Published May 13, 2012 in Better Homes Magazine

It’s National Barbecue Month — what better time to take a smoldering look at the trendy practice of smoking meat at home on the grill?

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Where there’s smoke you’re smoking.

Translation: You don’t necessarily need to have a fancy store-bought smoker to enjoy the wonderful flavor and tenderness that come from barbecued smoked meats.

Your rusty old charcoal grill will do just fine, barbecue experts say. All you have to do is learn a few “tricks” of the smoker trade.

“The main trick is fire placement. Do not spread your fire under the entire cooking area,” said Ardie Davis, a Kansas City-based barbecue cookbook author who has come to Maine often to judge barbecue contests. “Put your fire to one side of the grill and your meat opposite the fire. Otherwise, you’re inviting intensely hot flare-ups and unwelcome smoke from burning fat.”

Sounds simple.

May is National Barbecue Month, so lots of barbecue experts are pushing themes for the upcoming grilling season. And one of them is that smoking meat at home outdoors, on your regular old grill, is not that hard.

Smoking is a time-honored — and time-intensive — method of slow-cooking meat to get ultimate tenderness and a robust flavor. It might take some time to smoke instead of grill, and you’ll need a few materials that you might not normally use, but you can do it.

That’s the theme of a new book, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Smoking Foods” (Alpha, $18.95) by Ted Reader, a Canadian chef and TV personality. Another book out this spring for beginning smokers is “Weber’s Smoke” ($21.95), published by the well-known grill maker and written by chef and best-selling author Jamie Purviance.

Both have basic tips on smoking, whether you’re using a grill or a smoker, as well as ways to adapt your grill for smoking.

THE FOUR COMMANDMENTS

Reader starts off with his smoking “commandments” to get people to start thinking like a smoker instead of a griller. Some of these commandments include:

• Be Prepared — As in, prepare your smoker/grill. Know what you’re cooking, how long it will take, how much wood you will need, etc. And always get the fire going well before putting anything on.

• Be Patient — Sometimes smoking is an all-day affair, so relax and enjoy it. As fellow barbecue author Davis says, “When your whiskey bottle is empty, the meat is done.”

• No Peeking — Reader and others say that even a 30-second peek under the lid at the wrong time could add 20 minutes to your smoking time.

• Practice Makes Perfect — Like any sort of cooking or grilling, it takes time to get the feel of what you’re doing.

So what is smoking, exactly, when we’re talking about backyard barbecue?

Davis — author of “25 Essentials: Techniques for Smoking” (Harvard Common Press, 2009) — describes it as cooking at a low temperature, usually lower than 190 degrees Fahrenheit, with smoke from hardwood logs, chunks or chips.

In Purviance’s “Weber” book, he gives step-by-step instructions on how much wood to use (or how much wood and charcoal) for certain recipes. He describes making “two-zone” heat by building two piles of heat source, wood or coals.

For anyone just starting out with smoking, it’s probably a good idea to follow a recipe to get an idea of fuel sources and cooking times, especially when smoking in a regular covered grill. Davis recommends Epicurious.com and Grilling.com as good places for smoking recipes.

Purviance also has a list of do’s and don’ts in his book for use as a general guideline once you have a recipe to follow.

These include using an aluminum foil roasting pan with water to add humidity if you’re smoking in a grill. Another is to remember that as a general rule, the actual “smoking” of a food with wood smoke should only be about half the total cooking time.

And he talks about watching the color of the smoke. When you burn wood correctly, it should be white smoke. If the fire is too hot, the smoke might turn black and add a bad flavor to your food.

FOODS TO TRY

So what should you smoke?

Davis says the foods that taste best after smoking are pork shoulder, pork ribs, chicken and beef brisket. But he likes lamb and mutton too. He says the only vegetables he’d smoke are onion and garlic, as other veggies or fruit can be overpowered by smoke.

As for liquid smoke, Davis doesn’t recommend it — much.

“If you’re really desperate for smoke flavor in a dish, use only a drop or two in baked beans or a barbecue sauce,” Davis said.

If you’re not desperate, take your time and learn the ins and outs of smoking. Davis recommends going to barbecue competitions and seeing if somebody will “mentor” you.

You can find barbecue competitions online at Bbq-festivals.com. There are already at least two scheduled for Maine this summer: The Western Main BBQ Festival in Fryeburg, Aug. 4-5; and the Mainely Grillin’ & Chillin” State BBQ Championships in Eliot, Aug. 11-12.

Davis’ final advice is simple: “Be patient. Learn from others. Have fun.”

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