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Smoking Meat at Home
Author: Matt Treiber (col klink)
Disclaimer: Smoking meat involves fires. Always take precautions not to injure yourself or others. Always do your smoking outdoors and away from flammable items like dry leaves and grass. Destructive fires can result from errant sparks. Be careful and aware! As a precaution, you might want to have a hose handy, especially if you are working near dry grass or combustibles. Likewise, fire is hot. Make sure to use oven mitts or other protective gear when handling hot equipment.
This course will teach you how to smoke a turkey and a Texas-style brisket that will come out juicy, tender and full of flavor. I will cover brining the turkey, dry-rubbing a brisket and smoking them both.
Smoking is not a mysterious process, it is just another method to cook and I won't be surprised if you come out of this course wanting to smoke every one of your meals.
Smoke is created when wood is burned. When it comes into contact with food, it adheres to the surface and acts as a preservative. Before modern day preservatives, smoking was used in conjunction with other methods to preserve foods.
There are two type of smoking, cold and hot. This course is for hot smoking, which cooks the meat while it is smoked. Cold smoking is done at less than 100 degrees and is used for meats like bacon or fish as well as cheese. Hot smoking can be done easily in a Weber grill or a device specifically made for the task, like the Weber Smokey Bullet.
Hot smoking operates from 180 F to 350F but most of the time 225F is the ideal temperature. With a temperature so low, cooking takes longer. This is perfect for tough cuts of meat like pork shoulder and beef brisket which tend to have plenty of fat (a good thing) and collagen between the muscle fibers. If either of these cuts were grilled, the result would be as tough as leather. If these cuts were cooked at traditional roasting temperatures, the result would also be tough and as dry as leather.
Turkey isn’t traditional BBQ, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good and since it cooks so quickly, it’s a great meat to start smoking with. Most people are afraid of turkey because of family Thanksgiving nightmares where the breast meat is dryer than chalk. This is a perfectly legitimate fear, but I’m here to let everyone know that turkey is great and once you know how to prepare it, you’ll be hailed as a family hero. The only drawback to smoking your turkey instead of roasting it in the oven is the lack of juices for gravy. But that’s not a problem:- by smoking a turkey now, you can save the carcass to make stock for gravy for your turkey at Thanksgiving.
The other meat I’ll be teaching is brisket, which most people are afraid of as well. It’s tough, and if you’re not careful, can be really dry and chewy. Meat becomes dry when you overcook it (driving the juice out), or when there isn’t enough fat. If you buy briskets whole in a cryovac, you will have more fat than you know what to do with and as long as you don’t trim it, you’ll have juicy brisket.
This lesson assumes that you already have a smoker or at least a charcoal grill. It is possible to smoke with a gas grill, but it’s very inefficient as they are designed for quick grilling. Smoking takes hours and will quickly eat through your propane.
Wood burning smoker
My smoker is a traditional barrel type with a side firebox, shown below:
The firebox is the smaller barrel; firewood burns in the firebox, exhausting into the smoking chamber (larger barrel) and finally out the chimney. There should also be an aluminum (it’s cheap) water tray under the meat to collect the juices and fats coming off of the meat. It will save you cleaning it later off your deck with a pressure washer.
The Weber Smokey Mountain (the WSM and similar smokers are called water smokers) is shaped like a regular Weber grill but with a large extension holding a couple of grates between the lid and the base. At the bottom, charcoal is burned. The first level holds a water tray and there are two levels for holding meat. Smoke is created by placing wood chips or chunks on the briquettes where it rises around the water tray and envelopes the meat. Vents at the bottom and on the lid control airflow and thus, combustion rate. The image above shows a WSM without its lid or top grate. A pork shoulder is being removed. Though the food is directly above the heat source, the water tray acts as a heat buffer, shielding the food from the higher temperatures of the coals.
If you don’t have either of the previous smokers don’t fret, you can smoke with a Weber-style grill. By using smaller amounts of charcoal and woodchips, you can smoke by putting the coals off to the side of the grill for indirect heating. If you haven’t smoked with your grill before, you might consider getting charcoal rails from Weber (#3901, www.weber.com), they are great at keeping the coals off to the side. Likewise, a replacement hinged cooking grate (#70615 for the 18 1/2" kettle or #70915 for the 22 1/2" kettle) allows access to the coals without disturbing the meat.
This brings up the question of which wood to use. Any hardwood will work -- alder, oak, maple, mesquite, hickory and fruitwoods like apple, peach and cherry are all fine woods to smoke with. The woods differ in density, burning rates, fire temperatures and their ability to impart smoke flavors. Hickory and mesquite are the strongest, followed by oak and maple, alder and then the fruitwoods. I find that oak and maple provide a nice balance for most meat but if you’re using woodchips, hickory and mesquite are better since there isn’t as much wood burning as in a firewood fire. Feel free to mix and match if you’d like.
If you drop by the BBQ store they’ll have a number of different woods to choose from in different form: firewood, chunks, chips, pellets and sawdust. Unless you have a smoker specifically designed for firewood, you’ll be using one of the others. I recommend chips, as they are the most versatile and easiest to find. Chunks last longer than chips but are more difficult to wield if your smoker is small. Pellets and sawdust are for industrial smokers that are specifically designed for them and most probably computer controlled, taking out all of the love. Also, there are wood burning furnaces that use pellets which might contain softwoods, which you definitely cannot use.
Softwoods like pine and birch, when burned, produce off flavors and taint the meat. Likewise, burning treated wood will create all sorts of nasty chemicals that you don’t want near anything you might possibly eat. Only use untreated, hardwoods for smoking.
