Smoking Meats

Barbecuing is an excellent way to enhance the flavor of any cut of meat.

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Barbecued chicken and ribs are messy and delicious.

iStockPhoto.com/Jack Puccio

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Barbecue raises the flavor of meat and fish to a new high – and creates an atmosphere of relaxation for the cook. In the United States, now as in the past, a barbecue means a large party. Politicians used barbecues to lure voters in the 1800s. Scarlett O’Hara met Rhett Butler at a barbecue in Gone with the Wind. A good barbecue today starts with setting up the smoker or grill; continues with a gathering of family and friends for an afternoon of relaxed food preparation; and finishes with an evening of great eating.
Grilling, barbecuing and smoking are technically not the same. Temperature, cooking time and smoke vary.
• Grilling involves cooking over high heat (350°F or more) for a short time (an hour or less).
• Barbecue techniques, cooking time and temperature vary with location in the United States.
• Smoking involves smoke and low temperature. The food may or may not be cooked. Smoking is one of the oldest known methods of preserving meat, fish and other foods. Smoking today is popular for the flavor it gives rather than for long-term preservation. Smoked, barbecued leftovers need refrigeration.
The term “barbecuing,” as used in the United States, has come to have a variety of meanings, including the activity of grilling or smoking food or even just a backyard party. For the purposes of this article, the terms “barbecuing” and “smoking” are used interchangeably, in reference to cooking with a low temperature (200°F or under) over a long time (two to several hours) amid a cloud of hardwood smoke.

Prepare the smoker

Unlike conventional ovens, smokers need not be preheated. A few minutes more or less in the low heat of a smoker will not make a difference to the meat. This adds to the leisurely atmosphere of barbecuing. Follow manufacturer’s directions for regulating temperature in your smoker and in placement of fuel and wood.
Charcoal is frequently used in barbecuing, although there is growing popularity in creating your own coals by burning down chunks of fruitwood and other flavorful fuel. Typically, wet hardwood chips or chunks are set directly on the hot coals to create smoke. Electric or gas smokers also use hardwood pieces to create smoke. Other smoker/cookers rely on a low-oxygen wood fire to create both heat and smoke. These devices typically have a firebox that’s separate from the cooking/smoking chamber.

Prepare the meat

Depending on the recipe, meat may be soaked in brine or marinated overnight or for a few hours before smoking. A mixture of herbs and spices called a dry rub can be put on overnight or just before smoking – your choice. Barbecue sauce that is applied at the beginning of smoking will become darker and crustier than if slathered on near the end of the cooking time. Place meat to be smoked on the kitchen counter for 30 minutes to moderate the chill of the refrigerator.

Finish the meat

Most barbecued meat is taken directly from the smoker and eaten. However, there are reasons to finish smoked meats in the oven or slow cooker – the cook who prefers lightly smoked flavor can remove the meat from the smoker after an hour or two; the cook may prefer to start early with the aim of eating much later; the weather may turn bad; or the smoker may misbehave by delivering a low temperature.

Probing for heat

A meat thermometer takes the guesswork out of smoking. (A meat thermometer is different from the temperature gauge on the smoker, which shows the air temperature inside the smoker.) There are two basic types of meat thermometers – Instant Read and Remote. With an Instant Read meat thermometer, the smoker is opened while the thermometer is inserted, read and removed. This results in loss of heat. The Remote type is more efficient and has a probe attached to a 30-inch flexible cable ending in an temperature gauge (or ending in the receiver cradle that transmits the information to a hand-held temperature gauge). The probe is inserted into the meat and stays there, continually sending the temperature reading through the cable to the gauge outside the smoker. The Remote type can be set to sound an alert when the meat has reached the desired internal temperature.

BARBECUED RIBS

Ribs can be grilled or baked, but the result does not measure up to barbecued ribs.

3 pound rack of ribs (labeled pork loin back ribs or St. Louis-style pork spareribs in stores)
Lemon pepper
3 tablespoons cooking oil
Barbecue sauce

Prepare smoker. Maintain smoker temperature at 180°F.
Generously sprinkle ribs with lemon pepper and rub in to coat all sides. Brush or spray with cooking oil.
Put ribs on smoker grate over pan of water. Insert meat thermometer probe into meat, being careful to not touch bone. Turn ribs after 2 hours. When meat thermometer indicates meat is nearly cooked, turn ribs again, mop both sides with barbecue sauce and continue smoking. The sauce is put on late since it will caramelize and darken during the smoking process.
COOKING TIME: About 4 hours or until ribs reach 160°F, the USDA recommended safe minimum internal temperature for pork.
BBQ TIP 1: Ribs are gnawing good when taken from the smoker. For ribs that fall off the bone, take finished ribs from smoker and put in a covered baking dish with a half-cup water. (For extra full flavor, mop with additional sauce.) Put ribs in 300°F oven for an hour, and meat will pull away from the bone.
BBQ TIP 2: Smoke several racks of ribs at one time. Smoked ribs can be frozen and heated in oven or slow cooker a week or month later.

