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Our BBQ smoker guide will help you go low and slow

A man turns meat on a BBQ smoker with the lid open as flames lick up against the meat’s surface

Are you sitting comfortably? Good, so let us begin. Once upon a BBQ time there was a tortoise and a hare. The tortoise wasn’t flashy. His life was slow and steady, progress not perfection a personal mantra. In contrast the hare was a real go-getter – a Mammal about town with over 20 000 Instagram followers and a beautiful bunny by his side. So what does number 226 of Aesop’s Fables have to do with a BBQ smoker? We think you can see where we’re going with this.

To cut a long tale of morality short, one day the tortoise snapped, challenging the hare to a race. Our shelled friend won (through his slow yet consistent perseverance) while the hare went home, drew the curtains and stared into the abyss of the existential void within. So what’s the moral here?  In this case, we’re not saying that slow and steady is necessarily better than fast and furious. But we are saying that slow and steady cooking in a BBQ smoker (although perhaps slightly underrated and maybe even underappreciated by the average UK griller) leads to amazingly surprising and mouth-wateringly tender results. We’re lifting the lid on the kit at the epicenter of low n’ slow grilling.

 

What is a BBQ smoker?

A barbecue smoker (often referred to as an offset barrel smoker, horizontal smoker or pipe smoker) is a piece of BBQ equipment designed for cooking and smoking food at low temperatures in a controlled and smoky environment.

 

A BBQ smoker diagram of an offset smoker with all the main mechanical parts indicated

 

How to use a smoker BBQ?  How does it work?

The typical barbecue smoker consists of a horizontal chamber within which food is positioned adjacent to the heat source, rather than directly above it as with regular BBQ grills. Why? Two reasons. Reason one, the placement of the food along side the fuel opens up the world of indirect grilling. Basically, you’re not placing the meat right on top of the heat source (as the temp is hotter making heat output harder to control for long periods). Rather the heat and smoke from the fuel circulates around and over the meat, taking a more indirect path. Reason two, with a BBQ and smoker you have more control over your low and slow cook, as it’s easier to adjust the low temperatures and replenish the fuel. This is because you don’t need to move food out of the way to insert more coals and or wood chips. A firebox attached to one side of the BBQ smoker feeds smoke into the cooking chamber and the smoke infuses into the food. In some more rudimentary BBQ smokers and regular charcoal grills, you can simply add woodchips to your charcoal pile in the main cooking chamber to get a smoky effect.

A diagram of charcoal arrangement within a typical BBQ smoker showing the thermodynamic systems of direct and indirect heat

The science of smoking

Smoke comes from combustion. In other words it is a product of the reaction between fuel and oxygen when fuel is burned. Now wood smoke contains over 100 different compounds, from ash and water vapor to various gases. In fact, the majority of that rich smoky flavour is down to two particular compounds – syringol and guaiacol (you learn something new every day). When charcoal is burned, these helpful compounds absorb into the meat and attach themselves to other chemical compounds within the flesh. This fusion produces all that salivating smoky flavour, and the more that this process happens, the smokier the taste.

 

A quick word on wood

Make sure that you stay away from pine and sappy woods or wood chips, as these guys tend to flare up, creating too much smoke and serving up a bitter flavour. We recommend using wood that is dried and aged in your barbecue smoker, such as kiln-dried wood, however this isn’t set in stone. Naturally seasoned wood is also fine and, due to the increased moisture content, it will burn a little slower and create more smoke.

Hickory

One of the most common choices for a BBQ and smoker, hickory wood creates a sweet taste with a bacon-like quality. It is the wood of choice for smoking pork and ribs. Pick yours up from Big K now.

Oak

A solid performer with a more neutral smoky flavour. This neutrality makes oak a good all rounder, as it compliments pretty much any meat.

Mesquite and Applewood

Mesquite wood has a strong and earthy flavour so it is the perfect match for most red and dark meats. It’s also one of the hottest burning woods out there. If strong and sweet is your thing then mesquite is definitely the way to go.

 

A man placing BBQ ribs within a BBQ smoker for a low and slow cook

 

The tenderisation process

So how is it that meat cooked in a BBQ smoker takes tenderness to a whole new plateau?  Cooking over high heat removes the moisture within meat very quickly, so over exposure to this kind of direct heat can leave meat dry and tough. Smoking meat low and slow reduces the rate of evaporation, meaning more moisture retention in the meat and ultimately that juicy tender texture.

Going a little deeper, low and slow cooking makes collagens (the connective tissue and fats) within meat render (break down) into a softer form. Collagens posses a very high melting point, and if they are cooked too quickly, they will dry out and toughen into rubber. Slow cooking allows the collagens ample time to soften and melt, transforming them into a soft and gelatinous texture.

 

The bark

When the smoke permeates the meat flesh, it creates a dark, chewy and tangy textural layer known as the bark. This is basically down to the Maillard reaction – in layman’s terms the reaction between the smoke and the moisture, meat and rub. 