Charcoal and charcoal accessories
This course assumes that if you’re using charcoal, you are using the chimney starter from Weber (#87886). It is larger than most other brands so adjust accordingly. The Weber website says their chimney starter “holds enough briquettes for a 22-1/2” Weber kettle.” I’m not sure exactly how many briquettes that is, but it’s not too terribly important and once you’ve smoked a couple of times, you’ll get a good idea of how many you need for whatever you’re smoking.
This course also assumes that you’re using standard Kingsford type charcoal and not lump. You’ll see a lot of people swear by lump charcoal, but they’re mostly grillers. Lump charcoal burns hotter than standard and is more temperamental to smoke with. Until you’ve figured out how to smoke with regular charcoal, save the lump for the grill.
Charcoal chimneys are a must have if you ever cook with charcoal. Not only are they efficient at starting coals, but also they allow you to start more coals while you're already cooking so that a fire that's dying has an immediate boost. Yes, lighter fluid is very popular in parts of the country, but a) it tastes horrible, b) it smells horrible, c) it's bad for the environment, d) it's dangerous and e) it costs money. Yes, it's fun to play with Boy Scout water but if you haven't switched to the chimney, you should. This also applies to the folks who use the electric element starters as well (like my Grandfather, may he rest in peace). Why pay for electricity when you usually have paper around that you can burn for free and which does a better job?
Before starting charcoal in the chimney, make sure to have a sturdy, heat-resistant material for the chimney to rest on. The chimney gets very hot! If necessary, you can place the chimney on top of the cooking grate of your smoker or grill.
You will also need a clean aluminum roasting tray under the meat. Fill it with at least an inch of water when you are ready to smoke. This applies to all smokers. If you'd like the smoker to come up to temperature more quickly, boil the water first so the fire doesn't work so hard to heat it. I like to use a whistling teakettle that I can hear when I'm outside working on the fire. The water acts as a heat sink so when the smoker is opened and heat escapes, the temperature won't drop as much. Likewise, if the fire flares and gets too hot, the water holds the temp of the smoker down because it will stay at 212F until it boils off. Even if you don't want to put water in, you'll need the tray to collect juices and fat from the meat. Brisket and turkey (as well as most meats) will loose half of their weight during smoking and a lot of that is fat rendering out. Do you want to clean that out of your smoker?
Below is what happens when you forget the tray once or twice or your tray isn’t large enough (the latter has happened to me on numerous occasions).
All of the fat is eventually going to leave your smoker. Either by melting and leaving through cracks or holes or go up in flames, as shown above.
Thermometers and taking temperatures
Last, but definitely not least, you will need a digital probe thermometer, especially if you’re smoking for the first time. You could probably get by with an analog one, but you really should move up to the digital world. It’s not only that it is digital, which I’ve found to far more accurate on average than analog models commonly seen in kitchen and grocery stores, it's that there’s also a probe. You can leave the probe in a roast or turkey breast and watch the temperature rise or you can even set an alarm, either high or low. Let’s say you’re smoking on a cold day or in the rain and you’ve been having a hard keeping the temp up. With the probe, you don’t need to open the lid and release all of that precious heat or let rain hit your coals. You can monitor the temperature and raise or lower the fire without opening the lid.
To take the temperature of the meat, insert the probe as far as possible into the flesh, making sure not to hit bone and not coming out the other side. Bone doesn’t heat as quickly as the flesh and will lower the temperature reading. Be aware that the proximity to the fire or coals can also alter the temperature reading. If the base is close to the fire, it can read that heat instead of the meat and also possibly cause damage to the probe.
To smoke effectively, you will need to know the relative temperature inside your smoker. Many smokers have a thermometer built in. Yes, I know some of them only say "warm" or "hot" but even those have a use once they’re calibrated. Even if your smoker has a thermometer calibrated in degrees, just like any thermostat on your oven, it too needs to be calibrated and that's exactly where your digital probe thermometer can help you out. Whenever you go to check on the fire, before you have put the meat in there, place your temp probe near where your meat is going to be and see how closely it corresponds to the smoker thermometer. After a few smoking sessions, you'll be able to smoke with confidence.
If your water smoker doesn't have a thermometer, find the analog meat thermometer (the one you replaced with you new digital probe thermometer!), and use it as your new smoker thermometer by letting it rest in one of your exhaust vents. Most charcoal grills don't have a thermometer but you can use the probe thermometer to gauge the temperature at the grate where the meat is going to be. Remember, it is no use to measure the temp above the coals, that location is for grilling. When you measure the temp at the grate, make sure to also check the temperature of the exhaust smoke with your hand . Be careful, don’t immediately slap your hand on the lid, it could be very hot. Gradually draw your hand to the exhaust vent and see how hot it is and then you correlate the grate temperature with the exhaust temperature. Eventually you’ll get to know your smoker and be able to tell how it’s operating without all of the constant checks.
If you’d really like to get fancy, you can purchase a digital thermometer with two probes or get multiple probe thermometers for measuring both your roast and the grate temp. If you’d like to graduate up to “fancy pants” you can purchase one of the remote digital probes on the market. There’s a monitor at your smoker and you keep the RF remote monitor on your belt or near and dear to heart. These probes also have alarms like the lesser-priced models.
Whatever probe thermometer you use, it’s always a good idea to make a sanity check and take the temperature of boiling water. At a theoretical 212 F, it’s pretty close to the ideal of what your smoker should be. If it’s not close, and I’m not talking about changes in elevation close, make sure that the probe isn’t submerged or the cable pinched. If you still can’t get a sensible reading take it back and exchange it for a working one.
