Sunday, December 15, 2013

Which Brisket Is Best? - Pt. 2 - Montreal


I'm back with the second part of my examination of the art of smoking brisket. Last time we went to Texas, where slow-smoked brisket is the cornerstone of BBQ. This time our travels take us a bit closer to home, to la belle ville de Montréal where brisket has become one of the city's most recognizable culinary hallmarks in the form of Montreal Smoked Meat. Smoked Meat is to be found any of the dozens of kosher delis spread across the city and is renowned the world over. There's a bit of discussion on who invented the process, more than I have the time or inclination to get into (clearly!), but currently most opinions point to Schwartz's as the best Smoked Meat, and I agree. Either way, Smoked Meat is pretty much one of the best, if not the greatest, of Canada's contributions to the global palette.

Being a convert to the Church of Smoke, the idea of making Smoked Meat was in the back of my mind as a kind of "holy grail" for years, but:

Heed the words of Boromir

As mentioned in a recent post, a good hunk of brisket is at least 40 bucks and you don't want to screw around with that much meat and ruin it. If you're like me, you take to the Internet for inspiration and guidance and then try to make the recipe your own. With the Texas Brisket, the instructions were fairly straight-forward, but flexible; with Smoked Meat, I wanted precision, I wanted to know how they do it at Schwartz's. Remarkably, a recipe from the deli itself was made available on the Food Network Web site, sort of. Those instructions were a bit over-simplified for my taste, so I kept looking around and was able to find a bit more information on a Big Green Egg forum. This gave me a bit more info on the actual procedure, but I had to come up with my own ideas on what to use to actually cure the meat.

So, come with me as I get into this nigh two-week process of transforming a hunk of brisket into deliciousness.

Montreal Smoked Meat Step-by-step

- 5 lb. piece of brisket, trimmed of excess bits of connective tissue (you'll want to keep fat to help keep the meat moist, but the tougher bits of membrane and connective tissue you can try to remove as best as possible)

Smoked Meat Cure

- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. onion powder
- 1 tsp. mustard seed
- 1/2 tsp. allspice (ground)
- 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
- 1 tsp coriander seed
- 1/2 tsp cardamom seed
- 1 tsp. fennel seed
- 1 star anise pod, roughly ground
- 2 cloves, ground
- 1 tsp. juniper berries, roughly ground
- 1 tsp. caraway seed

NOTE: Most restaurants and industrial producers use "pink salt" (sodium nitrate or nitrite) which gives the meat the uniform deep red/pink colour. I didn't, so the result had a colour more like roast beef, although the smoking process did impart a pinkish smoke ring which is to be expected.

- Mix all ingredients together well.

- Brush a thin layer of yellow mustard on the brisket, than apply the cure to the top and bottom of the meat, pressing a little bit to ensure it stays on.

- Place the meat in a large Ziploc bag and put in the fridge for 9 to 10 days, flipping over twice a day.

- Once the meat's been cured, remove from bag.

Hallelujah, I'm cured!
- Rinse meat quickly then soak in cold water for about 3 hours, changing the water every 30 minutes. This step removes a lot of excess salt, which is important in the process of making Smoked Meat rather than Salt Lick. Pat meat dry.

- Coat with a layer of peppercorns, coriander seed, mustard seed, fennel seed and caraway seed, slightly cracked with a mortar and pestle or roughly ground in a spice grinder. I spread a thin layer of maple syrup over the meat to hold the spices in place, but it didn't really do anything to the flavour. Return meat to bag and leave in fridge overnight

- The next day, remove meat from fridge and leave out while you prep the smoker.

- Soak 2 cups of mesquite chips in water for about 30 minutes. Light your fire using lump charcoal or wood chunks (I suggest either apple or maple) and get a temperature of 250 Fahrenheit going.

- Smoke brisket for 4 hours, adding small handfuls of apple or hickory wood chips every 30 minutes to produce more smoke (and more flavour).

- At the 4 hours mark, wrap meat in foil and continue to smoke for another 4-5 hours. Remove meat from smoker, unwrap and let stand for 30 minutes.

- Slice meat into portioned hunks depending on how much you want to eat at any given time.

Mission accomplished!

Now, you don't want to start digging in just yet, as the meat needs one more step before actually serving it. If that's now, then get at it!

- Steam hunk of meat for an hour. I used a bamboo steam basket over a pot of boiling water. Line the basket with a layer parchment paper and place meat on top, cover with lid and steam.

- Once steamed, remove with tongs, slice meat against the grain at desired thickness (I think about 1/4-1/2 cm is perfect) and serve on warmed slices of rye bread topped with mustard, with a side of pickles, fries and coleslaw.

NOTE: If you're lucky enough to have access to it, ALWAYS use Rideau Bakery rye bread. You just put all this love and care into making Smoked Meat, it's what it deserves.

The apex of sammichery, with pickles

As you might have noticed from the picture, I portioned this batch into three pieces, each one being enough for two satisfyingly meat-laden sandwiches. What was interesting about it was that the first serving, which I ate right after smoking and steaming the meat, didn't quite taste as much like Smoked Meat as I had hoped, there was a bit of a pot roast undertone to it. Buy the time I got to the last hunk about a week later, however, it had become a really good approximation of the Schwartz's flavour profile. So I think a bit of post-smoked aging for a few days to a week is your best bet. The steaming is an important step also, as it gives the meat the moisture it needs to be melt-in-your-mouth.
Now, with the Texas Brisket, I used it in all kinds of different ways, but the Smoked Meat was purely for sandwiches. That being said, I'm sure it would be spectacular in an omelette, or even spaghetti! Ah, who am I kidding? Make sandwiches with it, any other usage feels a bit like sacrilege.
All in all, I think I really nailed Smoked Meat (on my first try!). It wasn't as good as Schwartz's and I'd be a fool to expect it to be, but for something done up on my back balcony in a cheap-o smoker from Canadian Tire? Not too freakin' shabby...
And in the end, maybe because I followed directions better or maybe because I'm geographically biased, the Montreal Smoked Meat gets a 9 out of 10, edging out the Texas BBQ to win the "Battle of Brisket". Vive la Viande fumée!
Boy howdy did I have fun with this! Here's hoping you do too! 

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