The Best Way to Make a Tender Brisket, According to a Butcher

It wouldn't be complete without the "browned bits."

November 15, 2018

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There are a handful of cooking firsts that stand out clearly in my brain amongst the daily fog of cold cereal and potato chip sandwiches. One is the first meal I ever made for my family: buttered spaghetti with boiled potatoes. There's also the first time I ever perfectly poached an egg: I was in college working in a restaurant kitchen under the tutelage of a crush, and I was cooking on an induction burner.

Then there's the first time I learned about “scraping up the browned bits": I was eight years old, helping my mom cook sweet and sour brisket for Rosh Hashanah dinner. It was, I think, one of my earliest introductions to the crucially messy and ugly steps—the blackened bananas, the bloody bones, the pasty roux, the browned bits—that often go into preparing the most comforting foods.

Photo by Ty Mecham

We eat sweet foods on Rosh Hashanah with the hope of ringing in a sweet new year. The sour part of the brisket (often achieved with vinegar or orange juice) is probably there as a practical measure to balance out the sweet stickiness of the dried fruit or honey, but I was always told it’s also meant to balance the darker memories of the past with the hope of a sweet future.

What I love about sweet and sour brisket is that everyone and their grandmother has a different way of achieving the same flavors; some people swear by dates and vinegar, some use Welch’s grape jelly and powdered onion soup mix, and others turn to crushed tomatoes and brown sugar. Somehow, all that searing and scraping and simmering produces the same iconic flavor. It’s a little bit like a less acidic version of Carolina BBQ—only Jewish. It is a plate of ugly, gut-warming comfort, even if you didn’t grow up eating it, which makes it great for any holiday or event where you’re feeding a crowd. Christmas! Hanukkah! A non-traditional Thanksgiving! You really can't go wrong.

Now, let’s talk about those browned bits. The old way of thinking was that you sear the meat (thus, creating browned bits) before braising it to “lock in moisture," While this is a nice idea, it turns out that it's scientifically untrue.

So why do we still do it? Flavor! Sure, you could toss the raw brisket and some raw onion into your Dutch oven and it will still absolutely cook through and be fine—but fine is not fine. Searing the meat and caramelizing the onions before you throw them in to simmer will make a world of difference in the complexity and depth of your dish’s flavor. With meat, this is the result of a chemical reaction called the Maillard browning reaction; with onions, it’s because of caramelization.

The difference is in the details

Here are some of my best tips for cooking a delicious brisket, including how to make the most of all those delicious browned bits:

  • With meat, a dry surface is important for even browning, which is why recipes often tell you to pat your meat dry before searing it. For the best results, I like to season my meat with kosher salt and leave it in the fridge uncovered on a cooling rack (with a sheet pan underneath it) for one hour before cooking. This not only helps to dry out the surface, but it also creates a kind of quick brine. Over the course of an hour, the salt draws out the meat’s moisture and then sucks its own moisture back in, meaning your meat will be more evenly seasoned throughout.
  • Use a neutral oil with a high smoke point for searing. It may seem pointless to dry your meat out and then add wet oil to the pan for searing, but the oil does a lot of good: it helps to conduct heat; it acts as a buffer for all the uneven, craggy surfaces of your brisket; and it creates a smooth, hot surface for your meat to evenly sear. Don’t use olive oil, because it will burn before your it gets hot enough to sear. Instead, stick with canola, vegetable, peanut, grape seed, sunflower, or refined coconut oil.
  • Caramelizing onions takes patience, but your patience will be rewarded. If you’re in a rush, you can add a little baking soda to raise the pH of the onions, which will quicken the process. I would also recommend using a combination of a high smoke point, neutral oil (like one I mentioned above) for evenly distributing heat over a long period, along with butter for flavor.
  • Brisket is traditional for this recipe, but there’s no reason other hard-working cuts couldn’t be substituted. If you can’t find brisket, try chuck eye, shank, or bottom round.
  • Buy your meat from a butcher. As a butcher, I might be biased, but I think being able to talk to a human about what you want makes a big difference. Ask them to trim down the meat and tie it up, and find out where it came from and how it lived; it makes for more confident cooking.
  • Buy grass-fed beef; it’s better for the animal, which means it’s better for you. Plus, it gives you a major leg-up on flavor, and that's important if you want to still taste your meat in a recipe with this many powerful ingredients.
  • After resting, slice your meat against the grain. This is especially important with tougher cuts like brisket that are made up of long, strong muscle strands. If you cut along those strands, you are lengthening and toughening the muscle; if you slice against it, you’re shortening the muscle structure, therefore tenderizing it. The grain can be hard to spot on cooked meat, so if you’re unsure, give a corner of your brisket a little slice—the grain on cooked brisket can sometimes be easier to see from the inside.

We're firm believers in the fact that little things can make a big impact. The quality and freshness of ingredients can take a simple dish from good to great. Sharing a treasured recipe with friends can creating lasting memories around the dinner table. And home appliances that are reliable and intuitive—like their induction slide-in range, which comes with a handy quick preheat feature—can streamline getting dinner on the table, making your entire week less stressful. We've partnered with Bosch to celebrate these small but vital boosts in our day-to-day lives, with recipes, videos, and more.