When it comes to holiday menu planning, I have a lot of influences to consider. Raised in the D.C. suburbs, transplanted to New York Judaism, a love for all things barbecue, Texas-based Filipino in-laws...the list goes on. But one big holiday meat ties them all (or at least most of them) together: brisket.
Jewish holiday dinners? Always a brisket on the table. Southern barbecue? Texan brisket is king. So what if I took elements from each of those traditions for a Jewish-Southern hybrid brisket?
The plan: rub the meat in a barbecue-style rub and braise it in a sweet-tart sauce with Jewish flavors and Christmas-friendly dried fruit.
I've always enjoyed my Jewish family's braised briskets. They're always tender and they come in a sweet and savory sauce that rings "special occasion" to me. But after learning some barbecue ropes, I've started to change my braised brisket tune. Namely: ditch the lean flat that most cooks use for braising and stick to the much fattier point.
For brisket novices out there, a full brisket is comprised of two distinct muscles. The first is the brisket flat, which is a long, wide, and slender muscle that's usually covered by about a quarter inch of fat but has very little intramuscular fat. This is the most desired portion of the brisket by most, which makes it the "first cut."
On top of one end of the flat sits the point, separated by a thick layer of hard fat. This is sometimes referred to as the "second cut" because it's often removed from the flat by butchers and sold for less money. Unlike the flat, the point is rich in intramuscular fat, which makes it far more flavorful and moist. For my money, that's the brisket cut I want every time.
So instead of starting my holiday brisket out with the usual flat cut, I go straight for the point—a four-pound piece that was the perfect size to fit in my seven-quart dutch oven.
Bringing in Barbecue
My usual M.O. for braising brisket is to salt, rest, sear, then slow braise. That salting step is the perfect place to bring some barbecue into the mix. There's a complex sauce later on, so I'm keeping the rub simple: mostly salt and pepper with brown sugar, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked and hot paprika, and mustard powder. Coat the brisket liberally with rub and work it into the meat. Then let it rest for an hour, which gives time for the salt to draw out moisture and for some of that liquid to retreat back into the meat—taking the flavors of the rub with it. You can rest the brisket in the fridge overnight if you'd like.
Next comes the sear, one of the best ways to get maximum beefiness out of your brisket, both by creating a dark crust on the meat and by leaving dark browned bits called fond in the pan to boost the flavor of your sauce.
Once the meat is seared, remove it to a plate and cook shallots, smashed garlic, and tomato paste in the leftover oil and beef fat. Once the shallots soften you can add a cup of beef broth to loosen those browned bits from the bottom of the pan and get your sauce going.
Now we switch back to barbecue mode: add tomato sauce for sweetness and acidity, brown sugar and molasses for a twangy sweetness, and soy sauce, mustard, and Worcestershire for complexity.
I'm sure the brisket would taste great if you stopped right here and started braising, but this is for Christmas, which for me means dried fruit, so I fold in some dried apricots and cranberries along with apricot preserves and cranberry sauce (perfect for any lingering Thanksgiving leftovers). You can also simplify the recipe by sticking to one kind of fruit preserve; peach would work nicely.
Once the sauce comes to a boil, nestle the brisket inside, pouring in any juices that have collected around it. Then cover the Dutch oven and place it in a 325°F oven and let the beef cook until it offers no resistance to a fork, about three hours.
At this point you could serve the brisket as-is. But it's hard to get clean slices against the grain of the meat—which you want to do for the most tender slices—while it's piping hot and floppy. So I cool my brisket down, slice it cold, and then reheat it.
Chilling your brisket also makes it much easier to remove excess fat. I don't mind a little fat in the sauce, but too much will turn it oily, and as the brisket cools on the serving platter those oily spots will congeal into little fat globs. Once the brisket is cooled you can just peel off the solid chunks of fat.
Lastly, and most importantly, braised meat is better after resting and reheating. I've found all of my braised meats—chile, barbacoa, etc.—benefit from being cooled in their liquid then gently rewarmed. The reheated beef is more flavorful, juicy, and tender.
Slice your cold brisket with ease, cover it in defatted sauce, and gently warm it in a 325°F oven for about half an hour. Now it's serving time.
After a night in the fridge I sliced the brisket with ease, placed those slices in a casserole dish, poured on the defatted sauce, covered with foil, then slowly reheated it until warmed throughout in the oven set to 325°F. In a little over half an hour, the brisket was soft and hot once again and it was eating time.
I'm still fond of the sweet onion braised briskets I grew up with, but this is the good kind of change. The thick sauce, with its mild sweetness and chunks of fruit, is a great barbecue-Christmas mash-up with the same sweet and sour flavors I've enjoyed for so long.
A little of it goes a long way. This beef is plenty tasty on its own, and it doesn't need much doctoring. But the doctoring it goes get as as thorough a blend of influences as I could hope for.