If there are so many ways to smoke, which one is best? There have been tomes written about this so I’m only going to scratch the surface and say that it’s up to you and your situation.
If you own a house with a yard, you can easily have a wood burning smoker. Then all you would need is time and firewood.
But not everyone lives in a house or has the free time to properly work a smoker like that. If that's your situation then a Weber Smokey Mountain is the perfect smoker. Except for the industrial smokers, nothing is easier to use - it holds its temp beautifully and spits out great BBQ - what more could you want? (By the way, cheaper versions of the WSM exist and are far more difficult to use but can turn out an equally well-smoked end product and all of the pain and hardship acquired using these products can be worn as a badge of courage.) If you’re in an apartment or a condo, you’ll definitely want to talk it over with management, or throw a party, invite everyone and give them a sample of your wares before you tell them about it. Just hope that your deck isn’t wood and that the smoke constantly goes in your neighbor’s windows- not yours. If your neighbors start a "beef", give them exactly that and see if they complain anymore. If you are considering buying a smoker and you’re not ready to drop $200 on new equipment then definitely try smoking on your Weber grill first.
So how do the three compare when you only look at the end result? Well, it depends on the situation. I am partial to my wood-fired smoker and I do believe it turns out a better hunk of meat when in the right hands. It also has more capacity than a water smoker. I wouldn’t call its capacity vast but it is staggering how much meat I’ve put on my smoker at one time. When I say “in the right hands” I mean an expert on a water smoker can easily beat a novice on a wood-burner. Smokers consistently win BBQ competitions with a WSM. Smoking on a charcoal grill can yield results as good as a water smoker and in some cases, better than the other two. Smoked poultry skin is notorious for being rubbery and chewy. With the grill however, you can cook indirectly for most of the time and then finish above the coals to the crisp up the skin. But if you really take a fancy to smoking, I suggest moving up to the WSM or even better, a wood-fired smoker. There’s something to be said about smoking with a wood fire (and it’s possible that I might have said it once or twice here on the boards).
If you don’t have access to the out doors to cook, you really don’t have much of an option other than stove top smokers. They’re basically closed vessels where chips or sawdust are burnt to give off smoke. They are shallow and are only good for smoking fish for short periods of time. I don’t have any experience with these so I can’t help you. However, you can still participate using your oven and you’ll still have juicy and tasty meat but it won’t be very smoky. Well, hopefully not.
DAY ONE: Preparing the meats
Before you can start cooking your turkey, it needs to be brined. I won’t be covering brining in as much detail as Dave the Cook did on eGCI, but there will be enough to get by. If you have a chance, read Dave's course.
Brining is the simple procedure of placing whatever meat you are going to cook in a salt solution. Brining pre-seasons the meat and brings extra moisture into the cells of the muscle fibers throughout the cut of meat. Brining differs from marinading in that a marinade is topical, only adds flavor and does not make a cut of meat juicier. This is not to say that marinades are bad, they just don’t make meat juicier. Turkey is definitely a meat that greatly benefits from brining. I brine just about everything except for red meats like beef and lamb. Since I only cook these to a rare or medium- rare doneness, they naturally retain enough moisture.
Before you brine your turkey, make sure it’s completely thawed. If you thaw your turkey in the brine, the wings and legs of the bird will be saltier than the breast, sometimes even too salty.
For a 14 to 25 pound turkey, you’ll need about two gallons of brine and room in the refrigerator to store the turkey and the brine. I like to use a five-gallon, food grade plastic bucket and usually need to take out a shelf from the refrigerator. If you don’t have enough room in the fridge, a cooler can be used. Just make sure to put plenty of bagged ice in the cooler along with the turkey. Below is my bucket for brining. There is a spout at the bottom because I purchased the bucket at a homebrew supply store. The hungry cat behind the bucket is my cat Grace, but she also goes by the name "The Tinkler" and more recently, "Killer". This brine is darker than the recipe below because I also added two cups of brown sugar which of course is optional.
2 gallons water
2 cups kosher salt
Warning: Do not substitute table salt in equal amounts! Table salt has a far smaller grain than kosher salt meaning there’s more salt in a cup of table salt than a cup of kosher salt. If you substitute table salt in equal amounts, your turkey will be too salty. If you cannot get kosher salt, use one cup of table salt for 2 gallons of water.
Let your turkey sit in the brine overnight. Some brine recipes call for all sorts of spices and herbs, but I’ve found that it’s just a waste of money as the effect of the herbs are minimal at best. If you’d like to flavor your turkey with herbs, do it after your bird has been brined. Rub the spices and herbs on the skin or under the skin or even in the cavity. Just make sure to dry the bird first. You can also inject your turkey with flavorings as well, but I prefer the taste of straight up smoked turkey. If you are smoking your first turkey, try it straight first before you start playing around so you have a base line to compare further endeavors.
If your smoker is too small, or you can't find a container large enough for holding the turkey while it sits in brine, you can cut the turkey into parts. It's a relatively simple procedure as long as you're not squeamish about handling a raw turkey. Make sure to have a sharp boning or filleting knife and poultry shears or a stout chef’s knife.
First cut the wings off at the joint where they meet the breast and next, the legs. Cut the skin between the breast and the leg all the way to the back, then cut the thigh meat as close to the back as possible on both sides of the thigh bone and cut through the socket. Separating the breasts from the back is more difficult and requires either poultry shears or a good chef's knife. Cut through the ribs, at the backbone. Start at the bottom and work your way up to the neck on both sides. There's no need to separate the breasts. Save the back and smoke that as well, you'll want it to make stock for gravy for your next turkey.
