Our Mostly Frequently Asked Brisket Questions, Answered
One side effect of the pandemic that’s recently taken hold of me is increased nostalgia. Now that summer is fading into fall, I’m longing for brisket. Not the way that Texans make brisket, but the way Jewish grandmothers of European descent make it.
See, I’m Jewish, but not religious. I couldn’t tell you the last time I sat down for a holiday meal with my family in South Florida. But September is here, and my internal calendar knows that that means Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is close (it begins Friday, September 18 this year). And suddenly I’m aching for my grandmother’s brisket.
Speaking with her on the phone recently, I pressed her for the details. “You make it with onion soup, right?” Yes, she says, a packet of Lipton’s onion soup is the secret ingredient in her recipe. She also adds crushed tomatoes, which offer acidity and make the meat juicy.
The recipe she makes is the same one her mother made. “My family used to be all about cooking,” she says. Like me, she’s feeling more nostalgic than usual these days. “I wish I could call my sister and talk about cooking,” she adds, while I feel supremely grateful that I can still do exactly that with her.
Zach Engel, the chef-owner of Galit in Chicago, tells me with a laugh, “I think a lot of times people tend to blow out of proportion how good their mom or grandma’s brisket is.” He comes from a family of “not great cooks,” but of course grew up eating brisket every year for Rosh Hashanah dinner (his mom’s brisket was fine).
As much as I wish I could sink my teeth into my grandmother’s brisket this year, I figured I should take a more modern approach when I make my own. So I asked Engel to share his method of preparing brisket. It’s time-consuming, but the result is worth it and will almost cure your nostalgia.
Before we get into the method and technique, I had some questions for Engel about the process (and I bet you do, too). Here are some things to know before you even step foot in the grocery store.
All of Your Burning Brisket Questions, Answered
What type of brisket do I need to buy?
You’ll want to buy a brisket flat (as opposed to the fattier, thinner point part of the chest muscle). Also plan on buying an 8-ounce can of tomato paste, a white onion, potatoes and other veggies of choice (like squash), and a bottle of red wine.
How much brisket do I need?
Most brisket flats start around two pounds and go up from there. If you’re feeding about three to four people, two pounds should be enough. If you can’t get a smaller piece, plan on freezing the leftovers.
How long will this take?
Roasting a brisket takes a lot of time, which is great if you’re not really leaving the house that much these days, anyway. You need to plan on two days for dry brining the meat, at least four hours for roasting it, and one night of resting the prepared brisket.
Should I trim the brisket’s fat?
No! Leave the fat. Trimming it will make it dry. When the brisket cooks, the fat will render into the sauce and you can remove extra fat on the meat after cooking.
Will my brisket taste as good as my grandmother’s brisket?
Honestly, probably better.
How to Cook Traditional Brisket Like a Chef
Coat the brisket in salt and cinnamon.
First, Engel likes to do a dry brine which means coating the brisket in kosher salt (“Use way more than you think you need,” he says) and your choice of seasoning. Since the brisket will eventually be cooked with tomato sauce, Engel also likes to use smoked cinnamon, but whatever cinnamon you have in your spice cabinet will work fine, too.
Coat the brisket heavily in the seasonings and place it in a large zip-top bag in the fridge for two days. Take it out of the fridge two hours before you plan on roasting to let it come to room temperature.
Prepare a tomato sauce.
Chop a white onion and sauté it in a saucepan over medium-high heat until softened and onions begin to brown. Season with spices of your choice. When the pan starts picking up the fond (brown bits from the onion), add about one cup of tomato paste.
Combine the onion and tomato paste, and let the tomato paste caramelize (which will give it a rich umami flavor, says Engel). Deglaze the pan with a little bit of red wine. Spread the mixture on the bottom of your roasting pan.
Sear the brisket.
Before you roast the brisket, sear it. You can do this under the broiler for a few minutes on each side, or you can throw it in a pan on high heat on your stove. “You want to get caramelization on the outside of the meat so that your brisket has a little bit of texture after you cook it in the liquid, because otherwise it can get mushy and fall apart,” says Engel. This also forms a salty crust on the brisket and amplifies the aroma from the seasonings.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Get the brisket situated in the pan.
Place the seared brisket on the tomato base. Add enough water to the roasting pan to cover about two thirds of the brisket. This is also a great time to add additional veggies like chopped potatoes, zucchini, squash, or a combination.
Tightly wrap the roasting pan in heavy-duty aluminum foil (or double wrap if you don’t have heavy-duty). “You want to really make sure it’s airtight, and you’ll know that it’s airtight if you look in your oven after a couple of hours, and the foil is ballooning up, like water vapor is trying to escape from the pan. That means you’re good, because you’re circulating the humidity inside,” he says.
Go low and slow.
Just as Texans do with their smoker, we do with our ovens: low and slow. Roast the brisket for at least four hours. You’re not cooking it to a temperature (after four hours it’s going to be well past the safe-to-eat temp), but instead you’re looking for the brisket to be tender. At around four hours, poke the brisket with a fork or shake it with a pair of tongs and see if it’s tender. If so, you’re done.
Rest the brisket.
You could eat the brisket the night of, but Engel doesn’t recommend it. Letting it rest in its braising juices overnight lets the brisket develop its flavor, he says. The next day, when it’s time to warm it up, wrap the pan in foil again and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.
Go against the grain.
When it’s time to serve the brisket, slice the meat against the grain. “If you cut with it, everything’s going to fall apart, and you’re not going to get those really nice slices that stay together.”
Serve it up.
If everyone you’re serving lives in your house, arrange the brisket slices on a platter and arrange the roasted veggies on it, too. (If you’re entertaining guests, you may want to consider plating everything ahead of time).
You could pour the braising juices on top of the brisket as is. One way to level-up the braising juices, though, is to make them into a gravy. Engel says that an easy, flourless way to do this is to take the onions from the tomato base and push them through a colander, and then combine them with the braising liquids. “Then push that through a fine mesh sieve, and you’ll get this really velvety thickened sauce without having to add flour or anything,” he says.