Cooking Smoked Meat

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ILLUSTRATIONS: ANDREA BROOKS

Okay, all you smoked food lovers, it’s time for the Smoking
Quiz. The question: If you want your meat to have a smoky
flavor you would: a) put the lid on the grill while you’re
grilling the meat, b) throw some water-soaked wood chips on
the coals in your grill, c) drown the meat in liquid smoke
and call it a day. And the answer is …none of the above.
Save the “Am I mentally challenged?” remarks until I
confess to you that six months ago, I would have flunked
for sure. I just loved that smoky flavor, but I was unable
to produce a piece of smoked food without my trusty bottle
of smoke oil and a jar of barbecue sauce. The confusing
question for me was, “Is there a difference between
grilling and smoking?”

Grilling is basically putting on a silly apron, arming
yourself with grilling tools, and setting the food on fire.
Unless you’re grilling a turkey, the food cooks fast and
furious, charred on the outside but tender on the inside.
Before your attention can deficit, it’s time to eat.
Smoking, on the other hand, is a slower cooking process,
requiring some patience. The food is cooked by smoking it
at a lower temperature so that the smoky flavor can
penetrate the food. Smoking meat is also healthier than
grilling, since carcinogens are known to be produced by
meat juices dripping onto coals. With smoking, the juices
drip into a water pan.

So now, you’re convinced and ready to convert your kettle
grill into a smoker, right?

Forget it, I’ve been there. After I figured out that my
grill was incapable of smoking food, I called Brinkmann, a
Texas company specializing in smoker grills and
accessories, to get my hands on a water smoker. The
trial-and-error cooking process was mercifully brief, and
soon the gentle but maddening aroma was turning heads a
hundred yards in every direction. Smoking food isn’t
difficult; you just have to force yourself to hang around
the backyard all afternoon, catching rays and drinking
whatever. It’s a tough call, but you can do it.

Equipment for Smoking Meat

The Smoker

The vertical charcoal water smoker is the most commonly
used smoker. It’s a cylindrical-shaped unit that resembles
Star Wars’ R2-D2. Our Brinkmann water smoker retails for
about $60 (in 1999). The unit contains two racks for grilling, a
water pan, and the heat source: either coals or a
detachable electric coil, which can be purchased as an
option. In water smokers, the food is steamed and smoked,
which prevents leaner meats from drying out. The water pan
can also be filled with beer or wine for added flavor.

The smoker also has a little door on the front–handy
for feeding the fire without letting out too much heat. An
optional electric attachment keeps the fire burning for you
and comes with a small metal tray, which holds the wood
chunks used to create smoke (though we actually prefer
charcoal). Our only complaint with the electric coil is
that it only has one temperature at the “ideal” setting,
making it difficult to adjust the heat.

The Fuel

You’ll need a bag of charcoal briquettes, but never use the
self-starting variety. We use a combination of standard
briquettes, mixed with some hickory or mesquite hardwood
charcoal, which is petroleum-free and burns longer, You’ll
also need the essential flavor-producing wood chunks, but
only hardwood will do. Soft woods such as pine, cedar, or
birch contain too much sap and will produce undesirable
smoke and creosote. Some good hardwoods are hickory, oak,
mesquite, maple, apple, cherry, and grapevine. Obviously,
each wood creates its own flavor, so it’s fun to
experiment. We convinced our neighbor to donate some apple
branches to our cause–with delicious results. Opt for
wood chunks or blocks over chips; they burn longer and
produce more smoke.

Try to find fresh green wood and chop it into approximately
one-inch by three-inch pieces. If fresh wood is
unavailable, soak dry wood chunks in water for about an
hour before using.

Smoking Tips

Obviously, it’s important that you read the smoker manual,
but we have a few additional suggestions:

Start smoking early. If you start smoking late in the
afternoon, you may run out of daylight and the family will
faint from starvation. Allow enough time for errors, since
fire and weather are both unpredictable.

Use an oven thermometer so you don’t need to rely on the
smoker’s built-in “ideal” thermometer.

It’s important to keep the water pan filled, since some of
the liquid will evaporate after a few hours. When you’re
finished smoking, save the poultry water; it makes great
soup.

On cold or windy days, allow for longer cooking times. If
your smoker’s temperature is too low (below 200°F), add
more coals.

Smokin’*

Find a safe, wind-protected spot for the smoker. Place a
large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil under the smoker
legs to catch any embers or drippings. Fill the charcoal
pan with a mound of charcoal and saturate with lighter
fluid. (A full charcoal pan will burn about five to six
hours, depending on the weather.) Fill the water pan with
warm water, wine, or beer to one inch below the rim and
place it inside the smoker. Never put a salty brine in your
water pan or you’ll ruin the pan. Let the lighter fluid
soak in for about three minutes before lighting, making
sure the door is open and the dome lid removed. Light the
charcoal and let the lighter fluid burn off for about
fifteen minutes.

