Smoking food — from whole cuts of meat to soups and stews to specialty items — is more popular than ever and, like most things, improved by the latest technologies.
“Some of the newer smokers get hot enough to grill steaks or bake cornbread, even pizza,” says Terry Houser, Extension meat specialist with the Iowa State University Meat Laboratory in Ames.
Newer machines use propane or wood pellets to create heat, giving the advantage of more consistent temperatures as well as a shorter warm-up time. Some can even be monitored and operated from your smartphone.
But while some people like the newest and best, others prefer the good old fashioned charcoal or wood fired cookers.
Either one will give you great smoked flavor.
“Heat is heat,” says Houser, “so it comes down to ease of use.”
Houser says the most important thing to remember is food safety. You’ll need a meat thermometer and, in some cases, a USDA meat cooking chart. (Find online at www.fsis.usda.gov.)
There are also considerations in choosing your cut of meat, beginning with price.
High-end beef tenderloins and rib roasts are currently higher in price, putting them in the special occasion category for many.
Luckily, less expensive cuts, like strip loins, lend themselves well to smoking. The process breaks down the connective tissue, making them less tough.
Smoking is also great for cuts that require low and slow cooking, like pork butts or beef brisket.
“Ham is great for the home smoker, because it’s pre-cooked and you are basically just warming it up and giving it more flavor,” says Houser.
And, of course, there is turkey. Houser says just like cooking in the indoor oven, making sure your turkey is thoroughly cooked is essential, as is completely thawing it before it goes in the smoker. The bird needs to reach 160-170 degrees internal temperature — at least.
While it is hard to overcook a turkey, it is easy to overcook, and dry out, other large cuts of meat.
“Cuts like tenderloins and prime rib will rise another 10 degrees in internal temperature once they are removed from the cooker,” says Houser.
A prime rib should come out at 135 degrees according to an internal meat thermometer for medium rare. Then let the meat sit to rise to 140-145 degrees.
Houser says a common mistake is not placing the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat or bird.
Wood pellets or hardwood can add extra flavor according to the type of wood. Many home cooks like mesquite or apple wood.
Spraying liquid, like apple juice or beer, onto the outside of the meat not only adds flavor but helps with smoke ring formation and skin formation.
“It’s all in the eye of the beholder,” says Houser. “Your soda of choice is another option.”
Having some sort of liquid, even water, inside the smoker is crucial for maintaining relative humidity.
“Meat is mostly water,” says Houser. “That’s why you see significant shrinkage.” Liquid also provides an insulator effect against temperature spikes.
Spice rubs are popular, but Houser cautions against using too much, lest it fall off during cooking. A bit of olive oil or mustard rubbed on the meat before the spices will help them stick.
Barbecue sauce should be added at the very end, if at all. Most contain sugars like high fructose corn syrup or dextrose, even brown sugar, that easily burn.
“You just want to add that bit of flavor on the outside,” says Houser.
And smoking isn’t just for meat.
“Smoked mac & cheese is amazing,” says Houser. Corn on the cob, casseroles, even chili can be cooked in the smoker.
While low and slow projects can take 8 to 10 hours, many cuts of meat will cook in just a few hours. Houser says it really only takes about 30 minutes to put smoke flavor on your meat; the rest of the time is cooking.
Cooking outside in Iowa winter can add challenges. Newer equipment handles the cold exterior temps better than the old-fashioned ones. It’s hard to get enough heat with charcoal or wood.
But, oh, the joys of biting into that smoky goodness when your dinner is done.
“Smoking is safe, and clean, and delicious,” says Houser. “Just make sure to cook until done, and then put the leftovers in the fridge for safe keeping.”
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