Starting my smoking habit

When Hun’s brother came to visit us over Memorial Day, he asked us if we could have a little celebration barbecue. I decided it was time to buy a smoker. Originally, I’d been thinking of a regular grill, and the questions was gas or charcoal? In cooking school, all my chef-instructors agreed—gas was great for convenience and cleanup, but for flavor, charcoal was the unanimous winner. The same vote came from all the food, cooking, and grilling blogs I’d visit. The clincher came when one of my chef-instructors said I could get the same results from a broiler as I could from a grill, and after a few steaks, salmon, and chicken experiments, I found this to be true. It was like grilling, but upside down. So, a charcoal it was. I just couldn’t commit to spending money on something I wasn’t sure I would use. The special Memorial Day request was the clincher, though. I talked to Brother #2, who is an avid griller and smoker, and he told me his smoker was just a little $50 deal from Home Depot. I went and picked up the Lowe’s equivalent along with a bag of Kingsford briquettes and some chintzy BBQ supplies. We’d already bought a rack of spareribs and a pack of four chicken quarters, so we were ready in the food department.

Assembly was required, but it was pretty easy—just about all the pieces are held together with wingnuts. I love wingnuts!


broken gauge
The broken gauge glass.

We had to do an initial smoke before use to burn out the factory oils so it would be safe(r?) to use, so we smoked it up Saturday night. Late Saturday night. I was afraid our neighbors would call the fire department. It took us so many tries to get a fire started that I was beginning to worry that we didn’t have the competence to deal with any sort of fire, much less disasters that might accompany a fire. We only had to burn for a couple of hours, but Hun put a lot of charcoal in—even after I asked him to take a bunch out, there was still a lot left. We burned a lot of newsprint and broke a lot of matches, but we got it lit. We should’ve been done just before 2 a.m., but Hun said it was still hot when he came to bed after a long night up with his bro at 5 a.m. At least I know little Smokey held heat well! I tried to stay up to man the pit, but I went to bed and read up on smoking until I drifted off. Even though there are loads of general and specialty cookbooks on my cookbook shelf, I don’t own any books on grilling. I’ve never had to. More than half of my books are on baking. Instead, I made use of the net and our in-bed-friendly iPad and took my info from and

Things I took away with me to dreamland that night:

*Build a fire using nut or fruit wood, never coniferous wood. Put the wood in a pyramid on the briquettes and light it up.

*Rip the membrane off the back of the spareribs. My brother who smokes (heretofore known as Smoker Bro) told me the same thing, and I’d had to do this before with the Asian ribs recipe I make.

*Ribs need only an hour to suck rub in.

*Ribs need 6 to 7 hours to smoke, and chicken quarters need 3, so I’d start the ribs in the middle rack, then put the chicken on the top rack during the last half so all the meat would be ready at once.

The next day, I discovered that the broken gauge glass wasn’t the only flaw—there was a tiny hole in the welding seam of the smoker’s body. I knew that smoke came out of all the joints, though, so I didn’t fret about it too much.

I lit my briquettes (which again took me way longer than necessary to light, even after I remembered the lemon tree trimmings in the backyard and built a pyramid out of them), tossed my smoking wood in, and went inside to rub my ribs. Yes, I threw the smoking wood in long before the ribs ever got to the smoker, but I’m a newbie, and I thought I was doing right by it all. I took the membrane off, trimmed some of the skirt off and skewered it, then halved the rack to fit better into my smoker. I remembered that Hun had a little container of rub left over from when he cooked steaks for our Easter dinner (we don’t celebrate Easter, we just celebrate Easter dinner), so I used that. It left my rub a little sparse, since it was a little container, but I had enough to cover the whole slab. I put the same rub onto the chicken, stuffing some of it under the skin, and left those in the fridge until they'd be ready to go on in four hours later.

My First Smoke!
Look into my smoker . . .

