You’ve always loved having smoked pork butt at your local smokehouse. Maybe you’ve even dabbled with the idea of learning the how to’s of smoking food at home on the drive back. But that’s where it ended, am I right?
Today I’m going to attempt to calm your fears and take the intimidation factor out of smoking food at home. And I’m not just talking about meat!
I’ll even give you tips on how to smoke food at home by turning your grill into a smoker! But, wait until you see all the incredible kinds of smokers you can purchase for home use! I know you’ll want one of them too.
And in Part Two of this comprehensive How-To Guide to Smoking Food at Home, I’ll be sharing the recipes you’ll need to get started smoking and never stop!
Just click on the image to download the free printable Smoking Times & Temperatures Chart provided to you courtesy of smokedbbqsource.com. They’re a wonderful resource for all your bbq and smoking needs.
I’m sure you’ve heard of “Hickory Smoked Bacon”, right? And that, of course, means it’s been smoked with hickory wood.
Each type of wood lends its unique flavors to smoked foods. So, I’m going to give you some pointers on which woods are best for the various types of foods you’ll be wanting to smoke at home. Here’s some of the great food and wood pairings to get you started:
When you take a few moments and think about how you normally make a recipe, don’t you add some seasoning? Maybe some fresh herbs, citrus zest or wine? It’s exactly with same when it comes to smoking food at home.
Tossing in some aromatics adds another dimension to your smoked foods that using only wood can’t.
The general rule of thumb here is that herbs with woody stems and a higher oil content impart the most flavor when used for smoking. Woody stemmed aromatics must be soaked in the same method as wood chunks/chips.
Tender herbs such as basil or oregano can work really well too. They don’t need to be soaked, but you do need to use them sparingly and place them in with the wood chips.
Here’s some suggestions to give you inspiration:
As we’ve discussed, different types of wood can add a variety of flavors to smoked food recipes. And the cool thing is, they can also be found in the form of wood chips or chunks.
Smoking food at home is fabulous and a bit easier with a real smoker, and I’m not going to tell you different. In fact, a little later in this article, I’m going to tell you all about the different types of smokers on the market.
But first, let’s talk about starting out really slow, and giving your grill a try at smoking food at home, shall we?
GAS GRILL PREP VS. CHARCOAL GRILL PREPARATIONS
PREPARING AND USING A FOIL PACKET FOR WOOD CHIPS (as pictured from Better Homes & Garden.com)
I wouldn’t bother investing in a smoke-box, unless you have tried smoking food at home and want to do it more often.
But, if that is indeed the case, then a smoke-box option is the perfect solution to not purchasing a dedicated smoker, just yet. If you’ve gotten this far smoking food at home, you’ll end up wanting one of those baby’s sooner or later.
But for now, a smoke-box might just be the perfect “next step” in your smoking food a home adventures!
Check out this Weber 11.4-in L x 5.6-in W x 11-in H Stainless Steel Smoker Box with a Hinged Top
We’ve come this far, and now it’s time to get your grill ready to smoke food at home! I’ve also included some helpful tips to keep you safe and bring success in your adventures into smoking foods on your grill.
There are several varieties of wood that are fine choices for “planking”. The most common, of course, being cedar. But you could also use maple, cherry or red oak too.
I found a really great buy on Amazon, that includes a lovely selection of woods for your to try smoking food at home.
Wildwood Grilling – 6 Pack (5″ x 11″) Grilling Plank Variety Pack
Planks, unlike wood chunks, need to be soaked for at least 30 minutes before being preheated or used for smoking food at home.
It’s Time to Smoke
You’ll follow the same general smoking instructions as above for smoking food at home.
The difference is that your food will be smoked on top of a plank of wood, as opposed to directly on the grill rack.
Now, I know you’re going to say that I already showed you how to smoke food at home without any specialized equipment, save for perhaps a smoke box.
Well, technically, that’s true. But the real smoking magic comes when you start mastering the art of effectively using a smoker that’s just right for you.
First, I’m going to give you the rundown on the different types of smokers there are. Then I’ll tell you how they work to smoke your foods, and give you what I think are the Pro’s and Con’s of each type.
Lastly, I’ll give recommendations as to who is best suited for each type of home smokers.
It doesn’t matter where you get your gas.
Whether you have a direct gas hookup at home, a propane tank buried in the ground (like I do), or count on the convenience of a refillable gas bottle.
