One of the tastiest methods of preparing food is often avoided by neophytes to the joy of outdoor cooking. Smoking meat appears to be couched in mystery, and the methods thereof whispered like some dark secret held close by the high priests of the craft. In fact, with some simple tools and a modicum of patience, anyone can open the door to a world of delectable flavor.
Virtually any type of protein can be smoked. From a brisket to tofu, from fish to poultry, almost anything can be cooked this way. We will talk here about using smoking as a cooking method. It is also possible to “cold smoke” foods, but this is NOT a cooking method, and is a topic for another post.
The idea of cooking “low and slow”, while applicable to other methods of barbecue is especially essential to smoking. In order to smoke proteins properly, temperature should be held somewhere between 200 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit on indirect or moderately distant heat for a relatively long time. While it is certainly possible to smoke foods on any type of grill or barbeque, in our opinion, the best results come from an appliance designed specifically for smoking. Most smokers are designed either for horizontal use (often called a “pit smoker”) or vertical use (usually called a “drum smoker”).
As with all things barbeque, if you asked five folks for their thoughts on smoking, you’d get ten different responses! Your style will develop with practice – the more you do it, the better you get at it. There are volumes devoted to this method of cooking, and well we highly recommend that you do some research, there’s certainly not room here to do a deep dive. Having said that, we think we can get you started if you’ll pay attention to a few smoking basics:
- Protein. The object of your smoke is certainly important. Well you can smoke most food, it is, in our view, important that you start with good quality, fresh protein. It’s a good idea, we think, to start out with maybe a pork butt or perhaps a chicken. Both are relatively “short” smokes in terms of time.
- Temperature. There are two important temperatures to mind here. You need to monitor the internal temperature of your protein, AND the air (or ambient) temperature inside your smoker. Both are absolutely crucial, and you need two separate thermometers to do the job. We recommend a probe thermometer for the internal temperature. Make sure the business part (usually the first quarter inch of the probe) is in or near the center of the protein. Most smokers come with a thermometer for the temperature in the smoker, but beware! There are two potential “gotchas” here. The first is that the thermometer needs to be monitoring the air right above the grill surface. A thermometer mounted very high up (like in the lid!!) may be measuring the wrong spot, and will likely read lower (or higher) than the actual temperature near the grill surface. The other problem is that frankly these mounted thermometers are often pieces of crap. A notable exception is the thermometer in our Big Poppa. We love it! Your ambient temperature needs to be between 200 and 300 degrees (we like 260 for most things), and it needs to stay steady throughout the cook. Use a meat chart like this for your finished (target) protein temperature. There are great two-channel (for both the protein and the ambient temperature) digital thermometers on the market if you discover that your built-in is untrustworthy.
- Heat. In our opinion, building your fire out of wood is a great idea. If that’s not practical, use a good quality lump charcoal for the heat, and once your coals are silvered, place a nice chunk (or chunks) of the wood of your choice on top of the coals. Different woods impart different flavors! Don’t be afraid to experiment with fruit and nut woods. Oak is also a nice choice! You probably don’t need to worry about soaking your wood. If you mind the temperature carefully, the wood you choose should smoke instead of burn. On longer burns you may have to add fuel, although some smokers (like the two above) are notoriously stingy burners making a load of fuel last a very long time indeed.
- Air flow. You’re probably wondering just how you’re supposed to control the ambient temperature so carefully! The answer is to control the air flow into (and out of) the smoker. That’s what those fancy vents are for. It’s hard to overstate the importance of providing and monitoring the air flow to the heat. Too much air, and your wood will just burn, so it’s important to keep the air flow low – just enough to keep the smolder from going out! The smoker will draw air from the bottom, and expel smoke from the top. A good smoker will have a vent (or vents) both above, and below the location of the heat source, and the bottom vent of vents should be well clear of the ash accumulation. Some folks say the key to heat control is the top vent, some say it’s the bottom. The fact is, you need them both. Work with both sets until the ambient temperature is where you want it. Then monitor carefully to keep the temperature static. We think you’ll find that both sets will end up choked down pretty far. Just don’t completely close either set! A burn set at 200 something is just a sort way from snuffing out altogether so the air flow must be constant! We like to use the vents at the fire box (or below it) to adjust the heat as necessary, but do what feels comfortable.
- Time. You cannot rush the smoking process. It takes as long as it takes, and frankly, for most proteins, the longer the smoke the fuller the flavor! Plan for a nice, long smoke – 2 to 12 hours and even more in some cases! As with all really good barbeque, take your time. Enjoy the process. Don’t keep popping of the lid to check the food – all you’ll do is screw up the ambient temperature inside and lengthen (or possibly ruin) the cooking process.
- Flavor. The smoke is the major player here, and that’s where your unforgettable flavor comes from. That is NOT to say that you don’t season the food prior to the smoke. This is where a really good rub comes in handy. Obviously we recommend Miners Mix. For pork or beef we’d use Maynard’s Memphis, and for a chicken, duck, goose or turkey we recommend Poultry Perfection. Whichever you choose, rub it liberally all over the protein and let it sit in the fridge for 4 – 24 hours prior to the cook.
We hope we’ve encouraged you to give it a shot. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun! If you’re stressed, you’re doing it wrong! Don’t expect your first couple of attempts to be perfect – this takes practice! One final word about temperature: when we’re smoking a turkey or even a chicken, we set a slightly higher target temperature (say 290 – 300) to get the meat out of the bacteria danger zone (below 140) as quickly as possible. Remember, smoking is not tough, and the rewards are great indeed!