My First Smoke!
Mmmmeat! Well, it looks the way I thought it would. Except the chicken. I honestly don’t recall having seen much smoked chicken in my life, but if I were to imagine it, it would look like this.

The verdict? I freakin’ love smoking. I love the challenge of it. Creating and making things happen is fun, but make it a challenge, and it’s hardcore. You can say you like to cook, and that means you like cutting some stuff up, throwing it in a pot, and cooking it for an hour. I say I like to cook, and that means I like to recreate my French Cuisine cooking class final all by myself—7 hours of prep and a couple of hours of actual cooking and plating to feed a seven-course meal to four friends who I don’t even get to sit down and eat with because I’m too busy cooking and plating. It’s the same with a lot of my creative endeavors—staying up all night to make art, practice guitar, put zines together, write, learn to code websites, build architecture models, etc. In other words, I love it when it’s EPIC. It’s not just the journey, which cool, but the rewards reaped from the gods. For reals.

So, the food itself? It was awesome.

My First Smoke!
Juicy meat and the smoke ring off the top of the spareribs--the rib tips, which I left on. I did trim off and skewer the skirt to make a chef's kabob so we could all have an early taste of what we were in for.

the finished plate!
The plate: chicken, spareribs, and broccoli salad. Even the chicken was pinky from being smoked, although Hun was at first paranoid that it was from being undercooked. I have a sad history of serving him undercooked chicken. Even when my serving, which cooked next to his, would come out fine, his would somehow be undercooked. This time, though, it was smoke. One caveat, though: smoked chicken skin is not so good, at least, not without . . . stuff. Maybe sauce would’ve helped. I considered a run under the broiler to crisp it up.

Notes (some of it repeated from above):

Remove the membrane from the rib racks so the marinade/rub and smoke will better penetrate.

I read that pork needs only an hour to marinade/suck in the rub, so I marinated my pork before I started the smoker. I left the ribs out, but I more recently read in the Meatwave blog at that an overnight in the fridge helps suck the flavor in. If I do marinate overnight, then make sure to take meat out when I start the charcoal so it can come up to temp and doesn’t go in too cold. Like the chicken quarters did, plunging my temps down to an arctic 175 while I frantically started adding hot coals to the pan to try to raise the temp. How does one without a chimney starter or other grill light coals? With a brulee torch. It works! It’s awkward, but it works.

Charcoal’s hard to light. Use fruit or nut woods to build a kindle pyramid over your charcoal, then light. Or, buy a chimney starter! (I bought a chimney starter. After the fact, of course.)

I read that soaking woodchips isn’t necessary since it doesn’t retain much moisture, but not sure about whether soaking makes the wood chips last longer. Smoker Bro soaks his chips, so I did, too.

I was going to use only hickory (and soaked way too much of it overnight), but I read that hickory can sometimes seem bitter, so I started with 2 oz. of hickory and 2 oz. of apple, which is supposed to taste sweeter.

I read to measure wood chunks when smoking. Put wood directly into hot coals. 8 oz for a rack of ribs should be enough, but that’s with golf-ball-sized chunks. Start off with 4 oz since the meat sucks up most of the flavor during the first 30 minutes (or is it 3 hours?). Add the remaining 4 oz throughout the rest of the smoke. Do NOT oversmoke—this will ruin the meat and make it bitter.

I read that not everyone uses the water pan, and Smoker Bro successfully smokes dry, but I read that it can help regulate the temperature if there’s trouble with it getting too high. Some people just put the pan and a terra cotta pot dish wrapped in foil at the bottom to catch the mess and also kinda-sorta help with temp regulation. The instructions say to keep water in the pan. I added water whenever the smoker got too hot, and the temperature came down. While reading up on the Minion Method, I read to add hot water on cool days and cool water on hot days, and I’ll amend that to go with what the smoker temp is doing.

Add the meat, then add the smoking wood. For some dopey reason, I lit the charcoal, added the wood, then watched it smoke away while the temp adjusted over the next half hour, long before I ever added anything to smoke. DOPEY.

