Monday, July 5, 2010

A Rib by any other name….

By now you’ve figured out that I like to smoke meat.

I LOVE to smoke meat….

And yet, sometimes I HATE to smoke meat.

Like most guys, I love the process of building a fire and using it to cook a chunk of dead animal flesh. The process of taming a fire… making it submit to your will… harnessing its destructive nature to your own ends… taking a piece of meat and turning it into something succulent… oh yeah, baby… I’m there all the way.

Except for when I realize what a general pain in the ass smoking meat can be.

Like now, for instance.

It’s July in Oklahoma… where the temperature is high, and the humidity nearly so. We’re enjoying an unnatural cool spell this Fourth of July weekend, with temps in the high ‘80’s and relative humidity in the mid 50%’s. Not unpleasant at all… but not what I call comfortable weather either. I personally like it in the high ‘50’s… 30-40% humidity… northerly breezes… in other words… FALL WEATHER. Problem is… smoking in cool temps can be a pain too.

Smoking in the summertime means lots of heat and humidity… bugs… schlepping in and out of the house to check on the smoker and the fire. I suppose I could stay outside by the smoker, but I’m just not that into sitting in the heat and sweating when there’s a nice air conditioned room and a recliner calling my name.

Whether I sit in the house, or sit by the smoker, by the time I’m done I’ve inhaled enough smoke to make a fireman gasp, and sweated a good 10 pounds off. Especially if I’m smoking briskets or pork butts, because I allow a minimum of 12 hours for those. The Last thing I want to do is come inside and eat a big bunch of smoked meat.

Smoking in the fall is great… it’s cool outside… I get to listen to the leaves rustling in the trees… those dry, cool fall breezes, and let's face it... there's absolutely nothing better on a cool fall day than the smell of wood smoke on the air. But I still inhale a ton of smoke, and if the weather is cool to cold, I burn a ton of wood just keeping the smoker up to temp.

Summer or fall, the efficiency and utilization of wood just isn’t what I’d like it to be.

And my old smokebox was especially problematic if I wanted to cold smoke something, like bacon. I do a lot of bacon, both American and Canadian styles, as well as cold smoking various sausages. My old steel, convection style smoker just wouldn’t go low enough to adequately cold smoke what I wanted.

Enter the new kid on the block.

My best friend bought a new smoker a year or so ago, and much to my surprise, it was an electric model. Now to understand my surprise, you have to know that my buddy has smoked competitively in the past on the KCBS circuit, and has a smoker that’s roughly 9 feet long, 36” in diameter and can easily smoke a whole cow at once. So imagine my surprise when he bought this little dorm-fridge sized electric jobber to smoke meat in. I shouldn’t have been too surprised, because another of my bud’s great qualities is that he never buys anything without thinking it through and doing his research.

So… finally I got to where the old smoker was in need of replacing, and I decided to join the ranks of the converts. I happened into my local Sam’s Club one day, and found a great deal on a model comparable to the one he bought.

Right off the bat, I fell in love. The digital temperature control goes from 90 to 250 degrees, with a 24 hour timer. There are 4 large racks that can each hold a 15 pound brisket, or two 10 pound pork butts easily. The model I purchased had a window in it, which I was seriously skeptical about (at first), as well as an interior light and meat probe. It has an interior heating element in the bottom that burns wood chips inserted through a hopper in the side. The hopper will hold about a large cup of chips, which you place in the hopper, slide it in, and rotate to drop the chips onto the heater. There’s a stainless steel water tray, as well as a nice stainless catch tray in the bottom that diverts all the drippings out of the smoker and into a catch tray mounted on the back side at the bottom. The entire interior is stainless steel, with the meat probe located in the middle of the smoker, with a good length of wire on it.

Since I’ve started using this little gem, I’ve fallen back in love with smoking. Not only is it far less work, the temperature control is a no brainer. About every 45-60 minutes, I drop a new load of wood chips into the hopper, and that’s it. The catch on the lid is an adjustable type (think about the lid on a tackle box), which makes for a great, tight seal. The damper is located on the top, and is easily adjustable.

For bacon or sausage, I just take out all the shelves except the top one, and hang the meat from there with whatever hanger or hook I need. Cold smoking temperature is easily maintained, and the subtleness of the smoke is hands down better than my old smoker. My older unit would really put a layer of smoke on the meat, giving the finished product an almost black appearance. Now I realize that I had a lot of control over this by playing with the dampers, etc. and regulating how much heat and smoke I applied to the meat, but again… I don’t want to be tied to the smoker for 12 to 16 hours.

The new electric smoker puts a much more subtle amount of smoke on the meat. It still tastes just as good in all the right ways, but without the excessive, smoke laden qualities of the old one.

Am I a sellout?

Do I lose my membership in the smokeeater’s club?

Honestly, I don’t think I’m worrying about this one too much.

Smoking meat is essentially the application of smoke, heat and time, all in the proper proportions. And as with any type of cooking, you can work smart or you can work hard. Personally, if I can work smart, and get results like I worked hard... I win.

And anytime I can find something that gives me better results with less effort, that’s a hands down win in my book. And because it’s so much freakin’ easier to smoke meat now, I find myself smoking more often. That, coupled with the new vacuum sealer (that’s another post in itself), means I’m putting more meat in the freezer for later consumption.

I’ll let the pictures below make my case…….

Smoking on FoodistaSmoking