Step 20: Let's get smoking!
This video will take you through the basic steps of using your double-barrel smoker. Keep in mind that you'll have to "learn" your specific smoker, but the basic steps are the same.
*** VIDEO COMING
*** UPDATE! Video is still pending. I had some difficulty with my old copy of Adobe Premiere (apparently it doesn't like Windows 7) so will have to purchase a new video editing package. Hopefully will have the video done by the following weekend.***
Since it seems to be taking an act of God to get my video software to install on my computer, I'll give you some text instructions on how to use the smoker until such time as I can get the video functional.
1.) Dry your meat.
I see a lot of people just yanking their meat out of the package... k, that's probably a poor choice of phrase, but don't just open the meat and begin to rub it with the dry rub. No matter what the meat is, dry it before you start to flavor it. The reason will become more obvious in the next step.
2.) Use a fat in your dry rub.
When smoking, you can always use a little more oil to keep it from drying out. You can use any fat substitute: Olive Oil, butter (though I wouldn't recommend using butter due to its smoke point being near 250oF, and the fact that temperature spikes over 250oF are possible. If you prefer the flavor of butter, might I recommend you give some ghee a shot?) I personally prefer to use lard, or bacon grease. Simply add your salt (lots of salt) and dry rub to your fat additive, and rub that all over the meat. This will help on a number of levels. For starters, it will bind the oils from your rub (which is where your flavor comes from) into the fats of the skin and marbling of the meat much better than the dry rub alone, and the additional fat will prevent the meat from drying out.
3.) Everything cooks at the same temperature.
Ideally you want everything to cook between 220-225oF. The less yo-yo'ing you get of the temperature, the better quality the result will be. But don't listen to the people who try to make smoking sound difficult. We've been doing it since the dawn of time, for Flying Spaghetti Monster's sakes. If a neanderthal can manage it with a couple of rocks and a three day old carcass, I'm pretty sure we can pull it off with power tools. If the temperature drops to 215 for half an hour, or spikes up to 245 for 15 minutes, it is not going to rip a hole in the space-time continuum that a demon will step through for the sole purpose of dropping a duce directly on your meat. Nearly every smoking website and forum I've read pretends like this is rocket science and it's the end of the world if the temperature fluctuates. It's not, don't worry about it. Just try to keep it in the 220'ish range and you're fine.
4.) Everything cooks at different times.
As a general rule, fish takes about an hour, chicken around 6 hours, ribs around 7-8 hours (depends on how much you want them to fall off the bone), and beef takes roughly the same amount of time it takes to have a family. I did a brisket for 10 hours once, and it wasn't nearly enough. It was delicious, don't get me wrong, but definitely not the fall-apartness it should have had. I've read they should go 18 hours, and I believe it. Beef ribs are equally as painful. Keep them in about 12 hours to get them to really break down. Pretty much everything else (pork picnics, boston butts, etc.) will fall into the 10-11 hour range.
5.) The USDA is not your friend! The internal temperature is important!
The whole idea of the slow cooking is to break down the proteins that hold the meat together without hozing up the integrity of the meat flavor. In fact, it's the exact same idea as cooking "en sous vide" and this is precisely where people make the biggest mistake. The federally recommended temperature for chicken to be cooked is 165oF, so there's a significant temptation to slap a thermometer in the chicken and wait for it to get to 165oF and call it a day. These numbers were mandated for the layman. Basically, to make sure some dolt that would normally ask if you'd "like fries with that" could keep it straight. Bacteria doesn't live and thrive at 164 degrees, then suddenly implode at 165. The fact is once you get over 105 degrees, the bacteria starts weaken. (This is why our bodies actually give us a fever when we get an infection). By 135 degrees, they start to die, and by 145 degrees, they'll die rapidly, nearly sterilizing the chicken within 10 minutes. If you actually wait for the interior of your chicken to hit 165, you'll dry it out because it will have to stay on for two more hours than it should. Once it hits 145, just let it sit for about 20 minutes at that temperature, and then remove it. Let it set for a bit (it will retain that internal temperature a bit longer) and you're ready to eat, and it's perfectly safe. This is basically only the rule for poultry, since your other meats you want to get up to the 180-185 degree mark. At that level, they'll start falling apart.
6.) Use a charcoal chimney.
