A few years ago, I became a bit obsessed with barbecue culture and smoking food. How can you not? Spice rubs, tender fall-off-the-bone ribs, slow-cooked brisket and mouth-watering pulled pork like no other. For inspiration, education and gluttony, I took a BBQ road trip down to Georgia and through the Carolinas. I was intrigued to find that each smokehouse had a unique take, and most importantly–pride, when it came to their barbecue.
As soon as I got back from that trip, I wanted to take on the craft and become a pitmaster myself. I decided to buy a smoker, but not just any smoker; I purchased an eight hundred pound cast iron smoker from southern Oklahoma. This smoker is a beast and looks like a small caboose, and has enough room to smoke a whole hog.
I figured I would jump right into it, thinking that it would be relatively easy especially being a professional chef and all! Well, I quickly learned that I was wrong and what seemed to be a simple task of starting the fire turned out to be quite trying and challenging. So I decided to start from the ground up and learn the basics.
The basics of barbecue are simple; however, simple doesn’t mean easy. There are a few fundamentals and the more you barbecue, the more you will improve. Here are my tips to becoming a pitmaster:
Choosing a smoker can be daunting and specially designed slow smoking units have different names like pits, cookers, smokers and rigs. There are bullet-shaped smokers that run on charcoal, gas, or electricity and big rigs or ceramic smokers like the popular Green Egg. You can also use your regular gas barbecue, but consider how much propane you would need for a 12 hour brisket. The best way to learn the basics is on a less expensive charcoal kettle grill and work your way up.
You can do wonders with charcoal and wood chips. Hardwood lump charcoal works well, but burns quickly and is more expensive than briquets. Stick with slow-burning briquets that hold a steady temperature longer, which is especially important because opening the lid each time to check on your meat results in heat loss.
Wood chips are essential for that smoked flavour and there are many types available. Choose wood that is most appropriate for your recipe. For a medium smoked flavour, hickory, oak, pecan, maple, cherry, or whiskey work the best. Use a mesquite wood for a heavier smokey flavour. Try working with ader, apple, or peach for a somewhat sweeter and milder smoke flavour.
The Basic Tools
Once you have chosen your smoker, the rest is fairly simple and straightforward. The most important tools that you will need are a set of sharp knives, long-handled tongs, a meat thermometer, heat proof gloves, a charcoal chimney, a flavor injector and a spray bottle.
Cooking your meat slowly and at a low temperature (200 to 250 degrees) allows the connective tissue of tough cuts of meat time to break down and become fall apart tender and juicy. The best cuts of meat for a smoker are chicken, pork butt, pork shoulder, pork or beef ribs and beef brisket. That being said, don’t restrict yourself to large cuts of meat–a smoker does wonders with vegetables and seafood too. Once you have a handle on your smoker, be adventurous and try smoking foods you enjoy normally!
The Most Important Part
Patience is the most important and essential part of barbecuing. This type of cookery requires a lot of tender loving care and if you rush or skip steps, your dish will suffer. Sit back and relax, it will be worth the wait!
Get your grill on and try making some of these:
- BBQ’d Pulled Pork Sandwiches
- Horseradish Grill-Roasted Salmon
- Anna Olson’s Provencal Grilled Chicken Breasts
- Herb and Garlic Pork Chops
- BBQ Salmon on a Plank with Foccacia and Grilled Veggies
- Grilled Caesar Salad
Chef Andrea Nicholson is the owner of Killer Condiments and was a contestant on season one of Top Chef Canada. Supporting sustainability purveyors, Canadian farmers and Ocean Wise is the central tenet behind her cuisine.