Welcome to your new favorite introduction piece on the oh-so delicious thing that we call barbecue! I’m going to walk you through some do’s and don’ts when it comes to smoking those briskets, ribs and sausages that make the whole neighborhood jealous. We’re going to go over things like wood choice, what to look for when building or buying your own smoker, meat selection and prep, temperature control, and what not to overthink. Let’s begin, shall we?
Good wood is an essential part of the equation when creating a formula for good barbecue. Using different types of wood can give you different flavors and different types of combustion and burn rates. Knowing the differences and knowing where to apply them will give you an easier time trying to get where you need to go and allow you to be a bit more versatile when cooking your meats!
Being from Texas, I’m most familiar with the Texas hardwoods, so that’s what I’m going to cover, but these types of wood can also be found in a lot of places outside of Texas. In Texas, the most popular hardwoods we use for our open fire cooking are going to be, from least smoky to smokiest, post oak, pecan, hickory, and mesquite. Let’s take a closer look at each of those species.
Post oak is a member of the white oak family and is abundant in Central Texas. Rumor has it that they used to take the core of the trees and make fence posts out of them due to their straight nature, hence the name post oak. This is what our barbecue ancestors in central Texas had a ton of in the mid 1800s/early 1900s, and it just so happens to be really well suited for the longer cooks that are required to make good barbecue. This is due to the cleaner and more transparent smoke flavors this wood sends through the smoker. It also has a more mild burn rate and burns for longer, making it that much easier to keep the temperature gauge where you want it and allowing you to stay planted in that comfy lawn chair of yours for a bit longer. If you are having trouble finding post oak, any kind of white oak will work similarly!
Pecan is very similar to post oak in both burn rate and smoke flavor. However, pecan is ever so slightly smokier than post oak and a bit sweeter too. It also burns similarly, but I’ve noticed that it burns a little lower and for longer.
Hickory is going to be the runner-up for the smokiest hardwood used in Texas. It’s a bit more acrid and lays on a heavier coat of smoke compared to pecan or post oak. It burns a bit quicker and tends to burn hotter too, so temperature spikes are more common with this wood, thus requiring a little more attention. Have no fear though, this wood is still great for smoking if you manage the temperatures more closely and run a more efficient fire that keeps the fire burning clean. You can also burn the wood down to coals, toss it in the grill and have a ball with some steaks or burgers or some good ole fashioned brats and hot dogs. In the Carolinas, this also happens to be the wood of choice. They chuck it into the burn barrel for some nice coals to cook hogs over during those long overnight cooks.
Last but not least we have mesquite! Mesquite tends to be the best for grilling due to its super smoky nature and hot fast combustion and burn rates. However, if handled properly, it can give you a nice unique smoke flavor that brings your meat out from the rest! If handled improperly, you might end up with an acidic, over smoked mess that even the dog won’t want to eat. Mesquite is highest in lignin compared to its aforementioned counterparts and puts out a TON of smoke. This means if you want your meat to come out tasting good, you have to make sure your fire is burning as cleanly as possible. This wood also requires much more attention than the rest because it burns really hot and really fast. Temperature spikes are bound to happen if you’re not on top of things. Now, temperature spikes aren’t the end of the world if it happens here or there, but you don’t want happening regularly during your cook. This will cause very inconsistent results and that makes it hard to improve and troubleshoot.
Did you notice how I didn’t talk about fruitwoods? That’s because I’m not very fond of them for smoking! I prefer fruitwoods in tree form producing delicious healthy snacks. Fruitwoods are much softer and sappier than hardwoods and they don’t burn as cleanly or efficiently. Hardwoods are much more available in Texas and tend to be much cheaper too.
The age and hydration level with your wood is also extremely important. Fresh or green wood is very difficult to use because it is full of moisture. When green wood heats up, the internal moisture starts to evaporate and this causes evaporative cooling which prevents the wood from getting to a proper combustion temperature. This incomplete combustion makes it almost impossible to get your temperatures where you want them, and it also produces “dirty smoke” which is visually very thick and white and will leave your meats tasting like a week old ash tray. It’s very important that your wood be aged for about 6 months to a year if it’s fresh. If you happen to have a hygrometer handy, you are looking for about 10%-15% hydration. This will make it much easier to achieve complete combustion that produces “good smoke,” which is thin with a faint blue hue. There is definitely such a thing as wood that is too aged. Wood that is too aged or even rotten will burn very quickly and cleanly, leaving you with no smoke flavor at all. If the smoke coming out of your smoke stack is clear and all you can see is heat waves, your fire is too efficient and clean. Who wants to spend all that time smoking something when it tastes like you baked it in the oven?
