A History Of Brisket: From Passover To Texas

When most Americans hear the word brisket, they immediately think of Texas smoked meat with barbecue sauce, “The National Dish of Texas,” and they wouldn’t be far from wrong. Brisket is a part of Southern history. However, it actually originated as Jewish cuisine.

If you grew up in an Ashkenazi Jewish home you might remember the delicious, oven-baked brisket your mom served for holidays. Maybe it was based on your grandmother’s or great grandmother’s recipe and you can picture it emerging from a low temperature oven steaming and bubbling with the carrots and potatoes bobbing up and down in a sea of brownish red gravy, the meat forming an irregular coast of beefy tenderness.

But, years later, you may have discovered another kind of brisket: Texas-style, bathed in a spice rub, and smoked with mesquite wood for 12 hours or more. The smoke permeated the meat, forming a thin red circle around the circumference. So juicy, moist, and smoky, you couldn’t believe what you were eating. Was this the same meal as Grandma’s oven recipe? What kind of chemistry produces two such different results from the same cut? Therein lies the puzzling beauty of brisket.

What Is Brisket?

Beef brisket is hard and tough meat that comes from the chest of a cow. However, when cooked at lower heat for hours, you end up with super tender meat. The meat contains lots of connective tissue which softens once broken down.

Typically, the cut is large and great for feeding lots of people. By throwing in a few spices and having a little patience, you get a simple, delicious, and relatively inexpensive meal (though brisket has become so popular that prices have risen). It also works great for a make-ahead meal, as the flavors develop even more the longer it sits.

People cook brisket worldwide including in Vietnam, Korea, Pakistan, Italy, and more. In each location it is traditionally cooked and enjoyed differently. In the US, brisket is now most commonly known and enjoyed as a part of Texas barbecue.

What Part of the Cow Is Brisket?

Brisket comes from a cow or steer, usually an adult that is 2 and up. The cut comes from the breast, lower chest, or pectorals. When looking at a cow it is the area between and slightly above the front legs. It comes from under the first 5 ribs of the animals, with boneless brisket being the most popular way to purchase the meat since the 1970s.

Since cows have no collarbone, this area of the body actually supports 60% of the cow’s weight. And because they are not light creatures, the muscles have to work hard. This results in a dense, tough muscle.

When buying brisket you can find 3 different cuts of beef:

  • The Flat: This is the main part of the brisket that lies toward the inside of the cow against the ribs. The meat is lean and low in fat content and tends to be more expensive than other cuts as more dishes require it. In Jewish tradition, the first half of the steer is kosher; the back half is not. Where the line of demarcation runs is open to interpretation, but the absence of Jewish steakhouses serving sirloin is not surprising. This cut is the basis of the traditional Ashkenazi recipe. It turns fork tender after hours of percolating in gravy made from chili sauce, red wine, and tomato puree.
  • The Point: The second cut, known to butchers as “the point,” is just the opposite: lots of fat, yielding proportionally less meat. But the meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender.
  • The Full Packer: This is a full brisket cut, including the flat and the point. It weighs anywhere from 8 to 20 pounds

The Jewish Influence on Brisket

Ashkenazi Jews have eaten brisket during Passover and other holidays for a very long time and for pretty sensible reasons. As per Jewish custom, as mentioned before, the hindquarters of the beef are not kosher, meaning that Jews have always had fewer cuts to choose from. Brisket was also cheaper as its tough, stubborn texture required roasting at a low temperature for an extended period, which made hungry and (inpatient) Gentile customers consider it less for holidays.

But, the protracted preparation timeline proved perfect for Jewish cooks, who could begin roasting the brisket just prior to pausing for twenty four hours for observation of the Sabbath (or forty-eight hours for the holidays) and return to retrieve it ready for lunchtime the following day.

Many Central and European Jews ate brisket as far back as the 1700s, especially during food-centric gatherings like Passover that require a lot of food.

The onset of large scale immigration of Ashkenazi communities, especially from Germany and Czechoslovakia to the United States in the late nineteenth century, set the stage for brisket becoming part of New World Jewish cuisine and as the diaspora flourished, so did the consumption of brisket.

American Jewish brisket then begat two other Jewish meat delicacies: pastrami and corned beef. Pastrami has Romanian and Turkish influences but became a hit among Jews on this side of the ocean and the same went for corned beef.

New products soon entered the American brisket repertoire. After Heinz got its kosher designation in 1927, ketchup and chili sauce were thrown in for flavor. And when Atlanta-based Coca-Cola got its kosher certification in 1935, brisket cooked in Coke became popular among Southern Jews who called the combination Atlanta brisket. Its sharp sweetness offset the traditional brisket savory qualities including salt, pepper, and onions. Condensed mushroom soup and onion soup mix also became popular brisket preparation choices.

The Rise of Texas Brisket

Down in Texas, the burgeoning cattle industry viewed brisket as an undifferentiated part of the less desirable beef forequarter. The preferred sirloins, ribeyes, and rib roasts were on rail cars to Kansas and Chicago, while the lesser cuts became the basis of local barbecue.

Three Origin Stories

There are three competing barbecue origin stories. The most accepted is that German and Czech immigrants (non-Jewish) to Texas simply adapted the native land methods of smoking pork to readily available inexpensive cuts of beef cattle.

Another, by food writer and historian Robb Walsh, is that butchers smoked forequarter meats as takeout food primarily for Mexican farmworkers who wanted beef to eat on the spot.

But Daniel Vaugh, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, has found evidence suggesting that smoked brisket in the early 20th century came about, in part, when Texas butchers started offering it to German customers and eastern European Jews.

Whatever origin story you choose to believe, by the 1960s the once-undesirable forequarter was the dish of choice at Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch barbecue. The president’s caterer, Walter Jetton, singled out brisket as his favorite cut.

And the meat industry got the message. They were soon boxing up individual cuts of beef brisket, replacing the shipment of half-carcasses in refrigerated boxcars. Making this inexpensive cut of meat delicious is what made Texas barbecue famous.

Passover Brisket vs. Texas Barbecue

Traditional Passover brisket is cooked low and slow with a mix of root vegetables and some kind of assertive sauce (ketchup, chili, or soy usually). If you’re careful and lucky, the brisket comes out moist and fork tender. If you’re not, it comes out dry and overcooked.

In Texas, smoking methods help alleviate this issue. By smoking the brisket with indirect heat, at a very low temperature, for a very long time, the fat has more time to render and the meat more time to cook at a much slower rate. This has resulted in a much more delicious brisket, which requires less seasoning, hence the simple salt-and-pepper rub used prominently across the state.

By the early 1900s, smoked brisket began appearing on Jewish deli menus across the state and then in the late 1950s, Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart became the first to offer brisket exclusively on the barbecue menu. After Black’s came Smitty’s (also in Lockhart) and then Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor…and the rest is delectable barbecue history.

Hope you enjoyed our brisket story about how a Jewish staple evolved into world-renowned Texas barbecue. Now it’s time to head over to One Hot Mama’s and taste our award winning Texas Beef Brisket. It’s life-changing…and the best in the Lowcountry.