Ah, brisket: the bedrock of barbecue, the spine of a sandwich, the meatiest meat of them all. Why is it so beloved? Where did it originate? Salted, smoked, cured and brined, how can it become the canvas for our culinary dreams?
Former Boston Magazine food critic, meat maestro, grill guru, best-selling author and TV host Steven Raichlen explores all this and more in his cookbook “The Brisket Chronicles,” coming out on April 30. He paused to talk turkey (well, brisket) about this majestic meat.
Alright, brisket. For the uninitiated, what is brisket? Describe a brisket, please.
It’s loaded with a tough, flavorful support chemical called collagen. Collagen is what holds it together, and what gives it its strength, but also what makes it tough. So unlike, let’s say, a T-bone, or a New York strip, or a tenderloin, normally you cannot cook brisket quickly; you need a low heat, a long cooking time and often a humid environment to make it happen.
I do actually have a fast-grilled, super quick-grilled brisket recipe. It’s pretty groundbreaking, and it’s a Korean preparation. But I think in the context of Jewishness, for most of the book, low and slow, that’s the essence of brisket.
What gives brisket its distinct flavor? How would you define its flavor characteristics? What does a good brisket taste like?
That’s a great question. I think we need to back up and say that one of the other very distinguishing and endearing qualifications, or qualities of brisket, is that it’s almost like a blank canvas, one which you can paint many different colors. So a Jewish grandmother might braise it with dried fruits, or root vegetables, in which case, think pot roast. Think really good, rich, luscious pot roast. At a delicatessen, it might be cured and brined, and then boiled, and then served either hot or cold thinly sliced, in which case it becomes corned beef. And the essence of brisket in that connection is this salty umami flavor that comes from the curing salts.
In another context, if you had started in the Middle East and then moved to Eastern Europe, and then Lower East Side New York around the turn of the last century, and today the delicatessens everywhere take the brisket and brine it as though you’re making corned beef with a ton of garlic, and then you crust it with pepper and coriander and smoke it, and you steam it and slice it—it becomes pastrami. And the essence of pastrami, unlike corned beef, is it’s more garlicky, it’s more peppery, it’s more spicy.
So it’s a blank canvas for your culinary dreams.
Yeah, but unlike a blank canvas, like a chicken breast blank canvas, which is not terribly flavorful, it’s flavorful to start. And then it becomes even more flavorful.
That’s what I wanted to ask you about! The subtitle of your book is, “How to Barbecue, Braise, Smoke, and Cure the World’s Most Epic Cut of Meat.” That’s a big claim. Why is it the world’s most epic cut of meat?
Well, first of all, I think because by sheer size alone, it’s the largest cut of meat most of us will cook. A full packer brisket is 14 to 16 pounds; that’s a lot of meat. Second of all, its sheer universality. We’ve been talking about brisket primarily in North America and Europe, but in the Caribbean, in Central America, it becomes something called ropa vieja, where it’s braised and shredded with peppers and tomatoes. In Asia, it becomes a grilled dish. In Korea, it becomes a soup; in Singapore, and also Korea and Vietnam, it becomes the iconic soup of Vietnam, pho, which is a beef noodle soup, one of the main ingredients of which is brisket.
Let’s talk about civilians who might want to cook brisket this spring. Any buying tips for people who might want to wade into the brisket-cooking world but might be intimidated? What are some tips for everyday cooks?
Sure. Remember, there’s two muscles: One is called the flat; that’s the pectoralis profundus. And that’s a very lean cut of brisket, and it’s what you often find at supermarkets. The point is that fatty second muscle that fits on top of the flat, and together they comprise something called a packer brisket. So if you wanted to do barbecue and do barbecue in a heavy, big way, I’d tell you a packer brisket, which you’d probably have to order from your butcher.
But since we’re talking neophyte here, I’d say go get a brisket flat. That is very easy to braise following any of the recipes in “Brisket Chronicles.” There’s one that comes from my Aunt Annette, who made absolutely the best brisket when I was growing up—it has dried fruits in it, and some Manischewitz. You don’t get much more Jewish than that! Brisket flat will cook in about three to three-and-a-half hours. If you’re barbecuing a whole packer brisket, and by barbecue I mean with a lot of wood smoke, you’re looking at anywhere from 10 to 14 hours, so I think that already takes you out of neophyte territory.
However, with this brisket flat, both the virtue and challenge is that it’s so lean, and they trim most of the fat off of it. I do have a method for barbecuing the brisket flat. It involves a non-kosher ingredient, so I don’t know if you want to go there or not!
Can we hear it?
You put the brisket flat in a foil pan, and then you drape it with bacon to replace some of that fat that was trimmed off by an overzealous butcher. And you smoke it in the foil pan, and the bottom of the pan keeps the bottom of the brisket from drying out, while the bacon on top melts and keeps the brisket moist from the top down. So it’s a pretty fail-proof, slam-dunk way to cook a brisket flat, barbecue style.
What are some mistakes or missteps you want to avoid when cooking brisket?
Well, one is trying to cook it too fast or at too high a heat. I always recommend if you’re outdoors on a barbecue grill around 250. And if you’re indoors, 300 degrees, braising. Liquid is very important, so you cannot cook a brisket like a rib roast. If you try and cook it at 400 degrees, it’ll get very tough and you’ll wind up with a mouth full of shoe leather.
What’s the best brisket you’ve ever eaten, restaurant-wise?
There are many. In terms of corned beef, I think the best brisket is Attman’s in Baltimore. And what’s kind of amazing about that is my grandfather remembers eating there and growing up near there when he was a kid; my dad ate there, and I ate there. It’s totally amazing corned beef. For brisket pastrami, there’s Harry & Ida’s in Manhattan, and that’s run by a guy named Will Horowitz. It’s what I call new wave pastrami. They cure it using things like fish sauce and kaffir lime leaf. It’s just astonishing, astonishing brisket.
Anywhere in the New England area our readers might be able to get to?
In Boston, I think it’s the Beantown Pastrami Co., and whenever we come in, we have a little elaborate dance we have to do to get to Martha’s Vineyard. So we fly in and we have the Uber stop at the Boston Public Market, where we get a pastrami sandwich!
Culturally, why do you think this food is so iconic? What is its role in the broader pantheon of foods?
That is a really good question. It has two attributes that have made it irresistible to almost every culture, and one is that it’s extremely flavorful, and two is it’s extremely cheap. Now, it’s less cheap than it ever was before, but back in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of butchers used to grind it up into hamburgers. You could spend between, let’s say, $50 and $75 on a whole brisket, but it’s going to serve 12 people, so it still makes it pretty reasonable.
You spend part of the year on Martha’s Vineyard. Any parting dining tips?
Oh, yeah, lots. We like The Port Hunter in Edgartown. We like Alchemy in Edgartown. We love a place called Behind the Bookstore, also in Edgartown. We live in Chappaquiddick, so Edgartown is our lodestar. And actually, there happens to be a great sandwich called “Liz Lemon,” and that’s at a place called 7a Foods in Tisbury. It’s a pastrami sandwich, kind of like a hot Reuben with crumbled potato chips on it, and that’s pretty good.