One last thing to mention before we jump on over to smokers: there is nothing wrong with using more than one type of wood for your cooks. I know plenty of people that use a plethora of woods when they smoke their meats. Getting to know the different types of wood in your area will only make you a more knowledgeable cook and give you more opportunity for dialing things in just how you like it. After all, there are no rules in barbecue, just suggestions!
A good smoker is to barbecue as a good horse is to a cattle move. It’s not always necessary to get the job done but it sure makes things a hell of a lot easier! Smokers come in all shapes and sizes. They can range from a hole in the ground, to a big gas assisted piece of rotisserie machinery with all the bells and whistles you can imagine. I’ve even seen people smoking ribs and sausages in a filing cabinet (for health and safety reasons I can’t recommend doing that at home)!
I am partial to a horizontal offset smoker, which has a firebox on one end, a smoke stack on the other, and a cooking chamber in the middle. This tends to be one of the more simple pieces of smoking equipment next to the old school hole in the ground. Most commonly, these types of smokers are fashioned out of decommissioned propane tanks or thick rolled steel. Offsets come in a range of sizes that are suitable for any size demand you need to meet. From feeding the neighbors to a whole neighborhood, there’s a smoker out there for you! This type of smoker is my favorite for smoking because they are extremely versatile and due to the offset heat source, you can smoke your meat more gently and yield better results. Most offset smokers have a healthier, quicker draw that allows smoke to enter and exit the cooking chamber in a timely manner, which prevents the smoke from stagnating. Stagnant smoke or stale smoke gives your meat a more bitter taste.
Now, what are the qualities of a smoker you might ask? For starters, a good quality smoker is going to be made out of thick steel. Thick steel holds heat in much better and also makes it a lot easier for you to keep your cooking temperatures steady. Propane tanks from back in the day are usually about ¼’’ thick which is a very preferable thickness for me. Getting or making a smoker out of thinner steel is completely acceptable, just make sure it’s not less that 1/8’’ steel. Thin metal will warp easily and won’t hold up over time like thicker steel will. Some other good things to look out for on your smoker are going to be a decently sized firebox and a smoke stack that is big enough to give you a healthy draw. A wider firebox will make it easier for you to experiment with different fire structures and also allow you to not have your fire be so compact and tight, leaving you with a fire that breathes better. Another bonus of a wider firebox is the fact that you’ll have more room to move your shovel around when fixing a fire and this will keep you from wanting to fling that shovel across the yard when you can’t get that fire set right. A firebox with good length will allow you to keep your fire a little further away from your meat, making your heat source a bit more indirect. This will prevent your meat from getting charred up as much over those long cooks. If you live somewhere up north where its very cold in the winters I’d recommend a firebox that is insulated. This can be done with two layers of metal with a high heat ceramic insulation in between them or an air gap in between the two layers. The former is going to be more efficient and hold in heat for a lot longer. The latter is still better than nothing, but isn’t as efficient as the ceramic insulation and is better suited for more places further south with warmer weather. Either way, I much prefer some sort of insulation on my fireboxes to nothing at all. You’ll even save a bit of money by keeping those costly wood bills down.
The smokestack diameter and height you want is going to be specific to the size of your cooking chamber. Something too short or narrow will leave you with too slow a draw and a hard time keeping your fire burning. Too tall and wide a smokestack will have your smoke and heat coming in and out of your cooking chamber so fast, it won’t be doing anything to your meat and your cook times will be way longer than they already are. This can result in some very dry meat. If you hop online and go to Feldon’s Pit calculator you can type in the size of your cooking chamber and it will get you in the ballpark on where you want to be with your smoke stack and firebox size. This will be helpful for both building and sourcing a smoker that’s right for you!
A few of the last but equally important things you want to look for when building or buying a smoker are going to be some alignment things. You want your smokestack to be lined up with the center of your smoker grates. This will ensure smoke and heat are pulled evenly across your meat instead of above or below your meat. Another alignment you want to double check is that the top of your firebox is dead even or an inch below your grates in the cooking chamber. Heat rises and this will make it much easier to keep the heat in your smoker at grate level with your meats instead of above them as well.