If brining is so great for turkey, why not brine brisket? Well-- done right it’s called "corning" but that calls for far more salt than the brine for the turkey. I’ve found that brisket and red meat in general, doesn’t need to be brined -- they’re juicy enough as long as you don’t overcook them. That’s why marinades and dry rubs are more appropriate for brisket. If you want to make Texas style brisket it’s a dry rub or nothing.
There are a number of commercial dry rubs on the market and many of the BBQ joints down in Texas even sell their own dry rubs (www.saltlickbbq.net. I like to make my own and here’s my recipe (it’s also in the eGRA):
Klink’s Dry Rub
1/2 c Kosher salt
1/2 c brown sugar
1/2 c coarse ground pepper
1/2 c dried garlic
1/4 c paprika
1/4 c sumac
3 T turmeric
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried parsley
1 tsp dried basil
Everyone has their preference and many joints in Texas just use salt and pepper. It’s really up to you, but work generous amounts of the rub into the brisket the day before you smoke it. Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight.
Your grocery store butcher will often have brisket in the meat case or already pre-packaged but this is nearly always the flat of the brisket and it will also have all the fat trimmed off. It is still good brisket, but not for smoking. You want as much fat on that brisket as possible -- fat = juiciness and flavor. Not only is brisket fat delicious, but it’s very important to a juicy and edible brisket. You need that fat to baste the meat as it’s smoked for hours on end. At the end the fat is not like gristle on steak, it’s very soft and melts in your mouth. If you’re concerned about fat intake, for Pete’s sake wait until the brisket is finished smoking to remove the fat from your own portion and let others eat the fat; it’s too precious.
The best brisket you can get is untrimmed and still in a cryovac plastic bag. You'll have to ask around to find it -- try looking up meat purveyors in the yellow pages and ask for untrimmed brisket. Weights will range from 10 pounds to 18 pounds. Yes, this is a lot of meat so you need to have a lot of friends or be very hungry. If you are lucky enough to have a choice of briskets, look for bright red meat with plenty of white fat. When you cut open the bag, make sure it smells fresh and rinse it off thoroughly.
Above are two whole, untrimmed briskets, fat cap down. The can of PBR is there for sense of scale and BBQ isn’t BBQ without something to drink. To give you another idea of how big these guys are, the chopping block on which they are resting is 20” square. The “points” are on the left of chopping block and the “flats” are on the right side. With these briskets, the flats are about half as thick as the points.
You can smoke brisket whole, as is, but often they are too big for water smokers and if your smoker can handle it, it will take upwards of 12 hours to smoke. Luckily, there is a solution. I cut my brisket in thirds before I smoke it. Cut into thirds, each piece only needs 6 to 8 hours on the smoker. Also, the point of the brisket can be up to three times thicker than the flat end of the brisket. By cutting the brisket into thirds, you have better control on how each piece of the brisket is smoked, allowing you to pull the flat off before the point if necessary.
If you are smoking for yourself or a small party, you can bag and freeze two of the three brisket pieces and save them for another time. If you have a vacuum sealer, that is even better, your brisket will last for months in the freezer when it’s vacuum sealed.
If you don't have access to untrimmed brisket and flats are all you can find, don't despair, you can still smoke them and have a good result. Typical flat cuts range from 3 to 4 pounds in size and are trimmed of all fat. When smoking a trimmed flat cut, you'll have to mop the brisket as it's smoked so it remains juicy. A mop is a liquid used to add moisture to meat as it's smoked. I make mine with whatever I have available, mostly a mustard vinaigrette, usually with some hot sauce. You can use whatever you'd like but make sure not to add sugar, as it tends to burn.
DAY TWO: Smoking!
Luckily smoking is the easy and fun part. It's also the part where I get to drink and play with fire. What can be better than that?
Procedures for smoking the turkey and the brisket are basically the same. The only difference is the length of time in the smoker. I will list instructions for starting and running the wood-fired smoker, the Weber Smokey Mountain and a standard Weber grill followed by tailored instructions for turkey and brisket.
Before you get all excited about firing up your smoker, I have a small procedural instruction for those of you smoking a turkey. Drain your turkey from its brine and pat it dry. Slice the skin between the legs and the breasts and legs and let the legs splay out so it looks “paws up.” The breast meat is going to be done at 165 F and often that will leave the inner thighs underdone. By opening up that skin, you’re allowing heat to get into thigh more easily and you’re able to pull the whole bird off at the same time without overheating the breast. If you've cut up your turkey, you don't have to worry about this.
For those smoking a brisket, don’t worry, go ahead and start a fire. As soon as your smoker is ready for meat, you can take your brisket straight from the refrigerator to the smoker. You’ve probably heard a lot of experts say that roasts and steaks should come up to room temperature before cooking. Well that’s all well and good if you’re grilling or cooking at high temperatures, but to get the most smoke flavor in every bite, the meat needs to stay in the smoker for the longest period of time. By bringing brisket right out from the refrigerator, you’re letting it pick up even more smokiness.
Remember to have an aluminum roasting tray filled with an inch of water in your smoker before you put the meat on. I only mention it here because I’ve forgotten this step a couple of times and that’s why I had to rent a pressure washer to clean off my deck when I moved.
