As the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approached, I got a hankering for brisket. Not some fancy or hipster recipe, but the kind that would transport me to the days when hours of cooking were the norm and preparation began days or weeks before a holiday meal.
With an image and no particular recipe in mind, I potchkied (loose translation from the Yiddish – tinkered) around and added a little of this and that until I put the brisket in to cook – and even then I still added a bit more of one ingredient or maybe two. If this reminds you of how your grandmother or aunts cooked – or maybe a favorite uncle or your father, then we’re from the same world, if not the same religion.
Brisket is slow cooked meat in sauce with vegetables. The version I yearned for reflects my Eastern European (Ashkenazic) Jewish roots, but no matter what your cultural and ethnic background, I’ll bet you’ve tasted and enjoyed a variation on this theme.
Like many of my cooking adventures, the journey was as important to me as the destination. The proof may be in the eating, but I like to get there with my sanity intact and hopefully with a smile on my face.
I realized that the most fitting way for me to welcome the Jewish Year 5775 would be to give you my tips on this traditional dish, hope that you use them to make a delicious meal for your family and friends, and to wish you a happy and healthy holiday and year to come. If you want a recipe for this slow-cooked, one-pot meal, here’s the version I made this year.
7 Tips for Perfect Brisket
- The right equipment – There are 3 essential pieces of equipment for brisket-making (besides the “normal” stuff – cutting board, stirring spoons, etc.): a heavy pot large enough to hold your brisket with a tight-fitting lid, a heavy meat or carving fork to lift the meat, and a large and sharp knife for cutting the brisket once it is cooked
- Starting off with the meat – Brisket is a tough cut of meat from the lower chest of a cow. It is relatively flat and typically has fat on one side. Although eventually, you’ll discard the fat, leave at least some of it on during cooking to flavor the dish. The first step in cooking is to lightly flour and then sear the brisket on all sides; that browning process holds in the juices while it cooks.
- Be creative with aromatics, liquid and later vegetables – If you research brisket recipes, you’ll soon realize that flavor combinations are limited only by your imagination. Onions are traditional, slowly caramelized to bring out their sweetness. For this brisket, I added garlic, fresh thyme, and dried figs, using a combination of dry white wine, beef broth and canned tomatoes with their juice as the liquid. About half-way though cooking, I added chunks of carrot, turnips, and potato.
- Cook it low and slow – You can simmer brisket on the stovetop or cook it in the oven. Either way, the key is long and slow in a tightly closed pot. I prefer the oven method, because the heat is evenly distributed all around the pot. I cooked my 4¾-pound brisket for over 4 hours – the cooking time is dependent on a host of factors, so yours may vary. The bottom line is that you have to check the brisket, piercing it with the meat fork, until it is so tender that the fork easily slips all the way through the meat at its thickest point.
- Don’t panic, improvise – If you use 2-3 cups of liquid and the liquid looks low after 1-2 hours, add some more. If you taste the sauce and it doesn’t have enough zip even though you used the amount of seasonings specified in your recipe (or that you thought would be sufficient) add more. When you are tasting the sauce, make sure your sense are fresh or get someone else to taste. While the aroma of brisket cooking is intoxicating, being in the kitchen for a while can make it difficult to tell whether the sauce needs adjustments.
- Let it rest – Brisket always tastes better the second day – or the third. This time I did my brisket in a 3-day process: on day 1 I seared the meat and added liquid on the first night and refrigerated it in the covered pot, uncooked, overnight; on day 2 I cooked the meat, adding vegetables about half-way through, refrigerating it again overnight, this time with the meat separated from the sauce and vegetables; and today, on day 3, I’ll slice the meat, skim the fat off the sauce, adjust the seasonings one more time, and re-warm them with the vegetables.
- Slice and enjoy! – Brisket should always be sliced thinly, against the grain. It may not all stay in neat slices, but the little shreds are delicious too.