Smoke It!

Make your own barbecue and other great food

Turn off the oven and turn on your taste buds. No need for high heat: It’s time to break out the smoker, and let it simmer slow.

The combination of smoke and heat have been used to cook and preserve food for as long as humans have cooked with fire. Today, we smoke meat not to preserve it, but because slow-cooking with smoke and low heat results in tender, flavorful and juicy foods. Smokers impart a unique and unmistakable taste that can’t be duplicated in an oven.

“There aren’t many things I haven’t cooked on a smoker,” Scott Leysath said, author and host of the Sportsman Channel’s “Sporting Chef.”

“It’s a great way to prepare waterfowl, wild turkeys, a variety of fish and domestic meats.”             

Gas, charcoal or propane?

Smokers come in three varieties: charcoal, propane and electric.

Electric smokers are, inarguably, the easiest to use: Simply dial the control knob to a specific temperature and forget it. Of course, you’ll have to add wood throughout the cooking process, but a few models add wood automatically. The problems with electric smokers are they have to be near an electrical source, and many models don’t produce high temperatures, which are important for some foods.

Propane smokers tend to run the hottest, but can be harder to control the temperature. They also can burn too hot to properly dry jerky and other foods, even on the lowest setting. Leysath prefers propane despite the drawbacks. His favorite model is a Camp Chef Smoke Vault, but he admitted all three types of smokers work fine.

Good wood

Virtually any deciduous wood will impart a unique, smoky flavor. The best varieties, however, come from fruit trees, nut trees and mesquite. Each has different characteristics.

“Fruit-tree woods have a pretty mellow flavor. This makes them very good for lighter meats like poultry and fish,” Leysath said. “Mesquite is a bit stronger and is best for darker game like venison. It works well with beef, too. Hickory is a good, all-purpose wood.”

Slow and low

The wood matters, but the secret to flavorful, tender and juicy smoked meats is to cook them at low temperatures for long periods. Brine the meat before you cook it, Leysath said. The smoking process can dry out some meats, particularly lighter game species like wild turkeys and pheasants. Brining imparts moisture and additional flavor.

Soak your wood chunks or chips in water to prevent them from catching fire. The wood should smolder throughout the cooking process. Flaming wood emits black smoke, coating the meat in foul-tasting, bitter soot.

Leysath suggested the most important thing is to not rush the process. What might take a few hours in a conventional oven will take two or three times as long on a smoker. A pork butt can take eight hours or more. A single rack of ribs might take six. Leysath typically cooks meats at temperatures of 200 to 225 degrees.

“I’ll crank up the heat to crisp the skin on poultry, and I cook steaks at a high heat, usually 350 degrees, but almost all of my cooking is at lower heat,” Leysath said.

Smokers aren’t just for cooking meat. Leysath once cooked an entire Christmas dinner, including a whole turkey and vegetables, on a smoker after he lost power at his northern California home. He smokes green tomatoes, and he’ll throw ripe tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and onions on his smoker before he makes salsa.

“What you cook is somewhat less important than learning how to properly use a smoker. A lot of it is trial-and-error,” Leysath said. “The more you use one, the more you understand the process and the more you understand what works and what doesn’t.”

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