Temperature and time is crucial to ensure your meat comes out perfect regardless of the cut you use. Traditionally meats are smoked at temperatures ranging from 185ᵒF (85ᵒC) to 300ᵒF (148.8ᵒC). The temperature is sometimes increased near the end of the cooking process.
What you may not realize is that the meats can only absorb so much smoke and after about three hours, the meat will stop absorbing the smoke. At this point, it is all about the heat. You can of course surround the meat with smoke the entire time, but usually this will not “increase” the smoke flavor and may in fact give the meat a bitter taste.
Anyone that has sliced smoked meat knows about the smoke ring that is about a quarter inch into the meat. This is how far the smoke can usually penetrate when using whole cuts versus thinly sliced meats. The smoked outer layer is what acts to help preserve the meat.
“Low and slow” cooking break down the connective tissues and collagens within a cut of meat. This process renders out of the fat, tenderizes the connective tissues in the meat, and breaks it down into basic sugars giving the meats a sweet flavor.
Smoke absorbed into meat acts as a preservative. Wood smoke has antibacterial properties and thus smoked meats can be considered preserved or cured in some cases. In years past people used smoke to keep the flies and other insects away when they cooked their foods over open fires. They soon discovered however, that in addition to driving off pests, the smoke added flavor to the foods and that meats did not spoil as quickly.
If you want to smoke meats so they do not have to be refrigerated you would cut the meat into thin slices so the entire piece is allowed to absorb the smoke. This process will also dry the meat out. This method removes the moisture from the meat proteins, moisture that bacteria needs to survive.
If you smoke to preserve meats, you would smoke at a lower temperature, 200ᵒF/93ᵒC and use the indirect cooking method. Indirect cooking means the meat is not placed over the heating source or it is elevated enough above the heat source. You do want the meat to cook, when curing meats with smoke you want it to dry out (dehydrate) essentially.
Types of Wood
Hardwoods are used for smoking meats and the wood is ready for smoking when well seasoned, in other words, it has low moisture content usually 20 percent or slightly less. The moisture in the wood is turned into steam, so you can imagine if you used wood with high sap content. The sap would change the flavor and usually never for the better. This is one reason you would not smoke with pine or other woods heavy with resins.
Wood with lower moisture content means the fibers are separating and breaking down and is not suitable for producing heat or smoke.
Everyone has his or her own ideas on what wood produces the best flavor. Some prefer hickory while others like apple, oak, cherry, or maple. Some claim that there is no difference in flavor regardless of the wood used, while others swear they can tell the difference. It all comes down to personal preference however. There really is no right or wrong way of smoking as long as you adhere to the basics of temperature control and that you use hardwoods well seasoned and always cook low and slow.
Types of Smokers
Typically, meats are smoked using the indirect cooking method, and some charcoal grills will have a heating chamber that is offset just for this purpose. This means the meats are placed in one chamber and the heat source in the other. There is usually a damper in between the two to control the flow of smoke and heat. The heating chamber will also have dampers so you can control combustion by allowing more or less oxygen, and thus increase or decrease the temperature.
Wet or dry smoke, it is up to you. To wet smoke, you would place a pan of water near the heat source so the water is allowed to heat and this means the moisture rises and surrounds the meat to help tenderize it, or as some claim to help keep it tender.
Once again, some claim they see no difference while others would not dream of smoking without a pan of water near the heat. Many models of smokers will include a pan just for this purpose. You can add apple cider vinegar, apple juice or any type of juice, as well as, cut up apples or other fruit to add flavor to the steam. Some may even add some well-aged Kentucky Bourbon to the water.
You do not need to rush out and purchase an expensive smoker to achieve professional results. In fact, you do not need to rush out and purchase any type of smoker unless you want to of course. You can smoke over an open flame, use your charcoal grill or even your propane grill or smoke in a pit you create in the ground.
To smoke using a typical charcoal grill you would build a small fire on one side of the grill and place your meats on the other. You can make the fire using charcoal but you will need wood chips or chunks to create smoke. Soak the wood in water for several hours or even overnight if using larger chunks. Wet wood will create smoke and the moisture helps keep it from flaming up, allowing for heat that is more consistent.
For open flame, cooking you can enclose an area, to include the top, using metal tin roofing or other easy to mange metal material. It is important that you have a way of containing the smoke around your meat. Leave one side open, but have a sheet of metal to place over the opening when not attending the fire. You can hang the food for smoking large cuts or construct a rack that is elevated well above the heat.
You do not want to create flame. You want the wood to smolder and produce some heat and plenty of smoke. Use the draft vents on the grill lid or sides to control the combustion. When you stop seeing smoke billowing from under the lid, add some more wood that has been soaked in water, or in any flavorful liquid of your choice. Be careful when using wood chips soaked in bourbon because of the combustion factor.
To smoke meats using a gas grill ignite one burner or one side of the grill and place the meat on the cold side. Pre-heat the grill per manufactures instructions before placing meats or chips on the grill. Place soaked wood chips in a small clean can such as a tuna fish can or wrap in aluminum foil. Puncture some holes in the foil so the smoke can escape. The chips will go on the hot side. Once you stop seeing smoke replace the chips. Have several packets of chips pre-wrapped for an easy change over.
A smoker pit as defined by today’s standards is simply a container or enclosed area in which to smoke in such as a grill designed specifically for smoking foods.
You can of course dig a pit and place hot coals in the bottom and place meats slightly elevated over the coals and then cover the pit. Many cultures still cook this way today. You will have to devise a way to elevate the foods by using grates or stones, or you could place the meats directly on the coals wrapped in foil or some other protective layer. You would need to place holes in the foil to allow the smoke to seep into the meat.
This method of cooking relies on the hot coals and having enough combustibles in the pit so you do not have to add wood during the cooking process. Literally, cooking in a pit is not an ideal way to smoke but it is an option. This method is designed to cook foods over many hours even overnight.