From the Smoker Dept.: Today's nice weather has prompted thoughts of barbecue, so here's a helpful piece from a couple of summers ago. And once you get to cooking this stuff, don't forget to invite me over.
|Saratoga Awesome Dogs | Photo by B. A. Nilsson|
The hardware chains have obliged us by offering sturdy, lower-end smokers that do an excellent job for household use. Forget the vertical type: it has little capacity and tends to go out overnight. You need a horizontal grill with an offset fuel chamber. They’re heavy, and awkward to assemble, and I suggest torquing the hell out of the bolts you use to attach the legs. If they’re not provided in the parts bag, look into adding lock washers or double-nut the bolts. (I speak from the experience of one who’s seen his smoker list to one side in a high wind like a drunkard, eventually telescoping into total collapse.)
You’ll be cooking tough pieces of meat for many hours at low heat, the heat arriving on wings of smoke. The key ingredients, therefore, are meat, seasonings for a dry rub, the right wood and patience. Including the ability to crawl out of bed at 3 AM to check your fire.
Let’s start with meat. Almost anything lends itself to smoking, with poultry an excellent victim. Most of my last few Thanksgiving turkeys emerged from the smoker, and chicken wings get extra flavor and none of the deep-fry grease by this method. Even burgers get an added righteousness, but melt the cheese on top in a different kind of oven.
The king of them all, though, is pork ribs. When choosing your meat, look for what’s called a barbecue cut or St. Louis cut, which has 10-13 ribs and lots of meat between them. They’re sold in cryovac pairs in BJ’s Wholesale Club and other such warehouse stores. Don’t fall for the hype about baby back ribs. It’s a cut that’s smaller and more expensive than the St. Louis cut, and has achieved whatever cachet it has thanks to chain-restaurant menus.
Pulled pork comes from the shoulder, termed the “butt” thanks to the 18th-century New England practice of packing the less-desirable shoulder into barrels that were called butts. (The more desirable cuts, like the loin, were “high on the hog”). It’s also called the Boston butt, except, apparently, in Boston. This, too, is available from your warehouse store, but call ahead: they sell out quickly.
Beef brisket is another popular smoked item, especially in Texas. It doesn’t achieve the fall-off-the-bone tenderness of the pork items, but slices nicely and makes great sandwiches.
Next step, and there’s no other way to put this, is to slap a dry rub on your meat. This can contain any or all of the following ingredients, which I’ve listed roughly in most-to-least order according to my own recipe: paprika, salt, chili powder, ground cumin, black pepper, granulated garlic, onion powder, white pepper and cayenne. Not surprisingly, it’s got a bite.
I wrap my roasts in heavy tinfoil to prevent excessive scorching, fork-piercing the bottoms to let the grease drip through. They get slightly unwrapped for the final few hours, allowing them to darken nicely.
Build a fire in your smoker. I start with charcoal in a lighting chimney, which produces enough coals to get the wood fire going. You can go after the fancy hardwoods like hickory, but I have to confess that I use the same fuel – a hardwood mix – that goes into my woodstove. Just be sure it hasn’t gotten soggy or moldy.
Fit as many logs as you can in the offset box, and burn them until they’re all fairly white. Add a fresh supply of wood, allow that to display well-developed flames, and let the smoking begin. Keep the temperature between 200 and 220 degrees, which you do by adjusting the air vents beside the fire box and in the lid of the grill. At first they’ll need to be opened a small amount, but as your grill gets crusted over time it will sport leaks enough to keep the circulation going.
Place the foil-wrapped items in the grilling box, taking care to keep thin ends of ribs away from the flames that might be licking out from the firebox. This is why you should turn the items after a couple of hours.
Otherwise, it’s a fairly unattended process. Ribs take from 14 to 16 hours; pork butts 8 to 10, brisket 5 to 6. Your results may vary. Just be sure to check it frequently, as it never tastes better than when it’s just finishing cooking.
[Since this piece was first published, I discovered a roadside eatery in Saratoga Springs called Saratoga Awesome Dogs, subject of the accompanying photo. There you find smoked burgers, dogs, and wursts, and I can promise you there’s no going back to plain grilling.]
Having gone through this effort, you won’t want to insult your palate with commercial barbecue sauce. Make your own by cooking down a mixture (in decreasing amounts) of good ketchup, cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, brown sugar, molasses, salt, pepper, oregano and a dash of cinnamon. Reduce it to two-thirds of the original amount, and funnel it into your empty ketchup bottles.
Hamburger buns and cole slaw complete a pulled pork sandwich. Serve the ribs with beans and slaw and cornbread, preferably with cheddar and jalapenos within. Brisket goes well with a mustard-and-vinegar sauce.
Your friends will bless you. Don’t show them the calorie count or they’ll never forgive you.
– Metroland Magazine, May 27, 2010