Sunday, July 1, 2007

Smoking On Your Grill

I'd done the wood chips on charcoal thing, and found it to impart a barely perceptible flavor, hardly worth the money. But then I discovered hardwood chunks, and that completely changed my grilling life.

Hardwood chunks are available at Wal-Mart and Lowe's (and no doubt other places). Back in Indiana, Lowe's carried apple and sometimes pear, in addition to mesquite and hickory. Mesquite and hickory are the only woods I've seen at Wal-Mart, here or there (and Lowe's here only carries those two as well). I prefer mesquite (apple is my second favorite); I find hickory to be too intense and overpowering, but by all means, try it.

I own a grill I can use to either hot or cold smoke (actually, you can hot smoke on any grill), my Brinkman Professional (I also own a smoker, but you don't need one--read on). It cost me about a hundred and fifty bucks at Sam's Club, and it's the best grill I've ever owned. Here are the features you want in your grill:

  • Double, side-by-side grills and firepans.
  • Moveable firepans (the grills may also be moveable, but it is essential that you be able to move the firepans up and down, independently).
  • Ventilation and thermometers for both sides.
  • Heavy cast iron or steel grills.
  • A mechanism for easy cleaning.

You need side-by-side grills with independently moving firepans for cold smoking, or when you are doing your whole dinner on the grill. The moveable firepans are important. You're much less likely to burn yourself moving the firepan up and down (of course, this assumes there is a mechanism to do it) than you are moving a 500 degree grill up and down. You can also adjust the heat to some extent by moving the firepan up and down.

Ventilation is important to adjust the heat (many people don't seem to realize that adjusting the heat is just as important on a grill as it is on a stove). The only thing my Brinkman doesn't have is adjustable ventilation, but I adjust the heat by moving the firepans up and down, lifing the cover to allow heat to escape, and the amount of fuel I use. Other than that one thing, my Brinkman Professional is the perfect grill. The need for thermometers is, I feel, obvious.

A lot of grills have cheap metal grills. They won't last, and you'll end up replacing them. Get a grill with thick, heavy, cast iron or stainless steel grills. They'll last as long as your grill, they're easier to clean, and they do a better job of charring your food.

Few people think of cleaning the grill when they buy one — so when you shop for a grill, ask yourself how you're going to get rid of the ashes. My Brinkman Professional has a drawer at the very bottom. All I have to do is pull it out, dump it, then slide it back in.

Now, on to smoking.

Hot Smoking

Hot smoking is basically using the grill as you would with charcoal, but using hardwood instead. Always keep the cover closed (but you should do that anyway to keep the grill hot, you know that, right?), just use hardwood instead of charcoal. Hot smoking gives you the char and consistency of grilled food, but a wonderful smoky flavor.

Hot smoke anything. Steaks, ribs, chops, chicken, hamburgers. If you can grill it, hot smoke it. And I promise that after you've done it the first time, you'll never grill over charcoal again.

Cold Smoking

Cold smoking is a completely different cooking process from hot smoking. The food is not placed over direct heat, and the temperature should be always between 200 and 300 degrees. Cold smoking gives you a completely different result from hot smoking.

Cold smoked meat has a characteristic caramel color outside, and will have a pink ring just inside. It gives you very moist, juicy results, and a more intense smoky flavor than hot smoking. Cold smoking perfectly suits pork and chicken, both white, fairly bland meats that most of us prefer to be more or less done.

The thicker the cut of meat, the lower you want the temperature. This is because it will have to cook for a fairly long time to become permeated with smoke. If you cold smoke a pork loin, buy a single loin and not a tied double loin roast (that way, it will be half as thick). If you cold smoke chicken, flatten, halve or quarter it, or cold smoke chicken pieces.

I first remove the grill from the left side, where I light charcoal (I use charcoal to start the initial fire because here, hardwood is a bit more expensive than charcoal). You'll need about twice as much charcoal as you'd use to grill, because you need the fire to burn for at least 2, if not 3 hours or more. While the charcoal is burning down, I place a cake pan of water on the firepan on the right side (where the fire is not); the roast (or whatever) will go on the grill above the water.

Oh. I almost forgot. My Brinkman Professional has a separator between the two grills that blocks the heat (and smoke). I remove this before I light the fire. Sorry about that.

I soak hardwood chunks in water while the coals are burning down. When the coals are grey, I drain the hardwood (make sure you do this completely — you don't want excess water, because it will put out your fire). I place the pork roast on the grill above the water on the right side, then put the soaked hardwood chunks on the coals and close the lid.

Watch the thermometer on the right, or whatever side your meat is on. You don't want the heat to go above 300 at the most (250 is ideal), so adjust your vents accordingly (you can also move the fire down, which will descrease the heat somewhat). Every thirty minutes or so, check the grill; there should be smoke coming out of it. If not, add more soaked hardwood.

Now, by "smoke coming out of the grill," I don't necessarily mean huge clouds of smoke billowing out. That will happen if you don't soak your hardwood, or when you're hot smoking; wet hardwood gives off smoke over heat, but not mushroom clouds of it. You should see some smoke coming out of the grill. If you don't, add more soaked hardwood. You may also have to add more charcoal if your fire starts to burn low (just don't soak it in lighter fluid).

There is no need to turn the meat because it's cooking slowly, and not over direct heat, though if you're basting it, you will want to turn it. The lower the temperature, the smokier the final result will be. If your heat is around 200, check with a meat thermometer after three hours; if your heat is around 300, check after two hours. A pork loin should take about 2.5 hours at around 300.

The first time you do this, you will be amazed at the caramel colored exterior of your roast (or chicken). When you slice it, you will also be amazed at the rosy color inside and how juicy it is. Just wait till you taste it, though!


Barbecuing is a type of cold smoking. Barbecuing cooks the meat to a greater degree of done-ness than cold smoking (a cold smoked pork roast can be sliced; a barbecued pork roast can be pulled apart with forks, hence the term "pulled pork"). Barbecue may or may not be basted, depending on the region.

Grilling is not barbecuing. If you cook hamburgers and hot dogs over the grill, you are not having a barbecue. You're grilling. There's nothing at all wrong with grilling--it's just not barbecuing.

There are quite a few regional variations. I'll be honest and admit that I strongly prefer the South Carolina camp, either piedmont gold or coastal vinegar, and am not as fond of any tomato-based barbecue. And sorry, but I intensely dislike sweet barbecue sauce (don't even get me started on Kansas City) even more than I do barbecue where there is so much sauce you can't taste the smokiness.

But more on barbecuing later.

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