There’s a primal satisfaction in a meal of smoked meats. Your ribs, your brisket, your pulled pork—such Deep South staples have at last fully infiltrated the North, if the local efflorescence of barbecue joints is any indicator. And as satisfying as it is to dine at such places, there’s an even greater satisfaction in smoking your own. It’s simple, it’s relatively inexpensive and, after the first time someone calls the fire department on you, the neighborhood should simmer down.
A personal-sized smoker is essentially a souped-up charcoal grill, and can be found at the big-box behemoths for under $200. Avoid the vertical models; you want a unit with an offset firebox in order to keep the smoke flowing and the temperature low. Make sure it comes with a thermometer.
Horizontal units feature a large cooking barrel and a smaller barrel mounted to one side at a slightly lower level. Both barrels can be used for direct-heat charcoal cooking. For smoking purposes, where you may need as much as 16 hours of cooking time, the fire is maintained in the smaller unit.
I start mine with charcoal, and once the coals are white I add as many stove-split hardwood logs as will fit in the barrel. Then I let them burn, uncovered, until the logs are fully aflame. Before adding the meat, stuff the small barrel again to capacity and close its lid. Regulate temperature with the air vents, found on the side of the small barrel and atop the large barrel’s chimney. The ideal (as a smoker thermometer will indicate) is around 225 degrees.
Which means you should check the smoker fairly regularly the first couple of times you use it, after which you’ll get a feel for the fire intensity-vent openings ratio.
You’ll find pitmasters who swear by one type of wood or another, and my inner snob longs to join that fraternity. But the truth is that I burn whatever logs we have on hand for our indoor wood stove.
There’s plenty of time while the fire develops to prepare the meat. The most essential ingredient for whatever you’re smoking is the dry rub with which you’ll coat the critter. This is a combination of seasonings that can include granulated garlic, ground cumin, mustard powder, paprika, cayenne and, of course, salt and pepper. I like to add a little cinnamon and powdered ginger. You’ll get a feel for the proportions as you experiment—there’s nothing very scientific about it.
Rinse and pat dry the meat, then coat it with the rub. It’s going to cake your fingers, but that’s one of cooking’s many sensory pleasures. I wrap the meat in tinfoil to keep it from charring too much. Be sure to fork-prick the bottoms so the liquids that come off the meat can drain.
A rack of pork ribs can take from 12 to 16 hours. A pork butt—which is actually the shoulder—takes from six to nine. Beef brisket can be done in four to six hours. What’s important is that the subject stays on the smoke long enough to break up whatever nature put in there to keep that particular cut cheap and tough.
I tend to start a session—especially when ribs are involved—late at night, getting everything on the smoke by midnight. This means that my earlier-rising wife is in charge of adding wood to the fire in the morning. If I’m not asleep at the time, I like to crack open the foil a bit a couple of hours before the meat is done to add exterior crispness. It’s not a job I’ll trust to anyone else.
You’ll know the barbecue is done either by the careful use of a meat thermometer or by ripping off a hunk and tasting it. I’m sure you’ve guessed my method. And you’ll learn that pulled pork peaks just as it’s coming off the grill, which becomes family-gathering time at my house.
For many barbecue fanatics, the sauce is as important as the meat. Commercial varieties tend to be tame and over-sweetened, so I make my own. I start by practically juicing onion and garlic in a food processor and heating it on the stove, then hand-squishing whole peeled tomatoes into it. Further ingredients usually include cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, a walloping amount of Dijon mustard, ditto hot sauce (which I buy by the gallon), honey, molasses, cumin, salt and pepper. Cook it on low heat, and use a diffuser with a gas stove—don’t burn the bottom! Let it simmer a long, long time. At some point along the way I run it through a blender to get rid of any chunks.
What else is on the menu? Cole slaw, of course—you can’t make a pulled-pork sandwich without it. Add grated carrots to your chopped cabbage, and dress it with a mix of mayo and vinegar seasoned with minced onions, salt, white pepper, molasses and celery seeds. Invite me and I’ll bring the jalapeno-cheddar cornbread.
It doesn’t matter that I’m willing and able to cook anything my visiting friends might enjoy. Since I first fired up my smoker, the only thing they ask for is barbecue. As I said, it’s primal.