This is the second installment in Jeff’s online smoking class. Go to www.smoking-meat.com for more info.
Chapter 2: Heat, Firebuilding and Smokology
One of the most important aspects of smoking meat is in maintaining the heat at a low range for multiple hours at a time. This can be challenging for the seasoned expert and just downright frustrating for the beginner. In this chapter, I am going to try and give you some tips that will help you with maintaining a fire that is perfect for cooking the meat very slowly. We will also go over some basic smokology.
A large portion of this chapter is geared toward those who use wood and/or charcoal for fuel and will not apply to the electric or propane smokers.
Unless you have a large smoker such as a Lang or similar horizontal offset smoker, you will probably not be using wood as a fuel source. It is more likely that you would use charcoal for heat and add wood sticks, chunks or chips for smoke flavoring.
The Way Boy Scouts Do It
In the event that you do have a really large stick burner then you will want to build a fire using the boy scout method which starts by building a small loose pile of kindling, paper, twigs and even dry leaves making sure that air can easily flow through.
Build a pyramid of twigs and small sticks around and over the top of this small loose pile of kindling. Once the fire is started and begins to burn pretty well, start adding larger and larger sticks and logs until you have the size of fire that you want.
Modified Boy Scout Method
Lay two or three medium size sticks parallel with a few inches of space between them. Place another layer the same way on top of them but perpendicular. Two or three layers is probably enough to start with.
Place old newspaper *sprayed with vegetable oil (*optional) with some kindling down under/inside the stack and light it. Be sure to add small twigs and sticks to keep the fire burning until the larger pieces catch on.
Once the smoker is up to temperature, continue adding wood as needed to keep the fire going and the heat at the level that you want.
Upside Down Fire Building Method
I have been experimenting with a new fire building method known as the “upside down” method. In essence, it is completely backwards from the boy scout method in that three large splits or logs of about four inches in diameter are placed side by side, butted together on the floor of the firebox. Three more slightly smaller logs of about two to three inches in diameter are placed perpendicular on top of the larger ones and butted together.
Another layer of even smaller sticks are placed on top of the second layer perpendicular and butted together.. about one inch diameter sticks are perfect.
Lay a section of newspaper folded in half across the third layer of wood then pile kindling on top of the paper. Light the paper which in turn lights the kindling. The kindling burns and slowly starts the smaller sticks below it.
The fire will continue to burn and as the coals from the upper layers fall to the layers below, they will catch on fire as well. I am still experimenting with this method but I am liking what I am seeing so far.
I have written a page about this at http://wyntk.us/build-a-fire-upside-down
Using a Charcoal Chimney
My favorite way to start charcoal is in a charcoal chimney. I have one made by Weber which will hold at least six pounds of charcoal. It looks like a large metal cylinder with a handle. A closer look will reveal that the the charcoal sits on a wire cage and there is room at the bottom of the chimney to stuff some newspaper. Once the chimney has been stuffed with paper on the bottom and charcoal on the top it should be placed on a hard surface such as sidewalk, dry dirt or a paver stone.
The paper is lit from the bottom side and as the paper burns it catches the coals on fire and within ten minutes or so, all of the coal will be bright orange and is ready to be poured into the firebox of your smoker.
If the paper does not want to stay lit, spray it with a little vegetable oil and it will work much better.
Tip: Alternatively, instead of using paper in the bottom, you can set the filled chimney on the side burner of your grill for a few minutes to light the charcoal. This works like a charm and is my usual way of doing it.
Weed Burner Method
This is a real treat for some of you pyromaniacs out there.. get yourself a weed burner which is basically a special wand at the end of a three to four foot hose attached to a small propane tank. This unit was designed to kill weeds along fence lines and such but works really well at starting charcoal or even wood.
Place the charcoal or wood as you want it in the smoker and let this flame thrower light it up in a matter of minutes.
Maintaining the Right Temperature
Building the fire is the first step but keeping the fire going to maintain a specific temperature is the second half of the equation and this is further complicated by the fact that every smoker is different. The metal thickness, size of the firebox and smoke chamber, location of the chimney, size and number of dampers, etc. all play a part in maintaining the temperature of your smoker.
