Want To Add Flavor to Your Life? Consider Owning A Smoker

Delicious smoked pork tenderloin
Delicious smoked pork tenderloin

So you have a grill, a nice charcoal, or propane beauty set for summer parties, barbeque, and the weekend burger after mowing the lawn. Yet, as you stand in front of grilling meat, vegetables and corn you might find yourself asking, how can I take this up a notch, is there any way to get more flavor into my meal? What about cooking in the winter, I would love to get some hot, fresh smokey food during the cold months. Well, what many people don't realize is that a smoker can be a great way to maximize flavors, minimize work, and impress your friends and neighbors year round.

The basics

So what can you do with a smoker? Well, basically you can smoke anything you can grill. Beef, pork, chicken, vegetables ect. Yet, you can also add unique flavors to spices, such as salt and paprika with a smoker. Since smoking requires less involvement than grilling, you can also use a smoker any time of the year.

How smoking works:

There are two basic types of smoking, hot smoking and cold smoking. Hot smoking uses direct heat, which cooks, and smokes the food. Hot smoking is a faster way to smoke, and imparts a less intense (but still delicious) smokey flavor. A cold smoker has two compartments, the area where the wood chips are smoldered and another compartment, where the food is placed. This cooks the meat slowly, at very low and dry heat and imparts a stronger smokey taste.

Most smokers that you would purchase for personal use would be the direct heated (hot) style of smoker which is less expensive and appropriate for the amount of time most people want to invest in smoking food. It also creates a more tender, juicy meat or vegetable.

There are various types of smokers on the market; wood, charcoal, gas and electric. Each has a different style of smoking to learn and master. Of these types, wood smoking is often considered the best way to impart complex flavors into food, yet it has a high learning curve, requires a significant amount of attention and can be very finicky. Charcoal and electric are also finicky types of smokers which allow for little to no temperature variation (although newer electric smokers are able to adjust temperature) and many BBQ connoisseurs claim they produce inferior smoke taste. For these reasons, I would reccomend if you are getting into smoking buying a propane or gas fired smoker. The temperature is adjustable, they are easy to use, can be operated with minimal adjustment and create a great flavor. Most restaurants I have worked for use this style of smoker because of its reliability and convenience.

Any smoker will come with instructions, but the principle is the same. The heat source cooks soaked woodchips, which smolder and create smokey heat (about 220 - 250 degrees), while a water pan (drip pan) keeps the heat moist, and prevents your smoked meat from becoming jerky. During cooking you monitor the meat occasionally and add wood chips and water if necessary. Most meats take about 1 to 1 1/2 hours per pound to cook. So with a smoker, you could start it on a weekend during the day, and when you are done mowing the lawn, running errands ect you'll have a great meal that will taste like it took a lot of effort to cook.

A few details

Safety

Yes, its hot. No it is not ok to put it inside, probably best not to have it in the garage. Don't lean it against the house, because yes, it is hot. Don't forget to turn it off, the gas too, make sure the fire is out before you go to bed. Pretty basic stuff, but the low heat that a smoker uses makes many people feel like it is completely safe. So yes, treat it just like you would a grill, because a smoker can still start a fire.

Low and slow

Thats the smokers creed; 'low and slow'. You want to cook your food at low heat for a long time, do not try to rush smoking, it may not be labor intensive but you'll find the waiting game can be just as trying when you start to smell that delicious food. Also make sure you use a thermometer to check any meat you smoke, as it can look cooked on the outside and still be quite raw in the middle. 

Wood chips

Use only non-treated woodchips, no plywood, 2 X 4s, particle board in the smoker. Seems obvious, but I know an individual who actually made me dinner by smoking plywood chips (nasty). There are various kinds, apple wood, pecan chips, mesquite chips, cherry, all will impart varying degrees of smoke intensity and acidity to your meats.

Seasoning

Before you ever use the smoker to cook meat you need to season it to prevent metallic tasting meals. This is simple, just use it once normally but don't put any food in it. I would recommend at least 4 hours of seasoning with constant smoke before you start to cook. You will find as well, that the smoker will become increasingly flavorful as it seasons over time. I do recommend cleaning the water tub, smoke box (where the woodchips are kept) and the racks each time, to prevent rancid food in the smoker, and soot flavors in your food.

Equipment and cost

As I said before I recommend a propane smoker, its easy to use and maintain, its adjustable, and creates great flavors. That being said, you can get a cheap charcoal smoker for under $100, although I will warn you; you get what you pay for. Most brands will offer a decent smoker around $200, about the same price as a decent grill. The $180 smoker used at one restaurant I worked for had lasted them over 5 years after being used every other day and was still kicking when I left.

When you decide to make an investment you will want to look for a few key items.

  • Adjustable flame / heat This is a must have for an electric or gas smoker. A wood fired or charcoal smoker will not offer one, but this is simply the biggest convenience you can get from this equipment.
  • Don't do windows. They get soot covered, leak heat in the winter and can crack from the constant heating and cooling even when tempered. The more your smoker looks like a metal safe, the better.
  • Solid construction and Sturdy legs. When you are pulling racks and pans in and out of the smoker, which can get stuck, weak legs will start to wobble, then start to bend, and soon you have to get a new smoker. Solid walls, (thicker is better) will last longer and season better.
  • Size and Shelving - A small smoker with one or two shelves means you can smoke one or two items for a small party or one item for a large party. Four shelves means you can smoke enough of two or three items for a large party, or one or two items for a small restaurant. If you grill a lot, you will probably smoke a lot of food,and so picking a smoker that is too small will be something that you regret.

Going Forward

There are a lot of 'experts' that are going to have input on your smoking technique, which wood chips are the best, what to season your meat with, which temperature to cook at, ect. My advice, take it all with a grain of salt. Once you understand the basics and have used the smoker a few times, experiment and have fun. Learn your craft through using the equipment and experimenting with spices meats and vegetables. Owning a smoker is definitely a joy for anyone who loves food. There are dozens of sites with recipes and ideas for your smoker, I just hope that this information was able to get you started on a new culinary path.


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