There is a saying that you can’t really understand the fundamental assumptions of your own culture until you spend a little time outside of it. I don’t think I ever really understood that until I spent a week getting blank stares from supermarket clerks in Edmonton, Alberta when I asked if they carried whole beef brisket. Alberta is famous for its beef, but these friendly Canadians don’t know what brisket is? What gives, Canucks?
…and that was only the beginning of my problems. It was my brisket-loving little boy’s first birthday party at my mother-in-law’s place coming up, and nothing less would do. Of course, my smoker and box of smoking wood were back in Arizona.
I did have a bag of maple wood chips, a nice Canadian-made Broil King gas grill (they’re awesome!), and my mother-in-law’s fancy full-size convection oven to work with. Necessity being the mother of invention and all, I was going to have to cobble together a fabrication method that translated what I felt were the best qualities of classic long-smoked BBQ brisket into something that could be executed with my equipment constraints.
What I arrived at was something I liked so much that I make it at home even when it’s reasonable to make a classical brisket, mostly because it takes about 5% of the effort and allows me to get a full night of sleep. Who doesn’t want to wake up to “brisket for breakfast”?
Still skeptical it could be that easy?
Listen, at the end of the day, you only really need to know a few things that you wouldn’t already from day-to-day home cooking in order to make some mighty fine ‘que:
- How to maintain steady heat.
Ok, I lied — there’s one. There’s really only one thing you need to know.
Now, that’s not a small thing. Home smokers are notoriously wonky. Irregular airflow, thin metal, and touchy dials all make for a piece of equipment that requires you screw around with it constantly. They’re basically crap and a total time suck.
If only we had a piece of equipment that keeps steady, relatively low heat for hours and hours without constant meddling and shaking our fist at the sky. If only we had something that would adjust heat automatically. It’s…an oven. Use your oven.
When you think about it, it makes sense. It’s a hot box with a thermostat, and the idea of an electric appliance that produces smoked food isn’t totally foreign. There are an number of nice little electric smokers on the market now that are contributing hugely to the democratization of good BBQ — something I am really passionate about.
At this point, we need to take a step back and considered what we are actually after. My personal platonic ideal BBQ consists of:
- Tender meat that barely holds together under its own weight.
- A flavorful, well-seasoned crust.
- Smoke that you smell more strongly than you taste.
The more gentle heat of an oven opens up some opportunities. For starters, it makes it far less important to carve a brisket perfectly to take off little pointy bits that would burn to a crisp in the more violent convection of a live-fire smoker. That’s good, I like simple.
The more gentle heat greatly reduces “bark” formation, which I am not that upset about. I think “bark” is often a euphemism for “I overcooked the outside of my meat to a dried-out piece of leather, and so I’ll pretend that’s what I intended.”
What I really want from exterior of my brisket is caramelization of meat juices, flavor from seasoning, the smell of smoke, and a *slight* taste of smoke. Not ashes and leather.
So, once again, the more gentle oven creates a new opportunity. It makes it more reasonable to use a more complex seasoning on your brisket since it won’t just burn. There is literally nothing I won’t put Montreal steak seasoning on, so that is what I use here.
I still had a problem, though. I felt like it was unwise to burn wood chips indoors in my mother-in-laws’s convection oven. I’d have to push the limits of “Canada Nice” another day.
There is nothing that says that we have to smoke the meat at the beginning of the cook, for as long as a BBQ joint might, or even on a smoker at all. The meat is already cooked. We just want it to hang out in the presence of smoke for long enough that it will stick, but not cook past the point where we have already taken it.
The solution to this is simple. We let the meat rest for an hour to let the exterior cool, then put it on the grill over low indirect heat and use wood chips to smoke the meat to a finish. I keep the heat down by opening the grill and spraying the brisket with apple cider vinegar periodically which cools the exterior directly and indirectly by the evaporative cooling. Plus, it also adds a nice tang, which I happen to appreciate.
In closing, a word about “how to know if it is done”. There is a lot of hocus pocus on the internet about how to know if your brisket is finished. Does it jiggle or smell just right? Is it temperature? Or color?
I am going to tell you a secret. You can tell if your meat is tender by actually checking if it is tender. That’s not me being coy. A tender piece of meat will allow a thin probe or skewer through with only very minimal resistance. I use a probe thermometer, but the temperature is only a curiosity. I am mainly interested in how the probe feels going through the meat, but it is good to keep one around for other uses. Ones that will serve the purposes of most home cooks have come way, way down in price over the past few years. We recommend the Lavatools PT12 Javelin available at Amazon.com here (affiliate).
Oh, and that piece of Alberta grass-fed beef from my little boy’s birthday party? It took 210 degrees F to achieve tenderness. A great illustration of why you never go by temperature to judge doneness.