Most of the time, I am pretty busy. And it can be hard to balance a love of cooking and a deep appreciation for warm, long-cooked meals on cold Winter days with a busy life .
Just when you’d think I’d give up and spoil myself with take-out, think again. Here comes the slow cooker.
(If you like 30 Rock, you undoubtedly read that as “here comes the fun cooker!” because, despite its lack of a ham button, that’s what goes through my head every single time I take it out of the cabinet.)
I once thought of this small appliance as something that people with minimal kitchen skills used – a very passive approach to meal preparation and a way to escape the need for actual cooking skills. But then I had my third child and all of my negligible free time disappeared. If I cooked, she was on my hip and, if she wasn’t on my hip, she was screaming. This posed a problem. How the hell was I supposed to make dinner?
So, I asked my friends: “What do you make for dinner when the baby wants to be held all the time?” After about a million “make reservations!” punchlines, one friend looked at me and said, “Oh my god, Cori. How come you don’t have a slow cooker?” I sheepishly admitted my own snobbery and was summarily set straight. “Remember that delicious stew I made the last time you came over?”, she said, “Slow Cooker!”
Off to Target I went. Off to change my life forever.
Since then, I’ve become adept at slow-cooking different stews, soups, and beans, but was initially hesitant to use it for meat. I started slowly, with a basic recipe for bone-in chicken with white wine, tomatoes and herbs. It was fine, but I wasn’t wowed. Then came a pulled pork recipe, which was much better. I tried lamb shanks next, with fantastic results. The lamb and pork became permanent fixtures in my dinner-making recipe rotation, but after nearly four years of owning this contraption, I had yet to use it for beef.
As if on cue, I read this post and learned of the slow-cooker’s magical powers over brisket.
“BRISKET!”, I thought to myself, “It would be a disappointment to my Jewish people if I didn’t try this.” (Though, admittedly, less of a disappointment than happily eating pork and shellfish on a very regular basis.) So, I went to the market and picked up the ingredients for my mother’s brisket recipe, put them in the slow cooker, and let it cook on low overnight.
The results were amazing, like the culinary equivalent of seeing god. The brisket was almost criminally tender. I had never experienced brisket without a little bit of toughness, so I couldn’t believe that it was literally falling apart with the slightest touch. And it was absolutely delicious, too. All briskets should aspire to be that good.
Now I had a problem. I only had two brisket recipes – my mother’s and the one posted on Smitten Kitchen. That definitely had to change, so I started experimenting with different spices, sauces, and techniques in order to bolster my brisket-making confidence.
So far, the best brisket variation I’ve come up with is this barbeque-style concoction, which is now the recipe that everyone in my house refers to when they ask me to make brisket. I threw it together by mixing elements of my mother’s sweet, tangy, broth-based recipe with a lot more seasoning and a lot less liquid. It took a few tries to get the flavor balance right, but we certainly didn’t let the mistakes go to waste. It was still tender, slow-cooked brisket, after all, so no one cared too much that it needed more heat, salt, or seasoning. We just added some hot sauce and gleefully allowed our cholesterol levels to rise with the beefy tide.
It’s so funny to think that I’ve come to rely on a once-shunned appliance for making really good, really craveable dishes. Four years ago, I would have laughed in disbelief if someone had told me that I’d use this contraption on a regular basis and that it would be the ONLY way I’d ever cook brisket. But, they would have been right and I would have eaten slow-cooked crow. Nowadays, the slow-cooker comes out at least twice a month and, when it does, it’s greeted by happy children who want to know what’s for dinner.
Joy and rapture usually follow if I tell them that I’m making this:
Sweet, Smoky Brisket
- Brisket – 6 pounds
- vegetable or olive oil
- 3-4 large onions, diced
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- Salt and Pepper
- 1.5 C ketchup
- 3/4 C white or cider vinegar – to taste
- 1/2 C brown sugar
- 2 T molasses
- 3 tsp. smoked paprika
- 3 tsp. cumin
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 T worcestershire sauce
- 1 T mustard (I use brown deli mustard, but yellow or dijon would work, too)
- 3/4 tsp liquid smoke
- a few shakes of hot sauce (optional, but I like Trader Joe’s Jalapeno hot sauce)
- Salt and Pepper to taste
Season brisket generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a heavy skillet and sear the brisket on all sides over medium-high heat. Place seared meat in the slow-cooker insert or a dutch oven/covered casserole dish and set aside.
Lower the heat to medium and add some more oil to skillet. Saute onion and garlic until soft and almost caramelized – about 15 minutes – stirring occasionally, lowering the heat as needed so they don’t burn.
While the onions and garlic cook, combine the last 12 ingredients in a large bowl and pour over the seared meat, making sure to coat it thoroughly.
Top meat and sauce with the caramelized onions and garlic. If using a dutch oven/casserole, cover tightly with foil, then place the lid/casserole cover over the foil to seal tightly, cook in a 350-degree oven for 3-4 hours. If using a slow cooker, which is definitely the preferred method, cook on low for 7-8 hours.
I like to make this recipe at least a day in advance. When the brisket is done, I usually move it, along with the sauce, from the slow cooker insert to a large, covered casserole dish and chill it in the fridge overnight – at least 12 hours. (Obviously, if you’ve cooked it in a casserole, you can skip this step and just stick it in the fridge.)
The following day, about an hour before you want to serve the brisket, remove and discard the solid fat that has settled on top. Slice the cold brisket to your desired thickness. If you prefer a smoother sauce, puree or strain the sauce and then put in back in the casserole. Add the sliced brisket back into the sauce and reheat in a 325 degree oven until the sauce bubbles and the meat is heated through.
Serve as open-faced sandwiches with coleslaw or over egg noodles with a big, green salad on the side.
Lilah turned 8 last month and this is what she chose for her birthday dinner. We made open-faced sandwiches on onion rolls and ate them with sweet potato fries, cole slaw, and grilled asparagus, followed by chocolate cake for dessert, of course. A yummy celebration, indeed!