How to Use a Smoker, According to an Expert
Here's what you need to know to get started cooking low and slow with wood chips for that smoked to perfection flavor.
Nothing says summer quite like the smoky scent of barbecue. According to Elizabeth Karmel, "Grill Girl" and author of Taming the Flame ($8.24, amazon.com), you can smoke food on any grill, from a charcoal Weber-style kettle to a ceramic egg-shaped grill or propane grill. Says Karmel, "The essence of smoked food is cooking slowly over a lower temperature with wood chips to give a kiss of flavor." While traditional pit masters may spend hours tending to their rigs, newer technology has made achieving food smoked to perfection much easier. Karmel is a fan of pellet grills and smokers. "You are cooking with a fan and compressed wood pellets. Real wood is used to make the pellet, and the fire created by the grill and fed by oxygen is very precise," she says. "The mechanism monitors the temperature whereas with logs it's much harder to regulate the temperature and maintain consistency."
Whichever way you choose to smoke your food, Karmel recommends you start by seasoning your grill. "It's like seasoning a cast iron skillet, you want to seal it with natural fats that turn into smoke" says Karmel. She recommends turning all the burners on high, or if it's a pellet smoker, set it as high as it can go, let it cook for at least an hour with the lid down, to burn off all the factory chemicals, grease, and smell. Then clean it and then put down fatty sausage such as Italian sausages or pork shoulder and let it cook. The fats and juices drip down and they instantly vaporize, giving a smoke flavor.
Once you've seasoned your grill or smoker, you can smoke with wood. Regulating the temperature and getting enough smoke is key, so use vents wisely. Karmel says the rule of thumb is that the more air vents you have open, the more oxygen and the hotter it will be, the more vents you close, the slower the fire will burn, allowing the food to absorb the smoke. Regardless of the size of grill or smoker you are using she recommends using grill racks, which expose food such as ribs to the most air and allow you to cook more items at one time.
Mistakes to Avoid
Karmel says the biggest mistakes novices make are choosing the wrong cuts of meat, overzealous trimming, smoking at too low temperatures, and not smoking for enough time. While smoking is all about "slow and low" and cooking over indirect heat, going too low means the fat won't melt. While many experts may recommend temperatures as low as 210 degrees, she says you need to go a little higher to get the fat to render. And speaking of fat, it's better not to choose super lean cuts of beef like the brisket flap or baby back ribs, or to trim all the fat before smoking. Let the fat render during cooking she says, and it will add flavor and keep the meat moist. Another tip? Don't bother with the fork or long tongs that come with your grill or smoker. The fork will only puncture meat, the shorter 12-inch tongs give you much more control than fancy long ones.
Once you've gotten comfortable smoking you can move beyond just the traditional ribs, chicken, brisket, and sausages. Karmel says smoking is also ideal for adding flavor to summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and onions, and that it's also good for seafood and even for sturdy fruit such as pineapples.