A Song of Fire and Meat: Getting Started in “Smoking”

Written by Jack Ries
No, this isn’t actually a song. It’s not even some confusing poem written in mysterious allegory. This is an ode to one of my great passions. In the past, I’ve rambled (incoherently, at times) about some of my more “manly” pursuits. My love of nature, brewing and drinking beer, sandwiches, and then a little more beer. One time, I even learned how to knit. Admittedly, this was neither “manly”, nor the subject of one of my articles, but hey, as long as we’re getting things out in the open… But I digress. The real reason for the title of this article is because I’m about to talk about one of the oldest traditions in the history of mankind; one that harkens back to the days of old, when cavemen took the kill of the day and put it on a spit over an open fire. So, George R. R. Martin, if you’re reading this, please don’t sue me for ripping on one of your book titles for this article. What I’m actually talking about is the time-honored tradition of smoking meat.
For those of you who are familiar with the art of the smoke, read no further. I have nothing to offer you that you don’t already know. So feel free to turn the page to the next article. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. OK, are they gone yet? Good. Because here’s the thing. If you’re thinking about getting into smoking, or have walked through the BBQ section of the local big box home improvement store and thought, “I could get into that, but I have no idea what I’m doing” then this article is for you. I wanted to get the seasoned “experts” out of here for a reason: Every single one of them has their own way of doing things, and they’ll all give you conflicting advice on what smoker to use, what wood to burn, the merits of lump charcoal over briquettes, etc. And no, the irony of the fact that I’m about to do pretty much the same thing isn’t lost on me. But here’s the rub (or dry rub, if you will. Can I get a rimshot over here?): I’m not going to tell you what to do or how to do it. I’m just going to point out the basics, so that if you are thinking of getting into the hobby, you’ll have the knowledge that you need in order to get going and start forging a path of your own. So, let’s get started.
What smoker should I use?
There are essentially two types of commercially available smokers- vertical and offset. There are a lot more subgenres, but the main thing is that in a vertical smoker, the food is directly above the heat source, and on an offset smoker, there’s a firebox off to the side of the cooking area, where the fire is maintained in order to send smoke and heat into the cooking chamber. If you watch competition barbecues on TV or the internet, you’ll see a lot of people using offset smokers. The reason for this is because they offer larger cooking surfaces, you can set a pure wood fire in the firebox, and use indirect heat to cook your meat slow and low, making it nice and juicy. The problem with these smokers though, is that they require pretty much constant attention. If you’re a novice, I’d recommend a vertical smoker. There’s nothing wrong with them. They still make beautifully delicious and juicy meat; just a little less of it, depending on the model. They take up less space, and many of them can be bought with either an electric heat element or a propane burner, which makes maintaining the perfect temperature effortless, so you can pretty much “set it and forget it”. Absolutely perfect for beginners and pit bosses alike.
What’s in a wood?
In a word, lots. This is probably the biggest area of contention among smoking enthusiasts. Which woods to use on what meats, how much of it to use, when to add it; it can all become quite overwhelming if you’re new to the craft. Here’s a pretty simple breakdown for you, though.
Fruit Woods- Cherry and apple are going to be the most common. They offer a light smoke flavor with a slightly acrid aroma. They are great for poultry and pork. Personally, I’m a big fan of apple. I use it more than any other wood, just because it smells so good when its burning.
Nut Woods- Walnut and pecan are the two big players here. The smoke is lighter and smoother in flavor and aroma. Absolutely great for delicate proteins, such as fish. A word of warning, though, if you’re going to use walnut, make sure you use English walnut, not black walnut. Trust me on that one.
Hardwoods-These are the big hitters. Oak, mesquite, hickory, and alder. Although alder is much milder than the rest, these are the woods you’ll want to use for big smoke flavor. Beef, marinated pork, and whole animals (yes, I said “whole animals”) will want one of these woods.
When to add? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for. The wood used early in the smoke will create a smoke ring on the outer layer of meat, locking in the flavor. The wood used at the end will contribute to aroma and palate flavor. I recommend using a bolder smokewood at the beginning and a milder wood at the end, if you really want to pound in that good flavor and aroma. But don’t be afraid to experiment. Mix it up. You can use hickory at the start, oak in the middle, and cherry at the end. Who cares? It’s your food. Do what tastes good to you. Just stay away from sappy soft woods like pine. They’ll add a foul flavor to the food, and the sap will make it harder to maintain your fire.
What about charcoal?
Good question, Jack. Thank you, Jack. Charcoal! Yes! The backbone of American barbecue! Don’t think for one second that just because you just bought a brand-new offset smoker, that you have to use wood and only wood. Charcoal, both briquette and lump, offer great flavor and convenience. A big pile of briquettes will burn for about an hour and put off tons of heat, so if you’re looking for a quick cook, don’t be afraid to grab a bag the next time you go shopping. Lump coal offers slightly less heat, but burns longer, so you can use it to maintain a nice coal bed in your fire box. I actually like to use briquettes to get going and heated up, and then use that base to get my wood going for the smoke. On longer smokes, I’ll add lump as I go, to maintain the heat from the coals. But that’s just me. Feel free to find whatever works best for you.
Logs, chunks, chips, or pellets?
Your choice. If you’re going to go with an electric or propane vertical smoker, then you’ll want pellets or chips. But don’t let yourself be limited. I use an offset smoker, and I’ll occasionally add a handful of pellets to the fire, just to get a quick smoke boost. Again, do what tastes right to you.
Is safety a factor?
YES. Any time you are cooking over open flame or coals, safety is a big factor. Although most meats will smoke at temperatures between 200 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit, it can be pretty easy to let an unattended firebox get out of control. My best safety tips? First off, put the smoker away from the house, at least 20 feet from any permanent structure. This way, if your fire gets out of control, you won’t set your porch on fire or melt your siding. Also, you’ll want to think about kids and pets. Even though a smoker runs at a much lower temperature than a BBQ grill, it will be cooking for much longer periods of time. Remember, burgers take about ten minutes to cook on a propane grill, but a brisket takes about six hours minimum on a smoker. Make sure that the kids know to keep away from it, and also make it hard for the pets to get near it. Especially dogs. They love to try and lick the grease out of the grease trap, and if your smoker is hot, they’ll get a nasty burn on their tongue. Also, don’t forget that whether you’re using an offset wood-fired smoker or a vertical electric smoker with chips and pellets, you’re still cooking on an active fire. ALWAYS have either a fire extinguisher or garden hose available, should things get out of control.
Well, that’s about all of it as far as the basics are concerned. But seriously, it’s not as hardcore as it seems, even if some of the local pitmasters want to make it seem that way. Just get yourself through the door, and you’ll find that smoking offers a world of amazing flavors, knowledge, and experiences. All you have to do is take the first step, so what are you waiting for? Get to it! And maybe I’ll see you at a backyard picnic someday, having become the pitmaster of your own home. Until then, sit back, relax, and smoke some meat.