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NOTE: This is a yearly diary to herald the beginning of Summer and the glorious outdoor cooking traditions summer brings.
It's Memorial Day Weekend  For many, it is the "unofficial" start to grilling season.  For me, though, only extreme blizzard like conditions will keep me from my grill.  There are times, for instance, where I will get up at 4:00am to prep my grill for the day's cooking alchemy.  Why at 4:00am, you ask?  Because I'm not here to talk about grilling.  That's another diary.  I'm here to talk about grilling's Noble Cousin:


Specifically, the technique used to create barbecue:  Smoking.

People have smoked food for years all over the world.  Smoking imparts incredible flavor, as well as preserves and dries whatever is smoked.  The list of delectable items by country and smoking techniques would boggle the mind. They range from "standard" items like meat, fish, and poultry, to things like salt, cheese, fruits, and vegetables.  There are even smoked teas.

Jump below the Orange Smoke Cloud and learn more

There are three basic smoking techniques:

    Cold smoking can be used as a flavor enhancer for items such as chicken breasts, beef, pork chops, salmon, scallops, and steak. The item can be cold smoked for just long enough to give some flavor, or until it's preserved. Some cold smoked foods are baked, grilled, roasted, or sautéed before eating. Smokehouse temperatures for cold smoking are below 100 °F (38 °C). In this temperature range, foods take on a smoked flavor, but remain relatively moist. Cold smoking does not cook foods.  The most common cold smoked foods are Nova Salmon (lox) and bacon.

    Hot smoking exposes the foods to smoke and heat in a controlled environment. Although foods that have been hot smoked are often reheated or cooked, they are typically safe to eat without further cooking. Hams smoked sausages, and ham hocks are fully cooked once they are properly smoked. Hot smoking occurs within the range of 165 °F (74 °C) to 185 °F (85 °C). Within this temperature range, foods are fully cooked, moist, and flavorful. If the smoker is allowed to get hotter than 185 °F (85 °C), the foods will shrink excessively, buckle, or even split. Smoking at high temperatures also reduces yield, as both moisture and fat are "cooked" away.  Real good smoked kielbasa (from a deli where English is the second language and Polish is the first) is an example of a hot smoked food.

    Smoke roasting or smoke baking refers to any process that has the attributes of smoking combined with either roasting or baking. This smoking method is sometimes referred to as "barbecuing", "pit baking", or "pit roasting". It may be done in a smoke roaster, closed wood-fired masonry oven or barbecue pit, any smoker that can reach above 250 °F (121 °C), or in a conventional oven by placing a pan filled with hardwood chips on the floor of the oven so the chips smolder and produce a smokebath. However, this should only be done in a well-ventilated area to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

For this diary, I will concentrate on the last--the noble technique we have come to call barbecue.

When the Spanish first encountered the Taino tribes on Hispaniola, they observed them cooking on what the Natives called barabicu.  The name translates as "sacred fire pit".  The word describes a grill for cooking meat, consisting of a wooden platform resting on sticks.  The meat would be slow roasted over the smoke.  The Spanish referred to it as barbacoa. And indeed to this day, the name lives on in the traditions.  Meat is cooked in a pit, and those who master the art are called pitmasters

There are also many different types of smokers as well.  This one is mine:

As you can see, it's what's called an offset smoker.  The fire is in the smaller chamber to the right, and the heat and smoke flow into the chamber immediately on the left, cooking and smoking whatever is in there.  If you notice underneath the grill, I have a chimney starter for my charcoal.  I fill it with coals, place it over the side burner, and light it up.  It gets my coals nice and hot and ashed over much quicker than if I were to use a traditional method.  Plus, I don't have to use lighter fluid.  As for the type of charcoal, lump charcoal is the best type to use.  It's made from nothing but wood, whereas many briquettes add fillers in them when they are shaped.  

After the charcoal, or gas if you roll that way, the most important thing in smoking is the wood that you use for smoking.  The wood is usually hardwood, because soft woods such as pines contain resins that are nasty tasting--think creosote.  I use hickory chunks mingled with apple and cherry chips.  Others use oak, especially for beef.  There is a brand of wood chips made from the oak barrels used to age Jack Daniels.  Those add good flavor.  I also use the fruit woods for pork, as well as maple.  Some also swear by mesquite, but some say that that wood is too strong.  For things like fish, dried fennel stalks and rosemary branches also impart very fragrant smoke to the meat.  You can even smoke with tea leaves.

