Originally, smoking developed as a preservation technique. Meats that spent more time near smoke would preserve better and taste better than those that were not. However, in today’s world, smoking is a luxurious art that must be approached with respect and devotion for the skill.
It is one of those truly beautiful gifts that encourage people to come together for a good time. Creating masterwork treats requires effort. The bottom line is that in order to smoke well, one must be prepared to learn and experiment.
Sure, it is entirely possible to make a mediocre attempt and create something edible. However, there are those out there that will understand the joy that comes with each step taken towards mastering a skill.
If being able to produce a fabulous feast of flavor for folks sounds enticing, then do not be intimidated. Although it takes a great deal of effort to master smoking, learning to smoke is quite easy. Most importantly, the results are entirely constrained by patience. So it comes down to one statement in need of examination. That statement is, “How to Use a Smoker.”
Like all things that which is put into something directly influences the result. Therefore, have a target in mind and plan a little specialty research regarding the chosen meats. Different ingredients are going to require different techniques and investments. For example, a couple racks of ribs are going to require a different time investment than tackling an entire pig or several whole chickens.
The basics of how smoking meat works, how to use a smoker, and some tips are all easy to give here, but it is the cook’s passion that must be earned on its own. How to use a smoker ultimately comes down to the individual’s preferences. Smoking chicken comes more naturally than smoking ribs to others for example. Whoever is putting forth the effort to prepare the food is going to develop their own routines, habits, and rituals on how to use a smoker.
How Smoking Meat Works
Smoking meat works by magic! No seriously, it works by using an alternative cooking method that specifically targets the way particular foods can be consumed. Any meat that benefits from a long low slow cooking treatment is a good candidate for smoking. How to use a smoker is largely dependent upon what meats are desired. Fat or collagen in the meat is the goal. The manner in which collagen is handled will determine most of the aspects of finished meat. If prepared at a very high temperature and allowed to cook quickly, meat will end up being tough because of the contraction of the collagen.
One alternative is to prepare the meat at a slow roast, or smoke, which causes the collagen to break down and melt. That same said collagen, basically turns into a gelatin that provides the tender juiciness packed full of slap-you-in-the-mouth flavor. In the simplest of terms, smoking works by melting fatty acids over long periods of time, in order to produce an exquisite flavor.
However, there is more to how smoking meat works rather than just the meat. The purpose to smoking meat is to achieve rendered fat, or that meat gelatin which is one of the most important parts to flavor. Smoke is another one. Hardwood’s cellulose breaks down during burning and turns into sugar, which caramelizes the flavors. Aromatics are provided by the lignins of wood which lend the food that wonderful preserved smoke flavor. It is through the joining of these two sources that smoking creates that wonderful preserved flavor. That means there are three main ingredients to how smoking meat works. Those ingredients are as follows: the amount of collagen content available in the meat, type of wood smoke being produced, and the effort or time put forth into smoking.
How to Use a Smoker
How to Use a Smoker is a ritualized art. Depending upon the type of smoker, the person, the environment, and the goal are all going to determine what works for the endeavor. At the basic level, though the principals are going to be the same; namely that through indirect heat, meat is going to be cooked in order to have a long slow time to absorb tons of flavor through a great deal of interaction with smoke. It doesn’t matter if the smoker is going to be electric, charcoal, or even gas. The practice is going to use the same methods.
The method of smoking is by using an indirect heat source not making direct or near immediate contact with the item being cooked. A firebox is what will contain the fuel source to be used during cooking. Once an outdoor location, free of strong wind risk, is selected, place the smoker there. The firebox is where the work begins. In here, the temperatures need be precisely maintained throughout the entire process in order to achieve that perfect state of melting collagen. The base fuel (electric, gas, charcoal) is going to be used to maintain the combustion of the smoke fuel (wood or woodchips of hickory, apple, cherry, or oak). Really make sure the wood has had an adequate time to soak (1 hour minimum) in order to produce a great deal of smoke throughout the cooking process.
