Food Smoking and Barbecue Basics

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Smoking or or true Barbecue Basics. Many people equate barbecue with grilling but true barbecue cooked is cooked long a t slow temperatures over smoking wood. Learn how here.
When you say the word barbecue, both here in the United States, and even more so in other parts of the world, most people think of grilling. While there's nothing wrong with grilling -- some of my favorite foods are grilled, grilling is not barbecue.

No, for food to truly be barbecue, it must involve two key elements -- time and smoke.

Grilling is great for a quick supper -- throw a piece a of meat on a hot grill and in 5 to 15 minutes you've got dinner. On the contrary, barbecued foods are cooked at low temperatures for long periods of time. Low and slow -- that's good barbecue.

Save barbecuing for a day when you have a lot of time. It's not that it's necessarily a lot of work, it just takes a lot of time. Because you should never leave a fire unattended, you need to be nearby, although you can certainly be doing other things. Plan on anywhere from 8 to 12 hours for a brisket, 6 to 8 hours for a turkey and 4 to 6 hours for racks of ribs to be smoked to perfection.

Wood Smoke
wood chips, smoking, barbecueWood smoke is an important component of true barbecue. Different types of wood will produce different flavors in their smoke. It's fun to experiment to get determine your favorites. The most popular types of smoking wood come from hickory, oak, alder, apple, cherry, pecan, and mesquite trees. The flavor differences between the woods are subtle, so don't let the fact that you don't have right kind of wood chips on hand ever stop you from making recipe.

While barbecue professionals use large logs to smoke their meats, most home barbecuers will use small wood chunks or chips to provide smoke. The less wood used during the cooking process, the lighter the smoky flavor will be in the finished dish.

You can provide some smoke by simply tossing a few dry wood chips on the hot coals, but you'll get longer lasting smoke by soaking the chips first. Soak hardwood chips for an hour or two before barbecuing in either water, beer, wine, fruit juices, or your favorite combination thereof. Drain the chips before adding them to the fire. The soaking causes the wood to smolder rather than burn, creating more smoke for longer periods of time than with dry wood.

Never smoke with soft wood or woods which have been chemically treated. The former have too much pitch and the latter can be poisonous, if not deadly.<

What Equipment Do I Need To Smoke?

Surprise! If you already have grill with a lid -- either a charcoal grill or gas grill -- you already have everything you need to smoke meats. Which is not to say there aren't great cooking apparatus designed for the specific purpose of smoking -- there are. But you can do a fine job of smoking meats in a large covered grill. Kettle type grill work particularly well for smoking, and since they are also great for grilling, they make a wise outdoor cooking investment for most families.

The different types and sizes of smokers are legion, but the most popular (and not coincidentally, most inexpensive) home smoker is the water-pan smoker. Resembling a tall cylinder with a domed lid, the water pan smoker consists of these layers: a pan which holds the hot coals (or an electric element in the case of an electric smoker), a pan that rests on a ledge above the hot coals or electric element that holds water or other liquids, and one or two cooking racks for holding food. Water pan smokers are relatively easy to use and take up relatively small amount of space. You can also pick one up a low end model for under sixty bucks (as of this writing in 2006 -- although to be sure, there are much more expensive models).

Water Pan Smoker Buying Tips
  • water pan smokerLook for a smoker that feels heavy -- the heavier the metal the better heat retention the smoker will have.
  • Some models, like the one in the photo at right, come with a small door built in the side for adding additional hot coals during cooking. While it is almost always necessary to add coals during the smoking process, we find the door isn't necessarily the best way. Trying to shovel hot coals into a small door at the bottom of a cylinder (without disturbing the water pan) is awkward at best. It's just as easy to lift off the top two layer of the smoker (in one piece) with the handles, place it aside, and put the new coals in through the top.
  • Water pan smokers come in charcoal or electric versions. If you have an electric outlet near where you barbecue, the electric models are convenient in that they need no charcoal. You merely plug in the smoker and toss soaked wood chips, as needed, onto the hot coils in the smoker's base. Purists and those smoking away from utilities will want a charcoal model, which does take a bit more tending. The difference in flavor in the finished product is minimal, however.

Smoking on a Charcoal Grill
-- Set up the grill for indirect grilling and toss the soaked wood chips or chunks on the piles of hot coals and close the lid.

Smoking on a gas grill -- Some gas grills come with small smoker boxes in which you can put soaked wood chips for smoking. Fill the box and light the burner under or next to it on high heat.

Don't worry if you grill didn't come with a smoker box, most home shops sell small inexpensive cast iron smoker boxes for this purpose. You can also make a smoking "packet" out of a couple of layers of heavy duty aluminum foil. Fill will presoaked chips and fold the foil to make a tight seal -- like you would a foil pouch dinner. Use the tip of a knife to poke a few holes in the top, then place the entire packet under the cooking grate and on top of the heating element.

Some gas grills lack the necessary heat for smoking. Preheat your grill before adding wood chips and meat, then adjust the temperature down later, after you've established a good amount of smoke.

Smoking Recipes and Tutorials
While smoke and time are the basic building blocks of barbecue, and sometimes, that's all you need. But seasonings, rubs, marinades and other elements can add to the experience. The related features and recipes below will give you a start. To go further, check out our favorite smoking and barbecue cookbooks.