Stir the coals, add three to four wood chunks, and place
them inside the smoker. Place the thicker pieces of fish or
meat on the lower rack, smaller pieces on the top rack,
leaving space between each piece for air to circulate. If
you have only enough meat for one rack, use the top rack.
Shut the door and put on the dome lid.

Check the smoker every hour by opening the little door, not
by removing the lid. You want to make sure that the fire
doesn’t die out and that your wood chunks are creating
smoke. If smoke isn’t visibly pouring out of your smoker,
add a few more wood chunks. Keep adding additional charcoal
and wood chunks as needed Your goal is to try to keep the
temperature registering at the “ideal” (225°F) setting
on the smoker thermometer. Even 200°F is fine, but if
the temperature is too high, the food will dry out. After a
few hours, the water pan will need more water. Refer to the
manual for refilling instructions. Resist the temptation to
remove the lid–you don’t want to let out the heat.
Don’t worry–nothing can burn to a crisp in a smoker.

Only when you’re sure the food is almost done should you
remove the lid. You’ll want to make certain the meat or
fish has finished cooking, but first remove it from the
smoker to avoid letting out too much heat. Then check each
piece, either with a meat thermometer or by slicing into
its center. Smoked meat and poultry will look slightly pink
even when it’s done, so a meat thermometer is a good idea.
(I like the $10 instant-read thermometer. but don’t leave
it inside the smoker or it will melt.)

Anytime you’re playing with fire, there’s some danger
involved. Read carefully the manual warnings. Use long
tongs and fire-proof oven mitts when you’re adding fuel or
removing the food. The smoker’s exterior gets very hot, so
lock up the dog and the kids.

*Refer to your smoker manual for detailed instructions.

What to Smoke

No, not the neighbor’s, yippy dog. Here’s what worked well
for us:

Fattier fish, such as salmon, whitefish, lake trout, and
sea bass smoke well. Any fish can be smoked, but we found
the less fatty or thinner fish to be drier tasting. We
soaked the fish in a salty brine to add flavor and to
remove some of the fish juices. Health conscious? Not to
worry, this process still leaves plenty of essential fatty
acids (EFAs), containing good-for-you omega3s, in the fish.

Smoke anything in a casing. Smoking will jazz up a plain of
hot dog more than mustard will.

We’ve smoked a roasting chicken, which took about five
hours. But since we aren’t crazy about the idea of keeping
an eye on the smoker for ten or so hours, we’ve avoided
smoking larger cuts of meat. Also, I was concerned about
the meat or poultry’s internal temperature being too low
for too long a time, possibly causing bacteria to grow. But
according to research conducted by U.S.D.A.
microbiologists, the moisture caused by the water in the
pan destroys any pathogens (evil bacteria) that may be
present in the meat. Also, curing the meat in a salty brine
has the same effect. While you would never cook your turkey
in a 225°F oven, it’s okay to water-smoke it at that
temperature for ten hours (but without the stuffing).

Try smoking non-meats, such as teriyaki tofu, portabello
mushrooms, potatoes, and heads of garlic. As long as you
have room in the smoker, you might as well rub oil on a few
potatoes and put them on the top rack. Wrap a garlic head
drizzled with olive oil in foil and stab with a fork to
make vents.

Remember that at 225°F, it will take at least two hours
for potatoes and garlic. We don’t smoke vegetables because
it takes so long that they shrivel up and dry out. Grill or
roast your vegetables instead.

Smoked Fish

Here’s your chance to use up that huge fish you caught at
Lake Gitchygoomy last summer. Don’t forget to thaw the
packaged fish in cold water first. Plan ahead; the brining
process takes two days.* Start with about two pounds of
fish fillets (fresh or previously frozen), cut into three-
to four-inch squares

Paul’s Fish Brine

1/2 cup each: white vinegar, brown sugar, salt (I
used
1/3 cup salt, making the fish not quite as
salty, which I prefer) 1 quart water (4 cups)

Two nights before smoking: Whisk the marinade together in a
large glass bowl or casserole. Place the fish fillets in
the brine and refrigerate for 24 hours. The next day:
Remove the fish from the brine and pat dry with paper
towels. Line a baking sheet with paper towels and lay the
fish, skin-side-down, on the sheet(s). Refrigerate
overnight.

