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There are not very many methods of cooking that are so simple that you can actually, literally, do them while you sleep.

Smoking is one of them.

When people start out thinking that they want to barbecue meat, usually what they want to do is reproduce good barbecue that they’ve had at barbecue joints. What they don’t realize is that professional barbecue joints do not — confusingly enough — barbecue meat. That is, they don’t do anything that really resembles what homeowners do to meat on a grill in the backyard on Labor Day: apply temperatures of 500º or so for relatively short periods of time, cover with sauce, serve, and eat. Nope. Not even close.

What do they do instead? They smoke it.

To make wonderful meat in a smoker, there are basically three big things that you have to get right. The rest is icing on the cake. Those three big things are:

  1. The ambient temperature during smoking.
  2. Moisture during smoking.
  3. The internal temperature of the meat at the end.

If you get these three things wrong, you will produce either disturbingly undercooked anatomy lessons or wizened meatpucks. If you get them right, you can transform even very inexpensive cuts of meat into a mouthwatering feast.

The easiest way to get the first and third things right is with a thermometer. There are a variety of them out there; the one I use is the Maverick RediChek, a model made specifically for smokers. It has two probes, one for the meat and one for the smoker. It also has a remote with alarms that go off if the smoker goes outside of the range that you set, or if the meat reaches the desired temperature.

What are those ranges and temperatures? So far I’ve mostly worked with pork and goat shoulders, and in those cases the smoker should stay between 225º and 250º F until the internal temperature of the shoulder reaches 190º F, which generally takes 12-14 hours. Other cuts and other meats will vary. I use a Weber Smokey Mountain smoker (pictured at top), which is an absolute dream: it holds a lot of meat on its two grates, and the temperature is incredibly stable for up to twelve hours at a stretch without the addition of more charcoal. The recipes on the Virtual Weber Bullet website have been a Godsend as far as teaching me how to use it is concerned. For a step by step walk-through of a typical smoking session with two goat shoulders, see this set of photos on my Flickr site.

The Weber also helps considerably with the second thing, moisture. There’s a water pan situated above the coals that keeps the air around the meat moist. You can also (and generally should also) baste the meat during smoking. Even with cuts of meat like shoulders, which don’t need it all that much, it just doesn’t hurt. With meats that tend to dry out, like chicken and turkey, brining the meat ahead of time is an excellent way to keep it from drying out during smoking because brining increases the ability of the meat to hold moisture. The proportions for brine are 3/4 cup kosher salt and 3/4 cup sugar, dissolved in one cup of water, to a gallon of cold water. Make as much brine as you need to cover your bird completely, then chill the brine, immerse the bird, and refrigerate for a good long time (10-12 hours for a chicken, 1-2 days for a turkey).

In addition to shoulders, we’ve made ribs and chickens and bison. The bison didn’t turn out so well, because I forgot to set the alarm on the remote (that’s when the word “meatpuck” entered my vocabulary). The ribs were incredibly tasty, though they weren’t quite falling-off-the-bone tender. And the chicken, though a little drier than I would have liked in some spots (left it in a bit too long — got cocky, no pun intended, and didn’t bother to measure the internal temp), was amazingly flavorful: the smoke permeated the meat, right down to the bone.

Other than the big three items, what else is involved in smoking? Things like choosing a good rub, picking a good sauce, and so on… but mostly those are matters of taste, and there’s no right answer. The bottom line is that smoking, like most methods of low, slow cooking, is a dead simple way of making incredibly juicy and flavorful food.


Written by Bear

June 23, 2008 at 3:05 am

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