Introduction: Thank You for Smoking: an Introduction to an American Classic
Originating as a way of cooking whole wild animals, Barbecue has spread through the U.S. and integrated itself into our culture. Unfortunately, in recent years it has been relegated to the hyper-efficient commercial food industry. Barbecue has widely become flavorless, dry meat-like hunks instead of the tender, mouthwatering slabs of glory that it so rightly deserve to be. Today, I seek to aid you in taking back our cuisine from the cold grips of corporate kitchens and put it right back where it belongs: in your own back yard. But, such a task should not be taken on lightly; it will be a long, tribulating journey filled with great obstacles and... Okay so it's not that bad, you just need to have a bit of patience and a strong desire for a really, really good meal.
Step 1: Getting to Know the Basics
Smoking is a unique method of cooking since it uses such low temperatures. Most ways of cooking meat focus on developing flavors through heavy use of the Maillard Reaction and Caramelization (don't worry too much about what that first one is it's kind of complex, but if you do want to look into it, it's actually really interesting). They do this by heating the target food to high temperatures for relatively short periods of time. These methods work great, but there's more to cooking than just slightly burning things, and you can't say you've lived until you've experienced that first hand.
The key to smoking meat is maintaining a lower temperature -- usually around 200 - 300 Fahrenheit or 93 - 150 Celsius -- for long periods of time (and I do mean long). This will help to break down connective tissues in the meat (namely collagen) and render fats. The collagen is very important to meat because it becomes gelatin when it's broken down; gelatin gives meat a nice tender texture and fuller flavor. But, because of the length of time it takes and the volume of dry air that passes by the meat, it can become very dry, so the fat needs to render into the meat to keep it moist. Of course the big difference between roasting and smoking is smoke.
Smoke is a combination of gasses, liquids, and very fine particles. Most smoke you see is very white and puffy; this is because of the amount of large ash particles. Ash is not something you want in your food. When you're smoking meat, you usually want to barely be able to see the smoke. This means there's a relatively low amount of ash and that the particles in the smoke are very fine. The best smokes are pale blue in color, so try and stay away from those towering pillars you might imagine coming out of the smoker. Ah, yes the smoker, well, that's a whole different issue...
Step 2: The Smoker
At this point you might be saying to yourself "Gee whiz, this whole smoking business sure does sound swell, but, shucks, I can't afford to go out and buy one of those newfangled contraptions to cook it!" This is a common sentiment among would-be pitmasters, and it's one that has undoubtedly finished many great careers before they've even had a chance to begin. The real shame is that you don't need a smoker to smoke. All you need is a good sized grill with enough space between the grates and the bottom of the grill. If you don't have a good grill and you're on a tight budget, you can get away with just a kettle grill like a Weber. But smokers are designed with smoking in mind, so if you can afford one, I suggest you buy one.
If you're in the market for a smoker, you'll find there are three main kinds: electric, gas, and wood. At the end of the day, real barbecue comes from a wood smoker, but they can be kind of fickle. I don't know much about electric smokers, but I've used gas smokers a few times when I'm visiting my father. All I can say about them is to save your money. Every time I've used a gas smoker, it can't reliably get cold enough to properly smoke meat. I'm not going to come out and say that gas smokers are all evil, I'm just going to advise you to not buy one. I'll talk a bit more about wood smokers since all that talk of gas smokers has left a bad taste in my mouth.
As far as wood smokers go, you'll find there are three kinds: cabinets, horizontal drums, and vertical drums. I personally use a humble horizontal drum with an offset smoke box -- I like having the wood and the meat in different areas; it just makes my brain happy to have things organized like that -- but the vertical drum smokers are very popular. I won't go into too much detail here, because I'm sure it's not why most of you are reading this. This is a great page detailing the choices that are out there. Now that we have that out of the way, we can get down to the meat of this problem.
