Melting Pot: Smoke-Braised Brisket with Caramelized Onions and Spices

Tony writes: What if you split the difference between the two great (but very dissimilar) brisket traditions of the West – smoked Texas bbq and Jewish pot-roast? Would the result be a meaty masterpiece or muddled mess? Boldly, I set off to find out.

The background: This year, I was in charge of Rosh Hashanah dinner (the Jewish New Year for those of you scoring at home). An honor, sure, but also work –  I’m a fan of just showing up at mom’s and eating… I’m good at that.  If I was going to be the one doing the cooking, selfishly, I wanted to make things interesting, learn something. So brisket, the centerpiece at most all of our family get-togethers, was the object of my experimentation. But understand this: there was more than just restlessness that led me to combine Texas and Nana’s brisket. The marriage makes sense; as different as the two approaches are, both are bold and assertive. Traditional Texas barbecue entails coating the brisket with a zesty spice rub and then smoking/barbecuing low and slow until the meat becomes completely tender, at least 4 or 5 hours. Jewish brisket, on the other hand, is a traditional braise: sear the beef, toss in some onions, add a spiced tomato broth, cover, and cook until tender. The final flavor in both brisket preparations is plenty bold. So combining the two –  sear/smoking on the grill first before braising in a pot – not only adds a little smoke to the brisket, but also makes the initial searing stage on the grill (instead of on your stovetop) a whole lot less messy. Not to give the ending to this whole holiday story away, but this smoked/braised brisket technique was a winner. Good enough to go into my holiday repertoire and maybe yours, too. Here’s how:

1. Pick the “1st cut”: You have 3 basic brisket options at the market: the whole brisket (about 10 lb.) or either half: the 1st cut (aka “flat cut”) or the 2nd cut (aka “point”). The whole brisket will feed over 14 and is a pretty big hunk of meat. I was only feeding four so I went with a half cut. Of the two halves, I generally prefer the 1st cut. For meat lovers, this might put me in the minority. The first cut is lean, which makes for easier eating, but also less margin for error during cooking. The second cut is fattier – fat does equal flavor as it sort of melts and bastes the meat during cooking – but not as desirable for the braise, where you have to spoon off the rendered fat while it cooks. Go with the first cut and call ahead to make sure the butcher has one in stock (always a good idea).

2. Rub, then sear/grill/smoke: There are two basic reasons why I like searing brisket on the grill: of course, you can pick up some smoky flavor, but it’s also less messy than searing brisket on the stovetop (which brings with it grease splatter marks galore).  The idea is to sear the brisket gently on the grill so it browns lightly. Throw in some soaked wood chips so the meat also takes on a little smoke. The whole thing should take about 20 minutes. To do this:

Season the  meat: coat a 5-lb piece of brisket (preferably the 1st cut ) with a spice rub. To keep the flavorings within the realm of normal Jewish brisket, I suggest the spicing be somewhat neutral: 2 Tbs. kosher salt, 1 Tbs. ground cumin, 1 Tbs. sugar, 2 tsp. chile powder, 1 tsp. black pepper, and 1/2 tsp. pimenton de la Vera or chipotle powder. Rub all over the meat and let sit for at least 30 minutes (while the grill heats) or up to 1 day in the refrigerator.

Prepare the grill: You want to “sear” over mostly indirect heat. Gas is easier to control than charcoal for this; also, because you’ll be using wood chips, you won’t miss out on much flavor (charcoal’s traditional advantage over gas). Either way, build a fire with a hot zone and a low zone: on the gas grill, turn half of the burners to medium-high and half to low or on a charcoal grill, push a little more than 3/4 of the lit coals to one side of the grill, leaving a sparse layer of coals for a cooler zone. Soak a good handful of wood chips (I like apple or cherry) in water for 30 minutes or so.

Grill the brisket and some onions over the cooler zone of the fire. Set the soaked wood chips in a smoking pouch (wrap aluminum foil around the chips and pop some holes in it) and set directly over the burner coils or charcoal. Scrape and lightly oil the grill grates (use a wad of paper towels to apply the oil). Pat the brisket dry with paper towel (the rub will pull out excess moisture). Toss 2 red onions (cut into ½-inch disks; try to keep them whole so they flip easy on the grill) with 1 Tbs. olive oil and ¾ tsp. kosher salt. Set the onions over the hotter zone and the brisket over the cooler zone. Cover the grill during cooking. Cook the onions, flipping hallway through, until they become somewhat tender and charred in places but not burnt, 6 to 8 minutes total. Cook the brisket until it starts to brown lightly, 5 to 10 minutes and then flip; if there are flare-ups, turn off the burners on the low zone or push all of the charcoal to one side. After flipping cook until the other side browns and the entire shell of the brisket takes on an opaque, browned hue, 5 to 10 minutes more.

3. Braise: Heat the oven to 325F. Transfer the onions and brisket to a large Dutch oven (that has an oven-proof lid) along with one 15-oz. can diced tomatoes (and their juices), 1 cup low-salt chicken broth, 2 Tbs. cider vinegar, 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme, and 1 bay leaf. Set on the middle rack of the oven and cook, opening the oven every 30 minutes or so to carefully transfer the pot to the countertop, flip the meat, and skim off the rendered fat. Cook until the meat sags when you lift it up with tongs and is completely fork tender, 3 to 4 hours.

4. Let the meat rest, then slice and “soak”: As with all large cuts, braised brisket should be allowed to rest a good 20 minutes or so before slicing. Transfer the braised beef to a carving board. Meanwhile, skim off and discard any fat floating on top of the braising liquid. You can simmer the defatted broth to intensify its flavor and texture, though I found this unnecessary. Slice the brisket across the grain (between 1/4 and 1/2 inch thick) and transfer the slices to the warm broth to sit for 10 or 15 minutes and soak up the juices. Serve with potato kugel and vegetables or cornbread and beans.

Note: If you want to make the brisket a day ahead, you can leave the unsliced brisket in the broth, then gently reheat in the oven before following the slice and soak procedure.

Photo note: I’m a far better cook than camera-man; my pix were pathetic, so I’ve subbed in a beauty brisket from mykitchenbythelake.blogspot.com, a real pretty site.

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