Although smoke cooking is an ancient art, it's new to many cooks. The Better Homes & Gardens Test Kitchen home economists receive lots of questions about the method. If they don't have an answer, they research it until they do. Here are their answers to the most common questions.
Q. Are there different types of smokers?
A. Yes, and they all give the same moist, tender, smoky results. The three main types of smokers are charcoal, electric, and gas. The only difference is the source of their heat. Most of the smokers purchased for home use are charcoal vertical water smokers, meaning the cylindrical cookers stand upright and contain a water pan that creates a moist heat as the food cooks. (Dry smokers are usually horizontal units with an offset firebox that keeps the food away from the heat source; as their name implies, they do not contain a water pan.) A very simple charcoal water smoker can be purchased for as little as $60. One advantage of charcoal smokers is that they're portable -- they can be taken picnicking, camping, or tailgating. The greatest advantage of electric or gas smokers is that they easily maintain a constant temperature ideal for smoke cooking. Electric smokers can simply be plugged into an outdoor outlet.
Q. How does a water smoker work?
A. A water smoker uses the heat from hot coals to bring the water in the pan to boiling while causing the soaked wood chunks to begin smoking. The water particles unite with the smoke particles, which then condense on the meat. This creates three desirable effects: The meat is infused with a delicious, sweet smoke flavor; it gets tenderized; and it remains moist despite a long cooking time. The water vapor also helps keep the temperature in the chamber hovering between 200 degrees F and 275 degrees F -- ideal for smoke cooking. For smoking, all of the vents should be partially closed. Refer to the manufacturer's directions for specific instructions about using your smoke cooker.
Q. If I don't own a smoker, can I still make smoked foods on my grill?
A. Absolutely. Whether you own a charcoal or gas grill, you can smoke foods on your grill by using the indirect method of grilling -- meaning the food is cooked adjacent to the heat source rather than directly over it -- and by adding soaked hardwood chips to the hot coals or heating element. To set up a charcoal grill for indirect cooking, light the coals. Arrange glowing coals around the grill perimeter using long-handle tongs. When the coals are covered with gray ash, set a drip pan in the center of the grill, surrounded by coals, directly under where the food will be placed. To check the temperature over the drip pan, hold your hand where the food will cook for as long as it's comfortable. For our recipes, a hot fire allows a 2-second hand count, a medium fire allows a 4-second count, and a low fire allows a 6-second hand count.
Indirect grilling on a gas grill takes even less preparation. Light the grill according to the manufacturer's instructions. Turn the setting to high, and let the grill preheat for 10 to 15 minutes. Reduce the heat on one burner to medium or medium-high, and turn the other burner off to set up two heat zones. Place the drip pan directly on the lava rocks, ceramic briquettes, or flavorizer bars on the burner that's turned off. Adjust the gas flow to the burner that's on to maintain the desired temperature inside the firebox. Check the temperature over the drip pan as described above. Place the food on the grill rack directly over the drip pan.
Q. How do I keep a constant temperature while I smoke cook?
A. Smoke cooking often requires leisurely cooking times. To make sure the coals stay hot enough to keep the wood smoking, add no more than 10 to 12 charcoal briquettes every hour or so. Adding too many coals at once causes the temperature in the chamber to plummet. If you are smoke-cooking on your grill, add half of the new coals to each side. If your fire is medium hot and coals are burning quickly, you may need to add a few briquettes as often as every 30 minutes. Add soaked wood chunks or chips as often as necessary to maintain a steady source of smoke. If you need to add water to the pan, make sure it is hot water so the temperature in the chamber doesn't fluctuate greatly. And though it's tempting to peek at what you're cooking, resist the urge to lift the lid of your smoker or grill. Every time you do, you'll need to add 15 minutes to the cooking time.
Despite what aficionados may say, there are really only two rules for making great barbecue: Cook low and slow -- and keep your smoke sweet. If smoke is stale or acrid, the food will have a strong or bitter taste.
To keep it sweet, maintain a constant heat source; keep air flowing through the smoker; use seasoned, high-quality wood for smoke. Hickory, oak, cherry, and mesquite all give food excellent flavor. Avoid any gathered wood from needle-bearing trees such as fir or pine, which have high levels of sap or resin and can make foods bitter.
Steak Strips with Peanut Sauce Nothing could be simpler and more satisfying than this four-ingredient peanut sauce that's stirred together on top of the stove. Serve the steak and sauce with hot cooked rice.
Ginger-Orange Beef Ribs Soy sauce and fresh ginger give these meaty ribs Pacific-rim flair. An Asian cook might smoke them in a kamado, an egg-shape ceramic oven used for smoking in that part of the world for centuries.
Corn Bread-Stuffed Chops If you'd like to try something other than apple or cherry, maple wood would also give these hearty chops a smoky-sweet flavor. Serve them with sweet corn, steamed carrots, and hot biscuits.
Smoked Gremolata Chicken Gremolata -- the garnish of garlic, lemon, and parsley that's traditionally sprinkled over the Italian dish called osso buco (braised veal shanks) -- gives this smoked bird great flavor.
Smoke will infuse whatever you're cooking with wonderful flavor, but you can also experiment with other flavoring agents. Consider adding another liquid -- such as wine, fruit juice, or marinade -- to the water in the smoker pan. Herbs and spices can also be added to the water pan. Include a couple of heads of garlic, bay leaves, or orange peel to the coals.
Smoky Bass with Carambola Salsa Carambola -- also called star fruit because of its resemblence to those heavenly bodies when cut crosswise -- thrives in tropical climates. Its flavor ranges from sweet to tart.
Honey-Bourbon Salmon Simple but sophisticated, this sweet-and-spicy salmon gets great flavor and aroma from a splash of bourbon in the marinade. Serve it with steamed asparagus and a tossed salad.
Raspberry-Shrimp Salad With lightly smoked shrimp and plump raspberries, this refreshing salad makes your table pretty in pink! Simply add some crusty rolls and a luscious chocolate dessert for an alfresco dinner with friends.
Greek Pasta Salad Feta cheese -- a key ingredient in Greek cooking -- gets its sharp, salty flavor from the brine in which it is cured.
Cranberry and Apricot Chutney Try this refreshing chutney with smoked pork loin, a holiday ham, or thick, juicy pork chops. It can be made up to four days ahead -- just cover it tightly and store in the refrigerator.
Corn Bread Cherry Cobbler This bubbling dessert features the best flavors the South has to offer -- pecans, corn bread, and fresh fruit.
Chocolate-Walnut Brownie Pudding To the unrepentant chocoholic, there is nothing finer than the sweet stuff in its richest, most gooey form. This delectable dessert fills the bill. Ice cream is optimum but not a necessity.