Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Up in Smoke: A Guide to Meat Smokers & Techniques

Here at the Sausage Maker, we’re interested in all sorts of ways of preparing and enhancing meat. One of the oldest and most well-loved is, of course, smoking. Cheech & Chong jokes aside, smoking has long been one of the more popular meat-cooking methods, and it’s deeply embedded in the American barbecue tradition.

Why Smoke Meat?

The practice of smoking meat most likely began in prehistoric times as a method of preservation. Since then, it has developed into an art form with deep roots in the cuisines of many cultures, and several different well-honed approaches have evolved to shape the smoking landscape.
Today, smoking meat—mainly cuts of beef, pork ribs, whole birds like turkeys, and (of course) homemade sausages—is accomplished by one of several primary methods, using different combinations of heat source and structural design. Below is a breakdown of those methods by fuel and build (leaving aside the large, trailer-based, professional rigs, which are a bit beyond the purview of backyard or basement smoking enthusiasts).

Ways to Smoke Meat

Charcoal Smokers

The old reliable briquet fire source for backyard grills across the nation is also the fuel of choice for several of the most popular smoker styles:
o   Bullet: Named for its shape, which is often more like a giant pill tablet (with domes at the top and bottom), this popular smoker is usually fitted with a water/drip pan to help with temperature regulation and humidity.
o   Drum: Shaped like the converted 30-gallon drum smokers it evolved from, these smokers look tough (and can be made at home from scratch) and have bigger capacities than bullets, but can be more fickle in terms of temperature and environment control.
o   Offset: This style has a fire chamber set off to the side and slightly lower than the meat containment area. They look serious, and the higher-end ones can be effective, but the fact that the smoke and heat need to go sideways (against their thermodynamic instincts) means these smokers can be tricky to operate.
o   Cabinet: Looking like a steel safe with a front-opening door, these can be easier to use (if not to transport) than the other charcoal models. The design improvements definitely come at a cost premium, however.

Propane Gas Smokers

Propane is popular as an easily controllable grilling fuel. With propane smokers, cabinet-style is basically the only option, although size (and price) can vary widely. Although most barbecue restaurants use industrial-sized versions of these gas-powered smokers, they are not allowed at barbecue competitions.

Electric Smokers

These are also easily controllable, and also basically only come in one style: the cabinet. Using electricity for your smoker means adding an element like wood chips—something has to burn, after all—which the electric coils heat to produce both the smoke and the humidity necessary for smoking. Once this preparation is complete, however, it’s relatively easy to use an electric smoker. In contrast to the charcoal, wood-pellet, and even gas style, these smokers, especially at the higher end of the market, are truly “set it and forget it”.
There are also a few popular combo designs, like the “egg” style, which can be used both for smoking and for grilling, often simultaneously. Some of these use charcoal, while others are fueled by “pellets”—hardwood pods of compressed sawdust. For smaller jobs (not generally involving cuts of meat, but more for adding a smoky flavor to sauces, butter, and other ingredients), there are handheld smokers which burn sawdust, herbs, or other flammables and “shoot” smoke, which can be used for flavoring. There are also stovetop designs into which you can load small cuts of meat and sawdust (in different compartments) and then just put the whole thing on your stove or grill.

What’s the Best Smoker to Buy?

As with any meat-related topic, there are a wide variety of strongly held opinions about smokers based on everything from taste to cost to convenience. At the Sausage Maker, we’ve chosen to focus on gas and especially on electric smokers. Although charcoal smokers remain popular, we find that charcoal needs a lot of attention during the smoking process: Coals can either go out or get too hot, and the controls for the damper or chimney can be finicky and hard to learn and get used to. Over the course of an 8- to 24-hour smoking session, this can be demanding. And for smoking sausage in particular, charcoal tends to create too much direct heat, sealing the sausage and keeping it from absorbing the smoke flavor throughout, so that the smokiness gets concentrated on the surface. Despite the obvious advantages of electric, some chefs remain attached to their charcoal smokers, perhaps for reasons of tradition and familiarity as well as taste preference. For a thoughtful discussion and debunking of some of the prevalent myths about electric smokers, check out this article from House of BBQ.
As for the taste question: There are plenty of intricate online discussions and arguments about smokers—stylistic ones about “classic” smoking approaches and methods, and more scientific ones about what gases and other smoke elements are produced by which combinations of fuels and heat sources, and what ends up creating better (tastier, healthier, more tender, better-barked) smoked meats. With plenty of meticulous attention to design and based on our long experience, we’ve created a line of electric smokers that deliver authentic, delicious smoked taste while also providing superior control and convenience for the home chef.
For example, our 30 lb. Digital Country Style Smoker features:
  • Grade-A 1.25” non-sagging insulation
  • 304 grade, 22-gauge stainless steel (very durable and heavy-duty, unlike the 400 series used for many cabinet smokers)
  • Huge 4” diameter industrial grade rubber casters for ease of movement
  • High-quality electronics
  • A unique, removable, peaked-roof design that increases the vertical hanging space and allows easy top-down adjustments during smoking
  • A Bluetooth-enabled, smartphone-compatible temperature control feature

You can explore all of our smoking cabinets here, and whatever method you choose, happy smoking!