They all work the same across the variety of gas smokers, although you must check your exact model for its specifications.
How do they work?
Most gas smokers are built ‘cabinet-style‘ with the burner and vents at the bottom and the chimney and dampers at the top.
Similar to electric smokers, a gas smoker doesn’t naturally produce smoke. You’ll need to add wood chips to create the smokey flavor characteristic of quality smoked foods.
Who should buy one?
Charcoal smokers come in a range of shapes and sizes, from the little tabletop models, all the way to the to eye-catching ceramic kamado ovens.
Wood pellets and charcoal both tend to give the most flavor when smoking foods. The trade-off for this extra flavor is that charcoal smokers tend to be a little more labor-intensive than electric or gas ones.
They require more set-up, babysitting, and cleaning, but proponents are convinced this is the best method to smoke foods.
How is Charcoal Made?
When wood is super-heated, above 1,000°F, most of the non-carbon organic compounds are burnt off. The resulting ‘char’ left behind burns cleanly and doesn’t produce a lot of smoke. This char is then formed into little briquettes we call charcoal.
Charcoal provides the heat for a charcoal smoker. The chemicals produced, such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxide, add to the flavor of the food. Additional smoke is created through the use of wood chips, which are typically set above the charcoal to smolder.
The amount of heat created is regulated by air intakes near the coals. The more air that is allowed into the firebox, the hotter the charcoal will burn.
Most charcoal smokers suspend the food above the coals. They draw the heat and smoke across the food using a chimney and air dampers at the top.
Controlling the flow of air and smoke is vital to smoking with charcoal. Too much air and the food will be dry and tough, too little air and the smoke and ash will make the food bitter.
Who should buy one?
If you are serious about smoking food, then the charcoal smoker is the one for you.
Their designs can be as straightforward or as complicated as you want. That makes it easy to find the model that’s perfect for your space and needs. While it may take some time and effort to get consistent results, it will be entirely worth it.
Pellet smokers are a comparatively high-tech combination of oven and smoker. They combine the extra smokey flavor of actual combustion with the supreme convenience of an electric smoker.
One of the benefits of a pellet smoker is that it’s an oven, grill, and smoker, so it’s an all in one cooking solution.
How do they work?
Pellet smokers use sawdust compressed into what looks like chicken feed.
These pellets sit in a hopper on the side of the smoker and are fed into a firebox by an auger drill. Inside the firebox is a heated metal rod which causes the pellets to combust, creating both smoke and heat in the cooking chamber above.
Pellet smokers use built-in thermometers to keep the temperature stable. Changing the airflow and amount of pellets being fed into the firebox to creates a consistent heat.
Who should buy a pellet smoker?
If you are reasonably serious about smoking, and want a high-tech solution, then the pellet grill is a great option. It’s also the most versatile of all the smoker varieties. If you only have room for one piece of cooking apparatus, then one that can cook, smoke, and grill is ideal.
Electric smokers are the perfect “start it and forget it” smoking solution. You don’t have to worry about burning wood or charcoal, dealing with a propane tank, or much of a clean up.
Using an electric smoker entail setting the temperature and time, then grabbing a cocktail while it does all the work for you.
How do they work?
Electric smokers use a heating element, rather than some form of combustible fuel, to create heat. Because there is no actual combustion involved, the smoke is provided by the addition of wood chips, which are suspended above the heating element.
Most electric smokers are built vertically, with the heating element at the bottom and the wood and water pans between it and the food racks.
The water pan serves two functions. First, it creates water vapor, which enhances the smokey flavor of the food. Secondly, it creates an indirect cooking environment, shielding the meat from most of the direct heat and keeping the temperature, and smoking time, ‘low and slow’.
Who should buy an electric smoker?
Electric smokers are best suited for people who can’t use gas, wood, or charcoal burners near where they live.
They also suit people who would prefer to just put food in a smoker, set a timer and walk away. They can be safe in the knowledge that their food won’t get ruined, even though they aren’t constantly checking up on it.
This type of cooking vessel has been in use for nearly 3000 years. Many people don’t immediately recognize the name Kamado, but they will recognize the famous Big Green Egg!
While the Big Green Egg is the most recognizable brand of Kamado grill, it is certainly not the only one on the market. There are plenty of excellent brands to choose from, and they make amazing smokers.
