Backyard Barbecue: Graduating to a Smoker

I posted about my experiences smoking meat on a charcoal kettle grill a while back. In 2016, I decided it was time to graduate to an actual smoker. While I would have loved the kind of classic-looking offset smoker used by some of the nation’s top barbecue joints, my research indicated that low-to-mid-range offset smokers are poor in terms of quality and don’t last long. And purchasing a good offset smoker would probably run me at least a couple thousand dollars. I am a relative novice and don’t barbecue often enough to justify laying out that kind of money. So given it’s sterling reputation, I opted for the 22-inch model of Weber’s Smokey Mountain (WSM) bullet-style charcoal smoker. It’s long been known as one of the best smokers on the market for under $500.

My Weber Smokey Mountain in action. The charcoal grill I used to use for smoking is in the background.

Bullet smokers are vertical and come in two sections; upper and lower. The charcoal and wood go into the bottom section. The upper compartment is where the meat goes. It also has a water pan beneath the cooking grate to both add moisture to the process and catch the large amount of grease that drips off the meat while it cooks. 

I use a charcoal chimney to get the fire started and pour its contents onto the unlit coals. The upper section – at right – then goes on top of the lower portion.

I continued cooking with lump charcoal as I had on my kettle grill, but rather than using wood chunks soaked in water for smoke, I discovered an online supplier of high quality barbecue wood that doesn’t need to be soaked and comes in a slightly larger size known as a “split.” There wouldn’t have been room for splits on the grill, but they fit easily on top of the charcoal in the Smokey Mountain. This eliminated the need to continue adding wood periodically throughout the process. My favorite types of wood for barbecuing are hickory, cherry-wood and apple-wood.

A hickory split
The smoke comes from the splits I place on the burning lump charcoal.

Over the past five years, I’ve smoked a nice array of meat on the WSM; some traditional; some a little less so. By traditional, I’m referring to brisket, pork and beef ribs, and pork butt, which is the portion of the shoulder most commonly used to make pulled pork. 

Smoking brisket has not been easy for me in terms of getting the desired result. It’s a cut of meat that can be difficult to keep moist and needs to be wrapped in foil or butcher paper in the middle of the smoking process to prevent it from drying-out. It also takes as long as 15-20 hours to finish. That means if I want to serve it for dinner, I have to put it on the smoker the night before and stay up all night to monitor it. I’ve done this a few times, but only when I’ve had a couple days off afterward to catch up on the sleep I missed. 

I have to confess to never being fully satisfied with the results when I’ve smoked brisket, but this one, which I made in May of 2016 to break in the WSM, turned out pretty good.

It can take 20 hours for a brisket to arrive at this finished state.
But it sure looks good when it gets there.

I decided to try something special the following month. We were going to Texas for the barbecue-themed vacation I posted about last week that coming Autumn and trying a beef short rib at Louie Mueller would be an important part of my agenda for that trip. After watching a video in which legendary pit-master Aaron Franklin demonstrated that beef short ribs are one of the easiest cuts of meat to smoke, I decided to get ahead of myself by trying it on the WSM. Then I could compare that to the short rib I’d have a few months down the road. I didn’t know just how awe-inspiring the Louie Mueller rib would be yet, but I was mighty pleased with the result I achieved. 

Beef short ribs come in at least a couple varieties; based on which part of the rib rack from which they are cut. The most desirable – and biggest – ones are called Plate short ribs. A rack of these contains three ribs and looks like a square or rectangular block of meat when raw.

A rack of Plate beef short ribs
Each rack contains three massive ribs.
I only use coarse salt and pepper to rub beef for smoking. That’s Texas style.

While they cook, the short ribs gradually become more recognizable as the meat recedes. The finished product is fairly spectacular looking, both before and after they are carved. Yes indeed; these really were easy to cook and the result was outstanding. There is no need to wrap short ribs in foil or butcher paper, as is the case with brisket and pork ribs. They have enough fat to remain moist uncovered and their flavor is tough to beat. All I had to do is sprinkle salt and pepper liberally on the rack and put it on the smoker until the ribs hit the desired temperature of close to 200 degrees, which I’ve found can take anywhere from six to nine hours. 

Short ribs, still fairly early in the cooking process
The meat gradually recedes while it cooks and smokes.
The finished product before being carved
There aren’t many things more beautiful than a smoked Plate beef short rib.

Pork baby-back ribs only take about five hours to finish, but the process is a bit more involved. The rubbed rib racks are placed naked on the cooking grate, where they remain for 2-3 hours, then they get wrapped in a couple layers of foil with a bit of apple juice and cider vinegar and placed back on the smoker for what is essentially a steam bath for one to two hours. At the end, they go back on the WSM naked for another 30 minutes to an hour. For the last 20 minutes or so, I brush a little barbecue sauce on them to create a nice glaze. 

