Differentiating the Joys of Grilling & Smoking
May 24, 2017 10:50AM ● Published by Melanie Heisinger
Where There’s Smoke
By Carol Ritchie
It’s time to fire-up the grill again. Brush off the grates, stock up on charcoal and choose the most mouthwatering foods for a Texas barbecue. But rather than quick-cook burgers and steaks over a hot-burning fire, more and more masters of the grill are choosing to let time, patience and hardwood smoke prepare the best barbecue meals from the backyard patio.
Grill or Barbecue?
There is often confusion when simply talking about outdoor cooking. From the equipment to the cooking methods, or from the names of recipes to the title given to outdoor social gathering feasts, the term “barbecue” can mean a lot of different things for different circumstances. And barbecue has different meanings for people from various parts of our country, and throughout most countries of the world.
In the US, the styles of barbecue range from the spiced-vinegar flavors of pulled pork in the Carolinas to the dry spice rub and wet sauce pork ribs of Memphis, and the sweet-and-spicy, tomato-based tangy flavors of Kansas City to the fall-off-the-bone tender, beef brisket of Texas. Not to mention all the variations of barbecue flavors and preparations throughout the rest of the country.
So if this is all “barbecue,” then what is grilling? To keep it simple, the difference between grilling and barbecuing - in terms of cooking - is how close the food is to the fire and how long the food stays on the grill. Grilling uses a direct heat cooking method. Steaks, burgers, vegetables, fish - just to name a few foods for grilling - are placed directly above the flame, thereby cooking very quickly.
To barbecue, an indirect heat cooking method is used. This is often also referred to as “smoking.” A fire is built and coals smolder at one end of the grill, while the food - pork butt, brisket, slabs of ribs, whole chickens and fish (just to name a few foods for a barbecue) - is placed away from the direct heat and is cooked very slowly in the smoke of hardwoods. A simple cooking analogy is the indoor kitchen oven and stove; grilling is like cooking on the stovetop and barbecuing is like roasting in the oven.
Where’s the Fire?
Can I grill in my barbecue? Can I barbecue in my grill? What about a smoker? It still seems a little confusing, but really, it’s not. It all depends on where the fire is located, in respect to where the food is placed on the grating. Coals in a small kettle grill can be arranged on one side to indirectly cook (or “smoke”) a small roast on the opposite side of the grill (often with a drip pan directly underneath the meat). Conversely, food placed over a flame can be grilled in any equipment that allows for this type of direct cooking.
The equipment is generally interchangeable, however, a device sold as a “smoker” intentionally places the firebox away from the grating. These types of grills are designed with slow-cooking, indirect heat specifically in mind. (Look for more information about choosing equipment and fuel in HomeStyle on page 22.)
Recipes will generally instruct how and where to arrange coals for the desired cooking method, whether to use direct heat and “grill,” or to use indirect heat for slowed-cooked “barbecue.” Sometimes, a pan filled with water is placed in a barbecue during the long, slow cooking process to keep certain cuts of meat moist. Other times, regular basting of meats - with mops or sauces - might be required to keep meat moist and add spice and flavor.
Where There’s Fire, There’s Smoke
You’ve got your smoker - or you’ve set up your grill for slow cooking … so where does the smoke come from? First, it is important to start your coals and get an even, low heat with a steady temperature of about 225 degrees. Using ash around the bed of coals protects and insulates the coals from airflow and keeps the charcoal burning longer. Natural charcoal from hardwoods will offer more flavor than charcoal briquettes (which are made from wood chips and sawdust), but the consistent size of briquettes offers the benefit of constant heat.
To create the smoke and flavor of the barbecue, the choice of seasoned hardwood is key. Hardwood logs are added to the top of the coals (periodically, as needed, throughout the cooking process) to create a smoke that encompasses, slow cooks and imparts flavor to the food on the grill. For smaller grills, soak hardwood chips in water for an hour, drain and add to the coals (or place in a small foil pan to set on the coals). The hardwood will smolder and smoke, rather than burn away.
Favorite hardwood flavors include oak (robust and distinct, producing heavy smoke), hickory (versatile and popular), maple (mild and sweet), cherry (fragrant and floral for light, sweet smoky flavor; also consider apple or peach wood), pecan (fruity, delicate and not surprisingly, a toasted, nutty flavor), and mesquite (a very dense hardwood with a harsh, sagebrush flavor—a traditional taste of the Southwest). Avoid soft woods, like pine, since they can impart a sooty flavor or be quite bitter. And never use construction lumber, which likely contains glues or toxic chemicals. As barbecue expert and cookbook author Steven Raichlen exhorts, “Always grill over hardwood.”
The choice of smoke certainly impacts the flavor of food, but it is only part of the total barbecue essence. In many preparations, foods to be cooked - meats in particular - are treated to a spice mixture spa, bathed in a marinade or massaged with an exotic herbal rub, for a zesty flavor that complements the hardwood-infused flavors.
