I once overheard that if a grill is the equivalent of a man’s family minivan, a smoker is his mid-life crisis Dodge Challenger SRT-8. This made me wonder, what is it about men and their need to cook slabs of meat over an open flame while standing outside? Maybe it’s primal, that is, there’s an urging left over from the prehistoric days when men would hunt and women foraged. Perhaps it’s genetic and there’s a hidden barbecue code found only on the Y chromosome. Another explanation could be that it’s the danger of fire, raw meat and sharp knives that attracts men. I mean, it is possible that the fire could erupt into an inferno; and the knives would be handy if that black bear that was seen in town four years ago tries to attack the family. Isn’t it? Whatever the reason, men love their barbecue.
After a man masters the art of barbecuing, he is ready for the smoker. Smoking food is essentially the process of flavoring or cooking through exposure to low heat and smoke over a long period of time (low and slow). Smokers vary in size, sophistication (i.e. weekend warrior versus professional grade) and the fuel it burns. So, before buying a smoker, you will need to decide how big, what fuel and most importantly, how much effort do you want to put into smoking your own food. Ultimately, cost is a function of your answers to these three questions.
In addition to giving you the most authentic flavor, charcoal smokers are the most affordable. There’s a caveat though – lighting the charcoal and maintaining the temperature by monitoring the charcoal burn is the most difficult of the different smoker types. However, to help you, the smoker will have a built-in thermostat or if it doesn’t, you can purchase one.
Charcoal smokers come in a variety of designs but the vertical water smoker is the most popular due to price, ease of use and portability. The vertical smoker has three compartments. The bottom compartment holds the heat source. Above the heat source is the water pan and above the water pan is what’s called the smoking chamber. The water pan is what makes the system work. It deflects the heat from the hot coals, and, importantly, since you may be smoking meat for 4 to 12 hours, it keeps the meat from drying out. To operate a vertical smoker, all you need to do is heat the charcoal, fill the water pan, throw the meat on the grill and maintain the appropriate heat (usually between 200 to 275 degrees). In addition, cleaning up is fairly easy and can be done using a basic grill brush and hose.
The drum smoker (aka the ugly drum smoker) is the most basic smoker and is similar in design to the vertical water smoker. As its name implies it is made of a steel drum with a firebox in the base and a cooking rack on the top. There are vents in the base and lid that are used to adjust the temperature and the more air you allow to enter the drum, the hotter the charcoal burns. The drum smoker doesn’t contain a water pan, so the food is directly smoked and cooked by the charcoal’s radiant heat. It can be difficult to control and maintain the temperature and the drum is not ideal for some types of meat, such as pork roast. But, it is light and inexpensive and is therefore a good smoker for beginners.
The box or cabinet smoker is essentially a box on wheels with a heat source at the bottom and smoking chambers on top. If you find the box smoker appealing, then caution is warranted when purchasing. Cheaper models tend to be poorly insulated and poorly fabricated, thus allowing heat to escape and increasing smoking time. One of the features to look for in a higher quality box smoker is the ability to reload the firebox without opening the door. Top models will also have computer controls and a meat probe, which will keep the temperature steady without you having to maintain it by hand.
When US servicemen arrived in Japan following World War II, they discovered new cuisines and new methods for cooking food. Eventually, the US GIs adapted some of these methods to suit their own palettes. One of these adaptations was to take a centuries-old design rice cooker, and with a little engineering and some imagination, convert it into what we know today as the Kamado cooker. Made of ceramic, these charcoal-fired grills eventually caught on in the United States by the 1970s. The Kamado cooker’s ceramic construction keeps it well insulated, making it great at holding temperatures steady. If the vents are adjusted to get the temperature just right, the Kamado cooker will smoke meat at the slow pace and low temperature that’s required without too much effort. With higher quality construction comes a higher price, so Kamado cookers tend to be at the upper end of the cost spectrum.
The wood pellet smokers, although offered at a higher price point, combine exceptionally good smoky flavor with ease of use. They use an auger system to feed compressed wood pellets into the stove controlled by a thermostat which informs the auger system when to drop more pellets making it easy to maintain at a constant temperature. Many pellet grills being manufactured now will also include probes to tell you the internal temperature of your meat. An even fancier innovation is the ability to control temperatures remotely from your smartphone or tablet.
The most convenient of all of the different types of smokers is the electric smoker. Although critics may say that smoking meat this way lacks authentic flavor, it’s still good nonetheless and is perfect for the man who loves barbecue but doesn’t want to put a lot of work into it. With an electric smoker, you set up the smoker and that’s it. The smoker will maintain a constant temperature, requiring no adjustments. For some higher end models that come with a meat probe, the smoker’s computer controls and cooks the meat to the desired temperature, and then drops to a holding temperature mode to keep it perfect until you are ready to eat. Depending on the features you desire, an electric smoker can upwards of $1,000.
There are many smokers on the market with a variety of features and options. For more information and prices visit Harquail Brothers in downtown Summit. And while you are there stop by Summit’s Meat House for a fresh cut of meat. The Sue Adler Team wishes you and your families the best Father’s Day this Sunday. Happy Smoking!