It never occurred to me that I could take a vacation and learn how to cook something. This morning in the Washington Post I read about a day camp for smokers–beef and pork smokers. Smoking meats was the second thing that I fell in love with doing as far as cooking goes. First I learned to grill meats, like we discussed yesterday. I loved eating smoked ribs and decided I wanted to see if I could do that well at home. The short answer is “Yes!” In fact, the ribs have to be really really good at a restaurant or it’s not worth even the drive to go out for smoked meats. I can do such a good job on ribs, brisket, ham or poultry that I have to be in a really bad way to not do it at home instead of going to a restaurant.
In the beginning, though, there was a learning curve. First I tried smoking on my charcoal grill. While this is possible, it is hardly care-free cooking. To smoke food on the grill, first off, it has to be something that doesn’t take too long to cook, like ribs or cut up chicken. The basic procedure is make two piles of charcoal and put a water pan in the middle. You will put the meat over the water, so that there isn’t any radiant heat getting to the meat. If that happens it will burn. You put the wood chips on one or both piles of charcoal. This makes a pretty hot grill and it only works if your grill has a lid that you can control the airflow with. The best way to get good ribs with this rig is to take the meat off when the fire starts to die out, double wrap them in heavy duty aluminum foil, and finish cooking them in a 325 degree oven. The foil keeps the wood smoke aroma in the meat, if you heat up your ribs bare in the oven it scares away the smoky flavors, and they will dry up on you.
Lots can go wrong smoking on your grill. Like I said, you can get the meat too close to the fire and you will lose some to radiant heat burning or drying. It’s possible to not cook the ribs long enough (if the bones are starting to poke out of the shrinking meat they are about right), and then the meat is still stuck to the bone, makes them not as fun to eat. If your grill is too cool they take a long time, if your grill is too hot the smoky flavor will not be as strong when you take them off. Since your meat is confined to the middle of the grill you have space issues limiting how much you can cook. For just a little bit of money you can do better.
The first smoker I bought was a little kettle that had two racks for meat, a fire rack at the very bottom and a little water bowl that sat over the fire. This one was barely better than the grill. I sold it at our very next garage sale.
Next I got a propane smoker box and it was a lot better. The door on it wouldn’t seal up all the way to the top so it was hard to get the box temp very high. Low temperature works pretty good for some things, but if you are trying to get a turkey to 185 it was a challenge. It could do ribs and sausages really well, though.
Next I got my final smoker. I got a Cabella’s electric one. This one has all the advantages. I can set the temperature control, put some wood chips or sawdust in a cast iron pan and put that on the little electric burner. I can put anything in here and walk off and it’s almost impossible to screw it up. The temp will control low enough that I can even smoke cheese in it. A smoker that can smoke everything from cheese to turkey is the bomb.
Still, even with all I know about smoking meats, I could get great knowledge from going to the Texas barbecue camp. I would also get great enjoyment out of it. Workshops are great for being in a room with other people that are dedicated to getting the same things out of the class as you are. Adult learning is a great way to learn where you go for a few days, talk all day long about a topic you love talking about, and go away smarter and fulfilled.
And what could be more man-friendly than a workshop where this kind of thing goes on:
Two smoked briskets are brought in and laid on a table. Their fragrance fills the room. They were cooked the night before and have been resting for a couple of hours. “Resting a brisket for a long time is really important,” says Franklin, whose briskets at his restaurant stay in a warmer at 140 degrees for two to three hours after coming off the pit.
Meat, smoke, resting….sounds like heaven, right? Who is with me!