We love to barbecue. We do it all spring, summer and fall. I’ve talked about my grills before, we have a super gigantic gas beast and a very simple Weber. The Weber we converted into a smoker 3 years ago after much trial and error with various other commercially made smokers and have never looked back. The problem we always ran into was the difficulty in maintaining a steady temperature throughout the entire smoking process, which is pretty much the most important part next to what you smoke over.
Smoking is the very definition of low & slow cooking. The whole point is to let your chosen beast slowly roast over mostly indirect, low heat for a long period of time, letting the meat get permeated with the smoke, tenderize and slow cook any tough and sinewy parts and create an amazing bark on the outside that is spice and smoke and freaking delicious. Smoking is an all day event in our house. The meat goes on the smoker in the late morning and is on there for 8-10 hours depending on the meat of choice.
It was so easy to build our smoker and it works far better than any other that we ever purchased. We had a few that looked like a small oil drum, they cooked so uneven; anything on the lower racks was dried out, up higher was touch & go as to whether it stayed hot enough to cook. It was also a pain in the butt to have to pull the whole top off to get to the charcoal when you needed to re-up half way through or wanted to add more wood chips. I generally didn’t like them, they were awkward to use and a mess to clean up.
I don’t recall where the inspiration came from now, that was years ago, but we started with a plain, old, ordinary Weber grill. Nothing special or spectacular about it, really. The only accessory that we bought was the charcoal starter chimney, we have had the same one for as long as we have had the smoker/grill, so about 3 years, I’d say $20 well spent. The only other things that we needed were a drip/catch pan – I had a beat up 4″ half hotel pan that was perfect, they can take abuse and fit perfectly in the bottom of the grill. We also needed a way to accurately track the temperature – a cheap oven thermometer solves that problem easily and sits right on the grate with the meat. It gets covered in smokey stuff, but washes off with soap & water. Either/both of those things can be purchased locally at Penn Fixture on Penn Ave in The Strip or I am sure at any kitchen store, honestly I have never tried to buy a hotel pan anywhere that wasn’t a pro restaurant supply place. You will also need a roll of the HEAVY duty aluminum foil. The good stuff. You don’t need a lot, just enough to cover one of the grill grates, but it needs to be the good stuff.
The big pic is just the Weber. It is honestly in amazing shape given it has lived outside in all manner of weather for a few years. You will also have to forgive the “bbq-ed in” look, it’s been, well, bbq-ed in. Top photo is the Topless Weber. The bottom 2 are the foil lined bottom grate. Wrap the bottom grate completely with the heavy duty foil, like wrap it around the grate like wrapping a present. Use a screwdriver or something of the like to stab holes all through the foil covering. You need to create a surface that charcoal and wood can rest on without falling through but one that air can circulate through to keep the coals burning. Put it back in the bottom. I used really good foil and have only had to change it once since its birth.
Well that hardware part is mostly taken care of now, but what to cook with. We use a roughly 50/50 mix of charcoal briquettes and hardwood charcoal to start with, it gets a good, hot coal base going that we build on with more hardwood charcoal and soaked wood chips as we smoke. We do not use any kind of lighter fluid or chemical starter, we use the starter chimney, which, for the record, might be the most brilliant thing created for easy bbq starting ever.
Fill the top part with the mix of charcoal and the bottom with scrunched up paper, light the paper and in about 20-25 minutes you the coals inside start to glow orange and outside turn white. When that happens the charcoal is ready to go. Put the main grate on top of the chimney while it heats so it can be brushed down if you need to.
While the charcoal heats the wood chips need to be soaked. We usually soak in beer or liquor, something boozey generally. We buy the wood for the smoker chipped at any hardware store kind of place by the bag and snag up any wood we find in the wild to use when we come across it. Hard wood is required, it makes the most aromatic smoke, and there are many flavors to choose from. I do not ever use mesquite; in my opinion it takes like fake smoke and if I wanted to taste fake smoke I would just use fake smoke. I stick to fruit woods, apple and cherry, and occasionally a specialty oak. These produce the most flavorful smoke and in the end, dinner. On average the smoker is running for 8-10 hours, for that amount of time fill a 2qt container, I have a bucket we use, with wood chips and top off with our soaking liquid of choice. For the pork in this recipe we used 2 bottles of Victory Storm King and a Bulleit bourbon.
Coals are hot. Wood chips are soaked. Time to assemble.
Lay the hotel pan to the right, pour the coals out in a pile to the left, like the first two pictures. Place a few handfuls of the soaked wood chips on top of the hot coals and put the brushed cooking grate on top. Lid it and go get the meat.
Directions for getting the meat to look like the next series of photos is Part 2, but time to get your meat smoking. Most important part of smoking, and possibly one of the hardest of all the instructions to follow because it goes against human nature – ONCE IT IS ON THE SMOKER LEAVE IT ALONE UNTIL ITS TIME TO TAKE IT OFF THE SMOKER. Seriously. Don’t touch it. You will place the meat on the side over top the drip pan, place the thermometer next to it, also over the drip pan, lid the grill, adjust the top vent and walk away for about half an hour. At that point you want to check the temp, should be holding around 225, and make any adjustments necessary to make that happen if it isn’t.
The adjustments. Probably the most intimidating part of the smoking process. Screwing with the smoker is Hart’s department, he is the pit master in this house. Once you get a feel for the grill there are very few adjustments that need to be made, but you make the adjustments that control the heat through the top & bottom vents. The top one you generally want to leave mostly closed, open it too much and all the smoke will escape, that’s bad. That said, think about the rules of fire – it needs oxygen to burn. If you add more oxygen the coals will burn hotter, if you remove or limit the oxygen you can lower how hot the coals burn. You control the flow of oxygen, and the air flow, via the balance of the top and bottom vents. I can’t say definitively “do this now to make this happen” because there are far too many variables, you’ll have to balance your grill chi as you need to with the goal being to maintain a relatively steady 225.
You will need to check it, but don’t touch it. About half an hour after you fire your meat check the temp and see if anything needs adjusted. After that about every hour or so you’ll want to go back, check the temp, see if more wood chips need added. We usually have to re-up the charcoal after half way through. If Hart catches the coals burning low, but still burning, before the temp drops under 200 he will toss a couple handfuls of hardwood charcoal on top of the hot coals. If the temp drops too low or the coal bed gets low he starts half a chimney of hardwood charcoal an refills. Add more soaked wood chips as necessary by tossing on top of the coals. Re-up when the wood chips burn off.
Clockwise from top left – Start! :: 2 Hours :: 4 Hours :: 6 Hours, Center- 9 Hours.
You can see the bark made from the caramelization of the brown sugar rub on the outside of the pork butt as the photos progress – bbq perfection!
We have smoked pork, beef, chicken, cornish game hens, turkey, salmon, sausages, jalapenos…all kinds of things! You guys get to come with as we bbq & smoke our way through the summer, starting with Smokin’ 2 ~ Swine Boogaloo, where I share the recipe for the pork pictured above, brown sugar ancho chili rub smoked over apple wood and bourbon oak chips. That goes live tomorrow.