Food & Drink

Brisket: No other cut of meat evokes such feelings of home, happiness and cultural continuity

It's all about the beauty of the brisket, as photographed at studio kitchen in Walnut Creek, California, December 9, 2011. (Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times/MCT)
It's all about the beauty of the brisket, as photographed at studio kitchen in Walnut Creek, California, December 9, 2011. (Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times/MCT) MCT

If you ever doubted the passion with which diners regard brisket, look no further than the online discussion boards of sites like Chow, Eater and Serious Eats — or any Jewish Community Center gathering. That's where you'll find devotees discussing, kibitzing and arguing about Lipton onion soup, the thickness of the slice and the perfection of their mothers' recipes.

"Every culture has a version," says Stephanie Pierson, author of what might be the world's first brisket-centric cookbook, and every family says theirs is the best. It's a pride thing. It's also a love thing, which is why Pierson's book, The Brisket Book (Andrews McMeel, $29.99), carries the subtitle A Love Story With Recipes.

There's probably no other cut of meat that evokes such feelings of home, happiness and cultural continuity.

"We have lost our mother tongues," she says, "changed our last names and moved all over the world, (but) we have somehow managed not to lose our recipes for brisket."

Instead, those scraps of paper — tattered index cards filled with spidery jottings about oven temperatures and flavorful additions — are passed from bubbe to granddaughter, shared with college roommates and then emailed to boyfriends, cousins and friends of friends. It's a culinary sharing that transcends borders, cultures and divides.

That was the message Pierson heard over and over as she spent a year "brisketeering" with rabbis, butchers, bubbes and chefs, including Chris Kimball of Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen fame, and Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters.

"For a tough cut of meat that's not a big superstar, it has this amazing provenance of being part of communities and families all over the world," Pierson says.

Brisket might lack the sexiness of a sirloin, Pierson says, or the va-va-voom of a filet, but no matter what you add to that inexpensive, tough cut of meat — and the list ranges from miso to Dr Pepper — brisket is transformed by one thing.

It's love, says Jeff Banker, executive chef at San Francisco's Baker & Banker, "For it to be good, you have to put a lot of love into it."

Banker's mother rubbed her brisket with spices and let it marinate overnight before giving it a quick searing to lock in the juices. Then she'd top it with ketchup, onion and that quintessential, mid-20th century ingredient — Lipton onion soup — and cook it for hours.

The Lipton onion soup-sprinkled variation is a classic of our times, Pierson says. It's a riff of sorts on the classic Ashkenazic preparation, which is rich with savory onions. Pierson's former best friend's ex-mother-in-law's recipe combines the onion soup mix with ketchup, chili sauce and Malbec to produce a sweet, tomatoey sauce. Others add beer to the mix. Still others toss in pomegranate juice, gingerbread and/or coffee.

Pierson is an expert on the topic now, but despite having a Jewish father and growing up in a "Jewish-WASPy household," the self-described "brisket orphan" didn't have her first taste of the glorious entree until she was in her 20s. "It was love at first bite," she says.

Now, after sampling briskets from coast to coast, Pierson is hard put to name a favorite. She loves the recipe offered by Bill Niman of Niman Ranch fame, who bridges the braised-barbecue barrier with an oven-braised roast and a sauce created by Bo McSwine, owner of Lafayette's Bo's Barbecue. And Kimball's test kitchen version, she says, is perfection.

Here are recipes from her book.


This recipe is a favorite at New York City's Temple Emanu-El.

Temple Emanu-El brisket

4-5 pound beef brisket

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon paprika

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

4 large onions, peeled and cut into eighths

2 14-ounce cans jellied cranberry sauce, sliced

Sprinkle both sides of brisket with garlic powder, paprika, salt and pepper. Tightly cover brisket with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 days.

When you're ready to finish the dish, preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Unwrap brisket, place it in a roasting pan and roast for 20 minutes on each side. Remove pan from oven and decrease temperature to 350 degrees. Place onions under and around brisket, then cover top of meat with cranberry sauce slices. Tightly cover pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil and cook until fork-tender, about 3 hours.

Remove pan from oven and allow brisket to cool. Transfer brisket to cutting board, trim fat, then slice meat against the grain to desired thickness. Return slices to pot, overlapping them at an angle so you can see a bit of the top edge of each slice, cover pan with foil and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, remove any congealed fat from top of sauce. Heat brisket, covered, at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, then, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes, until hot and sauce has reduced a bit. Serve with the sauce.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Niman Ranch branding brisket with Bo's barbecue sauce

For brisket:

6-pound beef brisket

Kosher salt, black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 yellow onions, thinly sliced

10 sprigs thyme

1 cup dry red wine

2 cups beef stock

For Bo's sauce:

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ yellow onion, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 cup ketchup

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper

Kosher salt

To prepare brisket: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pat brisket dry with paper towel, and season with salt and pepper.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a Dutch oven — or a large, high-sided, ovenproof saute pan with lid — over high heat. Add brisket and cook, turning once for 2 to 3 minutes a side, until lightly browned. Transfer to plate.

Add remaining tablespoon olive oil to pan and reduce heat to medium-high. Add onions and thyme, and cook, stirring often, for about 3 minutes, or until onions begin to brown. Add wine, and cook 1 minute. Add stock, and bring to a boil. Return brisket to the pan, cover and bake until fork-tender, 3 to 4 hours.

Remove brisket from oven, transfer to plate and let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or until chilled enough to slice easily. Discard pan juices.

To prepare sauce: Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic, and cook, stirring often, for 2 to 3 minutes, until soft. Stir in ketchup, lemon juice, Worcestershire, brown sugar, mustard, pepper and crushed red pepper. Bring to boil and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until sugar melts. Season to taste with salt. Serve with sliced brisket.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Chef Todd Gray serves this brisket at Equinox Restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Classic braised beef brisket

2 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon mustard seed

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3-pound beef brisket

2 sprigs rosemary

2 sprigs thyme

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 quart veal or beef stock

1 cup dry red wine

½ cup balsamic vinegar

In small bowl, combine salt, paprika, mustard and pepper. Rub brisket all over with spice mix.

In large heavy skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat until hot. Add brisket and brown evenly on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes a side. Transfer brisket to ovenproof baking dish just large enough to hold brisket snugly. Add rosemary and thyme, garlic, stock, wine and vinegar. Cover dish with heavy-duty aluminum foil and bake until brisket is fork-tender, 3 to 4 hours.

Transfer brisket to cutting board and cover with foil to keep warm. Strain pan liquid into saucepan and reduce over medium heat to about 2½ cups, with a glaze consistency. Check seasonings. Slice brisket across grain and drizzle with sauce.

Makes 6 servings.