Smoking meat is a primal thing. Smoke flavor was a by-product of primitive cooking methods, there simply wasn’t another way to get meat hot other than wood fires. However now that we’ve crawled out of the caves, cooking involves almost anything other than wood fuel. That smokey flavor has become a valued and coveted thing. A thing of connoisseurs, traditions, absolutes, jargon, and rivalry over whose method is the best. It’s spawned countless TV spots, and a thriving competition barbecue “circuit” where there is a definite right and wrong, and fabulous cash prizes for the former.
This might lead some to believe that in order to make great barbecue at home one would need a $5000 offset trailer smoker with duel zone digitally controlled temperature control. You also would need a super secret spice rub, the ingredients for which, under no circumstances can be disclosed to you, but can be purchased for a meager $25 dollars per 8oz. Not to mention the injections (what?), mops, glazes, and finishing sauces. What kind of wood do you need? Well, unless you’ve got an orchard in your back yard with 80 year old peach trees, you’re out of luck mister.
Let’s take a step back. Barbecue is supposed to be simple. Make fire. Add meat. Wait. Eat. The rest are just bells and whistles to make what is essentially one of the first human examples of cooking just that little bit better. What really matters is technique, and understanding exactly what is happening to that meat. So I present to you my simple, easy to do, and cheap barbecue solution: a Weber kettle grill.
The Weber. Simple, classic, and for our purposes, a very effective smoker. By now you should know the difference between grilling, which is what you do to burgers and steaks, and barbecue, which is what results in fall apart pulled pork and tender ribs. It’s hot and fast versus low and slow, and this little baby happens to be pretty darn good at both. The only special hardware you’ll need for this is a hinged cooking grate (which is honestly not even needed but really nice), and a reliable thermometer.
For the fuel, the classic Kingsford Briquette, the blue bag. Don’t get anything that is “self lighting,” it tastes and smells like kerosene, because that’s what it is. Also don’t get anything labeled “lump charcoal.” Cowboy brand is the most commonly found, these aren’t briquettes, but lumps of actual carbonized wood. This stuff burns hot and fast, perfect for steaks, bad for barbecue.
As for the actual wood that’s going to do the smoking, I’d recommend anything that isn’t Mesquite. That wood is very harsh, and suitable for very short cooks on things like chicken, but honestly I find the flavor too acrid and it overpowers everything else, including the meat. Stick with oak, hickory, or fruit wood. Also, don’t get chips. Those things are just a waste of time and money, no matter how much you soak them. These cooks are going to last hours, so you want to have a big chunk of wood in there to slowly smolder. Opening the top to constantly add chips is going to make the temperature jump all over the place, you want to put the top on and leave it there. Look for chunks in bags in the grill aisle at hardware stores like Home Depot.
**NEVER use any treated lumber, like 2×4’s, to cook, they’re infused with harmful chemicals and those will make you sick/kill you. Don’t do it.
Next is the meat. Typically, the tougher and more fatty the meat the better the end result, so things like pork shoulder are a great way to get into barbecue. It’s a huge chunk of meat and takes a long time to cook, but it’s very forgiving and will usually result in good eats regardless. It’s a great way to calibrate your grill and learn how to control the temperatures and smoke levels. I needed to figure out my new Weber when I got it, so I got several different kinds of meat to smoke, all with different requirements. The pork shoulder took the longest at 12 hours, the ribs were next at about 5, and the chicken thighs were the shortest at around 2 hours.
There are more posts coming about barbecue. I’ll cover specific techniques for different foods, managing temperature, etc. But for now, I’ll leave you this teaser of a pork shoulder I did a few weeks ago. The spray is another trick I learned, and is plain old apple juice. The spray keeps the meat moist, and the sugar from the juice helps create that beautiful dark “bark” on the outside. Stay tuned.