Keep an eye out on these things and you’ll end up with a smoker that’s much kinder and more forgiving to you during the cooking process. Having a good smoker will take a lot of the headache out the equation. If you don’t have all day to watch the fire and tend to your meat, electronically controlled pellet smokers are a handy tool to have in the back yard. You can set it and forget it and go about your day while still getting decent results. It won’t be as good as what you can pull off by baby sitting your smoker all day but it’ll get you very close and it’ll allow you to take the kids to soccer practice or fix that gutter you’ve been meaning to get to.
If you are looking to venture down the rabbit hole on building your own smoker, prepare for a good amount of long days welding and cutting metal in the garage. However, there’s nothing more satisfying than standing back in that garage you spent so much time in looking at that glorious monstrosity you’ve just created. It’s also just another way to be the coolest kid on your block.
Okay so you’ve gotten the right wood, you’ve found or built the smoker of your dreams and you’re almost ready to start smoking. But wait! You need to get your meat ready first. Let’s start with brisket. If I’m tossing a brisket on the smoker, it’s going to be a packer brisket. A packer brisket is a brisket that comes with the point (fatty or moist end) and the flat (lean end) attached. These two muscles cook much better together than they do apart. A packer brisket generally comes with a healthy amount of fat on the top which you’re going to want to trim down to about ¼’’ all the way around. This amount of fat is going to protect the meat during the long cook and aid in moisture retention. Leaving this smaller amount of fat on top will also allow the fat to cook and render much more thoroughly, leaving you with a much more pleasant taste and flavor. I like to season my briskets with a rub that consists of 4 parts black pepper (16 mesh if you can find it), 2 parts kosher salt, and 2 parts Lawry’s seasoning salt. Before seasoning, I slather a thin even layer of yellow mustard all over the brisket. This will act as a sort of glue for the rub. The more powdery ingredients you put in your rub, the more likely you are to end up with a splotchy washed off bark at the end of your cook. What is this bark I speak of? Bark is that beautiful black coating that you see on the outside of a cooked brisket. This is a by-product of the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars in protein that causes it to brown as you cook. This happens to any kind of meat when you cook it and leaves most meat with a reddish brown color. Think steak, burgers, pork chops, etc. However, when you add smoke and a lot of time into the mix, this process is catalyzed and you end up with the extremely caramelized (not burnt) outer coating that is bark. When you put a bunch of powdery ingredients into your rub, they won’t adhere to the meat well and that bark you spent so much time working on to develop will simply slide off in some spots. So its best to leave those extra aromatic spices for your sauce and keep the stuff you put on your meats to a minimum. As a matter of fact, the rub I mentioned earlier is what I like to put on all of my meats. From brisket to turkey, beef plate short ribs and pork ribs. Another thing to keep in mind when you’re trimming your briskets is to make sure you trim any thin, sharp corners off before you throw it into the smoker. Anything left on as such will result in inedible charred bits that you wouldn’t want to feed to your worst enemy. It’s best to make sure everything is rounded off nicely. This will leave you with the best chances for that juicy succulent brisket you’ve been dreaming of! I like to save my brisket meat and fat scraps for nice homemade sausage. It’s best to cook your briskets fat side up. This will give you the best bark and will also allow the fat to cook better. The fat will also protect the meat underneath, and as it breaks down and starts to render, it will drip down the sides of the brisket, acting as a baster. I like to wrap my briskets in un-waxed, pink or brown butcher paper. Butcher paper’s porousness allows the brisket to cook evenly and retain some moisture without steaming. Foil tends to give the brisket a pot roast like braised flavor. I very much like roasts and braised meats of all kinds but that’s for the oven and not the smoker. A great time to wrap your brisket should be anywhere between 7-10 hours in the smoker after you have developed a beautiful black bark, the fat is nicely rendered on top and has a nice caramelized color (crack open a tiny little section on the top of your brisket with your fingers and it should have a nice translucent and slightly caramelized color) and your brisket should be nice and pliable. If you wrap too soon, your brisket will end up tasting like pot roast again and your fat will be white and un-rendered. Wrapping too early is also another way to end up with a ruined, splotchy bark.
