My neighbour got a smoker for Father's Day last year. It stands belly high, like a shiny black bullet with air vents, two racks and a temperature gauge at the top.
For a lot of people who like southern-style barbecue, my neighbour's set-up, which costs about $350, borders on being a fetish object. Though you can get electric smokers that take purpose-built wood pucks, and $1,500, egg-shaped ceramic ones and barrel-shaped "horizontal offset" smokers that look as though they ought to come with a banjo and Confederate flag, a lot of serious southern barbecue types swear by the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker, as my neighbour's rig is called.
It takes charcoal and wood chunks in the bottom through an access hatch. Then there's a huge bowl of water above the coals to even out the heat, and two grates over top of that so you can cook ribs and chicken, or chicken and brisket, or brisket and pork shoulder – you get the point. It's a simple piece of equipment, and so long as you keep the charcoal steady and the water full (empty water bowl = fiery, meat-charring inferno), it's remarkably effective at producing the slow, low, steady heat that transforms tough cuts like spareribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket into moist, tender, mahogany-crusted, smoke-infused fever dreams.
All summer and fall, I'd catch glimpses of my neighbour around the side of his house, watery-eyed and grinning wildly through a bank of pecan or apple smoke. He made ribs, brisket (a disaster, his wife told me) and slow-cooked chickens, which soon became his specialty. He smoked so much meat that I wondered if his family ever ate vegetables. I imagined their teeth falling out from scurvy and felt badly for them for a week or so. But then I remembered that even a house full of scurvy is better than a necktie on Father's Day.
Now, I smell wood smoke everywhere: Every second restaurant chef I speak with or read about keeps a smoker outside the kitchen, and uses it to make house-smoked bacon, or hams, or whole-smoked ducks or even smoked tomatoes for smoked-tomato ketchup.
Non-chefs are buying them too. That old line about how you know there's a vegan in the room? (They tell you, loudly and repeatedly.) It also applies to smoker owners. I stopped counting when I got past seven friends and acquaintances. This spring, I ordered a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker, as well as hickory, pecan and apple-wood chunks.
The key to great barbecue is low, even heat and plenty of time: Ribs often take five or six hours at 220 degrees Fahrenheit before they're ready, while whole pork shoulder takes half a day or better and a lot of barbecue types wouldn't dream of giving brisket any less than 15 hours.
Other than that, I don't buy most of the southern barbecue mythology. These guys who go around calling themselves "barbecue chefs," and "pitmasters?" Most of them were IT specialists until approximately four months ago. Barbecue doesn't take a lifelong apprenticeship or a trove of secret family recipes. Weekend hobbyists with no-to-little previous cooking experience routinely clean up at big-money southern barbecue competitions – there's even a booming circuit in Canada. A lot of the time, they steal first prize.
What you need is a bit of gear, common sense and a good barbecue cookbook, mostly. I turned to Smoking Meat: The Essential Guide to Real Barbecue, by Jeff Phillips of Sapulpa, Okla. It's thorough and authoritative and the recipes looked delicious – better than you find at most barbecue restaurants. The recipes looked pretty easy too.
For my debut batch, I brined a five-pound chicken for 10 hours, then cooked it over pecan wood. It came out succulent, smoky and so juicy that you needed wads of napkins to eat it. Even better, I smoked some side ribs on the rack above the chicken, and mopped them down at one-hour intervals with a palm sugar, fish sauce and fresh chili reduction, and served them with wedges of fresh lime. The ribs were tender, intensely porky and rich with the taste of smouldering pecan – as good as any ribs I'd ever had. My dinner guests couldn't stop eating them. The next time I made ribs, they were even better.
If you've got a decent smoker, ribs are just a parlour trick. Anybody can do them incredibly well. I wanted to perfect pulled pork – one of the most iconic foods in the southern barbecue canon.
The pulled pork I've had in barbecue restaurants usually tastes more like sauce than anything. The meat is typically dry or meekly flavoured. I figured there had to more to it than this.
In Smoking Meat, Mr. Phillips covers an eight-pound pork shoulder with regular yellow hot dog mustard, then rubs in a dry spice mix that's balanced between sugar, salt, varied chili spices and aromatics like onion and garlic.
You get the smoker to around 230 Fahrenheit, pop pecan and apple wood and occasional charcoal re-ups into the lower access hatch, and then avoid the temptation to look at your prize for about 10 or 12 hours. There's a trick to it: Phillips sets a bowl on the rack below the pork roast to catch the drippings, which are separated from the fat after cooking and tipped back in with the meat. The goal is a mass of falling-apart juicy pork that is flavoured all the way into the middle, and enveloped in a sweet, spicy, exquisitely smoky crust.
I didn't believe it until I saw it. At a few minutes to midnight last Thursday, after a 12-hour smoking session, I rolled most of a pork shoulder, so tender that it wobbled with every touch of my tongs (I had to switch to two spatulas to move it), into a bowl and brought it inside.
The sandwiches I made from it – they were topped with a creamy, apple-kissed coleslaw and store-bought sauce that I'd thinned down with Tabasco, molasses and cider vinegar – instantly rendered all other pork sandwiches irrelevant. The meat was so full-flavoured, and porky, and smoke-infused and studded with candied, crusty, gently peppery bits, that among four people we ate more than six pounds in one ecstatic go.
Which is convenient, because when I told my neighbour the other day that I'd got a smoker, he suggested that we should hold a cook-off. Sure, he's got a year of experience on me, but I think I'm ready. Any time, bro. Any time.