The Beginner's Guide to Brisket
Think of it as brisket 101.
Brisket is a meat that means different things to different people. To a wide swath of the South and West, it means a long, slow, smoke with a blend of spices, thick slabs sliced by hand and plopped on a tray covered in paper. On the East Coast, it brings to mind towering sandwiches of corned beef or pastrami, the brilliant deep pink of succulent meat enhanced by brining and smoking or a crust of seasonings, then steamed to perfection.
But for American Jews of Eastern European descent, brisket means a braised slab of meat, with a thick gravy that usually lands solidly in the sweet and sour category, sliced and reheated in its sauce, and served ubiquitously at the Holidays. There is something deeply soul soothing about this cut of meat prepared in this way. It lands sort of at the intersection of pot roast and short ribs but makes better next-day sandwiches than either. It is an affordable way to serve a crowd, and can be made well in advance, freezing beautifully. Once properly cooked, it can’t be easily messed up. You can hold it in a 200-degree oven for the better part of a week and never lessen its charm. It has become my secret weapon for Fall and Winter dinner parties.
The first time was essentially an accident. I had frozen the leftover brisket from Rosh Hashanah, not enough to save for Passover, but enough to serve four people fairly generously. I had figured it would make a great dinner some winter’s eve for me and my husband with plenty of leftovers for lunches for a day or two. Then a spontaneous invite to another couple to come to dinner coincided with a bitterly cold day and I did not want to leave the house to shop. When I came upon the brisket, it seemed like the ideal choice. Some frozen peas and buttered noodles later, the four of us feasted on my grandmother’s classic Jewish brisket, sticking our bread right in the baking dish to sop up the oniony, tomatoey gravy, totally satisfied.
So now, at the holidays, I often make two briskets. One to serve the family in celebration of the longstanding tradition, and one to portion out for the freezer for future dinners.
Here’s how to do it. Note that it ideally needs to rest overnight, so don't start making this the same day you intend to eat it.
Prep your brisket
A brisket is a wide, flat piece of meat that is slightly thinner at one end. They usually range from about five to seven pounds. You will want to trim off any surface fat that is thicker than a fourth of an inch. You want some fat to keep it moist, but depending on where you get it there might be a thick slab, which you’ll want to pare down. Since it is a rich meat and the sauce is usually also rich, assume a half-pound per person, and if you want leftovers, add an extra pound to the total. Season the brisket well on both sides with Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and place in a large roasting pan with about half a cup of water on the bottom, to prevent sticking during the initial cook.
Add your vegetables
Vegetables are essential to good braised brisket, providing both flavor and moisture, and the body of the future gravy. For some, they like a brisket that is very oniony (many recipes even call for a bonus packet of Lipton Onion Soup Mix), for some, they like a sweeter gravy that includes a lot of carrots, and for yet others, a more savory vegetable-forward gravy. Brisket is forgiving, so you can change up your vegetables and get something that is right up your own personal taste alley. Onion lover? Use a combo of sweet onions, shallots and leeks. Want that classic sweet tang? Try a combo of carrot, parsnip and onion. A more balanced sauce might include celery or fennel. My grandmother used a combination of onion for sweet and celery for vegetal backnote, and I continue that tradition. Chop about four cups total of your vegetables coarsely and lay them on top of your meat, covering it.
Add some tomato product
A rich gravy needs some tomato to give it some structure. Whether you use good old ketchup, tomato paste, chili sauce or a newfangled outlier like sriracha or even a good salsa is totally up to you and the flavor direction you want to take your brisket. You’ll need more of looser sauces like ketchup or chili sauce, probably about 12 ounces, and less of spicier or more reduced things like tomato paste or sriracha. You can combine to your hearts delight. A small can of tomato paste plus a good squirt of sriracha is a nice pairing. Whatever tomato product you are using, just pour or dollop it on top of the vegetables.
Put your blanketed brisket in an oven that's been preheated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 90 minutes. This will turn the tomato of your choice deep brick red and will soften the vegetables which will start to give up their juices.
You now need about 12 to 16 ounces of liquid to amp up the braise. A bottle of beer or a couple of cups of wine do well here. But beef broth, apple cider (the fresh murky stuff, not clear juice), orange juice, even plain old water is just fine, there is plenty of flavor to be had in what is already in your pan. Whatever liquid you choose, pour it over the caramelized vegetables and meat so that it picks up some of their flavor on its way into the pan.
Cover and braise
Cover your roasting pan tightly with heavy duty foil and braise for about 40-45 minutes per pound of meat. Again, very forgiving, so you don’t have to watch the clock like a hawk here, start checking it about an hour before you think it should be done. You want it to be fork tender.
Prep your gravy
Once the meat is cooked, let it rest in the pan, covered, at room temp for about an hour. If you rest your meat outside of the braising liquid it will dry out. Not tragic, you’ll reheat in the gravy, but not ideal. Be patient. Then scrape vegetables off of the top of the meat into a bowl and set aside. Remove the meat to another dish, covered, or into a large ziptop bag, and put in the fridge. Pour the liquid off of the pan and defat, either using a defatter or letting juices settle and refrigerating to solidify fat so it can be scraped off. Once you have defatted the juices, put them with all of the vegetables and using an immersion blender (or regular blender or food processor) puree to get a thick gravy.
Taste and adjust for seasoning
Salt and pepper might be needed depending on the saltiness of your tomato product or how well you seasoned the meat. I will sometimes add a dash of things like sweet soy sauce or agave if it needs sweetness, or balsamic vinegar if it needs acid. Maggi seasoning to amp up the umami, or even a bit of gochujang or red pepper flakes if I want a bit of heat. Totally to taste. A last dollop of tomato paste if you like it really tomato-y. Usually the gravy tastes great just as is, but you know what you are looking for! Pour the finished gravy into a container, and chill meat and gravy overnight in fridge. This overnight chill is essential, if you try and slice the brisket while warm it will turn into a pile of shreds. Which is great if you want pulled-brisket sandwiches, just pour the gravy over the meat shreds and grab some buns! But for serving in slices, you need that meat to be solid and firm, so an overnight rest is in order.
The next day slice meat across the grain into roughly three-fourths-inch-thick slices, and lay into baking dish, sort of shingling them on top of each other. You want about one-third to one-half of each slice exposed. Cover with your gravy, put foil on top, and put back in fridge until you want to reheat. You can totally do this up to three days in advance, or even freeze it in the dish just like this, with plastic wrap pressed onto the surface and then a double layer of foil, up to three months. When you want to eat it, let it thaw completely in fridge for two days before reheating.
Reheat and serve
To serve, preheat oven to 350, and let dish sit on counter for one hour to get the chill off. Reheat covered for about an hour, then check, meat should be hot and sauce should be bubbling around the edges. If you want the gravy thicker, uncover 30 minutes in. Once you have the meat hot and the gravy the consistency you want, cover and reduce heat to 200 and let hang out till you are ready to serve.
You can both cook and reheat in a slow cooker if you prefer. You won’t get the caramelization on the vegetables or tomato, but the results are still delicious. Just put the meat, vegetables, tomato and liquid all in the pot at once and cook on high for about four hours then reduce to low for another four. Or cook in oven as directed, but slice and pour gravy into the slow cooker pot and reheat on high for about two hours then hold on warm till serving. I
f you want to adapt for an Instant Pot, cut all the amounts in half (a whole brisket won’t fit in even the largest pot), use the sauté function to caramelize the veg and tomatoes, then add the meat and liquid and pressure cook on high for 75 minutes then natural release for 15. Then follow rest of the instructions as written.