Image by Z Grills Australia
Time: some waste it, others maximise it, and there are some that let it flow like a stream. We don’t have time (pun bonus) to get into the existential temporal connection here. The point is that cooking time has significant role to play in the BBQ arena. Are you fast and frenetic or slow and steady? Well we’re taking to the latter category today as it’s time for part 2 of our American style BBQ series focusing on the mighty American BBQ smoker. This amazing bit of kit is the trusted workhouse behind the culturally engrained low ‘n’ slow BBQ smoking methodology. Ready to lift the lift on this marvel of BBQ engineering? Good – we’re so pumped right now too.
Don’t know about BBQ smokers? Here’s a quick overview
While your average person could pick a basic barbecue out of line up, a BBQ smoker might be a bit more of an unknown entity. So let us fill you in: essentially a BBQ smoker is a type of barbecue with the specialist function of cooking and smoking food in a controlled and smoky environment at lower temperatures. There are many different types of BBQ smokers and American style BBQ smokers, from pipe smokers and offset barrel smokers, to horizontal smokers. The different names refer to the different components within the main BBQ smoker design. Once you understand the design, you will understand how these smokers work and why they are perfect for low ‘n’ slow cooking. So let’s dive into design.
How to design a BBQ smoker? How to build a rotisserie BBQ smoker?
Before you go all Tony Stark on us and create your own AI powered super-mega-hyper BBQ smoker: you might want to know a little more about the inner workings. Again we are condensing down variety to the lowest common multiple here people – all for the sake of clarity. If you really can’t wait, there are plenty of tutorial videos on YouTube that can guide you.
Your bog standard American BBQ smoker is usually made up of a horizontal smoking chamber combined with a smaller separate fuel chamber. This juxtaposition has a purpose. The purpose being to create a BBQ cooking ‘eco system’ of lower temperature indirect heat
and smoke. All this means is that your food is placed in the main chamber, adjacent to, or away from, the heat source. So basically your BBQ ribs, pork shoulder or brisket are cooked by heat and smoke moving from the fuel chamber into the main smoking chamber and circulating around and over the meat. This is in direct contrast to direct heat grilling where food is placed directly above the heat source – think cooking steaks.
The engineering of American BBQ smokers also allows for more control over temperature, cooking environment and fuel quantity, leading to more control over your low ‘n’ slow cook. Firstly, this is because you don’t need to move your BBQ food out of the way or disturb the cooking environment to add more charcoal, wood or wood chips. You simply add your fuel into the firebox as and when you need to. Secondly you can regulate the amount of oxygen fuelling the combustion process by adjusting both the intake and chimney baffles. As most of you grill enthusiasts know, regulation of oxygen means regulation of burn potency and regulation of burn potency equals regulation over temperature.
So how does smoking create flavour?
Ah yes this is the next logical step in the American BBQ smoker thought ladder. Smoking is a science guys. Not metaphorically, literally. That smoky flavour that we all love is the direct result of chemical reactions. Let’s go microscopic for a moment. Smoke is a product of combustion between fuel and oxygen. Focusing on wood smoke, these wonderful wisps contain over 100 different compounds ranging from various gases to ash and water vapour. The smoky flavour actually lies in two specific compounds – guaicol and syringol. As wood is burning, these two compounds permeate the flesh of the meat and essentially attach themselves to other internal compounds creating a fusion of flavour.
Just a quick walk through the woods
When firing up your American BBQ smoker or regular BBQ smoker, wood choice obviously has an absolutely vital role to play in the whole endeavour. Here’s a quick overview of factors you should consider ahead of time.
- Please stay away from sappy woods, pine and sappy woodchips. Why? They will flare up upon burning emitting copious amounts of smoke that leads to a town called Bittersville.
- You should be looking to use seasoned or kiln dried hard woods as a solid choice. You’ll experience a cleaner burn with just the right amount of smoke to get you where you need to go. Seasoned wood will burn just a touch slower due to its slightly higher internal moisture levels as well producing a little more smoke as well.
A quick connection between wood and flavour for your American BBQ smoker
Apple Wood and Mesquite
If you’re all about a strong and earthy fusion then Mesquite wood is a great choice. We think it’s the perfect partner for most dark red meats out there. What’s more, it is in the upper echelons of burn temperature when it comes to wood. Basically if you are looking for strength and potency, Mesquite should do the trick. Apple wood offers a slightly lighter and fruity alternative to Mesquite.
Forget the Dickory, Dock as well as the mouse that ran up the clock. We’re talking about Hickory wood here people. Hickory is definitely the most common choice when it comes to an American BBQ smoker or regular BBQ smoker. The wood offers a sweet and smoky flavour, with a bacon-like quality. Most would say that is the go-to wood for smoking pork and ribs. Our Hickory Wood Chips deliver the goods so pick yours up here.
Sometimes you don’t need anything too flashy in your BBQ smoker – just a solid performer that will do the job. Oak can fill this requirement. It offers more of a neutral smoky flavour foundation, making it an ideal foundation to accentuate the flavour of any meat.