Friday, July 27, 2018

Sunnyside Burger

How do you like your eggs? In a burger, of course. Add a little sweet potato for extra texture and thousand island dressing to tie it all together.

Sunnyside Burger

1 beef patty
1 brioche bun
1 tbsp Spicy Garlic Seasoning by The Sausage Maker
1 egg
1 cup sweet potato fries, frozen
1 slice American cheese
Thousand island dressing
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

     1. In a small pan heat oil on low and add the egg.
     2. Cook on low until the sides turn white.
     3. Remove from pan and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
     4. Cook sweet potato fried according to package directions, sprinkle with salt and set aside.
     5. Pat patty with seasoning and add to a heated pan with oil or cook over the grill until done.
     6. Add cheese to the top of patty.
     7.  Stack the burger with thousand island dressing, beef, fries and top with the egg.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

How to Dry Age Beef at Home

At the Sausage Maker, we are big fans of meat. We want to help our fellow enthusiasts get the highest possible enjoyment out of a great piece of meat, whether that means recommending the perfect blend of spices and casing; providing the best sausage recipes from around the world; or showing you the newest and most on-target processes, tools, and advice for turning a good cut of meat into a fantastic example of a hand-crafted link. And while we love sausage, of course, there are other ways to go about enhancing a great cut of meat. Curing, smoking, brining, or any other way you can encourage meat to achieve its full, glorious flavor potential is fair game (get it?) for us.

Dry Aging vs. Wet Aging Beef

Which brings us to one of the oldest and most prestigious methods for intensifying the flavor of meat: aging. More specifically, aging cuts of beef. As many of our biggest fans may know, there are two generally accepted methods or styles for aging beef: dry aging and wet aging, with the former being the clear “older sibling” of the pair. Meat has been aged “dry”—also called “hanging out” or just “hanging”—for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The process involves leaving cuts of meat exposed to air (these days, also under refrigeration) for between 7 and 30 days. “Wet” aging has come about comparatively recently, made possible by technological advances in vacuum sealing and temperature control. In this method, the meat is sealed into airtight plastic packages and left in refrigeration, for usually slightly less time. The difference is that nothing gets in or out of the package—moisture, air, or microbes—and so it needs less management.
The key to both approaches is allowing for enzymes naturally present within the meat to break down the tissue, leading to more tenderness. There is also a change in flavor, with wet aging somewhat intensifying the meat flavor while retaining more of the “metallic” taste associated with fresh meat, whereas dry-aged meat develops a deeper, more concentrated flavor sometimes described as “nutty”, or even with a sharpness occasionally likened to that of blue cheese. There’s plenty of debate about which approach is “better”, and to some extent this will reflect the taste of the individual (whether one prefers the “metallic” flavor of wet aging over the stronger, “nutty” taste produced by dry aging). But in general, the argument comes down to this: Dry aging is the more traditional method, which produces a better, more complex taste and feel, while wet aging is easier, cheaper, and faster, but doesn’t result in meat that is as tasty or tender.

How to Dry Age Steak at Home

So what do we recommend, aging-wise? Well, for dry aging, the Sausage Maker’s digital dry curing cabinet can produce very fine, steakhouse-quality dry-aged steaks (as well as helping you cure salami, capicola, and other sausages). If you’re a serious DIYer, you might even consider building your own with the help of our step-by-step dry aging chamber guide. For those on a more restricted budget, however—or those who want to dip a toe into the dry-aging waters before taking the full plunge—we recommend UMAi Dry aging bags. This product, created by UMAi Dry (also makers of high-quality sausage casing kits) is a single-use, sealable bag in which home chefs can age meat in a standard refrigerator.

How Do Dry Aging Bags Work?

