How do you tell someone the brisket they’ve been making for 30 years could use a little help? Especially if that someone is your mother? For as long as anyone in my family can remember, Mom’s brisket has been a dry, overcooked piece of meat that made an annual appearance for Rosh Hashanah. Nobody ever went for seconds.
A couple of years ago, we decided to stage a brisket intervention. I was drafted to bring it up with Mom, ostensibly because I’m a chef, but more probably because everyone else was just too afraid. I armed myself with a great deal of tact, my culinary degree and an unwilling human shield (Dad). Fortunately, Mom didn’t take it too personally. After all, it wasn’t her recipe.
My mom is Catholic, so she didn’t grow up eating brisket for the holidays. But when she married my dad, she wanted to make him a few of his favorite foods, so she got the brisket recipe, along with those for other traditional Jewish dishes, from his mom. For the sake of family peace, we used my grandmother’s recipe as the scapegoat for this “problem” and got to work fixing the Sobel family brisket.
I started with the meat, something my mother had never paid much attention to. I bought a really good-quality kosher brisket, seasoned it well and seared it in a hot pan. From there I sauteed a few vegetables, made a simple horseradish-and-mustard dressing and added it to the vegetables. I added fresh herbs to beef stock and slow-cooked the brisket, dressing and vegetables in a low oven for 5 1/2 hours. Because the meat cooks in the stock for such a long time, it’s important to start with a really great-tasting beef stock.
With just a few tweaks, good meat, great stock and low-temperature cooking over a long time, my mom’s brisket went from an unwanted dry specimen to a tender and juicy dish we now look forward to at the high holidays.
To be honest, Mom really is quite an accomplished cook. She makes a mean matzoh ball soup, fantastic kugel and, finally, great brisket. My dad can finally enjoy the meat he has been avoiding for the past three decades. And now he goes for seconds.
If you have a family recipe that has been handed down for generations and you’ve always thought it was missing something, don’t be afraid to experiment with it. Sometimes the results will surprise you. L’shanah tovah.
8 to 10 servings
Buy your meat from a reputable butcher, such as Wagshal’s, or try Whole Foods. Don’t trim off most of the fat; it adds flavor and helps keep the brisket moist during cooking.
MAKE AHEAD: The brisket can be cooked a day or two in advance, covered and refrigerated. Its flavor improves after a day or so. It can also be frozen. Leave the fat on the brisket before refrigerating or freezing.
6 pounds high-quality kosher brisket, slightly trimmed of fat
Freshly ground black pepper
2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil, or more as needed
3 carrots, peeled and sliced into 3/4-inch lengths
2 medium onions, cut into quarters
5 ribs celery, cut into 3-inch lengths
5 cloves garlic, smashed
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons brown mustard
½ cup red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons freshly grated horseradish
2 quarts beef broth, or more as needed
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
½ bunch parsley
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Season the brisket liberally with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large ovenproof braising pan or pot -- big enough to hold the brisket comfortably -- over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the brisket and cook to brown it on all sides. When it is evenly seared, transfer the brisket to a platter. Add more oil to the pan if needed, then add the carrot, onion, celery, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste; cook for 2 minutes.
Combine the honey, mustard, vinegar and horseradish in a medium bowl, stirring until smooth, and add it to the vegetable mixture. Cook for about 3 minutes, using a wooden spatula or spoon to scrape up any solid bits from the bottom of the pan. Return the brisket to the braising pan or pot. Add enough beef broth to cover the brisket, then add the bay leaves, thyme and parsley and bring to a simmer. Cover the braising pan or pot and transfer it to the oven to bake for 5 1/2 hours. The brisket should be juicy and fork-tender. The pan juice can be strained and used as gravy for the sliced meat.