Brisket 101

photo taken by Jack Newton, on September 2, 2013, CC licensing

Gefilte fish, challah, even matzoh balls-some bubbe foods can be intimidating to cooks when started from scratch.
But my mom's cousin Irma took me totally by surprise years ago when she complained she'd never been able to make a good brisket. "Tough as a brick, dry as a board. When I drop it onto a platter, it breaks into a million pieces. Just like old-fashioned Turkish taffy."
Borscht Belt hyperbole aside, this braised beef was not exactly an avatar of luscious Jewish home cooking. And Irma is not alone: many readers have since confessed they too are brisket-challenged.
I recently interviewed Sandra Ciklik, a Mexican-Jewish chef who told me there is nothing like warm brisket with salsa verde in a kosher-for-Passover tortilla. Passover menus around the world feature briskets. That's because it's an especially good choice for seders: it not only can be prepared ahead, it actually tastes better and more tender when made in advance. And it can easily withstand a wait in the kitchen no matter how long your seder runs.
So with Passover just around the corner, I've decided to devote this column to Building a Better Brisket. You can use these techniques with your own recipes or try the ones I give.

Pot Roast and Brisket
First, let's clear up the pot roast-brisket confusion. 
Brisket is a boneless, coarse-grained cut of meat covering the breastbone of the cow. Pot roast is a method of cooking: a large cut of meat is usually browned first, then slowly cooked with some liquid (and often, aromatics and vegetables) in a covered pot until very tender. The meat is actually pot-braised, not roasted at all. Several cuts of meat may be pot-roasted: briskets, chuck roasts, and so on. 
So most briskets are pot-roasts (i.e., they are cooked pot roast-style, if they are not smoked, barbequed, or corned), but not all pot roasts are briskets.

The Cuts
A whole brisket comprises two different cuts, usually sold as two separate pieces of meat: the first (or flat) cut, a rectangular piece of lean meat topped with a thick cap of fat; the second (or point) cut, which has a lot more marbling throughout, making it both more tender-and fattier. When carefully cooked, a second-cut becomes as tender as butter, but it requires a lot more skimming to remove the fat.
Both cuts have their fans, but the first-cut is the one most commonly seen in recipes. To please both Jack Sprat and his wife, you may want to purchase a whole brisket-which usually runs about 10 pounds or so--for very large gatherings.

To Sear or Not to Sear
Searing meat to seal in the juices has gone the way of smearing butter on a burn to soothe it, and other such bubbe meises. In fact, searing meat has been proven to release more moisture. 
But browning a brisket does caramelize the sugars in the meat, creating a wonderful depth of flavor in the meat, as well as lending color to the dish (which otherwise may resemble a slab of wet cement). So it's well worth the extra few minutes to begin by browning.
To sear on top of the stove: heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a Dutch oven, heavy skillet, or heavy flameproof casserole large enough to accommodate the meat in one layer. Add the brisket, and brown it well to caramelize the meat on all sides, about 10 minutes in all. Don't allow it to develop a hard, dark crust, which would make the meat tough or bitter. 
For even browning, your pan should be heavy, even if you will be transferring the meat to a lighter-weight roasting pan later. If you don't have a pan large enough, you can cut the brisket in two and sauté it in batches. (The meat will shrink as it cooks, so that you may be able to fit it in one layer later. If not, you can transfer it to a large roasting pan after you've seared it.) Another option is to sear the meat in a heavy, flameproof roasting pan set over two burners. 
You can also brown the meat under the broiler, especially useful for very big briskets or marinated ones likely to splatter or burn if pan-seared, because the surfaces are damp or flavored with sugary ingredients. Here's how: cover the broiler pan with foil to minimize cleanup. Place brisket, fat-side up, under a preheated broiler, and broil for 5 to 6 minutes on each side, or until nicely browned. Move the meat around as needed, so that it sears evenly.

After searing the meat, set it aside. Add the aromatics and other ingredients to the pan (see the recipes included here for some ideas), then place the brisket on top, fat-side up. Cover the pan tightly first with foil then with the pot lid. If you don't have a lid, double-wrap with heavy-duty foil.
Braise the meat very slowly. I do this in the oven because the heat is more even and controlled, plus it frees up the burners for other cooking. I start anywhere from 275 to 325 degrees F. But check when you baste, every 30 minutes or so: if the pan liquid is bubbling not gently, but hard, turn the heat down as low as 250 degrees F, if necessary.
Don't rush. Brisket-love means lots of coddling. It may take up to 3 ½, 4 hours or even more of gentle slow-cooking before the meat is fork-tender.
You see, brisket is shot through with skeins of tough connective tissue made of collagen (better known to women of a certain age as the stuff that young and pouty lips are made on). As the collagen melts with slow cooking, it turns into a soft gelatin. End result: meat that is more tender and uniform in texture, gravy with added body and flavor.

A Nice Rest
But ignore that seductive fragrance-we're still not there yet. Notice how much the brisket has shrunken and how much additional liquid there is now in the pan? That's from all the moisture and collagen exuded into the gravy. The key to moist, full-flavored meat is allowing the brisket to slowly drink back some of that moisture, in turn intensifying its flavors.
If possible, let the brisket rest in the pan sauce overnight, covered, in the refrigerator. (Never refrigerate or freeze a brisket dry, without any liquid.) That way, it's easy to remove the congealed fat, and to slice the meat cold.
If that's not possible, let the brisket sit in the pan sauce for a minimum of one hour. Then strain out the pan sauce and defat it.
Be sure to slice the meat thinly, against the grain, on a diagonal, and reheat it slowly in the gravy.

Slow, Not Snooze, Food
That slow simmering and long bath can lull the flavors of the sauce. So wake them up just before serving: stir in some fresh herbs, grated citrus zest or a few drops of juice, a hint of raw garlic puree, a bit of tart-sweet pomegranate molasses, even a generous grind of fresh pepper. Warm just to marry the flavors. This added top-note, an extra-taste layer, will create a fresher, more complex sauce.

Wishing you all a delicious, sweet Passover!
In the next columns, I'll try to answer some of questions you've written in.

Sephardic or Askhenazi