At the center of the Shabbat table, indifferent to the discord and dismay passing above and around it, sits a brisket. In its tepid bath of brown broth, intoxicated with Lipton Onion Soup Mix, shvitzing deckle fat into its ancient Corelle casserole pan, it sits, an unmoved mover, oblivious. And why shouldn’t it? Jewish dining, at least in the home, has always been where the action happens away from the plate. Fights, arguments, appreciations, red-faced recrimination, poignant memories and tsoris fill the air, in a constantly varied storm of thought and emotion. But the food is all too often the same — flat, bland and heavy, the same weird lump of brown meat the sole constant, whether it’s Passover, Friday night, a funeral reception, or the day you came home from college.
Brisket has a special, central place in the Jewish cultural imagination, but culinarily, it’s more of a vacuum. “It wasn’t that interesting, to be honest,” remembers Micah Wexler of Mezze in Los Angeles, a contemporary Mediterranean restaurant. “It was always there, though.” Wexler is one of a generation of young Jewish chefs who, tied to the cut by memory and tradition, are doing wonders with brisket, taking it to places old-timers never dreamed of. Some, like Wexler, are chefs on the cutting edge of gastronomy; others, who call themselves “barbejews,” have, during the last few years, become steeped in the ancient Texan art of smoking the cut for hours and hours with oak or hickory wood, bringing it to pink and piquant greatness.
Both schools had their work cut out for them. The cut, a deceptive and difficult piece of beef to cook well, is partially to blame. Brisket is big and nourishing, but tough. The typical remedy, in the shtetls of our forebears, was to boil or braise it until it could be eaten, sometimes with onions thrown in for flavoring. Making matters even more difficult was the fact that what we call “brisket” is actually two separate muscles from the animal’s chest, bound by a fat seam: The “flat,” or “thin cut,” is a lean and nearly tasteless slab of muscle, which starts out bad and only gets worse as it cooks. The other is a rich, fatty, anatomically complicated “point cut,” or “deckle,” which is magical, but which requires more rendering and more time to cook than the flat. It’s also more difficult to find in a supermarket.
Solving these problems, at least via wet cooking, is akin to squaring the circle. Brisket, which requires endless cooking to be edible at all, never had a chance with Ashkenazi cookery, one of the blandest and crudest cuisines anywhere. The balebustes solved the problem simply: They just got rid of the deckle and saved the bad part for dinner. (Most Jews see deckle only on the happy occasion of a trip to the deli, where it is usually the best part of the corned beef and pastrami.) But in Texas, where brisket is king, German immigrants at places like Kreuz Market in Lockhart have learned for well over a hundred years how to smoke the meat; it’s not unreasonable to surmise that some may have even been Jewish. Jewish barbecuers like Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn, who covers grilling for the Huffington Post, and Robbie Richter, the opening pitmaster of the Texas-style barbecue restaurant Hill Country in New York, and a winner of the American Royal barbecue contest, found in the Texas brisket a better vision for what brisket can be. (Jews in Texas already knew. As Goldwyn points out, “Jews down there still serve brisket for the holidays, just Texas style.”)
“Brisket is what made me fall in love with barbecue,” says Andrew Fischel, owner of Rub BBQ, a New York restaurant based on Kansas City regional style, and one of the most vocal of barbejews. “Brisket is what we all know; it’s what ties it all together.” For Fischel, raised in a kosher household on Long Island, brisket was the only barbecue meat that was familiar. It gave him a powerful connection, emotional and visceral, to the strange, exotic, supremely goyish world of barbecue. “If you go into a barbecue restaurant in Texas, it’s really not that different from a Jewish deli,” he points out. “Smoked brisket is a lot like pastrami. In fact, it is pastrami, down to being served by the pound on butcher paper.”
For his part, Wexler was less moved by barbecue and more by the cooking of Israel. (If brisket can go west to Texas, why can’t it make aliyah to Jerusalem?) Wexler does a brisket shwarma that has been cooked sous-vide for 16 hours, then shredded by hand and sautéed in a pan until its edges have the mouthwatering visual crispiness of freshly carved shwarma. Then it’s served with small pitas that are baked in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven and served with yogurt and house-made pickles. In another recipe, Wexler folds uncooked julienned slices of the meat into a hot braised tripe dish, adding flavor and depth to an already sumptuous meal. Fresh falafel completes the plate.
