The Beginner's Guide to Smoking Food
By Belly Buddy Edd Jantz
In The Beginning, There Was SMOKE
Imagine if you will, a fire-breathing black Tin Man, wafting smoke and creating an aroma pleasant enough to be immortalized in a scented room candle. Beside it, a cooler- sweating slightly from its frosty contents. In the background, the sounds of children laughing & playing as lawnmowers hum. You gaze at the magnificent beast known as your smoker knowing that soon it will need your most intimate attention. Even your significant other knows that your focus is on the food knows that you are attending to a meal only the luckiest of few will enjoy. You draw another frosty brew from the cooler, but your priorities do not change- your attention does not falter from your mission you are SMOKIN BABY!
The phrase "It doesnt get any better than this" must have first been uttered in the backyard with ribs smoking over hickory and a cooler full of suds. If you havent had the pleasure of slow cooking pork, chicken, beef, game or veggies surrounded in wood smoke, then you need to chill a bit more and get started smoking. This is real barbecue my friends; foods cooked slow and low with wood-a-smokin. This is pork shoulder; a whole smoked turkey; a brisket. This is a venture that will yield leftovers that are better than what you began with. This is not wanting to wash your tee shirt cause it smells so damn good. So lets get started on a journey that will take us from alligator to zebra, cooking some the finest grub you will ever lay your lips over and see what smoking is all about.
For the purpose of this read, we will keep the mood to cooking in your backyard as opposed to entertaining a field of 500 hungry construction workers. I have done this many times and what a testosterone rush it is to crank up three tow behind smokers at 3:00 AM to serve lunch at noon. Cooking in your backyard even for a dozen friends and neighbors is a good start- and enough fun for one man to handle in one day.
Your smoker is the most important element to low and slow cooking. You can use a regular charcoal grill, cook indirect and get great results (indirect cooking is placing the grub away from the heat source, therefore getting its heat indirectly from the enclosed grill). But a good smoker is the best way to go to regulate the internal temperature accurately. Notice I say good smoker. You can buy a cheep model that has a "word" thermometer, like low or ideal and not actual temperature readings. Stay away from models without vents too, as they do not have the means to regulate airflow and cooking temperature.
A good smoker has vents on the bottom and top and a thermometer to let you know what temperature you are cooking at. For example, I like to smoke fish at 180ºF, pork around 210ºF, beef around 225ºF and jerkys anywhere from 120ºF to 150ºF. So good temperature regulation is essential for the meal you will be cooking. Typical vertical backyard smokers are about 20 inches in diameter and about 3 feet tall. They consist of a water pan above the fire, 2 levels of grating to place your food, a removable lid and a side door where you may add charcoals or water to your pan. The water pan acts as an insulator and flavorizer, keeping the direct flames from licking and overheating your food, while adding moisture from the evaporation process to the cooking chamber.
Weber builds an excellent dual-layer cooker/smoker available at Amazon (among other places) that has all these features except a thermometer.
Brinkmann 28" Green
But a drill, a bit and a trip to Home Depot for a grill thermometer will fix that rascal. Another popular brand is Brinkmann available at Cooking.com and Amazon. Typically, Brinkmann's do not have vents for temperature control, but because of their pricing we include them here for the beginner. They sell several variations including electric and charcoal smokers with dual-layer 19" and dual-layer 28" for someone looking to get started within a reasonable price range. Shop around and you will find many others out there that fit the bill.
Another smoking alternative is a grill/smoker. This type of smoker does not use a water pan to isolate the fire, but uses distance and a firewall. New Branfels Smoker Company makes an offset fire box smoker that works really well. As a matter-of-fact, these smokers are a baby versions of tow behind smokers that most professional cooking teams use. These smokers have a fire box on one end and a vent on the other. Vents and dampers control internal temperatures pretty accurately and most models are sold with a good temperature gauge. Smaller models start at about $130 and go up with cooking surface size.
Smokers are powered electrically or by charcoals- most people swear by charcoal, I myself think a woodburner is the way to go. Smokers can also range from a single roast size to semi-rig size (and those are often custom built) but for the sake of this beginners guide, were going to stick with charcoal and assume youre using a single roast smoker.
Feel free to read straight through or use the navigation up and to the left to jump right to the self explanatory categories.