Choosing a BBQ smoker

The "low and slow" cooking process is what sets smoking apart from grilling. Nearly all outdoor smokers have a firebox, where the fuel is burned; one or more cooking racks; vents for controlling airflow and temperature; a lid; and a thermometer. Heat sources vary; smokers may be fueled by hardwood pellets, charcoal, electricity or propane gas. Most have water pans, which dissipate heat. The water also ensures that food comes out moist.

The best smokers can maintain a constant temperature between 180 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit (the ideal temperature for smoking most foods) for a period of hours with few fluctuations. The lengthy, relatively cool cooking turns connective tissue into collagen, thus tenderizing it. Smoking takes time, but a well-designed smoker can make the process practically foolproof.

  • Don't rely on the built-in thermometer. Nearly all smoker thermometers are virtually worthless, and reviewers say buying a separate, high-quality thermometer is a must. Many barbeque enthusiasts spear a potato or apple with an oven-safe thermometer before placing it on the cooking rack. This allows them to track the interior temperature of the smoker without piercing the meat.
  • Factor in fuel costs. Over the long haul, the cost of chips or pellets can add significantly to the cost of smoking food. For example, the Bradley Original Outdoor Smoker's proprietary bisquettes cost 30 to 40 cents each, and reviewers say the smoker burns three or four per hour.
  • You can smoke food without a dedicated smoker. According to expert Steven Raichlen, you need only place wood chips on the hot coals in a charcoal grill set up for indirect cooking, or use your gas grill's smoker box. If you already own a Weber kettle grill, the Smokenator (*Est. $60 and up) is an accessory for smoking food on your grill. There are Smokenator models for the 22.5- and 26.75-inch Webers.
  • Make sure your smoker has a pan for drippings. Whether you choose to add them to sauces or throw them out, drippings are sure to accumulate in your smoker, so make sure there's a receptacle for them and cover it with aluminum foil.
  • Wheeled smokers are easier to move. Most smokers are heavy, so it's best to get one that has wheels that allow you to move it. If your smoker doesn't have wheels, consider buying an appropriate fireproof stand.
  • You don't need a stainless-steel finish. Reviewers say matte-black finishes are fine, and they hide dirt and fingerprints much better than more expensive stainless finishes.
  • Online forums offer a wealth of information. You can find tips and tricks for using your smoker. If you choose an inexpensive smoker and are handy with tools, you also can find tips for improving its performance. Additionally, most manufacturers make their manuals available for download.
  • Use the right kind of wood. As you might expect, fruitwoods impart a lighter flavor, while hickory and mesquite give foods a more robust smokiness. Strongly flavored woods, such as mesquite, can overpower delicately flavored meats like turkey.
  • Check your neighborhood's regulations. Many condominium associations prohibit the use of pellet-fueled or charcoal-fueled smokers because of the risk of fire, but they may allow electric or gas-fueled smokers.
  • Read the manual carefully. Many charcoal smoker manufacturers, including Weber, strongly warn against the use of lighter fluid-infused charcoal briquettes.
  • To avoid the risk of fire, don't place your smoker on a wooden deck. Heatproof surfaces are best. Many owners recommend placing smokers over a metal tray filled with sand in order to catch any drips or wood debris.
  • Keep the lid closed. Each time you lift the lid of your smoker, you lengthen the cooking time.
  • Keep a log of your smoking experiments. Smoking is an inexact science, so it's a good idea to jot down cooking times, information about the food you're smoking (such as its weight and whether it was marinated) and woods used.
  • To prolong its life, clean your smoker. A well-maintained smoker will last longer. Many manufacturers recommend cleaning your smoker at least once a year.
  • Smoking is time-consuming. Smoking a 5-pound chicken can take up to three and a half hours, depending on wind conditions, outdoor temperature and the temperature inside the smoker. A 6-pound brisket can take up to five hours.
  • Experiment with unusual ingredients. Eggplant, corn, potatoes, cream cheese-stuffed jalapeno peppers and even meatloaf can all be smoked, all with delectable results.

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