I don’t like to cook briskets based on internal temperatures but a good range of temperature for wrapping should be around 175-185 degrees. Your brisket should spend the last hour and a half to two and a half hours in the paper. If your brisket is wrapped for 3 hours or more, chances are you’ve wrapped too early. You know its time to pull your brisket when you can feel the bottom middle of the lean end and your finger just barely starts to go into the meat and you can feel the meat grains just start to break apart. This can happen anywhere between 203-211 degrees internally. If your finger just slides into the brisket with ease and things feel like they’re going to fall apart, chances are you’ve over cooked it. Better luck next time. A good overall cooking time window for your brisket should be around 11-14 hours. Sometimes in the sweltering summer heat, things cook much quicker. It just means you get to enjoy things a bit sooner. Resting is an extremely important part of the cooking process. Cooling off outside of the smoker allows the meat to relax a little more and redistribute some juices throughout the meat, giving you a much more succulent end-result. You want to rest your brisket for a minimum of 5 hours on the counter before you slice into it. I like to rest my briskets over night in a holding oven but a good alternative is wrapping your brisket in a layer of foil (around the outside of the butcher paper) and a beach towel you wont mind getting greasy. After that throw it into a nicely insulated cooler and rest for about 8 hours or so until your brisket has reached an internal temp of 138-143 degrees. This serving temperature range is going to be the best serving temperature for all of your smoked meats. If you come out to check on your meats and they have dropped below what you wanted, just throw it into the oven for a little bit until it reaches the desired serving temperature.
Pork ribs tend to be a bit more straightforward for smoking. They are thinner, and leaner which leads to a much shorter cook time of about 4-6 hours. I prefer full spare ribs, which are located on the lowest section of the rib cage right above the belly. These ribs are going to be the meatiest and highest in fat content compared to St. Louis cut ribs and baby back ribs. St. Louis ribs come from the same part of the rib cage as full spare ribs do, just cut down a lot shorter. Baby backs are on the highest part of the rib cage closest to the spine of the pig and are less marbled and have much less meat on the bone. I prefer these more for grilling or smoking really hot and fast. When trimming spare ribs, all I like to do is trim of the breastbone on the thick side of the rack, take the small end rib off if it is super small and there’s not a lot of meat on it, trim off any excess clumps of fat if there is any and just throw some seasoning on there! I like to wrap my pork ribs in foil for two reasons. First reason being that they are much leaner than brisket so they need the extra aid in moisture retention. Reason two being that they wont spend as much time on the smoker wrapped up so you won’t yield a braised or roasted flavor. I like to wrap my ribs when they have a nice red mahogany color and I wrap them meat side down with some sauce. This sauce will combine with the pork ribs and leave you with a concoction of deliciousness.
Sauce is completely preference. Everyone likes something different, so go crazy with that and see what you can come up with. Sky’s the limit!
When its time to pull your ribs, you should be able to slide a thermometer probe or a toothpick in and out of the back with just the slightest resistance. It should feel a little like warm butter. If you find that there is no resistance at all, you’ve probably over cooked them and you’ll want to open the foil and cool them down as much as possible. You know you’ve made a good rib when you can pick it up and it stays on the bone but you can bite the meat cleanly off of it. Contrary to popular belief, fall off the bone ribs are in fact over cooked. But hey like I said earlier, there are no rules in barbecue, just suggestions. These should only take 45 minutes to an hour to get down to serving temperature and don’t require overnight resting.
Turkey and sausage are the easiest of the meats to smoke. These are the only two meats I make decisions on based off of temperatures. With turkey, I wrap in two layers of foil with a stick of butter (yes a whole stick) at the internal temperature of 135 degrees and I pull the breast at 151-153 degrees. Don’t worry, the turkey will carry over to 165 degrees in the double layer of foil and be cooked all the way through. Sausage is best pulled at the temperature of 158-160 degrees. Anything past 165 or 170 will be overcooked, dry and crumbly. It’s very important to have a water pan in your smoker with any meat you cook. The added humidity is great for moisture retention and will help everything cook more evenly.
All-in-all barbecue is a food that comes with a million and one ever-changing variables. It’s best not to over think the small stuff and don’t sweat it when things go wrong. Even seasoned pros have off days quite frequently. The best thing to do is to rely on your instincts and practice. Feel is something best developed over time, and barbecue is something that is best done through relying on your feel and instincts. That’s half the fun of it! If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading along and I hope you’ve learned something valuable through this. Happy smoking y’all!