The brisket is one of the most challenging pieces of beef to cook well. A thick slab of muscle from the steer's chest, it's filled with dense muscle fibers and tough connective tissue. Cooked by most methods, it would be as tough as an old shoe. If you slow-cook it for a period of several hours, however, a brisket will become surprisingly tender. Sliced thinly across the grain, it makes an excellent hot meal or cold sandwich meat. It's often marinated overnight to add flavor. There are several techniques for doing this.
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Traditional Red-Wine Marinade
If you plan to braise your brisket, slow-cooking it in liquid, a traditional red-wine marinade is an excellent choice. Trim any excess fat from the brisket and puncture it evenly with a bamboo skewer, to help the marinade penetrate. Heat a bottle of red wine with bay leaves, peppercorns, onions, garlic and two or three crushed juniper berries. Simmer the mixture for 30 minutes, until the flavors are well infused into the wine, then cool it. Place the brisket in a plastic tub or container, and pour the marinade over it. Add water or beef broth, if necessary, until there's enough marinade to cover the brisket.
A simple dry brine is a mixture of salt, sugar and seasonings designed to add flavor to the meat. A pound of coarse kosher or pickling salt and 4 to 6 ounces of granulated or brown sugar make a good basic dry brine. Rub the brisket with 2 to 3 ounces of black pepper, then the salt and sugar. Marinating it overnight with this mixture will leave the brisket tasting like a well-seasoned piece of roast beef after it's cooked. Leaving it in the mixture for several days will eventually produce the familiar cured brisket that's sliced for deli sandwiches.
Dry Spice Rub
Marinading a brisket overnight with a dry spice mixture is a common technique for briskets that will be slow-smoked in a smoker or charcoal barbecue. Each barbecue "pit master" has his own recipe, but there are several similarities. Most include some combination paprika or smoked paprika, salt, brown sugar, dry mustard powder and chipotles or other smoked peppers. Rub the brisket with this mixture, then wrap it in foil or plastic wrap and leave it overnight. Piercing the brisket repeatedly with a bamboo skewer will help the flavors penetrate your brisket.
A variation on the dry-rub marinade is a paste marinade. Like the dry rub, it's primarily used by those who intend to barbecue or smoke-roast their brisket. A paste marinade uses the same selection of spices employed for a dry rub but mixes them with one or more liquids to make a thick paste. Some of the liquids used include beer, molasses, ketchup or prepared yellow mustard. Some pragmatic cooks even use commercial barbecue sauce. Mix up the paste and rub it evenly over the brisket, then wrap it in plastic wrap and let it marinade overnight in your refrigerator.