Before you light your fire, open both the firebox lid and smoker lid. Start with two logs that preferably have one or two flat sides and place them in the firebox with the flat sides facing each other. Crumple newspaper between the logs and place a couple of pieces of kindling on top of the paper. As the fire starts, heat bounces back and forth between the two flat sides of the logs, reflecting the heat back into the fire, helping it along. When the fire is stable (most of both logs are cleanly burning and the kindling is completely consumed--around 20 to 30 minutes) you can close the lids and let the smoker come up to a temperature of 225 F and then you're ready to add the meat.
I should make a note about the kindling. Although you can't smoke with softwoods, their use as kindling is acceptable as long as you don't close the lids before the kindling is consumed. This gives the contaminants lots of time to burn off and not intrude into the smoking chamber.
When you do throw the meat on, place it as far away from the fire as possible. The object is to leave the meat on as long as possible to get as much smoke as possible. Plus, most of the time the grate nearest the firebox is too hot anyway and you risk charring or even worse, drying out the meat.
-- Operation and Troubleshooting --
The fire will burn at different rates during different parts of the year but you really don't have to worry about that. If your temperature is dropping, open up the damper more. If it's running too hot, close the damper. Never close off the chimney as that allows for creosote to build and give the meat off flavors.
You should always have at least one log burning in the fire. Typically with maple or oak, that is all that is necessary, but if your fire is having trouble keeping temp, don't be afraid to toss another log on. Usually a fire will consume about one log every 30 minutes (alder) to an hour (maple or oak), but this will change with the seasons and whether or not your smoker is in the sun or in the rain. Be aware when you throw a new log on, more than likely the fire will heat up forcing you to close the damper.
When I'm smoking in cooler weather I like to place the next log on top of the firebox to preheat, this way the fire doesn't have to struggle as much to get the new log lit. This is especially important if your fire is struggling. However, never put the next log on the firebox unless you have a safe place to put a burning log in case you need to remove it to lower the heat.
Be careful! Having the next log on the firebox smoldering can also be an indicator that your fire is too hot! This is yet another reason why a wood-burning smoker needs more attention than a grill or a water smoker. You just don’t have the opportunity for events like this to happen with the other smokers. The above image indicates clearly that the fire (in the firebox smoking the meat) is too hot.
If your fire runs too hot (greater than 250 F), there are a couple of things you can do. First, close the damper to the firebox to close off access to oxygen. Second, open the lid on the smoker and let some of that heat out. A third option is add cold water to the water tray.
If your fire starts to die on you (let's say you're in hour 9 of a 12 hour smoking session and beer/bourbon number 8 and you've been neglecting the fire), open up the damper as much as you can. If it's still dying on you, throw another log on (hopefully it's been sitting on the firebox). Only as a last resort should you throw some more newspaper on the fire. Newspaper is light and after it's spent, the ashes tend to fly rather easily, that's why you should open up the lid to the firebox. Also, you don't want any odd fumes from weird inks or the paper itself to touch the meat.
Conventional instructions say to soak your wood chips in water for one half-hour before use. Some say that aids creosote production and some say it prolongs the life of the chips. I haven't noticed a difference in taste between the two, so I soak my chips to last longer but there are times that I don't. Basically, it doesn't make much of a difference that I've been able to tell, so do what your heart tells you.
Before you put briquettes in the chimney, remember to put the fuel in the bottom of the chimney. It is a lot easier that way. Typically a full-page section of newspaper is enough, but on windy days more may be necessary. If your newspaper isn't giving you enough oomph, you may want to try mixing in part of a brown-paper grocery bag which burns longer, but does not burn as hot as newspaper.
Start with about 2/3 full chimney of briquettes for the turkey and a full chimney for the brisket. When the briquettes are about half done -- the coals on top have started to burn but are still half-black -- empty the chimney into the smoker and wait for the smoker to come to temp. If you let your coals go until they are all covered in white ash, then they will be too hot and your smoker will spike too high. By putting them in the smoker early, you're reducing the amount of oxygen available and the coals can easily come up to the ideal temperature without going over.
When your smoker has come to temp it's time to throw on the wood chips. Either pull the top half off the smoker or open the access panel so you can easily place the chips on the coals. If you've been soaking them water, now is the time to grab a handful and drain them in your hand. Before you exuberantly throw the chips on, remember that water does a pretty decent job of putting out a fire so shake the chips a couple of timesto get rid of as much water as you can. Throw them on and put the smoker back to together. It's now time to put on the meat.
-- Operation and Troubleshooting --
Operation is pretty simple with the WSM as the temperature doesn’t vary that much. Likewise, there isn't nearly as much to troubleshoot with a water smoker as there is with a wood-fired smoker since charcoal doesn't react as quickly as wood. Toying around with the lower and upper vents should be sufficient to correct any temperature fluctuations. Just remember that changes can take up to 15 minutes to make themselves evident. If you're finding yourself tensing up, grab a beer or a drink and don't worry about it. Worse thing that can happen is that you have to order out or your house goes up in flames.
Probably the biggest thing to worry about is whether or not smoke is coming out of your smoker. If there’s no smoke, you’ve exhausted the woodchips and you are no longer smoking -- you are now just slow cooking and it’s time to throw on more chips. Check every 20 to 30 minutes to see when to add more coals. The above image shows the access panel to an WSM after more chips have been added to the coals. On average, chips are added every 45 minutes to an hour.
For smoking the turkey or the brisket you shouldn't need to add any more coals unless you've underestimated how many you needed in the first place. However, if you're running a little cold, and you've opened up all of the vents, you can always add just a couple of coals but, be prepared to wait 15 minutes before you see a change. If you're running really cold, start up another batch of coals in the chimney and add them when they are fully going to give the temperature a nice shot in the arm.
