Unlocking the Delicious Secrets of Smoker Grilling
Smoker grills allow you to cook foods at lower temperatures for longer periods of time. This process is responsible for that dreamy, fall-off-the-bone texture that makes smoked meats so irresistible.
You can even add a smoker box to some gas grills to turn them into a smoker, although purists will tell you this isn’t the same thing as smoking.
How to Smoke
Smoking is a long-term cooking technique that cooks meat slowly over low temperatures with wood to impart rich flavor and an amazing, smoky aroma. Hard-core ‘cue mavens use special smoker grills and built-in smoking compartments to control temperature, but you can still smoke food on an ordinary gas or charcoal grill with a few tweaks.
First, fill your grill’s firebox with briquettes and add lit coals to form an indirect coal bed. Light the top coals and wait a few minutes to ensure that the heat is stable at 225 degrees Fahrenheit (the optimal cooking temperature for most foods). Then dump in your meat, close the lid and let it cook for hours on end.
To make monitoring the grill’s internal temperature easy, get a dual probe thermometer that can clip to the grate and be used as a meat thermometer as well. The Thermoworks Smoke is an excellent choice, and its angled head makes it easy to read from any angle. The thermometer also comes with a handy storage case, making it perfect for travel.
The key to successful smoking is to keep the grill and its door closed as much as possible, since opening it triggers temperature fluctuations and lets in oxygen that can burn or dehydrate the meat. This may seem difficult, but it’s necessary for the most flavorful results. And be sure to avoid peeking; the heat and smoke that escape each time you lift the lid reduces cooking times and adds a bitter, metallic taste.
If you don’t have a smoker, try adding wood chips to a foil packet that has been poked with holes and placed directly over the coals. This method could take up to six hours for a brisket, but the result is worth it. Just be sure to choose a hardwood with lots of flavor, such as hickory, cherry, maple or mesquite.
Another option is to purchase a dedicated smoking box ($20) that fits over your coals. It keeps the coals and wood together for easier monitoring, and it’s made of durable cast iron. You can even get a sampler pack of different woods to see what you like best.
What to Smoke
The type of wood you use for smoking can have a big impact on the final flavor. Hardwoods like hickory and mesquite deliver a bold, deep smoke flavor that is ideal for beef and pork. Fruit and other softwoods, such as apple, cherry and pecan, are milder and ideal for poultry and fish.
Smoking requires patience because you have to let the food cook long enough for it to reach a safe internal temperature. But there are some things you can do to speed up the process and help your food come out of the smoker tasting great.
First, make sure you’re using high quality wood. There are four types of wood you can use to add smoke flavor: pellets, chips, chunks and splits (small logs). Pellets are designed specifically for pellet grills but you can also use them in other smokers. Wood chunks and splits are more suited for long smoking sessions and are often used for brisket and other cuts of meat.
Chips are smaller pieces of wood that you can place directly on the coals to smoke foods quickly. You can also purchase pre-packaged hardwood chunks and splits that are ideal for smoking because they have been seasoned with oil to prevent burning and to add a natural, clean smoke flavor.
Another cooking method to speed up the process is to smoke your food in foil. This helps the meat and other foods cook properly by trapping in the heat and preserving moisture. It also gives your food that signature pink ring, which is created by the formation of nitric acid.
If you’re a newbie to smoker grilling, it might be best to start with a cheap cut of meat so you can practice the technique and get the hang of it without spending a lot on an expensive steak or tenderloin. Choose meats with a lot of collagen and fats, such as pork shoulder or beef brisket, which will hold up well to low temperatures and the assertive smoky flavor. Leaner cuts, such as sirloin or tenderloin, will end up tough and dry.
What to Avoid
When cooking with a smoker, it’s important to let the food cook, not you. The low, steady heat of the smoker is perfect for creating tender foods that have a deep flavor but don’t require a lot of fussing. However, some people get antsy and open the lid too often to look at their meal or stir it, which slows down the cooking process. To keep the meal’s cooking time consistent, check the temperature of your dish regularly but don’t take the lid off or remove it to stir it.
It’s also a good idea to avoid adding ingredients that are sensitive to long cooking times, such as fresh herbs and delicate vegetables or dairy products like milk, cream or sour cream. They’ll break down over time and create a watery mess, which isn’t what you want for your meal. Instead, add these ingredients at the end of cooking when lifting the lid won’t throw off your meal’s timing.
Another thing to avoid is overdoing the sauce. Adding too much extra moisture can lead to mushy, runny food and mask the flavor of your smoked meat or poultry. Instead, focus on carefully considering the various BBQ rubs you can use.
If you must use sauce, opt for lighter options that are less heavy on the salt. Sodium isn’t inherently bad, but it can contribute to high blood pressure, over-hydration and other health problems. When buying bottled barbecue sauces, opt for lower-sodium varieties that are free of nitrates.
Lastly, avoid cooking meat or poultry ahead of time in a slow cooker or smoking device. This allows harmful bacteria to survive and multiply until the food is cooked, which could lead to illness. Instead, always cook meat and poultry on the grill or in a smoker made of materials approved for contact with foods until it reaches a safe internal temperature as indicated by a food thermometer.
Finally, remember that smoke contains dangerous toxins called secondhand carcinogens, which can trigger heart disease and asthma, make cancer treatments less effective, and aggravate respiratory illnesses, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). If you’re concerned about health issues, limit your exposure by only smoking outside or using an indoor pellet smoker with a vent.
The slow cooking technique of smoking allows meat and poultry to become incredibly tender and flavorful. Smokers can be gas, charcoal or electric, and they operate at low temperatures so the food is cooked slowly to impart a rich smoke flavor. This method is also ideal for making large cuts of meat, whole poultry and oily fish because the low temperature prevents them from drying out.
To get the best results from your smoker, use recipes that were designed for smoked foods. These recipes will include tips that are specific to a smoker and will help you make the most of your new cooker. For example, if you’re using a smokehouse for meats like brisket or ribs, follow the “3-2-1 rule” when smoking them. This means you’ll wrap them in foil for the first 3 hours of smoking; then remove the foil and let the meat cook for 2 more hours; and then finally remove the foil for 1 hour to finish the outside to a crisp. This is a great way to ensure your meat will be cooked through and avoid undercooked spots that are full of nitric acid, which can cause cancer.
You should also try a variety of recipes when you start using your smoker, as each type of food will benefit differently from the smoker’s heat and flavor. For example, pork shoulder will benefit from the addition of a mustard-based rub and brown sugar. Boston butt will also absorb the smoke well, and a rub with mustard and ground black pepper will produce a juicy and flavorful meal.
A remote meat thermometer is a great investment for anyone who regularly uses a smoker because it can help you avoid over- or undercooking food. It’s also an important tool for those who want to monitor multiple meats or vegetables simultaneously and can save you a lot of time when it comes to opening the lid to check on progress. However, be sure to buy a thermometer that can withstand high heats, since frequent opening of the smoker’s lid can cause the temperature to fluctuate and affect how your food turns out.