If you’re not fond of onions – even when lengthy cooking has tamed any harshness and brought out savory sweetness – you can skip to dessert right now. Because this braised brisket recipe uses almost as much onion as meat, and very little else by way of aromatic vegetables. There are no carrots, no leeks, no celery: just sliced onions, a little garlic and an herb or two (which, between us, you could omit).
The idea came from a Belgian beef recipe: carbonnades à la Flamande, also packed with onions (though not quite so many), but with a far longer ingredients list that includes beer rather than wine as part of the braising liquid. It struck me that a rich, delicious dish could lean more heavily on the onions. Happily both Jackie and I (and, luckily, our dinner guests) love them, so we were a natural audience.
It was as flavorsome as expected, with a copious amount of deep, dark, naturally sweet onion sauce that was as delicious with the accompaniment as with the tender brisket itself.
Make this a day or two before you plan to eat it: This will enable you to trim excess fat from the cooled beef and to remove fat that has risen to the surface of the sauce and congealed in the fridge. It also makes it easier to cut the meat into neat slices for reheating and serving. We served ours with potato dumplings, but crushed boiled potatoes, potato pancakes or egg noodles would be excellent alternatives.
- 5 to 6 lbs beef brisket in one or two pieces
- 3 Tablespoons oil (I use olive, but a neutral oil will be fine)
- Salt and pepper
- 4 1/2 Pounds onions
- 2 large cloves garlic
- About 12 leaves fresh sage (or substitute a couple of sprigs of thyme)
- A handful of chopped parsley stems
- 2 Cups red wine
- 3 Cups stock (preferably beef, but chicken will do)
- 1 Tablespoon tomato paste
Heat the oven to 325º F. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and sprinkle it with salt.
In a heavy casserole or Dutch oven (mine was 12 inches in diameter), heat the oil over medium heat and brown the meat thoroughly but gradually on both sides. It could easily take 20 minutes; raising the heat to speed the browning risks burnt rather than pleasingly caramelized flavors. If your brisket is in two pieces and if both won’t fit in the pan, either brown the meat in two batches or use another pan – a heavy skillet for instance – to brown the second piece.
While the meat is browning, peel the onions, halve them lengthwise, trim the stem end and slice lengthwise into 1/4- or 3/8-inch strips. By all means use a mandoline or food processor to speed this process – in that case, it will be easier to slice the onions into rings. Peel and chop the garlic.
When the meat is well browned, remove it to a platter and season it with pepper (I prefer not to brown peppered meat lest the pepper burn). Add the onions and garlic to the casserole; season with salt and pepper and stir well to coat with fat. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook until the onions are translucent and beginning to brown, about 15 to 20 minutes: stir frequently and look for a light golden color. If you have used a skillet to brown a second piece of brisket, add some of the onions to that skillet to release the caramelized beef juices – in effect, the moisture in the onions will deglaze the pan; then scrape these onions into the main casserole.
Add the sage leaves and chopped parsley stems and the red wine. Raise the heat to high, bring the wine to the boil and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until the wine doesn’t small raw. Add the stock and tomato paste and bring to the simmer.
Nestle the brisket in the oniony cooking liquid and add any juices from the platter to the casserole. If you have any parchment paper, lay a circle of this over the meat. Cover the casserole. If the lid doesn’t fit tightly, cover the casserole with aluminum foil before adding the lid. Put the casserole into the oven.
Turn the meat over an hour into the cooking, then again after another hour. At that 2-hour point, check for tenderness; a cooking fork or skewer (or cake tester) should pierce the meat easily, but the meat should not be falling-apart tender. My brisket took 2-1/2 hours to reach this stage, but don’t panic if it takes longer.
Remove the casserole from the oven, but do not remove the lid: let it cool for half an hour or so before moving the meat to a platter and the sauce to a container. Cover the meat with foil or waxed paper until it has cooled to room temperature, then wrap tightly in plastic wrap or put into a plastic bag and refrigerate. Likewise, cover and refrigerate the sauce when it has cooled.
To serve the next day, use a fork or spoon to remove fat that has congealed on the surface of the sauce and heat the sauce in any pan into which it will fit. Taste it. Is it concentrated enough? It probably is, but if it isn’t reduce it a bit. Is it too concentrated? That could be, and if it is, add some water. Taste also for salt, and adjust as needed.
Trim excess fat from the cooked meat. If you bought second-cut brisket, which includes two muscles separated by a seam of fat, you can use your fingers to pull the two muscles apart, then remove almost all of the fat. This will not be an issue of you have bought first-cut brisket, which is composed of one solid muscle.
Cut the meat against the grain into half-inch slices. Spoon about 2/3 cup of sauce/onions into a 12-inch skillet, preferably non-stick, add the slices of brisket in one layer, cover the skillet and heat it for about 10 minutes either on top of the stove over very low heat or in a 300º F oven. Note that the bottom surface of each slice will be especially nice-looking: glazed and brown from the reduced sauce.
Serve a little meat, a lot of sauce/onions, and plenty of whatever side dish you choose.