Smoking meats, especially doing "smoke roasting" as described here, is a rather simple process.  It just takes time.  Your basis of cooking is what's called indirect grilling.  Indirect cooking refers to a technique where the coals are not directly under the meat, but rather off to the side.  This creates a lower temperature for cooking.  If you have a gas grill, only turn on the outside burners, leaving the middle cold.  As a result of a lower temperature, the meat takes longer to cook.  This is advantageous in the fact that any connective tissue such as collagen will get broken down into gelatin, which makes the meat tender and juicy.  Rapid cooking can cause the connective tissue to seize up, creating gristle and that's not good eats.  How long are we talking about?  It depends on what you're smoking and how big it is.  Chicken parts only need about an hour or so.  A full brisket or beef shoulder can take as long as 14 hours to cook.

Now, while smoke imparts a good flavor to meat, one not only wants to add more flavor, but it is important to try to keep the meat relatively moist as well.  After all, we're not making jerky or drying the meat.  That's a different diary.  For this diary, I'll focus on three ways of adding flavor, as well as the techniques to help keep the meat moist and juicy.

The first way is brining.  When you brine a piece of meat, you place it in a solution of salt and water--a brine.  Osmosis will enable the meat and brine to equalize--the meat will draw in the salt and other seasonings as well as extra liquid, thereby imparting flavor and helping keep the meat juicy.  And when I think of brining, I think of turkey.

Turkey responds to brining very well.  I have started to brine my turkeys no matter how I am cooking them, because of its tendency to dry out because of the lack of fat, as those attempting their first Thanksgiving turkey have found out.  So for my first recipe, I present a smoked turkey:

Diarist's note:  This brine is the famous Alton Brown "Good Eats Roast Turkey" brine.  It's just that good.

For the brine:

    1 cup kosher salt
    1/2 cup light brown sugar
    1 gallon vegetable stock
    1 tablespoon black peppercorns
    1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries
    1 1/2 teaspoons chopped candied ginger--NOTE:  I have used regular ginger and it's just as good.
    1 gallon heavily iced water

You will need a 10-12 pound turkey.  Thaw in the refrigerator for at least 3-4 days.  Combine the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries, and candied ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.   Combine the brine, water and ice in a 5-gallon bucket pr other large container. Place the thawed turkey (with innards removed) breast side down in brine. If necessary, weigh down the bird to ensure it is fully immersed, cover, and refrigerate or set in cool area for 8 to 16 hours, turning the bird once half way through brining. After brining, fill the cavity with the aromatics of your choice.  I use onion, garlic, and some kind of citrus like orange.  Tuck the wings under the bird and you're ready to go.

Setting up your grill.  Set up your grill for indirect cooking if you don't have an offset smoker.  

Soak a few handfuls of wood chips or chunks for about an hour.  Arrange the coals on either side of a drip tray placed in the center of the grill.  Place the turkey on the center of the rack, and add wood chips.  Cover when the chips begin to smoke. If you have a gas grill, place all the chips into a pouch made of heavy duty aluminum foil and poke a few holes in the pouch.  Set the pouch on the burner.  Add a handful of fresh coals and wood chunks about every hour.  The temperature should be around 250 degrees at the most.  A 10-12 pound turkey should take around 4 hours.  The breast meat should read about 155-160 degrees, and the deepest part of the thigh should read close to 180 degrees.  Remove, cover with foil and rest for about 20 minutes and here is your result:

The next flavor enhancing technique is marinating.  Marinating differs from brining in the liquids and mediums used.  Brining is based on salt, and to an extent, sugar.  marinating is based on acids and oils.

When the French reached the Caribbean, they found Natives smoking meat on wooden racks.  These racks the Natives named boucan, as well as the place where they did the smoking.  Such smoked meat became a staple food of the privateers in the region--so much so, that they were named after that smoking rack:  Buccaneers .  This next recipe is for a marinade to make "buccaneer chicken", a staple of Caribbean cuisine.  This is an extremely long and complicated looking marinade recipe, but it's worth it for the flavor.