I read from Meatwave not to raise the cover during the first 2 hours so the temp. will stay even and the “best” smoke will stay in.

The smoker’s temp will drop with the weather! In the hot Memorial Day sun, nearly 100 degrees, it kept steady, but once the sun went over the house and left the smoker in the shade, the temp dropped. Also adding to the bummer:

The smoker’s temp will drop with new additions, just like an oven. I was still trying to fix the shade problem and had gotten the temp to about 210 when I added four cold chicken quarters. I should’ve taken them out of the fridge for a bit first.

I read that the grease that collects inside the smoker will help seal it, but the instructions say to keep it clean to the degree that the grease can’t catch fire. If it’s gooey and would incur the wrath of Chef Gordon Ramsey a la Kitchen Nightmares, clean it out!

After smoking, let the coals die out over time in the closed up (read: oxygen deprived) smoker. If there are any solid chunks, then they’re on fire on the inside. It burns! Let it burn out!! Instead of letting ambition lead you to pouring hot ashes through plastic bags because you want to clean the mess up. Melting plastic plus loose ashes plus hot coals equals big effing’ mess, times a hundred. If there are chunks left, you can sift them out and use for next time.

A lot of smokers use something called the Minion Method when they smoke. It puts hot coals on top of cold coals, and the cold coals slowly light up. This makes for a longer burn at a lower temperature, which is optimal for smoking for six or more hours. Here are some Minion Method notes I want to try for next time:

On warm, calm days, light 20 briquettes to add to a coal pan full of cold briquettes. On cold/windy days, light 20-40 briquettes.

Use cool tap water in the water pan on warm days, and hot water on cold days.

Fully open all vents while lighting (How do you I that with my ventless Master Forge smoker? Dunno--but I'll see if I can figure a way out. Maybe just leave the access door ajar.).

If temperature drops, stir coals gently so ash doesn’t get on food, or remove middle section and stir vigorously.

Check water pan every 2 to 4 hours and add hot water as needed.

Check coals after 12 hours and add hot coals if needed.

Eventually, I want to try to do a pulled pork. Here' are some Notes I want to keep in mind:

8-lb range for pork butts, 16-17-lb range for shoulders.

Inject butts/shoulders: 2 c apple juice, ½ c kosher salt, ½ c brown sugar, 1 T Worcestershire sauce, 1 T soy sauce. Heat over medium until salt and sugar dissolve, cool, then inject (all for shoulder, half for butt) right through the cryovac/store packaging, then rest overnight.

For dry rub, start with mustard slather, then use low-sugar content, high-salt content rub.

Stop smoking butt/shoulder at 160 internal. Wrap in heavy duty foil to tenderize the meat and leave on smoker until 195 internal. Then vent and return to smoker for glazing.

After the first two hours, wrap ribs in heavy duty foil with apple juice, margarine, or whatever baste, wrap them up, and cook for 2 hours at 225. Check at 1:45 and check for tenderness (bones will be loose. Remove from smoker and vent foil. Ribs will be loose and can fall apart, but after 10 minutes, they’ll “lock up” and can be transferred back to smoker for glazing.

Don’t start with a rub with a high sugar content—sugar will burn. Use sugary rub in your finishing rub.

And some notes of my own:

Find out (1) the best way to stoke coals, especially as ash collects in the coal pan and starts to clog the vents, and (2) best way to get air to coals--probably through the access door in my case.

Also, get opinions on (1) rib racks that hold multiple racks of ribs upright like a napkin holder.


Kitt said…
Wow! That's an epic post for an epic effort. Looks delicious. Brava!
Mike Marsh said…
OK, I definitely need to get a smoker.
Julie said…
Thanks, Kitt! And yeah, my post looks so much bigger online!

Mike! I've missed you! I didn't know what happened to you after you left Facebook. And yes, you should totally start smoking! Totally!

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