Smoking food is time-intensive and certainly has some complexity but the foundations are not very difficult. I want to share the process I have developed in the past ten years. Smoking (low temperature, slow cooking) of a big cut like a whole turkey is going to take about 12-20 hours depending on the size of the bird and a few other factors.
I got started working on BBQ cooking methods in the 1980s when I worked for a restaurant in Land O' Lakes Florida. At the time, I had access to large commercial cooking equipment and very large BBQ pits. It was fantastic, but that scale of tools is unrealistic to own in order to feed my family and for simple enjoyment. I have developed methods for smoking food using a kettle type BBQ grill. It is critical to control temperatures, the conditions in the smoker, and timing, but you don't need to spend big bucks on fancy commercial equipment that only does one thing! I am just as opposed to the idea of unitaskers as Mr. Brown.
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Step 1: The Controversies, the Techniques
The topic of food preparation is controversial, to say the least, and perhaps BBQ is the ultimate battleground of styles methods etc. So in the interest of education (and peace), I offer these definitions to help you understand my process. BBQ (aka barbeque) is a wide-ranging set of cooking techniques that are most often found on outdoor cooking vessels. This can include using live fire from woods, charcoal, etc. to gas and electric burners.
Live fire/wood cooking - I prefer the live fire methods in most of my BBQ cookery. This is probably evident in that I am talking about smoking food, but you can develop smoking techniques that will work on your gas appliance (another instructable for another day).
Low-n-slow - A method where the food is exposed to low temperatures and smoke for extended periods (12 hours is common). The number of hours is dependent on the size, weight, and type of food you wish to cook with the smoking technique. The smoke acts as a food preserving technique and slowly works its way into the food. Temperatures for this type of cooking range around 225 - 350 Fº. The very gentle heat is similar to braising techniques for very tough meats with a lot of connective tissue (which are great candidates for smoking too).
Brine/brining - Soaking a piece of meat in a solution of salt, sugars, spices to increase the water quantity in the meat. This helps keep the food from drying out during the long periods in the smoker. The chemistry of the salt and sugar also do a preservation and partial cook of the meat as denaturing the meat. I will allow a big cut of meat such as a turkey will sit in the brine for 6 hours on average. I recommend reading on brines from your favorite cooking resources. My go-to sources include America's Test Kitchen How to brine meat.
Step 2: Your Ingredients
I am going to give directions on smoking a turkey. This is a family favorite for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.
- Brined Turkey
- Brine ingredients (water, salt, spices, herbs, etc.) See links on next step.
Tools/consumables all links are suggestions I don't get any kickbacks ;) The basics of my process is under $100 in equipment. And these are good tools to do other types of cooking as well.
- Kettle BBQ
- Charcoal Chimney
- Wood Chips/chunks
- Some newspaper for starting charcoal
- Heavy duty foil
- disposable aluminum cake pan (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073X3JL51)
- masonry stepping stones (https://www.homedepot.com/p/Pavestone-Holland-7-75-in-x-4-in-x-1-75-in-Old-Town-Blend-Concrete-Paver-22099/100619496)
- BBQ thermometer (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01H1FL2L2/)
- leave in type thermometer (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07477NMF4/)
- Heavy Duty Gloves (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LYALUB3)
- cooking tools for BBQ, tongs especially (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073WVCPV4/)
Step 3: Brining a Cut of Meat
Most commercial turkeys are already 'brined'. You will see information on the ingredients on the label that indicate salt and water or other flavor enhancers. Technically, you aren't going to get a lot of bang from re-brining one of these. But I do it to marinate the turkey with my own 'enhancers' like spices and herbs. I just cut down the salt. But if you buy a fresh bird, chickens, and other unbrined meats it is well worth it. I follow the basic recipe from America's Test Kitchen.
For every 2 quarts of water use 1/2 cup salt. And then you can add other things that go well with the cut of meat. Suggestions: sugar, herbs, garlic and onion, spices.
To make the brine, I put a small amount of the water into a saucepan and bring it to boil in order to dissolve the salt and other items easily. And then let this cool or you can add ice to make up the rest of the water. I then usually use a clean trash bag in a tall container. Put the meat in the bag and pour this cooled brine over and into the meat until it is totally surrounded. I gather up the bag, get the air out and tie it.
You should put this into the fridge or a cooler with ice for food safety reasons.
Step 4: More Preparations for Slow Burn and Temperature Control
The challenge of smoking in a kettle bbq is the temperature control. Over the years I have developed a couple of techniques that will help control the temperature rises and falls.
Two hours before the smoking starts I wrap a couple of pavers in foil and put them in the oven to slowly heat on the low setting. These pavers will act as a heat 'battery' both absorbing and radiating heat as needed to smooth out temperature variations. Warm these up to about 200˚ - 250˚ F. Just do this slowly on low in the oven.
While that is warming, I soak chunks of wood during this preparation time. The idea is to slow the ignition and get the wood to smolder.
About 30 minutes before, start a chimney of coals. to use as the starting fire. I also build a 'fuse' of the charcoal and wood chunks. The idea again is about temperature control. As the charcoal burns it will ignite the next piece causing a slow controlled burn. Line the edges of the kettle with the charcoal and wood chunks. I build about three layers deep with the charcoal and intersperse the soaked wood.
Step 5: Let's Light This Candle.
Drain the brine from the turkey. Set aside until needed.
Carefully transport the preheated pavers to the bbq. I put these down in the middle of burn grate. Next, I add a foil pan to catch most of the drippings and fill this about halfway with boiling water to keep a humid environment in the bbq and also another heat battery for the smoker. You will want to do these things fairly quickly do not lose the heat you have built up.
Put on the Grid and put on the turkey. I then open the side grate and add some of the live coals to the fuse end. With a little experience, you will begin to understand the number needed to get up to temperature. Our target is between 225˚ and 350˚ F. I usually use about 12 - 18 depending on how burned down the coals are. Put on the lid on and monitor the temperature for the next 10 to 45 minutes. Add or subtract the coals to reach a temp. in range. I have a grill thermometer installed in the lid of my rig, you could use a leave in grill thermometer. Try to add or subtract live coals as little as possible to keep that heat battery up.
Step 6: Low and Slooooooooooooow
Once you get the temp. stable, check on the BBQ every 45 min. to an hour. Keep the temperature in the zone between 225˚ and 350˚ F. Be ready to start up some more coals if the fuse burns all the way down or the temp. begins to drop. Add in wood chunks if needed.
My experience is that you should expect about 30 minutes per pound and so this year I am looking at 12 hours. You can temp. the meat with an instant-read thermometer for doneness. Different meats will need different temperatures (look up the figures for your cooking).
Remember that it is a best practice to let the meat rest and that the carry-over cooking will continue to heat the cut. I always pull it 5 - 10˚ early and leave it to rest under foil. With a turkey that could be as long as an hour before carving.