You will need:

Approximately 6-8 pounds of chicken parts--either two quartered chickens, or leg quarters, thighs, or bone in breasts with skin.

1 pound fresh sugarcane, split lengthwise, or 2-3 cups of wood chips/chunks. I didn't have the cane, so I used hickory and apple.

For the marinade:

3 limes
8 cloves garlic, crushed (I love garlic, so I use more)
1 bunch scallions, both white and green, trimmed and coarsely chopped.  (A leek also works just as well.)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1-5 habanero chiles, thinly sliced (how hot do you want it?)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme or 1 1/2 Tsp dried
1 Tbsp whole cloves
2 teaspoons whole peppercorns
2 teaspoons whole allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick
1 whole nutmeg
6 cups water
1 cup (maybe a dash more) dark rum
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
3 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp firmly packed brown sugar

Cut the limes in half and squeeze the juice into a large non reactive bowl.  Add the rinds, then add the remaining ingredients and stir until the salt and sugar are dissolved.  Add the chicken and mix and turn.  Cover and let marinate in the fridge for 24 hours.

Set up for indirect grilling with a drip pan in the center of the grill.  Preheat to medium.  When ready to cook, add all the sugarcane or the soaked wood on the coals.  Remove chicken from the marinade and blot dry.  Arrange the pieces, skin side down over the drip pan.  Cover and cook until the juices run clear (about 165 for breasts, 180 for thighs)--about 1-1 1/2 hours.  After an hour, add a few more fresh coals.  Remove and serve immediately.  When I made this I used breasts.

Of course, you don't really need a special marinade for excellent smoked chicken. I just put this on the grill--hardly any seasoning at all:
The next two recipes are for two standards of barbecue cooking:  Pulled pork and brisket.  This is where the real difference between grilling and barbecue come into play.  Grilling involves direct cooking over relatively high heat, resulting in a quick cooking time.  Barbecue is all about Low and Slow--keeping the cooking temperature low, and cooking the meat over a long time.  This breaks down the collagen in the meat--usually a tougher cut, or one with a lot of connective tissue--and makes it almost meltingly tender.

They also use the third way of adding flavor--the dry rub.  A dry rub is just that.  It's a combination of dried herbs and ground spices that are rubbed into the meat, thereby curing the meat as well as providing a crust.  Letting the meat cure allows the spices to penetrate the meat, as well as the salt in the rubs drawing out moisture and beginning a dry-age process.  Typically, a "mop sauce" is often used when smoking this way.  A mop sauce is just that--a thin, usually vinegar-based sauce that is occasionally dabbed on the meat during cooking by using what looks like a very small mop.  In addition to helping keep the meat moist, mop sauces also impart another layer of flavor.  I personally don't use mop sauces.

So, on to pulled pork.  Pulled pork is a staple of the barbecue tradition of the Carolinas, and as such, I use a vinegar barbecue sauce to finish it.  So here is how I do it:

For the rub:

1/4 cup salt (plus a little more)
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp pepper
2 tbsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp granulated garlic
2 tbsp dried minced onion
2 Tbsp dried mustard
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp celery seed
1 tbsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

You will need a pork shoulder bone-in butt roast, the bigger the better--I like a nice 7-8 pound roast.  Try to get one with a nice fat cap on it--at least 1/4 inch.  If you're ambitions, go for the whole shoulder--the butt and the picnic ham.  Pat dry the meat, and very generously spread the rub all over, massaging it into the meat.  Cover with plastic and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.  24 is better.  Soak about 8-10 cups of wood chips (about 6 if you're using gas) about an hour before cooking.  

You are looking for a very low heat--around 225-250 degrees max.  Set your grill for indirect cooking.  Place a drip pan in the center.  If you're using gas, make a pouch of aluminum foil and use all the wood chunks at once.  If using charcoal, only use a handful at a time.  Place the meat fat side up on the grill grate and close and vent to control temperature.  Cook the meat until it reaches at least 195 degrees--about 8-12 hours depending on the size of the meat and the heat of your grill.  You will know when it's done when the bone wiggles easily.  

If you are using a mop sauce, baste about every 20 minutes.  If you have a good fat cap, the fat will help keep the meat moist.

