No matter what holiday you celebrate this holiday season, there’s going to be a dinner and since you’re reading a food blog right now, there’s a good chance people are going to expect YOU to make it. Your options will be fairly limited–people have certain expectations when it comes to holiday dinners–and in the canon of culinary techniques available to you, you’ll most likely choose roasting since that particular verb yields so many classic holiday dishes: roast beef, roast turkey, roast reindeer (see my banner.)
Yet, there’s another technique available to you and it happens to be my favorite cooking technique of all time, especially when I’m entertaining. That technique is called braising and it’s yielded some of the best dinners I’ve ever made, like this coq au vin and these braised short ribs.
Why do I love braising so much? Because the steps are always the same: (1) you brown meat; (2) you add aromatics to the pan (onions, carrots, celery); (3) you add your braising liquid (wine, stock, beer, you name it); (4) you put the meat back in, cover it and stick it in the oven for hours. By the time your guests are sitting around the table, happily clinking their wine glasses, you have a moist, succulent protein (succulent because braising meats are generally tough at first, but all that cooking time breaks down their collagen and fat) and an enriched, deeply flavorful sauce. Cook a starch along with it (potatoes, noodles, rice) and you’re golden. That’s why I love braising.
Of all the foods you can braise, the one that’s the most obvious (especially if you’re Jewish) but the one I’d never braised before is a brisket. It’s a big, tough slab of meat that becomes tenderer the more you cook it and growing up, I’d go to Hanukkah dinners at the homes of aunts named Rhoda or Hilda, and there’d be a braised brisket—usually cooked with lots of carrots and root vegetables.
This particular recipe doesn’t come from a Jewish aunt; it comes from Suzanne Goin and her excellent book (one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, put it on your list), “Sunday Suppers at Lucques.”
The recipe is quite detailed but I’m going to make it really easy for you.
Step 1: Buy a brisket. For six people, Chef Goin suggests six pounds; I was serving seven people last week, so I bought an eight pounder. As Chef Goin says, “It’s always better to make more brisket rather than less.” (And my next post will show you what you can do with all the leftovers.)
The key, when buying brisket, is to ask them to keep a 1/2-inch top layer of fat. That’s what keeps the brisket from drying out, so make sure to tell your butcher.
Step 2: Season it the night before you cook it. In a bowl, combine 3 tablespoons thyme leaves, 2 dry bay leaves crumbled (or fresh ones sliced), 10 cloves of garlic smashed, 3 dried red chiles crumbled, and 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper. Then rub this all over the brisket packed into tupperware:
Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Step 3: Sear the meat. An hour before you’re ready to cook (and at least seven hours before you plan to serve it), remove the tupperware from the refrigerator and let it come up to room temperature.
After an hour passes, preheat the oven to 325 F.
Now the tricky part; you’ve got to sear this sucker in a pan. No pan will be big enough for an 8 pound brisket. As Chef Goin says, “You will need to sear a portion of the meat at a time, because the entire brisket probably won’t fit in your pan.”
So, first of all, scrape off all the garlic and bay leaves and chiles so they don’t burn (save them: you’ll add them back later.) Second of all, I did this, even though Chef Goin doesn’t: sprinkle it with a light sprinkling of kosher salt. (At no point in her recipe does Chef Goin season the brisket and I find that weird.) Third of all, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in your largest skillet over high heat until it’s very, very hot. Then start your searing:
Folks, I’m not going to lie: this made a mess. Kristin, Craig’s sister was watching me do it as I struggled to move the brisket around (hint: use tongs AND a meat fork) and even the wall, by the end, was splattered with peppercorns and brisket fat. BUT! As you can see from the lead picture, searing your brisket gives it a glorious color when it’s done later. You can probably skip this step and just braise the brisket without searing, but you’ll miss a lot of flavor. Plus, even though it’s a messy nightmare, it’s also kind of fun.
Sear it until it’s brown all over.
Step 4: Add your aromatics. Once it’s browned all over, remove the brisket to a large roasting pan or, if it can hold it, a huge Dutch oven. If there are burnt bits in the bottom of your skillet, get rid of them with paper towels and a metal spatula: that’ll make your sauce bitter.
If there’s enough fat in the pan, don’t do anything. If not, add a splash more olive oil.
To the pan, add 2 medium onions, peeled and cut into 1-inch thick wedges (leaving the root end intact) and 3 carrots and 1 stalk celery cut into thirds.
Season slightly with salt (again, my step, not Chef Goin’s), stirring over medium high heat so you scrape up all the crusty bits and until the vegetables start to caramelize (about 8 minutes). When they’re brown like this…
…add all the garlic and bay leaves and chiles you conserved earlier. Stir around and cook a tiny bit more.
Step 5: Add your liquids. Turn off the heat and add 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar and 3 cups dark beer (such as Guiness or Samuel Smith).
Turn up the heat and let that reduce by a quarter. Then add a quart of beef stock and bring that to a boil. When it’s boiling, pour it all over the brisket in the roasting pan:
You want the liquid to come just to the top of the brisket (add more stock if necessary.)
Step 6: Cover the pan and braise for hours and hours.
Whenever you braise, you want to cover your braising subject, very, very well. That’s why a Dutch Oven works so perfectly, it has a tight lid. A roasting pan is trickier. Chef Goin suggests you cover with a layer of plastic wrap and then foil, but I once had a disaster doing that with another braising recipe from Chef Goin’s book (see link.) So I just covered this very, very well with foil. Super tightly. You don’t want any steam to escape (otherwise the liquid will evaporate, you won’t have a moist environment and your meat will dry out.) So here’s my foil-wrapped roasting pan:
Now the best part: into the oven this goes for FIVE to SIX hours.
If you’re hosting a dinner party, that’s a gift unto itself. You can use this time to clean, to vacuum, to pretty yourself, to set the table, to make a playlist and to drink yourself into oblivion.
Meanwhile, turn the light on in your oven just to make sure no steam’s escaping from your foil tent. If it was escaping, you’d most likely see it.
Also: this is a good time to mention that braising meat like this for hours and hours fills your apartment or house with the most glorious smell. And now, at last….
Step 7: Serve the brisket.
When I served this recently at a dinner party, I invited my guests into the kitchen for the big reveal: when the brisket came out of the oven after 6 hours. Here’s what it looked like:
I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure there was a round of applause.
Chef Goin says you know it’s done when a fork goes in easily. You should be able to pull the meat apart, no problem.
If you think it’s ready to go, remove the meat to a cutting board and let it rest for a bit….
…and strain all the vegetables/liquid into a pot:
Make sure to press down on the vegetables to extract all their goodness.
Turn up the heat on the pot and slice your meat against the grain:
Chef Goin suggests serving this with lentils and, though her recipe looked nice, I decided to use this recipe from my archives: it had bacon in it. People raved.
I also made a quick horseradish cream by combining bottle horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise. (Chef Goin’s recipe has you mix bottle horseradish with creme fraiche, but I couldn’t find creme fraiche when I did my food shopping.) Whatever you do, make sure you make some kind of horseradish sauce: it’s one of the best parts.
Ladle the hot braising liquid over the plate (including the lentils) and voila:
A festive holiday dinner that, really, wasn’t that hard. Plus, those six hours of braising are a real gift: my gift to you this holiday season.