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A clear and simple guide to the BBQ smoker from Big K

A BBQ Smoker is open with smoke escaping the main smoking chamber. An illustrated rack of BBQ ribs sits on the cooking grill.

It’s been some time since a real wise guy in the pages of history observed the obvious and conceived the adage “there is no smoke without fire”. This statement is very relevant (and should be very obvious too) to every budding student of BBQ – especially if you have a BBQ smoker. So if you’re keen to enrapture minds with a slow-smoked, fall-off-the-bone tender serving of meat, then please read on and school yourself on all things barbecue smoker related.

For all of you who are thirsty for some saucy BBQ wisdom, we at Big K are going to take you on an educative frolic into the world of BBQ smoking. After all, the last days of summer are here and there’s no better time to learn a fancy new skill and demonstrate your prowess to your adoring public. These low n’ slow smoking insights are a combination of ancient knowledge and some cutting-edge contemporary BBQ expertise too. One thing is for sure; we’re going to take you one step closer to becoming everyone’s favourite grilling guru. Get ready to puff on some BBQ smoker, and BBQ smoking, insights.

 

BBQ smoke under the microscope

Not to go all mad scientist on you, but BBQ smoking is in fact a science of sorts. Take smoke for example. Smoke is in fact collection of tiny unburnt particles of carbon, gas, oils, and ash. And BBQ Smoking is about the reaction between these compounds and compounds within meat itself. It’s crazy to think that all those ethereal curling wisps of BBQ smoke are actually billions of atomically miniscule particles. It’s enough to make your head spin.

But before the fume-obsessed academics made their breakthrough, our ancestors realised that smoke could help flavour, cook, and preserve meat. In other words BBQ smoking has been a tried-and-tested culinary technique since the time high fashion meant getting your fur coat directly off the back of a bloodthirsty bear. Being a Neanderthal must have been awesome! Today, if you ask for a definition of smoking meats, any erudite BBQ scholar worth their smoke would define smoking as the process of flavoring, browning, cooking, or preserving food by exposing it to smoke from a burning fuel source.

Before we get into the best BBQ smokers and more BBQ smoking tekkers, let’s kick things off with BBQ Smoking 101: a stroll down the annals of the past.

 

A little history

The words “just hang in there” probably meant something completely different a thousand years ago. Why? Well, early human settlers often hung their meat within the confines of their own dwellings. This prevented the meat from being spoiled by pests. Obviously our ancestors weren’t as architecturally advanced back then, meaning chimneys were nonexistent. It probably took them a few additional centuries to realise that the meat hanging inside was absorbing the smoke from their fires – and unbeknownst to our humble forebears, the first BBQ smoker had serendipitously manifested.

Moving on in a rhetorical whiz-like fashion, smoking meat and BBQ smoking is a sub cultural phenomenon in the United States. However did you know that the method and tradition of smoking meats in the Americas predates the founding of the US of A? The Taino indigenous tribe of the Caribbean used a wooden frame over a fire pit to cook and smoke meat. European colonists and explorers visiting the islands in the early sixteen hundreds adopted and tweaked the technique, sowing the first seeds of the contemporary BBQ wave. Slaves also carried the BBQ tradition with them when they were moved north. Want to know more? Check out some info on BBQ evolution here.

The practice of smoking meat was also prevalent among Native Americans along the eastern seaboard. The Native American tradition of BBQ smoking received a new makeover when Europeans brought their own smoking technique (as well as cattle, sheep, goats and hogs) to the New World. And in the blink of an evolutionary eye, BBQ smoking became an essential – and lucrative – practice. From sticky St. Louis ribs to vinegary North Carolina pulled pork, the long, slow application of heat and smoke to meat is easily one of the most celebrated American homegrown culinary traditions.

 

A chef loads up a rack of ribs and brisket into a BBQ smoker

 

Why BBQ smoking?

