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Guide to Smoking Meat

If you’re a fan of barbecue and you enjoy grilling whatever food you can get your hands on, you may also be enticed by the idea of “smoking” your meat. Smoking meat is an age-old practice but one that’s only recently gained a lot of popularity for at-home chefs and grill masters.

Simply, smoking meat involves cooking it for a long time at a very low temperature, generally around 225 degrees Fahrenheit. The smoke adds a unique flavor to the meat and the slow cooking allows all the connective tissue to break down, rendering a result that’s tasty and tender. The trick is to keep the temperature steady and keep the smoke flowing. This method requires a lot of time and patience, but the end result is well worth the effort.

Buying a Smoker

So, if you’re intrigued by the chance to try this method of cooking, where do you start? Most experts will tell you that the first thing to do is buy a decent smoker. You can, of course, use your charcoal grill if you have one, but gas grills do not work well. However, if you really want to do it right, you’ll make an investment in a smoker.

Smokers come in a variety of shapes and sizes as well as a bevy of different price ranges. So consider your budget and go out shopping!

o Vertical water smokers – These smokers are available in gas, electric, or charcoal. All of them include a pan of liquid positioned between the meat and the heat source. In the pan, you’ll place wine, beer, seasonings or whatever it is your recipe demands. As the meat cooks, the liquid evaporates and adds moistness and flavor to whatever you’re cooking. Gas versions provide the best temperature control. Electric ones are very convenient as they require no fuel source. Charcoal water smokers are cheaper and lighter but demand more skill.

o Wood burning smokers – This is the favorite of traditionalists. They use charcoal, wood, or wood pellets to create different flavors. Wood burning smokers are often very large and can weigh up to a few hundred pounds, so they’re not portable like vertical water smokers. The firebox – the source of heat – on a wood smoker is off to the side of the cooking chamber, so the meat does not come in direct contact with the fire, as with a grill. A smoke chimney helps keep the temperature constant. Wood burning smokers are available in various metals with stainless steel being the top of the line. In most cases, these can accommodate very large pieces of meat.

Your budget and your commitment to the art will probably dictate how much you spend. Vertical water smokers range from under $100 to about $400. Wood burning smokers start at about $300 (sometimes less) and climb into the thousands for a really large, stainless steel model.

Smoking Basics

As a smoking novice, you’ll probably need some tips as to what kind of foods to smoke and how to do it. The most common smoke meats include brisket (a tougher cut of beef that’s rendered fork tender by smoking), ribs, and pork shoulder. These are good items for the new smoker to experiment with as they are basically inexpensive. But you can certainly feel free to try other things. Remember, however, smoking makes the meat tender, which was the original reason for smoking, so it’s not necessary to purchase expensive cuts.

Charcoal and different woods produce different flavors, so you can experiment with several different kinds to determine which you like best. You’ll find varieties of wood like apple, cherry, alder, maple, honey mesquite, peach, plum, pecan, oak, mulberry, and that old favorite – hickory. Vary their uses with different meats to determine your favorite combinations.

It may take some time to get the hang of regulating the heat and keeping the smoke going. The smoker will be hottest when you first add the wood or charcoal, so give it some time to settle to about 225 degrees. After you add the meat, you’ll need to keep monitoring the temperature and smoke. For large quantities and long smoking, you may need to add wood or charcoal throughout the process and you’ll probably have to turn the meat several times.

Remember, smoking takes patience and it may take some time to develop the right skills. Always read the directions on your smoker and adhere to the guidelines of any recipe you’re following for best results.