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Make a Better Brisket

With star chef Adam Sobel’s recipe, nobody has an excuse for dry, overcooked meat this Rosh Hashanah

Joan Nathan
September 11, 2012

My mother made great brisket when I was growing up: slow-cooked, more sour than sweet. We ate it every year for erev Rosh Hashanah, with Goodman’s tiny egg-noodle farfel. I loved it.

So, I never understood, when I was a child, why people made terrible jokes about dry, overcooked brisket. Now I know: Many people weren’t as lucky as I was.

Adam Sobel grew up eating tasteless brisket. His Roman Catholic mother had learned to make some Jewish dishes, like sweet-and-sour meatballs and matzo balls, from Adam’s Jewish paternal grandmother, but somehow she never got the knack of brisket. Today, Sobel—chef at Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C.—has learned how to cook brisket right, slow-cooked and braised in a slightly acidic sauce. Last year, his father called him before Rosh Hashanah with desperation in his voice. “Can’t you help Ma?” asked Neal Sobel, who lives in Hicksville, N.Y. “Talk to her about her brisket, she needs help.”

“I wasn’t insulted at all,” said Diane Sobel, Adam’s mom. So, phone in hand, Adam walked his mother through the steps of a good brisket. His tips are simple but useful for anyone who’s ever struggled with this Jewish staple. So, if you’re considering making a brisket for Rosh Hashanah, or any occasion, take a lesson from a master.

Brisket has become the Jewish holiday cut of meat par excellence. But it wasn’t always so. In some countries, like France, butchers don’t even sell this cut of beef. American butchers tend to cut larger pieces of meat; 5- or 6-pound briskets or huge rib-eye steaks are the result of sawing through the muscle or the shoulder section of the animal, whereas French butchers cut around the contours of the muscles to yield more tender, but much smaller, cuts of meat.

Before the Civil War, Jews in America would eat dishes like chicken fricassee with meatballs, stuffed veal, or flanken (short ribs) for Rosh Hashanah. Then refrigerated trains came into existence, transferring large cuts of meat throughout the country. A whole brisket, a grainy American cut, became popular, mostly for people in Texas for slow-roasted barbecue. Jews became enamored of it, too, and cooked it long and braised, or gedempt fleysch.

“It lends itself to make a braised roast and you can forget about it,” noted Sanford Herskovitz, a Cleveland-based purveyor of meat known as Mr. Brisket. “It is a very forgiving cut of beef. Friday night, they would start it at 250 [degrees], and it was ready for Saturday lunch.”

Eventually, brisket became traditional for holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and, for many people, Passover. My late mother-in-law told me years ago that in Poland, whole briskets of beef (probably not our cuts, exactly) were reserved mostly for special occasions like weddings. In essence, one thing hasn’t changed: Brisket is what Jews cook for festive meals when large groups are gathered around the table.

The first important point when preparing a brisket is to buy the right meat and put it in the pan properly. Each brisket has a fattier side called the “point” and a leaner side called the “flat.” Mr. Brisket suggests buying a whole choice brisket, at least eight to 10 pounds including all the fat, rather than a “first cut,” because it’s more flavorful, and it saves money: “It is cheaper than only the first cut,” he said, “because the butcher separates the point and flat [in a first cut], making the meat too dry. The flavor is in the point.” And pay attention to how you place it in your roasting pan: “When brisket is roasting, the point should be up,” said Mr. Brisket. “When reheating, the point should be down.”

Recipes vary widely; Mr. Brisket’s favorite recipe uses Lipton onion soup mix, Heinz chili sauce, and Coca Cola. But all good brisket recipes have a few key things in common.

When Sobel worked his mother through his favorite recipe, he told her a few things he learned while a student at the Culinary Institute of America. “When it comes to traditional recipes, people automatically assume that when cooking a family recipe, you can’t vary from the technique that is listed in the recipe,” said Sobel, 32, who has cooked with many of America’s greatest cooks, like Daniel Boulud and Charlie Trotter. “My mom was cooking the brisket wrong all these years because she assumed that the recipe was the best way to do it, when in reality the technique was wrong.”

Sobel starts his brisket by searing the outside to develop more flavor. “My mom didn’t sear it,” he said, because the recipe she was following didn’t specify this step.

Like many young chefs of his generation, Sobel tries to go back to his family’s gastronomical roots at holidays. “I add grated horseradish and all the ingredients that are indigenous to Russia and used in the fall,” he said. This mire poix, diced vegetables that are cooked with the brisket to bring out the flavor, are not finely diced as they are in French dishes. For brisket they should be chunky, he said.

If there is one thing I have learned through the years, there has to be something acidic in the mix to help break down the proteins. Sobel puts in red wine vinegar but suggests that you could put in tomatoes or tomato sauce instead. To make a deeper sauce, he suggests using beef broth or red wine.

“My approach to cooking brisket is the same as for corned beef: slower and lower,” Sobel added. “The muscles get tougher at a higher temperature. I add enough liquid to barely cover, cover it, and let it go.” (Sobel’s best brisket recipe is included above.)

Sobel’s mother was very happy with the results. “He told me exactly what to do,” she said. “I don’t like to cook. Adam’s talent for cooking skipped me and came from my mom and Neal’s mom for the Jewish holidays.”

But Sobel’s mother already had one recipe that’s a perfect complement to a good brisket: For every Jewish holiday, she makes matzo cupcakes, a recipe that Sobel’s great-grandmother brought with her from Russia.

“When my mother makes the matzo cupcakes,” Sobel said, “they are awesome. Our family are dunkers, and they are great for soaking up the juices from the brisket.”

The Recipe

Adam Sobel’s Holiday Brisket

Adam Sobel’s Holiday Brisket

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.