I wanted to write a quick post on how to start BBQing, or working with smoke. I’ll start by covering the process of cooking with a charcoal smoker, then I can give a couple alternatives to charcoal.
To smoke with charcoal, it's a long process that you really have to devote your day to, depending on what meat you're cooking. For example, if you're smoking a pork shoulder, it's going to take a good 12 hours to get it perfectly pull apart tender. If you're smoking a chicken, less than half of that time. Why go through it? The flavor you get is amazing!!
To begin, I use my charcoal starter.
To set up my charcoal starter, I load my ordinary, unflavored charcoal in the basket and light a wad of shredded newspaper underneath. That’s it, coals should start burning (yep, that simple, so say no to lighter fluid or match light charcoal). Once the charcoal has turned white and ashy on most of the surface, dump into the charcoal pan of the smoker. I add in a few more briquets to make sure the heat gets up to 225 degrees, which is a perfect temp to smoke.
I'll pause here to share the importance of have a separate thermometer. I have one that is wireless and has an alert if the temp gets outside my preferred temp. You can buy on amazon for about $50. It's not necessary, but it does help. Ok, its a fun toy, there I said it, but I still love it.
Add your water to the water pan. The water pan is important because it helps to regulate the temperature and keeps the meat moist.
Once your smoker gets up to temperature, that's when you put your meat on.
The comment above "once your smoker gets up to temperature" is so easy to type, but in practice, it's really, really hard to get the hang of. Well, maybe not getting the temperature there, but keeping it there for 12 hours can be difficult. It takes some practice, so make sure you don't try to smoke something for a party without nailing the temps. I beg you, do a practice run the weekend before if this is your first time smoking. Trust me! The first time I tried, when the party started, I took the pork shoulder off and tried to pull it apart, it was solid. I mean SOLID. Like grab a sharp knife and cut into it.
Adjusting The Temperature
To adjust the heat, you will use the dampers, which will be at the bottom and top of the unit. If the unit you’re looking at doesn’t have 2, look for one that does (more on this later.) If you want to increase the heat, you have to add oxygen to the fire. So you would open both dampers, to encourage air flow through the smoker. Likewise, if you close them, the temperature will begin to drop. This is very easy to say, but in practice, it can be a challenge. For example, if you’re increasing the air, the coals burn faster, which means you’ll have to add more charcoal. There’s a lot of little things to consider.
Once the grill to 225 and your meat is cooking, you’ll be adding more coal to the smoker to maintain heat. As the cooking process goes, you’ll need to add more charcoal and water. Try to limit how many times you take off the top of the smoker as you’ll lose a lot of smoke and heat.
Note: If you do have a unit with one damper, it can be hard to get airflow, regulating the temperature will be difficult. One of my first smokers only had one of top, and the design had a small gap in the bottom of the unit. That didn't work out well. I ended up having to blow on the charcoal a lot, which is not a good thing. By doing this, ash will spread in the unit and get all over the meat. Two Dampers!
First, you have to figure out the size. A 14 inch grate is a pretty good size. You’ll be able to fit something like a 5-7 pound pork shoulder. If you’re looking to do a full rack of ribs, or a few side by side, I would recommend going with a 22 inch.
Regardless of the type of smoker, the build is very important. If the metal is heavy it will redistribute the heat evenly. This will help with keeping the temperature stable. A while back, I remember unboxing a new smoker and thinking, seriously, this thing is so light. Since it was so light, air temperatures really impacted the temps, and the seals were really poor. Seals are important because a leaky unit will lose heat and smoke fast. One of my recent smokers had poor seams and smoke leaked out everywhere. I mean, if you looked at it, smoke was coming out everywhere and creating a cloud around it. How can you get that smoky flavor if the smoke is escaping (you can't).
As mentioned, I use my own digital wireless thermometer and it does a great job. You can put the sensor right at grate-level for a perfect read, and some have 2 prongs, one for grill temp, the other for meat temp. Don’t overspend on a unit just because it has a fancy, no-fail thermometer built in.
Not sold on charcoal? I get that. I think you can get the best flavor with charcoal but there are drawbacks. Cooking over charcoal is not as healthy as the alternatives, gas and electric. It is messy and time consuming. It can be expensive, the charcoal can easily be $20 each tie you smoke something. So what about the alternative? I know a lot of people that swear by electric, even some restaurants are moving in that direction, mostly because it's easier and cheaper. When I say cheaper, I mean that you don't have to buy any fuel for it. For someone looking at getting a decent amount of flavor into your meat, without much hassle, I think this is the way to go. Gas is also a viable option. I think you can develop a ton of flavor using gas, plus you really don't need to go out and buy something new. I smoke several meats on my normal propane grill. I put the meat over burners that are turned off and cook over indirect heat. I add a tin foil basket with water over the active burners, and include a little smoke box. Maybe use this option as an intro and move up from there.
I hope this information has helped with anyone looking to do more BBQing. If you have any questions, or want me to post any vids on the subject, let me know!