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The Fewdsletter: Brisket and Jackfruit Brisket
At Rosh Hashanah, even vegans will risk it for this brisket
I’m not always a very good Jew, yet I still feel a strong connection to my heritage. As I’ve forged my own path in adulthood — including the collapse of one family and the start of another — I’ve found particular meaning in the Jewish holidays. There’s something incredibly rewarding about starting our own new traditions, like treating the Seder plate like a Chopped box and devising recipes that get as many symbolic foods as possible into each bite. Then again, there’s something to be said for realizing that certain previous traditions are worth maintaining.
Yes, I’m talking about brisket.
If you have an Ashkenazi home cook in your life, you probably know about the wonders of brisket. Jewish braised brisket is very different from its Southern smoked counterpart and means something more specific than a typical roast. It’s sweet yet savory, simple yet festive, elegant in taste yet unapologetically humble in its ingredients. It’s the centerpiece of many a holiday meal, but it’s most commonly served for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), which starts next weekend. So this seemed like a good time to share my recipes — for both traditional brisket and a vegan-friendly jackfruit version.
What I consider to be the foundational brisket recipe comes from Mister Brisket, a deli near where I grew up in Cleveland. (Score one for nominative determinism that a man named Mister Brisket grew up to be a butcher.) Mister Brisket’s recipe is very nearly perfect, to the point where it almost feels sacrilegious to offer an alternative one — especially since mine is so similar to and even explicitly based on his. The only flaw in the original is that it doesn’t yield as much of the liquid-gold gravy as you’d need to coat everyone’s plate with it. Most of the tweaks I’ve made are to ensure that you’ll have enough sauce to go around while maintaining the original balance of flavors.
The most important part of the brisket is the beef itself. You want a “first” or “flat” cut as opposed to a “second” or ”point” cut, though I can’t remember the last time I saw the latter in a store anyway. Get the biggest one that fits your roaster and your budget — it will be significantly smaller by the time it’s cooked and trimmed, and if you’re going to the trouble of braising meat over two days you deserve to have leftovers. I like to support our local old-school butcher shops, but strangely enough the best place to find a large, high-quality brisket may be your nearest wholesale club. In my experience the prepackaged briskets you’ll find at a normal supermarket are too small, though if you ask nicely someone at the meat counter can usually custom-cut you a bigger one from the back.
People sometimes look at me like I have two heads when I tell them what goes into my brisket braise: Heinz chili sauce, Coca-Cola, and Lipton French onion soup mix. What? It sounds strange at best and disgusting at worst. One person who loves my brisket told me that if they had known what was in it, they never would have tried it. Trust me, the way the braising liquid tenderizes the meat and melds with the rendered fat transforms the revolting amalgamation into something beautiful. Compared to Mister Brisket’s recipe, my version significantly ramps up the cola relative to the chili sauce to maximize juiciness without throwing off the salty-sweet balance too much. Feel free to play around with the proportions to suit your palate and the size of your brisket — for example, you can add more soup mix if you prefer a savorier roast meat, or cut back on the cola for a thicker gravy (if you don’t mind having less of it). Moses didn’t come down from Mount Sinai and decree that the ideal amount of each ingredient comes in whole-package increments.
You don’t need anything more than these original four ingredients to make a terrific brisket, but one easy way to elevate it is to put a bed of chopped onions under the beef in the roaster. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the meat and the onion: The fresh onions augment the dehydrated ones to make the brisket seasoning taste fresher, and there’s no greater gift you can give to alliums than cooking them low and slow in meat fat. I’ve never tried this with another allium but I bet leeks or shallots would work great, too.
You can also play around with the braising liquid. If using two full liters of cola horrifies you, you can replace some portion of it with unsalted beef stock and pretend that doing so makes this a health food. When I make brisket around the winter holidays, I usually add a bottle of Great Lakes Christmas Ale for a subtle hint of warm spices. I can’t remember if I’ve ever used Manischewitz in my brisket but I know people who swear by putting kosher wine in their braise. As I wrote this paragraph I had the idea to add a little hard cider when I make it next weekend, as a nod to the Rosh Hashanah ritual of dipping apples in honey for a sweet new year; I’ll report back on how that goes. (UPDATE: It was really good, though it shifted the sweet-savory balance more than I expected. I would do it again, but would probably also add some extra soup mix to offset the added sweetness.) Having said that, I suggest keeping it simple the first time so you can see how the magic works before you tweak it.
There are two moments in this process that will test your faith. The first is right after you mix the marinade, when you indulge your curiosity and try a spoonful of the condiment chimera before you pour it on the beef. You know it sounds disgusting, but you figure that if you’re cooking the meat in it, it can’t be that bad, right? Oh, how wrong you are. Mister Brisket describes the taste as “challucious.” It is so unappetizing that your entire trust in this recipe will be shaken. You’ll wonder if this is all an elaborate prank. (It’s not, but that would be a great one.) You have to take my word for it, at least for another half-hour or so, when the first aromas waft out from the oven and you can tell something good is cooking.