‘BETTER THAN WILD’ SALMON

Most fresh salmon purchased in stores is farm-raised. It costs less than wild Pacific or Alaskan salmon but seldom has their fullness of flavor. Add “Better Than Wild” Salmon Dry Rub to ordinary farm-raised salmon, and you’ll think you bought wild salmon.

“Better Than Wild” Salmon Dry Rub (1 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 tablespoon garlic salt, 1 tablespoon black pepper, 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar)
1 pound salmon
18 inches cheesecloth
3 tablespoons cooking oil

Prepare smoker. Maintain smoker temperature at 165°F.
Mix kosher salt, garlic salt, pepper and brown sugar; set aside.
Wash and dry salmon. Massage dry rub on salmon surfaces. Brush or spray both salmon and cheesecloth with cooking oil. Position salmon on cheesecloth, skin side down. Place salmon in smoker on a grate away from heat source. Insert meat thermometer probe into salmon. (Cheesecloth will darken during smoking process but will stay intact and allow you to easily remove fragile, cooked fish from smoker. Cheesecloth lets smoke permeate, is inexpensive and is discarded for easy clean up.)
COOKING TIME: About 3 hours or until salmon has reached 145°F, the USDA recommended safe minimum internal temperature for fish. Salmon will be opaque, moist and flaky when checked with a fork.
BBQ TIP 1: Avid fishermen find that carp smokes especially well. The coarse grain of carp allows for layers of smoky flavor to build.
BBQ Tip 2: Trout and other fresh water fish can be smoked after cleaning. Place whole fish, laying open, with skin side down on the grate.

SMOKED BACON

Make a high-priced bacon from the least expensive bacon you can buy. No rub or sauce needed.

2 to 4 pounds unseasoned, sliced bacon

Prepare smoker. Maintain smoker temperature at 160°F.
Put sliced bacon on smoker grates. Smoke until bacon has a smoky coating.
SMOKING TIME: About 2 hours. Bacon will not be fully cooked but smoke will permeate bacon to add light, smoky flavor.
BBQ TIP: Before serving, microwave 1 minute per slice or fry as usual. Uncooked, smoked bacon can be kept in freezer or refrigerator for later use.

KING LOIN

Smoking changes pork loin from peasant to king. The change has to be tasted to be believed. Taking the time to make your own brine, dry rub and sauce will give you true bragging rights when the compliments roll in.

2 to 3 pound boneless pork loin (also called pork tenderloin)
Pork Loin Brine
A Carolina Dry Rub
Mustard Style Barbecue Sauce
3 tablespoons cooking oil

PORK LOIN BRINE

1 gallon water
21/2 cups kosher or canning salt
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ginger
1 tablespoon powdered garlic
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon rosemary
Mix all ingredients until salt and sugar are dissolved. Refrigerate or freeze until used.

A CAROLINA DRY RUB

1/4 cup ground black pepper
1/4 cup paprika
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon chili powder
11/2 teaspoons garlic powder
11/2 teaspoons onion powder
Mix all ingredients and store in covered container. Refrigeration is not needed.

MUSTARD STYLE BARBECUE SAUCE

1 cup yellow mustard (liquid)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons chili powder
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons butter
11 /2 teaspoons liquid smoke (hickory flavoring)
Mix together mustard, sugar, brown sugar, cider vinegar, water, chili powder, black pepper and white pepper. Simmer 30 minutes. Stir in soy sauce, butter and liquid smoke, and simmer for 10 more minutes. Refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to blend. Refrigerate unused sauce.
Put loin in plastic bag or nonreactive dish and pour brine over until loin is immersed. Refrigerate overnight. (Freeze unused brine for future use.)
Prepare smoker. Maintain smoker temperature at 180°F.
Remove loin from brine and wipe dry. (Discard used brine.) Rub all sides of loin with dry rub and mop with barbecue sauce. Spray all sides of loin with cooking oil. Put loin on smoker grate over pan of water. Insert meat thermometer probe into meat. After 2 hours, mop loin on all sides with barbecue sauce and turn.
COOKING TIME: About 4 hours to reach 160°F, the USDA recommended safe minimum internal temperature for pork. I recommend smoking until the internal temperature is 170°F.
BBQ TIP 1: Smoke 2 or more loins at a time. They freeze well and are great to have on hand for a special treat during a busy holiday or when unexpected guests arrive.
BBQ TIP 2: Sliced smoked loin sandwiches beat any lunchmeat available.

SMOKED BEEF ROAST

Rare, medium or well done, smoked beef roast is delicious at all levels. A meat thermometer will let you choose the level of doneness.

