Bone up on Outdoor Cooking with a Smoker
Turn up the Heat
By Cindy Brown
Whether you are a master griller looking to take your barbecue skills to the next level or you are new to this whole outdoor cooking thing, using a smoker will really “turn up the heat” on the flavor of your food. And, with summer here and family get-togethers on the horizon, there is no better time to explore your options than now.
If you’ve already begun researching smokers, you’ve probably seen lots of terminology out there like water smoking, dry smoking, indirect heat and offset smoking. But according to Malcolm Aikman, smoker specialist at Westlake Ace Hardware in Mansfield, the best way to classify smokers is by type of fuel used: propane, electric, charcoal and wood pellets.
To select the smoker that’s right for you, there are also other factors to consider:Budget — How much money do you want to spend? Prices can range from as little as $50 to over $2,000 for a custom-built smoker.
Cooking Capacity — How many people do you plan to feed? Smaller smokers can feed up to 20 people, but if you are planning on hosting larger gatherings, a larger smoker might be a better option.
Time and Effort — How much time do you want to spend with the smoking process? Some smokers can be “set and go,” while others require much more attention.
Storage Space — Small patio, big patio? Available space can dictate the size of smoker you can accommodate.
Ready to figure this out? Here is an overview of smokers for first-timers by fuel source.
Propane SmokersIf you have a gas grill, you are already familiar with the heat source for these smokers. Propane smokers utilize a water pan between the heat source and wood chips to maintain a moist cooking environment and prevent flare-ups. Propane smokers are the most cost-effective, but they are smaller units, which means less capacity. The smaller size and portability of the propane tank, however, make it a great on-the-go smoker. They heat quickly and can actually reach a high enough temperature (up to 550°) to take along for use as an oven at a campsite. In addition, propane smokers are user-friendly and don’t require constant monitoring — with one caveat. If you don’t have enough propane in the tank to last for 8-10 hours before you begin, you should have a backup tank and monitor the flame to avoid any surprises when you are ready to eat.
The key to a perfect smoke, no matter the fuel source, is to maintain a low, constant temperature. Purchasing a unit with an insulated box versus one constructed of thin-gauge metal will keep temperatures from fluctuating. You might also want to consider one that has separate doors for the cooking cabinet and the cooking chamber so that you don’t lose heat when you need to add water or wood chips.
Electric SmokersAlthough electric smokers are typically more expensive than a propane smoker, they are the ultimate in user-friendliness. Simply plug it in, load it up, set and forget. There is no need to worry about temperature fluctuations during cooking. Like propane, they do have a smaller footprint, so when choosing a model, check to see that the total cooking area will accommodate your needs.
If you go this route, extras you might want to consider are a built-in digital probe and a timer. Some even come with a remote control to easily monitor the temperature of the meat and cooking time. Other options worth considering are glass doors so that you can peek at the meat without opening the door and losing heat.
Ace Hardware’s Aikman likes both the propane and electric options, “For ease of use, the electric and propane are the simplest. I have both and use them quite often because I can set it up in the morning and go about my business during the day, return 8–10 hours later, and dinner is ready.”
Barbecue purists will
tell you that charcoal produces the best flavor, but that flavor comes with a
larger time commitment. Just starting the fire can add 30-45 minutes to the cooking process. And,
maintaining constant heat requires more monitoring and refueling during the
cooking process. Prices can vary also, from some of the cheapest to some of the
most expensive. In general, though, charcoal smokers offer more capacity than
electric or propane models.
One of Aikman’s favorites is the kamado-style grill (like the Big Green Egg). Airtight and made with insulating ceramic, these grills retain heat and keep foods moist during the smoking process. With their rapid heat control, they are versatile and can be used for both smoking and grilling. They are also more expensive and don’t offer as much cooking capacity as other charcoal smokers.
Wood Pellet SmokersWood pellet smokers utilize an auger system to continually feed compressed wood pellets from a hopper into the fire pot. A blower fan then diffuses the heat and smoke into the cooking area, basically creating a convection oven for smoking. The thermostat signals when it’s time for the auger to drop in more pellets. Although these smokers are dependent on electricity to start the ignition process and run the auger system and the blower, all the heat and smoke (and flavor!) comes from wood. The wood pellets add a subtle smoke flavor to the meat and prevent “over-smoking.”
These smokers preheat quickly, and like propane or electric smokers, they are easy to use. They are larger and more expensive but do offer more cooking capacity for those looking to serve a crowd.
So, when it comes to personal preference, which smoker does Malcolm Aikman choose? “Either the kamado-style or the wood pellet-style are the ones that I prefer,” says Aikman. “With various racks and smoking levels, the capacity works well and will allow even cooking and smoking of all items. I have never had anything out of either style that hasn’t turned out fantastic.”
There is definitely much to contemplate when selecting the smoker that is right for you. Hopefully, this primer will equip you with the knowledge and know-how you’ll need to not get “burned” in the process.
Smoker Tips, Tools and Taste
You’ve purchased a smoker, now what?According to Beau Smith, award-winning pit master and owner of Big Hat Smokers and Grills, the next step is choosing the right wood. “The wood you use is very important to the flavor and finish of whatever you’re smoking,” says Smith. “Pecan is my go-to wood for almost everything I smoke. It has a mellow, smoke flavor, burns clean and is readily available.”
Smith ought to know. His family-owned business fabricates some serious, heavy-duty, offset smokers that utilize wood as the fuel and smoke source.
Other woods to try:
- Hickory has a stronger, smoky taste well suited for ribs, pork, brisket, turkey and chicken.
- Mesquite has a spicy, distinctive smoke, great for beef, ribs, poultry, venison, seafood and vegetables.
- Apple wood imparts a sweet and fruity flavor that enhances the flavor of pork chops, ham, sausage and poultry.
- Cherry has a slightly sweet and fruity flavor best paired with steak, lamb, pork, ribs, turkey and fish.
He also recommends using heavy-duty tongs to turn or remove the meat from the smoker. You never want to pierce the meat with a fork. A quality, carving knife and inexpensive, heat-resistant, silicone gloves round out his essentials.
When it comes to taste and flavor, Smith has his favorites too. “I like salt and pepper on most all meat I cook, so I start with that. Pork ribs I like sweeter than any other meat I prepare, so I add some brown sugar to my salt and pepper. For brisket, I add garlic and onion powder. And chicken, I like to baste with a melted butter and garlic mixture while it’s smoking. I cover my pork shoulder with yellow mustard then apply a dry rub. The mustard will give a sweet flavor and help your rub cling to the meat.”
Smith firmly believes that trial and error is the best way to learn when it comes to smoking. So document what works and what doesn’t. And, always, always let your meat rest when you remove it from the smoker. Simply wrap it in foil and place it in a cooler until you are ready to eat.
For Smith, smoking is more than just cooking; it has a deeper, emotional significance. “Grilling and smoking in Texas isn’t just about preparing food; it’s about fellowship and passing on traditions and a way of life. I learned to cook in the backyard standing around a grill listening to my grandfather telling stories. As I was absorbing tales about his upbringing and adventures, I was also watching him season a steak or mop a brisket. It was those times on the patio that I found a passion for smoking and a desire to see my family together — bonding and eating.”
His best advice? “The more you smoke and the more you know your smoker, the easier it will become.”