I’ve chosen what I’ve found to be the “King of the Hill” when it comes to Kamado grills. This gorgeous blue monster is not only an incredible cooking appliance, it’s super stylish too! But, it’s also at the highest-end of the price spectrum, with “sale” prices starting at $1,000.00. That, combined with its verified performance warrant the high price tag.
How kamado grills work
The distinctive egg shape of the Kamado grill is much more than just a stylistic choice. Based on ancient clay ovens, the shape and the thickness of the ceramic walls aids in heat and moisture retention.
Fire produces heat at the bottom of the cooking chamber, and the food is placed on a grill grate above it. The amount of heat produced is controlled by vents at the top and bottom of the grill.
Generally, if you are smoking with a Kamado grill, you’ll be putting wood chips and a water dish in there as well. Some models feature a deflector plate, like the model shown above, that sits just above the fire and reflects some of the heat.
The smoke and heat rise up over the food and are directed back onto it by the shape of the grill.
Who should buy a kamado grill?
It takes a little time to learn how to best use Kamado grills, but once you do, they are an excellent and versatile cooking system.
If you want something that you can bake the bread for your sandwich and smoke the meat that goes in it, then this is the grill for you. It’s also the only type of smoker/grill that can truly be used all year long, in any climate.
How do they work?
The ‘offset’ part of offset smoker comes from the fact that the firebox is offset to the side and below the main cooking chamber.
When wood or charcoal is burnt in the firebox, the smoke and heat are drawn across the food in the cooking chamber and out of a chimney.
In a standard offset smoker, the chimney is situated opposite the firebox.
Some offset smokers use a ‘reverse flow’ system, which uses baffles to force the smoke and heat to travel both under and over the food.
Reverse flow offset smokers are relatively easy to spot as they have the chimney mounted above, not opposite, from the firebox.
Who should buy one?
Offset smokers are an excellent buy for someone who wants to put the time and effort into getting the best from a fantastic, but not easy to use, smoker.
Offset smoking is as much an art form as a science, but if you’ve got the patience, it can produce massive volumes of fantastic food.
Just make sure you actually have enough room in your yard before you buy one. They are not small!
But, before we start the next section, I want to show you one other option. It‘s especially great for those who don’t have the space outdoors to keep a large smoker, or maybe you live in a condo or apartment.
It’s a fabulous way to “dip your toes” in the art of smoking food at home!
There’s no need to spend top dollar on tender, choice cuts when smoking. Fattier, tougher cuts often work best, thanks to the science behind smoking. Smoking renders tough cuts of meat into one that are incredibly tender after hours of low-and-slow cooking.
Here’s the old stand-by’s that will give you solid and reliable results:
Brisket is generally considered the king of barbecue cuts. It’s cheap, chewy, and difficult to make with other methods. But when smoked for 10 or 12 hours, it’s turns tender and delicious, especially when that smoky crust is done just right.
The downside is to brisket is that it’s one of the more expensive BBQ cuts and is less forgiving for beginners.
Pork Butt (Boston butt, pork shoulder, picnic shoulder, among other names) is the second most popular choice for smoking, after brisket. Popular in the South as the traditional cut for pulled pork, it’s got tons of fat and connective tissue, making for a very soft, juicy cut.
Pork butt is also cheaper than brisket, and more forgiving. If you’re smoking for the first time, try a pork butt for the best results.
Ribs have the right ratio of fat, meat and connective tissue holding them to the bone to soften up after a long smoke. They also don’t need as much time on the smoker as large cuts. Like brisket, however, they can be unforgiving if not done right, and can take some getting used to.
There’s usually about one thing that everyone can agree upon when it comes to seasoning meat. And that’s salt!
Salt does two things: it penetrates the meat and helps tenderize it, making it easier to chew and more pleasant to eat. It also makes it juicier, helping moisture migrate further into the meat and stay there during cooking, so it doesn’t dry out too quickly.
Second, salt brings out the flavor in foods. That’s why I wouldn’t dream of making most desserts without a dash of salt. An old saying is that meat is flavorless if it lacks salt and fat. Thankfully, a good barbecue recipe has all three.
A good rule of thumb when deciding how much salt to apply, is to go with about 1/4 – 1/2 kosher salt per pound. After salt, the most important seasoning is pepper. Pepper adds some spice that helps balance out the salt, ensuring a well-rounded profile on the palate.
For most brines, all you need is a hefty dose of salt applied evenly into the meat, and given adequate time to penetrate. This is commonly called a dry brine.
