By: Richard EhrlichEVEN though brisket is one of the cheapest beef cuts, aficionados know that it has incomparable flavour. You just need to treat it properly.
Brisket is breast of beef, a long strip running from the tip of the breast (point end) to the hindquarter flank. Technically it comprises the meat covering the 3-10th ribs, but some butchers cut it with the flank (11th-13th ribs); others include the first ribs as well. You probably won’t see the bones, as brisket is almost always "sheeted out" (cut off the ribs and intercostal muscles) and rolled before presentation. The butcher should trim any loose or ragged fat, leaving a roughly squared-off sheet which can weigh anything from 7-20 pounds, depending on the size of the carcass and the method of cutting.
Brisket varies also in the amount of meat left on from the thick and thin ribs, which lie between the brisket and the fore rib/shoulder sections of the carcass. Some butchers cut these ribs separately, for selling in pieces or as a large joint called the Jacob’s Ladder. Others cut them with the brisket, producing a joint of considerably greater thickness than classic brisket.
Brisket contains a lot of fat, most of it removed before sale. The fat should not be more than ¼in thick, but some should be left on to provide lubrication during cooking. Careful butchers "butterfly" the thick strip of fat along the sternum edge, slicing it to make it lie flat on the rolled joint.
Traditionally the thicker (shoulder) end of brisket is thought to have the best cooking qualities, but a well trimmed brisket will cook well throughout its length. Always ask the butcher which sort he or she is selling; if the answer is vague, examine it closely yourself. You can usually identify shoulder-end brisket by its thick layers of perfectly lean meat.
Brisket is usually poached or braised, but the method I’ve come to prefer, after hearing about it from butchers (often good sources of advice), is to cook the rolled joint wrapped in foil. Extra liquid is unnecessary, as the sealed foil cooks the meat in its own steam. This method needs minimal attention, and timings and temperatures are flexible. The tough muscle fibres break down for effortless chewing, the collagen (connective tissue) turns to delectable jelly, the fat liquefies for easy draining. And the fragrant broth serves as an instant and delectable ‘sauce.’ This is an easy and economical ways of serving a crowd – and one of best, in my view.
For the recipe below, the flavourings can be varied as you like. Don’t forget to note the weight of the joint.
1 piece of rolled brisket around 4in in diameter
30ml (2 tbsps) vegetable or olive oil
Ground cumin, coriander and cinnamon
3-4 cloves of garlic, sliced thin 5-10 bay leaves
- Remove beef from the fridge at least 1 hour before cooking, and preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F, Gas 2) around 15 minutes before cooking is to begin. Lay 2 very large double sheets of aluminium foil, big enough to enclose the beef completely, in a roasting tin. Put the beef on the foil.
- Put the oil in a bowl and measure in the spices: for every 450g (1 lb) of beef, 2.5ml (½ tsp) of coriander and cinnamon, and 5ml (1 tsp) of cumin. Grind in black pepper until your arms ache, and whisk thoroughly. If you don’t think there’s enough oil to coat the beef completely, add another tbsp or so.
- Rub the spice oil over the top and sides of the beef. Lay the bay leaves and garlic on top. Now pull up the foil at the sides and ends of the joint, pinching and folding the edges to make as good a seal as you can manage. It needn’t stick tightly to the beef, but it must be well sealed. A 3rd sheet underneath will provide extra insurance against tearing.
- Put the parcel in a roasting tin and cook for around 6 hours, till the beef feels very soft to the touch. If you’re in a hurry, it will cook in around half that time at 180°C (350°F, Gas 4). Shorter cooking will not soften the connective tissue and should not be attempted.
- When the beef is done, leave it in the turned-off oven for 20 minutes to ‘rest’, then open the parcel and carefully lift the beef onto a platter without piercing it. (Piercing would allow juices to escape from the meat.) Pour the liquid into a jug or degreasing pourer, and get rid of the fat. Serve in thick slices with the broth as gravy, and with Dijon mustard or a sharp salsa verde (chopped garlic, capers, parsley and lemon juice) if you like. Mashed or boiled potatoes are the ideal accompaniment, with a salad on the side and a good bottle of Côtes du Rhône.