If you ever doubted the passion with which diners regard brisket, look no further than the online discussion boards of sites such as Chow, Eater and Serious Eats. 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 "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. Nor any main dish more welcome on a cold winter night.
"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 down from grandmother to granddaughter, shared with college roommates and emailed to boyfriends, cousins and friends of friends who may not have their own family brisket traditions. 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 butchers, grandmas and chefs, including Chris Kimball of Cooks Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen fame and Nach Waxman, owner of Manhattan's Kitchen Arts & Letters cookbook store.
"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, according to Pierson, 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 Lipton onion soup mix to miso to Dr Pepper -- brisket is transformed by one thing: love. Says Jeff Banker, a San Francisco chef, "For it to be good, you have to put a lot of love into it.''
*Brisket is a word used interchangeably, and incorrectly, with pot roast. Pot roast is a method; brisket is a cut of meat, from the animal's breast, just behind its front legs.
*A whole brisket runs about 10 to 15 pounds and is composed of two muscles: the first cut (called the flat, the plate), which is thin, rectangular and very lean, and the point (also known as the deckle, the front cut, the second cut), which is fatty, lumpy and irregularly grained. When you see brisket at the market, it's almost always the former, leaner, first cut. Since the first cut has virtually no intramuscular fat (marbling), it is prone to drying out. For this reason, do not trim off the thin layer of fat, and make sure you put the brisket fat side up in the pan. If you have a chance to buy a point, do so: It's a luxuriant cut.
*To make the most of your brisket, cook it a day in advance and let it cool in its liquid before slicing. Slice it across the grain or it will be tough.
*Leftover brisket makes a glorious sandwich. Warm up the meat in the microwave for a few seconds (covered and in some liquid so it doesn't dry out), then put it on a roll or hearty bread with pickles, onions, coleslaw, shredded cheese, mustard, ketchup, cranberry sauce, hoisin sauce -- the possibilities are endless. -- Erica Marcus
VERY EASY BRISKET
Newsday's Erica Marcus came up with this as an alternative to the ubiquitous onion-soup-mix recipe. It's almost as easy, and tastes much better. Note: There is no liquid added to the roast; the meat and the vegetables will give off more than enough moisture as they cook.
2 large onions, cut in half and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup canned chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 (4- to 5-pound) brisket
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place onions, carrots, raisins, tomatoes, mustard, salt and pepper in a baking pan or casserole just large enough to accommodate meat. (A 4 1/2-pound brisket fits well into a 13-by-9-inch Pyrex pan.)
2. Mix vegetables to combine well, then lay meat in pan, fat side up, and spoon some of the vegetables on top. Cover with heavy-duty foil and bake for 15 minutes, then turn oven temperature down to 300 degrees and continue cooking 3 to 4 hours, or until a metal skewer can be easily plunged into the thickest part of the roast. You want the liquid in the pan to be simmering as slowly as possible -- just the occasional bubble.
3. Let brisket cool in sauce. When cool, remove meat and pour sauce into a saucepan. Reduce over medium-high heat until slightly thickened. To add body to the sauce, puree a portion of the vegetables in the sauce by using an immersion blender or by transferring some of them to a blender or food processor, processing, and then returning them to the sauce in the saucepan.
4. While sauce reduces, slice brisket and lay it in a smaller baking pan (it will have shrunk substantially). Cool sauce slightly and pour back over brisket. (If making in advance, cover with foil and refrigerate.) To serve, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake foil-covered brisket until heated through, about 30 minutes (40 if brisket has been refrigerated). Makes 8 servings.
NIMAN RANCH BRANDING BRISKET WITH BO'S BARBECUE SAUCE
Brisket is also sacred to barbecue enthusiasts. This recipe, featured in "The Brisket Book: A Love Story With Recipes" by Stephanie Pierson (Andrews McMeel, 208 pages, $29.99), was developed by Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, a source for sustainably raised meat.
For the brisket:
1 (6-pound) beef brisket
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
1/2 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
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
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 on each 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 to 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 to 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 to 3 minutes, until the sugar melts. Season to taste with salt. Serve with the sliced brisket. Makes 10 to 12 servings.