A Jewish-Style Brisket That Tips its Hat to Texas BBQ

Sweet, smoky, and meltingly tender.

November 29, 2018
Photo by Mark Weinberg

We've partnered with Muir Glen to celebrate the season with recipes, tips, and videos that make holiday entertaining easy, elegant, and totally stress-free. Here, cookbook author and food writer Leah Koenig shares the story behind her go-to holiday brisket recipe.

For a tough and rather humble cut of meat, brisket (the slab of muscle and fat surrounding a cow’s breastbone) is deeply and reverently loved. In Texas, brisket is synonymous with barbecue. There, pit masters smoke the meat for an extended time, piling soft, juicy slices onto butcher paper or sandwiching bites of brisket between two ends of a squishy roll.

Meanwhile, for Jewish families with Eastern European roots (like mine), brisket plays a starring role on holidays like Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, and Passover. Growing up, the brisket on my family’s holiday table always felt like a major event. My mom added heaps of sliced onions to the baking dish, which invariably grew velvety and caramel-sweet as they cooked; she'd let the meat hang out in the oven seemingly forever, until it sighed and fell apart at the touch of a fork. I remember the excruciating wait was only compounded by the intensely savory perfume that enveloped the house as the meat bubbled along. (It was definitely a lesson in cultivating patience!)

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Of course, there is a good reason why my mom braised the meat for multiple hours, and why barbecue fans are willing to wait half a day or more while their lunch sits in the smoker. Brisket is rich with collagen-heavy connective tissue that makes it firm and challenging to chew. For generations, it was considered a less desirable cut, which is why it was favored by cuisines that historically had limited means. But innovative home cooks learned that letting brisket hang out in a low-heat oven or smoker for a few hours relaxes the brisket’s muscle, transforming it into the luscious, yielding meat it is meant to be.

On the seasoning front, brisket pairs well with a wide spectrum of flavors. Purists insist that Texas brisket should be rubbed with nothing more than salt and pepper, but many recipes amp up the rub with some combination of paprika, chili powder, onion powder, cumin, and other flavor-enhancing spices. Similarly, Jewish brisket recipes (like the one my mom made) tended to be quite simple, flavored with aromatics like onions and garlic and braised alongside carrots or potatoes. In another all-time favorite dish of mine, hunks of brisket are added to a dried fruit and root vegetable stew called tzimmes, a sweet Ashkenazi Jewish side dish to which the meat adds depth and dimension.

After Jewish-style brisket arrived in America in the early and mid-20th century, home cooks began to experiment with of-the-moment convenience ingredients. They squelched in ketchup, folded in bottled chili sauce and slabs of canned cranberry jelly, and even poured Coca-Cola into brisket’s braising liquid. (Aside from the added sugar, the carbonation supposedly helped tenderize the meat.) I think it's pretty safe to say you will never find me tipping a bottle of soda into my Dutch oven (and plenty of contemporary Jewish cooks feel the same), but I do like a compellingly flavored brisket that strikes a balance between sweet and savory.

This particular take on braised brisket starts with tomato sauce, red wine vinegar, and beef stock for a rich and bright base. Those flavors are then amplified by a bit of brown sugar, plenty of onions, garlic, and a hint of smoked paprika. The dish that emerges from the oven nods to Texans’ love of meat and smoke, but would also be fully at home next to a platter of latkes on the Hanukkah table.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to make brisket a day or two in advance of when I plan to serve it, and chill it after it comes out of the oven. Once cold, the meat is much easier to slice (against the grain, of course, or you will be left with brisket strings instead of slices!), and you get a fighting chance at skimming off any excess congealed fat. Like many braised meat dishes, the flavors also blossom after hanging out in the fridge for a night or two. So, plan ahead if you can, then reheat the sliced meat, onions, and braising liquid in the oven until warm and bubbling. But if you are pressed for time, don’t worry. Even served on the day it is made, this brisket emerges from the oven ready to please.

In partnership with Muir Glen—makers of premium, organic tomato products grown in California's Sacramento Valley, aka our go-to canned tomatoes—we're excited to share all the ways we holiday. From make-ahead appetizers to dinner table show-stoppers, you can look forward to party-ready recipes that are even easier (and tastier!) when you bring a few cans of Muir Glen tomatoes into the mix.

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Leah is the author of Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today's Kitchen (Chronicle, 2015)

1 Comment

Bryan H. December 28, 2018
Thanks Leah! I've cooked a lot of briskets a lot of delicious ways, but this really stood out and my kitchen has probably never smelled so good as when it was cooking.