The approach of sealing individual cuts of meat into clear plastic bags and aging them that way may seem similar to wet aging, and this has led to some confusion about the real nature of the UMAi Dry bags. The key difference is permeability to both water and air. The UMAi Dry bag allows moisture to escape from the meat in much the same way it would from a cut hanging or sitting on a rack in a dry-aging cabinet, and unlike a standard wet-aging bag (where part of the point is to have the meat sit in its own serum during aging). At the same time, the UMAi bag allows oxygen from the air to flow past the meat surface while keeping out larger-moleculed air components like nitrogen, as well as harmful microbes. This combination results in a dry-aged style cut, with the shrinking (and flavor concentration) associated with traditional cabinet-style aging, as well as the thick crust on the outside of the meat. Take a look at this demonstration from our friends at Ballistic Barbecue:

And here’s a great grill technique for those steaks once they’ve finished aging:

So what’s our final verdict on aging? In our estimation, UMAi’s dry bag introduces a “third way” between traditional dry aging (in a cabinet) and standard wet aging (in non-permeable sealed bags). Although all three methods have their pros and cons, we think the UMAi bags give the budget-conscious home chef who prefers the taste and texture of dry-aged meat an option that doesn’t require the time, space, or cash outlay of a full dry aging cabinet.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Spicy Italian Burger

Italian flavors aren’t limited to just pasta. They go great inside burgers too combined with pepperoni and arugula salad. Drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette if you want to take this burger up a notch!

Spicy Italian Burger

1 beef patty
1 tbsp Spicy Italian Seasoning from The Sausage Maker
1/4 cup arugula
1 slice provolone cheese
3 slices pastrami or pepperoni
1 brioche bun
2 tomato slices
Onion slices
Olive, optional

  1. Heat in a saucepan with oil or in a grill and cook to your liking. 
  2. Heat saucepan with oil or using a grill, cook beef on one side then flip over to heat the opposite side. Cook until it’s cooked to your liking. 
  3. Add a slice of cheese and remove from heat.
  4. Stack burger with arugula beef, pepperoni, tomatoes, onions and garnish with an olive, if desired.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Guacamole Burger

Who knew the same Mexican flavors you love taste great on a burger? The guacamole adds a great creamy avocado base, while the subtle flavors of the Grill Master Seasoning make the burger patty itself take center stage.

Guacamole Burger

1 brioche bun
1 beef patty
1 tbsp Grill Master Seasoning from The Sausage Maker
1 can fire roasted corn, heated
2 tbsp. Guacamole (store-bought or homemade)
Red onion slices
Tomato slices

  1. Pat patty with seasoning on both sides. 
  2. Heat in a saucepan with oil or in a grill and cook to your liking. 
  3. Stack the burger with the beef, guacamole, fire-roasted corn, onion, and tomatoes. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Hawaiian Burger

No need to go to the islands to get your pineapple-on-a-burger fix. The crispy bacon strips and Savory Bacon Seasoning from The Sausage Maker brings the saltiness while the pineapple delivers the sweet in a tasty combo you will crave again and again.

Hawaiian Burger

1 beef patty
1 brioche bun, split
1 tbsp Savory Bacon Seasoning from The Sausage Maker
2 slices pineapple
2 slices bacon
Green leaf lettuce

  1. Cook bacon slices in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp. water. 
  2. Once done, remove bacon from pan, drain and set aside. 
  3. Add pineapple slices to the same pan with the bacon grease. 
  4. Cook pineapple for 5 minutes on each side on medium/low heat.
  5. Remove from pineapple from heat and set aside. 
  6. Pat patty with seasoning on both sides. 
  7. Cook in a pan on the stovetop or grill to desired doneness. 
  8. Stack the burger with lettuce, beef, pineapple, and bacon. 
  9. Add your favorite sauce and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Italian Meatball Subs

Add the right amount of seasoning to turkey meatballs to make a perfect sub sandwich at home. All you need to do is combine turkey, garlic, Italian Herb Seasoning from The Sausage Maker, and salt to make flavorful meatballs packed with protein. Add any leftovers to pasta or eat on their own dipped in marinara sauce.

Italian meatball sub

1 lb ground turkey
3 sandwich-sized whole wheat baguettes
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
Mozzarella cheese, grated
Parmesan Cheese, grated
1 jar marinara sauce
Olive oil

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  2. In a large bowl add ground turkey, garlic, seasoning, and salt. With clean hands, mix ingredients together well. Form the mixture into balls with your hands and set aside. 
  3. In a large skillet or saucepan heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of your pan. Add meatballs to the pan and cook each side for a few minutes until browned and no longer pink inside. Once done, remove from heat. Slice the baguettes open and layer marinara sauce, meatballs, more marinara, and cheeses.
  4. Place on a baking sheet and heat in the oven for 5-10 minutes, or until cheese is melted.