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Published December 20, 2011, 11:30 PM

Brisket bragging rights: Cut of meat ‘transformed by love’

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.

By: Jackie Burrell, McClatchy Newspapers, INFORUM

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 may 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, 208 pages, $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 who are hosting a Hanukkah feast for the first time. It’s a culinary sharing that transcends borders, cultures and divides.

That was the message Pierson heard over and over again as she spent a year “brisketeering” with rabbis, butchers, bubbes and chefs, including Chris Kimball of Cooks Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen fame and Nach Waxman, the 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 may 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 that’s a list that 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. Banker will tweak those ingredients slightly when his award-winning restaurant hosts a week of four-course Hanukkah dinners, but the menu is all Mom, from the matzo ball soup to the brisket and latkes.

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. And 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.

But Pierson will be accompanying next week’s latkes with the version made by Roberta Greenberg, an assistant at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, where the brisket is so beloved, the rabbi keeps the recipe on the synagogue’s website. It includes just seven ingredients – including the brisket, salt and pepper. It’s not a difficult recipe, by any means, but it needs to be started three days before the big feast. And it’s the jellied cranberry sauce – yes, from a can – that’s the trick.

“It caramelizes into this intense lovely sweetness, braced with onions,” Pierson says.

Anyone’s bubbe would approve.

Temple Emanu-El Brisket

Serves 8-10

Note: This recipe is a favorite at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– “The Brisket Book: A Love Story With Recipes” by Stephanie Pierson (Andrews McMeel, 208 pages, $29.99)

Niman Ranch Branding Brisket With Bo’s Barbecue Sauce

Serves 10-12


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

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

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pat brisket dry with a paper towel and season with salt and pepper.

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

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

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

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

– “The Brisket Book: A Love Story With Recipes” by Stephanie Pierson (Andrews McMeel, 208 pages, $29.99)

Brisket tips

  • Go for the fat: Brisket comes in two cuts, first cut – which is flat – and brisket point, also known as second cut. If the recipe doesn’t specify, use whichever you prefer, but make sure it has some fat on it to ensure a moist brisket.

  • Slice across the grain: Devotees may argue the pros and cons of thick vs. thin sliced, but they all agree on one thing: Cutting it across the grain makes for a tender, toothsome meal. Cutting with the grain is a recipe for tough and stringy.

  • Make it ahead: Brisket tastes better made a day ahead, refrigerated in its own gravy or juices, and then reheated.