The Brisket Quagmire

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My friends and I are busy planning menus for the Jewish fall holidays, which start with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 13 and continue on and off  till sundown October 6. Brisket is an all-time holiday favorite.

Today’s blog is by Debbi Eber, who is retired after 31 years as a teacher. A graduate of Florida State, Queens College and New York’s High School of Music and Art, she lives in suburban Detroit with her husband, Jon.

For another take on brisket, see this Feed the Spirit piece from the past.

I never used to be able to make a good brisket.

It got so bad that my husband asked me to cease my attempts at this traditional beef dish. Each time I tried I carefully selected the meat at the market. I prepared it to my mother’s specifications. I roasted it in the oven. Sometimes I used onion soup mix and or kosher wine to flavor it. Each time it came out it was like chewing rubber bands.

What had I possibly done to destroy these cuts of meat? It was not a cheap experiment, so eventually, I just stopped.

My mom would fly up from Florida periodically, and we would shop for brisket. I watched her carefully select the meat and prepare it. Her results were tender, flavorful, heavenly slices of browned savory meat. My family devoured it. After each visit I gained new confidence and would try the recipe again. Sinewy and tough, a complete jaw workout were the results.

Sinking into the quagmire

I was sinking deeper into the brisket quagmire. Friends and family would offer their recipes. These were often laced with the gamut of ingredients; chili sauce, canned cherries, mushrooms, ketchup and other enhancements. None of these seemed like quintessential brisket recipes. I considered them but never took the bait to actually prepare these versions. At this point I had true fear of brisket!

One Friday evening we were celebrating the Sabbath at the home of our friends Wendy and Lloyd. Brisket was the main course, and not just any brisket – it was Lloyd’s family recipe brisket.

Everyone was swooning at the meat’s flavors, and the buttery texture. The onions that accompanied it were succulent and had that beefy deliciousness. The gravy was perfect; neither too thin or thick, but contained all the juices and just the perfect amount of sodium.

We all commented about the beef. One friend responded this recipe was so excellent because of the secret ingredient: the love. That remains to this day the standard response to what’s in a dish. It’s the love that makes it so special.

However, I needed more detailed information than that. I asked Lloyd for the recipe. I needed the precise ingredients and method. And then I went even further. I asked him what kind of pot he used to cook it in? For surely a brisket of this delicacy and grandeur must have an equally grand vessel to contain it!

Lloyd’s not-s0-secret recipe

Lloyd relayed the simplest of recipes and assured me that I could make this brisket. My husband told him, “ Are you crazy, have you ever tasted her brisket? There is no hope.”

I think Lloyd saw the predicament I was in and took up the challenge. He loaned me his pot. I began calling it the magic brisket pot. I made his very basic recipe (below).

I used Lloyd’s recipe and pot, and the results were my validation as a Jewish wife and mother. If I were still a Girl Scout, I would have completed my brisket badge. I could have sewn a tiny circle of cloth with an embroidered hunk of meat on it to my sash. I was proud of my edible masterpiece.

I extended my gratitude to Lloyd many times. I swore it was his magic pot. I went on an extensive Internet search to find the exact brand and size of cookware he had. It was a large Wagner Magnalite covered roaster. When I saw the price, I nearly flipped: it was close to $200.

At the time, that was too costly for me. I dearly wanted it but couldn’t finance that extravagance. I returned Lloyd’s roasting pot reluctantly. I decided to be experimental and use Lloyd’s brisket method in my Revereware Dutch oven.

The suspense while the meat cooked was nerve-wracking. I hovered over the contents like some strange chemical reaction might take place and rob me of my delicacy. After the required two hours of stovetop cooking and two hours of oven roasting, the meat emerged in perfect condition; tender, moist, flavorful, savory. I had won! The recipe triumphed over the roaster.

It was the beginning of many beautiful holiday meals. Finally, I was lifted out of the brisket embarrassment. My husband rejoiced; he now had a wife with elevated status, one who could cook a magnificent brisket.

I danced around the kitchen with my new confidence in my meat preparation skills! I even shared the recipe with my mother, who was doubtful at first. She tasted the results and proclaimed me a bona fide brisket maven. Now she could brag to her friends at their poolside gossip-fests, that she too had a daughter who could cook.

The price of beef brisket has soared of late. The last time I purchased a piece of this cut of meat it cost $48. I am so pleased now that I can guarantee the success of the meal with Lloyd’s recipe. It would be wasteful to mutilate such expensive beef.

Years have gone by and I still covet that Magnalite roaster. I am in love with its smooth sloping Art Deco form, resembling an AirStream trailer. These are still being made although I am not sure the quality is the same as the older models. I saw some really shiny older ones on Ebay, and some new ones online as well. The price has dropped to $100 or less.

Do I really require it though? Probably not. It would be an art piece now, a sentimental historical addition, one that would complete the story of the brisket quagmire.

(Editor’s note: Here’s another article, from Tablet magazine, about a cook who finally learned the secret of a good brisket — with a link in the story to his recipe. Personally I think the key to a tender and juicy brisket, no matter what other ingredients you include, is to cook the meat till it’s done, then cool it, slice it, and reheat it in the pan juices or gravy before serving.

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