smoked-meatIn the last few years there have been more homestead-y culinary activities en vogue than inappropriate Amanda Bynes tweets. You can make your own jugs of kombucha, crimp your own Pop Tarts, keep your own bees and strain watery home cheeses. What’s worth doing, and what is best left to the pros? Or, in the case of kombucha, forgotten as an ironic social experiment?

For its level of fresh-created flavor, quantity and quality in a batch and ease of learning curve, I’d put smoking meats at home at the top of the list of those things worth doing. Most meats smoked at home are giant, cheap cuts, like pork shoulder and roaster chickens. And, of course, those turkeys that go on loss-leader clearance at Thanksgiving. The materials, once you make the smoker investment, are simple: a meat thermometer, tinfoil, and tongs.

Here in Tucson, the warm weekends and lack of wind (except for yesterday, natch—I just bought a pricey patio umbrella and string lights after all, so it was prime time for freaky 60 mile per hour gusts) make it perfect smoke time. We’ve been smoking something every weekend since we’ve gotten here, taking advantage of the hours babysitting the smoker to bask in gluttonous sunshine. We keep a pantry stock of dry rubs on hand, one for each Meat Group (poultry, pork, beef), many of our favorites coming from Tom Douglas’s Rub with Love line. As long as our craving for the best kind of barbecue you can get from a non-commercial patio begins the night before, there’s plenty of time and ability to get ready and go. Unlike, say, a craving for home-fermented sauerkraut.

“But Tabitha,” you’re yelling at your screen, “I already have a barbecue. Why do I need to buy a smoker too?”

A barbecue grill and no smoker is like your inside kitchen with an oven and no Crock-Pot. Yes, you can still cook, but there are flavors and textures that you can’t get as easily out of your oven, techniques that harness the mysterious magic of time. Our smoker was my husband Matt’s birthday present last June, and I invested in the Weber Smokey Mountain Bullet Smoker. The smaller 18” grate diameter model retails for around $300, much less than you’d spend on most barbecues. Don’t bother with the bigger version unless you’re opening up your own catering company. We’ve smoked three racks of ribs and two chickens at the same time on this double-rack smoker, and still had breathing room for peppers and onions at the end. {Cook’s Illustrated} recently named the Smokey Mountain the highest recommended smoker on the market for this important reason—temperature control. As newly-anointed (by me) expert Matt proclaimed, “It’s all about the temp.” Cheaper versions are more erratic in their heat swings, leaking built-up heat or letting unwanted air in. To get thoroughly-cooked, juicy results, the meat must remain at the same temperature for hours. Too fast and you’ll end up with tough, overcooked hunks. Too slow and you’ll be up until 2 in the morning waiting for a promised brisket meal.

Also important is selecting the right flavors to burn and inject into the meats. Our most successful smokes come from a burn combo of lump charcoal and chunk wood. Both are sold at the same place you bought the smoker (a la-ti-da outdoor living boutique or Home Depot). Lump charcoal is a better-quality version of those iconic 4th of July briquettes, made from lumps of wood charred to perfection. Go with a non-flavored version and add character with your wood chunks. Cherry and apple are ideal for the “delicates” like chicken or lean pork cuts, while oak and mesquite complement ribs, roasts, and other giant meat pieces that look distinctly animal. When you’re ready to smoke (between 6 and 8 hours before you’d like to eat for large cuts, 3-4 hours for whole chickens), ignite the charcoal and wood in your chimney starter. It may take a while to get going, depending on the temperature outside and whether you have much wind getting in the way. Luckily, once they’re going, all you have to do is trust the fire and keep your eye on the thermometer.

Our favorite meat to smoke is brisket, since it’s large enough to stand up to the smoke while absorbing a nutty amount of flavor. You actually develop one of those smoke rings fat guys rave about on eating travel shows. Generously rub the meat with 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil and ½ cup of your chosen rub the night before. The brisket should cook at 225 degrees, fat side up, for five hours on the grates. Walk away and your temperature can spike or fall. Lift up the lid to check on your baby and you add another 20 minutes to the cooking time. Just attend to the task at hand, adjusting the smoker vents if your temperature starts to climb or wane. After the first five hours, you can remove the lid (yay!) and cover the brisket in foil. Allow it to seep in its own juicy mess for another 3 hours in the smoker, reaching an internal temperature of 175 degrees. We usually stick a chicken down there as we’re foiling, just to make the most of our fuel and effort. It makes fantastic enchiladas/Panini/fried rice a few days later.

To serve, I slice the brisket thin and serve on fresh-baked bread slices with a healthy dose of homemade barbecue sauce. Serve it up and make friends with everyone on your block, or use the leftovers to make the best chili, quesadillas, potato hash or stir fry you’ve ever had. Hunks also freeze well for future inspirations.

This summer, give your backyard a giant kick of badass with a culinary tool that’s way more fun than a brick pizza oven. And to impress your friends even further, here’s my homemade barbecue sauce recipe. You’re welcome. Happy sunshine dreaming, everyone north of here!

Smokey Mountain Barbecue Sauce

1 6-oz can tomato paste

½ yellow onion, grated

2 cloves garlic

2 tbsp brown sugar

2 tbsp honey

½ cup ketchup

1/3 cup champagne vinegar

2 tbsp country Dijon mustard

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp allspice

½ tsp garlic salt

Teensy pinch of caraway seeds

¼ tsp cayenne pepper

½ tsp pepper

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then simmer for 30 minutes. Cool and refrigerate for 2 days before using. Those flavors need to marinate.

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