When you first start your smoker, invest in a simple charcoal chimney to get it started. Anything you burn in your smoker will influence the flavor of the food, even when the sellers of the petroleum based charcoal lighting fluid insist it won't. You don't need it, and for what you'll spend on a few bottles of lighter fluid, you can get a simple charcoal chimney. They work perfectly, every time, even in high wind. Something I can't say about lighter fluid. Additionally, there's the following point:
Briquettes are manufactured in a bunch of different proprietary ways. They have binding agents, lighter fluid-like additives, and in the "green" scenarios, are made out of scrap lumber that could have any number of additives. Additionally, you don't know what type of wood they're made from, or what flavor they'll impart. (I would hope that the chemicals they put off are at least regulated, but I'm not holding my breath.) Additionally, with this smoker you'll be using regular, real hardwood, so that means you need very little charcoal, so go ahead and splurge for the real, hardwood charcoal that actually comes in chunks that look like wood.
8.) Use real logs to smoke.
The ideal log is a year old log that you can split and still see the tell-tale markings that you can use to identify the wood. For instance oak has those little "dotted lines" (for lack of a better description) that you should be able to see to identify it. Always use hardwoods, as soft woods tend to have a lot of sap, and produce a lot of creosote. For the same reason, don't use freshly cut green logs. I've also gone the other direction, and used logs that were too dry to the point that when you split them, they didn't really look like oak anymore. The food was certainly still edible, but there was a bit of soot on them. The wood chips, even soaked in water, will simply burst into flames in a smoker that's this big and gets this hot. The little chunks of wood you can get in the bags are almost as bad, burning so fast it's hard to regulate the temperature. But a year old log (or well aged log) will burn low, and slow, with a beautiful, steady blue-white smoke. I prefer oak, hickory, and mesquite, but at the moment I'm left with very old oak. While not ideal, it certainly hasn't stopped me from using it. I've seen those cast-iron chip holders designed for turning a charcoal grill into a smoker, and haven't had the chance to use one yet. My suspicion is that for a smoker of this size, the sheer volume of chips you'd have to stuff into that little box wouldn't be realistic.
EDIT: So here we are about a year later, and I have to say I've done a complete 180 on this particular point. (I'll do a proper edit eventually.) Kingsford makes some excellent charcoal that I've found is just all around easier to regulate both the temperature and the smoke with. By wrapping some wood chips in heavy duty aluminum foil, and placing them near enough the charcoal that they'll turn to charcoal themselves without melting the foil, you'll get your hardwood smoked flavor and it will be far, far easier to get that perfect smoke every time.
My inexperience shined through at this point in the 'ible, and while I tried to remain what I thought was a smoking "purist" I found that the end result was unpredictable at best. After actually having to throw away an entire batch of ribs/chicken/picnics that were ruined by an unruly wood fire batch, I finally succumbed to the manufactured stability of charcoal. My new favorite method is something called the "minion" method where I fill the basket with Kingsford Mesquite charcoal briquettes, and some set my foil wrapped chips near it, then dump a chimney full of lit coals on top. I wait until the early "harsh" smoke subsides, and the internal temperature gets into the 200 range before putting the meat on.
9.) Don't OVER smoke.
Just because you don't see smoke coming out, don't be alarmed. You don't want smoke absolutely pouring out of a smoker like this. Your smoke should be a light, steady white to blueish stream. It shouldn't look like a steam engine heading up a mountain, but more like a chimney in a cabin in the woods. (The video will help a lot here.) If the smoke is greenish, thick, and dark, you need to open everything up and let it burn itself off quickly. That smoke will produce creosote that'll coat your food. Take the hit on the temperature spike, and try to burn off the wood quickly, then get the temperature back under control using the oxygen vent.
10.) Only use the damper when absolutely necessary.
The oxygen vent should be your primary method of temperature control. If you find yourself like me, and you slacked off in the making of the flue, and your seals on your fire box are breaking down from too much heat (still working on that one) so your firebox continues to get far too much air even when the air vent is completely closed, only then should you use your damper to bring down the temperature. Using the damper will "stall" the smoke in the smoke chamber, and stalled smoke will begin to settle on your meat creating soot. Flowing smoke is ideal. While it may seem like closing the damper would "trap" the heat and should bring the temperature up, it's actually quite the opposite. The chimney itself heats up causing an updraft (the taller the chimney, the stronger the updraft) that sucks air completely through the whole smoker. So the air will be sucked in through the air vents, heat the fire, collect the smoke, and drag it through the smoker, over the meat, and up the chimney. Using the damper kills this updraft and everything begins to cool down. Again, only use the damper if you've already sealed up the firebox, and the temperature is still rising.
11.) Don't be afraid to finish in the oven.
If you're like me, you want to be a purist and take the meat directly out of the smoker and stuff it into your maw, but if you get to be in a hurry, and the stuff just isn't quite where it needs to be, you can take it out of the smoker and finish it in the oven at the appropriate temperature (around 300 for most stuff). While this will seize up the meat on the outside (not entirely a bad thing) you can more quickly get the internal temperature up to that ideal 180 degrees this way. It's been argued that after the first 6 hours, the meat stops absorbing smoke flavor anyway. I don't know if it's true, but I finished a pork this way before, and it turned out great.
