Last Father’s Day, my family gave me a backyard smoker. This compact, R2D2-shaped slow cooker has changed my life. For example, I now take Guy Fieri seriously. Folks do some serious food smoking on that show!
A smoker is similar to a charcoal grill in that charcoal is burned, but that’s where the similarities end. Smokers cook at a much, much lower temperature than a charcoal or gas grill and use a moist cooking method and indirect heat. This is ideal for breaking down the connective tissues in tougher, less expensive cuts of meat, such as ribs, pork shoulders, and beef briskets.
When you add soaked wood chips to the charcoal, the result is a smoky, succulent, fall-off-the-bone goodness like you’ve never experienced. In other words, barbeque heaven.
The way it works is this: Charcoal and soaked wood chips are burned in the bottom pan of this cyclindrical-shaped cooker. Directly above is a pan containing liquid, such as beer, vinegar, water or a combination. A grill sits on top of this pan, with another grill about eight inches above that one.
The charcoal and wood heat the liquid, which converts to a steam, enveloping the meat in a smoky mist that holds at 212F, or the boiling point of water.
The downside is that a smoker is a lot needier than a charcoal or gas grill. The charcoal and the wood have to be replenished every hour or so and you need to make sure the liquid pan always has liquid in it, otherwise the temperature in the smoker will skyrocket and
the meat will cook too fast. Slow, sweaty and steady, that’s my motto.
While I can fire up my grill anytime I want, using the smoker takes some planning because I need to make sure I’m going to be around the house most of the day. But the results are well worth it. Commercial smokers I’ve used in restaurants require a far less maintenance (usually you fire up the smoker the night before, then take your finished product out in the morning), but let’s just focus on the backyard variety for our purposes.
Because of the time commitment, I usually smoke larger amounts of meat than I would if I were just grilling. I’ll do a few chickens at once, for example, or perhaps a 3-5 pound pork shoulder. In other words, more than we would eat for just one meal. Once the meats are fully cooked, whatever we don’t eat right away I will cool, then pull apart or off the bone, removing any sinew and most fat. Then I’ll put the meat into portion-sized baggies and freeze for later use.
The economic benefit of all this is that you can get more cooked, smoky-flavored meat for a lot less money. Smoked meats can be stored like any other meat and hold their smoky flavor well in the freezer for at least a month, if properly stored.
Heat up some smoked pulled pork or chicken in a sauce pan with a little barbeque sauce and water, pile it on a toasted Kaiser roll and you’ve got a down-home BBQ experience like no other. Serve it with some coleslaw and some beer and there’s nothing better on earth. Or smoke a couple of slabs of baby back ribs all day, then give them a quick finish on the gas grill smothered in BBQ sauce and you’ll have a flavor explosion your family and friends will be talking about for years.
A word about dry rubs.
Because this is an indirect heat/moist cooking method, you wouldn’t want to dab traditional barbeque sauce on your meats when they go into the smoker because the steam will cause the sauce to roll right off. Instead, prior to cooking coat your meat in a dry rub,
which is a combination of dried herbs and spices that will adhere and add flavor throughout the cooking process. Or try marinating your meat in the dry rub up to a day before cooking so the flavors really get a chance to sink in, as you would a traditional liquid marinade.
Here’s a recipe for a boilerplate sweet and spicy dry rub to use on just about any
smoked meat. I mix a big batch and store it in an airtight container with my spices until I’m ready to use it.
¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¼ cup sweet paprika
3 TBS black pepper
3 TBS sea salt (or table salt)
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp celery seeds
1 tsp cayenne pepper
Combine all the ingredients together and mix well. You’ll probably need to use your hands to break up the lumps of brown sugar. This mix keeps for at least six months in an airtight container away from direct light or heat.
You can add yet another taste dimension to your smoked meat by basting it with a “mop sauce” during the last hour or so of cooking. Mop sauces are vinegar-based, usually spicy mixtures typically associated with North Carolina-style BBQ cooking. Here’s a basic mop sauce recipe:
Basic BBQ Mop Sauce
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1 TBS sea salt (or table salt)
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp dried red pepper flake
1 small onion, sliced thin
1 jalapeno pepper (ribs and seeds included), sliced thin
Whisk salt and pepper into vinegar until salt dissolves. Add onion, jalapeno and red pepper flake and stir well. Use a pastry brush or traditional barbeque mop to outside surface of smoked meats during last hour of cooking.
I frequently use smoked pork or chicken as pizza toppings or for mixing into salads. Here’s an easy and delicious smoked chicken salad recipe that will add a new dimension to any lunchtime sandwich.
Smoked Chicken Salad
8 oz Pulled Smoked Chicken
1 TBS mayo
1 tsp Dijon mustard
½ tsp sugar
Dash Worchestershire Sauce
Dash Tabasco Sauce
½ cup red or green grapes, sliced in half
1 TBS walnuts, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Whisk together mayo, mustard, sugar, Worchestershire and Tabasco. Toss chicken in mixture, then fold in grapes and nuts. Season with S&P to taste. Serve in a Bibb lettuce leaf or on a roll. Garnish with a few dill sprigs, a sprinkle of parprika, or both.