It would be easy to limit my red meat coverage to recipes that focus on high-end gourmet cuts. Who doesn’t enjoy a juicy rib steak or flavorful pork chops? (Vegetarians, you might as well stop reading now. You are unlikely to find much of interest in this essay or the recipe that follows – other than how to make a roux – but I’ll write something specifically for you in a future column. I promise.)
Yes, New York steaks and rack of lamb are delicious and a cinch to prepare, but easy preparation isn’t as interesting as perfecting the techniques needed to properly cook inexpensive or less-tender cuts of meat. Truth? The inexpensive cuts are often far more flavorful than the pricey ones, as long as they are handled with care.
Despite being inexpensive, brisket rarely made an appearance on our table when I was growing up in the Midwest, probably because low, slow cooking methods weren’t my mother’s forte. When it did appear, it was in the sad form of thin, dry slices of beef leather. I remained convinced that I didn’t like brisket until I was well into my 20s and living in Texas. That was when I discovered how flavorful and delicious brisket can become in the hands of a knowledgeable cook.
For me, brisket was the first in a series of culinary epiphanies. The recollection of luscious, tender brisket and beef ribs lovingly slow-smoked by Goode Company Barbeque on Kirby Drive in Houston can still make me swoon, and are some of my favorite memories from my years in Texas. Ribs! Brisket! With such rich, deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas flavor, no sauce was ever needed — the meat could stand alone. Ah, but I digress.
At the risk of riling up my Texas friends and starting yet another Texas versus Alaska feud, I’m going out on a limb with this next proclamation. Great brisket can be prepared without – yes, I said without – using a smoker or barbecue grill. Yes, I hear the howls of dissent. But before you discount other methods for cooking brisket, keep in mind that I live in a place where winter can last for 7 months and temperatures can easily reach 20 below zero. Indoor cooking is easier in Alaska. Cooking is also one of the ways I keep my sanity during the long, dark months of winter.
Beef brisket, in my opinion, is one of the more misunderstood cuts of beef. To the uninitiated it appears similar to steak, a deception that tricks far too many cooks
into playing hot and fast with cooking temperature and time. Slow down with this cut. If you try to cook brisket too fast the ensuing meal will inevitably disappoint you and dismay your dinner guests. Don’t blame the hapless brisket — the beef won’t be to blame. Tincture of time is an important consideration when cooking lower-end choices.
A long, slow braise with aromatics and herbs results in a moist, flavorful, and fork-tender brisket that is perfect for a casual Sunday supper. Brisket also can be dressed up for company, making it an easy dinner to serve while entertaining guests. Most of the preparation can be done a day or two in advance.
No matter how many people you plan to feed, heed this tip: Prepare the brisket a day in advance so the meat can cool and sit refrigerated in the braising liquid overnight. The following day it will be a cinch to thinly slice the chilled brisket against the grain and then gently re-warm it in the thickened braising jus.
There is one more very important tip to keep in mind. Always – always – cook more brisket than you think you will need to feed your guests. It is imperative that you have enough leftovers to make these killer brisket sandwiches with caramelized onions and peppers.
Slow Cooked Beef Brisket
1 5 pound beef brisket (do not trim the fat)
3 cups beef stock
1 cup good quality red wine
3 Tbsps fresh oregano (or 3 tsps dried)
2 Tbsps fresh thyme (or 2 tsps dried)
3 bay leaves
5 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
Ground black pepper
2 Tbsps olive oil
1. Place the brisket in an enameled Dutch oven or other large non-reactive pan, fat side up. Combine the stock, wine, oregano, thyme, and bay leaves and pour the mixture over the meat. Tuck the garlic cloves and onions around the brisket. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.
2. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Carefully remove the brisket from the Dutch oven and scrape the herbs back into the reserved marinade/braising liquid.
3. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and liberally season it with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium high heat and carefully brown the brisket, approximately 3 minutes per side. Do not overcook or the meat will toughen.
4. Place the browned brisket back in the Dutch oven with the braising liquid, fat side up. If the liquid does not almost cover the meat, add a bit more stock. Bring the liquid to a gentle boil over medium high heat. Remove from heat, cover tightly, and place the pot in the preheated 275 degree oven. Braise for 3 to 3 1/2 hours, or until the brisket feels fork tender.
You can serve the brisket at this stage, but I don’t recommend it. The meat will gain additional flavor – and be easier to slice – if it is allowed to chill in the braising liquid overnight. But if you can’t wait for delayed gratification, just skip the next step and enjoy your brisket in the moment.
If you have patience, let the brisket chill thoroughly before removing it to a large cutting board. Slice thinly across the grain with a sharp carving knife. Remove the bay leaves from the braising liquid and, if desired, add 2 tablespoons of roux* (see below) to thicken the sauce and bring it to a simmer. Place the sliced brisket back in the thickened sauce to re-warm. Serve with your choice of mashed potatoes, griddled Brussels sprouts, glazed carrots, and crusty French bread.
Slow Cooked Beef Brisket: The Sequel
I love brisket in sandwiches, but it doesn’t have to be corned beef or brisket slathered in BBQ sauce. In many ways I’m a purist, so using the leftover slow-braised brisket in these sandwiches is a perfect option. Better yet, why wait for leftovers? I’ve made brisket specifically for these guilt-free sandwiches. Avoid hamburger buns and use Kaiser rolls — they’re sturdy enough to stand up to the beef and trimmings.
1 1/2 to 2 pounds slow cooked brisket (6 to 8 ounces per sandwich)
4 large crusty Kaiser rolls
2 Tbsps butter
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced in rings
1 red pepper, thinly sliced in rings with seeds removed
2 Tbsps olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
1. Re-warm the brisket slices in a small amount of braising liquid, then drain and keep warm
2. Slice the Kaiser rolls in half, butter each half, and toast on a griddle until warm and nicely browned.
3. Meanwhile sauté the onion in 1Tbsp olive oil over medium high heat until soft and caramelized. Sprinkle with salt to taste, then set aside. Quickly sauté the red pepper rings in the remaining 1 Tbsps olive oil. Do not overcook the pepper rings – they’re best when they retain their shape and a slight crunch.
4. Assemble the sandwiches by layering warm brisket on the toasted Kaiser rolls with caramelized onions, red pepper rings, and your favorite greens, if desired. Melting a slice of Provolone cheese on top is acceptable — dousing the sandwich in BBQ sauce is not.
* Roux — A paste made with equal parts flour and fat, usually butter, cooked together to make a thickening agent for sauces and soups. For this recipe you don’t need to brown the roux, just cook it until it’s no longer pasty or floury, then add it to the cool braising sauce. A good ratio is 1 Tbsp butter and 1 Tbsp flour for the amount of braising liquid in this recipe.