In a different way, Israeli cooking inspired the gifted young chef Alon Shaya, who runs the celebrated Italian restaurant Domenica in New Orleans. He remembers the giant chunks of brisket served by his grandmother, “some of which were tender and some not so tender.” The massive portions seem to have traumatized the infant chef. “I vowed that when I cooked it, it would always be tender,” he says. Like Wexler, Shaya poaches his brisket in a vacuum bag for 16 or more hours, and begins with an already-tender veal brisket, rather than the traditional one. “It comes out pink and tender, but we still have the root vegetables, the carrots and parsnips that I remember.”
Wexler and Shaya are doing great things, but culinary history should stop to remember some of the first, tottering steps Jewish homemakers of the ’60s and ’70s made toward breaking out of the Lipton prison. Wexler’s grandmother was, like many Jewish matrons of the time, fascinated by new Asian flavors and exotic recipes from cookbooks and women’s magazines. He recalls her attempt to do a teriyaki brisket on skewers.
It probably didn’t work. (Wexler is diplomatic on the subject.) But the fact that someone tried to make brisket better, in itself, was a leap forward in Jewish cooking. Truth be told, we would all be better off if a moratorium were called on the old recipe. At the very least, switch to deckle! But Jewish cooking without tradition is as impossible as a brisket without a fat cap, and as pointless.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award-winning food writer. His column, Taste of America, appears weekly in Time and he is the author, most recently, of “The Hamburger: A History” (2008) and the forthcoming “Colonel Sanders and the American Dream” (2012).
Backyard BBQ Brisket
By Josh Ozersky, as Inspired by Robbie Richter
One whole “packer cut” brisket (between 10-14 pounds)
Morton kosher salt
Coarse black pepper
2 to 3 10-pound bags of lump hardwood charcoal
A Weber kettle-style grill, preferably the largest size available
One large bag of hickory or oak chunks, soaked overnight in water
3 cups apple juice
1 12-ounce bottle Becks or other high-quality lager beer
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1) Remove brisket from the bag and rinse in sink. Pat dry with paper towels. Trim the thick cap of fat to about a quarter of an inch. Rub with vegetable oil and then season liberally on both sides with kosher salt and black pepper. Add a little cayenne or onion powder, if you desire.
2) Create a two-zone fire in the Weber by pushing hot coals to one side of the grill. They should occupy approximately one-third of the space. Lay the brisket, fat side up, in the cool spot. Protect the bottom of the brisket with a double layer of foil. Close the vents of the grill halfway, so that a thin stream of smoke is visible. The temperature should read 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
3) Once every 45 minutes or so, replace the coals, adding two to three chunks of oak or hickory wood along with them. At this time, spray or mop the brisket with a liquid composed of half apple juice and half beer. Continue to spray / mop while adding fresh coals and wood chunks every 45 minutes or so for another 10 hours or more, until the internal temperature reaches 190 degrees and the meat is fork tender. Even if the meat is not tender at this temperature, take it off the grill, as further cooking will only toughen it.
4) Rest the meat for at least one hour, tented loosely with foil in an oven at its very lowest setting. Slice and serve.
By Micah Wexler, Mezze Restaurant, Los Angeles
One point-cut brisket (5-6 pounds)
1 cup full-fat yogurt, optional*
3 whole cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons cumin seeds, whole
Salt to taste
10 cloves peeled garlic
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1) In a spice grinder, grind the spices into a powder.
2) Chop garlic and mix together with spices and thyme, if including yogurt, mix into yogurt.
3) If including yogurt marinade, season the brisket with salt and rub the yogurt marinade all over. If you do not include yogurt, simply rub the meat with the spices and salt. Let sit in the refrigerator, covered for at least 12 hours
4) Place the brisket in a roasting pan on a rack in the oven. Roast at 300 degrees uncovered for at least 6 hours or until fully tender.
5) Allow brisket to cool. Shred the meat by hand, discarding the excess fat.
6) Heat a heavy pan until hot and place 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in it. When the oil smokes, add the meat. Crisp in the pan. Drain meat onto a towel.
7) Stuff the meat into a pita and garnish with your choice of pickles and sauce. Amba, an Israeli pickled mango sauce, works well.