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Monday, June 7, 2010

Which BBQ Smoker?

A friend wrote and asked me about buying a smoker. He said he and his wife wanted to get into more healthy eating, and wanted to make those foods more interesting, so they were going to add a smoker to their cooking. His question was which smoker should he buy. He said the Big Green Egg (Egg) was nice but very expensive, and was there a cheaper smoker that he could consider, or should he save up for an Egg. He said they would be cooking 'chickens and other cuts of meat'.

Like a lot of things, the answer depends. Here's what I'm replying with:

Which smoker can do the job for you depends, in general, on the following things:
  • How much convenience are you wanting to buy?
  • Is price a consideration?
  • Are you frequently trying to cook traditional pork BBQ, which comes from a tough cut of meat (pork shoulder)? Same for beef brisket.
  • Are you going to competition grade pork shoulder BBQ, which means flavor, tender and moist.
From the standpoint of traditional pork shoulder BBQ, the big benefit to the Egg is the convenience. When I make BBQ, my goal is to have the most flavorful, most moist BBQ I can produce. This is competition grade BBQ, not restaurant grade - a restaurant can't take the time to produce competition grade BBQ, or they would go out of business, because people that flood their BBQ with sauce aren't going to be able to tell the difference anyway.

My cooking temperature has (while still remaining safe) a goal of around 185- 190 degrees. This allows me to retain a lot of the moisture (water and fat), but it also means I've got to have a smoker that allows me to accurately maintain the temperature within a few degrees, so the smoker has to be fairly air-tight, because you are controlling the temperature by the amount of fresh-air you let in for combustion, and the amount of exhaust you let out. If you have a leaky-air smoker, then you will have temperature swings with each and every gust of air that comes along.

Since the temperature you cook at determines the amount of fat (and thus flavor) that is retained by the meat (higher temperatures renders the fat out) it thus directly influences the flavor. And since the temperature determines the amount of time necessary before the meat becomes tender, time and temperature directly control the tenderness of the finished piece of meat.

Since I want the best BBQ I can produce, I'm going to be cooking for a very long time, since low temperatures on big heavy pieces of meat (a Shoulder Butt boneless will come in around 8 lbs or so) require a long time to cook. At the temperatures I'm cooking at, it will take 20 to 24 hours to cook - and that's where the convenience comes in. I can load up the Egg once with lump-charcoal, get the temperatures balanced out, and leave it alone for 24 hours. My older smokers required me to make a temperature adjustment every 30 - 45 minutes, add charcoal, etc. I therefore only cooked BBQ on long weekends since I had to stay up all night!

So the Egg meets the requirements of:
  • Competition grade BBQ
  • Ability to accurately control low-temperature smoking, even on gusty days.
  • Convenience for cooking for 24 hours without having to adjust the air-damper controls and replenish charcoal.
  • It will allow you to cook any piece of meat you want to cook, at any temperature you want to cook it at (chicken, brisket, steak).
If competition grade isn't a big requirement, and you just want to make BBQ as good as most of the better BBQ restaurants, then I would suggest something along the lines of a Weber grill with a dome lid, with a diameter of 22.5" or bigger. I have a Weber Performer that I really like, but this too is somewhat expensive at $300, but I bought some convenience. It burns charcoal, but has a side gas lighter that starts the charcoal for you (convenience and avoiding lighter fluid), a work table and a nice cart, none of which matters to the BBQ. However, the diameter, at 22.5" is a major consideration. For smoking meats in this type of grill, I wouldn't get anything small, as you are going to put your charcoal on one side for browning (where your meat is directly over your charcoal), and then rotate the grill (or move the meat) so the meat is not directly over the coals for smoking - smaller grills make this difficult as you can't get far enough away from the coals. It does mean you will have to accept higher temperatures, less moisture and quicker cooking times, with more temperature excursions from wind gusts. You will be producing BBQ in 6 hours or so, at temperatures of 250 - 300. You will also be adding charcoal every 30 minutes or so. This means you would like the grill surface to have the ability to open so you can add charcoal without having to lift the meat out - the Weber Performer has this capability, but I think you can find a lot that will.

I'm really impressed with the charcoal grills with a large grill surface and a big dome. By the way - the purpose of the dome is to turn your grill into an oven - most people don't realize this. So you brown the meat over the hot coals, then move it to the other side to cook 'in the oven' until the internal meat temperatures come up to a safe point.

Hope this helps!

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