In other preparations, as mentioned above, sweet and/or spicy flavors are added during the cooking process, or just prior to serving, in basting liquids (“mops”) and thick, hearty sauces. Here are some ingredients that are common to barbecue spice mixture preparations:
Cooking oils - generally olive oil, walnut oil, sesame oil or vegetable oil - are used in nearly every treatment: rubs, marinades, mops, sauces. Butter is used often for basting. Fruit juices and citrus zest are common in marinades and sauces, and various flavors of prepared mustard add a zip to many mixtures. Many dried herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, tarragon, etc.) and almost every spice imaginable (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, paprika, anise seed, coriander, cumin, chili powder, Chinese five-spice powder, etc.) lend wonderful nuances to marinades and rubs. Sugars - from brown sugar to honey to maple syrup to molasses - add distinctive sweetness to barbecue sauces. Worcestershire and soy sauces - and even finely ground dark roast coffee - add deep flavors. Tabasco and hot pepper sauces, and chopped fresh chilies add heat, while dried chilies, such as cayenne or chipotle peppers, add unique spicy and smoky flavor. Vinegars add a tanginess, garlic adds a punch and liquid smoke deepens the smokiness, when needed. Plus, don’t forget the flavor benefits that simple salt and pepper add for most marinades, rubs and sauces.
What’s for Dinner?
Beef brisket, baby back ribs, whole chickens, turkey legs and sausages might come to mind when talking smoked meats. Maybe smoked salmon, lamb shanks or pork tenderloin fit the bill. Even a slow-cooked pot of beans in a barbecue pit may be a familiar thought when it comes to barbecue cooking, but those recipes are only the beginning of a list of foods to consider for low and slow, outdoor cooking.
Here is a list of foods that may never have crossed your mind to consider throwing on the smoker for your next barbecue: oysters (on the half shell), sea scallops, potatoes (whole and unpeeled), cherry or grape tomatoes (for egg salad or salsas), sweet peppers (bell or banana) and hot peppers (jalapeños), peaches and mangoes and pineapple (for salads or salsas, or as a dessert over ice cream), olives and capers, nuts (to serve with cheeses or in salads), hard-cooked eggs (whole, peeled; for smoked deviled eggs, or in a salad), cabbage (whole heads with core removed and stuffed with crumbled bacon, onions, BBQ sauce and butter), hard cheeses (to serve on sandwiches, in macaroni and cheese, or for fondue or cheese sauces), or how about a grilled pizza with smoked meats and veggies?
Find specific recipes for these ideas online at: www.finecooking.com/articles/10-things-you-didnt-know-you-could-smoke.aspx and in cookbooks such as How to Grill (2001) and The Barbecue Bible (1998), both by Steven Raichlen, Dr. BBQ’s Big-Time Barbecue Cookbook (2005) by Ray Lampe (aka Dr. BBQ), and Smoke: New Firewood Cooking (2013) by Dallas chef and restaurateur Tim Byres. Resources such as these offer great inspiration and recipes to explore in your quest to create great smoker envy among your neighbors.
If you are brand new to smoker recipes, or just want to try something on a smaller scale than a slab of ribs or a weekend pig roast, pick up some salmon fillets and cherry wood chips for my delightful Cherry-Smoked Salmon (see recipe). Serve with a wild rice pilaf and grilled asparagus for a delectable, healthful summer meal.
Slow and Steady, Smokin’-Ready!
Patience is truly a virtue when it comes to smoking your meal. Almost all the work is in the prep. As for edibles, a mixture of spices is infused into food, by marinade, mop, saucing or rub. As for equipment, smoldering coals are readied in the grill, for a favorite hardwood to impart smoky flavor. Combine the components and let the slow, steady barbecue finish the job. At the end of this journey, the reward - a smokin’ meal that is worth the wait.
1 pound salmon fillet
1 teaspoon lime zest
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Cherry wood smoking chips
Lime slices, for garnish
Place salmon fillet, skin-side-down, in a shallow bowl. Sprinkle lime zest and lime juice on top. Drizzle olive oil over salmon. Sprinkle brown sugar, salt and pepper on top. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 15 to 30 minutes.
Prepare smoker (or setup grill for indirect heat) with the heat source at low to medium-low temperature, between 150° and 225° F. Soak 2 cups of the cherry wood smoking chips in water for 20 minutes; drain. When the grill, steady low heat, wood chips, and salmon are ready, sprinkle wood chips (or place in a loose foil packet) over heat source (on top of coals, for instance). They should begin to smoke rather quickly.
Place the marinated salmon fillet, skin-side-down, on the grill rack (over a drip pan) and pour the remaining marinade from the bowl over salmon. Close the smoker (or grill lid) and cook for 40 minutes to 1 hour, until salmon registers 145° F on an instant-read thermometer. (Size and temperature of grill, thickness of fillet and the desired doneness and smoke-flavor intensity will all determine the necessary overall cooking time.) Garnish smoked salmon fillet with lime slices.
Many hot-smoked salmon recipes call for the salmon to soak in brine (heavily salted water) for up to a day prior to cooking several hours in the smoker. My version is a quick-cook method that utilizes a citrus marinade for a very brief time before a relatively short smoking time. This is a great recipe for smoker basics without requiring a lot of time.
Carol Ritchie is the host of “Cookin’ with Carol.” She has taught cooking classes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for 25 years.