If you think BBQ smoking is just about the smoke, you’re missing the balancing parts of the equation. Temperature and heat output have key roles to play. So besides anointing your chops with heavenly flavours, smoking also accomplishes tenderisation of the toughest cuts thanks to lower temperatures. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Classic BBQ meats are full of collagen — a tough connective tissue in specific animal muscles. The long, tightly wound strands of proteins (that make up collagen’s sinewy structure) provide strength and endurance for the animal – as well as a terrific test of your masticatory muscles’ magnitude. If you were to cook these thicker BBQ meats quickly over high heat and serve them medium rare like a steak, they would be as tender as a fathom of hempen rope — and you’re most likely going to wind up with a severe case of lockjaw.

As already mentioned above, most conventional barbecue cooking involving thinner cuts (think steak) is done at high temperatures using direct heat. BBQ smoking is slow and steady with temperatures lurking in the vicinity of 107–135°C. That heavenly range allows the internal collagen to “melt” into gelatin without the exterior of the meat drying out.  Lower temperatures equals a longer cooking time – hence the term (in modern BBQ parlance) of going  “low n’ slow”. Trust us when we say that the additional cooking time pays off with a food-gasm of the highest order.

Now back to the science. How this “low n’ slow” process extends its tentacles of flavour into your BBQ food is essentially down to a chemical reaction. Smoke molecules emanate from your fuel source and move throughout the main smoking chamber. When they collide with the meats, these wispy harbingers of appetite arousal set chemical reactions in motion within the meat itself. Combined with the heat, the smoke helps break down the proteins into amino acids, which then react with certain internal sugars to create that lip-smacking molecular delectability– appearing to us a glistening, deep, bourbon-esque brown.

If you are still struggling in a temporal temp-related vortex or chemical compound cloud, let’s add some definitive clarity. Using a nutshell of summation, BBQ smoking is all about cooking with indirect heat and lower temperatures for longer periods of time. This gradual cooking technique tenderises meat until it is soft and ready to fall right off the bone. If you are ever in doubt, remember this handy sound bite of BBQ insight: for thicker and tougher cuts, slow and steady is better than fast and furious.

 

BBQ smoking methods

Cold smoking

Cold smoking uses smoke without a heat source to infuse smoke flavour into your food. Ideally, cold smoking should be done in winter or on a cold day to minimise the growth of bacteria on your food. Uncured meat items are often hung in a dry environment first to develop a pellicle; it can then be cold smoked for up to several days to ensure it absorbs the smoky flavour.

You could easily hook up your own DIY cold smoker in your offset smoker attachment. Simply use wood chips or wood pellets or a nifty big K bag of hickory smoking chips along with an old deep fryer basket. Arrange the wood pellets in a semi-circle and light one end of it until it starts to smoulder. Leave the smouldering chips on the offset basket – and by the time the smoke reaches the main smoking chamber, it will be cold.

Be aware that most food safety scientists don’t recommend cold smoking since there’s a higher possibility of food poisoning if you botch up the process. We suggest you cook cold smoked meats thoroughly before you get down to munching. Baked, sautéed, steamed, grilled, or roasted, how you prepare it is up to you, but the principle is to destroy any microbial meddlers from infiltrating your stomach.

 

Cooked beef and pork shoulder lie perfectly crispy on a BBQ smoker grill base

 

Hot smoking

Hot smoking infuses meat with smoke, and exposes meat to heat, simultaneously. The heat is generated from a charcoal base or a heating element attached to, or contained within, the smoking chamber. Hot BBQ smoking can last from anywhere between a few hours to a whole day, depending on your preference.

After a long smoking session, your meat will be cooked thoroughly and can be eaten directly without any further preparation. Hot smoking has the best results when cooking in between the temperatures of 60°C to 80°C as the meat retains its moisture and it doesn’t buckle. This results in juicier, flavoursome meat for all to drool over – just make sure you have a bucket on deck!

 

Types of BBQ smokers

If you decide to summon your inner MacGyver and construct a barbecue smoker form a Kit Kat wrapper and an oil drum, then fair play to you. However we think it’s always good to have a little knowledge before getting hands on. So before you start flexing, it’s important to know the BBQ smokers out there and which type of BBQ smoker could be best for you.