The other, subtler doubt will creep in when you try the brisket in its intermediate stage. Take a taste after the first braise or steal a sample slice while you’re cutting it and you’ll be disappointed. It’s pretty good, you’ll think, but you didn’t go through all this trouble for pretty good. Being underwhelmed at this point is normal. The flavors develop in the fridge overnight, and the second stage of braising is where it turns into something truly special. Even after making this a dozen-odd times I’m always surprised at how much of a difference the final steps make.
Brisket is best served with an absorbent starch and hearty greens. For the latter, I usually roast asparagus or broccoli. My favorite grain to pair with brisket is farfel, a casserole made from the eponymous tiny pasta (also known as egg barley) baked with mushrooms and onions (here’s a good example recipe). Apparently that tradition is specific to Northeast Ohio, though. It’s hard to find farfel here in Philadelphia, and most non-Cleveland-based Jews I’ve talked to know only the matzoh-based version eaten during Passover. If you can’t get farfel, I’ve also served brisket with orzo or polenta to sop up the gravy, and you could do well with anything from mashed potatoes to risotto to fluffy challah.
I’ve been working on my vegan brisket recipe for about three years. I use jackfruit, a common meat substitute known for how well it resembles pulled pork when it’s cooked. While the texture is great, there are three notable differences from beef that affect how it works with this recipe: It comes in smaller chunks instead of one big piece, there isn’t much fat to melt as it braises, and it’s fairly bland on its own (at least when cooked). With that in mind, I think the jackfruit works better with a sweeter, thicker sauce that’s seasoned more like barbecue than a savory roast, so the proportions of condiments are different in this recipe. But if you’re also making real brisket (this recipe is designed to be concurrent with the beef’s second braise) and you want to keep the taste consistent, you can add more soup mix and reduce the chili sauce, or just set aside some of the beef marinade to use on the jackfruit. I can’t tell you that the meatless version is as magical as the real thing, but it’s more than just a perfunctory consolation — the last time I made it, a vegetarian friend asked to take home the leftovers.
The Holy Grail of Ashkenazi entrées. This tweaked version of a classic recipe turns humble ingredients into the centerpiece of a festive feast. Servings vary by brisket size, roughly 1.5 to 2 people per pound of precooked weight.
1 first-/flat-cut beef brisket, 5-10 lbs
One 2-liter bottle non-diet cola (can use less if adding other liquids)
One 12-oz bottle chili sauce
Two 2-oz packets French onion soup mix
2-3 yellow onions, coarsely chopped
Stock, wine, ale, etc., if desired
Pour cola, chili sauce, and soup mix (plus other liquid, if using) into a large bowl. Stir vigorously until cola and chili sauce are blended and powder has mostly dissolved.
Line the bottom of a large roasting pan or Dutch oven with onions. Place the brisket fat-side-up on top of the onions. Pour the cola sauce over the brisket, making sure the liquid coats the whole surface of the beef (including the bottom). Cover with a layer of aluminum foil and a heavy lid.
Bake at 315º (not a typo, actually 315º) until fork-tender — as Mister Brisket says, there should be just “a slight tug on the fork as you pull the fork out of the brisket.” This usually takes me about four hours, but start checking at 20-minute intervals after three hours. When in doubt, leave it in for a little longer.
Remove brisket and place it on a cutting board to cool. When everything has cooled, cover the meat tightly in plastic wrap, pour the gravy and onions into a sealed container, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, unwrap the brisket and remove the thick layer of fat on top. Don’t be afraid to cut too much — leaving some marbling is fine, but you won’t miss the small patches of meat gristle packed inside the solid fat.
Slice the remaining meat, making sure to cut against the grain (if it looks stringy, you’re going the wrong way). I usually cut the whole brisket in half lengthwise, then slice it between 0.5 and 1.0 centimeters thick. Place sliced brisket back into roasting pan.
Skim the congealed fat off the cold gravy and discard. Pour the remaining liquid and onions over the meat. Cover with a layer of aluminum foil and a heavy lid.
Bake at 325º for an hour, or until meat has heated through and reabsorbed some of the juices.
Serve hot with a ladle of extra gravy. Enjoy!
Everyone deserves to know the joy of brisket — even vegans! I think the jackfruit works better with a sweeter, thicker sauce, but you can add more soup mix and reduce the chili sauce to better replicate the flavors of real brisket. Serves 1-2 as a main course or 2-3 as a side dish.
Two 14-oz cans canned jackfruit, drained
One 12-oz bottle non-diet cola
6 oz (half of a 12-oz bottle) chili sauce
0.5 oz (quarter of a packet) French onion soup mix
1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 tsp olive oil
Pour cola, chili sauce, and soup mix into a large bowl. Stir until cola and chili sauce are blended and powder has mostly dissolved.
Heat olive oil in a (preferably oven-safe) skillet over medium heat. Add jackfruit and onion and cook, stirring frequently, until jackfruit starts to brown.
Pour the cola sauce over the jackfruit. Stir for a minute until every piece of jackfruit is coated and the liquid starts to simmer.
Transfer to a casserole dish (if not using an oven-safe skillet) and bake at 325º until jackfruit pulls apart like smoked meat. This usually takes about half an hour, but start checking at 10-minute intervals after 20 minutes.
Serve hot with a spoonful of extra sauce. Enjoy!
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