What Have You Been Smoking?

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This weekend marks the official start of barbeque season! If you've already mastered grilling, and are ready to move up to the next level, welcome to the world of smoking. Just remember, grilling is like a one-night stand and smoking is like a marriage. You should prep the ribs the night before and start smoking them six hours before serving. It requires a certain level of commitment. But the commitment is only one of time; there is not very much work involved. It is also not a big financial commitment. There is no need to shell out hundreds of dollars for a smoker. Any barbecue can be used to smoke meats. But if you are into shiny new toys, go for the Smoky Mountain.

Larger barbecues are the best ones for smoking, because the grill sits higher, further from the coals, plus you have more grill space to work with. You will only be able to use half of the available grill space when smoking meat using the "indirect method”. If you are currently in the market for a grill, no barbecue works better with this method than an old-fashioned oil drum. Historically, wherever the US military goes, it leaves behind a surplus of empty oil drums. People in the West Indes used them to make Calypso's famous steel drums, but the GIs in Viet Nam turned them sideways, sliced them in half, and added a grill.

You can still find old-fashioned oil drum barbecues in Los Angeles. After years of searching, I found mine at "Sweet Daddy's" on the south side of Century Boulevard, west of the 110 freeway. Just keep an eye out for the barbecues lined up in the front yard, and if you hit the racetrack, you’ve gone too far. Some of the barbecues come with an attached smoker, which is handy if you want to maximize grill space and want to achieve an especially smoky flavor. Just remember that the metal is thin, because this really is just an oil drum which was not meant for this purpose. You need to add about 4 inches of sand to the bottom of the barbecue so that the hot coals don't gradually burn through the bottom. Sand can be purchased at home improvement stores, or stolen from your local playground. The only problem with Sweet Daddy's oil drum barbecues is that they do not have a trap door on the side for shoveling in more coal if the coals die down. With a truly long smoke, the coals will need to be replenished, and you will have to lift the grill right off the barbecue to add more. Commercial barbecues based on the oil drum model are more convenient, even if they lack the nostalgia of the genuine article.

Or if you are a super-duper overachiever, you can make one yourself.

I am going to provide the method I use for smoking pork ribs, which can be used for either baby-back or a full-sized rack. This method will work for just about any meat, but the cooking times will vary. If you have a full rack of ribs, some people hack off the small triangular tip at the small end, but I don't see any point to that. The ribs are covered with a thin membrane called the "silver skin". If you buy from an actual butcher you may be able to charm him into removing the membrane for you. If not, you will need a very sharp knife and a steady hand. Lightly slice into the membrane on one end, then try to slide your fingers between the skin and meat to separate them as much as possible. Holding the knife blade sideways, gently cut away at the skin. I will not lie to you, this is a big hassle and I usually don't bother.

Now comes your first big decision: rub or marinade. I am a staunch supporter of the rub, whereas my husband goes for the marinade. Some people even use both, marinating the ribs overnight, then rubbing them with spices right before cooking. Whatever you decide, make sure to rub the rack of ribs with spices or put it in the marinade the night before, cover or wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to cook. Bobby Seale says that if you don't have this kind of time, you can do a "warm marinade" by placing the ribs and marinade in a 200-degree oven for two hours, but I find that idea a little revolutionary. Prepare enough marinade so you have "extra" to use as a baste. Store it in a separate container. You never want anything that touched raw meat to touch cooked meat. If you are using a rub, you will still need to prepare a baste for the next day. I will provide rub and marinade recipes in a separate post, since this one is already turning into a book.

Your second decision is smoking wood. Traditionally, mesquite or hickory is used with pork. I find mesquite's flavor to be too overpowering, so I go with hickory. For beef, oak is a good bet, and for chicken or fish cherry is a nice wood. If you buy chips, soak them in water or marinade for a half-hour before using them. If you are able to get chunks of wood, soaking is not necessary.

Mound a bunch of coals on one side of the barbecue and light them. Some people use newspaper to start them up, some people use a purchased "chimney", or just soak the hell out of them with lighter fluid. Once the coals get white-hot, use a poker, fireplace shovel, or other tool to spread them evenly on only one side of the barbecue. The success of this method depends upon the coals burning only on half of the barbecue. Sprinkle some of the soaked chips on top of the coals. If you are using a gas grill, only light one side. You probably have a metal pan to fill with water and chips for smoking if you have a gas grill, but that is not my area of expertise. You will have to go ask Hank Hill. The main benefit of a gas grill is temperature regulation. You want to keep the temperature at a steady 225 degrees, or as close to that as you can get. Charcoal users will need to purchase a special barbecue thermometer. Some of the nicer models even come with a separate gauge that you can wear on your belt so you don't have to keep running back outside to monitor grill temperature.

Remove the ribs from the refrigerator. If you are using a rub, add a little more rub to the ribs. If you are using a marinade, discard the used marinade. You can boil it if you are really thrifty, but better safe than sorry. Place the ribs on the cold side of the grill, opposite the lit coals. The ribs should not be directly above the coals, hence the term, "indirect". It's a good idea to throw some hot dogs on the side with the coals - you will get pretty hungry waiting for the ribs to smoke. Turn the hot dogs after about five minutes, then take them off the grill after about eight minutes. Close the barbecue lid, and allow the ribs to cook for two hours. During this time, wash all of the utensils that you have used on the raw meat.

Baste the ribs with the pre-prepared marinade and throw a few more soaked wood chips on the coals. Cook for an additional hour (making a total of three hours so far - good thing you made those hot dogs) and baste again. Take your ribs off of the barbecue and take them into the kitchen. Some people will think that they are done now - but they are not done. This is a marriage. You are in it for the long haul. Don't wuss out now. Go back out to your barbecue. Stir in more charcoal and wood chips. Now, come back into the kitchen and lay each rack of ribs on a large piece of heavy-duty tin foil. Sprinkle a little bit of brown sugar on them and pour a little marinade on top (with any other meat, add a little more of the rub instead of brown sugar). Wrap the ribs up tightly with foil. Air-tight. Wrap the hell out of them. You want to steam the ribs to make them insanely tender.

Return the ribs to the barbecue, close the lid and leave them alone for 2 ½ hours (For a total of 5 ½ hours cooking time so far. Man, where did I put those hot dogs?). This is the point where grill temperature is crucial, because if it goes above 225 the brown sugar will burn. If you have invited people over, they will be arriving right about now and all of the men will want to mess with your barbecue and poke at the coals. They will think that the fire is too low and they will urge you to add more charcoal. You have invested too much time to let dilettantes screw everything up now. Shoo them away. Take the ribs out of the foil, toss the foil, and slather the ribs with your favorite barbecue sauce. Some people prefer to keep the ribs dry and serve sauce on the side. Return the ribs to the barbecue, and cook, turning once, for another thirty minutes (Add more soaked chips if you like a more pronounced smokiness). After a total of six hours cooking time, you can take the ribs off of the grill and you are finally done. Pat yourself on the back and enjoy the compliments.

Here is a cheat sheet:

Rub or marinate ribs the night before.
Smoke at 225º for 2 hours.
Baste the ribs.
Smoke 1 more hour.
Wrap in foil at the 3 hour mark.
Cook another 2 1/2 hours.
Remove from foil and return to the grill for the last 30 minutes.
At the 6 hour mark you will know barbeque greatness.


(Photo by Elise Thompson. Ribs in the photo smoked by Bob Lee for five hours. This method was taught to me by Stogie).