Benefits of BBQ Smokers
What is a BBQ smoker?
Quick Answer: The best way to cook tender, fall-off-the-bone BBQ
There’s a reason most BBQ competitors use smokers — they’re the tried-and-true method for low-and-slow barbecue. Smokers are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, fuel types, and technology levels, each with their own properties and cooking capabilities. Despite these differences, all barbecue smokers have one thing in common: cooking food at low temperatures for long periods of time. This aptly named cooking method transforms even the largest and toughest cuts of meat into incredibly juicy and tender barbecue, all while infusing them with mouthwatering, smoky flavor.
But the best news of all is that you don’t have to be a BBQ competitor to use a barbecue smoker! They’re made for just about every level of expertise, from barbecue beginners to decorated champions. And while some love the simple pleasure of tending to an offset smoker, others prefer to set it and forget it with electric and pellet smokers. The benefits, though, are the same across the board!
BBQ Smoker Advantages
Simply put, smoke equals flavor. Smoke carries and caramelizes sugars produced by burning hardwood while imparting a particular taste depending on the wood.
Connective tissue falls apart when cooked low and slow, making even tough cuts edible with only a fork and allowing you to turn cheaper meat into BBQ magic.
Grilling gets dinner done fast, but BBQ smoking is a hobby. Some even call it an art, and competitions are held every year to celebrate authentic barbecue.
Smoking slowly renders fat and breaks down gelatin and collagen in food, resulting in huge amounts of liquid that get trapped within your meat as juices.
Feed the Masses
Have you seen how big these things are? Competition-level smokers can feed an army, but a large one should still be enough to cater lunch at a family reunion.
With many different types of cooking woods, liquid injections, sauces, and rubs, you can create endless flavor profiles to grace just about any cut of meat.
Easy to Use
Though a distinct subset of hard-to-use smokers has given the whole category a bad rap, the advanced tech of pellet and electric smokers simplifies cooking.
Quick Learning Curve
Anyone can become a pitmaster! Electric, pellet, and gas smokers remove some guesswork, and learning the ways of charcoal requires only a bit of training.
How Do BBQ Smokers Work?
Remember how we said the term “barbecue smoker” covers a huge range of cooking appliances with different configurations and fuel types? While that remains accurate, there are a few things that are true of each and every smoker on the market, no matter how you plan to cook with it. Understanding the science behind how these machines work will help you take full advantage of the benefits of barbecue smokers.
All BBQ Smokers Need a Heat Source
This may seem obvious, but this is where BBQ smoking starts. All smokers have a chamber where fuel is combusted — producers of vertical smokers, for instance, place this area directly beneath the cooking chamber, while offset smoker brands arrange for combustion to occur in a totally separate compartment. Regardless of configuration, separating the combustion source from the nearby cooking chamber allows convective heat to move from one to the other, which is necessary for low-and-slow smoking. If the food within your smoker was directly exposed to the heat, then you’d actually be grilling instead of barbecue smoking.
All BBQ Smokers Need a Source of Smoke
OK, this probably seems even more obvious than the previous point. But it’s still important to know smoke is created by burning hardwood chips or chunks, which transmit different tastes based on wood type. While chips generate quick, strong bursts of smoke to provide a hint of flavor, chunks give off a steady stream of smoke for longer cooks. The choice is yours, but we advise you to never soak any smoking woods. Despite its popularity, all this does is increase the time it takes for wood to begin smoking. Wood chips don’t smoke until they exceed 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which can’t occur until they’re fully dehydrated.
All BBQ Smokers Need a Source of Humidity
Aha! Not so obvious this time! Because hot air passes over your food for hours inside a BBQ smoker, you need humidity to prevent meat from drying out and defeating the very purpose of low-and-slow cooking. Humidity in the cooking chamber usually comes by way of a water pan or drip pan filled with water, liquor, fruit juices, vinegar, or other liquids that act as both a humidifier and aromatic flavorizer. Water in particular will condense on the surface of your meat, inviting flavorful smoke to stick. Water smokers, meanwhile, are specially built with an included water pan to provide humidity and balance temperature.
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What is Low-and-Slow Smoking?
This cooking style exists to account for the makeup of meat — a maze of interconnected muscle tissues that can be up to 75% water. This composition makes meat a solid insulator, meaning heat struggles to work its way from the surface to the center (good for sweltering summers, bad for barbecue). A thick piece of meat exposed to high heat will have a dry exterior far before it reaches a safe internal temperature for consumption, but you don’t have to bid briskets and pork shoulders goodbye. When cooking low and slow — which, as the name suggests, will limit the amount of heat applied to meat and hold it there for a long time — your food will reach appropriate internal temperatures without ending up as a dried-out husk. Break out the briskets!
What are the Benefits of Low-and-Slow Cooking?
As stated above, certain meats just can’t be cooked hot and fast. Tight fibers and connective tissues make them tough, which is why they need to be cooked at lower temperatures for longer so chemical reactions can break down everything inside the meat. Additionally, this slow burn allows fat and collagen within meat to render into the velvety nectar of mind-blowing flavors most people associate with barbecue. But it’s important to note that low-and-slow BBQ isn’t beneficial only for tough meats. Cooking anything in this manner tends to positively affect the aromatic molecules present in food, bringing out more intense and complex flavors than would normally be achievable. Taste any stew that’s spent a few hours in a slow-cooker, and you’ll know exactly what we mean.
How to Smoke Low and Slow
Many think of low-and-slow smoking as both a science and an art, and it admittedly can be a difficult process to fully master. That being said, today’s BBQ smokers do most of the hard work for you. The advanced technology of electric smokers and pellet smokers may be easier to use than other fuel types, but the basics of smoking low and slow are fairly similar among all types of barbecue smokers. Your main concerns are maintaining the correct temperature inside the cooking chamber, monitoring the internal temperature of your meat, ensuring the cooking chamber is humidified, and keeping an eye on your fuel and smoke sources throughout the entire cook. Your smoker’s technology will determine just how involved these tasks will be, whether they’re a simple push of a button or labors of love.
How Difficult is Low-and-Slow Cooking?
It all depends on your fuel type. Electric and pellet smokers are the easiest to use by far, with digital temperature controllers and smartphone apps that notify you about your cook. Gas smokers, meanwhile, are excellent at holding perfectly steady temperatures so you can focus on time and humidity. Wood-burning offset smokers and charcoal smokers are the most immersive barbecuing machines, but they’re generally the most challenging to use because they require near-constant temperature management. Kamado smokers are generally better at regulating temperature than charcoal offset smokers, but you’ll still need to manage heat and airflow. With a kamado smoker temperature controller, however, your experience can be just as easy as cooking on pellet or electric smokers.
Special Note: No matter what kind of smoker you own, the most important tool you can have is a wireless thermometer. Low-and-slow barbecue smoking can quickly go wrong if you don’t monitor the internal temperatures of your meat and smoker at all times. That’s why wireless thermometers constantly keep you up to date on both fronts, even when you step away from the smoker to chat with friends or grab a beer. Talk about peace of mind!
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