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Make a Better Brisket

With star chef Adam Sobel’s recipe, nobody has an excuse for dry, overcooked meat this Rosh Hashanah

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(Illustration Ivy Tashlik; source images and recipe photo (left) Shutterstock)
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My mother made great brisket when I was growing up: slow-cooked, more sour than sweet. We ate it every year for erev Rosh Hashanah, with Goodman’s tiny egg-noodle farfel. I loved it.

So, I never understood, when I was a child, why people made terrible jokes about dry, overcooked brisket. Now I know: Many people weren’t as lucky as I was.

Adam Sobel grew up eating tasteless brisket. His Roman Catholic mother had learned to make some Jewish dishes, like sweet-and-sour meatballs and matzo balls, from Adam’s Jewish paternal grandmother, but somehow she never got the knack of brisket. Today, Sobel—chef at Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C.—has learned how to cook brisket right, slow-cooked and braised in a slightly acidic sauce. Last year, his father called him before Rosh Hashanah with desperation in his voice. “Can’t you help Ma?” asked Neal Sobel, who lives in Hicksville, N.Y. “Talk to her about her brisket, she needs help.”

“I wasn’t insulted at all,” said Diane Sobel, Adam’s mom. So, phone in hand, Adam walked his mother through the steps of a good brisket. His tips are simple but useful for anyone who’s ever struggled with this Jewish staple. So, if you’re considering making a brisket for Rosh Hashanah, or any occasion, take a lesson from a master.

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Brisket has become the Jewish holiday cut of meat par excellence. But it wasn’t always so. In some countries, like France, butchers don’t even sell this cut of beef. American butchers tend to cut larger pieces of meat; 5- or 6-pound briskets or huge rib-eye steaks are the result of sawing through the muscle or the shoulder section of the animal, whereas French butchers cut around the contours of the muscles to yield more tender, but much smaller, cuts of meat.

Before the Civil War, Jews in America would eat dishes like chicken fricassee with meatballs, stuffed veal, or flanken (short ribs) for Rosh Hashanah. Then refrigerated trains came into existence, transferring large cuts of meat throughout the country. A whole brisket, a grainy American cut, became popular, mostly for people in Texas for slow-roasted barbecue. Jews became enamored of it, too, and cooked it long and braised, or gedempt fleysch.

“It lends itself to make a braised roast and you can forget about it,” noted Sanford Herskovitz, a Cleveland-based purveyor of meat known as Mr. Brisket. “It is a very forgiving cut of beef. Friday night, they would start it at 250 [degrees], and it was ready for Saturday lunch.”

Eventually, brisket became traditional for holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and, for many people, Passover. My late mother-in-law told me years ago that in Poland, whole briskets of beef (probably not our cuts, exactly) were reserved mostly for special occasions like weddings. In essence, one thing hasn’t changed: Brisket is what Jews cook for festive meals when large groups are gathered around the table.

The first important point when preparing a brisket is to buy the right meat and put it in the pan properly. Each brisket has a fattier side called the “point” and a leaner side called the “flat.” Mr. Brisket suggests buying a whole choice brisket, at least eight to 10 pounds including all the fat, rather than a “first cut,” because it’s more flavorful, and it saves money: “It is cheaper than only the first cut,” he said, “because the butcher separates the point and flat [in a first cut], making the meat too dry. The flavor is in the point.” And pay attention to how you place it in your roasting pan: “When brisket is roasting, the point should be up,” said Mr. Brisket. “When reheating, the point should be down.”

Recipes vary widely; Mr. Brisket’s favorite recipe uses Lipton onion soup mix, Heinz chili sauce, and Coca Cola. But all good brisket recipes have a few key things in common.

When Sobel worked his mother through his favorite recipe, he told her a few things he learned while a student at the Culinary Institute of America. “When it comes to traditional recipes, people automatically assume that when cooking a family recipe, you can’t vary from the technique that is listed in the recipe,” said Sobel, 32, who has cooked with many of America’s greatest cooks, like Daniel Boulud and Charlie Trotter. “My mom was cooking the brisket wrong all these years because she assumed that the recipe was the best way to do it, when in reality the technique was wrong.”

Sobel starts his brisket by searing the outside to develop more flavor. “My mom didn’t sear it,” he said, because the recipe she was following didn’t specify this step.

Like many young chefs of his generation, Sobel tries to go back to his family’s gastronomical roots at holidays. “I add grated horseradish and all the ingredients that are indigenous to Russia and used in the fall,” he said. This mire poix, diced vegetables that are cooked with the brisket to bring out the flavor, are not finely diced as they are in French dishes. For brisket they should be chunky, he said.

If there is one thing I have learned through the years, there has to be something acidic in the mix to help break down the proteins. Sobel puts in red wine vinegar but suggests that you could put in tomatoes or tomato sauce instead. To make a deeper sauce, he suggests using beef broth or red wine.

“My approach to cooking brisket is the same as for corned beef: slower and lower,” Sobel added. “The muscles get tougher at a higher temperature. I add enough liquid to barely cover, cover it, and let it go.” (Sobel’s best brisket recipe is included above.)

Sobel’s mother was very happy with the results. “He told me exactly what to do,” she said. “I don’t like to cook. Adam’s talent for cooking skipped me and came from my mom and Neal’s mom for the Jewish holidays.”

But Sobel’s mother already had one recipe that’s a perfect complement to a good brisket: For every Jewish holiday, she makes matzo cupcakes, a recipe that Sobel’s great-grandmother brought with her from Russia.

“When my mother makes the matzo cupcakes,” Sobel said, “they are awesome. Our family are dunkers, and they are great for soaking up the juices from the brisket.”

