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How to cook a holiday brisket that will be tender every time

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
High Holiday Brisket
Active time:1 hour 15 mins
Total time:6 hours
Servings:10 to 12
Active time:1 hour 15 mins
Total time:6 hours
Servings:10 to 12

For years I was on the fence about holiday brisket, because most of the time, the meat that emerged from my Dutch oven would be dry, tough and stringy. Once in a while, however, the brisket would be sublime — succulent, tender, melt-in-your mouth decadence — and I’d fall for it all over again, only to be disappointed the next time. Same recipe with such wildly different results made me wonder what caused such variability.

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I would ask fellow cooks and friends and, inevitably, get the same answer: With brisket, you just never know how it’s going to turn out. For a long time, I believed it and even abandoned brisket entirely in favor of pot roast, which I found to be more reliably tender. But with time, I started to suspect there had to be a better answer.

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While no two cuts of meat will be exactly the same, the path to tender brisket starts with important choices at the meat counter — and an understanding of some science.

Brisket is a pectoral muscle of the cow, covering the breastbone, between the foreleg and the short ribs (flanken), another popular Ashkenazi cut. Each animal provides two briskets and, according to Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn of the site AmazingRibs.com and author of “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling,” because cows have no collarbones, these muscles bear about 60 percent of the animal’s weight (over 1,000 pounds) and do a lot of work. That results in lots of springy connective tissue in and around the muscle fibers, which is what makes them so tough. To break down those connective tissues made of collagen, convert them to unctuous gelatin and coax the meat to become tender, you want to cook it low and slow.

Goldwyn recommends that you buy the best-quality brisket you can afford, either USDA Choice, USDA Prime or wagyu, and look for a slab with the most visible marbling. If brisket isn’t labeled, it’s likely USDA Select, and Goldwyn recommends skipping it if possible due to lower marbling and less flavor.

While a whole, untrimmed brisket weighs around 14 pounds, in the United States, it is often sold in halves: either the first cut, a cross between a square and an oval, leaner, and also known as the “flat”; and the second cut, also known as the “point,” which is thicker, fattier and more flavorful. You want the point. If a visual helps, the flat cut is, well, flatter, while the point has a mound on it, like a hill, that is — if you squint at it — pointy. The latter won’t lie as tidily in your Dutch oven, nor will it slice as beautifully as a flat cut, but where it gives up on looks it delivers on flavor. You can buy a whole brisket, but that’s difficult to cook in a home kitchen.

With brisket in hand, you need to decide how to cook it. Your best bet is to braise it slowly in the oven. The Cook’s Illustrated book “The New Best Recipe” recommends 300 degrees; higher temperatures can turn the simmering liquid to boiling, which will dry out the meat. Lower temperatures just add unnecessary hours to the cooking time. Check on your brisket midway through cooking — if you see the liquid at a lively bubble, lower the heat a bit and check again. You want to see small gentle bubbles, Goldwyn says.

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A meat thermometer, preferably with a probe and cord that connects to a digital display is, according to Goldwyn, a cook’s best tool for success. When the internal temperature of the meat reaches around 200 degrees — don’t let it go above 205, Goldwyn says — your brisket is ready. For a 5-pound brisket in roughly 3 cups of liquid with some vegetables surrounding it, it takes about 4 hours. Focus on the temperature and not the time it will take to cook, Goldwyn emphasizes.

For additional flavor, Goldwyn suggests salting your meat the night before to let the salt penetrate the meat cells. I also rub my brisket in freshly ground black pepper, but, unlike salt, that seasons only the outside of the meat.

The recipe I share below comes from my mother-in-law, Shelley, who got it from her mother-in-law, Sylvia. The original recipe is rich in ketchup and onions, with carrots and potatoes creating a stew of sorts. According to Gil Marks’s “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” “Ashkenazic brisket is always made with onions, and plenty of them. After the mid-19th century, potatoes and carrots were frequently added to provide more sustenance.” In the 20th century, Marks notes, American Jews started adding commercial condiments, such as “canned cranberry sauce, onion soup mix and/or chili sauce,” or in Sylvia’s case, ketchup.

In my adaptation, I added garlic and onion powders as well as a little beef stock for a deeper flavor. The fussiest part of the recipe is chilling everything and then removing the fat before reheating and pureeing the sauce. The ingredients are likely in your cupboard, and besides the meat, the remaining players are budget-friendly.

