Brisket isn't a dish you make every day (most of us only cook it a few times a year), so it helps to have a refresher — especially when making it in the slow cooker. Just a few tips will ensure your brisket braises into its tangy, tender best.
Avoid these common pitfalls and you'll be rewarded with a fork-tender brisket you will be proud to serve.
1. Picking any ol' cut of beef brisket.
When it comes to a classic beef brisket — that is, a dish of braised beef and onions we often associate with Sunday dinners, not the peppered and smoked brisket from BBQ joints — not just any cut of beef will get you there. Beef brisket is sold in two cuts: the flat and the point.
Go for the flat cut: Choose a flat cut, if available. The flat will be more square-shaped than triangular and have a lovely fat cap on the top. Don't see a flat in the case at the supermarket? Bug the butcher — most stores have it on hand and can cut you just the right size for your table too.
2. Trimming away all that tenderizing fat.
You've got the brisket home, the vegetables cut, and the slow cooker readied — now is the time to tackle the brisket itself. That rich, white fat cap you admired in the store is now giving you pause. You don't want the finished brisket to be too fatty, but you'd also hate to have a dry brisket.
Keep it fatty: The fat cap will protect the brisket from drying out during the long, slow cook and baste the brisket as the fat slowly melts. You can remove the excess fat after the brisket is completely cooked and cooled.
3. Seasoning too late.
You're planning to braise your beef in either a mixture of cooked onions, beef broth, tomato paste (or ketchup), and you might be concerned that adding any salt to the beef will leave you with something more like salty beef jerky.
Salt and pepper the brisket directly: Brisket has a thick layer of fat and lots of connective tissue that needs to be penetrated in order to make fork-tender beef. Seasoning the brisket directly before you braise it helps the salt to penetrate the fat and get deep into the meat. Don't skip salting the beef, but hold back on salting the onions or braising liquid.
4. Browning (or not browning) the brisket before braising.
Browning the beef in a hot skillet before braising is commonplace for oven-cooked briskets — you've already got a hot pan, so it makes sense to use it to add a little more flavor to the finished dish. For a slow cooker braised brisket, browning is optional depending on the recipe. I bet that feels a little ambiguous. Here's what to know.
Know when to brown: For a streamlined brisket with onions, browning the brisket brings out the beefy flavor you're after. Classic, tangy tomato-based brisket doesn't need browning — instead use a hot skillet to brown the onions for deeper sweetness.
5. Thinking you can't overcook it.
The goal with most meat made in the slow cooker is that fall-apart, shred-with-forks texture, but braised slow cooker brisket is not trying to be pulled beef. Leaving your brisket unattended for 10 to 12 hours is not an option; if you go that route, the brisket can go from tender to mush.
Know when it's done: A three-pound beef brisket will take six to eight hours in the slow cooker. You'll know it is done when it can be easily shredded around the edges, but isn't falling apart. If you were to hold the brisket over the slow cooker with tongs, it should bend readily in the middle, but not break. This is the perfect texture for sliceable beef brisket that each diner can cut with a fork.