OK, you’ve tackled charcoal and gas grilling. You’ve even ventured into pellet grilling. All of these cooking methods have been met with universal acclaim and adoration from your friends and family. Now it’s time to try the most challenging method of all: smoking. In honor of National BBQ Month, let us help you with the basic information you’ll need to get started smoking!
Basic Principles of Smoking
To begin, smoking, in its simplest form, is cooking with indirect heat over a fairly low temperature (225-250 degrees), while allowing the coveted “thin blue smoke” to infuse the flavor of the meat naturally. The food will take longer to cook, but it will be more tender.
These objectives can be obtained using several different designs. Some use charcoal grills with the charcoal on one side and the meat on the other. If you are using charcoal for smoking, it’s best to use hardwood charcoal. Avoiding lighter-fluid infused briquettes will keep the meat free of chemicals.
Other pit masters use bullet smokers with a water pan between the charcoal and the meat. Still others use an offset or horizontal smoker with a firebox either on one end or on the back of the smoker. There are many different designs, but the intentions are the same: to cook low and slow using indirect heat and smoke.
Before starting, keep in mind that smoking takes time and patience, regardless of the design of your smoker. You should set aside at least 3 hours if you want to cook using this method, and some types of meat, like whole pork butts and beef briskets, can take up to 14 hours or more (depending on size). Find an estimated time and temperature chart here.
In charcoal and pellet (vertical) smokers, temperature should remain fairly consistent. However, on a horizontal or offset smoker, temperature can be difficult to maintain.
One fix for this is to create a baffle under the grate. Drill holes in the baffle, with more holes further from the heat source and fewer holes closer to it. This can help maintain temperature.
Another option is to place a pan of water by the barrier where the heat from the fire enters the chamber with the meat. This will serve 2 purposes – it will be a baffle to regulate temperature, and the steam can also help keep the meat from drying out during cooking.
Another quick note about temperature – it is imperative for food safety purposes to make sure that your meat reaches at least 140 degrees in the first 4 hours. If the meat doesn’t reach that temperature, harmful bacteria can spread and colonize throughout the meat. For more information on food safety and meat temperature, check out the USDA’s fact sheet here.
For food safety and your convenience, make sure you have a good meat thermometer.
Flavor injectors can improve the flavor and prevent the meat from drying out.
A good spray bottle can help you cover the meat with thinner marinades (such as apple juice) much faster than mopping. It’s especially important to move quickly when the door is open on your smoker. Every second you spend with the door open loses heat inside the chamber.
A charcoal chimney can get your smoker started quickly with no lighter fluid or chemicals.
Heavy rubber gloves can help you hold onto food that’s fresh out of the smoke. Latex or plastic gloves can help you work without covering your hands in rub or marinade.
Meat claws can be invaluable if you plan to shred pork, chicken or turkey.
Wood will obviously be necessary for smoking, but there are plenty of options to choose from.
If you want a stronger wood flavor, you can choose from cherry, hickory, mesquite or oak. For a lighter flavor, alder, apricot, peach, pecan, and plum can all be very tasty. See a more complete list of wood flavors and meat pairings here.
Meat will take on smoke flavor for as long as smoke is applied, so be sure to use smoke sparingly when using stronger flavored woods.
A general rule of thumb is to apply smoke until the meat hits 140 degrees, then apply heat only for the rest of the cooking process.
Obviously, cooking times and temps will vary, depending on the type of smoker and the type of meat you are cooking.
After Cooking – Resting or Holding
Many larger, thicker cuts of meat, such as brisket, ribs, and pork shoulder will need to “rest” after you remove them from the smoker. Resting allows the meat to redistribute some of the moisture that was displaced during cooking and helps the meat stay tender.
The larger the cut of meat, the longer it will need to rest.
The steps for resting brisket are fairly simple:
1- Wrap the brisket in aluminum foil or unwaxed butcher paper. Aluminum foil will hold a bit more heat, but butcher paper will allow more air circulation, so the bark will remain more crisp. The choice is yours.
2- Next, wrap your brisket in a couple of old towels and place the whole thing in a cooler.
3- Close the cooler and leave the brisket alone for a few (1-4) hours.
4 – Remove from cooler, unwrap, slice, and serve!
You can follow this same procedure with pork shoulder, butt, or whole loins. Ribs, on the other hand, generally only need to rest for about 30-60 minutes.
Check out the finished smoked pork loin below!
For more information about holding or resting your food, please click here.
Don’t forget to share your tips, strategies, and pictures from your grilling adventures in the comments as you grill along with us!
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