When you think of smoked food, you might think of smoked salmon, or perhaps a smoked cheese. But it's big news in BBQ too.
For me, it’s not "BBQ" unless it’s smoked. Let me explain: grilling is the method by which direct heat is applied to food, for example when you cook a few steaks on your typical gas-burner backyard barbie. That causes the food to char and caramelise on the outside. American-style barbecue, "BBQ", also referred to as smoking, happens at a lower temperature range, usually 80°C to 150°C, and takes longer - so it’s often referred to as low and slow.
There are plenty of options for doing this style of 'Q, from affordable wood-burning cookers to top-of-the range offset smokers. But if you don't have a smoker, or want to dip a toe in the waters without spending a lot, never fear. You can cook low-and-slow style BBQ without a smoker - even without a barbecue.
• Smoke inside the house can stain walls, ceilings and set off fire alarms, so it’s important to understand how to smoke well and safely outside.
• Cold meat will take on the smoke flavour better than warm meat.
• A smoke tube like the A-maze-n tube or another style of smoke box filled with pellets will produce enough smoke to start the seasoning on the meat and are very reasonably priced.
• The other benefit of using a smoke tube is that it allows for cold smoking of products like salmon or cheese. The smoke tubes can be placed on a baking dish with the meat on a rack above it, the whole set up enclosed in a cardboard or wooden box and allowed to smoulder until the smoke has impregnated the fish, cheese or meat. Meat that needs cooking than then be transferred to an oven or gas barbecue.
• You can place your meat inside a gas barbecue with a hood, or a Weber kettle, and give the meats a couple of hours of smoke while cooking over low heat, either using a smoking tube or some wood chunks on the coals, then finish cooking it through.
• A word of caution about using liquid smoke or smoke powders - they are going to give you a very artificial smoke flavour. Don’t use them!
• Price is going to play a part in what you initially purchase. With that said, I have seen some top competitors win using a simple Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM). Most people don’t learn to drive in a Rolls Royce.
• Space is of vital importance. If you have a narrow path to get to your backyard, a large offset smoker might not make it down the path. You also need to have a spot that is semi-undercover to protect your BBQ from rain, but not fully enclosed unless you are prepared to vent the unit so you won’t be smoked out. The smoke will stain walls and ceilings. Cheap air-conducting can be used to vent smokers that have a chimney.
• Pellet smokers vs stick burners. One of the essential ingredients for good BBQ is a pit (Southern BBQ speak for a smoker or other vessel used to cook traditional American-style BBQ) that is kept at a constant temperature. A pellet smoker or grill’s temperature can be set, thus allowing you to concentrate on the cooking of the meat. Wood or stick burners (wood-burning cookers are often referred to as stick burners) of all varieties need to be constantly monitored making the long cooks for larger cuts of meat challenging. The off-set smokers or Texas smokers, which use wood (or coal) as a heat source, are very macho looking but it takes some practice to get the temperatures consistent. Heat insulation is not as good on the cheaper offsets, too, so if you make the move to one of these, it’s worth investing in a good one. A good option of novices is something like a Weber Smokey Mountain, which is a woodfired smoker, but easier to control in terms of temperature than an offset.
• Shopping for a smoker is a lot of fun. My go-to store is BBQs Plus because they have a huge range of smokers, pellets, woods and accessories.
Want smoke flavour but can’t afford a smoker? A-maze-n Tube, $40-50
Novice options: Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM), $400; Cookshack Smokette, $1200; Yoder Pellet Grill, $3800.
Intermediate Options: Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) $400; Hark or Yoder Off set smoker $7000; Hark or Yoder pellet smoker $7000; Ugly Drum Smoker (Big Poppa) $400; FEC 100 pellet-fed smoker $7000.
BBQ Obsessed: Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) $400, Yoder offset and pellet cookers, custom-made offset, FEC 300/500/750 – prices up to $25,000 PLUS all of the other BBQs listed previously. The BBQ obsessed, like myself, tend to have a range in their back yard and always have an eye on one more!
(Prices are approximate and given as a guide.)
This is part of our Ultimate BBQ series.
Photography by Mark Roper.
A pioneer of American BBQ in Australia, Lance Rosen is the founder of Melbourne's Big Boy BBQ restaurant, and the author of the award-winning book Temples Of BBQ ($49, hb). Buy it here and see our review here. This article was co-written by Hilary McNevin.