
How do burnt ends differ from other types of barbecue?
Burnt ends occur because brisket is an exceptionally tough cut of meat that requires a longer cooking time than most other forms of barbecue. It also has an asymmetrical shape so that it cooks unevenly. Some parts dry out and char more than others.
A brisket’s long cooking time over low heat helps to break down the collagen in the meat and the fat that marbles the muscle. The result of the shape and the long exposure to heat and smoke is that a very thick bark builds up at the fattier sections of the brisket. Underneath that bark is some of the juiciest and most delicate meat you can imagine.