12.) Water isn't necessary, but doesn't hurt.
If you have a good place to stick a pan of water in the smoke chamber, go ahead and do it if it floats your boat. Just make sure it doesn't sit beneath the meat and catch the drippings (unless you're specifically trying to make a smoked gravy). The drippings should be allowed to drip and cake onto the bricks below, seasoning the smoker more and more the more you use it. (Don't clean it!) Water will help reduce the chances of your meat drying out (which I've yet to have happen) and in theory, it should make it easier to maintain temperature (which I've not really noticed the difference, I think the firebricks do that just fine). I tried the first few roasts with a pan of water, and very literally noticed no difference in the end result between that and the subsequent smokes without water. However, this said, I will use half a can of water with fresh herbs shoved up the chicken's personal space when making chicken. I have always done my chicken this way, so don't know how much of an impact it has on moisture. (Definitely has an impact on flavor, though!)
13.) Allow the smoker to heat up rapidly when you're done.
If you're done smoking, open up the vents completely. If there's no fuel in it, it doesn't hurt to throw a log on. The idea is to heat up the upper chamber to the 275ish range or higher. This makes sure that any of the drippings that fell onto the bricks will cook in to improve the seasoning, and will dry out, getting a good coating from the smoke in the process. If you've dripped a ridiculous amount of BBQ sauce into the thing, go ahead and scrape that bit out. Moisture in the upper chamber will encourage mold growth, and unless you're specifically looking for innoculation when you use the smoker, it's safest to bring it up to temperature when you're done. Now, realistically, the inside of a smoker is an incredibly hostile environment for molds and bacteria, I mean, that's why they smoked food in the first place. But still, better to be safe than sorry, and it'll help your smoker to season to boot.
People have mentioned that the fat may fill the bottom of the chamber until it leaks into the fire pit, or that it may go rancid. By purposely super heating the grill when done, I've not found this to be a problem at all. Thus far, the fat has all cooked away to a crisp "shell" on the bricks with none running into the firebox or building up to go rancid. I'll update you if this changes after the smoker has been put away for the winter.
So following on 6 and 7, get your charcoal started in the charcoal chimney by creating a "doughnut" shape out of newspaper, sticking that in the bottom, dumping coals in the top, and lighting the paper. It's pretty straightforward, but there's plenty of videos on YouTube if you need clarification.
Once the charcoals have started to turn white in the top of the chimney (about 10-20 minutes) you're ready to get started. Dump the hot coals in the charcoal basket made for the firebox. Give them a shake to evenly spread them out, and pour some more charcoal on top, to just about fill the basket. The air vents should be full-open at this point. *NOTE: Read previous edit on how this has changed.
Close everything up until your upper chamber comes up to temperature. Use a spare piece of aluminum bar and the C-Clamps to clamp the upper lid closed (might not hurt to do the same for the firebox. Gonna try that this weekend). Let it get to about 235-240 since we'll be releasing most of the heat when we add the meat, and you want the bricks to be able to get it back to temperature quickly.
You should be at temperature right about the time the charcoals slow down their smoking. Since the charcoal smoke will also impact the flavor of the meat, this is why we only use hardwood charcoal. Now, add your meat to the smoker, close everything up, and use C-Clamps to seal it all back up. Open the firebox, and give the coals a shake to make sure they're evenly spread. When smoking, you want a large, cold ember bed, not a small, hot ember bed. This will give you the best temperature and smoke control. Add two small split logs (if you had about a 6" round log, and split it into quarters, two of those should be sufficient).
Now keep an eye on the temperature, and using the air vent (close to cool, open to heat) control the temperature down to the 220-225 range, and keep it there for the next three hours. Use the damper only if it's uncooperative.
Now it's time to have a beer or 12.
After 3 hours (or sooner if you find you can't keep the temperature up to 220), it's time to throw a couple more logs on the fire. You'll notice it takes a bit effort to dial in the temperature each time you add more wood, but you'll get the hang of it eventually.
Keep this pattern up until the food has come to temperature (use a digital thermometer), has taken the right amount of time (the time is very forgiving), or you're too drunk (then call it a failed experiment and go to bed).
Special thanks to the three girls in my life. To Penny and Sandy for their help with the instructable, and to my wife who not only supports my crazy projects that take months to complete when I've promised they'd be done over the weekend, helped me with the build, and even continuously made laps in and out, up and down a flight of stairs, to take pictures for me as I was trying to put it all together. I love you babe!