When the desired temperature is reached, remove from grill, cover with foil, and let rest for about 15-30 minutes.  After resting, with your hands, or a couple of forks (I use forks), shred the pork.  The bone should slide out with no trouble at all.  Add the sauce (recipe to follow) and let sit for another few minutes to let the meat absorb the sauce.  Serve on buns with cole slaw as a topping.

Vinegar Barbecue Sauce:

1 cup cider vinegar
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup brown sugar
5 Tbsp ketchup
1 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Whisk until all ingredients are dissolved.

NOTE: The pictures here aren't the greatest.

Finally, I present the king of barbecue:  The brisket.  The brisket is one of the toughest cuts on the cow.  The brisket is located above the plate primal, which is the chest of the animal.  As such, those muscles do a lot of work, rendering the meat tough.  However, once properly cooked, the brisket can be a tender and succulent cut of meat full of flavor.  

The technique is basically the same as for the pulled pork:  Rub with the spice rub, let cure overnight, and set up the grill in the same way.

For the rub:

1/4 cup salt (plus a little more)
1/4 cup pepper
3 tbsp chili powder
3 tbsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp granulated garlic
2 tbsp dried minced onion
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp celery seed
1 tbsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

For this preparation, you want a whole brisket (about 10-15 pounds).  This is because other briskets are pre-trimmed. When preparing the meat for the grill, do not trim too much of the fat off the top.  You want at least 1/3 inch all over.  Instead of using a drip tray in the center, place the meat in an aluminum pan, uncovered (so the smoke can get to it).  This will allow the brisket to cook in its own juices and keep it moist.  Baste every so often.  Time is usually 10-14 hours, keeping the grill on very low heat, and adding a handful of fresh coals and wood chips every hour or so.

I usually serve mine with the barbecue sauce of my choice on the side.  This meat is too good and doesn't really need to be drowned in sauce.

Earlier in the diary I talked about cold-smoked salmon, or Nova Salmon, or lox--however you wish to call it. In Seattle, they have perfected hot-smoked salmon, however. I don't live in Seattle, I live in Northwest Indiana, but I like to think I make a pretty good smoked salmon. You'll need two ingredients:

Salmon (preferably fresh caught Lake Michigan salmon) and dill

Heat your grill for indirect grilling. Soak some cherry wood chips until they are fully wet--about 15 minutes. But wait, you say. What about cedar? Cedar is an evergreen like pine. It's resinous. If you use cedar to smoke, it releases that resin. Again, think creosote. You can use a soaked cedar plank to rest your salmon on for the flavor, but that's not what I do.

Anyway, back to our story. Sprinkle the salmon liberally with the dill. Arrange the salmon on the grill so the thickest end is closest to the fire. Add the wood chips on the coals and smoke for about 30 minutes or until the salmon is firm yet yielding and the flesh just starts to flake. I use two spatulas to remove the filet to keep it whole.

Next, no barbecue dinner would be complete without beans.  Here is a simple but incredible tasting recipe:
2 cans Great Northern beans.
1 large onion
1 pound of bacon, chopped (I like bacon)
at least 1/2 cup of Worcestershire sauce and the same amount of brown sugar.

 Render the bacon in a large dutch oven until the bacon is crisp.  Drain all but 2 or 3 tablespoons of the fat.  Add the onion and saute.  (You can stop here and have a wonderful side dish, but that's another story).  Add both cans of beans with their liquor.  This is why it's important to have cans.  Stir and bring up to temperature.  Add the Worcestershire and brown sugar, and adjust to taste.  Bring the pot to a simmer, and reduce until the liquid is thick and brown.  The beans will absorb a lot of color and flavor.

And that's all there is to it.  If you wish, you could also place the dutch oven in the grill and let the smoke flavor it as well.  And here they are:

On a final note, I have not included ribs in this diary.  That's for a number of reasons.  First, I'm still perfecting my version.  And second, cooking a great batch of ribs requires several different techniques such as smoking, direct grilling, and occasionally braising.

So in conclusion, instead of just slapping a burger or a steak on the grill, try to elevate your game and add some smoke to the party.  It may take longer, but your patience will definitely be rewarded.

Remember, if it tastes great baked, roasted, or fried, it will be even BETTER when it's grilled.

Originally posted to zenbassoon on Sat May 24, 2014 at 04:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by What's for Dinner.

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