My Bubbie’s Brisket
Passover is coming. I am, once again, contemplating kashering my kitchen (making it ready for Passover and the clearing away of “chametz” - anything with leavening). I am also thinking about brisket, probably because it is almost Pesach. In my family, which managed to show its devotion to God mainly through food and only peripherally through prayer and ritual, brisket meant holiday and celebration. It was, for us, the 11th commandment.
I got this recipe from my bubbie. I’m sure she got it from hers, who got it from hers, who got it from hers – you get the idea: a long, forever line of amazing and strong and devoted women who cooked and fed and made sure that, no matter what was going on in the world, she would make sure that there was enough, and then some. Genug! Enough!
The translation, with commentary
Get a brisket, ½ a pound to a pound per person. Top cut is more expensive, but my bubbie swore by it.
The range is big because brisket has a magical shrinking quality. One year, you plan for ½ a pound per person (because last year, there was so much left over!), and the brisket shrinks enough that you contemplate only having soup for dinner, to make sure there is enough. Or, if you’re my mother, you buy a second brisket, just to be sure.
Rinse and pat dry.
Remember the movie “There Will Be Blood”? Do this part in the sink. Trust me.
A few yellow onions, sliced
Use a mandolin if you want to be fancy. Otherwise, cut away, until you have enough to layer the bottom of the pan, and then enough to layer the top of the brisket.
Place a layer of sliced onions in the bottom of your roasting pan.
No translation necessary – just throw ‘em in the roasting pan and be done.
The Dry Rub:
Salt and Pepper
Please don’t ask for exact amounts; no self-respecting bubbie of mine would deign to measure an ingredient if her life depended on it. These are things you’re just supposed to know. So – the brisket should be covered with the paprika. The other dry ingredients – “enough” is as specific as I can get here. As my bubbie would say, “You’ll know.” Reminder: all seasonings should be on top and bottom of the brisket.
The Other Rub:
Yup – ketchup. Slather this all over the brisket. It’s a messy job. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Top brisket with more onions and sprinkle a packet of dry onion soup mix
Depending on the size of the brisket, you might want to use 2 packets. Again, this is cooking by sight.
Last Step: mix about ¼ to ½ cup of ketchup with about a cup of water. Pour this over and around brisket. Cover pan tightly with foil and roast at 350 for several hours.
So, you finally get to measure something! You only need to actually measure the first time or three until this, too, is cooking by sight. As for how long – what? You thought my bubbie would provide some exactness at this point in our cooking adventure? I usually cook the brisket for 4 or 5 hours. This is something that cannot be overcooked! You know when it’s done? When it smells like brisket, when it smells like it’s done.
Take it out of the oven. Let cool. Refrigerate at least overnight.
Remember to open the foil away from your face! There will be steam. (This is a bubbie quote, akin to “Blow on the soup; it’s hot." Behind all the words though, is the sentiment “I love you.” Bubbie spoke many languages - Yiddish, English, food. I miss them all)
Slice the brisket while cold
I can’t stress this enough. No self-respecting bubbie of mine would deign to use an electric carving knife. Cut it cold - but before you do, remove the hard orange shell (the polite way to say “fat.”) Dispose. Taste a piece (or two). This is the “testing for poison” phase. This is a critical step. Do not over-test however; you do have guests arriving soon. Replace sliced brisket in the pan with all the onions and the juice (and assorted vegetables, as desired) and cover tightly with foil.
Place in oven heated to between 325 - 350 degrees.
A lower heat won’t hurt. Again, this is cooking by additional senses. I usually keep the brisket in the oven for another 2 - 3 hours. The desired doneness is when the meat “fels’n part,” Yiddish-ish for “falls apart.” Brisket should be fork-tender; no knives required (just as matzoh balls should be hard as rocks - but that’s a different essay entirely).
On a huge platter. It is totally ok to forget the gravy, which is really just the pan juices poured into a gravy boat; this creates additional opportunity to apologize for the meal, and for the guests to show their love, and tell you how amazing the food is. If you've planned it correctly, you will have made too much, the exactly right amount.
The onions can stay with the brisket; the other veggies, if any, can be placed around the meat or in a separate serving dish. Your call. Bubbie often forgot to serve these, but had enough other vegetables (all of which, for some reason, included things like honey, raisins, marshmallow and pineapple). The salad never came out until five bites before everyone was ready to burst, with cries of “Oy! The salad!” Wine and juice got poured and drunk and spilled. Matzoh crumbs littered the table and more than a few laps and the carpet.
The kids fidgeted, their parents split their attention between the kids (allowing them some semblance of freedom until there was inevitable escalation from happy-to-see-the-cousins exuberance to a true-to-life demonstration of Moses masking an example of the Egyptian taskmaster and the events of the seder and silently pleading with the seder leader to speed it up and do we really have to talk about what the rabbi's said on their sleepover?
And all around you is the happy chaos of a family celebration, in whatever iteration your family settles into - family by birth, by the beloved family you find along the way, by the orphans, acquaintances and disparate others who may have had no other place to spend the holiday - and you sort of get a sense of that original Pesach meal, all jumbled and joyous and not quite perfect as you rushed around, stretching your legs on the slippery new place of Freedom, and maybe no one knew everyone around, so you all just garnered together, to eat and remember and thank and hope and pray and love.
So, this is the recipe - the pared down, out-loud version that was given to me, handed down much as the Torah went from God to Moses to Joshua to a thousand generations of our people, to your niece who chanted so beautifully at her bat mitzvah not too long ago, or your son who is struggling with its ideas (much as you did - and still do) and perhaps this recipe goes back to Sinai as well. Perhaps.
And every time I make it, I remember, and give thanks and feel love. And then we gather, the chaos of family and friends and kids and love - and we remember, just like we were there, and we tell the story of our redemption, and we tell the story of our family, and we celebrate wroth brisket and matzoh and stories and love.
Thank you to my bubbies, both of them. Your memories have been a blessing to us all. Chag pesach sameach!