Thursday, January 14, 2010

Oaxacan Style Braised Brisket - What Went Wrong?

As I mentioned yesterday, I had to take a personal day from work because I was up all night waiting for a brisket to come up to temperature... and it's not like it just took another 30 minutes or anything... we're talking twice as long or more. So what happened? Well obviously I don't really know, since if I did, I wouldn't have screwed up whatever it was... it's not like I really love staying up all night cooking... but I do have some theories. I'll get to those in a second, but first things first, here is the recipe (subscription required) I used from Cook's Illustrated:

Oaxacan Style Braised Brisket

  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seed
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 beef brisket (about 5 pounds), surface fat retained
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3-5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 can diced tomatoes (28 ounces)
  • 2 ounces dried chile peppers (preferably Pasilla), seeded
  • kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 3 medium onions , quartered
  • 1 head garlic , halved crosswise
  • fresh parsley leaves , for garnish
  1. Heat oven to 500 degrees. Crush spices or grind them coarsely; press them into brisket and set aside
  2. Using two burners if necessary, heat oil in large, heavy roasting pan long and wide enough to hold brisket and at least 2 inches deep. Add brisket; cook over medium-high heat, turning once with tongs, until brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. Remove brisket and set aside. Add 1 cup broth, tomatoes and chiles; bring to boil, scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon to loosen brown bits; reduce by half. Remove pan from heat. Season brisket lightly with thyme, oregano and salt, and return to roasting pan. Scatter onions and garlic around brisket.
  3. Put roasting pan in oven and cook, stirring vegetables occasionally to avoid burning, until thickest part of brisket reaches an internal temperature of around 130 degrees, about 20 minutes.
  4. Remove pan from oven; reduce oven temperature to 250 degrees. Do not return brisket to oven until temperature drops to 250 degrees. Add enough chicken broth to pan so that liquid comes about halfway up side of meat (2 to 4 more cups), baste brisket, and return to oven. Braise brisket, basting and turning every 1/2 hour or so, until meat just gives when pierced with meat thermometer and brisket’s internal temperature registers around 175 degrees, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours.
  5. Remove brisket from braising liquid and wrap in foil. Strain braising liquid into large mixing bowl. Reserve vegetables, squeezing garlic cloves from heads. Transfer braising liquid to tall, narrow container, and let stand until fat rises. Skim and discard fat. Puree vegetables, including garlic, with 1/2 cup braising liquid in food processor or blender. Add pureed vegetables and braising liquid to a sauté pan and simmer until reduced to thin sauce consistency.
  6. Meanwhile, cut brisket across the grain into thin slices (about 1/8-inch thick). Arrange slices of meat on warm plates; generously ladle sauce over meat. Garnish with parsley, and serve immediately.

So, as you can see, after 20 minutes at 500 degrees the brisket is supposed to go into a 250 degree oven for 1.5-2.5 hours... quite a bit shorter than what it took me... by hours. I have an oven thermometer and instant read thermometer, so it's not like I was winging it... but perhaps either one is off? I plan to check my instant read thermometer with some boiling water tonight, but I suspect that neither is off to a degree that would account for such a massive difference.

Now, the recipe doesn't tell you which part of the oven the roasting pan is supposed to go... and I didn't feel like moving oven racks around, so I just went for my default "upper middle"... but my new roasting pan is gigantic and my oven not very large, so maybe since the pan was so far from heating element (gas stove) and large enough to inhibit air flow, the brisket was seeing a much lower temperature than the thermometer below it? A strong point in favor of this hypothesis is that when... frustrated and tired after hours of cooking... I finally moved racks down lower in the oven, the brisket came to 175 in 30 minutes (after being at around 155-160 for hours). Maybe just a coincidence, but probably not.

A final possibility to consider is simply that the recipe is wrong... but being that this is Cook's Illustrated, whom I generally trust, I am hesitant to jump to that conclusion. However, this is a fairly old skool recipe (1995) without the narrative explaining the decisions made... which might mean that there is some critical factor that I'm missing. A quick perusal of other braised brisket recipes suggests oven temps more in the 325-350 range and cooking times on the order of 3 hours... but presumably the reason for getting the brisket to 130 degrees via the blast of a 500 degree oven is to allow you to do a lower temperature and shorter braise. Maybe I didn't get the brisket as hot as I thought I did? Maybe it cooled significantly while waiting for the oven to get down to 250? I did put the cold chicken broth into the pan while I waited, not just before it went into the oven... maybe that chilled the brisket enough to lengthen the cooking time considerably?

Some other notes about the recipe... I used guajillo chiles, not pasilla, and even then I found the resultant sauce lacking in heat. So if there's a next time for this dish, I'll throw in some spicier peppers... and maybe go for a greater variety. Also, I don't think it's entirely clear, but when you make the sauce at the end, the 1/2 cup of braising liquid called for in the recipe is just to make pureeing the veggies easier... you'll mix that puree with the defatted braising liquid to make the sauce. I still found my sauce to be overly thick, but then I braised for hours and was adding stock throughout, so I don't assume my experience was typical.

I suppose it's a little hard for me to fully recommend this recipe given the issues I had... but the brisket really is good. In fact, I would try it again... given what I know now... I'd just do it on a Sunday afternoon when I didn't have any other plans, not at 6:30 on a weeknight when I have work the next day. :)