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KC’s Ribshack. Courtesy photo.




Smoking 101
Experts give the low-down on cooking low and slow

06/18/15
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



Loving smoked meat is human instinct, said Kevin Cornish, owner of KC’s Ribshack in Manchester. After all, until 200 or so years ago, it was the only way to do it. Everything was cooked, not over the stove or in the oven, but over a smoky fire.
“I think it takes more than a couple hundred years for people to get rid of that instinct,” Cornish said during a phone interview. Plus, “There’s also something about barbecue — there’s a camaraderie about it. It’s associated with people getting together, having a cold beer and a good time. It’s a lot more fun than making a casserole.”
 
Cold smoking
There are two ways to smoke meat. One is via cold smoking. Generally, this is done by experts; it requires more skill, experience and costs more than hot smoking, said Brian Nassif, chef and manager at the Flying Butcher in Amherst.
Using this method, food is smoked at low temperatures — Nassif said around 100 degrees, give or take. Food isn’t necessarily cooked using the cold method (think smoked salmon or smoked cheddar cheese). Rather, it gives the food its flavor. It also, to an extent, helps preserve the meat, one reason people began the practice thousands of years ago.
“When you cold smoke, you dehydrate the food to an extent,” Nassif said. “The smoke will eliminate bacteria, and it also helps to dehydrate the food — the moisture is what will make most of those proteins go bad.”
Cornish said preservation qualities also come from curing the meat, typically done before smoking. Plus, he said, smoky flavors made it so other critters wouldn’t want to eat it. Insects, for instance, hate the smell and taste of smoky food.
Hot smoking
Today, smoking is mostly done for flavor, and it’s usually done via the hot method, around 200 degrees or higher for hours on end. (Using this method, the meat actually gets cooked.)
“That temperature causes all the fats and connective tissues to break down and melt together. It creates this richness and tenderness in meats like pork, fatty beef and some poultry,” Nassif said. “It also creates very intense depth of flavor, and that’s something you can’t do with regular barbecue.”
Cornish said his sweet spot is between 210 and 250 degrees, 12 to 14 hours depending on what’s being cooked. Think low, think slow. With some items, you just have to have patience and faith. The effect is not unlike using a slow cooker for stew meat.
“If you’re cooking pork butt for seven to nine hours, it will start to tighten up. Most people will think, ‘Oh, I’ve gone too far,’” Cornish said. “But then there’s this thing that happens at 12 to 14 hours, when all those muscles that were tightening up give up their fight, and the collagens [tissues around the muscle] break down.”
But on the flip side, you should never cook by time.
“Everything we cook is by feel, which is easier said than done; with a rack of ribs, we’ll go and twist between the bones to see if it’s getting tender. That’s something you need to learn,” Cornish said.
 
Not just throw-away items
Hot smoking food breaks down most of what’s cooked at barbecue restaurants — ribs, brisket, pork —  transforming these ordinarily tough meats into delicacies. 
“These used to be like throw-away items. They were what the butchers didn’t really want, and that’s how smoking developed in the deep South in, you know, some of the poverty-stricken areas, because they were able to get these meats so inexpensive,” Cornish said.
 
For beginners
Smoking meat, Cornish said, is not very hard but it is time-consuming. KC’s has smokers running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He suggests beginners start out with ribs or pulled pork.
“The nice thing about pulled pork is that if you cook it long enough, it’s kind of hard to screw up. Brisket is temperamental. Pulled pork, if you have the oven at 220 degrees and you cook it for 10 to 12 hours until the thing gets tender, it’s going to be delicious,” Cornish said.
Nassif said there’s a lot of trial and error involved, and that first-time smokers should set aside a good chunk of their day and remember that different items will require different amounts of time. The best thing to do is research beforehand. Call your local butcher, search online and check the meat regularly.
“You can hang out in the yard with your family, but you want to be as close to the smoker as possible because if the temperature does go up 10, 15 degrees, you’re going to dry out your food. Patience is super important,” Nassif said. “Recipes, as much as we want them to be the perfect guide, are never really that perfect. It’s never an exact science.”
If you want to get the smoky flavor just while grilling, Nassif suggested making a foil package filled with soaked wood chips. 
Poke a few holes in the pocket and stick it on the grill next to the food.
“If you’re doing it on the grill, it’s more for added flavor — you’re not going to get the true smoked meat benefits,” Nassif said. “The easiest way to achieve that … is to purchase an inexpensive electric smoker, which is super easy to use.”
 
Popularity
If anything, the showmanship for barbecue has increased —  in part, thanks to barbecue competitions and Food Network shows —  but the basics remain the same.
“People associate barbecues with getting together in the backyard and having a good time, and you know, not worrying about the pretentiousness, about how pretty something is or how it’s being cooked. It’s basically, for the most part, meat over fire,” Cornish said. “It’s actually a pretty simple process when it comes down to it.” 
 
As seen in the June 18, 2015 issue of the Hippo.





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