To Sous Vide or Not Sous Vide

Jonathan Chodosh

We all fantasize about comfort foods that we associate with warm, fuzzy feelings, the ones that take us back to family dinner tables (when they were still fun and cell phones didn't exist). For me - it's always about the brisket, the perfect brisket. You know, the one that is soft but with the right chew. It should slice perfectly and not crumble and heaven forbid it is dry - but remember, step brother-in-law is on a diet so it can’t be fatty. We must ask ourselves: how can we recreate something that we only remember?

Whether your family likes their brisket sweet or savory, drowning in sauce or dry (but really, who likes it dry?!) the makeup of your brisket will more or less start the same way, with a big piece of meat. Brisket is off the chest of the cow, making it a naturally tough cut. This is why people don’t slice off a chunk of brisket and attempt to eat it – it would be nearly impossible to chew. This being said, even though it is tough, it is super flavorful. A low and slow cook will soften it up by breaking down connective membranes in and around the muscle fiber bundles. However, we’ve all eaten those briskets that cook for too long. The challenge with this cut of meat is to prepare it so that it cooks enough to become tender yet stays moist.

If you go to the grocery store, you’ll find two different types of brisket - first and second cut. They either come attached together (one on top of the other) or separated. First cut is easily identifiable because all the grain runs down a long flat piece of beef. It should have a layer of fat on one side, though many butchers trim theirs off. My advice to keep it moist is to leave some fat on. First cut is always the leaner option of the two, even with some of the fat left on. Second cut brisket doesn’t have much external fat and does not look like the typical strip of beef we generally recognize as a brisket off the shelf. Instead, second cut brisket is awkwardly shaped and unsymmetrical. It is different from first cut brisket in that it has strips of fat that run through the meat, which will cook down as the brisket heats up, keeping it much more tender than first cut brisket. It is way easier to keep second cut brisket moist than first cut, but it is more challenging to slice. This is my general preference for brisket.

Traditionally, brisket recipes are braised. The procedure is as follows. Sear meat, submerge meat until it is covered to about halfway, braise in a pot or oven until tender (1-5 hours), then slice and serve. Along the way, different flavors and seasonings are added. I use this method for my second cut brisket with one variation. After 1 hour of braising the meat is cooked through but very tough. I remove it and slice it then. With the beef still tough I can get thin whole slices that once tender would shred the meat. Put the sliced brisket back in its sauce and keep going another 1.5-3 hours until soft.

As great alternative that is a fast yet slower way of preparing your brisket is Sous Vide. Sous-Vide is French for ‘under vacuum’. The food is sealed under vacuum with seasoning and submerged in a hot water bath. The Sous Vide machine or immersion circulator will heat the water bath to the exact temperature and circulate the water. With this method you can cook the entire piece of meat to an exact temperature and later sear the outside or slowly cook your tough brisket until it is tender but not dry. This is my preferred method for first cut brisket. Cook beware! The long slow cooking process is great for not overcooking your meat but may yield under cooked vegetables when cooked together in the same vacuum bag. To follow is my classic onion brisket recipe using both methods. Braised and sous-vide. Which one will you choose?

Brisket ingredients
4 – 6 lb Brisket
2 large Onions frenched (think orange segments)
2 large Carrots cut in coins
2 ribs Celery chunks
¼ cup oil (sous vide only)
2-3TBS Tomato paste
½ tsp dry Thyme
½ tsp dry Oregano
1 TBS black pepper
1+ TBS salt to taste
2 QTS or 8 cups Water, (2 cups sous-vide)
variations replace some of the water with wine (I like marsala)
Add 1 cup brown sugar sweet brisket
Add 1 lb. sliced mushrooms for a deeper flavored broth.

Braised brisket Directions
1. Turn on oven broiler and ready broiler pan
2. Coat brisket in the seasonings, herbs and tomato paste
3. Broil brisket and vegetables on High for 4-7 minutes on each side until a crust begins to form
4. Move all the ingredients and water to your favorite braising pan or Dutch oven
5. Braise 1 hour in the oven(375F)
6. Remove, let cook 20 min so you can handle it, slice and put back in the braising pan
7. Braise an additional 1.5-3 hours until the pieces are tender.

Sous Vide Brisket Directions
1. Sweat everything except the water and brisket in a Sautee pan for 20-30 min. Medium heat. This is to cook all the vegetables through properly.
2. Coat the brisket in the seasoned vegetables and seal in your vacuum sealer. You may need to split into 2 bags
3. Prepare your immersion circulator sous vide machine 155F, for 22-26 hours.
4. Let cool in the bags completely if you are saving it for another day. Save the liquid it is your sauce!

NOTE: temperature sensitive food needs to be held over 140F or under 40F. Prolonged exposures to temperatures between this encourages bacteria growth and is not recommended by the National Restaurant Association.