Friday, March 20, 2009
It's the first day of Spring and the sun is shining, so that's reason enough for me to bust out the smoker. I use a Weber Smokey Mountain smoker and generally do ribs, chicken, and pork shoulder at least a couple times a month when the weather is good.
It's easy and the results are delicious, but it's quite the process. There is a bit of a learning curve to get started. And mastering the process is a long journey. But there are resources available.
I used Gary Wiviott's excellent Master the WSM Smoker in Five Easy Dinners Course, which I stumbled onto via LTH Forum. Followed it to the letter, I did. And emerged with a good amount of working knowledge about how to handle the smoker. I highly recommend Prof. Wiviott's method for novices.
Reading GWiv's website will give anyone interested the fine details and methods, so I'm not going to cover all that. What I will do is gloss over the process, giving whoever's interested a bit of an intro into barbecue, generally, and the WSM, specifically. If you find yourself wanting more specifics after reading this, they're easy enough to find.
First, I'll define what we're talking about. "Barbecue" is a term that is often misused. It refers to a process of cooking meat (usually) for long periods of time over low, indirect heat, in near-constant contact with the smoke of hardwood. Low, smokey, and slow cooking. The trick is to keep the smoke moving across the meat while keeping the cooking temperature low; usually around 200°-250°F.
The WSM accomplishes this by having the fire burn at the bottom of the "bullet", and then placing a pan full of water between the fire and the the racks that hold the meat in the upper area of the unit. The water pan helps to moderate the temperature, as well as catch drippings from the cooking meat that could result in flare-ups if they landed in the fire.
This process allows the smoke to infuse and flavor the meat, and the long, low-temp cooking causes the collagen and connective tissue in certain tougher cuts of meat to break down, resulting in a transformation that anyone who loves good barbecue is familiar with. Cuts like beef brisket, pork shoulders, and ribs become meltingly tender and unctuous when given four, eight, or 12 hours of the barbecue treatment. It's a unique way of extracting the most flavor and enjoyment out of these particular pieces of meat.
One thing that really makes me bristle is hearing people referring to their grill (especially a gas grill) as a "barbecue" or saying that they're going to have a "barbecue" when they're planning on cooking some steaks, burgers, or dogs on the grill. THAT'S NOT BARBECUE!!! That's "grilling". There's an enormous difference.
Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against grilling. I own a gas grill and use it often. But I don't call the burgers, chicken, or portobellos I cook on my grill "barbecued" because they're not.
Grilling is a high heat method of cooking in which the food sits on a grate directly above, and in close proximity to, the heat source--usually open flames. The foods cook very quickly. Therefore, it's best suited to items that are leaner and inherently tender; steaks, chops, fish, burgers, etc. "Lesser" cuts like ribs and brisket would be a disaster on the grill, as the tougher fibers of these meats would not break down during the quick grilling process. Ribs are often finished on a grill, but try grilling them from their raw state and then eating them. Not good.
Even if you're using a charcoal grill, and loading it up with real hardwood charcoal (as opposed to those nasty, chemical-laden "briquettes"), you're still grilling. If the heat is high and direct, it's not barbecue.
Grilling is often considered (especially by marketing/advertising types) as the ultimate "guy thing". Take a look at the father's day gift ideas every year and all you see are these high-tech grilling gadgets and tools. But smoking is much more of a real guy thing than cooking a steak on one of those $4,000 gas grills with their infrared sear burners could ever hope to be.
I mean, think about it; anyone can turn a knob, wait a few minutes, plop a steak on a grill, poke it with their silly temperature sensing fork a few times, and then pull it off when the thing beeps. A friggin' monkey could do it.
Smoking, on the other hand, involves fire. Fire that you light with a flame. Fire that burns differently every time, depending on the air temperature, the wind, and the quality of the charcoal.
Like the primeval ancestors that came before him, a true barbecuer makes a fire and that fire is a living thing that must be controlled. It's much more of a "guy thing" to work with your fire, learn its idiosyncrasies, and figure out how to simultaneously tame and maintain it. There is much skill involved with this. Turning a knob and clicking the igniter on your big, shiny, culinary equivalent of a Hummer doesn't put you in touch with your inner caveman, no matter how much you grunt like the guy from Home Improvement when you do it.
I joked in my last entry about how I enjoy taking on projects with steep learning curves. Well, this one's no joke. All the senses are involved in the smoking process--watching the fire and meat, smelling what the fire's doing, listening to hear when the water pan needs refilling and when the charcoal has gone to ember, touching the meat to figure out if it's reached that falling-apart level of tenderness.
Not only that, but once you've got the basics down, there are an infinite number of variables to mess around with. You've got your various rubs and marinades to play with. Hardwood options include oak, hickory, mesquite, pecan, apple, alder, and more. The classic meats to use are brisket, pork shoulder, and chicken, but once you've got those nailed, you can start branching out with turkey, fish, smoking your own pork belly for homemade bacon, making your own smoked sausages, and on and on. It's also nice to smoke non-meat items while your main dish is going. I usually do a pot of baked beans that I set on the smoker for a few hours while the ribs or chicken is going, and I've also smoked onions, peppers, and even potatoes to use in side dishes.
It's one of those minute-to-learn, lifetime-to-master things. And those are often the best things.