Here at Jablow's Meats, quality begins at the source. We begin our quest for creating the highest quality smoked treats by using organic, pasture raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat. We don't use any chemical enhancers or shortcuts when curing and brining meat, rather, we let time work its magic. We also take no shortcuts when smoking meat, relying again on time and patience in order to achieve a product that strikes the right balance between smokey and meaty flavor.
|Unlike grilling, a cooking method in which food is cooked directly over a hot flame, smoking relies on indirect heat and relatively low temperature. With temperatures in the 180-225 degree F range and cooking times that range anywhere between 3 to 14 hours, ‘low and slow’ are the operative words when it comes to smoking. The beauty of ‘low and slow’ lies in its ability to transform even the toughest cuts of meat into moist and tender masterpieces.
I employ the services of a charcoal fired smoker to produce our fine line of tasty smoked meats. While operating a charcoal smoker makes for a much more hands-on and dirty process than an electric or propane fired smoker, I feel that the results provided by charcoal speak for themselves. Charcoal has no equal when it comes to producing bark (the tasty crust found on the outer layer of smoked meat) and that nice pink smoke ring found within the meat.
As for fuel, I opt for charcoal briquettes over lump charcoal. I like using briquettes because they are all uniform in size, which helps to maintain a consistent temperature inside the smoker. I find that the irregular shape of lump charcoal can lead to hot spots and temperature spikes during cooking. I also find that lump burns a bit hotter than briquettes, which is not advantageous when the goal is ‘low and slow’.
While briquettes will lend some flavor to the meat as it cooks, it is the addition of wood chunks that make the biggest contribution to flavor. I like to use different combinations of wood depending on what I’m smoking – for bacon, I like the subtle sweetness provided by apple and cherry woods while for pastrami, I usually add some mesquite to the mix for some added depth. I also use wood chunks over chips since the chunks burn longer.
I took these pictures during my first ever smoke (two racks of St. Louis-style ribs) to give you a rough idea of how I operate the smoker.
|This 22.5″ Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker is the unsung hero of Jablow’s Meats. This model of smoker is referred to either as a ‘bullet’ smoker due to its shape or as a water cooker due to the inclusion of a water pan (more on that later). It’s diameter is roughly two feet across, four feet tall and it weighs about 50 lbs. If you compare the two pictures here, you can see how much smoke the unit produces when it is fully fired up. In order to prepare the unit for smoking, it must first be fully disassembled.|
|The smoker’s base is the heart of the whole operation. Charcoal and wood chunks are placed on top of this grate resting in the base. There are three sets of vents used to regulate the flow of air into the smoker. Opening the vents allows more air to enter the smoker, causing the fire to burn hotter.|
|I’ve been able to achieve roughly 14 hours of uninterrupted smoking time when the base is filled completely with charcoal. For a shorter smoke, ribs in this example, I’ll estimate a total cooking time (roughly 6 hours for ribs) and add only as much charcoal as I need.|
|Wood chunks are placed on top of the charcoal pile. Because raw meat is more porous than cooked meat, it will absorb a lot of smoke flavor in the early part of the cooking process. Wood chunks are placed on top because I want them to smolder and produce smoke immediately. For longer smokes, I’ll add more wood chunks and disperse them throughout the charcoal being careful to not add too much wood as it’s possible to overwhelm meat with smoke flavor.|
|The middle section of the smoker houses a 1 gallon capacity water pan that acts as a heat sink, helping to regulate the smoker’s temperature. I find water to be problematic because during a long cook, it will be necessary to replenish water lost due to evaporation. In order to do that, I need to open the smoker’s side door which will allow more air to enter the smoker thus causing an unnecessary temperature increase. I’ve found that a large, heavy clay saucer wrapped in foil placed in the water pan makes for a much more efficient heat sink.|
|I cover the bottom of the water pan with a few layers of heavy duty aluminum foil to aid in post-cooking cleanup.|
|With charcoal and wood chunks added to the base and the water pan foiled, it’s time to fire-up the smoker. I use a chimney starter to accomplish this.|
|I fill the chimney starter with roughly two dozen coals, ignite it, and wait until the coals are lit.|
|These coals are almost totally covered with grey ash and nearly ready to be transferred to the smoker’s base.|
|The lit coals are dispersed over the unlit coals and wood chunks in the base of the smoker. Over the duration of the cook, the lit coals will eventually light the unlit coals, thus providing enough heat for the duration of the cook. At this point, all of the bottom vents are fully open in order to introduce as much air as possible to allow the fire to get going.|
|Once the lit coals have been added to the smoker, the rest of the smoker must be assembled. Assembly begins by placing the middle section on to the base.|
|Next, the water pan is added. (Note: after taking this picture, I learned that it is also a good idea to foil the inside of the water pan – it makes it that much easier to clean)|
|Then the foiled clay saucer is added to the water pan.|
|Then the cooking grates are added.|
|And finally, the food is added. At this point, I would also set up my thermometers. At the very least, I almost always use a dual-probe thermometer with a remote transmitter. One probe is used to monitor the internal temperature of food while the second probe monitors the temperature of the smoker. With the remote transmitter, I can monitor these two temperatures from up to 300 feet away, meaning I can keep an eye on the smoker from the comfort of my living room.|
|Once the smoker’s temperature gets to within 20-25 degrees of my target cook temperature, I start closing the bottom vents, which will begin to restrict the flow of air into the smoker. I don’t close them all the way, otherwise I’d eventually kill the fire, but if left open all the way, the temperature inside the smoker would just keep increasing. Some adjusting of the vents may be necessary here and there, and some temperature fluctuations are to be expected but for the most part, once the smoker’s temperature reaches my intended target, it usually does a pretty good job of maintaining that target over the course of the cook. And that’s pretty much it.|