The Secret to the Best Brisket

Rachel Tepper Paley
April 11, 2014

Photo credit: StockFood/Adrian Mueller

What ingredients help make a brisket shine brightest?

We’re talking about the essential braised beef brisket, moist and flavorful, soon to land on Passover tables between crocks of potato kugel and apple-walnut charoset. (Texas-style smoked brisket is wonderful in its own right, but we’ll leave that delicacy for another day.)

We surveyed a few Jewish friends to glean secrets passed down through the generations, from grandmothers to mothers…but didn’t expect to get the same response from so many people: dried onion soup mix.

"Sounds terrible, but it is AMAZING," wrote Loryn Brantz. "Use a lot of ketchup, one big can of Coors beer, one packet of Lipton’s onion soup mix, one can of cranberry sauce, and some potatoes and carrots.”

"My great-grandma’s recipe uses the onion soup mix!" echoed Toby Shephard.

It kept coming: “The key to a great Jewish brisket is French onion dip mix,” said Brian Wolken. “Just sprinkle a few packets of the dry mix on the brisket, cover with foil in a roast pan, and cook until tender.”

Even this writer’s own mother chimed in: “Mix together Catalina dressing and onion soup mix. Pour over the brisket in a large roasting pan. Cover tightly with foil and put in a 350 oven for two hours.”

We turned to Adam Sobel, the executive chef at Michael Mina’s San Francisco eatery RN74, for an explanation of the onion soup mix trend. Sobel, who grew up in a mixed Jewish and Italian household, has eaten his fair share of brisket.

“These recipes, with the onion soup base, all this came from the ’50s,” he said. “Convenience foods really came of age [then]. But I will say this: There was no Lipton’s onion soup mix 150 years ago in Poland.”

Fair enough. Sobel skips the onion soup mix entirely and instead braises brisket in beef broth along with carrots, onions, and celery with honey, garlic, mustard, vinegar, horseradish, bay leaves, thyme, and parsley in a 250 degree oven for five and a half hours. The wait is worth it, he said.

"Slow and low is the key," Sobel explained, meaning slow cooking at a low temperature. "A good quality brisket is really important also. You want one that’s nice and marbled."

So take your pick. For what it’s worth, the onion soup mix route can be delicious (although it’s hardly haute cuisine). But if you’re hankering for a dish that isn’t straight out of the 1950s, perhaps Sobel’s brisket is the way to go.

Adam Sobel’s Braised Brisket
Serves 8 to 10

6 pounds high-quality kosher brisket, slightly trimmed of fat
Kosher salt
Freshly ground
black pepper
2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil, or more as needed
3 carrots, peeled and sliced into 3/4-inch lengths
2 medium onions, cut into quarters
5 ribs celery, cut into 3-inch lengths
5 cloves garlic, smashed
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons brown mustard
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons
freshly grated horseradish
2 quarts beef broth, or more as needed
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
1/2 bunch parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees, and dress the brisket with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large ovenproof pan, and sear brisket on all sides over medium-high heat before transferring it to a platter. Add carrot, onion, celery, garlic to the pan and cook for 2 minutes, seasoning as necessary.

2. In a medium bowl, stir together honey, mustard, vinegar, and horseradish. Add the mixture to the pan of vegetables, then cook another 3 minutes.

3. Return brisket to the pan, then add beef broth until the meat is covered. Add bay leaves, thyme, and parsley, then bring to a soil. 

4. Cover the pan and transfer it to the oven, then bake for 5 1/2 hours.

5. Strain pan juice for gravy.