Why the humble beef brisket inspires such devotion, and the recipes and tips you need to make your own tender and delicious version
For such a humble dish, brisket is a multicultural wonder with reference points that span the globe. Consider France's pot au feu, Texas-style barbecued brisket, Ireland and America's corned beef, and of course the braised brisket that is central to so many Passover seders and Rosh Hashanah gatherings. And with so many communities celebrating a brisket tradition, it's not surprising that just about everyone has a brisket story: "Our recipe is a combination of my mother's and my mother-in-law's -- all onions, one carrot, no potatoes." "My family is so blended and extended, we have 18 family brisket recipes to choose from." "The way I knew my brother-in-law forgave us was when, after four years of not speaking, he mailed us his favorite brisket recipe." Beef brisket is (sorry, meatball lovers) the ultimate comfort food. A well-cooked brisket is meltingly tender, soothing, savory, warming, and welcoming. No wonder families pass brisket recipes down like heirlooms.
Ask someone, "Do you have a brisket recipe?" And the answer is almost always: "Do I have a brisket recipe? I have the best brisket recipe ever!" A brisket lover is likely to insist it can be properly made only with onions or stout or miso or cranberry -- and you can finish that sentence with any number of ingredients. Some add Coca-Cola, while others scoff. Still others roll their eyes if you use grape jelly or pour in even trace amounts of red wine vinegar. Some brisket cooks insist on browning; others object; still others recommend browning if you have time. The truth is, they're all right. As my friend Phyllis Cohen, a New York psychotherapist and a mean brisket maker, told me: "With all other meats, there's a right way and a wrong way. With brisket, there's only my way."
SEE MORE: Brisket Just Like Grandma Used to Make
Infinite recipe variations notwithstanding, there are only three basic ways to actually cook brisket: barbecuing, brining (as in corned beef), and braising, which is by far the most popular. And there are a few simple techniques that everybody (well, almost everybody) agrees on. Brisket may not be a consensus dish, but it's also not a complicated one. You don't need to do anything tricky or add any fancy ingredients to produce a dish with deep, mouthwatering flavor. Here are eight tips to help you on your way to meat so tender and delicious, you'll be the one insisting you have the best brisket recipe ever.
Know Your Cuts: Butchers generally cut a whole brisket (it comes from the chest of the steer) crosswise in half so there are two briskets. The flatter one is the first cut, or "flat," and that's what you'll find in most supermarkets. The second cut, or "point," is thicker and has more fat. "Second" cut doesn't mean second best -- either cut works wonderfully. No matter which you buy, about one-quarter inch of fat is all that's required to keep the meat from drying out. How much fat to trim and when is a matter of personal preference: You can remove the fat prior to braising or wait until the cooked meat cools and then skim the excess fat.
Buy What's Best -- For You: Kosher, corn-fed, grass-fed, grain-finished -- it depends on your diet, your ethics, your religion, your palate, your budget, and where you shop. Yes, the taste will vary, but every one of those options can produce an excellent brisket. Supermarkets will offer fewer choices, so if a particular pedigree is important to you, head to the butcher or farmers' market.
Choose the Right Pot: For beautifully braised brisket, use an ovenproof enameled cast-iron pot, Dutch oven, or casserole dish. Whichever vessel you use, be sure it's sturdy and heavy-bottomed, and fits the meat snugly.
SEE MORE: A Texan Take on Brisket
Get a Tight Seal: With rare exceptions, braised briskets are cooked tightly covered. A lid is ideal, but you can also cover a pot or casserole dish with heavy-duty foil, making sure to seal the edges.
Go Low and Slow: "Low and slow" is the cooking mantra for braised brisket, with the oven temperature hovering between 300°F and 350°F. And patience is a virtue. Take a tip from the Supremes: "You can't hurry love." Or the Beatles: "Let it be." To be more specific: Brisket takes around three or four hours. Sometimes more. The same is true for brined (corned beef) and barbecued brisket: Brined brisket is gently simmered for several hours on the stove, while barbecued brisket is slowly smoked (using wood chips) over a low flame.
Mind Your Moisture: When braising, you'll want to keep about one half to two thirds of the brisket covered with liquid at all times. (Too much liquid and you're stewing rather than braising.) If you're new to braising -- or nervous -- you won't do any harm by lifting the lid or foil and checking to see that there's enough liquid left. Likewise, if you're simmering (the most common method for corned beef brisket), you may need to add more water during the cooking process to keep the meat covered. If you're barbecuing the brisket, frequent basting is required to keep the meat moist.
Braise in Advance: Like many soups and stews, braised brisket generally tastes better a day or two after it's made. Store it overnight in the refrigerator and keep it, if possible, in the pot it was cooked in, sitting in gravy or its own juices. To serve the next day, trim any extra fat from the meat (if necessary), then slice the meat against the grain and reheat it slowly on the stovetop, along with all the glorious gravy from the cooking pot.
Save the Leftovers: After all your tender, loving efforts, the brisket may get eaten up so fast that you'll wonder whether there will be enough for brisket sandwiches later. Brined and barbecued meat is perfect simply piled on bread. But braised brisket can be shredded, using two forks, and turned into sliders -- or, depending on the flavor profile, used in tacos or burritos.
For more delicious brisket recipes, visit Epicurious.com.
New York-based writer Stephanie Pierson is the author of The Brisket Book: A Love Story with Recipes. Her work has also appeared in Saveur, The New York Times, and New York magazine. For more on Pierson, go to Steviepierson.com.
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