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Chances are, brisket became a staple of the European Jewish holiday table because it was an affordable cut of beef. If I didn't know better, though, I might guess that it was because brisket is a cut that brings hardship—and we Jews are no strangers to that. The hardship, in the case of brisket, is the near impossibility of cooking it nicely. Brisket can be tender, or it can be moist, but rarely both. Most of us settle for tender and dry, although most of us are also in extreme denial about this. If I had a penny for every time a sawdust-y slab of brisket was praised for being moist and tender...well, I'd be able to eat a heck of a lot more prime rib, for starters.
And yet, like many Jews who have spent their lives eating brisket that's slowly braised with sweet onions and carrots, I have a serious soft spot for the stuff. Even the dry stuff. But that doesn't mean I want dry brisket. So I've been running some tests to try to figure out how to make it both tender and moist. The good news is it's possible, but it helps to know a few things to get there.
Understanding why brisket is problematic starts with understanding the muscle itself. Brisket is a slab of meat that comes from the breast of the animal, and it can be divided into two parts: the first and second cuts. The first cut is often called the flat, while the second cut is sometimes called the point and sometimes the deckle. It might help to think of a whole brisket, with both the first and second cuts included, as being shaped like an Imperial Star Destroyer. The first cut, or flat, is like the big flat slab that makes up the body of the ship, while the second cut is those smaller structures that sit on top of it.
Both the first and the second cuts are tough, meaning they're rich in muscle-strengthening collagen. It takes a long time to melt collagen into tender gelatin, so tough cuts are routinely slow-cooked. The challenge is that one of the side effects of long cooking is a loss of moisture, which happens as muscle fibers contract and squeeze out their water content. For most collagen-rich tough cuts, that's not a huge problem, since they usually have enough moist fat to compensate for the loss of water. But brisket is a weird case: The first cut is very lean, with almost no fat except for a layer that runs along its top surface. Only the second cut is laced with ample fat, guaranteeing juiciness even after a long braise.
Most of the time when you buy a brisket, though, you don't get the fatty second cut—you only get the lean, dryness-prone flat. The simplest solution to the dry-brisket problem, then, is to buy one with the fatty second cut attached (or just buy the fatty second cut and ditch the first cut entirely). Any braised brisket dish made with the second cut will be better. But, unfortunately, the second cut can be hard to find—many meat suppliers don't sell it—and, since I know some folks won't want to bother tracking it down, I worked out a recipe using just the first cut that still comes out juicy.
There are two key steps to making it work. The first is to braise the brisket in a sealed vessel. This runs counter to one of our main beef stew rules (which apply equally well to braises), namely, that you want to partially cover the braise to allow gradual evaporation of liquid and surface browning of the meat, leading to better flavor development. In my tests, I found that lean brisket cooked in a completely sealed vessel retained more juice than brisket that was partially exposed. Even brisket that was cooked mostly covered, and then uncovered for the last 30 minutes to brown slightly, showed increased drying. It's a sacrifice to lose some of that browning and flavor development, but it's a necessary one to prevent the meat from drying out.
The second secret to juicy brisket is to thinly slice the meat once it's done, and then submerge the slices in the braising liquid for about 30 minutes before serving. Thinly slicing the meat increases its surface area, allowing you to expose more of the meat to the braising juices, moistening it more fully. It's not unlike Cuban ropa vieja, wherein a lean cut of beef is cooked until falling apart—and also totally dry—then shredded into thin strands that are tossed in the cooking liquid. The stringy shreds of beef have so much surface area, all of it coated in cooking juices, that they seem moist even though they've thoroughly dried out during cooking. (With the brisket, though, instead of shredding its long muscle fibers into strands, we're cutting across them to shorten the fiber length and increase its tenderness.)
My actual cooking process goes like this: I start by browning the brisket to develop some of its flavor. This is especially important, since it's going to be covered in the oven and therefore won't brown later. If you have a large stainless steel roasting pan, you can brown the brisket right in the pan. If you don't, you can put the brisket on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and brown it under the broiler. Please, though, whatever you do, don't trim any fat off the brisket—the lean flat cut needs all the fat it can get.
I also brown the aromatics; that is, the carrots, onion, celery, and garlic. Once again, if you have a suitable roasting pan, you can do this right in the pan after the meat has come out. If not, you can brown them in a skillet with some oil. In a lot of our beef stew recipes, we add aromatics like carrots later in the long cooking process, to help them retain flavor and texture. Maybe it's just nostalgia for how I ate this brisket as a kid, but part of what I love about it is the way all the vegetables break down to form a thick, chunky, deeply flavorful sauce. I put them all in from the beginning.
Then I stir in a small amount of ketchup (you can also use tomato paste, but I like the subtle hit of vinegar and sugar from the ketchup), along with some crushed whole tomatoes and their juices.
Once the meat and vegetables are browned, I deglaze any browned bits with a small amount of dry red wine. Then I bring it all together in a pan large enough to hold it—either that very same heavy-duty roaster you've been using for everything else, or a thin-walled aluminum or disposable roasting pan—and cover it with foil.
It's worth noting that there is no consensus at all on what should go into a Jewish braised brisket. I've seen recipes that call for orange juice, Coca-Cola, or lots of ketchup, and add-ins like figs and ginger. I keep mine incredibly simple, just tossing in some thyme and bay leaves for herbal aromatics, and leave it at that. It's not only the flavor profile I grew up with; it's also one that speaks to the potential of even the most basic set of ingredients.
With the brisket ready to go, I put it in a low 300°F oven until it's tender, which takes somewhere between three and four hours. To be honest, my preference is to cook the brisket at an even lower temp, about 275°F. The lower the oven is, the less quickly the muscle fibers will contract, and the juicier the meat will be. The problem is that there's too much variation in oven behavior to recommend a temperature that low. Some ovens, for instance, will dip too far below the specified temperature, causing the beef to take several times as long to cook. So 300°F is a safer number, allowing more room for error and therefore more reliable results (although you should still always use a thermometer to confirm your oven is calibrated correctly).
When the brisket is tender enough that you can easily slide a fork into it, it's done. I transfer it to a cutting board and let it rest for about 30 minutes, then slice it thinly against the grain. Then I put the slices back into the braising liquid and let them soak for about a half hour while keeping it warm. You can, of course, cook the braise a day or two ahead, then refrigerate it and reheat it before serving, but it's not true that it tastes better on subsequent days—we've put that one to the test, and it doesn't hold up.
The most impressive thing about this dish is just how damned delicious it is when it's all done. Starting with a very basic set of ingredients, you end up with something deeply flavorful and fundamentally transformed, far more than the sum of its parts. With these tricks, it may actually be moist for once, too.