Talk of the Table | A Tale of Two Briskets

brisket

If you grew up in an Ashkenazi Jewish home, you might remember the delicious oven-baked brisket your mom served up for holidays. Maybe it was based on your grandmother’s—or great-grandmother’s—recipe, and you can picture it emerging from a low-temperature oven, steamy and bubbling, with the carrots and potatoes bobbing up and down in a sea of brownish-red gravy, the meat forming an irregular coastline of beefy tenderness.

But years later, you may have discovered another kind of brisket: Texas-style, bathed in spice rub and smoked with mesquite wood for 12 hours or more. The smoke permeated the meat, forming a thin red circle around the circumference. So juicy and moist—and smoky—you couldn’t believe what you were tasting. Was this the same meat as Grandma’s oven recipe? What sort of alchemy produces two such different results from the same cut?

Therein lies the enigmatic beauty of brisket.

That a slab of beef from the tougher, less-desired cattle forequarter could travel two such widely divergent paths is a true “only-in-America” parable. And with apologies to Doc Watson, you can indeed love two and still be true.

In Jewish tradition, the front half of the steer is kosher; the back half is not. Where the line of demarcation runs is open to interpretation, but the absence of Jewish steakhouses serving sirloin is not surprising. The brisket comes from the front-end chest of the bull—the animal’s “six pack,” says culinary historian and knife specialist Peter Hertzmann. Steers have a brisket adjacent to each of their front legs. With no collarbones, they rely instead on their strong pectoral muscles to hold up their front ends. The predictable result: a tough, grainy piece of meat. Once separated from the sternum and rib cage, a full brisket slab weighs 10 to 15 pounds. And here is the first of several forks in the road for Texas-style and “Grandma” briskets.

Each individual brisket typically is divided into two pieces, with a layer of fat running between them. The “first cut”—which butchers call the “flat”—is lean, with less interstitial fat. This is the basis of the traditional Ashkenazi recipe. It turns fork-tender after hours of percolating in gravy made from chili sauce, red wine or tomato puree. The “second cut”—known to butchers as the “point”—is just the opposite: lots of fat, yielding proportionally less meat. But the meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender.

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In the shtetls of the Old Country, keeping cattle over the lean winter months was costly, writes Gil Marks in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. Instead, those not needed for milk, reproduction or labor were slaughtered. The brisket fell into the category of “Gedempte Fleysch” (well-stewed meat), according to cookbook author Joan Nathan. The recipe for that well-stewed meat survived the trip across the Atlantic intact, and brisket became a special-occasion splurge. Its succulent mass assured there would be plenty for everyone, a particularly potent symbol of abundance in the New World. And there was plenty of variety: The Settlement Cookbook, the circa 1901 go-to recipe source for American Jews, contained several brisket recipes. Among them: “Brisket of beef with carrots” and “Brisket of beef with celery sauce.”

New products soon entered the American brisket repertoire: After Heinz got its kosher designation in 1927, ketchup and chili sauce were thrown in for flavor. And when Atlanta-based Coca-Cola got its kosher certification in 1935, brisket with Coke became popular among Southern Jews, who called the combination “Atlanta brisket.” Its sharp sweetness offset the traditional brisket’s savory qualities, including salt, pepper and onions. Condensed mushroom soup and onion-soup mix also became popular brisket flavorings.

But down in Texas, the burgeoning cattle industry viewed brisket as an undifferentiated part of the less-desirable beef forequarter. The preferred sirloins, ribeyes and rib roasts were put on rail cars to Kansas and Chicago, while the lesser cuts became the basis for local barbecue.

There are competing barbecue origin stories. The most accepted is that German and Czech immigrants simply adapted their native-land methods for smoking pork to readily available inexpensive cuts of beef cattle. Another is that butchers smoked forequarter meats as take-out food primarily for Mexican farmworkers, who wanted beef to eat on the spot, says barbecue writer and historian Robb Walsh. But Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, has found intriguing evidence suggesting that “smoked brisket” in the early 20th century came about, in part, when Texas butchers started offering it to Jewish customers.

