The opportunity to impart layers of complex, smoky flavor into a cut of meat, whether it be a rack of ribs or a pricey brisket, a humble chicken or a holiday turkey, is one that many home cooks are heartily embracing.
“The interesting thing about smoking is that you can smoke almost anything—from poultry to sausage, fish, beef, and so much more. Historically, smoking was used as a way to preserve meats; for example, the ham going into the smokehouse for the winter would be ready to eat at Easter,” says Tom Perini, owner of Buffalo Gap, Texas-based Perini Ranch, which has been honored with a James Beard Award.
Perini dishes on some of the best practices for low and slow cooking—a.k.a., smoking—to ensure that every cut of meat comes out perfectly all season long.
When smoking meat, the type of wood used is a big part of the equation—regardless of the type you use, it should be a hard wood, not pine or cedar. The wood should also be dry—not green. Green wood can create a lot of tar, resulting in a bitter flavor.
“Your wood preference also depends on your location. At Perini Ranch—we’re in the West Texas town of Buffalo Gap—we use mesquite wood because the ranch is covered in it, and it makes a hot fire. Different types of wood impart unique flavors, and it’s fun to experiment depending on what you’re cooking. For example, if you’re smoking pork butts, you might want to try an apple wood,” Perini says.
Temperature Is Key
Unlike grilling, smoking is all about keeping the temperature low and the cooking process slow. Perini said that for things like brisket, Perini Ranch smokes it the “old time way” which takes about 12 hours. This, he said, ensures that it will be tender and juicy. However, Perini notes that he keeps things within a certain temperature range to ensure a perfect result, no matter what the meat.
“Smoking temperatures for Perini Ranch are between 250 – 275 degrees,” he says. “A word of warning—you can over-smoke. This just takes practice, but too much smoke is not your friend. It can stay with you for days.”
To that, he says, monitor your temperature with a meat thermometer. You can even get one that syncs with your smartphone.
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Choose Your Smoking Style
Perini explains that there are different kinds of smoking styles—direct heat and offset smoking. Both of these, he says, are great methods of smoking meats and it is simply a matter of preference.
“At Perini Ranch, our style of cooking is the old time way of pit BBQ. We burn down our own mesquite wood to make charcoal, and then shovel the homemade charcoal into the pits so that we can control the temperature throughout the smoking process. This is a direct heat method, and the grills are about 30 inches above the coals. Our pits also have lids, and we believe in turning the meat every hour to keep the juices flowing,” he says.
In the offset smoking method, heat and smoke is pulled through the pit from a live fire that sits on the end of the pit. This is similar to a smoking box that is attached to a grill.
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Additionally, you can smoke your meat on your grill—both charcoal and gas—by setting up two zones to create indirect cooking (coals on one side, no coals on the other). Add a water pan if necessary and you’re all set.
Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Grilling & BBQ
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