Friday, August 27, 2010

Nice Briskets, Baby!

Dear reader, in the present installment I will instruct you on how to prepare a very tender and intensely delicious salt beef brisket—one that can rival those served at the fine Hebrew delicatessens of Montreal and New York City.
The brisket is a cut of beef that you have most likely never cooked. It is taken from the area just behind a cow’s (or steer’s) front legs. It is very fibrous, tough, and fat-laden, making it a relatively inexpensive cut—one that was favoured by our cost-conscious grandmothers but is largely ignored by the time-conscious contemporary home cook. To be made at all edible, the brisket demands time and special attention in the kitchen. That does not mean that it is labour-intensive to prepare. In fact, the preparation requires very little work, only a little bit of advanced planning.
The key to success with the brisket is curing it to start breaking down some of the tough muscle fibres and to finish the job by cooking it very, very slowly. This is the basis of the recipe presented below. The curing process in this case takes several days and the cooking process takes several hours. Neither process, however, will require much of your labour and attention.
Salt beef, also know as corned beef, originated in a time long before the refrigerator. Briskets and other joints of beef were packed into barrels with copious amounts of salt not for taste but as a means of long-term preservation. A small amount of saltpeter, a powerful antibacterial agent, was often mixed into the salt to further prevent spoilage. The “corned” in corned beef, incidentally, has nothing to do with maize. Rather, it refers to the “corns” of coarse salt in which beef was cured. Usually, a variety of herbs and spices were added for flavour. Meat treated this way could be kept for months, even in warm weather. Pieces of meat would be removed from the barrel as needed and then soaked in fresh water for many hours to remove excess salt, after which they were ready to be cooked.
Today, with modern refrigeration technology, it is hardly necessary to pack fresh meat in salt with saltpetre (potassium nitrate) to prevent it from spoiling. It is nonetheless still worth doing because the results of this process are rather delicious and are likely to impress dinner guests. Contemporary recipes, such as the one below, probably use a lot less salt and saltpeter than those of the days of yore; the meat can be stored in the refrigerator while it cures, making is less susceptible to spoilage.
Strikingly similar recipes for cured and boiled beef are known across Europe and North America. The differences between them are primarily in the flavourings added to the cure. The inclusion of copious amounts of garlic is what makes the recipe below distinctly Jewish.

The general procedure is to first wet-cure the brisket for several days (at least five), soak it in water overnight the day before cooking, and then to boil it very slowly. So, you need to start curing the brisket at least six days before you intend to serve it. On serving day, you will probably need a free afternoon as you will need to keep on eye on the brisket as it boils.

PHASE I - Curing
For a 2 kg beef brisket you will need:
  • 3/4 cup coarse salt
  • 1/3 cup of brown sugar
  • 4-8 cloves crushed garlic (depending on size)
  • 2 teaspoons cracked black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon crushed allspice
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon crushed coriander pods
  • 1 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 3-4 crumbled bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons of pink salt or Prague powder #1 (optional)
Note that pink salt or Prague powder #1 are common replacements for real saltpetre (potassium nitrate), which is a controlled substance because it is used for making gunpowder. Pink salt and Prague powder #1 contain 6.25% sodium nitrite, which has the same effect on the meat as saltpetre. The main difference between pink salt and Prague powder #1 is that the former is dyed pink to help prevent confusion with regular salt.
As you will be keeping your brisket in the fridge while it cures, you do not really need pink salt or Prague powder for antibacterial protection. However, using either one of these substances will give the brisket that characteristic “deli” taste and prevent it from turning grayish-brown during cooking. Instead, the brisket will take on a rather attractive, dark pink or burgundy colour when cooked.
The main reason for not using saltpetre or pink salt/Prague powder is that nitrates and nitrites are potentially carcinogenic if consumed in large quantities. However, unless you eat deli meats every single day, I would not worry about this too much. The other reason not to use these substances is that they can be hard to obtain. Ask a butcher about it or look it up on the Internet.

  1. You will wash your brisket under running water and you will pat it dry with paper towel.
  2. You will stab the brisket all over with a fork. You must be sure to stab both sides. This help the brisket absorb the flavours in the cure.
  3. Mix all of the cure ingredients together.
  4. You must rub all of the mix into the brisket. Rub rub rub.
  5. You must place the brisket in a non-metallic container into which it fits snuggly.
  6. You must pour just enough water into the container to cover the brisket. You may wish to weigh it down with a heavy plate or some other non-metallic item to help keep in submerged.
  7. You will now place the brisket in the fridge. From now until when you take it out for soaking, you must turn it over once a day. It will start to feel slippery to touch after a couple of days.

PHASE II - Soaking
  1. The night before you intend to cook the brisket, you will remove the brisket from the wet cure and rinse it with running water. You may now dispose of the cure.
  2. Place the brisket in a large container and fill it with plenty of water. Place in the fridge and leave overnight.
  3. In the morning, you will dump out the water from the container and fill it with fresh water. Change the water again a few hours later.
PHASE III - Cooking
  • 2 kg cured and soaked brisket (i.e., the product of the above procedures)
  • 2 large carrots
  • 2 large onions, quartered or
  • 2 whole leeks (green and white part), thoroughly cleaned
  • 2 celery ribs
  • 1 or 2 parsnips (optional)
  • 2 bay leaves
  1. You will place the brisket in a large pot along with the other ingredients above. You will add enough water to cover the brisket.
  2. You will the put the covered pot on medium-high heat for 15 minutes or until it begins to steam. You must then turn the heat down to medium-low. You must not let the water boil vigorously. It should be steaming and its surface should be trembling slightly for the entire duration of cooking. If it boils too much, reduce the heat. Obedience will result in a very tender brisket.
  3. After a couple of hours of cooking, you may wish to skim the fat, copious amounts of which should be appearing on the water’s surface.
  4. After four hours, you will check the brisket’s tenderness by stabbing it with a knife. If it is ready, the knife should penetrate effortlessly. If it is not yet tender, cover and continue boiling. Check again every 20 minutes or so.
  5. When the brisket is ready, remove it from the pot and drain thoroughly. Set it down on a large cutting board and cover it with aluminum foil. You must let the brisket rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

PHASE IV - Serving
When the time comes, slice it as thinly as you possible can and serve it. Slice only as much as you need to serve—once sliced, the brisket oxidizes and looses it bright colour.
You may wish to keep the cooking water from the brisket. It is essentially a very flavourful beef stock. Strain out and dispose of the vegetables, which by now are likely to be mush. You may freeze the stock in small batches and use it as needed for soups (it is an excellent base for borscht) or sauces.
Brisket is delicious with brine-fermented pickles, sauerkraut, mustard, as well as freshly grated horseradish. Under no circumstance should you ever consider insulting the brisket with prepared horseradish from a jar. You have just spent a week preparing this thing; don’t get lazy now. Pick up a fresh horseradish root, peel it and grate it. I personally like grating it coarse—it’s faster and it makes for a nice textural counterpoint to the very tender, slow-cooked brisket. I add a little bit of olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt, and sugar to my horseradish, as if I were lightly dressing a salad. You must try this. Obedience will be rewarded, trust me.
Good appetite.