I was in the meat section the other day and saw beef brisket at half price. Half price! I have never cooked a beef brisket before, but for half price, I can learn.
Brisket sounds old school to me, substantial, hearty. But I really wasn’t sure what to do with it. I turned to my trusted sources first: The Fanny Farmer Cookbook (12th edition), Joy of Cooking (22nd printing), and The New James Beard (first printing). You can’t go wrong with trusted sources, right? Can you tell which one I’ve used the most?
I started with Fanny of course. She will tell me, I was sure. This tried-and-true cookbook falls open to the quick breads section (so often have I made muffins, pancakes, etc!) and has a section about every kind of basic cooking and baking. Surely Fanny will at least get me started.
But no. Nothing on brisket.
James Beard is out there in a weirder realm as far as my tastes are concerned, always has been. I just don’t make roast Cornish hens or pigs’ feet or sautéed brains. But that’s precisely why I had my highest hopes with him – if I don’t make it as a rule, he probably covers it. C’mon, James. Even if you give me a twist on brisket, I can work with that. Again no. Hmmm.
All right. Joy of Cooking is probably the most comprehensive of the three, as well as the easiest to follow. Titles of recipes and “About” sections ARE IN BOLD CAPS, ingredients are in lower case bold, (optional ingredients in parentheses.) Thank you, Joy of Cooking (!) – I did find BEEF BRISKET WITH SAUERKRAUT.
But I was not in the mood for sauerkraut. You can see, though, that Joy of Cooking added “…or other boneless stewing beef” which told me I was working with meat that would need to cook for several hours in liquid. Some meats you cook fast, some you cook slow. Stew beef I understand. Stew beef I can do.
Reminds me of a time I stood in line in the dining hall where mom lives. They had meatloaf that day, and the man in front of me – at least 80 years old I’d say – was waiting for it also. We stood in front of the posted menu that included any number of rather unconventional, one could say faddish, items/ingredients. While the staff were running to the back to get the next meatloaf coming out of the oven (clearly it was a popular choice that evening), I said to the man, “Nothing like meatloaf.”
Clearly I gave him an opportunity to vent. “They give us all this stuff, weird stuff, food I can’t pronounce. Meatloaf… meatloaf I understand. Why can’t they just give us more meatloaf?”
I learned from Joy of Cooking that brisket was stewing beef. Now we’re getting somewhere. Next I did what any sensible person in my position in 2019 would do (but sometimes avoid because of the inundation factor) – I googled beef brisket. Pick a recipe, any recipe. Ah, here’s one that starts with sautéing onion in oil, searing the meat, adding some herbs, covering it with water and letting it cook in a slow oven for a long time. Sounds simple, but it was actually way more complicated than that, and included some other ingredients I didn’t like.
All right, forget about it. Let’s sauté onion in oil, sear the meat, add some herbs, cover it with water and let it cook in a slow oven until it’s done.
I cleaned and sliced three onions and browned them in about 2 tablespoons olive oil (always use extra virgin). I chose oregano and thyme for my herbs since they are doing well in the garden right now.
I removed these from the pan when the onions were soft enough to have lost their shape and looked at my piece of beef – too big for the pan as is. So I quartered it.
I put another tablespoon or two of oil in the now-hot pan, turned up the heat to almost high, and let each side sizzle in the hot oil for a few minutes until nicely browned. I noticed when I stuck my large cooking fork into each piece (to put it in the pan or pull it from the bottom to turn it to another side) that the fork did not go in easily. Having to jam it in there told me that this meat would require a long cook time to get tender. Stewing beef it is.
Three choices for the slow cooking part of this experiment stood before me: stovetop, crockpot or oven. It would have been easiest (and less clean-up) to just put the onions/herbs and water right in this pot, cover it and let it cook slowly. But it was a hot day and I didn’t want a flame on for hours. Using my crock pot seemed a good alternative, but it is not very big. But by the time I put the everything in, it was nearly overflowing. Not a good plan.
Oh, this might be a good occasion for the Lodge cast iron Dutch oven! I retrieved it from its home on top of the fridge in the basement, and everything fit nicely. Besides the meat, sautéed onions/herbs and water (enough to just cover the meat), I added salt and pepper of course, a moderate sprinkling (you can always add more later if you want). I covered the pot, put it in the oven, turned the temp to 325F, shut the door and walked away.
The aroma of the slowly cooking beef in the house all afternoon would have been reward enough, but the taste of the broth was heavenly and the fork went into that meat like nothing after four hours (during which time I might have basted the meat or in some other way tended it, but didn’t, must have been busy elsewhere). Success!
Notice the liquid cooked way down, concentrating the flavors and softening the meat. I can (you can!) do something with a brisket. This works – it’s simple and delicious. Your call to decide about adding roasted potatoes or spaetzle or whatever side dish would gladly share the savory juices. I am quite pleased about it. Next time you see a half-price brisket, go for it!