Ask any chef what their favourite cut of beef is, and I bet they’ll tell you it isn’t an eye fillet or a sirloin or anything like that.
Those cuts — too easy. All you’ve got to do is grill, rest, serve, eat… *Yawn*
They’ll probably choose something with a little more character.
Something a little less popular.
Something that packs a lot of flavour, costs a fraction of the other cuts but might require some patience and a little extra TLC.
“One of the best things I’ve ever tasted was a barbecue brisket — to the point where I still think about it to this day,” says Australian food writer and internationally certified barbecue judge Alice Zaslavsky.
“It was at the end of judging a barbecue contest and I’d eaten 26 entries worth of meat and this one piece of brisket will absolutely stay with me forever … I’m drooling just thinking about it.”
Mike Patrick is a Melbourne chef and restaurant owner who specialises in American-style barbecue. He says that secondary cuts like brisket have more flavour and an interesting texture.
“It’s a beautiful piece of meat if you treat it right,” he says.
Curious and ready to tackle brisket? Here’s what you need to know about buying, prepping and cooking this cut of meat.
Lesson 1: Where to buy brisket
Alice says choosing a brisket is like choosing any other meat — buy the best quality you can afford and less of it, if necessary.
“Just ask for grass-fed beef and don’t be afraid of a little fat,” Alice says.
“Fat is flavour and most of it will render down when you’re cooking.”
- Brisket is a cut of beef on the underside side or chest of the animal.
- It’s a muscle that gets worked a lot, meaning it’s tough, so it needs time in cooking to break down the connective tissue and become tender.
- You can find it at most butchers and increasingly at most major supermarkets.
- Great for slow barbecue (American barbecue), stewing, braising and slow roasts.
Brisket comes from the animal’s breast or lower chest, meaning there’s a left and a right side when it comes to buying it.
And because the muscle gets used a lot by the animal, it’s tough, which makes it cheap (because it’s sort of the last thing you want).
Mike says that up until recently, people in Australia didn’t really know much about brisket.
“Butchers would use brisket in sausages or dice it up and sell it as stew meat,” he says.
“There was no interest in it whatsoever.”
But that’s no longer the case. Jack Tilley is a butcher from Melbourne who says it’s now hard to find a butcher who doesn’t sell it. It’s also becoming more common in big Australian supermarkets as its popularity grows.
Brisket is made up of two different muscles called the point and the flat. The point is thicker and fattier of the two. The flat has some fat but is far leaner.
“The point end has more fat through the muscle, and it’s got a lot more flavour because of it,” Mike says.
Chat to your butcher about how you’re planning to cook your brisket to get the best cut.
Lesson 2: Cooking with brisket
In the cookbook The Brisket Book: A Love Story with Recipes, author, journalist and social historian Stephanie Pierson says that while there are millions of brisket recipes out there, there’re are only three techniques when it comes to cooking the cut.
You can braise it, you can barbecue it or you can brine it, so it becomes corned beef.
There’s no beating around the bush. Each technique will take hours, sometimes days. Because it’s a tough, muscle-based cut, the connective tissue needs low heat and a longer cooking time to break down.
Alice says that any meat you’re cooking with, big or small, should be trimmed to be as uniform in shape as possible.
“That way, you’re getting an even cook,” she says.
- Brining is the process of soaking meat into a mixture of salt and other aromatics with water. The mixture then penetrates the meat, making it juicier.
- Choose a cooking vessel: For braising or slow cooking, Alice recommends using a large cast-iron pan or casserole pot. You could even use a slow cooker or a pressure cooker. “Pressure cookers are the shiz!” Alice says. “They cut your cooking time by three quarters.”
- Substitute cuts: If a recipe calls for brisket and you can’t get a hold of any, Jack says that some great alternatives are chuck beef or gravy beef. “Particularly if you’re stewing or braising,” Jack says.
- Recipe: Try chef Annie Smither’s recipe for a basic braise.
- A technique for special occasions: For Mike, the only way to eat brisket is barbecued — low and slow. “We don’t eat a lot of meat at home. My wife is vegan and I’m not going to fire up the barbecue for myself,” he says. “It’s rich, fatty, salty and sweet and it’s a treat if I’m honest … I love it in moderation.”
- Managing heat: If you’re going to attempt smoking a brisket on your four-burner barbecue at home, Mike says fire up two burners and offset the meat so it’s cooking over indirect heat on the cooler area. “Keep the temperature steady at 100 degrees Celsius and cook it for as long as you’ve got,” Mike says. “The only trick here is to keep cooking until the meat is tender.” When you want to check if it’s done, poke it with a skewer or knife and when it starts probing nicely and it’s not so tough, you’re good to go.
- Making it smoky If you want to add some smoke flavour, you can grab yourself some smoking boxes from a hardware or barbecue store and fill it with wood chips. People can really nerd out when it comes to smoking brisket and one of questions Mike gets asked all the time is: What wood should I smoke my brisket with? “If you’ve got a good piece of meat, [use] a good spice rub on it. The type of timber you use is not an issue,” he says. Mike says most hardwoods are suitable to smoke with. He uses red gum, ironbark, and sometimes yellow box.
- Using a charcoal barbecue: If you’re using a charcoal barbecue, opt for lump coal over briquettes. “You can get specialty briquettes, but briquettes generally have filler to press them together,” Mike says.
Lesson 3: It’s the food of tomorrow
While it may not be the most popular cut here in Australia, brisket has been a staple ingredient in many cultures.
“The leaner brisket is often used in things like pho, and Jewish people have been cooking with brisket in soups, stews and pastrami for a very long time,” Mike says.
“The reason why Jews in particular use brisket, is because it’s from the front of the animal because the back of the animal is not kosher,” says Alice, who grew up in a Jewish family.
In her book on brisket, Stephanie Pierson wrote about the Jewish population of Northern and Eastern Europe traditionally using brisket in cholent, a stew reserved for Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
For one, it was hearty and substantial, which suited the colder climate.
But Alice believes there’s another reason Jewish people observing Jewish law turn to this type of meat, particularly on the sabbath when you aren’t supposed to work or use electricity.
“They would cook the Cholent on a Friday afternoon before the sun went down and it would cook all the way through until Saturday lunch,” Alice says.
It’s a way to eat a warm, stovetop meal on a technicality.