Learn to Smoke Meat like an Expert
It’s summertime, and the outdoor cooking is easy. But grilling’s gotten a little old hat. This summer, you should give something different a try: smoking your meat instead. This method of cooking “slow and low” is one of the foundations of authentic barbecue—and we’ve yet to find a carnivore who doesn’t love that.
We asked Scott Bridi, the founder of the charcuterie company Brooklyn Cured and a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, to give us some advice. Here’s what he had to say.
Use the right tools. This isn’t rocket surgery. Smoking meat is not even close to the cutting edge of the culinary arts—but the results you can achieve are transcendent. A smoker is essentially an oven that burns wood. All you need is a well-insulated vessel that retains heat. I would also recommend a thermometer with a probe for measuring the temperature inside the smoker.
Slow and low, that is the tempo. When you smoke meat, your smoker should be at a relatively low temperature; it shouldn’t exceed 250 degrees F, and you should aim for more like 180 to 200 degrees. Chicken parts should take about an hour and a half to cook, pork belly about 3 hours, and you’re looking at 4 to 6 hours for brisket and pork shoulder. When you cook meat for a long time at a lower temperature, the end result will be super tender and juicy. High heat will cause moisture loss and will result in tough flesh. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Smoke meat er’ryday. What cuts of meat are good for smoking, you wonder? Stick with cuts from oft-used muscles of any animal, such as shoulders and brisket. Basically any cut that you would stew or braise works well, such as short ribs and pork belly.
Space it out. Whether we’re smoking sausages or pork belly for bacon at Brooklyn Cured, we always make sure to give our meat enough space to breathe. (It is summertime after all, folks.) What I mean is, don’t crowd your meat! When smoking meat, air flow is important. Giving your meat enough space (about 1 inch between items) will ensure that all the sweet, sweet smoke can turn your meats the mahogany color we all love to see.
Use wood wisely. Don’t overlook the critical detail of which wood to choose when firing up that smoker. You can treat your wood as a seasoning element. If you like super-smoky, Southern-style meats that taste faintly of ash, choose mesquite or hickory wood. If you like softer flavors, chose fruit or nut woods such as apple, cherry, and pecan.
Brining is overrated. Yeah, I said it. If you cook meat properly for the right amount of time at the right temperature, you will get fantastic results every time. You don’t need a brine to make your meat juicy. It’s a crutch. Brining also waters down the flavor of the meat, because valuable meaty deliciousness transfers into the liquid while meat sits in the brine. Think about making a stock: The flavor of what goes in the stock is transferred to the liquid. Stick to dry rubs and marinades for your smoked meats.
The spice rack is where it’s at. Almost all smoked meats can be tasty with just a fair amount of kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper. But why stop there? You can mix and match any flavors you like when you make a dry rub. Every rub should have a base of kosher salt, black pepper, and dark brown sugar. From there, it’s all up to you. I recommend fennel seed and smoked paprika (pimenton) for pork; cumin, caraway, and red pepper for lamb; and just about anything you like for beef. Do yourself a favor, though, and stay away from the dried herbs. They’re not helping anyone.
Time for a vocabulary lesson. Pellicle, n., a skin or coating of proteins on the surface of meat, fish, or poultry, which allows smoke to better adhere the surface of meat while smoking.
The pellicle is a tacky coating of protein that makes all the magic happen. Moisture is the enemy of smoke. You always want the surface of meat to be as dry as possible before smoking, so it’s a good idea to pat the meat down with some paper towels before seasoning it.
Baby’s got sauce. If you’re gonna take the time and effort to fire up your backyard smoker, you need a sauce that’ll bring just as much love. At Brooklyn Cured, we’re working on a spiced ketchup with coriander, clove, and garlic that’s no joke. You can also make a savory barbecue sauce by adding reduced beef stock to your favorite store-bought sauce. And my favorite smoked chicken wings are glazed with hoisin-sesame sauce and then charred on a hot grill.
Time to veg out. Some vegetables are great in the smoker. Because fat is a conduit of smoky flavor, be sure to coat your vegetables with a good amount of canola oil or olive oil before they hit the smoker. My favorite vegetables to smoke are onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, and eggplant. Bonus pro tip: Smoked-onion aioli is great with green beans at a barbecue.