Step 3: The Slab
As I said in the first section, the two key elements in smoked meat are collagen and fat. These are the things you need to keep in mind when you're buying a slab of meat. You'll typically get a large slab of meat like a pork butt which is used for pulled pork. I also said in the first section that smoking and roasting are very similar, so anything labeled "roast" will work as well. You want to see good marbling in the meat because you need fat to keep it tender. Ribs are always a good choice, of course, but be aware of what kind of ribs you're getting. If you like to know more about ribs, you can go here and read about them, but I'm going to just breeze over them for now. All in all, just look for something that looks tasty and is pretty cheap. Barbecue isn't about expensive meats and fancy cooking, after all.
I've included some pictures of good and bad choices for meats I saw while shopping at Walmart you can look at for reference. I must apologize, though; since I wasn't planning on taking the pictures and just used my phone and they are kind of hard to see. I'm going to be showing you pictures of some pork ribs as I talk more about the process of smoking, since that's what I've cooked most recently.
Step 4: The Wood
In the world of smoking, there's actually a lot of debate about wood. How much difference does the type of wood actually make? How big an impact does the origin play in the flavor of woods? Is it really necessary to soak wood before using it? These are just a few of the topics pitmasters argue about. I'll try and stay away from these issues, since there's a lot of very strong opinions out there and not too much evidence either way. Besides, most of these pertain only to high level competitive smokers. That being said, I still kind of need to talk about wood considering this Instructable is about smoking, so I'll try and not step on too many toes.
Woods have different flavors depending on what species they are. Some woods, like hickory and mesquite, have very strong flavors, while others, like cherry or pecan, have pretty mild flavors. Once you start talking about pairings, people start to get opinionated. I understand that different people do things differently, so if you don't want to listen to me be my guest and skip to the next paragraph. I like the flavor of meat; there aren't too many things I like more than a nice medium-rare steak. Woods with strong flavors can drown out the nice meaty tones of beef, so I usually use milder woods on red meats and game. I'll save apple and the like for my pork since, frankly, pork doesn't have too much of it's own flavor. As far as poultry and fish are concerned, I like to play around with woods that don't get used as often like alder or acacia; there's no particular reason for this, I just don't care that much what happens as much as I do with meat. A lot of people disagree with me very strongly on this, saying that red meat is best suited for the intense flavors of hickory and the like. This is fine, but I want you to know that these people can't be trusted.
Once you've picked out a wood, you're pretty much set. I do want to bring up a point, though, about soaking your wood. This is another topic people like to argue about. It's conventional wisdom to soak your wood before you use it, but there's some evidence saying that it's not a necessary step. The idea behind soaking your wood is to make it harder to ignite, releasing nasty carcinogens into your food. The thing is that soaking doesn't add all that much water to the wood, so it might not be an important step. I personally do soak my wood, since I live in the Mojave Desert where it's usually under 10% humidity and over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
If it were just about necessity I'd probably urge you to soak your wood anyways, but it might actually be beneficial to not soak your wood. If you soak your wood for, say, 12 hours, you'll see that the water has turned a brown color. It's not widely known what's soaked out of the wood, but some people think that certain aromatic chemicals may seep out of wood while you soak it. So give some thought to what wood you might want to use, and play around with soaking it; it's important you form your own opinions about this stuff instead of just listening to people like me on the internet.
Step 5: Prepping Your Meat
You don't need to do much to most cuts of meat to get them ready to smoke. Certain cuts, however, like a beef tenderloin, have a tough membrane on them called silverskin. Silverskin is made of elastin, a type of tissue which is very tough and won't break down when cooked. It looks like you might imagine it would; it's a white patch of oddly metallic tissue. It's easy enough to remove, though and just takes a bit of care to not mutilate the meat. You need to get under the elastin and just run your knife through at an angle pointing into the meat (so you don't cut out of the silverskin and have to start over). Once your meat is elastin free, you need to look at the shape of the cut. The parts of the meat which are kind of skinny will cook and dry out faster than the rest of the meat, leaving you with dried up bits of jerky sticking out of your dinner.
