The discovery of fire is heralded as one of the singular most important events in human history. It brought comfort and warmth, light in darkness. And fire brought transformation to food sources, unlocking a whole new world of flavor and nutrition to the earliest humans. In the earliest days of cooking, I am certain many meals were burned before the first culinarians began to get a handle of cooking over open flames. It was in these first days that many of our modern cooking techniques were discovered—some of which have changed very little, like smoking.
Smoking is the act of cooking near an open flame, using indirect heat to slowly cook meats or vegetables. There are two different styles of smoking. Cold smoking is implemented over very long periods of time at temperatures below 120 degrees. This method can be used to help in preservation of meats by lowering the internal moisture of a protein. When cold smoking is done for shorter periods of time, it is mainly used for flavoring purposes, such as cold smoked butter or cheeses.
Hot smoking uses temperatures over 165 degrees to slow cook meats and vegetables. The entirety of American BBQ depends on this particular technique, and the flavors found in perfectly smoked meat has sparked obsession the world over. It may be because the first smoked meats were so important to the progress of our civilization that there is an embedded love for smoked food in our DNA. There are some people that are so smoke-obsessed that they devote a large percentage of their free time building better smoking vessels and making small adjustments to their routine.
Smoking is a craft. It is nuanced and particular which can make it hard to master, but it is a lot easier and fairly inexpensive to get started. There is no need to buy a stand alone smoker, if you have a fire pit or grill available. The electric smokers are awesome for ease of use, but some purists might call it cheating.
Smoking with a Charcoal Grill
A charcoal grill with a large cooking surface is a great way to get started. The most important factor in smoking is indirect heat. It is also best to try and maintain a constant temperature throughout the smoking process. If using a charcoal grill, build your coal fire and move it over to one side of the grill. Place the food on the other side of the cooking surface and keep the grill cover down. It helps to keep a probe thermometer inside the grill right next to the food you are smoking. This will give you a pretty good estimate of the temperature at which your food is cooking. I find that smoking around 240 degrees works best. I try to never let the temperature go over 275 degrees inside the smoker. Keep feeding the coals with wood chips and hot coals. Always soak wood chips for at least 30 minutes to keep it from flaring throughout the cooking.
It’s Done! Let it Rest.
How will you know your meat is finished smoking? As with most cooking techniques, internal temperature is the easiest way to tell, especially with poultry. Smoked turkey and chicken should be pulled off heat when the internal temperature hits 160-165 degrees away from the bone. Quickly cover the bird in foil and allow it to rest for at least thirty minutes. Resting allows for carry-over cooking to take place, which is when the internal temperature will continue to rise from the residual heat under the foil cover. That is why it is best to pull the meat from the smoker about five to ten degrees away from your desired doneness. With prime rib and beef roasts, that means you should pull at about 120-125 for rare, 125-130 for medium rare, 130-135 for medium, and so on.
Tougher cuts can be a little tricky when it comes to doneness. Pork shoulder can take around eight hours or more. It is best to buy bone in shoulder for smoking, because the bone wiggle is a great way to tell if your meat is finished cooking. If the bone wiggles loose when tugged on using a pair of tongs, then it is a pretty good sign that the connective tissue is breaking down and that the meat is tender and ready to go. Beef brisket can take even longer, cooking for about 12 hours.
Smoked Turkey Recipe
This can easily be used for chicken as well if turkey just isn’t your thing. Brining birds before smoking is important so that the meat stays moist. This recipe uses a mulled apple cider brine that fits in with the frosty late fall/early winter evenings. Remember to soak the wood chips prior to smoking. Hydrated wood chips create a smoldering smoke that doesn’t produce creosote that will taint the finished flavor. Use a wood that produces a pleasing flavor. Fruit woods are good, like apple, cherry, peach or plum. Pecan and hickory are great as well. Since this is an apple cider brine recipe, I suggest using apple wood to smoke with.
For the brine:
8 C unsweetened apple cider
2/3 C kosher salt
1/2 C sorghum or mollasses
2 inch knob peeled ginger
1 lemon sliced thin
6 cloves crushed garlic
4 sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves
1 pod star anise
1 t coriander
1 t fennel seed
1 T peppercorn
1/2 stick cinnamon
4 C ice
- Toast all whole spices together in a pan on the stove at medium heat.
- Combine all of the ingredients minus the ice in a large pot and bring to a boil.
- Add the ice and stir until melted.
- Allow the brine to cool and then add one whole turkey(about 12 pounds) or two whole chickens. Brine overnight.
For the smoke:
- Remove from the brine and pat dry.
- Prepare the grill or smoker with charcoal and wood chips, preheating to about 240 degrees in indirect heat.
- Place the birds on the smoker and maintain the temperature by adding more coals and wood chips as needed.
- Pull the bird from the smoker when an internal temperature of 160 degrees is reached. Immediately cover with foil and let rest for 30 minutes.
- Carve, serve and enjoy.