With Rosh Hashanah just around the corner, as you put together your holiday menu, give this brisket a try. After trying dozens of brisket recipes, I always come back to this one, which remains my favorite — and by a long shot. It may not be highbrow, but it’s darn delicious.

correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly said the brisket cut called the point is also known as the deckle. In fact, the deckle is technically a layer of hard fat, but according to Meathead Goldwyn, the term is used inconsistently by many butchers and chefs and has no reliable definition.

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Ingredients

  • One (5-pound) beef brisket, preferably the point cut (see NOTE)
  • 1 tablespoon table or fine sea salt, plus more as needed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil or another neutral oil
  • 5 large cloves garlic, minced or finely grated (about 1/4 cup)
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 4 to 5 medium yellow onions (2 1/2 to 3 pounds), halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 pound carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 cup no-sodium beef stock
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups ketchup, preferably Heinz low-sodium
  • 2 pounds whole baby gold potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch chunks
  • Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, for garnish

Step 1

Pat the brisket dry and season with the salt and pepper. If you have time, cover and refrigerate overnight, otherwise, let the meat sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes.


Step 2

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 300 degrees.

Heat an 8-quart, heavy-bottomed pot, such as a Dutch oven, over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes, or until a sprinkle of water immediately evaporates when it hits the surface. Add the oil and swirl to coat. Set the brisket in the pot and sear, without moving it, until browned, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Be patient and resist the urge to move the brisket sooner; generously burnished meat will deliver more flavor.

Step 3

Transfer the brisket to a large, rimmed baking sheet. Let it rest until it’s cool enough to touch. Then, rub the fresh garlic into the meat and sprinkle it with the onion and garlic powders.


Step 4

While you’re waiting for the brisket to cool, add half the onions and carrots to the pot. Cook, stirring often, until the onions soften and start to color, about 8 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the stock to the pot. Place the brisket on top, then cover with the remaining onions (it’s okay if some of them fall off), and scatter the remaining carrots around the brisket. Add the water and pour the ketchup over everything. If you have one, stick a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. (Otherwise, you can use a digital thermometer to periodically check the internal temperature of the meat.)

Step 5

Cover with a lid and place in the oven for about 3 hours. Add the potatoes and return to the oven for 1 1/2 hours more, until the meat reaches 200 degrees. Both the meat and the vegetables should be tender.

Transfer to a heatproof surface and let cool for no longer than 2 hours, then refrigerate overnight.


Step 6

The next day, position the oven rack in the middle and preheat to 350 degrees. Remove the Dutch oven from the refrigerator and skim off any solid fat from the top of the meat, vegetables and pan juices.

Transfer the brisket to a large cutting board. Slice the meat against the grain into 1/3- to 1/2-inch slices. Transfer the potatoes and half of the carrots (if some onions sneak in there, that’s fine) to a large bowl.

Step 7

Set the Dutch oven over medium-high heat and warm pan juices, carrots and onions until simmering. Remove from the heat and, using an immersion blender, puree until mostly smooth; then transfer half of the sauce to a roasting pan.

Step 8

Lay the sliced brisket over the sauce, slightly overlapping the slices, then scatter the potatoes and carrots around the meat. Cover the roasting pan and heat the brisket for 40 to 50 minutes, until warmed through.


Step 9

While the brisket warms up, in a small pot over low heat, bring the remaining sauce to a simmer; keep warm.


Step 10

Arrange the brisket, vegetables and sauce on a serving platter, garnish with the parsley and serve, with the warmed sauce on the side.

NOTE: Brisket comes in two cuts: the flat, or first cut, is lean. The point is thicker, has more marbling and is generally more tender.

VARIATION: To make this brisket in a slow cooker, follow the cooking instructions up to browning the onions, then transfer all the ingredients, including the potatoes, to a slow cooker and cook on low for 8 hours. Follow the chilling, slicing and reheating instructions above. For a 5-pound brisket, you’ll need an 8-quart slow cooker; adjust the ingredients accordingly if your slow cooker is smaller.

Nutrition Information

Per serving (1/3 pound meat plus vegetables and sauce), based on 12

Calories: 718; Total Fat: 37 g; Saturated Fat: 13 g; Cholesterol: 202 mg; Sodium: 736 mg; Carbohydrates: 37 g; Dietary Fiber: 5 g; Sugar: 16 g; Protein: 59 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.


Recipe adapted from food writer Olga Massov’s mother-in-law, Shelley Freedman.

Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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