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ENTERTAINING
 

Part I: Smoking Meat:
What is This “Barbecue” Thing, What Is A Smoker and What Do I Need to Know Before I Dive In?

By Eric Stein

 

If you are anything like me, you like barbecue. Barbecue conjures up many good memories, impressions and emotions for most people and, when you’re at the lake, it almost seems that a barbecue is a statutory requirement. So, now that it is finally lake (barbecue) season again, have you given much thought to what you will be cooking? Or, more importantly, what you will be cooking with

 

For most people, barbecuing means firing up the good old kettle-style grill (like those made by Weber™) or – Heaven forbid – the gas grill to cook some steaks, hamburgers, chicken, fish or vegetables. However – and you probably have heard this at least once in your life – firing up the kettle grill is not barbecue, it’s grilling. Barbecue – derived from the Arawak Indian word barbacoa literally denotes a type of cooking wherein food is cooked over wood (or wood coals), typically outdoors, for a very extended period of time at low heat – these days, the heat is almost always indirect as well. So, instead of a kettle grill (which, in fact, will sort of work, but is certainly far from ideal for smoking), what you really need is a smoker.

 

The last time you were in your local big-box hardware store or maybe, just maybe, in a barbecue store, you probably saw one of these strange looking contraptions made of heavy steel with an odd protuberance hanging off of it to one side.

 

(photo courtesy of BBQGalore.com)

 

The Bar-B-Chef Offset Smoker.

 

That strange looking device is called an offset firebox smoker. There are many manufacturers building these and, in fact, the offset smoker design represents only one of a number of major groups of smokers which are available on the market. But, for our purposes – and to stay true to what many purists consider to be the all around best form of smoking – it is best to focus on the offset smoker. For your information however, some of the other kinds of smokers are:

 

  1. “Bullet-style water smoker” (sold by Weber™ and Brinkman™) These smokers rely on water to maintain the heat level below a certain point and they can be a real pain to master. The author’s first smoker was of the genus Brinkman and, although it made excellent food and he still has it, it was really a lot more work than is necessary in some circumstances. The Weber model – the Smoky Mountain – is a good model, but, like all bullet style smokers, it has capacity limitations which I think make it less than ideal for entertaining purposes.

The Weber™ Smokey Mountain “bullet” style smoker
(photo courtesy of Weber.com)
 

  1. The “Egg” style smoker (also referred to as a clay pot smoker) The technology is fantastic, but they are expensive and somewhat limited for many applications)

The Big Green Egg Smoker
(photo courtesy of homestoreguide.com)

 

 

  1. Backyard, fixed smokers of the brick and mortar variety – some people make some really impressive smokers that are permanent additions to the landscape. These things are great, but they take a lot of time, work and probably building permits and EPA variances, for all I know.

Backyard, custom built smoker

(photo courtesy of pages.cthome.net)

 

  1. Crazy, aluminum and steel contraptions made by isolated woodsman who are, in the final tally, the envy of all barbecue loving people. Pictures don’t really suffice here, there are so many variations on this theme that one or two photos won’t do. Suffice to say, they are generally, well, ramshackle is the word which comes to mind.

 

So, if you have seen one of these smoker things, you have probably wondered what you can possibly do with it. Well, you can take it and make pretty ordinary pieces of meat into fantastic creations that will make you consider rolling your standard charcoal or gas grill off the dock in order to create a new fishing structure. If you are intrigued and you feel you could get into this whole smoking thing, spring is certainly the time to buy one.  Buying in spring insures that you still have time to build and prep the smoker and learn to cook with it (which really isn’t hard as it may seem).  That way, once summer really kicks in, you will be ready to make food for the masses.  What do you need to know to about smoking to make your purchase decision? Let’s look at a quick set of requirements:

 

  • All smokers are not created equal – the thickness of the metal will determine its ability to retain heat – this is extremely important, so you definitely want a model with thick walls.

  • Flimsy is bad. Very bad. You want to make sure that you have bought something that is going to stand up to some use – especially since it will be filled with a lot of charcoal which is burning. Spilled burning wood is bad. Look for a model with solid construction.

  • Speaking of charcoal – smokers run on it. But not just any charcoal will do; in fact, briquette charcoal will make your food taste weird (kind of “chemical-ly” is the best way to describe it). So, you will need to start learning about lump hardwood charcoal. It will be your friend and is actually easy to find these days.

 

  • Smokers are heavy and awkward and require friends to help you with them – which is perfect given that with offset smokers you can generally cook enough food to feed an army. And, once you start barbecuing, you will develop an army of friends. Trust me.

  • Smokers are a lot of fun, but they require the kind of dedication that is usually associated with cats tracking mice or kids with video games or that sort of thing – “single-minded” is the term we are going for. However, once you start, it will become an addiction and you won’t mind that you are burning (pun intended) large amounts of time doing it.

 

Essentially, the real sticking point is exactly which smoker to buy and what the differences are. Next time, we will discuss what smoker I bought - and why - and what meat to place on the smoker for ideal results of lip-smacking goodness.

 

 


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