Offset BBQ smoker

The main characteristics of the offset BBQ smoker are the cylindrical cooking chamber and the firebox attachment. Heat and smoke created within the firebox enter the main chamber through a narrow opening that runs through the smokestack. The smoke can then exit from the far end of the cooking chamber. Offset BBQ smokers are known to deliver competition-grade smoked meats and it won’t pinch much off your pocket to get a basic one. On the flipside, cheaper offset smokers are known to leak heat and aren’t really the picture of efficiency.

Pellet smoker grill

A pellet smoker is a heat-controlled smoker that uses wood pellets made of dry sawdust, about an inch long and 1/4 inch wide. The wood pellets are stored in a gravity-fed storage bin called the hopper, which feeds into a motor controlled by the temperature regulator. This motor pushes the pellets into a corkscrew-like device turned by a variable low speed (called the auger) that sits underneath the heat box. An ignition rod within the auger ignites the pellets where a combustion fan keeps them smouldering. Pellet grills are very efficient, and one bag of pellets will deliver an entire day of smoking. These sophisticated bits of smoking kit are a little pricey, plus they are known to experience mechanical issues like augur jams and motor failures.

How to build a smoker BBQ in the UK?

A quick Google will give you all the info you need, as we are a little pressed for time. However our next BBQ smoking blog will get into the DIY nitty-gritty so not to worry Big K fam! However, you can simulate the effects of a BBQ smoker using a regular barbecue. If it’s got a lid and a grate – it can become a hot smoker of sorts. Introducing the BBQ and smoker combo. The secret to successful lo-fi BBQ smoking imitation is to wait until your food is almost cooked, then simply add 2 handfuls of oak log shavings, or any wood shavings of your choice, onto your charcoal and presto! You generate smoke.

 

A silver BBQ smoker is being opened with smoke escaping into the air

 

More fume-tastic nuggets of BBQ smoking wisdom

Use a spritzer to moisten your meat towards the end of a long smoke. This helps when the meat surface dries to open up its pores, welcoming the spritzer’s sizzle of exciting flavours. Spritz with apple cider vinegar, fruit nectar, or water for best results.

Do not open the lid often as this disrupts the smoking process and extends the cooking time.

Slow and steady is better than fast and furious. Real smoking takes time to soften the muscle fibers and sinew for that fall of the bone texture we all look forward to after a few hours of smoking meat.

The water pan trick – use a disposable foil pan filled with water when smoking with charcoal as a heating source.  This helps to minimize heat fluctuations within the smoker and also adds humidity to keep the meat moist.

More colour = More flavour. Don’t take your meat out prematurely before it develops a golden-brown crust that we all love to see coming out of the BBQ smoker.

Pay attention to the colour of the smoke. White smoke usually indicates a well-ventilated BBQ smoker. If the wood is choking for air the smoke will turn dark or black. So keep an eye out!

Before we bow out, we want to leave you with something exciting to stimulate your BBQ smoker reflexes. Here’s a BBQ short ribs recipe that serves as a perfect introduction to the BBQ smoking world. Don’t forget, Big K has the perfect range of quality charcoal for those heavy-duty, long-haul smoke outs such as our professional grade Dura charcoal and Marabu Charcoal. If your thirst is still unquenched, and you’re more curious than the average BBQ knowledge seeker, then we have your back. Peep our informative American BBQ smoker guide for a BBQ smoking deep dive.

And there you go folks! You have just been given an education in the fine art of BBQ smoking. We’re quite thrilled to think that our adventurous readers would fancy giving BBQ smoking a shot with all the BBQ wisdom we’ve served up. Always remember, when it comes to BBQ smoking, low and slow is better than fast and furious. We hope you enjoy the remaining days of summer and give a shot at impressing your folks with a BBQ smoking extravaganza. Until we see you again, we wish you many happy grills!