If you're running too hot, close the bottom vents first, then the upper vents but always leave one upper vent partially open; there should always be an exhaust vent for smoke otherwise you risk creosote building up. If you're running really hot, above 275, you can just remove the top or even the top and the section holding the meat while you wait for the coals to cool down. Don’t forget that you can throw more wet chips on the coals without doing a great job of shaking off the water as well or just throw a little water on the coals.
If you choose to soak your wood chips, do so before you start the coals in the chimney. Since smoking doesn't cook at the high levels of a grill, you don't need as much charcoal at the start. Like the water smoker, start with about 2/3 of chimney and let them ash completely over so no black is visible. Grills don't hold their heat like water smokers do, so it's safe to let the coals get plenty hot. However, if you throw the coals on before that, it's not a problem, the coals will still get lit eventually.
Normally you'd spread the coals out evenly on the charcoal grate but that is for direct grilling. For smoking, you need to place the coals off to one side. Weber’s charcoal rails work well here. Ideally, the coals will be right above one of the lower vents. The meat goes on the opposite side from the coals and the vent on the lid should be right above the meat. This way air comes up through the vent, hits the coals and the wood chips taking smoke with it and travels around the meat and out the top vent. After you add the coals to the charcoal grate, place the main grate on the grill.
When the grill/smoker comes up to temperature, it's time to add the chips. It's at times like this where the Weber replacement hinged cooking grates come in very handy. They allow access to the coals without having to remove the entire grate. Oh yeah, the grate gets hot! Use tongs to open the grate (or oven mitts you don’t mind getting dirty). If you don't have a cooking grate with a hinge, you'll have to remove the entire grate to add the wood chips. Later on when there is meat on the grate, you'll need an extra hand to add more chips or some place to set the grate on such as bricks or cement blocks. Make sure there are at least three for the best support -- the last thing you want is for your meat to hit the ground.
You're now ready to throw on the meat.
-- Operating and Troubleshooting --
Operation of the grill is similar to the WSM: there are vents on the bottom and on the top. Leave the top vent at least a little open at all times and mainly work with the lower vents. To increase the temperature, open the vents; to lower the temperature, close the vents.
As with the WSM, if there is no smoke coming out of your grill, you are not smoking - it’s time to throw more chips on the coals. If you don’t have a hinged cooking grate, you’ll have to take the whole grate off. Either have somebody to help you throw more chips on or have a safe place to stow the grate, like a trio of bricks or cinder blocks in a triangle pattern.
If you’re running cool and you’ve opened your vents to their maximum, there is a trick you can use before resorting to starting more coals in the chimney. Fires need oxygen to burn and the more it gets, the hotter it burns. Now a Weber kettle isn’t a wind tunnel but one way to increase airflow and not loose all of the heat by completely taking off the lid, is just to leave about an inch or two open near the meat. You’d be surprised how well this works. I use it often when I’m finished grilling or cooking with charcoal to help the coals burn out so I have less of a mess to clean up the next time.
If you’re running too hot the first thing to do is completely close the lower vents and then just take the lid off. 30 seconds will dramatically drop the temperature. If it’s still too hot, you can always throw more chips on without being diligent about shaking off all of the water or you can just throw a little water on the fire. Just be aware that’s possible to bring up ash when coals sizzle.
Time for Meat
That didn’t take long did it?
The cooking style for both the turkey and the brisket is really the same. Cook them in a 225 F environment in the presence of smoke until they’re done.
Well, there is a little more to it than that-- unless you’re smoking with the WSM. You have the easiest job since there isn’t a temperature gradient across the cooking grate and hardly any work to do keeping temperature. But for those with a wood-burning smoker or the grill, we have to rotate the meat as it smokes.
These smokers have hot spots and the meat needs to rotate in and out of it. Smaller pieces, if possible, need to be in the cooler sections of the smoker and pieces that can handle warmer temperature need to be closer to the heat. Depending on how warm the smoker is, the meat should be rotated every 15-30 minutes.
I stated at the beginning that the ideal temperature of the smoker should be 225 F and I’m still sticking to my guns. However, with the grill and the wood-burning smokers, it’s possible that though general temperature may be 225 F, spots in the smoker are going to be higher. This means it’s necessary to know when it’s too warm for the meat.
Basically, if your meat is sizzling, it’s too hot. This is easiest to tell with meats like brisket where there isn’t a skin and it’s easier for moisture to leave the meat and so it’s going to be more visible at the surface. But there’s also some common-sense involved. Thin or small pieces of meat will dry out before large hunks of meat, so rotate them often and watch them carefully. If it looks like nothing is happening yet it’s still warm, then everything’s all right.
-- Turkey --
Place the turkey breast side up and, if you’ve already cut your bird into pieces, skin side up. Which side is up really won’t affect the flavor or texture of the meat, but it will end up looking better if the skin side is up and this applies to the entire smoking process.
The above image shows the turkey (on the right, the other bird is a goose) with the top of the breasts towards the firebox. It has been smoking for approximately an hour. If you were to roast the turkey in the oven at 225 it would still take as long as on the smoker, but it would look like the goose on the left. Not only that, you wouldn’t get the nice crispy texture on the skin or the crispy turkey goodness on the bottom of the pan. Luckily with smoking, the skin picks up a lot of color. Notice that the skin between the breasts and the legs is not opened. As a consequence, the inner thighs on this particular turkey were not quite done and had to go back on the smoker after the breasts were removed.
