It seems my wife and I are not alone in our love of brisket. As I set out to edit this article for edible Berkshires readers, I happened upon a whole book on the subject: The Brisket Book: A Love Story With Recipes, by Stephanie Pierson. With that book in hand, I then started a conversation with Jake Levin, the meat cutter at The Meat Market in Great Barrington and his girlfriend Silka Glanzman, a contributor to edible Berkshires. The combined wisdom from these experts is collected here, along with the results of a home cooking experiment that compares brisket from grass-fed and corn-fed cattle.
Life Lessons from Brisket
By Stephanie Pierson,
author of The Brisket Book: A Love Story With Recipes
(Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011)
The book began to simmer in my creative subconscious the day that I had an epiphany about three essential brisket-related truths:
- Brisket is in just about every cookbook but—until I came to the rescue—it had never had a book of its own.
- Brisket is the ultimate comfort food. While some foods will improve your meal, your mood, your day, your buttered noodles, brisket will improve your life.
- You think people have sex on their minds? No, they have brisket on their minds. Enter “brisket” on just about any big food blog, and you will find a feeding frenzy of posts: “Suggestions for my First Brisket?” “Should I Have Rinsed the Corned Beef Brisket?” “Stringy Brisket—Why?” “Has Anyone Tried Ina Garten’s Brisket?”
I love brisket. So I wrote the definitive brisket book. Braised brisket recipes—tender, juicy, mouthwatering— tend to be family recipes passed down generation after generation. I would ask someone, “Do you have a brisket recipe?” and the response would inevitably be, “I have the best brisket recipe ever.” Brisket pride is right up there with “Wait ’til you see a picture of my 3-year-old granddaughter.”
I asked my friend Phyllis Cohen, a New York psychotherapist and an experienced brisket maker herself, why the stunning lack of humility or doubt when it came to brisket. “Because with other foods there’s a right way and a wrong way,” said Phyllis. “With brisket there’s only ‘my way.’”
You can only imagine how hard it was for me to tell people—especially my friends—that I wasn’t going to include their treasured recipe in the book. (Of course I blamed it on my editor.) Yet they seemed to have no problem telling me that they didn’t plan on actually making anything from my book. “We can’t switch now,” they told me. “We’re making the same one we always do. ” No one, I discovered, wants to be disloyal to their brisket or their bubby.
What else did I learn in Brisket World? I learned that there is perfect brisket (the way you and your family make it). And I learned that there’s so-so brisket (the dry one your mother-in-law makes). I learned that everyone loves brisket but no one can agree on anything about it. I learned that with brisket, there is “traditional” and there is “traditional.” “Old traditional” is red wine. “New traditional” is Dr Pepper. “Old traditional” is onions. “New traditional” is Lipton Onion Soup. And while there is some tolerance—“bless her heart, she’s not browning it first…,” what can I say? It’s a tough cut and a tough world.
My own family brisket recipe (page 90) uses onion soup mix and Heinz Chili Sauce and Heinz Ketchup. Oops. Now that I am a seasoned Brisketeer, I am far more enlightened. So I have decided to keep my family but disown my brisket recipe. I’m replacing it with the one from Chris Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated (page 158.) So now I guess I’m part of Chris Kimball’s family. What can I say? With brisket, it’s all relative.
The book can be found at the following local booksellers:
332 Stockbridge Rd.
Great Barrington, MA
The Chatham Bookstore
27 Main St.
The Water Street Books
26 Water St.
Braised with Love: Try a Little Tenderness
By Silka Glanzman
If you have a Jewish grandmother, like we do, it’s seemingly the only cut of beef she knows how to cook. If you hail from the South, it’s the ultimate for barbecued beef. And if you are a hamburger fan, it’s ideal cut to grind up for patties. In Hong Kong it’s rubbed with spices, cooked slowly and served with noodles. In Mexico they braise it slowly and shred it into tacos.
Brisket—it’s that wonderful, versatile, delicious cut of beef that means “home cooking” the world over.
Brisket is the largest single cut of meat made from the chuck, or the shoulder and breast section, of a beef. Because cows do not have collarbones, the brisket—really the pectoral muscles—supports a huge amount of the animal’s body weight. This group of muscles does so much work every time the cow moves that it develops a lot of connective tissue. It’s this connective tissue that can make a brisket chewy and tough if not cooked well but it’s also what makes the cut oh-sogood when prepared properly.
As with most cuts of active muscle, brisket is best served by cooking it slowly over a low temperature. The “slow and low” technique—a long braise in stock or wine, or a leisurely smoking over hot coals—allows all of that tissue to break down, resulting in a tender, fallingapart, melt-in-your-mouth piece of meat.
Another benefit of being so heavily worked? Intense flavor. The more active a muscle, the more blood flow, the more flavor. And of course, all of that well-developed fat doesn’t hurt.
In many ways the brisket is the best cut by which to judge a beef. One the first things a good butcher looks at when he gets an animal in is the deckle—the fatty edge of the brisket—which shows what the marbling will be like throughout the animal. When Jake cuts a brisket at The Meat Market, he likes to leave most of that fat on. (As many seasoned butchers will tell you, you can always trim fat away but you can’t add more later.) This layer of fat helps the brisket to cook better and keeps it from drying out. As it slowly melts into the meat, the brisket is basted naturally and kept moist and tasty.
The brisket makes for the heartiest of winter braising and the brightest of summer barbecues. With so many variations, it’s hard to pick a favorite but this Barbecued Brisket Sandwich recipe by David Page comes close. Spicy, sweet and slathered with “Firecracker” sauce, this preparation hits all the right buttons: a dry rub, braise and then a smoke. We dare you not to try it.
You are What You Eat
One thing I particularly wanted to know was what the difference could be cooking a brisket from a grass-fed animal as opposed to one that had been grain fed. I understood the requirements of a slow, long cook that a brisket requires and a cool-to-cold smoke at the end without drying out the tender meat.
For the experiment, we purchased a grass-fed portion, approximately 7½ pounds at $14.95 per pound from The Meat Market in Great Barrington, but we might have gotten an equally good cut from Mazzeo’s at Guido’s Fresh Marketplace.
Here is what it looked like before…
… and after being prepared.
And please flip back to page 28 to see it sliced!
Then we purchased a comparable cut, approximately 7 pounds, at $6.49 per pound from a large chain supermarket, with the understanding that it was not from an animal raised on grass. Our goal was to find out for ourselves if there is any noticeable difference in the final feast!
The pieces of meat were cooked separately using the same equipment: a roasting pan, a closed gas grill with a built-in thermometer, and then smoked in a kettle charcoal grill with Berkshire apple wood. We did our best to maintain the same conditions for both cuts and were basically after what you would get in your own home with similar equipment.
The flavor of the dry-rub ingredients came through in both finished samples; the smoke flavor was equally superb. However, the bottom line was not to be denied: the fat of the grass-fed muscle yielded an incredibly moist and tender meat. The flavors permeated throughout the meat with no sauce needed to enjoy the natural flavor of the meat.
The commercially fed piece, although reasonably tender, required saucing, as the meat was drier, with less marbling and fat in our sample; the meat remained more compact and less moist. Here is what it looked like sliced…
… and sauced:
The results of both tests were enjoyed by guests of Edible Berkshires— and the hands-down favorite was the grass-fed brisket.
“While more expensive than feedlot-raised beef, and whether or not you initially prefer the taste, grass-fed beef is generally considered to have been raised more humanely and with less negative impact on the environment than conventional mass-produced, corn-fed beef.