The second day: Prepare the smoker. When the coals are
ready, lay the fillets, skin-side-down, on the grills. The
middle grill usually cooks food faster, so place the larger
fillets there. Smoke the fish for about two hours at the
“ideal” temperature, which is 225°F to 250°F, then
check it. Thicker fish will take about three hours. The
fish is done when it has a caramelized-brown color and
feels firm to the touch. If you smoke the fish too long, it
will get too dry, chewy, and salty, since most of the
juices will have been smoked away. I prefer my smoked fish
still moist, but it won’t keep quite as long this way.

Storing smoked fish: Cool the fish thoroughly.

Never wrap smoked fish in plastic because it will develop a
strange taste. Put a few pieces of fish in a paper lunch
bag, a few more in another bag, and so on. If you have more
then one variety of fish, label the bags with a marking
pen. Leave the bags open and place them on plates in your
refrigerator for up to one week. The paper bags will get
greasy-looking as they absorb the fish oil.

*You’ll notice very little difference if you skip the
overnight drying-out-the-fish step. If you’re in a hurry,
take the fish out of the brine after 24 hours, pat dry, and
smoke.

Smoked Fish Spread

It is possible to smoke too much fish, so I called Paul’s
mother for her famous fish dip or spread. Here it is, with
a few minor changes.

1 cup shredded smoked fish (Don’t use hard end
pieces.)
4 ounces “lite” cream cheese
1 teaspoon lemon juice a dash of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard cup
1/4 chopped curly parsley (optional)

In a food processor, mix all the ingredients together until
smooth. If it’s too thick, add more lemon juice. Spoon into
a bowl and top with chopped parsley (the green will dress
up the grey dip; making it took more appetizing). Spread
onto crusty bread, toasted pita wedges, or crackers. Also,
it makes a great bagel sandwich with lettuce, red onion,
and tomato. Delicious!

Smoked Chicken Oregano

Plan to soak the chicken in the marinade overnight. Smoke a
few pieces of extra chicken so you can make some smoked
soup. Start with six to eight chicken thighs or breasts
with skin.

Marinade:

1/2 cupolive oil
1/2 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons dried oregano (or 1/2 cup chopped fresh
oregano)
1 teaspoon salt

At least eight hours before smoking, blend the marinade in
a blender. Wash and pat dry the chicken with paper towels.
Loosen the skin slightly on each piece of chicken. Place
the chicken and marinade in zip-lock bags and refrigerate.
Prepare the smoker, then remove the chicken from the
marinade and let it sit on a platter at room temperature
for 20 minutes. Discard the marinade. When the smoker
temperature is 200°F 225°F, place the chicken in
the smoker, skin side up. Smoke for two to two-and-a-half
hours, until the meat near the bone is no longer pink (dark
meat takes longer). Remember to wash the raw chicken
platter well before placing the cooked chicken back on it.
Save the broth in the smoker bowl for soup. Refrigerate or
freeze until needed.

Smoked Chicken Soup

It would be a pity to waste the smoky broth. Feel free to
add any vegetables that are on hand or leftover cooked
beans. I’ve added cut green beans on occasion; put them in
the pot for the last ten minutes or so.

Broth from the smoker bowl (about6
cups)
2 to 4 pieces of smoked chicken
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced into thin slivers
2 carrots, sliced into 1/4″ circles
2 turnips or rutabaga, quartered and cut into thin
slices
2 cups cauliflower pieces
3 canned tomatoes (plum or regular), chopped
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon each: thyme, oregano, salt
freshly ground pepper, and a dash of cayenne pepper
8 ounces egg noodles

In a large soup pot, add about a tablespoon each of smoked
broth, onion, and garlic. Saute until soft, then add the
rest of the ingredients with the exception of the noodles.
Simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Check
to see if the vegetables are tender and add more water to
the soup if necessary. Remove the chicken pieces, pick the
meat off the bones, and return the chicken to the pot,
discarding the bones. Prepare the noodles in a separate
pot, drain, and serve with the soup. This soup can be
frozen without the noodles, but if you plan to freeze it,
don’t cook it quite as long.

Smoked Sausages and Hot Dogs

Smoking will transform a humble hot dog into a delicious
smoked sausage. Anything in a casing will do–Italian
sausage, brats, Andouille sausage, turkey dogs, etc. Keep
in mind that precooked sausages such as hot dogs only need
to be heated and not cooked like Italian sausages. Allow
more time for uncooked sausages.

Sausages or Dogs with Olive Oil:

Prepare the fire in the smoker. Rub the sausages with off
and let them sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. Place
them on the smoker grill and smoke at about 200°F to
225°F for one to one-and-a-half hours, until the skins
are ready to pop. Turn the sausages to allow even cooking,
checking the interiors occasionally to see if they’re done.
Over-smoking will dry out especially the leaner varieties,
such as chicken sausage.