Turkey is really simple once you realize that you cook it to a specific temperature and not for a specific time. For Christmas I gave my family a digital probe thermometer and after I flew back home, my brothers wanted to throw a beef roast in the oven but they wanted to try out the new toy. I get a call and they ask me “how long does it take to roast beef with the thermometer?” Granted, my younger brothers are under 20 and just starting their journey into cooking, but the mentality is pretty much that of mainstream America, or at least the Midwest -- most people cook meat by time instead of temperature.
Turkey breasts are done at 165 F. If you’ve already cut your turkey into pieces you can easily leave the legs on longer if the breasts finish early. If you didn’t, not to worry, especially if you’re smoking on a wood-burning smoker or a grill. Since there is a temperature gradient across the cooking surface, you can place the legs closer to the heat for the majority of the time and your legs will finish before the breasts and everything is done when the breasts are done.
Usually a 20 lb bird will be finished in 2 1/2 hours time. This may be surprising to those who’ve never cooked a brined turkey because a bird this size would normally take about 3 1/2 to 4 hours in a conventional oven and that’s usually at 350 F, not 225 F. What does this mean? You need to keep a close eye on the progress of the meat. Start taking temperature readings of the breasts after an hour or so and do it regularly (3 to 4 times an hour) as the bird smokes. Obviously you’ll need to pay more attention as you get closer to 165 F.
For those of you with a bullet, there’s a good chance that your bird wouldn’t fit onto the top grate in one piece and you had to cut your bird up beforehand anyway. If you bought a bird small enough to fit, pull the turkey off when the breasts are done even if the legs are not done. Let the bird rest for 10 minutes then separate the breasts from the rest of the bird and keep them warm in the oven at around 150 degrees, covered with tinfoil. Put the rest of the turkey back on the smoker to let the legs finish. It’s a little higher maintenance, but well worth the effort. When the legs are done you pull them off and take the breasts from the oven for carving and serving. It isn’t as necessary for the legs to rest as it is for the breasts since the legs have more fat.
Some turkey traditionalists prefer to bring the whole bird to the table to carve but I’ve never really cared for it. It’s primarily for show and if your guests want that, show them the fire in the backyard and give them another drink. Once they try the smoked turkey, they will never question your judgment again. I prefer to carve the turkey on my cutting board where I have a stable and soft surface for my knife and I can get clean slices.
Before you dive into a whole turkey with your carving knife, let your turkey rest for at least 10 or 15 minutes to let the juices be reabsorbed. For carving, I first separate the breasts from the breastbone and then carve slices like you’d get at the deli. The leg meat however, I just pull or slice off the bone and serve the pieces chopped up because by then I already have people stealing pieces of breast meat off the platter and time is of the essence. At this point, my guests don’t care what the leg meat looks like.
The one drawback to smoking a turkey is that you don’t get the pan juices to make gravy as you do with a roasted bird. Don’t worry. For once your turkey will not need gravy to make it palatable. It will be juicy and tender and won’t leave you feeling like you’re in the desert. However, what if it’s Thanksgiving dinner and you can’t live without gravy for your mashed potatoes? Luckily, you just smoked a bird and with this carcass you can make stock for gravy at Thanksgiving. Look to the end of the course for the best gravy you’ve ever had.
-- Brisket --
Place your trio of brisket pieces on the smoker fat cap up. I am of the school where the fat cap should always be up, primarily because as the fat renders out it bastes the meat. If you flip it over you’re just losing all of that beautiful fat to the water tray. Some folks like to sear the fat cap at the beginning of the smoking session to get the fat to start rendering as quickly as possible. I’ve tried this a couple of times though mostly because the grate near the fire can get really hot when the smoker is coming up to temperature and it’s a lot of fun to throw the cold brisket onto the really hot cast-iron grates. I really don’t think that it helps the fat render any more quickly but if it does then I don't want it! I want the fat to last as long as possible! The time your brisket needs its fat the most is when you pull it off the smoker, not at the beginning.
Like the turkey, brisket needs to be rotated in and out of the warmer regions of your smoker so that no one piece has to bear the brunt of the hot side. Do let the flat third of your brisket spend the least time in the hot zone since it has the least amount of fat of the three. Rotate the pieces every 15 or 20 minutes (when your smoker is hot) to 30 or 45 minutes (when your smoker is a steady 225 F or lower). This is more important in the first few hours of smoking than at the end because usually your fire cools as you continue to smoke.
The image above shows three 1/3 portions of a whole untrimmed brisket along with a pork shoulder in the lower left hand quarter. The yellow bowl has a mustard-based vinaigrette (with plenty of hot sauce) that I was using to mop the shoulder. The flat of the brisket is directly in front and furthest from the fire because it has the least amount of fat, and thus requires protection from the heat. I keep my flat in that location for the duration of the smoking but I do rotate it in place so one side doesn’t cook more than the other.
Those of you with a water smoker don’t need to rotate nearly as often but once every other hour or so is good just for peace of mind. There will be a temperature gradient from top to bottom but it is not as great as in the wood-burning smoker or the grill.
The brisket thirds will need at least 6 hours but not more than 8. You could probably get away with 5 hours on the flat portion but will it end up being chewier than it should. If you’re smoking with a grill, at some point you will definitely need to add more charcoal. You can do it a couple briquettes at a time every half hour or in fell swoops with the chimney, but either way you will have to add more.
When I smoke briskets I rarely take their temperature. Brisket, like pork shoulder, is more about letting the collagen and the fat break down to get the right texture in the meat; usually this is around 190 to 210 for brisket. I know what I said about temperature and the turkey and that’s still relevant and completely true along with almost any other small or large roast, but not so with brisket or pork shoulder.