If you're dealing with pork or poultry, now's the time to prepare your brine. Brining cuts of meat helps to retain moisture and adds flavor. A brine is a salt-water solution, usually with some sugar and spices, that you soak the meat in. Salt is know far and wide for it's ability to dry out meats, so how is this supposed to make the meat more moist? The answer is a process you've probably forgotten since high school biology called Osmosis. The brine has a much higher concentration of salt than the meat, so the brine moves into the meat to balance out the concentrations. This is good because you'll wind up with more liquid in the meat than you started with. The Salt in the brine will also help break down proteins and make the meat more tender. This is a great brine for smoked pork. You can see from that page that brines do take a good amount of time (12 hours for that one), so plan ahead.
Before you put your meat in the smoker, you'll probably want to rub down the meat. Rubs are mixtures of seasonings that get applied to the outside of meat. You typically want to use fairly strong spices for rubs since they're just on the outside of the meat. I usually just grab whatever sounds good for the cut, but if you aren't that comfortable with spices, you can find lots of great recipes online. To actually apply the rub, you'll usually want to put down a layer of sauce or mustard or maple syrup or really any kind of saucy condiment (less tender cuts like beef ribs don't necessarily need this extra layer, but it's still a good opportunity to get more flavor into the meat). This will add more flavor and keep the bark from becoming too hard (you can see on the pictures I skipped this on my last batch of ribs. That was a mistake; I could have gotten away with it on beef, but the pork ribs were just way too tender). Once you've worked the sauce into the meat, you need to sprinkle on a generous amount of rub. Now, the name rub can be deceiving, because you don't want to actually rub the rub. You want to massage the rub into the meat. If you rub the rub, it will ball up in the sauce and you won't get good coverage with the rub. This will need to rest for a little bit so let's go get the smoker going.
Step 6: Smoking (finally!)
Even though we aren't going to cook over one, you're going to need to start a fire in your smoker. You can start it however you like, but I'd suggest not using lighter fluid because it tastes disgusting (don't ask how I know that). Personally, I put down a layer of newspaper, a layer of kindling, and a layer of charcoal. Once you get the newspaper going, each layer lights the one above it. Charcoal chimneys are very nice pieces of equipment and they usually don't cost too much; in fact, you can probably find some here on Instructables for free. I don't use one just because of my smoker set up; I'm not comfortable needing to reach into my side-box, since I've lost a lot of arm hair doing that. Once your fire is started, wait it out until you're just above your target temperature.
Once you're nearly at the temp you want (usually 210-230 for pork, 210-240 for beef, 225-250 for poultry, and 150ish for fish) , you can add some wood chunks. Just put them in there on the embers so they can start smoldering. We aren't waiting for it to cool down all the way to the cooking temp because we want the wood to get going before we start cooking, and your temperature can do different things when you add wood (it depends on the wood's structure and whether you've soaked it and for how long). You can go fetch your meat as soon as the temperature is right and arrange it on the grate so that each piece will get a good coverage of smoke. You may see some recipes out there that say to wrap the meat in foil part of the way through the cooking. This is called the 'Texas Crutch' and it sacrifices a lot of flavor for a relatively small amount of moisture. I don't suggest doing this; you can get the same moisture out of a cut of meat through proper preparation (brines are great) and still get the flavor you lose with the crutch.
Now, we wait. You'll want to keep an eye on the smoke. If it looks white and fluffy, you have a problem, probably a fire. If it looks grey, you probably have a fire. If it looks black, you probably have a fire. Really, if you can see it without straining, you want to check it. Remember that the best smoke is barely visible and a light blue-grey. Of course, you also need to monitor temperature; most smokers have the little spinning vents you can close to limit oxygen if it gets too hot. This is really the test of a good pitmaster; you need to have the patience to just wait for hours on end and not take your eye off the smoker. Good luck.
Step 7: It Is Done.
Well, I think that's just about all I have to say, so enjoy your meal and take pride in the fact that you've created it out of a piece of muscle and a chunk of a tree. If you want to know anything, post a comment and I'll try and respond to you quickly; I can't make any promises, though, I'm going to be awfully busy coming up here. Good luck, and Good cooking.