Whatever origin story you choose to believe, by the 1960s the once undesirable forequarter was the dish of choice at Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch barbecues. The president’s caterer, Walter Jetton, singled out brisket as his preferred cut. Walsh’s Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook contains Jetton’s “Barbecued beef for 250,” which calls for 35 briskets, about 10 pounds each. And the meat industry got the message: They were soon boxing up individual cuts of beef such as brisket, replacing the shipment of half-carcasses in refrigerated boxcars. “Making these inexpensive cuts of beef delicious,” says Walsh, “is what made Texas barbecue famous.”

What sort of alchemy produces two such different results from the same cut?

Brisket is by no means unique to U.S. culinary culture. Vietnamese pho soup has a brisket version. And brisket is a favorite in Chinese stewed or braised beef recipes. Mexican-born Pati Jinich, host of “Pati’s Mexican Table” on PBS, has a recipe for “beef brisket in pasilla and tomatillo sauce” in her cookbook, Pati’s Mexican Table. Jinich is Jewish, and she suggests trying her version “in place of your favorite brisket for the Jewish High Holidays.”

And let’s not forget that American brisket begat two other Jewish meat delicacies: pastrami and corned beef. Pastrami has Romanian and Turkish roots but became a hit among Jews on this side of the ocean. It is from the “plate”—a fattier slab underneath the steer and adjacent to the brisket. Corned beef was the Irish version of brisket, popularly paired with cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. It, too, became part of the Jewish mainstream in melting-pot America.

But Texas-style and oven-baked Jewish-style remain the nation’s most popular brisket centerpieces. Their unlikely convergence may well be The Wandering Que, a kosher barbecue pop-up based in Hackensack, NJ.

Founder Ari White grew up in El Paso, TX, and when he moved to New York, he couldn’t stop thinking about the delicious smoked meat back home—such as the glatt kosher brisket served at his bar mitzvah reception. He and his wife became the owners of a Washington Heights deli, and White started smoking kosher Texas-style brisket in a back alley. Soon, the deli evolved into a catering business, which now serves brisket through the Northeast. In White’s opinion, traditional brisket doesn’t compare to Texas style. “It’s not even close,” he says. “They’re not even in the same league.”

But as a practical matter, the Grandma style may be a better bet if you live in the Northeast or Midwest. A home-style barrel smoker has to work twice as hard in frigid temperatures, climate change notwithstanding. Your Texas-style brisket might take much longer than 12 hours to reach perfection. I know this from bitter experience.

But whichever style you choose, it’s impossible to go wrong, insists Joan Nathan: “Nobody doesn’t love brisket.”

GRANDMA’S BRISKET

Serves 8

INGREDIENTS 

1      4-5 pound brisket

2      garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1      Spanish or yellow onion, sliced

1      cup red wine

1      cup chili sauce

1/2  cup chipotle ketchup (or chili sauce or regular ketchup)

1      can of crushed tomatoes (10 or 15 ounces)

1      bay leaf

1      sprig fresh rosemary (or dried)

1      sprig fresh thyme (or dried)

1/4  cup parsley, chopped

2      stalks of celery, chopped

6-8  carrots, peeled and sliced

6-8  small potatoes, skins on

2      tablespoons vegetable oil

    Salt and pepper to taste

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Sprinkle the brisket with salt and pepper and heat the oil. Put the garlic in the hot oil for a few seconds before adding the brisket. Sear for two minutes a side.

2. Spread onions in the bottom of a large casserole and place the brisket (with the garlic, if you like, on top) fat side up. Cover with crushed tomato, chili sauce, chipotle ketchup (if using), wine, celery, bay leaf, thyme and rosemary.

3. Cover and bake for three hours, basting occasionally. Add parsley, carrots and potatoes, then immerse in the gravy. Cook uncovered 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

4. Take the casserole out of the oven and put a fork in the brisket. If it feels tender and the fork comes out of the meat with a light pull, it is “fork tender,” as Joan Nathan puts it.

5. Brisket is ready to serve. It is best when you take out most of the gravy, slice the meat, put the slices back in the casserole and cover it all with the gravy.

Recipe by Dan Freedman, adapted from grandmother Rose B. Kohl (1899-1998).

Opening image: (Photo credit: Jacob Stone/Unsplash)

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