I have been messing around in the kitchen for the better part of my thirty-two and a half years on Earth. What began with helping my Mom with making cinnamon rolls on Fridays morphed into the inevitable (and forgettable) 6th grade English muffin pizza phase, and later on into my Ramen noodles and rice pilaf-centric early college years, and finally into some decent cooking endeavors as I really discovered how to make good, healthy, yummy food in my twenties.
Over the past decade or so of my adult life there have been a handful of revolutionary additions to my kitchen. I’ll never forget my first experience with a George Foreman Grill, nor my introduction to the transcendent qualities of the rice cooker, or the magic of the breadmaker.
The most recent arrival, though, to our kitchen, is the CrockPot slow-cooker. Beef stews, chilis, applesauce, chicken, you name it- just throw in the ingredients and a few hours later it’s ready. Plus, it uses way less electricity or gas than cooking all day in the stove.
But far and away the best food to prepare in the slow cooker is brisket. Just this morning I woke up, tossed in two big cuts of brisket along with a host of vegetables and spices, put the heat on low, and walked away, knowing full well that in eight hours the house would smell spectacular and the slow-cooked meat would be ready for dinner. With the addition of some home-made bread and roasted potatoes, it’s going to be a great dinner in the Brosgol house at around six o’clock tonight.
Brisket has the reputation for being a “Jewish” food and if you google “Jewish Brisket” you will see pages and pages of links. But why? Is brisket the ideological property of the Jewish people? For my money, I’m not really on board with that claim; my French/Irish in-laws love brisket every bit as much as we Hebrews do. But I’ll play along for a bit and outline our brisket-steeped tradition for you. Also, a mea culpa– brisket is assuredly an Ashkenazi Jewish staple, so for my Sephardi friends out there, I’m not so Ashkenazi-centric to claim that brisket goes back to the days of Jewish life in Cordobo or Tunis.
What is brisket?
Brisket, a word derived from the Old Norse word brjosk, meaning “cartilage,” is beef or veal that comes from thebreast/lower chest area of the cow (see this picture for the location). There are no bones in that area of the cow, but there is a considerable amount of fat and collagen. The collagen makes it a fairly tough piece of meat, but with enough heat, it breaks down and the meat becomes tender and tasty. It is a fairly fatty piece of meat, and generally the more marbling there is in brisket the tastier it is.
How is brisket cooked?
The slow-cooked brisket has evolved as one of the most popular ways to prepare the meat; long, slow heat allows the brisket to acquire a great deal of flavor and tenderness. Many people actually cook brisket once, let it sit overnight in the refrigerator, and then reheat it again the next day to really enhance the flavor. While we don’t cook it that way, when our youngest child was born we got twice-cooked brisket from some friends for dinner and it was quite good! (Click here for a nice description of that technique.)
There are debates about brisket-cooking amongst Jews (disagreements among Jews? Shocking!). To trim the fat or not? (I say no.) To roast with water or without? (I say yes.) To brown with oil or not? (I say no.) I make no claim about having the perfect recipe, and won’t deign to tell you what to do, but mess around a bit with the variations until you find the way that works for you.
Interestingly, in the American South brisket is known as an excellent barbeque meat, so much so that some people claim that barbeque beef brisket is the “national food of the Republic of Texas.” Other cultures have also embraced the brisket and added their own touches to its preparation- Korean, Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese cuisine also feature brisket in some of their dishes.
Brisket is also usually the kind of meat used for corned beef, the foundation of a New England Boiled Dinner. Every year around Saint Patrick’s Day the supermarkets around here feature corned beef brisket, and families, both Irish and not, throw their brisket, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots into a huge pot and boil it for hours. While not the same as slow-cooking, the long time required for boiling the corned beef is similar to the “Jewish” preparation of the meat.
Off the top of my head, here are some ideas why brisket is a great Jewish food:
1) Much like the sabra, the prickly-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside cactus fruit that is the name given to native-born Israelis who can have the same personality, perhaps we Jews, are tough on the exterior, but with a little time and patience can be made tender and loving?
2) Brisket wasn’t considered (and still isn’t considered) a top-of-the-line cut of meat. Filet mignon can run north of $20 a pound, porterhouse cuts about $16 a pound, et cetera, yet you can get an excellent piece of grass-feed brisket at Whole Foods for $6 a pound. Granted, that is for non-Kosher meat, but even so, Kosher brisket will cost you less than better cuts of Kosher meat. Thus, it’s actually a good choice economically if you can spend $25 on a four-pound brisket that can feed a family of four or five. So from a financial perspective, bring on the brisket!
3) Shabbat. Cholent, the slow-cooked stew, is the ultimate Shabbat or holiday-friendly meal. Pile in all of the ingredients (and the ingredients do vary widely by locale) in your slow cooker on Erev Shabbat or Erev Chag, put it on low, and enjoy the next day. Brisket is the same way.- you could cook it for two days on low and not sacrifice a thing. This year, in particular, with all of the Thursday-Friday chagim and then Shabbat, I can promise you there’s been a boatload of slow cooking going on in Jewish households. To come home from synagogue and enjoy a tasty brisket on Saturday or a Sukkot afternoon? Perfect.
4) Jews are a patient people. We waited two thousand years to get back to the Land of Israel and we’ve been waiting for the mashiach a lot longer than that. Waiting six hours, or twelve hours, or twenty-four hours, for a perfect brisket is a piece of cake compared to the longer time frame of other things that we have waited for.
5) A big brisket can feed a whole lot of people. While turkeys and chicken are heavy, there’s a lot of bone and innards that are included in that weight. If you buy a ten-pound brisket, though, it’s going to be 90% edible, and that’s a pretty good return on your investment. I once heard a story about a mom and dad who drove a fifty-pound Kosher brisket from Sacramento to Salem, Oregon for a big holiday dinner. Now that’s commitment- not to mention very expensive! Honestly, though, for large groups, a brisket is a great idea. That’s probably why it’s popular for Passover seders and Rosh Hashanah dinners.
So next time you’re having some people over and trying to decide between turkey or chicken or fish, I encourage you to give the brisket a chance. It’s tasty, easy, and maybe even Jewish identity-reinforcing, and will add another great dish to your arsenal.