Two finished racks of pork baby-back ribs
Carved baby-backs
Love that smoke ring

A pork butt is a big cut of meat, like a brisket, although shaped differently. While they also have required all-night barbecue sessions that left me worn out, unlike brisket – and like beef short ribs – the process is easy in that I’ve been able to achieve positive – meaning moist – results without having to remove the butt from the WSM to wrap it at any point. They generally finish with a deep, black bark – or outer layer – that may leave them looking burned, but that’s not really the case. Bark is a good sign. It adds to the texture of pulled pork. 

The pork butt is a portion of the shoulder and is commonly used to make pulled pork.
Almost done. The outer bark will add texture to the pulled pork. It is not an indication that the meat has burned.
The butt giveth.

When I smoked meat on my charcoal grill, I generally stuck to the above classic barbecue cuts. But I’ve branched out a bit since getting the WSM.  Chicken isn’t exactly a radical departure, but I never knew how good chicken thighs could be until I started smoking them. I did that initially for family members who don’t eat red meat. My mother in particular loved them and started requesting that I make chicken more often. 

I used a less traditional rub that included spices more associated with Indian and Middle Eastern food for chicken thighs and went very light on sauce. In fact, I think I left sauce off of some of the thighs altogether.

These smoked chicken thighs are a favorite of my mother. I kind of like them too.

Perhaps the most glamorous cut of meat to smoke is prime rib. It’s done at some of the better known barbecue joints in Texas, although I passed on it while I was down there.

Unlike brisket and pork butt, prime rib is not smoked to a very high temperature. It comes off the smoker at the same point that it would come out of an oven if being cooked in the kitchen; 120-125 degrees if you want it medium-rare. It’s as easy to smoke as beef short ribs. Just rub with a spice mix and throw it on the smoker until it hits your desired temperature. I made it for my mother-in-law’s birthday. She is one of the few people in my family who enjoys red meat as much as I do.

Prime rib, rubbed and onto the WSM for smoking
It’s getting there.
I probably could have left this on the smoker a tad longer. But I don’t mind rare when it comes to prime rib.

I’ve long been a fan of both lamb and duck and decided to try smoking them a few years ago. I went with a whole duck and gorgeous little racks of lamb ribs that I found at a Philadelphia butcher. Both came out beautifully, although I decided the lamb ribs were a bit too small in terms of the amount of meat they held to justify making them again. The finished duck was fairly spectacular looking.

Finished racks of lamb ribs
A whole smoked duck
Duck at left and lamb ribs to the right. The lamb ribs have a membrane layer that leaves them less meaty than they appear in this photo.

But there are other cuts of lamb, and this past spring, I decided it was time to try smoking a leg. As it was an experiment, I went with a small boneless one, but I could not have been happier with the results. And it was simple. There was no wrapping involved and it didn’t take longer than a couple hours to finish. I liked the leg of lamb so much that I smoked another one a few weeks later with similar results and will return to it again. It’s too good not to.

Boneless leg of lamb, rubbed and ready to go onto the smoker
All done
Perfectly done smoked leg of lamb

It would be nice to have a massive wood-burning smoker like the ones used by Texans who make real Q. But I can always go back to Texas for that. And in the meantime, it’s nice to have my WSM. It’s enabled me to impress more than a few dinner guests. 

Published by BZ Maestro

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3 thoughts on “Backyard Barbecue: Graduating to a Smoker

  1. You might want to try mutton some time. I’m from Henderson, Kentucky but was born and raised in Hopkinsville. Mutton has always been popular in Western Kentucky and is the favorite BBQ o0f a lot of ole timers, like myself. Mutton is also smoked low and slow at 225 to 250. I usually use Hickory wood and I mix lump charcoal with it. The lump charcoal creates a more even cook to any piece of meat. A few weeks ago, I smoked 6 pork butts, 2 hind quarters of mutton, 6 slabs of St. Louis style ribs and 2- large chickens.I have several devices to use at my disposal. I then wrap all my cuts in freezer paper and bring them out per use. I thaw them and then warm at a low temperature for about an hour in the oven. Make sure to put some water down in the bottom of your pan and cover and seal for the duration of the warming process!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great array of different cooks! With holiday season approaching I think you’re about due for another rib roast.

    My first smoker was a consumer-level offset model and I quickly learned that it had far more cooking space than I needed for most of my cooks, and that it used a lot more fuel than I liked. I switched to the 18″ WSM a number of years ago and have been very happy with that decision.

    Liked by 1 person

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