***

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The best brisket is no brisket. Much as I like and admire Joan Nathan, I do believe it is time to show more compassion in the world. In addition, the environment is much less impacted when animals are not raised for food. This would be a good time to give up the meat addiction and adopt a healthier, more compassionate and more earth-friendly diet. Joan, do show the way with some of your wonderful animal-free recipes.

    RuthGo says:

    This is really not the place for this kind of comment. I understand what you’re saying, you’re certainly entitled to hold your very legitimate beliefs, but this is a story about preparing and enjoying a traditional food, which yes, is an animal product.

Now I want the matzo cupcake recipe…

sedaliasteve says:

This is a rather late post but I tried the recipe this weekend and it was wonderful. I was raised in a Jewish enclave and my mom, grandmothers and aunts all could cook a great brisket. Some used a more tomato oriented gravy but that was also acidic. My Mom did have horse radish in it, a lot of horse radish. When I moved west to the land of the goyim I began to avoid brisket since it tended to be tough and dry. Only Texas BBQ’s could do a decent brisket. Maybe Tablet should see if Kinky Friedman has a Texas Jewish recipe.

leucippe says:

I vote for Nach Waxman’s brisket. It is beyond delicious. Try it.

6-pound first-cut beef brisket, trimmed so that a thin layer of fat remains

All-purpose flour, for dusting

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons corn oil

8 medium onions, peeled and thickly sliced

3 tablespoons tomato paste

Kosher salt

2 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled and quartered

1 carrot, peeled and trimmed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly dust brisket with flour, then sprinkle with pepper to taste.

Heat oil over medium-high heat in large ovenproof enameled cast-iron or other heavy pot with lid, just large enough to hold brisket snugly. Brown brisket on both sides until crusty brown areas appear here and there, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer brisket to platter.

Turn up heat a bit; add onions to pot. Stir constantly with wooden spoon, scraping up browned bits stuck to bottom of pot. Cook until onions have softened and developed a rich brown color, but aren’t yet caramelized, 10 to 15 minutes.

Turn off heat. Place brisket and any accumulated juices on onions. Spread tomato paste over brisket as if you were icing a cake. Sprinkle with salt and more pepper to taste. Add garlic and carrot to pot. Cover pot, transfer to oven and cook brisket 1 1/2 hours.

Transfer brisket to cutting board and, using very sharp knife, slice meat across grain into approximately 1/8-inch-thick slices. Return the slices to pot, overlapping them at an angle so you can see a bit of the top edge of each slice. Check seasonings and, if absolutely necessary, add 2 to 3 teaspoons of water to pot.

Cover the pot and return to oven. Lower heat to 325 degrees and cook brisket until fork-tender, about 2 hours. Check once or twice during cooking to make sure the liquid is not bubbling away. If it is, add a few teaspoons water — but not more. Also, each time you check, spoon some of liquid on top of roast so that it drips down between slices.

It is ready to serve with its juices, but in fact, it’s even better the second day. To do so, reheat, covered, about 1 hour in 325 degree oven.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sectionfront/life/brisket-a-love-story-new-cookbook-tells-all-about-a-traditional-comfort-food-224316/#ixzz2dkVKtvKG

Eileen Sklaroff says:

You cannot be serious – pay a king’s ransom for a piece of meat and more if you keep kosher as I do – and then ruin it with chemically infused, over salted, processed foods like Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix, Heinz Chili Sauce and (gak!) Coca Cola. I stopped eating meat almost two years ago but I still make Brisket a la Frances, my grandmother’s simple recipe, for my children on chagim and in between. It hasn’t one unnatural ingredient and like my grandmother’s, it is full of love.

Fortunately, I don’t have the experience of kvetching Jews about Jewish cooking.
All my upbringing wasn on kosher food and all delicious. Nothing dried out, nothing tough and all flavorful. Brisket, which I now make, is salt, pepper, some paprika and cut carrots as my mother did. Second cut is better and yes less expensive. Last year I bought it at huge Pomegranate supermarket in Brooklyn as there are no kosher butchers where I live in NYC any longer.
Only halal. Accompanying brisket is horseradish, fresh if I can find it. And potato kugel as my mother made it. Also any green veggie. Shana tova.

Helen Maryles Shankman says:

I can’t say this about a lot of things, but I do make awesome brisket. As the article says, it’s all about buying the right cut of beef. Kosher meat is ridiculously expensive; who can afford a whole brisket? The first cut is as dry and tough as shoe leather, there’s nothing you can do to save it. Get the second cut.

nice article!
question: the matzo cupcake recipe mentions onions in the instructions but there are no onions in the ingredient list.

Sue Ritter says:

As I went to gather ingredients to make Chef Sobel’s Cupcakes I read the ingredients and then the directions; no onions in the ingredients but instructions for sauteing of onions. I had to laugh because we used to accuse my husband’s grandmother of leaving out ingredients because then the recipe never tasted quite right. After many years she finally admitted that if the chicken soup did not taste quite right she would add Lipton’s dried chicken soup mix until is was just perfect!

So, how many onions?

Jacj Waserman says:

While the recipe reads/sounds great (and akin to some of my own versions), I am perplexed by the required ingredient of BEEF BROTH as the liquid. It is not quite “kosher” to require boiling a couple of pounds of beef to generate the beef broth to roast a big beef cut (which will generate its own juice. It appears to reflect lack of confidence in the flavor of the brisket, as well as ignoring the influence of the taste/kind of the beef broth. There must be alternatives. BTW, I have used cola, dilute ketchup/tomato paste +/- tomato juice, ginger ale, water+died onion soup…among other liquids, with good results. While I keep searching for a “better brisket”, I am discovering, to my great delight, that there are MANY good ones, each qualifying as “better”!

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Make a Better Brisket

With star chef Adam Sobel’s recipe, nobody has an excuse for dry, overcooked meat this Rosh Hashanah

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