While a backyard get-together over the summer is commonly centered around the grill, as the weather begins to cool, home chefs should begin to think about either transitioning that grill to become a smoker or putting a standalone personal smoker to use.
If you are thinking of getting into smoking — the “low and slow” cooking variety —it’s possible to convert a charcoal or propane grill with the purchase of a smoking platform, which retails for about $30-$50, compared to a full-sized personal smoker, which starts at about $175 and goes into four digits, depending on how much you want to spend.
There are many different options when it comes to type of wood and type of smoker, but there are two constants for making quality smoked meat and vegetables: time and air flow.
Time and temperature
You’ve heard the term “low and slow” before, and the optimum cooking temperature ranges from 200 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, with a sweet spot of 225 degrees. Airflow is important for keeping temperature consistent. Open the smoker’s baffle and chimney to fuel the smoker during the heating process. Once it reaches the desired temperature and your items are secured, make sure to keep the main door closed to mitigate temperature fluctuations.
The biggest difference between gas and electric smokers is that electric smokers supply a consistent power source and require no adjustment during the process, but electric smokers don’t have the high-end power and are shunned from competition smoking.
During cooking, keep the chimney wide open and close the intake baffle (typically located near the fire box opening). A meat thermometer with a temperature probe is a worthy purchase to cut out the guessing game for when the meat is done. Typically, most meat is done in two to three hours, but large cuts like brisket take up to 14 hours.
If you’re unsure of the what type of wood to use as a beginner, oak and cherry woods have profiles that work across all types of meat. Apple wood is good for chicken and fish while hickory and mesquite are better for beef and pork.
Soaking wood chips in water allows smoke to release more evenly over time and prevents them from burning as quickly. Smaller personal smokers are equipped with a water pan located between the heat source and food, which prevents meat from drying out and helps maintain a consistent temperature. Experiment by using different liquids for new flavor: Use coffee grounds or tea for pork and beef or pineapple or orange juice for chicken and fish.
Of course, a smoker isn’t just for meat. Smoking cheese and vegetables is a great way to add flavor to your meal. In the fall, try roasting butternut or acorn squash with maple wood to ramp up the seasonal flavor. Okra and Brussels sprouts are also in-season vegetables to try smoked. A gumbo made with smoked okra and tomatoes will be sure to be a hit during a weekend of watching football.
Much lower temperatures are required to smoke cheese. Don’t allow the temperature to rise above 90 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the cheese from melting. It is better to pair stronger cheese with a milder wood and vice versa. For example, use apple wood with cheddar and hickory with mozzarella.