How to Use a Charcoal Smoker
Using a charcoal smoker is not that much more difficult than using an ordinary charcoal grill. The primary difference is that you will be using indirect heat to cook rather than direct heat. Direct heat is preferable for small cuts of meat that only need a short time to cook. Indirect cooking is usually used for larger cuts of meat that will take some time to cook. A large rack of pork can usually be done in about four to six hours. A whole hog may take as many as 15 hours, or even more, to be entirely done.
Smoking not just a process for cooking, but is the process of infusing a smoky flavor to the meats or other foods you are cooking. The best way to achieve this flavor is with the use of wood. Wood chips and chunks can be found almost anywhere that charcoal and lighter fluid are sold. If you are cooking for several hours, get the chunks. They last longer.
Soak the wood for a couple of hours before placing them in your smoker grill. This will keep them from burning up. They will smoke and smolder adding flavor to your food. Brine or marinade meats well ahead of time. This is best done in the refrigerator, because it is dangerous to leave meat sitting out for long periods of time.
Get the fire going in the fire box and get the smoking chamber up to temperature before putting your meat in the smoker. Use an accurate, high quality thermometer. After you put the food in the cooking chamber, close the lid and use only the temperature gauge and your watch to monitor progress. Opening the lid or door will let out all the smoke that you are trying to use for flavor. It also drastically reduces the temperature inside the smoker. Add 15 to 30 minutes of cooking time for every time you open the smoker.
During the last 15 to 30 minutes you can open the lid to baste or add sauce. Close to time for the food to be done, use a meat thermometer to check progress of doneness. Meat thermometers are marked for the correct temperatures for beef, pork, poultry and other common meats. They will also indicate what ranges are appropriate for rare, medium rare, medium, medium well and well done. Some meats are not safe to be served under medium or medium well.
Charcoal Grill Tips
The first thing you need to learn about your charcoal grill is how to adjust the temperature. Setting the grill temperature within the proper range and keeping it there is the first step in excellent grilled food. Learn to use your vents to raise and lower the temperature. Opening vents further allows more air to get to the coals, heating the fire up. Pushing vents further toward the closed position reduces air, decreasing the fire heat. Remember, your vents only open and close a few inches. Small adjustments can make big differences in the internal temperature.
You need to learn where and how to stack the coals for the type of cooking you will be doing. For indirect grilling, you do not want the coals directly under the food. Place coals in a pile or a couple of groupings in the grill, not directly under the food. This allows the meat to cook slowly and not sear on the outside before it is done on the inside. Placing a pan of water in the grill will add moisture.
Wood chips and herbs can also add flavor while grilling. Soak the wood chips for about 30 minutes before adding to the coals. This will allow the wood to smoke without flaming up and burning away. For longer cooking times, use wood chunks instead. These need to be soaked for about two hours before being placed on the grill.
Trial and error is, unfortunately, part of the learning process of grilling with charcoal. Begin with less expensive cuts of meat. Once you learn to control the temperature and grill environment, start working your way up to more expensive meats and foods.
Choosing the correct cut of meat and the best cooking process for that cut is crucial in the outcome of the meal. When grilling beef, higher fat content is actually better. Much of the fat will melt and drip off the meat, adding moisture and flavor as it cooks. What you do not want in a cut of meat is a huge ring of fat. You want to look for cuts that have marbling. Marbling is very thin strips of fat working a pattern throughout the meat. This is the secret for tender, juicy steaks.
Pork is well served by brining before grilling. Soak the pork for several hours or overnight in a solution of salt water. Brining will tenderize the pork and help it to stay moist. Most cuts of pork are more suited to low and slow cooking than hot, fast grilling like steak.
Charcoal Smoker Recipes
Recipes for your charcoal smoker can be found in almost any cookbook dedicated to barbecue, grilling or smoking. When selecting a recipe, be sure that you can visualize the process from beginning to end by reading the instructions. If you cannot picture a procedure, you will not be able to replicate it. Many recipes take up to 24 hours of prep time for marinating or brining meat to be smoked. Do not wait until the day you are ready to serve the food to choose your recipe. The larger the cut of meat to be cooked, the longer the prep time will probably be.
Once you know the basic fundamentals of cooking different types of meat, you can begin mixing and matching recipes for your smoker. Use a marinade recommended in one recipe, cooking procedures from another and a sauce or garnish from a third recipe. It is easy to adhere to special diets by using this procedure. If your cut of meat is much different than that called for in the recipe, be sure to adjust other ingredients accordingly. This will keep you from overpowering a meat with too much flavor or leaving it rather bland.
It is also easy to substitute ingredients in many smoker recipes. If you are substituting a vegetable in a recipe, choose another vegetable with a similar color. This will make the visual appeal of the dish similar to the one pictured. If you are substituting an herb, choose another from the same family. Stick with the concept of the taste for best results – substitute sweet for sweet and hot for hot. If you are unsure what the taste or appearance of an herb or vegetable should be, look it up in a food dictionary or online.
There is nothing wrong with attempting to cook recipes that you feel are outside your skill level. This is the way to build your skills. Choose your recipe well in advance and read it over several times. Try to grasp the fundamentals that make this dish what it is. Carefully select your ingredients. Take your time and enjoy the process. Try to cook new recipes when there are not a lot of distractions. Having the pressure of company coming or a major holiday will stress you out and make it less likely you will succeed. The Internet is a vast resource for charcoal smoker recipes.