With the Fourth of July holiday coming up, plenty of local cooks will be looking for meals to prepare outdoors. While quick meals on the grill make sense for gatherings at the lake or park, homebodies who plan to spend a lazy day around the yard might consider firing up the smoker.
No matter what kind of meat you smoke, the flavor imparted by slow cooking over charcoal or a combination of charcoal and hardwood is hard to beat. If you take your time and do it right, the flavor will permeate the meat. I know of no other way to achieve this effect.
People who are seriously into smoking meat have special tricks and techniques, often as varied and individualized as the equipment they use. Cooks who smoke meat only occasionally opt for the kind of mass-produced smokers you can buy anywhere barbecue equipment is sold, while some of the real aficionados have custom-made smokers fabricated at welding or machine shops.
Some of the custom jobs are made from scrap metal, but a good many dedicated outdoor meat chefs have their smokers made from 55-gallon drums. While a smoker made from a metal drum cut in half lengthwise may not retain heat as well as one crafted from heavier scrap metal, the chefs adapt to the quirks of their equipment and learn to compensate for its shortcomings by feeding the fire a bit more often. It's sort of like having an otherwise reliable car that needs a quart of oil every 500 miles.
The specs on these custom-made contraptions, as well as the high-end mass produced smokers, can include multiple smoking chambers, so the chef can cook something quick like chicken at the same time she or he is smoking ribs. Smoking times also can be regulated by draft and the meat's distance from the heat source.
In horizontal smokers, the coals and wood usually are loaded at one end, not only for convenience but also to provide a less direct heat source. The smoke is then drawn through the cooking chamber. The horizontal smokers usually have a larger capacity as well. In fact, I've seen humongous smokers at barbecue competitions that are outfitted with trailer hitches and car tires so they can be towed down the highway.
Vertical smokers, such as the dinky kettle-style smoker we have, work just fine for the occasional backyard chef. The taller vertical smokers can accommodate more than one rack to provide increased capacity, but their design usually places limitations on the amount of meat that can be cooked at once. Meat may cook more quickly in a vertical smoker, since the source of heat is at the bottom of the unit.
Ours is very low-tech and has a poor excuse for a heat gauge. The dial has three readings: warm, ideal and hot. The ideal range takes up about two-thirds of the dial, which is a bit troubling since the ideal range probably varies by at least 100 degrees. Naturally, the manual that came with the smoker vanished years ago, so every foray into meat smoking is a seat-of-the-pants adventure.
Fortunately, meat smoking is a forgiving process. As far as I can tell, there are only two things you can do to muck it up.
The first is to let the meat dry out. There should be a reservoir of water inside the smoker, whether it's in a pan built into the smoker and specifically designed for the purpose, or a metal sauce pan set inside on the rack. It should be checked every couple of hours throughout the cooking process to make sure the water has not evaporated.
The other avoidable faux pas is undercooking, which usually occurs as the result of letting the coals go out. The fire must be fed throughout the day. Once the coals die, the fire can be difficult to restart. If it happens, you may be better off finishing the job in an oven set at about 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
What both of these tips should suggest is that someone has to baby-sit the smoker throughout the day.
On Sunday we smoked a 12-pound brisket, which is the absolute maximum capacity for our smoker. The rule of thumb on brisket cooked in a smoker is 45 minutes to one hour per pound. If you add barbecue sauce, apply it for the last hour of cooking time.
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.