Love me tender
Let’s recap so far: BBQ smoker engineering, how they work, the role of wood, the science of smoking – all covered. Now we’re getting to the juicy part of low ‘n’ slow cooking in an American BBQ smoker. Let’s explore the succulence and tender qualities of smoking. In other words why is that a BBQ smoker produces such melt-in-the-mouth meat?
As with most things in the BBQ realm, the answer lies in the cooking process itself. When you cook or BBQ over direct heat, the increased concentration of heat eliminates the meat’s internal moisture within a very short period of time. Therefore if you overexpose your meat to this kind of cooking it becomes dry and tough AKA a jaw breaking BBQ experience. Smoking low ‘n’ slow using indirect heat reduces the concentration of heat penetrating the meat, meaning a reduced rate of evaporation leading to increased moisture retention in the flesh. This moisture makes all that juicy tender texture and taste. To go one step further in our breakdown, low ‘n’ slow cooking breaks down the connective tissue and fats in meat (collagens) into softer forms. When you go low ‘n’ slow these collagens have enough time to melt and soften, changing into soft gelatinous textural forms.
Here’s how you can set up your American BBQ smoker
We get it: you have all the info at your fingertips and you’re now ready to go low ‘n’ slow in the real world. That’s great. Setting up your BBQ smoker is an art form in itself. Here’s a detailed set up explanation for you
In the interim here’s a quick summary of what to do.
1) Make temperature a top priority
Low ‘n’ slow cooking is all about consistent temperature in your smoking chamber. The Zen temp apex is about 225°F (107°C). At this heat-based singularity, your collagens will render magnificently meaning more moist meaty magic. To monitor temperature you will need a selection of air probes inserted in the right places within your BBQ smoker.
2) Maximise air intake and open up your chimney baffles
By now you are extremely familiar with the role of oxygen in the combustion process. So it makes sense that the flow of oxygen into your smoking chamber will dictate your burn and therefore the internal smoking chamber temperature. So before you add any wood or charcoal, make sure that your intake baffle (usually located near your firebox) and your chimney baffle (located by your chimney are fully open.
3) Get your charcoal going
There are so many different ways to light you charcoal. You can follow our step-by-step guide no issues at all. Here’s a few safety tips as well. Naturally we have all the charcoal you could ever need for low ‘n’ slow perfection too. Remember the quality of your low ‘n’ slow cooking in your American BBQ smoker will only be as good as the quality of the charcoal that you are using. At Big K quality matters, so you can enjoy peace of mind knowing you are using a high calibre charcoal for your cook. Now that your charcoal is burning all lovely and hot in your firebox, you need to have a look at your air probes. If the internal temperature of your BBQ smoker is between 225°F and 250°F then you are in business. Now insert your meat and lets go low ‘n’ slow. Simple.
4) Manipulate your temperature
As things are progressing nicely, you can start adjusting your intake baffle to regulate internal temperature. We would recommend closing the intake baffle to about halfway and monitoring the temperature. Once you hit 225°F to 250°F range on the hot side of the smoker you are in the golden zone of goodness.
5) Got wood? Time to add it into the mix
There are two main things to consider when adding your wood to your firebox. Firstly, do not add your wood directly onto your charcoal pile. Place it adjacent to the direct heat to ensure a slower and more controllable smoking process. Secondly chill out with the wood. There’s no need to construct a small wooden village in your firebox. A few wood chunks or just a handful of wood chips will do the trick.
6) Take the time to make more moisture
Don’t worry; you do not need to be versed in some form of mystical alchemy to conjure up a little more moisture. All you need to do is put a metal rack on top of your coals in your firebox and position a water pan on the grate. This will humidify the smoke as leaves the firebox and enters the main smoking chamber. Or you can just spray your meat with some water in the latter stages of the BBQ smoking process.
7) Be patient
Now you have gone through these steps to start up and use your American BBQ smoker, just sit back and relax. We know it is tempting to look under the hood as it were but just leave things be. Low ‘n’ slow cooking is a long process that works if you just let it do its thing. Every time you open the chamber lid, you’re re disturbing the controlled environment. So keep the curiosity down to a minimum – many dead cats would say the same thing.
What is the best BBQ smoker to buy?
We have written countless times about the lack of a definitive solution when it comes to the concept of ‘best’. It’s very hard to tell you the best BBQ smoker to buy because there are so many variables to consider: such as your BBQ smoking skill level, familiarity with BBQ smokers and their mechanics, budget and the available space for your BBQ smoker. While we can’t really say what is the best BBQ smoker to buy, we can tell you a few things you should look out for when making your decision.
Quality is a must – You need to check the quality of the workmanship and finishing on your American BBQ smoker. This means checking the seams, welds and vents and welds. Make sure they are air tight and finished to high level.
Material matters – You should have your eyes set on a thicker steel, as the thicker the steel the better the heat radiation and absorption. Please avoid cheap metals
Verify the Ventilation – Airflow is super important in BBQ smoking. Ensure there are vents and dampers on your BBQ smoker to facilitate ventilation. Dampers are usually located on the chimney and firebox. Double-check the seals on all doors, ensuring that they are airtight.
Wow we really have covered so much when it comes to American BBQ smokers. We could go on as this is only scratching the smoky surface. However we think you have enough basics here to start your low ‘n’ slow journey.
Good luck guys.