Salt is about the only seasoning that will penetrate the meat. Additionally, salt literally attacks tough proteins to help break them down through a process called denaturation. That means that the salt gets pulled into the tissues of the meat naturally.
A wet brine, on the other hand, is a solution of salt and other spices – mixed into water. Sometimes it also contains acids, such as vinegar or lemon juice, to further tenderize the meat.
Letting the meat marinade in brine for several hours, or up to 24 hours, allows it to absorb more moisture. As the salt penetrates the meat, it brings water with it, thereby keeping the moisture inside the meat during cooking.
You’ll want to add a rub to your meat just before smoking it. The base of a good rub is usually salt, sugar, pepper, garlic, and onion.
From here you can add any spices or herbs you like to make your very own unique flavor. Many dry rubs also include sugar, which adds some sweetness and helps the meat caramelize. Pretty much everything from chili powder to jerk seasoning can be used in a dry rub, it’s really just a matter of personal taste. You can get a little crazy, the sky’s the limit.
In general, fattier fish, like salmon or sea bass, absorb smoke better than leaner fish do. While any fish will be delicious cooked in a smoker, I really love tuna steaks, salmon, sea bass and trout for tender, moist smoked fish.
HOW TO SMOKE FISH IN A SMOKER
You can prepare your fish in any number of ways, including doing a whole, cleaned fish that’s stuffed with leaks, lemons and fennel, like these beauties!
They needed to be tied up in order to keep from splitting apart. You can see the skin split down it’s back, but it doesn’t ruin the finished smoked fish.
When choosing a wood for your smoked fish, you want to stick with a mild type, perhaps a fruit wood or alder. They won’t overpower the delicate flesh of the fish like a hickory or mesquite would.
You can see how lovely and crispy the skin got and separated from the meat. It’s just divine for an outdoor meal in the backyard or terrace.
Many vegetables absorb enough smokiness in their short times in the smoker to give them a flavor profile that can’t be matched.
One of my favorites, garlic, just needs to have the top removed, drizzled with some EVOO and wrapped loosely in foil. I smoke it for about 40-45 minutes directly over the heat source, or until it’s nicely softened. It’s amazing spread on grilled French bread with a salad for a lovely Summer repast.
Here’s my list of vegetables that I think do well in a smoker and take on enough smokey flavor to make it worth the trouble:
After reading this far, this one shouldn’t be a surprise, as grilled fruit is one of the tastiest treats you can serve for a Summer get together.
Smoking the fruit low and slow is even better. You get the added smoke flavor plus the natural extra sweetness of the fruit from the heat.
Cut in half and core or pit your fruit of choice. Then set a target temp between 200°F – 225°F. Let them go for about 30 minutes and you have a really fabulous smokey dessert on your hands.
For a great accompaniment to fish or cocktails, try smoking lemons and limes. Here’s my list of what fruits fare the best and can absorb the smokey goodness of smoking food at home.
As I explained at the beginning of this article, cold smoking keeps the food raw, rather than cooking it.
This means that it could be a dangerous method of smoking if you’re not experienced. Trying to cold smoke meats like salami can be tricky. That’s a much more complicated procedure that requires the meat to be cured before smoking. It’s better left to the professionals!
Here’s a list of the kinds of foods that can more safely be cold smoked at home:
PROJECT SMOKE – The Barbecue Bible for Smoking Meats (paperback) – by Steven Raichlen
A complete, step-by-step guide to mastering the art and craft of smoking!
Masterbuilt Electric Smoker Cookbook 800: Ultimate Guide of Smoked Recipe Cookbook by Roger Kitchen KINDLE EDITION
(**On the date of this post’s publication, the Kindle Edition is available for FREE for Amazon Kindle Unlimited Members)
This book is written by the Masterbuilt manufacturers of fine smokers, grills and accessories. It’s filled with great information and recipes that is sure to tickle your taste buds.
Where you’re using a Masterbuilt smoker or not, you’ll find these recipes a great addition to your Summer outdoor cooking menus.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Smoking Foods (Paperback) by Ted Reader
I can’t believe how many important things I needed to tell you about smoking food at home! Talk about a comprehensive two-part article! And just wait until the Part Two, where I give you all the recipes you’ll need to “get smokin'”!
I hope you found my how-to guide to smoking foods to be helpful and most of all inspirational! Go forth and get smokin’!
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