 

How to set up a BBQ smoker

1) Get on top of your temperature

Your principal goal should be to create a constant steady temperature within your smoking chamber. This consistent and uniformly low heat is the very essence of low and slow cooking. The temp sweet spot is about 225°F (107°C). At this harmony of heat output, the collagens in your thicker cuts will render perfectly over time. If you’re serious about smoking, we’d suggest buying two digital air probes. These grill gizmos act as thermometers, measuring and tracking the temperature changes in your barbecue smoker due to changes in your fuel source and airflow.

So where do you put your probes? Well, as the internal temp of your BBQ and smoker can fluctuate from end to end, we’d advise you to drill a small hole in the door at either end of the cooking chamber, as near to your food as possible. This allows you to insert the probes whenever you want without having to lift the lid and disrupt the cooking environment. Looking for a cheaper alternative? You can use two 4-inch thermometers, however they will not be as accurate.

2) Open your chimney baffles and the intake

As previously mentioned, the magic of combustion lies in your fuel reacting with the oxygen in the air. So naturally, it follows that oxygen levels are one of the factors that control the heat of your BBQ and smoker. So controlling the intake of oxygen and airflow into your BBQ smoker is a must. When setting up your BBQ smoker, ensure that both your intake baffle (situated near your firebox) and chimney baffle (situated by the chimney) are fully open before you add your fuel.

3) Light up your charcoal

Step forward the chimney starter. This is basically just a cylindrical metal tube within which you light your charcoal before moving it to your firebox. You can follow our step-by-step guide right here.

Basically once your charcoal is starting to ash over, you can move it. Easy stuff.

Now that your charcoal is burning nicely in your firebox, you need to check your air probes. When your temperature reading is between 225°F and 250°F you have arrived at the land of low and slow perfection. Now it’s time to slap that meat in the cooking chamber of your barbecue smoker. Handy hint – keep your smoker and firebox doors closed as much as humanly possible. Each time you open them you’re allowing smoke and heat to escape into the ether.

Shameless plug here (sorry not sorry), it’s clear that the right charcoal will make or break your BBQ smoking agenda. As temperature is such a sensitive issue, you definitely need reliable, consistently performing, and most importantly, high quality charcoal. Our range of professional restaurant charcoal will get you to BBQ smoker brilliance.  For example, with over 3 hours cooking time, Dura will deliver minute after minute, hour after hour – making low and slow cooking a dream.

4) Control your temperature

Control is the name of the game, so adjust your intake baffle and start manipulating your internal heat. Close the intake baffle at least half way or more for now, monitor the temperature and gradually start adjusting the former until your chamber temperature levels out in that golden 225°F to 250°F range on the hot side of the smoker. As the chimney baffle is mostly all about smoke regulation you can keep it fully open for now.

 

A man turns meat on a BBQ smoker with the lid open as flames lick up against the meat’s surface

5) Get your wood on

Two things here – positioning and restraint. You should leave your wood chunks or chips next to the fire, not on top if it in the hottest part. Also, don’t go creating a small wooden hamlet in your firebox. You only need one or two chunks of wood, or a handful of wood chips, per cooking cycle to infuse your meat with smoke.

6) Make some moist magic

Moistening both your smoke and the meat itself in your BBQ smoker leads to increased absorption of that lovely smokiness. You can do this by positioning a metal rack on top of your coals in the firebox and placing a water pan on the grate. The smoke entering the grilling chamber will be humidified by default. Alternatively, you can spray your meat directly with a little water towards the back end of your cooking time.

7) Patience is a virtue

Low and slow is exactly that…slow. Depending on your cut we’re talking 3-24 hours people. This is because you’re aiming for moistness and juiciness the whole way through your meat. Don’t disturb the process. Your patience and personal control will pay off in spades. Another tip here, at the midway of your cooking time, your meat’s internal temperature could level off and plateau. This is due to evaporative cooking. Hang tight and refrain from channelling your inner fire starter. Your meat will move past this inertia in due time.

 

How to design a BBQ smoker? How to build a rotisserie BBQ smoker?

If you’re looking to get your DIY on then of course you can try your hand at designing your own BBQ smoker or rotisserie BBQ smoker. We can’t get into the details here as that is a whole new blog in itself. What we can do is say that be honest with yourself regarding your design and construction abilities. If you’re not up to the task leave it alone. If you are, there’s plenty of info online to help you out. Alternatively, you can create a super lo-fi smoker, simply by adding woodchips to your charcoal grill and covering the chamber with your hood.

 

What is the best BBQ smoker to buy?

We can’t really tell you which BBQ smoker is the best. This is because there are countless options out there, all with varying levels of technological sophistication. Plus we all have different levels of smoking experience and particular BBQ needs. Here’s what you should consider.

Material – look for thick steel as this material radiates and absorbs heat more evenly than cheaper metals.

Quality – Check the quality of the seams, vents and welds. Are they airtight? Are they finished professionally?  This checking process will ensure that the smoker you buy is durable and dependable for the long term.

Ventilation/airflow – A super key element to your BBQ smoker’s design. Look for dampers and vents. Usually you’ll find a damper on the firebox and the chimney. Make sure that the seals on all doors are airtight also.

We hope the smoke of confusion has cleared a little for you when it comes to BBQ smokers. Until we meet again.