Unfortunately a large bit of this must be learned by experience.
I recommend practicing to find out what works best for your smoker and don’t leave your smoker alone for very long while you are learning what is required to keep it going. My smoker does great as long as I throw a stick in it about every thirty to forty-five minutes. I have other smokers that are a little more greedy and need to be fed more often.
Some smokers will require you to constantly adjust the damper settings while others just seem to know what they are supposed to do and just do it.
I recommend not getting too worked up over temperature fluctuations. Your ideal temperature for most hot smoking is around 225°F but when you are learning I would give yourself some slack and shoot for say 210° to 250°F.
I always say, “It’s not fun unless it’s fun” which just means if you are not having fun then it is work and that is not a good thing. Instead of getting frustrated over it, if you are halfway through a cook and the temperatures just start going haywire, no one will fault you for putting it in a 225°F oven. At that point, you will probably have some good smoke flavor and it can finish with just heat. You can try to do it full time in the smoker next time.
Tip: When using charcoal, I recommend the 100% lump charcoal if possible. It burns hotter and cleaner than most briquettes. It is more expensive in most cases so that is a call you will have to make.
This is a method of setting up charcoal so that it will continue to burn for many long hours unattended. In short, it is a pan full of unlit charcoal with a few lit coals placed on top of it. The the lit coals maintain the temperature of the smoker and slowly light the remaining charcoal in succession over the course of six or more hours allowing you to sleep or do other things while the smoker cooks your food at the correct temperatures.
Wood chips/chunks are dispersed throughout the charcoal to give off smoke as the charcoal burns.
This system seems to work best with specialized baskets that allow a precise amount of coals to be poured in with plenty of airflow through the sides and bottom of the basket. This type of basket can be used in different types of smokers but the size and amount needed to maintain heat will need to be adjusted for your particular unit.
The baskets I have seen are usually made from something like expanded metal and can be eight to twenty-four inches square and twelve inches or so deep.
The Water Pan
Ever wonder what the water pan is really for? It serves a couple of purposes one of which is the source of much debate. The first purpose is to help control the temp inside the smoker.
Water boils at 212 degrees.. as the water gets hot it starts putting off lots of steam which mixes with the air in the smoker and naturally strives to regulate the ambient temperature in the
smoker to its own temperature just as ice in a warm glass of tea affects its surroundings and brings the temperature of the liquid down to a much colder state like itself.
The second purpose is something that is argued about quite a bit.. some believe that the steam creates moister air and that serves to keep the meat more moist in the smoker. I have not seen strong evidence of this personally but I will let you decide that for yourself.
Some smokers like to put various liquids in the water pan such as apple juice, wine, seasonings, etc. which they believe influences the taste of the meat. There again.. I have no solid proof that it really works that way but you should try it for yourself and make your own decision.
How Often and How Long to Add Smoke
The whole purpose of cooking meat outdoors in a smoker is to add smoke flavor..otherwise you could just cook it in the oven and be done with it. For those of you using wood for heat, the smoke flavor is there by default but for those who are using charcoal smokers or even gas and electric, you will want to know not only how often to add wood but how long to add wood.
The general rule for me is to keep a light wood smoke flowing for at least half of the cook time. For ribs this would be about three hours, for chicken you are talking about two hours or so. If you are using a strong wood like hickory or mesquite then this will give you good smoke flavoring, If you are using a milder wood such as apple or pecan then you may want to continue to add smoke throughout the entire process.
Watch the smoke and once it begins to dissipate, you will want to throw in more wood chunks or chips to keep the smoke going. This can be anywhere between every twenty minutes to every hour depending on your smoker and what type of wood you are using. It also matter whether you just place the wood on the coals or if you place the wood in a smoking box and set the box on top of the coals or heat source.
Once again, these guidelines will get you started but practice will be your best teacher.
My favorite smoking wood these days is pecan.. it tends to give me such a wonderful flavor on almost everything that I cook. I also love mesquite and oak which gives great flavor to almost any type of meat.