The Hippo


Apr 26, 2019








Smoking devices
There’s more than one way to smoke

By Ryan Lessard

Smoking meat has been a tradition for thousands of years, but as human civilization has developed and grown more complex, so have the tools we use to get the job done. In fact, pioneering individuals are still finding inventive ways to build smokers and make the process easier.

Big-batch smoking
Eric Mitchell is a land surveyor for a civil engineering firm in Bedford, but during his off hours, he is a barbecue connoisseur. He's a member and past director of the New England Barbecue Society and the author of Smoke It Like a Pro on the Big Green Egg & Other Ceramic Cookers.
“When you talk about smoking meat, it's usually over many hours,” Mitchell said.
He said the typical low-heat, long-term approach to cooking can be achieved with several different types of cookers.
“One very traditional cooker is a stick burner, which is a large, offset-type smoker ... and they burn chunks of wood [that are] put in the firebox at one end,” Mitchell said.
The stick burner, or offset smoker, often looks like a horizontal cylinder next to a box and a little chimney sticking out the end opposite the box. The meat goes in the cylinder on racks, while the wood is burned in the adjacent box. This way, Mitchell says, the heat and smoke pass over and around the meat during their sideways journey to the exhaust.
“The heat and the smoke go through the big chamber where the meat is, so nothing is directly over the flame. It's offset from the flame,” Mitchell said.
He said this type of smoker is ideal for catering since it can contain large amounts of meat at a time. It's also considered by purists the truest way to smoke, since it involves the burning of actual wood, where other methods involve charcoal or propane.
“There are some people who believe if you're not using a stick burner, you're not really doing barbecue,” Mitchell said.
Stick burners can be bought, but some people like to build their own.
“A lot of people make them out of oil drums — 275-gallon oil drums from the basement — or they make it out of 55-gallon drums,” Mitchell said.
The 55-gallon drums are also used to make upright drum smokers, which stand vertically and open to reveal racks that stack upon one another for holding meat. In this case, the smoking effect is achieved by placing the meat not to the side of the heat source, but above it. The greater distance between the heat source and the meat keeps the meat from getting grilled. Temperature is controlled by limiting the amount of air that comes in at the bottom of the drum and there's a small release vent at the top.
“It has racks and everything inside. Still, the fire and everything is put down at the bottom. They have a drip pan. And the heat goes all the way up through the meat, up through different levels,” Mitchell said.
Variations of this style cooker can be designed to burn either wood at the bottom or propane with a box directly above the gas burner that contains the wood or charcoal, which is necessary for providing the smoke. To keep it from getting too hot, propane-based drums are often starved of oxygen, with only a vent at the top.
Michell said there's a boxier version of this vertical smoker that restaurants may use.
“They also have cookers that are like a cabinet,” Mitchell said. “It can be the size of a small refrigerator or a big refrigerator.”
He said most restaurants run propane-powered smokers with wood chunks to add the smoke flavor. Others may use food-grade pellets that drop into the fire.
Small-batch smoking
For a nice home-smoked meal, one would seldom need a device as large and complex as those oil-barrel and cabinet-style smokers, but there are smaller options available.
“There's other cookers, such as the Weber Smokey Mountain, which is a kettle-type cooker,” Mitchell said.
This kind of cooker is also called a bullet, because of its shape, or a vertical water smoker, because it incorporates water to keep the moisture in. It uses hardwood lump charcoal.
“[The bullet cooker is] lit down at the bottom. There's actually a water pan underneath it. The smoke goes up and through and out the vents on top,” Mitchell said.
The water, which is located between the fire and the cooking grates, serves a number of different functions. It helps to stabilize the temperature, so the user rarely needs to intervene to control it, and the vapor and smoke condense together to add more flavor to the food. The pan also catches any drippings from the meat.
The bullets are usually about four feet tall and about 20 inches wide. Certainly enough room to feed a family, but about 240 fewer square inches of total cooking area compared to a moderately sized offset smoker.
Another small cooker, which Mitchell wrote his book about, is a kamado-style grill. Unlike all the other devices, which are constructed with steel or iron, kamado-style cookers are ceramic. They provide the same amount of cooking area as a bullet and also use charcoal, but they have no water pan.
“It's shaped like an egg. The fire is in the bottom and then we put a diffuser in there, whether it's a pizza stone or a drip pan, so the heat comes up around it and not directly above the flame,” Mitchell said.
The kamado-style smoker can be used for a great deal of things, besides smoking. For example, Mitchell said you can sear a steak at 700 degrees or bake a pizza at 600 degrees, making it one of the most versatile types of smokers out there.
“You can do a lot of things on that you could not necessarily do on a stick burner,” Mitchell said.
And another approach to smaller-scale smoking can be achieved with a simple hack to a regular charcoal-heated kettle grill.
“If you build your fire and use natural lump charcoal, build it on one side so it's not over the entire bottom. It's just tucked to one side. Then you put your meat over the other side,” Mitchell said.
If you do this, then, voila, you've just made a jury-rigged offset-type smoker.
New innovations
Just as there are purists who feel it's not true smoking when it's not done with burning wood, there are those who feel modern advancements in automation and computerization are a step too far. Mitchell says there are those who feel such technologies make the process more of a science than an art. But for those who seek a more hands-off approach to smoking, Mitchell said there are smoking devices that are equipped with temperature sensors linked to temperature control mechanisms available on the market.
“All of the cookers run on the drafting of air from the outside that goes through the smoker and gets released,” Mitchell said.
Usually this is controlled manually with vents and dampers, but that's no longer necessary.
“You can buy fans which are electronically controlled based on temperature,” Mitchell said.
Some devices link temperature sensors to augers that feed wood pellets into the fire, for essentially the same effect: temperature control. You just set the computer to keep it at a certain temperature and it does the rest for you.  
As seen in the June 18, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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