The heat of summer turns the oven into an enemy. During the last couple of weeks, when the temperatures topped 100 degrees more days than not, the last thing I was interested in doing was introducing another source of heat for the air conditioner to battle. Our charcoal consumption has gone off the charts.
One of my goals this summer has been to use up the freezer full of meat that I've accumulated. As long as the meat in question was chicken, steaks, pork chops and hamburger, the grill was an obvious medium for cooking. However, when I found myself confronted by a three-pound arm roast, the grill ceased to be an option.
The arm roast, like the chuck and rump roasts, is pot roast meat. It has to be cooked slow and long to break down the tough fibers into tender meat. If I were to have cooked the roast in the oven, it would need to spend at least three to four hours at 325 degrees. That was out of the question last week.
I decided that my only options were the Crock Pot and the smoker. However, the Crock Pot seems more like a cold-weather appliance. We have liked ribs and brisket cooked on the smoker and I decided to see what sort of pot roast it might produce.
Technically, a smoker is any appliance that cooks by indirect heat and allows sufficient draft to keep coals alive at the same time that the smoke is contained. While some grills are designed to smoke meat as well as broil it and independent units intended specifically for smoking are available, I've also seen effective smokers made from 55-gallon drums.
We have one of those $39 bullet-shaped Brinkman smokers, which are advertised in force every June for Father's Day. Although it sits in the corner of our deck most of the year, it earns its keep the handful of times we actually use it.
Last week was no exception. Although the pot roast took a full eight hours to cook, I have to say that I have never eaten a more flavorful piece of inexpensive meat. In fact, the idea of traditional oven pot roast now seems like an inferior compromise.
Before putting the roast into the smoker, I seared it on all sides, salted and peppered it, and pressed a couple of garlic cloves over the top of it. I set the roast into a small Dutch oven with an inch of water in the bottom and tossed in a bay leaf for good measure.
I set the uncovered Dutch oven on the top rack of the smoker. This particular smoker has a deep pan for water that sits above the coals, which are at the bottom.
The trick to getting good results from a meat-smoking project is to keep the coals going and the water pan filled. If the water dries up, so does the meat. If the coals go out, the meat doesn't cook. This means that you need to make sure you'll be home all day to tend the smoker. Also, I'd be a bit nervous, particularly when the smoker is sitting on a wooden deck, to leave it completely unattended.
Every couple of hours, I tossed half a dozen fresh pieces of charcoal into the bottom of the smoker and poured more water into the pan. I added vegetables -- carrots and potatoes -- to the Dutch oven about six hours into the process.
I did not add wood chips to the fire and the meat and vegetables still developed a solid and interesting flavor. However, hickory or mesquite chips would have produced a different twist on the charcoal-smoked flavor.
If there's a down side to smoking meat, it's that the process is not economical in either time or fuel. In addition to making a daylong commitment to tending the smoker, I also used about 15 pounds of charcoal. For that reason, it would be advisable to cook as much meat as possible while the fire is going, with the expectation of having plenty of leftovers.
-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. You can send e-mail to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.