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A Life in Brisket 

Steven Raichlen's "steaks" with herbed butter

Raichlen's brisket "steaks" with shallot sage butter.

Photo by Matthew Benson, courtesy of Workman Publishing

Raichlen's brisket "steaks" with shallot sage butter.

If you smell smoke in Blue Lake this week, stay calm. Barbecue guru and James Beard and Julia Child award winner Steven Raichlen will be over at the Sapphire Room at Blue Lake Casino and Hotel for a PBS North Coast fundraiser on Thursday, May 30 (see Calendar). He'll be hosting a feast and sharing a lean slice of the exhaustive knowledge he put into his book The Brisket Chronicles, as well as his suite of cooking shows, Project Fire, Project Smoke and Primal Grill.

Brisket devotees, prepare to feel seen. Raichlen believes we're in a "brisket moment." The phrase popped into his head, he says, about two years ago when Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue won a James Beard Award and the humble bovine chest meat that had for so long been sequestered in Texas and Kansas City barbecue, and so-called "ethnic" restaurants started popping up everywhere. "It's hugely flavorful because it's a load bearing muscle," he says, making it worth the time and effort to prepare.

"There are many cuts of meat that are deserving but none that has the emotional weight that brisket has," says Raichlen, explaining why he chose to focus on the history, science and legion of recipes for the cut in his latest cookbook. "It's comfort food for so many cultures," he says. And the recipes from all manner of chefs — Irish corned beef, barbecued low and slow Texas style, sliced over pho or braised like his aunt made for Rosh Hashanah — bear out his point.

Growing up Jewish in Baltimore, Raichlen says, "probably my first solid food was brisket." In fact, he looks at this compendium as a kind of autobiography via brisket, starting with family dinners, moving to his college job at a deli that cured its own meats, then to his travels abroad in France and Germany, where he discovered different takes on the cut. Brisket showed up again and again all over the world when he entered food writing: "In every stage of my life, in every key moment, brisket has been with me." Not a bad traveling companion, when you think about it.

Raichlen's completist approach also takes him beyond the barbecue to ovens pots and fryers, which is not to say his grill is going cold anytime soon. Asked if there's any food even he — having featured smoked ice cream and grilled cheesecake on Project Fire — would hesitate to smoke, he says he'd initially written off chocolate as a possibility because of its bitter flavor, only to find other chefs had yielded wonderful results. "I don't know if I'd smoke a raspberry," says Raichlen. "That might be cruel." But he quickly recants, not wanting to rule anything out. "It's possible there is not a single food on the planet that could not be improved by smoking."

Brisket "Steaks" with Shallot Sage Butter

Yield: Serves 4

Method: Direct grilling

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 4 to 8 minutes

Heat source: Grill

You'll also need: A microplane or other fine-hole grater

What else: I take a savory approach to these steaks, basting them with Shallot Sage Butter and grating fresh horseradish root on top. (It's amazing how fiery fresh horseradish invigorates the smoky meat.) Alternatively, you could take the sweet route, seasoning the steaks with barbecue rub instead of salt and pepper, and slathering them with your favorite sweet barbecue sauce in place of the butter.

The brisket "steak" takes me back to my Barbecue University days at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. A chef there had the genius idea to cook thick slabs of barbecued brisket on a screaming hot grill, just as you would a New York strip. This gave the brisket a sizzling, crusty exterior that lay midway between traditional barbecued brisket and steak, with a handsome smoky crosshatch of grill marks. (It's also a great way to repurpose leftover barbecued brisket.) To this, add a shallot sage butter and a dusting of fiery fresh horseradish and you may just barbecue your next brisket solely to turn it into steak. Note: If you like your steaks lean, cut them from the flat. If you like them richer and fattier, cut them from the point. You've probably guessed by now that I like the latter.


Vegetable oil, for oiling the grill grate

2 pounds barbecued brisket (about 4 pounds uncooked), cut across the grain into 1¼-inch-thick slices

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Shallot Sage Butter (recipe follows)

2-inch chunk of fresh horseradish root, peeled

Set up your grill for direct grilling (lit coals in a single layer in the center of the grill, leaving the front third coal-free or, for a gas grill, with the rear burner on high, the center burner on medium and the front burner off) and heat to high. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and oil it well.

Season the brisket slices on both sides with salt and pepper. Brush the slices on both sides with half the Shallot Sage Butter; set the remaining butter aside.

Arrange the brisket slices on the grill running diagonal to the bars of the grate. Grill until browned on the bottom, 2 to 4 minutes, giving each slice a quarter turn halfway through to lay on a crosshatch of grill marks.

Gently flip the brisket slices and grill the other side the same way, 2 to 4 minutes more.

Serve the brisket steaks hot off the grill, with the remaining Shallot Sage Butter spooned over them and the fresh horseradish grated on top with a Microplane or other fine-hole grater.

Shallot Sage Butter

Makes ½ cup

Shallot Sage Butter brings a Mediterranean note to a smoked meat with deep American roots. Allium lovers can substitute garlic for the shallots.


8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 to 3 large shallots, peeled and minced (½ cup)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage leaves (plus an optional handful of whole leaves)

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and sage and cook until just beginning to brown, 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and keep at room temperature until ready to use. Reheat the butter gently if it solidifies.

Excerpted from The Brisket Chronicles by Steven Raichlen, photographs by Matthew Benson. Workman Publishing © 2019.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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