It was especially dark outside when I got out of bed yesterday. It was a half hour earlier than I usually wake up, but I needed the time for my big project.
In the kitchen I poured myself a generous mug of coffee and pulled some meat out of the fridge. In my early morning stupor I struggled to lift the well-seasoned pork shoulder and almost dropped the bowl of brined chicken. After putting the pork, chicken, and pigs feet on a tray, I headed down to the basement.
As I walked out the basement door it was pitch black except for a few stars and a quickly fading moon. I hammered a nail into a beam under our deck and hung a lantern on it. There wasn’t much light; apparently our outside basement lights are burned out. With the inside basement lights on I could mostly make out what I was doing.
The first step, according to many sources on the internet, was to get my coals ready. Faithfully following instructions from my ice-cold iPhone, I put some paper underneath my chimney starter, put charcoal in the top, and lit the paper. It wasn’t long before flames and smoke appeared, a bright contrast to the otherwise dark morning.
I had never used charcoal in any capacity until that moment; I’ve always grilled with gas. Of course I now know all the flavor I was missing. Soon the air was filled with a delicious aroma, and the coals had some grey stuff on them– which I assume is what the internet means when it says “make sure your coals are ashed over.”
I put some cold coals and a couple pieces of hickory in the bottom of the smoker, then poured the orange and grey coals on top. An explosion of orange sparks flew up! How pretty.
Assembling the rest of the smoker, at last I placed the top on. I was supposed to let the smoker come up to temperature before I put the meat in, so I headed back upstairs to grab my coffee.
As I was walking upstairs I passed Claire, getting ready for work.
“You smell like smoke!” she said, coughing.
I grabbed my coffee, the meat and paper towels, then headed back downstairs. By now the thermometer on top was telling me 200°F, and the one I added closer to the bottom said 220°F. Perfect!
Pulling the lid off I was hit in the face by a thick cloud of delicious smoke. I filled the water/drip pan with hot water and placed the pork shoulder on the bottom grate. On the grate above I laid the chicken and pig’s foot, then replaced the lid.
I was smoking!
It was very exciting. Smoking my own meat is something I’ve wanted to do since I first understood what it was about real barbecue that I find so deliciously compelling: The smoke. I don’t remember my first experience with slow-smoked meat, but the whole process has always seemed mysterious and out of my reach– just like baking bread and brewing beer. No matter– I knew someday I’d get a smoker.
When it came up in conversation that we wouldn’t get a smoker until we had a house (our rental townhouses in Chicago had far too little outside space for a smoker) my brother-in-law Jason made a proclamation.
“I’m going to get you a smoker as a housewarming gift.”
That was a few years ago, but Jason made good on his promise. After picking up the smoker from his house, I assembled it the next day. Since then, it’s been patiently waiting by the basement door, waiting for better weather.
I’ve been watching the weather forecast (as we all have!) and saw the warm up, supposedly happening on Thursday. My plan was set: Do a “dry” run with the smoker on Wednesday, then actually smoke some meat on Thursday. Wednesday came: I assembled the smoker, used the chimney, put the charcoal in, and let it smoke for a few hours. It was a beautiful day– bright and sunny with almost no wind– perfect for smoking.
I thought Thursday would shape up the same way, but I soon discovered I was wrong. About ten minutes after putting the meat in, it started snowing. Then the wind picked up. Then it rained. Then it snowed some more.
I was already smoking; there was no going back.
About an hour later it was time to go to work, which for me means putting on my headset and hanging out at my laptop. I usually work from “the office”– the room on our main floor that has a desk and bookshelves– but this day I’d work in the basement in the other office. This one is “the studio,” where all our instruments and music stuff lives.
As I sat at the desk, talking to customers, fixing scanners, uploading patient demographics files, surrounded by a woodwinds and synthesizers and a wall of cables, it occurred to me (as it often does) how lucky I am. From my position at the desk I could see the smoker, beautiful wisps of smoke rising up only to be ramshackled by the raging wind.
About every hour I headed outside to check on the smoker. Maintaining a good temperature was becoming an issue; The wind, rain, and snow was taking its toll on my smoker. I adjusted the vents to (hopefully) provide the maximum amount of oxygen for the coals, which I hoped would stay hot. The needle on the thermometer hovered around 215°F until the wind really picked up.
After a while I could tell it was losing steam; The temp had fallen to 200°F. I went outside, filled the chimney with more charcoal, and lit it– in the hopes that added already-hot charcoal would help maintain the temperature.
All morning I struggled with the temperature, but was able to keep the smoker between 190° and 230°. Originally I’d planned to smoke all day– from 7am until 5pm– but after an enlightening conversation with an experienced smoker, I concluded 5 hours was probably enough time in the smoke. I set my oven to 230°F, removed the pork and chicken from the smoker, and stuck them in the oven.
I couldn’t believe how authentic they looked: Like smoked meat you’d have at a restaurant. All black and brown on the outside, smelling like every real BBQ place I’d ever eaten.
Soon my kitchen– and every other room in the house– smelled the same. Like a BBQ joint. At first this was nice, but once the aroma of slow-cooking smoked meat filled every inch of our house, I started to worry. Claire isn’t a fan of smoked things as much as I am.
At lunch I cut up some red cabbage and apples, poured over a vinegary sauce and let it marinate. Then, loosely following a recipe from The Barbecue Bible, I made some barbecue sauce. Of course there is no need for that– not only is perfectly good BBQ sauce available at every supermarket, but our fridge has at least 4 different varieties.
But, you see, I’m on a mission. Actually, various missions; One was smoking meat, and another is making my own really good BBQ sauce. I’ve made BBQ sauce many times, but I’ve never created anything better than storebought. As it turns out, this time was different! Using only a few ingredients (instead of throwing in handfuls of random seasonings) my sauce turned out great.
All afternoon I monitored the temperature of the meat in the oven. It was putting off such a delectable smell that at one point I suddenly had to stop working and eat something.
Eventually both meats made it to my target temperatures. I took them out of the oven, gazing at them lovingly.
Near the end of the day I pulled them out for inspection, tasting, and cutting.
The first thing I did was cut open the pork to look for my first smoke ring. That’s the pink area near the outside of the meat that is an indication of a well-smoked piece of deliciousness.
“SMOKE RING, BABY!” I shouted, which caused Walter to run in to see what all the fuss was about.
I’ll tell you what… Mission smoked meat: Accomplished.
It’s not the best barbecue I’ve ever had, but it’s definitely delicious.
There is a nice thick bark on the pork, a combination of my thick rub and the smoking. It’s not as crispy as I would have liked, but I have plenty of time to refine my process. The pork was also slightly dry, perhaps because I didn’t cover it once it went into the oven.
The chicken was incredibly moist and had a subtle smoke flavor throughout the meat. The skin, even though it looked amazing, was dry and rubbery. This was no issue though, since the meat underneath was so juicy and flavorful. I’m sure the six hours of brining helped keep it moist during the long smoking and cooking process.
Today for lunch I reheated some pork, tossed it in some corn tortillas, and layered on my usual taco accompaniments (onion and cilantro). I also added my BBQ sauce and red cabbage and apple slaw, which has completely turned a vibrant shade of pink/purple.
This meal combined two of my favorite foods: BBQ and tacos. Success!!
Sometimes it’s nice to get up extra early for a project, even if it’s not fishing. The fishing season will be here soon enough– and so will better smoking weather. At my first opportunity I’ll be combining those (smoked trout, smoked bluegill anyone?) and reporting the results.
…And if anybody happens to find themselves out here in Alto, Michigan: come on over for some barbecue.