Our friend Craig is very serious about barbecue. The kind of BBQ that involves at least eight hours of slow heat and woodsmoke. Unfortunately, this is also the kind he can’t do at home, because his “back yard” is a tiny balcony surrounded by other tiny balconies, and his neighbors do not enjoy spending beautiful Saturdays with their windows and doors shut against clouds of smoke, no matter how good it smells.
This is why Craig barbecues at my house. I have a large back yard, and I’m happy to store his smoker in the corner of my garage. Every now and then we call up some friends, and Craig shows up first thing in the morning with thirty or forty pounds of meat, and I get a lesson in the finer points of barbecue.
What you need for a barbecue
(according to Craig)
Smoker / Grill
“Absolutely get a real smoker,” says Craig. Sure, you can fill any grill with smoke, but the key to barbecue is temperature. To turn flavorful but tough muscle cuts into meat so tender it falls apart, you need to bring it slowly up to temperature — then hold it there for a few hours. In time, the tough connective tissue, collagen, will gelatinize — effectively melting away and leaving you with tender, succulent meat. But if it gets too hot, certain proteins denature, squeezing out the liquid and leaving you with tough, dry meat.
The smoker in the pictures is Craig’s; the model is Brinkmann 852-7080-7 Gourmet Charcoal Smoker and Grill. It cost about $80 and he says he loves it. I don’t know enough about smokers to judge, but it makes good meat, and it’s small and light enough that I can move it around easily (and load it into the back of my little car).
Smoker buying tips from Craig:
A good smoker should also be well-insulated, to hold in the heat, and should have a tight-fitting lid.
Check the design to see how easy it is to add additional coals and wood chips. With some models you need to add the coals through a little door in the side, which is a pain. This one is designed so you can lift the entire smoker off the base, add more charcoal, then replace the smoker back onto the base. (You can also move the coal pan into the top of the smoker, and use it as a direct-heat grill.)
Also consider the capacity. This one has grills at two levels — pork butt goes on the lower rack, ribs on the upper. The round shape means it’s not wide enough for a full rack of ribs, though. Cutting each rack in half makes them fit, but the end pieces can dry out. If you’re really into ribs, consider getting a rectangular smoker.
You’ll also need a meat thermometer, so you know when the meat has reached the goal temperature. Your smoker may have a built-in thermometer, but a) they’re not known for accuracy, and b) you care about the internal temperature of the meat, not the temperature at the top of the smoker.
Craig says to get a probe-style thermometer with a long cord, so you can check the temperature without lifting the lid and letting out all the heat and smoke. If you hesitate to buy a thermometer just for barbecuing, bear in mind that this kind is also handy for roasting things in the oven (no more holding the oven door open and letting all the heat out!) and homebrewing beer.
Cook’s Illustrated liked the one from ThermoWorks, and I like the people at Cook’s Illustrated. When shopping:
- check the temperature range it can handle
- make sure the cord is long enough to get from the bottom shelf all the way to the outside of the smoker
- see if it has extras you want, like an alarm that beeps when it gets close to your target temperature, or a wireless receiver so you can wander off to another part of the party
- read reviews: apparently some of these are made with cords that melt when they come into contact with the smoker lid or oven door
You’ll need to add more coals every 1 1/2 to 2 hours, and Craig says a chimney charcoal starter is a must. “If you add unlit charcoal, it just won’t light well, and you’ll lose a lot of heat.” Instead, start the coals in the chimney starter (set it on concrete or another heat-proof surface), wait till they’re hot, then add them to the smoker. Sprinkle some wet wood chips on top for smoke, and you’re good to go.
Aside from heat and convenience, a chimney starter means you don’t need lighter fluid, which is good because you should never ever use lighter fluid in a smoker. Seriously, you don’t want that stuff on your food. Buy nice natural charcoal without any additives, pour some into the chimney, stuff newspaper into the base, and light it. Less fuss, better food.
You’ll also need:
- a big pan or plate to hold the meat,
- a bunch of forks so your guests can shred the pulled pork
- a bag of charcoal (without lighter fluid or additives: look for one that says it contains nothing but wood)
- a small bag of wood chips for smoking (sold next to the charcoal)
- a bowl to soak the wood chips in
- beer (or your preferred summer beverage of choice)
The links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on one and buy anything, they pay me a small referral fee — out of their end, with no additional cost to you. That helps to pay the hosting fees and keep this blog up.
Despite that, I encourage you to shop at your local independent hardware store — you’ll be helping to make sure they’re still in business when something breaks and you need a replacement fuse right now. (Or when you run out of charcoal halfway through the day and need another bag, immediately.) Plus, they’ll be able to tell you whether cherry or hickory chips are better with pork, or which varieties of charcoal are best for using in a smoker.