Just like when choosing your meats, what wood you want to use to smoke it largely depends on your taste preference. However, if you are reading this article you are likely new to smoking meats. Therefore, you may want to experiment with all kinds of flavors, which means using different types of wood. For instance, Using apple tree wood provides a fruity flavor that pairs well with pork. It's the strongest flavor of all the fruit woods and can be mixed with other woods to create a variety of blended flavors, meaning you can smoke meat that keep your guests surprised and wondering how you achieved the great taste of the meat you served. Hickory produces a flavor similar to bacon, but be careful when using it as it can overpower. This wood is best paired with pork and ribs but can be used perfectly with steaks as well. Mesquite is sweeter than hickory but can also overpower if not used carefully. This is best paired with richer meats. Oak and maple, meanwhile, provide excellent flavoring while creating a really nice smokey look on your meats, making people hungry just by looking at them. Try them all to figure out what works best and what tastes best. You might find a flavor that surprises you.
Depending upon the quantity of meat being smoked, there could be a necessity to have an ample supply of coals prepared to add to the firebox, along with all the prepared wood fuel. For example, about 1 to 1.5 hours smoking for each pound of meat, but each smoker is going to have their own kinks to be workd out. Keep the temperatures in the firebox between 200 and 240 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the entire cook time. Initially, the fire will burn hotter upwards of 400 degrees. After perhaps 30 minutes, air vents can be used to maintain the lower heats required.
General Temperature Guidelines of Meats from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (Fahrenheit)
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Some Thoughts & 10 Tips
Keep your hands and eyes off of the meat in the smoker.
Using a smoker is dependent upon incredible patience and faith at this point. Do not check on the meat often. Rather, give it ample time to prepare uninterrupted. Remember that it isn’t grilling. There is no direct heat source against the meat. As such, it is not necessary to turn the meat but perhaps once. Practice proper due diligence on maintaining the firebox temperature and amply supply soaked wood to up the smoke content. Check on the meat itself, perhaps twice, depending upon what is being prepared. Each time the smoker’s door is opened, precious time is lost and heat escapes, requiring it to build back up. During the last hour of total cook time is when sauces can be applied, if desired—be sure and add more smoke fuel.
- 1Season that meat baby! At the very minimum, apply an ample coating of kosher salt and pepper if nothing else. Use a dry rub for flavorful treats. (1/2 cup kosher salt, ½ cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon lemon pepper, 1 tablespoon black pepper, 2 teaspoons chile flakes)
- 2Be diligent to hurry up and wait while smoking. Make the event of smoking an enjoyable ritual where you work checking the fire regularly into your routine.
- 3Do the absolute best to aim for checking meat when it is undercooked, rather than overcooked. It is better to look at something early and have enough time to let it cook longer.
- 4Use a meat thermometer
- 5When meat is first inserted, it will lower the temperature some.
- 6Ribs are great to learn with, but don’t serve them dry!
- 7A charcoal grill can be used to smoke in small quantities.
- 8Avoid using lighter fluids or other chemicals as much as possible. Have an entire small charcoal grill dedicated to having white-hot coals on hand, if necessary. It is easier to add heat than take it away.
- 9Sap woods ruin food and are slightly toxic
- 10Electric and gas smokers usually cook hotter so turn the heat down low.
Smoking is a passion for many. If, for any reason, there is an interest in developing this skill, do not hesitate due to fear. It is with the first step that every journey begins. Take a slow pace while developing the skill of creating fabulous works of delicious love and it will be time well spent. Smoking is one of those endeavors where the final product can be put in front view at any point in time, however in doing so only cheats the end result. In order to be a truly successful smoker. All effort must be directed towards, indirectly affecting the meat. A heavy-handed, hard-nosed-tyrannical approach will not net a positive result.
How to use a smoker successfully is easy to learn, but takes an investment in time. All potential smokers should get to know their meat, practice their fire taming skills, and learn to stop to enjoy the trip as they practice. So, invite over some folks and get to smoking to practice those skills.