As you read this, the beef brisket wars are simmering all over the United States. It’s all part of the annual ritual surrounding the celebration of Passover. At no other time of year is the humble pot roast elevated to such glory. Comparisons might be made to the Thanksgiving turkey as an icon of the season. But they are not the same animal—so to speak. And I know of no other food in the Jewish arsenal of home cooking that elicits so much controversy as a brisket. True, matzo-ball soup is a close second. But this is the brisket’s season to shine, especially on a bed of caramelized onions with potatoes, mushrooms, and baby carrots in a lovely sauce with a hint of bay leaf.
I don’t know exactly how beef brisket became so closely linked with the main course at Passover Seders. Perhaps it is because it is such an inexpensive cut of beef. Or to put it another way, maybe a generation of cost-conscious immigrants empathized with a section of the cow that was relegated to the equivalent of culinary steerage.
Cooked long enough with a mélange of spices and vegetables, beef brisket yields a homey comfort that is ideal for modern families that flee from each other to distant corners of the country only to gather once a year around the table to retell the ancient story of the Exodus.
Brisket and storytelling. They truly go together. I like to imagine that brisket has a literary subtext, inspiring a more vigorous and enthusiastic retelling of the Passover story and flight from Egypt. Meat as Muse? Why not? Certainly most at the table have memories of briskets-past–and the opinions rain down like so many frogs or locusts from the sky.
Before, during, and after the brisket is served, you can be sure that the very subject of brisket summons conversation, innuendo, anecdotes, accusations, unsolicited recommendations, and intractable declarations of best practices for preparation, serving, and accompaniments. Clashing sides of families, each armed with stained recipe cards from long-passed aunts and great grandmothers, exchange telephone calls offering conflicting advice and sighs of resignation.
“All right, sweetheart. If that’s the way you intend to make your brisket, that’s up to you. (Pause.) So should I bring some nice baked chicken and a rice pilaf, just in case?”
Whether or not the brisket is overcooked, undercooked, oversauced, fat-laden or ineptly sliced, there is a set-piece of drama that unfolds after the steaming platter has been placed on the table. Just as the cook is about to serve, he or she is required to lift a single slice with the serving fork in one hand and a plate in the other, scrutinize the color and texture of the slice, appear crestfallen and dejectedly lay the slice back on the platter, declaring,
“Oh, I don’t think this came out right. I think it’s too [insert shortcoming here].”
Then the cook feigns picking up the platter and returning it to the kitchen.
“I’m so sorry. I’ll just throw this in the garbage. You go ahead and start on the potatoes. I’ll open some cans of tuna.”
This is the long-anticipated cue for the supporting actors at the table to raise their hands to reach for both the platter and the cook and call out in appeasement, “No! It’s fine! It looks perfect! Please, sit, sit!”
At which point the cook puts the platter down, sits down for a conspicuous display of hand-wringing, and lets someone else start serving.
Or maybe I’m just remembering how this scene played out annually in my childhood home.
The fact is, each year I waited for the moment when my mother would lean back in her chair, wince, peer up at a spot about two feet above my father’s head across the table, and inquire with her palms outstretched skeptically, as if directing her query to the Ancient Mothers of Israel,
“I wonder why my brisket always comes out so dry?”
I always wanted to respond, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Instead, I will reveal to you, dear reader, the secret of a perfect brisket. And with this knowledge, you will be able to master the craft of cooking a dish so delectable, so intensely aromatic, that neighbors will knock on your door and ask what you’re cooking. (This has actually happened to me.)
My own recipe is below. The key to keeping the long-cooking brisket from getting too dry is—(drum roll)—use a pan that is just large enough to hold the brisket and all its little friends, with a tight-fitting lid to retain the liquids. If you use a pan that’s too large, the juices will cook off, causing the brisket to yield its own precious bodily fluids in a gaseous form. True, your kitchen will smell fantastic. But your brisket will have the consistency of a welcome mat.
Now, as for those brisket skirmishes between cooks, they begin with the smallest of slights and escalate into frontal attacks with tongs and carving knives. I disdain the briskets from Georgia made with Coca-Cola. I thumb my nose at the Wisconsin briskets made with powdered instant onion soup mix. I utter a derisive “feh!” to the briskets from Texas covered in barbeque sauce. Give me a California brisket made with LOTS of our own locally-grown garlic.
And remember, every spot of gravy on your shirtfront is like an exclamation mark in your own personal brisket short story. That is, if the brisket isn’t too dry.
Beef Brisket (Jewish Pot Roast)
Beef brisket (The bigger the better; after all, you want leftovers, don’t you? Figure at least 1/2 lb per person.)
4 medium onions (More is okay. You can’t have too many onions.)
10 oz of real beef stock or 1 can (10-1/2 oz) of beef broth
1 small bottle of chili sauce (Del Monte is good. Look in the condiment aisle at the market.)
A-1 Sauce (1/2 cup or 1 small bottle.)
Garlic (fresh), at least 2 whole bulbs. (Too much? Is there such a thing as too much garlic?)
2 bay leaves
1 bottle of beer, dark or light
Small red potatoes or Yukon Golds, carrots, mushrooms to cook with the meat (You can slice them or leave whole, depending on your preferences.
1. Peel garlic. Put garlic through garlic press and rub on all sides of brisket so the garlic flavor penetrates meat. The garlic massage is essential for the meat achieving ultimate briskethood.
2. Slice onions thinly and place half on bottom of two quart glass baking pan. Or use deep, covered roaster pan. (I use an enamel roasting pan with a tight-fitting lid that cleans up nicely.)
3. Pour beef broth or stock over onions.
4. Put brisket in baking pan. Baste meat with A-1 sauce on all sides.
5. Layer remaining onions on top of brisket.
6. Pour chili sauce on top of brisket.
7. Put bay leaf on either side of brisket.
8. Pour bottle of beer around brisket. A little more couldn’t hurt.
9. Add sliced mushrooms, carrots and small red potatoes, cut into pieces, if desired.
10. Cover tightly. Bake at 350 degrees for 4+ hours. Longer if brisket size warrants.
11. Remove pan from oven. Let stand for at least 1 hour.
Remove potatoes, carrots, etc. and gravy from pan. Place in large bowl to cool.
You will eventually place this in the refrigerator.
12. Remove brisket from pan and place on platter to cool for 3 hours.
Transfer brisket to cutting board and slice thinly with a sharp knife.
Transfer sliced brisket back to cooking pan and re-assemble with vegetables and gravy.
13. Warm up for an hour or so before serving so your home can smell deliciously welcoming when your guests walk through the door. Or refrigerate overnight and reheat before serving.
• Just remember, the brisket must cook for a long time. And cool. So if you cook at night, you’re in for a long commitment.
• Brisket gets better with age. I like to cook it the night before I serve it. Then warm it up after the flavors have had a chance to marry. It’s even better on Day 3.
• Caution: If you do not let brisket stand and cool, you will not be able to slice it easily.
Your brisket will, sadly, shred. You will be forced to run out and buy some
rotisserie chickens. Your guests will be disappointed.
• Pity your friends who eat no red meat, for they know not the pleasure of cold brisket sandwiches. Or hot brisket sandwiches with gravy poured over the bread. Especially challah.
• Brisket throws off a lot of fat. I skim the fat as often as possible. One effective way is to refrigerate your brisket, then skim off the fat that rises and solidifies with the cold.
• Instead of cooking potatoes with the brisket, I also like to roast potatoes separately from the meat and, in winter, a variety of root vegetables to serve with the meat.
What’s your favorite brisket story?