Brisket is one of the traditional foods that Ashkenazi Jews, those who originated in Eastern Europe, enjoy on Jewish holidays, including Hanukkah, which starts this Sunday evening, December 22, and will be celebrated for eight days ending on the evening of Monday, December 30th. Of course, brisket’s fan base is not limited to Jews – anyone who wants a hearty holiday dish that’s fancy but not expensive knows that brisket will be a big hit.
In preparation for Hanukkah, this writer entered a local brisket bake-off earlier this week. Needless to say, I did not win the contest (I’m really more of a latke expert), but I learned a lot that I thought might be worth sharing.
First, the tradition of eating brisket seems to be the result of several qualities of the meat. First, it comes from the front of the animal so it’s almost always kosher. It’s also cheap because it’s very tough, and because it requires a long time to cook, it’s often reserved for special occasions when there’s extra time for meal preparation.
The local contest was organized by the Los Angeles Tennis Club, which provided the meat. It was enormous (15-18 lbs). My first thought was how to cut it up to fit into a pan, which it turns out was the right thing to do. But if you get a reasonable size (4-5 lb.) cut from the meat counter at the grocery store, you can skip the arduous task of cutting it. Whatever you do, though, make sure have enough time to allow the brisket, whatever size it is, to cook for a long time. Of couse, “a long time” is a relative term, but it’s safe to say that allowing three or four days to make a proper, contest-winning brisket is a not an exaggeration. Depending on your oven, it could take as long as six hours to cook a 4-5 lb. brisket.
Next, most recipes call for searing the meat, which is messy, but many cooks swear by it. I found a recipe on the America’s Test Kitchen website that called for salting the brisket, then refrigerating it for at least 16 hours as a way to tenderize the meat. That seemed appealing, but as it turned out, it ended up adding an extra day to the process, so my brisket needed a few more hours of baking at 250 degrees before it got turned into the judges. The flavor was there, but not the tenderness.
In the end, Windsor Square resident Michele Weiss won the contest…twice! She entered two recipes, one sweet and one savory, and the two entries tied for the judges’ favorite. Weiss seared both entries and took my suggestion of cutting the brisket up to fit into her roasting pans. She made the savory one with mirepoix of onions, celery, and carrots, with beef stock. Then she cooked it, covered at 325 degrees, for three hours. Then she turned it over and cooked it another three hours. Next, she refrigerated the whole pan overnight. And the next day she skimmed off all the fat and sliced it. From there, just heat and serve.
For the sweet recipe, Weiss made a marinade of ginger and ginger ale adapted from a recipe she found years ago in the New York Times, and followed the same process of refrigerating, then cutting and reheating. According to Michele, the brisket gets additional cooking during the reheating and that’s the secret.
Apparently, her two entries really stumped the judges.
“We had to do a lot of tasting; it was really hard to decide!” said Carrie Buck, the club’s new director of tennis, who was drafted as a judge along with new member and Hancock Park resident Jon Berg, who was drafted off the courts to come and taste. In the end, they decided that both of Weiss’ briskets were the best.
“I season the brisket and refrigerate it for a day, then cook it in a marinade with celery, onions, dates and beer,” said Layosh Toth, LATC General Manager, who carved the briskets. (He was the one who issued the “needs more cooking time” verdict on my entry.)
Stephanie Hall, Hancock Park resident, told us she used a slow cooker for her brisket. She cooked one the conventional way in the oven, but then ran out of time for the second one, so she put it in a slow cooker to allow it to cook overnight.
Clearly, the common theme here is lots of cooking time. There are many acceptable variations of seasoning, but Weiss says that “sweet always trumps savory,” in her experience.
If this is too much meat for your taste, not to worry, you can also go the dairy route. An Israeli friend told us she prefers to make an all-dairy holiday meal with lasagna, stuffed grape leaves, cheese blintzes, pasta salads, greek salads, etc.
You get the idea — you can do whatever you like and create your own tradition. Happy Hanukkah!