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!