3 pound beef roast (any type will smoke well)
Pork Loin Brine, optional
A Carolina Dry Rub
Barbecue sauce
3 tablespoons cooking oil

To brine or not – that is the question. Brine adds flavor, but smoked beef roast is delicious either way – your choice. If you choose to marinate the roast with brine, I suggest immersing it in Pork Loin Brine overnight. (Discard used brine.)
Prepare smoker. Maintain smoker temperature at 180°F.
Wipe roast dry, rub generously with dry rub and mop with barbecue sauce. Spray all sides of roast with cooking oil. Put roast on smoker grate placed over a pan of water. Insert a meat thermometer probe into roast. After 2 hours, mop all sides with barbecue sauce and turn.
COOKING TIME: 3 to 5 hours. The USDA recommendations for beef are: 145°F for rare; 160°F for medium; 170°F for well done.
BBQ TIP 1: If you prefer the sauce on the roast to remain thick and red, wait to mop with barbecue sauce until a few minutes before taking roast from smoker.
BBQ TIP 2: A layer of pink called a smoke ring forms under the surface of slow cooked, smoked meat.

BRATWURST

Brats take on a new level of flavor when smoked. Natural casings allow smoke to penetrate to the meat inside, but casings on most store-bought brats won’t. Smoky flavor will cling to the casings. Put brats in the smoker beside other meat being barbecued. Brats are great snacks to keep in the refrigerator – if any make it that far.
Bratwurst (I suggest Johnsonville)
2 tablespoons cooking oil
A Carolina Dry Rub, optional
Barbecue sauce, optional

Prepare smoker. Maintain smoker temperature at 180°F.
Rub brats lightly with cooking oil before putting them on smoker grate. Putting dry rub on brats and/or mopping with sauce in preparation for smoking is an individual taste. For your first experience in smoking brats, leave some brats with no coating, put combinations of dry rub and/or sauce on others, and form your own opinion.
COOKING TIME: About 2 hours or until brats have reached 160°F, the USDA recommended safe minimum internal temperature for ground beef, veal and lamb.

CHICKEN BREAST

The dark and tasty crust adds to the intrigue of this old favorite.

1 or more boneless, skinless chicken breasts, any size
E meril’s Chicken Rub (FoodNetwork.com)
3 tablespoons cooking oil

Prepare smoker. Maintain smoker temperature at 180°F.
Wash chicken and wipe dry. Coat chicken with dry rub. Spray or pat chicken with cooking oil. Transfer chicken to smoker and insert meat thermometer probe.
COOKING TIME: About 3 hours or until chicken has reached 165°F, the USDA recommended safe minimum internal temperature for poultry.
BBQ TIP: Keep smoked chicken breast in the freezer to cube and add to salads.

Smoked Cheese

Smoked cheese is great for parties and snacks. The secret to smoking cheese is maintaining heat at less than 100°F. Above that, cheeses often melt. However, it is difficult to get wood to smoke at that low of a temperature. An easy solution is to make a box for smoking cheese that can be positioned on your smoker well away from the heat source. Smoke drifts upward from the smoker and vent hole and cools as it rises. Locate the box to catch the smoke but little heat.

A box for smoking cheese can be made by bending the flaps of a cardboard box inward. Cover box sides and bottom with aluminum foil inside and out. Turn the box to be open on the bottom to allow smoke to enter and closed on top. Five inches from the top of the box and 5 inches in from each side, drill holes to allow long skewers to enter and exit the box from front to back. On the skewers, set a cookie cooling rack.

Bricks or slices of cheese (Cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella, colby and Pepper Jack are favorites, but most hard cheese smokes well. Some brands of American cheese smoke well.)

18 inches cheesecloth

Prepare smoker. Maintain smoker temperature near cheese at or below 100°F.

Lay cheesecloth on cookie cooling rack in cheese smoking box, or on smoker grate well away from heat source. Set bricks or slices of cheese on cheesecloth. If using a thermometer, lay it on the cheese.

Smoking time: About 2 hours or until desired smoky coating is achieved.

BBQ Tip 1: Seal cheese in original wrap or in plastic bags. Refrigerate.

BBQ Tip 2: Smoke continues to permeate the cheese for a few days, but cheese is delicious if eaten immediately.

 Maple Glazed Smoked Ham

When smoking pre-cooked meats such as ham slices, your objective is to add extra flavor. Paint ham slices with Maple Glaze and put in smoker – what a difference it makes!

Maple Glaze (1 tablespoon maple syrup, 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil, 1/2 tablespoon paprika, 1/2 tablespoon onion powder, 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar)

1  pre-cooked ham slice,  24 ounces, about 1 inch thick

2 tablespoons cooking oil

Stir together maple syrup, oil, paprika, onion powder and vinegar; set aside.

Prepare smoker. Maintain smoker temperature at 165°F.

Brush or spray all sides of ham with cooking oil. Transfer ham to smoker; insert meat thermometer into ham. Smoke until meat thermometer indicates ham is nearly cooked. Mop with Maple Glaze and continue smoking. The glaze is put on late since it will caramelize and darken during the smoking process.

Cooking time for uncooked ham: About 3 hours or until ham has reached 160°F, the USDA recommended safe minimum internal temperature for pork.

Cooking time for pre-cooked ham: About 2 hours or until thoroughly heated. (When smoking pre-cooked ham, the USDA recommended safe minimum internal temperature for pork of 160°F need not apply.)

Shirley Splittstoesser is an Urbana, Illinois-based freelance writer who enjoys unique food interests. She is co-author of Hooray! A Cookbook for Single Me!