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Tips and Tricks

What's 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 tender.

This really is important. Trying to hurry up the process will result in less than fabulous results. And let’s 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 experimenting!

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, won’t 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 stoppers either.

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. I‘m 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 225 degrees.

Get a Good Thermometer

Digital Thermometer with ProbeIf 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 good 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

Getting Started

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 you’ll 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 method.

In Closing

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 recipes.

Cheers,
Big Daddy
 

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