Over the last few years, I have become interested in cooking on the smoker. The food has a unique/good flavor and getting the hang of it is easy with practice. Think of it as a “slow cooker” with smoke.
Let me start by saying that I am not an expert, at best, I am a second level beginner doing the same thing you are, looking on the internet and teaching myself how to do it. I have the good fortune to know a few people that have greater experience than me, and they have been willing to answer questions I have and to give advice when asked. As this article progresses, I will try and tie in the websites I gathered my info from as best I can.
Smoking food evolved from the practice of preserving different kinds of products before there was refrigeration, primarily meat and fish. It was also used to make otherwise tough meats tender enough to eat. Long low temperature smoking allows the connective tissues in the meat to breakdown and turn into various “sugars” that flavor the meat as it helps it get tender. The “ideal” cooking temperature range is between 200° and 325° depending on what you are cooking. It can be higher but you run the risk of making the meat dry out before it’s done. Temperature control is the “art” of smoking.
Currently I have two smokers that I use; both are Brinkman “bullet” smokers. The black one was a gift from my wife for Christmas some years passed and the red one is from a client that upgraded to a more expensive brand. I use charcoal in both and both have been somewhat modified to help maintain temperature and to aid in ease of use. These style smokers have a water bowl between the coal and the food being cooked. Not all smokers are this style so it is a point to consider when deciding which unit to buy. I will also try to link in information on modification as we progress past the how to smoke section.
Some of the things I have learned about smoking are:
1. This method of cooking takes time. It’s “slow cooking.” I suggest you do not plan to cook an important meal for guests your first time out. No need to put yourself through that pressure.
2. You can cook almost anything on the smoker that you can in an oven. BUT, in the beginning stick to meats and veggies. Over the next few month you will see some of my experiments (OK, you will see the ones that work not the ones that fail).
3. Dry rub or marinade, it’s up to you. There are many MANY sites on the web that have suggestions for what to season the meat you are cooking with. Marinades are a good start and generally take from 4 hours to DAYS so plan early if you are going to use them. Dry rubs can be placed on the meat EITHER shortly before you put it on the smoker or applied then refrigerated for periods of time. The rule I use is the longer the rub is on the more it will penetrate the meat so the more flavor it will impart. (A side note is about some pork spareribs I did a few years back. I made a Jalapeno marinade and rub to use…….to say I allowed too long a time for the marinade and too much time for the rub to absorb would be an understatement….. it was great, and it was HOT).
4. Once you have setup the smoker and started your meal resist the urge to open it to check on the progress….each time you open it the temperature will spike, and you will have to work to bring it back to your desired temperature. When the smoker is opened it will take time to bring back up to temperature and prolong cook time.
5. I use charcoal smokers so building a good fire is important. Use a good amount of coal and allow your coals to ash to gray before assembling the smoker. Some points about using charcoal, a good quality charcoal will burn at a consistent rate and therefore help to maintain the idea range of temp. in your smoker. Do not use a charcoal lighter fluid or self starting charcoal because this will add that flavor to your meal, use instead a charcoal “chimney” or electric starter. ( I use an electric starter.) Since I do not use an electric or gas unit I cannot really coach you on how to use those. I believe that the method would be the same as a charcoal unit, but I am not sure.
6. Wood Choices
Different woods will add different flavors to your meal. So as you learn smoking, you will read tons of information on this subject. Some distributors of smoker wood will make suggestions as to what you can use. This is short list of possible woods. Look further to find out others.
Oak: Most likely the best all-around wood for meat smoking. It has a strong but not overpowering flavor. Sausages, beef and lamb are good meats
Apple: Has a mild, fruity flavor, slightly sweet. Use this for poultry, pork
Hickory: Has a strong flavor and is good with beef and lamb. Your meat will have a reddish tint.
Cherry: Also has a mild, fruity. Poultry, pork or beef.
Mesquite: Has a very strong flavor, it burns hot and fast. Best for short smoking hotter than most woods and is better for use in a grill.
Do not use fir, cypress, eucalyptus, pine, redwood, cedar, spruce, sycamore, sassafras and elm. If you decide to cure your own wood allow it to sit for around 6 months for it to “season” so the sap will not fill your smoker with soot.
The wood can be chips chunks or sawdust. There is some disagreement as whether to soak the wood in water or to use it dry. I use it dry and my reasoning is that wet wood seems to cool the heat in the smoker and when the wood dries out it ignites and the temperature spikes so managing the smoker temp seems more difficult. I like to use chunks of wood because they seem to last about 2 hours which keeps me from having to keep opening the fire pit to add wood to keep the smoke going. I have never used sawdust, but think I will try it soon.
7. When you are ready to assemble the smoker have everything you need close at hand. The wood chips/chunks of choice, the food to be added and the water for the bowl. I also will roll aluminum foil and use this to seal between the lid and the body of the smoker to help with control of the rate at which the charcoal burns and to help regulate the heat.
8. Place the wood on the coals just as you are ready to place the meat in the smoker then set the water pan and the lower grate place your meat on the grate then place the top grate and any additional meat. I have done smoking a few different ways, to smoke for 2 hours out of the entire cook time, 3 hours out of the time and for the entire time. The amount of smoke time depends on the type of meat and the cook time in relation to temp and weight of what you are cooking. I have smoked for 2 hours then allowed the meat to cook out of smoke for 2 hours, then wrapped the meat in foil the last of the cooking adding wood at that time. This is not an exact method it’s my experiment. I have had a number of discussions with friends that have more experience with smoking about the amount of time that it take for the meat/food to take on the right amount of smoke. It’s about 50/50 on allowing it to sit in smoke the full cook time and only smoking it for a percent of the cook time…it’s up to you to decide.
9. So cook times….I am still learning this one. There are a number of tools out there to help you figure out prep times cook time and rest times.
Now this is important….cook times are not the absolute determiner of doneness, by this I mean that cook times are a point of reference and the doneness of your meat really depends on the internal temperature of said meat.
You can find more information about cook times and temperatures here:
Smoking Times and Temperatures Chart
When handling food you need to be mindful of safe handling practices. Meat sitting raw on the counter can start to develop bacteria which you cannot “cook” away. If you cook you already know this, I just needed to point it out to you.
Since temperature is a central factor in both grilling and smoking at some point in your adventure you will need to purchase a good quality thermometer, if not two. I have used a number of different ones over the years, and I am considering moving to a digital wireless model, so I do not have to open the smoker to stick the probe in to check for doneness. I have one temp. gauge mounted on the smoker at the cook grate level and one on the top of the unit to see what the dome temp is. Remember temperature control is the most important part of cooking. The digital thermometer models I have been looking at are:
There are more out there so do your research.
10. When it’s truly done.
Resting the meat is the practice of allowing the meat to continue cooking OFF the grill/smoker. Usually you would wrap the meat in foil to allow it to continue up to the final ideal internal temp. This also allows the juices developed during the cook cycle to re-absorb into the meat to make it moist and TASTY.
You can find more information about letting meat rest here:
Resting times vary, so look it up, and you decide. I like to allow most beef to rest for 30 minutes, Chicken, turkey, and fish not at all and pork for about an hour or more. Wrap pork tightly in foil and place in a dry cooler or cool oven until you are ready to serve.
So that’s it for now, I will continue to add to MAN food Mondays as time goes on. Keep checking back to see what is next on the menu.
Excellent instructions. I don’t have the temperament to wait. Grilling is as good as I’ll get. You should link this to What’d You Do This Weekend?
Wishes for tasty dishes,
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Michelle Hilton says
Thank you! Just submitted it.