So Special About Smoking Meats?
Smoking meat has a
two fold purpose:
- The smoke mingles with the moisture in the cooking chamber to form a
coating over the meat that seals in the natural juices, and
- the long cooking time at low temperatures cause the connective
tissues in the meat to dissolve and this is what makes the toughest meat come out so
This really is important. Trying to hurry up the process will result
in less than fabulous results. And lets face it. If your going to invest 6-8 hours
smoking a piece of meat, it damn well better be fabulous. Smoking also has the side
benefit of adding marvelous flavor to the food being cooked. The choice of wood
(hickory, mesquite, apple and oak are very popular), and seasonings, fruits and spices
added to the water pan can produce intriguing variations in old standards. Keep
Smoking food is a forgiving and flexible cooking technique; well
suited to coordinating large parties that happen hours after you begin. Food that
smokes for an extra half-hour, or even an entire hour, wont change appreciably. This is
especially true for a water smoker where the moisture in the cooking chamber
helps prevent the
meat from drying out.
It's All About Time and Temperature
I use a Weber, charcoal fired, water smoker. These can produce
fairly good results if you simply follow the guidelines that come with smoker. However, I
followed these guidelines when I first started and was not getting the spectacular results
for which I had hoped. The guidelines produced temperatures much higher than
traditional smoking calls for and while the results weren't bad, they weren't show
The Weber Smoky Mountain doesn't come with a thermometer, the
only real mistake the designers made in my opinion. Other water smokers come
equipped with a temperature gauge that reads out Warm, Ideal, Hot, or something
like that, and are reputed to be less than accurate. Im now experienced enough to
know that for true, authentic, mouth watering results you need to be able to monitor and
control the temperature. The best results come when you keep the smoker at between 200 and
Get a Good Thermometer
If your smoker
doesn't have a reliable, built-in thermometer, get a candy or deep fryer
thermometer. Insert it into one of the air vents at the top of the smoker. This will allow
you to monitor the temperature inside the cooking chamber. The other tool that I highly
recommend is a digital meat thermometer with an attached probe. Because cooking this
way is such an inexact science knowing the internal temperature of the foods you are
cooking is a huge advantage. The thermometers with remote probes allow you to keep
track of the food's temperature without opening the smoker and wasting all that valuable
time (approximately 15 minutes every time you open the dome.)
Thermometer/timers, like the one
pictured, can be found at most kitchen supply companies for about $25.00.
Make Allowance for Weather and Other Factors
Always allow extra time than what you expect - if you estimate 4
hours, allow 4Ĺ, if you estimate 6-8 hours, allow an extra hour. Smoking is not always an
exact science. When cooking food for such a long period of time, even small variations in
cooking conditions can throw the timing off significantly. Outside temperature, for
example, can have a profound impact on what is required to maintain internal temperatures.
I've discovered that if I'm smoking on a 50 degree day I may need twice the coals
than I would on a 70 degree day.
Starting off with meat that is right out of the fridge will also
lengthen the cooking time considerably. Big Daddy's recipes, and those from a
barbecue cookbook, should give guidelines for how long to allow different meats to sit out
prior to placing them in the smoker. A half-hour to an hour is about
right most of the time.
Use very hot water when adding to the water pan. Cold water in the
pan will drop the temperature in the cooking chamber considerably
There are three techniques for using a water smoker:
In the first method you start with about 25-30 charcoal briquettes,
mounding them in the center right under the water pan, and monitor the temperature.
All vents, upper and lower, are wide open. As your cooking progresses you should be
able to maintain the right temperature by adding a dozen or so briquettes when the fire
begins to die down, roughly every hour or so. With practice youll develop a sense of
how many briquettes to use with your type of smoker.
The second and perhaps most popular method with experienced smokers
is to use the bottom vents to control the temperature by restricting air flow through the
smoker. Start off with lots of charcoal and simply adjust the bottom vents to keep the
heat down in the beginning and open the vents wider as the fire dies down to maintain
temperature. A trick process.
The last method and one used by many novices is to start off with
all the charcoal they're going to need, open all the vents wide and blast away. The
fire starts out very hot at first (350+ degrees) and gradually dies down to well under 200
degrees as the cooking time ends. The theory is that the temperature averages out
(too hot in the beginning and too cool at the end) and you don't have to tinker with
venting or extra coals. I remain skeptical although I know people that swear by this
Cardinal rule! Always leave the top vent open to vent the
smoke and soot. Also, closing the top vent in a water smoker will result in steamed food -
not always desirable.
If you really want to get serious about barbecuing pick up a copy of "Smoke
& Spice" by Jamison and Jamison. Itís a great reference, and has fabulous