In Part I of our exploration of smoking, we covered the equipment scene pretty thoroughly. This time, we’re going to look at wood chips for flavouring, some must-have accessories and some must-know cooking tips.
Wood chips for flavouring
Like the old ”red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat” rule, there are conventional dos and don’ts about which hardwoods to use with which foods.
In general, smoked meat aficionados say to use woods that produce lightly-flavoured smoke, like fruit woods and maple, with delicate meats, such as fish and poultry. Likewise, they prescribe strongly-flavoured smoke from woods such as Hickory, Oak, Mesquite or Pecan for red meats.
You can get at least a dozen different varieties of hardwoods, fruit woods or nut-tree woods at any decent BBQ supply outlet. Try ‘em all and see what you like best! And, while you’re at it, feel free to wear white after Labour Day!
You can use the conventional newspaper-and-sticks method for starting a charcoal or wood-fired grill/smoker. Electric starters are available, of course, but performance varies greatly from model to model and they’re not very good at all for wood fires. Unless, of course, you use it to ignite yor newspaper and sticks. Kind of a high-end solution, unless you have one already!
We use – and highly recommend – a chimney-type charcoal starter, consisting of a metal cylinder with a perforated bottom and a heat-proof handle, like a water pitcher, on the side.
You put your fuel in the main compartment, twist up a couple of sheets of old newspaper and stuff that in the bottom, under the perforated bottom plate. Light the paper with a match or Benzene BBQ match, and the whole thing acts like a chimney, getting the main fuel going quickly and efficiently. Once the main fuel is burning merrily away, pour it out into the grill/smoker’s firebox and add more fuel as required.
You’ll want to set up some kind of grease trap, especially if your smoker is set up on your precious patio or your beautiful lawn. Any experienced griller will tell you that there’s always a great hole of some kind on the bottom of the cooking compartment or firebox of every BBQ or smoker. You’ll want to catch the drips in something metal, and large enough to hold at least a litre (quart). We got a brand new empty 3.8 L (U.S gallon) metal paint can from the home store, complete with snap-on lid and wire hanger-handle, for a couple of bucks.
Other good ideas…
There are a few other items you really should include in your smokehouse toolkit:
Spray Bottle(s) (for apple juice, cooking oil, wine, etc.) are just about mandatory. Use food-grade plastic litre-sized bottles with heavy-duty sprayers. They’ll get a lot of work on smokehouse duty! This is the best way to baste, especially when you want to keep the exterior of an item moist, or you want to selectively add sugar-based liquids to perfect glazing and barking. We use Apple Juice on just about everything, because it is both sugary and acidic and its flavour seems to complement everything.
Mops are the traditional standard for basting BBQ with thick sauces or marinades, and you want to get lots of stuff on the meat. Use mops wherever indicated.
Tongs are a must. Big ones. Well-made, strong ones. Have a couple on hand, to allow you to use both hands to manipulate or lift large pieces of meat.
You’ll also want at least one big, long-handled BBQ Fork.
Tinfoil is going to come in handy for tenting stuff as it comes off of the grill and shielding parts of the meat that you don’t want to over-cook. Use “Heavy Duty” foil for best results.
A variety of Roasting Pans and Flat (“sheet”) Pans will come in handy for transporting meats to and from the smoker.
You’ll quickly identify other items that you want at the grill, in support of your own signature smoking style.
Cooking times, temps and tips
The overall theme of this smoking exposé is “low and slow”. That’s how we get all that flavour into the food without driving out all that juicy moisture – all the while making the meat fall-off-the-bone tender.
By “low”, we mean temperatures from 225 F to 300 F. Trial and error will help you determine what works best for you.We do almost everything at 250 F.
Hint: Different foods will smoke best at different temperatures, depending on their natural fat and moisture content, and their physical size (i.e.- thickness).
By “slow”, we mean “all day”, or thereabouts. Smokehouse masters remain divided as to the perfect temperature and coking time for various cuts, from whole Pork Butts to racks of Ribs. In general, thin cuts such as ribs will require 4 to 6 hours at the lowest temperatures. A whole Beef Brisket or Pork Shoulder will benefit from 8 or more hours at the same temperature. Poultry – whole chickens or turkeys, or parts – should take about twice as long as cooking the same cut in a conventional oven.
Some smoking aficionados say you should give smoke to large cuts for 4 to 5 hours and then place them in a 300 F to 325 F oven under a foil cover, with some liquid in the bottom of the pan, to finish tenderizing. This way, you don’t risk over-smoking the meat in pursuit of the Holy Grail – fall-off-the-bone tenderness.
Aye! There’s the rub!
Most important to the flavour of your smoked masterpieces, of course, is the rub/marinade you employ prior to cooking.
Rubs can be either wet or dry. Wet rubs employs liquids such as vinegar, tomato product (often Ketchup), or oil to bind suspended Herbs and Spices to the meat. Dry rubs are usually just Herbs, Spices and Brown Sugar, blended thoroughly in a bowl and literally rubbed into the meat.
Rubs may be applied to meat just before cooking, or up to 48 hours before smoking. Just keep the meat tightly-wrapped in plastic and refrigerated until Smoke Day. Then take it out of the fridge an hour or so before unwrapping and placing on the grill.
Marinades differ from rubs in that they are mainly liquid and are often made up of liquid flavouring ingredients such Worcestershire, Soy Sauce, Spirits (e.g.- Whiskey), Beer, Vegetable Oil, or Vinegar, in which Herbs and Spices have been suspended. Marinades customarily include a significant amount of Salt and Tart (i.e.- Lemon Juice, Vinegar, Dry Wine).
Typically, meats are marinated partially or fully immersed in the marinade for at least 24 hours. Be sure to rinse off the marinade under cold running water before cooking, because you’ll over-Salt the final product for sure, if you don’t.
In general, rubs don’t penetrate as deeply as marinades but they do enhance surface texture and the so-called “smoke ring”. So it should be no surprise that smoke fans who prize crunchy, tangy bark on their meat prefer rubs!
And remember to spray frequently and generously with Fruit Juice during cooking to optimize moistness and flavour!
We’ll look more closely at Marinades, Rubs and other smoking niceties in future focus features here at Maggie J’s Fab Food Blog!
~ Maggie J.