Wednesday, May 16, 2012


They say that my grandmother cooked two briskets every week during tax season. In  the 1960s, becoming one of the first female CPAs in Maryland did not excuse her from getting a hot dinner on the table. My mother reports coming home from school every afternoon to the same note: Set the table. Make a salad. Heat the brisket. Think of the discipline involved in training your family to eat brisket every night! Mine complain if we eat the same thing twice in a week. I do make a lot of brisket, though, for the same reason my grandmother did: it allows you to cook a decent meal when you have time, and serve it when you don't. BUT. . .

You know all those recipes that tell you brisket is as simple as dumping the meat in a crockpot with ketchup and soy sauce? You know the tooth fairy was actually your mom, right? Shortcuts will give you something edible, but no one's going to be asking you for the recipe, if you know what I mean. Be realistic: It's $20 worth of stringy meat and it feeds 10 people. You're going to have to put in some effort here. And it has to chill overnight in the fridge, or else you'll end up with jagged strings swimming in fat.

The whole brisket is composed of a long, flat piece called the first cut, and a triangular piece attached to it by a thick layer of fat, known as the second cut or deckel. Typically, stores present a first cut trimmed of the fat as the most desirable way to purchase brisket. If that's what you get, your brisket will still be good. But I think you're better off getting a whole brisket with some of the fat left on. This isn't a ribeye steak that you can just salt and sear; it has to cook for four hours. Without a fair amount of fat, it will dry out and never become tender. I try to buy the whole piece, and defat it to my own requirements.

I wish I could tell you that grass fed brisket is better for the earth and better for you. That would be a total lie. Sorry. Even if the rancher didn't supplement the feed with fishmeal (not tasty), the grassfed meat will still be much stringier than meat from a feedlot cow. You may be happier with meat from a happy cow, which I totally respect. I'm just putting it out there.

Five fist-sized yellow or white onions
1/4 C oil
kosher salt
Black Pepper
6 oz can tomato paste
3-4 whole carrots
6 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves, if you have them around
1 5-lb brisket

Slice the onions in thick half-moons and brown them with the oil and a teaspoon of kosher salt in the largest skillet you can find.  Despit what many authors will tell you, it takes about 35 minutes to brown the onions. Longer if you double the recipe and the pan is crowded. And I totally recommend you make at least two and freeze what you don't need -  you're already going to have to clean the pan, you might as well get two meals out of it. If you can stand to wash another dish, you can speed the process by browning the meat in another pan at the same time. Or just get on with something else, since you only have to give the onions a stir every few minutes. And if you don't feel like going to the trouble, just throw the onions in with the brisket raw - that's what my grandmother did.

When the onions are brown, move half of them to a bowl, and the rest to the pan you'll be baking in. I recommend a rectangular casserole that will also look pretty on the table, but a 9x13 pan will also work fine. Return the skillet to the burner, sprinkle the meat with kosher salt, and sear it fat side down in the hot pan. Once you get a thick, brown crust, flip it over and do the same to the second side. While you're waiting peel the carrots, slice the garlic thinly, and arrange them around the edge of the onions.

Put the brisket on top of the onions, and spread the tomato paste over the meat like frosting. Yes, I know this seems like a crazy amount of tomato paste. But I haven't lied to you yet, so give it a try. Sprinkle salt and pepper over, and then put the rest of the onions on top of the tomato paste. If you skip this, the acidic tomato paste will eat away at the aluminum foil when you cover the meat. And not in a good way.

If you have bay leaves, stick them in the corners, cover the pan tightly with foil, and bake for a couple of hours at 350. As long as you are careful to seal the edges well to stop the juices evaporating, any time between ninety minutes and five hours is fine, so don't rush home to take it out of the oven. When you do get around to it, cool the meat on the counter for a couple of hours and then chill in the fridge overnight. In the winter, I just leave mine on the porch under something heavy to keep raccoons out. By morning, your brisket will be covered in an unappetizing layer of orange fat. Contemplate the fact that, in the Old Country, they worked hard enough to spread this on bread like butter. Thank your lucky stars you're here and now, then spoon off as much of the stuff as possible.

Not going to convert any vegetarians with this picture. 
If your brisket was already trimmed of most of the fat when you bought it, just slice the meat thinly on a cutting board (I aim for 1/4"), removing any huge chunks of white fat. Return it to the pan, cut the carrots in chunks and arrange them around the meat, and take a bite to check for seasoning. Add salt to your own taste and put the foil back. If you had a very fatty whole brisket, you may want to scrape off the tomato paste and onions, defat the meat, slice and arrange it in the pan with the carrots, and re-cover it with the onions and tomato. This is a total pain in the a**, I know. But now you're finished and you can plastic wrap the whole thing and freeze it, or refrigerate it for a couple of days. All the work is done.

Incidentally, this is what makes brisket superior to other pot roasts. When you slice brisket, you cut the muscle fibers short enough that diners don't have to chew through them. Even a tender chuck roast has fibers an inch long.

The day you  want to serve the meat, just cook it at 350 for a couple of hours, or however long is convenient. Don't forget to make the foil tight so your brisket doesn't dry out.You'll want to add an extra hour if you put it in the oven frozen. I leave mine to cool on the counter for half an hour before I serve it, so that the meat is still hot, but I can put the pan on the table. All you have to do is set the table and make a salad, and you're good to go.

1 comment:

  1. Guess brisket doesn't come sliced ;)
    You put much hard work into our delicious Shabbat dinner. You're the BEST!