When the brisket is done, you can tell by poking with your finger and a carving fork with long thin tines. To the touch it will be resilient and the crusty exterior pieces will easily come off, usually along with a good portion of nearly rendered fat (“oops, that sometimes happens, shame ain’t it?”). When you poke the brisket with a carving fork it should go easily through, almost like the brisket wasn’t there. The cut of brisket where this is most likely to happen is the point, which has the most fat however. A fork should still easily go through the flat as well.
Brisket also needs to rest before it is carved. 15 minutes should be quite sufficient. If you weighed it before and after it came out of the smoker, you would notice that it lost about half of its weight.
Carve the brisket against the grain, which runs diagonally along the length of the brisket. If your brisket isn’t as tender and juicy as it could be, cutting with the grain only amplifies the situation. However, if you’ve done everything right, this is what it looks like:
There will be a pink ring around the perimeter of the meat and as you can see, it should be moist and very juicy. If you smoked it right, this is what your guests do:
Brisket is easier to cook than turkey primarily because you never really have to take its temperature and it’s more difficult to overcook, though it does take two to three times as long to smoke. Sure, you can overcook brisket, but if you picked up an untrimmed brisket and didn’t trim off any of the fat, you won’t have to worry about dry brisket. Unlike turkey breast, where even if it had enough fat to last for 6 hours of smoking, it would still end up very chewy and pretty much inedible, most of an untrimmed brisket is marbled with fat and collagen holding it together and keeping it moist. If you were to grill brisket to rare or medium rare you would have juicy shoe leather. Brisket is not just muscle fiber, that’s why brisket can last so long at 225 F and not dry out or turn into rubber. If you’re willing to wait (and watch TV, read a book, drink beer in the back yard on a sunny day, listen to the ball game), what you’ll get is a juicy and tender piece of beef that can compete with the pit masters of Texas.
Please don’t be afraid of eating the fat. I remember the first time I truly understood what good brisket was; I sat down with a whole mess of brisket on butcher paper and I noticed the fat on the outside edge and thinking, uh, no, that’s not for me. I’ve always been told that fat is bad for you. But for some reason I was overcome by the situation and I thought “what the hell?” I ate some and I had an epiphany! I realized then and there that brisket is nothing without the fat because that’s where most of the flavor and the the smokiness rests. This isn’t gristly fat like that on a steak, the fat cells break down, on the verge of completely rendering and as soon as they hit your tongue you’re in heaven.
The closest non-smoked fat experience I can think of is biting into a crispy roast duck. You break the crunchy exterior and there’s a gush of fat that melts in your mouth and rushes everywhere it can. It’s then you realize why you eat meat. These luxurious lipids coat every portion of your mouth and reach down inside you and you say to yourself “despite everything happening in the world, I am happy.” This is where you realize that somebody on this Earth hasn’t known the extreme pleasure that I know, and I must spread the Gospel. This is how good brisket fat is, only better.
Hopefully you’ll love brisket as much as I do and Texans do.
I truly hope that I didn't scare people away by the size of this course, because once you go through it, it becomes second nature and the work really isn't that difficult. Most of the time spent smoking is actually doing something else, smoking is actually in the background. If you can plan ahead, you can smoke.
By now you're a pro at turkey and/or brisket and it's something to be proud of. Most people don't know how to prepare a turkey and even more don't know a thing about brisket. Both can be very delicious or supreme disasters, but if you follow my steps you can avoid the usual pitfalls that accompany these two meats and never be afraid to cook them again.
Like any other endeavor, if you want to be good at smoking meat or preparing meat in general, it takes practice. If you think that smoking is right up your alley, make it a weekly event and try to find friends that will come over for it. If you've smoked before, you probably won't have a problem. However, to get them back week after week, you may want to schedule it around something like the Sopranos, Sunday Football or how I learned, around Friday Night Fights on ESPN2, the deuce. There is no way I'd be able to eat all of the meat I've smoked if it wasn't for hungry friends -- I can't imagine how bad my cholesterol would be otherwise!
Now, go forth and spread the Gospel of meat.
For the Next Time You Smoke a Turkey
Don’t even think about throwing away the turkey carcass, it’s time to make stock. Save every non-meat leftover piece from the turkey and throw it into a stockpot and make your stock as you normally do. If you’ve never made stock before, check out the eGCI course on stocks and sauces. The short version is to simmer the carcass for at least four hours, skimming the scum as it comes to the surface. Strain stock and put it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day separate the fat and store separately. If you'd like to add aromatic vegetables and other spices, feel free to do so but not salt. Once there's salt in a stock, it can never come out and since most stocks are reduced when making gravy, the salt builds and builds.
Come Thanksgiving, you’ll now be ready to serve gravy along with your smoked turkey, the likes of which you have never seen.
1/2 cup smoked turkey fat
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 - 5 cups of smoked turkey stock
salt to taste
If you don’t have a half-cup of smoked turkey fat, add butter until you have a total of a half-cup of fat. Warm over medium heat and add flour. Mix flour until it is golden brown or the shade of your preference. Make sure to keep stirring so the flour doesn’t burn. When the flour and fat mixture is at your desired color, add stock in half-cup intervals. When the stock is incorporated, add additional half cups until you reach your desired thickness. I like a thick gravy which usually ends up being around 3 cups of stock and easily hangs on to the back of a spoon.
Sources and Other Resources
The BBQ Faq http://www.bbq-porch.org/faq.asp
Kansas City BBQ Forum http://ww.rbjb.com/rbjb/rbjbboard
Weber's website http://www.weber.com
copyright © 2003 Matt Treiber
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Smoking Meat at home
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