The art of food preservation by smoking goes back thousands of years. For today's backyard cooks, smoking provides an easy and fun method of adding additional flavor, tenderness, and succulence to any meat. Even the cheapest cuts of meat come out tender and juicy with low and slow smoking. In colonial times and before, the ole wooden smokehouse was commonly used to hang homemade sausage, fish, freshly killed meats, hams, and the like. This was usually a simple wooden structure with an offset hardwood fire pit with some sort of channeling/flue system to allow the smoke to enter the building without excessive heat. American Indians arranged wooden frames with fish and thinly sliced meats over low smoky fires to preserve the fish for future use and to make simple jerky out of bison, venison, or whatever was available.
Bass Pro Shops offers a variety of steel constructed smokers from major manufacturers such as Brinkman, Masterbuilt, Weber, Bradley, and others. The simplest ones use charcoal for the heat source, and although a bit more tricky to master, offer an inexpensive method to enjoy the flavors and benefits of smoking your own meats. Other units operate either on propane cylinders or electricity, with greatly simplified temperature control. The Bradley electric units offer full digital control.
The basic tenant of successful smoking is "low and slow." Temperatures of around 250 - 275 degrees are maintained for many hours to slowly cook and tenderize the meat. Soaked hardwood chips or chunks are placed directly on the heat source or in a smoker box to provide the smoke. A water pan is placed above the heat source as well to generate steam that mixes with the smoke and bastes the meat with flavor and moisture to keep it from drying out over the long cooking times. The water pan is filled nearly full with just water, water and herbs, beer, juices, or other combinations. Some folks add veggies to the liquids in the water pan to cook along with the meat. The fat and flavorings added to the meat will drip down into the water pan and add flavor to the vegetables.
Bass Pro Shops carries a large variety of hardwood chips and chunks, including Jack Daniels oak (from their discarded and well seasoned whiskey barrels), Western hickory, mesquite, apple, alder, maple, cherry, and Bradley pecan. Down here in the south, hickory and pecan are the woods of choice; however, I have used several of the others with good results (for example, apple is good to use with pork, while filling the water pan with apple juice or cider). Soft, resinous woods such as pine or cedar should never be used as they will taint the meat with a turpentine flavor. I have heard of some cooks using fresh cut sticks of citrus to add an unusual twang and flavor to fish and other meats.
Many cooks also choose to use one of the scores of dry rubs or one of the dozens of Cajun Injector marinades available between the Camping and Gift Departments at Destin's Bass Pro Shops. The marinades can also be used as a great and flavorful baste on meats you are grilling.
For over 30 years, I have used Brinkman charcoal smokers and one custom made cast iron unit. Although I admit that temperature control seems to be much easier to achieve with the propane or electric models, with use one gets used to the temperature varietys of charcoal smoking and one can achieve equally good results as with the other units. When using charcoal, however, use a charcoal chimney rather than lighter fluid to avoid the kerosene flavor of lighter fluid.
There is nothing better than a smoked turkey at holiday times; nor homemade Bar-B-Que sandwiches made with chopped or pulled smoked pork shoulder or butt or chicken. A fresh ham (not already smoked) or beef brisquet is also a real treat in the smoker. I rarely put a smoked ham or other already smoked meats into my smoker for a long time. Additional smoking can cause the flavor of the meat to be overwhelming and sometimes bitter.
You only need sufficient hardwood chips (a couple of handsful) soaked for 30 minutes to an hour, which provides up to one hour of good smoke. That should be enough to give the meat a wonderful smoky flavor and provide that "coveted" smoke ring somewhat below the outer layer of meat. After and hour of smoke, the rest of the cooking should just consist of low heat and steam to thorougly cook and tenderize the meat. Make sure to check the charcoal (if using some) and keep the water pan rather full. Never let the water pan run dry! I cook most meats like turkeys, pork shoulders, etc. for some 7 to 8 hours, including the one hour of good smoke generation. Doneness should be checked with a meat thermometer; however with practice one can tell if something is done by sight and feel.
Bass Pro Shops also carries a variety of smoker and grilling accessories to meet your needs. Have fun with your smoker and enjoy the economy and flavorful meals and treats that you can make. Check out our Gift Department for numerous books and receipes available for smokers. And finally, call me when it's ready!
By Gary Feduccia