You know the summer cookout routine: Buy some patties and hot dogs, fire up the grill, and toss back a couple of cold ones.
It’s a nice enough tradition, but maybe you should make your party hotter both literally and figuratively? Like a foodie cave person, it’s possible to smoke your backyard/balcony meats low and slow over smoldering wood. Pork butt, brisket and ribs are all prime candidates, but you can smoke anything you buy from the butcher — as well as thick fish steaks or filets.
“Smoking keeps meat really moist,” says executive chef Logan McGear, who smokes 800 pounds of protein a week at Smoke & Barrel (2471 18th St. NW; 202-319-9353). “You don’t get that with grilling or oven roasting.”
This hazy style of cooking seems difficult, but it’s actually easy — it just takes time and patience. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that you need to invest in a smoker, which can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. “A regular Weber grill is fine if you set it up right,” says Chris Johnson, founder of Cured (cureddc.com), a local charcuterie company. He places meat on one side of the grill with a drip pan filled with water hanging underneath to ensure cuts stay moist. Charcoal briquettes are placed into the bottom on the opposite side from the meat to create indirect heat.
Another option? A stove-top smoker. The enclosed metal box sits directly on the burner with wood chips at its bottom and meat sitting on a raised rack. Cameron’s compact model ($60, surlatable.com) works well in tiny spaces, though you should disable the smoke detector while cooking.
Before playing with fire, buy a remote thermometer that measures both the temperature inside your grill and the meat’s internal temperature. Maverick’s ET732 ($59, amazon.com) and Sur La Table’s models ($40, surlatable.com) are both good choices. Either will save you time and a nose of smoke. “I used to open the lid and get a face full of smoke,” says D.C. food writer/cooking teacher Cathy Barrow (mrswheelbarrow.com). “Put the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat to get the truest reading.”
No matter how you’re smoking, you want to maintain heat around 225-250 F, depending on the meat. (Smoking-meat.com has a reference guide on the best temperature for the cut you’re cooking.) If you’re using charcoal briquettes in a jerry-rigged grill, ignite them with a chimney starter filled with crushed newspaper. Avoid lighter fluid, which can impart a chemical tang. After the charcoal is gray-tipped and going strong, add wood chips.
“Start with just a handful that have been soaked in water for 20 to 30 minutes,” Johnson says. “You’re just trying to create smoke, so you don’t need a lot.”
McGear likes to use a blend of hickory, apple wood and maple sugar wood chips soaked in bourbon. Like many other chefs, he steers clear of mesquite.
“It’s too strong,” he says. “It can easily overpower your meat.”
To prep your cuts, chef Edward Lee, “Top Chef: Texas” contender and author of “Smoke & Pickles” ($30, Artisan), coats them with a dry rub. “It will help you achieve that beautiful crusty exterior we call bark,” he says. “The best barbecue looks like hell on the outside, but pop it open, and you have moist meat on the inside.”
Dry-rubbed meat should sit in the fridge overnight before you smoke it. “The spices soak in as the salt pulls out the moisture,” Johnson says. Put your meat on the grill or in your smoker, place the top on securely, then quash your OCD instincts and let it be. Depending on whether you’re working with beef, pork, fish or fowl, cooking times can vary from 1½ to 3 hours per pound.
“It’s a full-day project,” Lee says. “Remember, you’re doing it for the process as well as the outcome. There’s a joy in biting into something that took you 12 hours to make.”
Smokey Pulled Pork
3-4-pound pork butt
1⁄4 of an orange
3⁄4 cup brown sugar
1⁄4 cup onion powder
1⁄4 cup garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1⁄4 cup cinnamon
1⁄4 cup grated ginger
2 shots of whiskey
1 bottle favorite barbecue sauce
SERVES 8-10 | Cut open the orange, then squeeze it all over pork butt. Combine brown sugar, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger to create a rub, then evenly distribute it so the pork butt is completely covered (if you bought a larger cut, you may need to make a second batch of rub).
Refrigerate meat for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
Soak a couple handfuls of wood chips for 30 minutes (pecan wood, apple wood or cherry wood are best).
Light the charcoal in your grill and let sit until it is 225 F, then add one handful of wood chips. Place meat on grill, but not directly over the embers. Fill a small metal bowl with water with a shot or two of whiskey in it, then place next to the meat to keep it moist.
A general rule of thumb is 1½ to 2 hours per pound of meat. However, this will vary widely depending on your grill and its ability to maintain even, well-insulated heat. Add 1 to 3 briquettes every couple of hours to maintain temperature, but don’t take off the lid more than is absolutely necessary.
Plan to spend 8 hours smoking a 4-pound pork butt. Use a probe thermometer to determine when the internal temperature of the pork butt is 195-200 F. Another test is to push down on the pork with a fork. When it starts to break apart very easily, it’s ready. If you have to work the least bit to get it to break apart, it’s not ready.
When it is ready, lightly dress with your favorite barbecue sauce and enjoy either on its own or in a bun.