Most hunters I know are also food lovers. There's a constant and enthusiastic exchange of recipes and many discussions about methods, tips and tricks. Therefore it comes as no surprise that so many hunters have graduated to becoming ravenous smokers -- meat smokers to be precise.
I use the word ravenous because once you start smoking, there's little chance you'll stop.
Despite lots of exposure on television shows, smoking somehow remains a bit of a mystery. If you're in the fold, you get it. But if you've never done it before, smoking can seem more than a little daunting. I am often asked for my advice on what kind of smoker to buy. I respond with the very cheeky "How long is a piece of string?" The kind of smoker you buy depends on a great many things. The choices are as vast as that 100-acre meadow at the end of November (you know, the one with the five-point buck standing just out of range).
Smoking vs. Grilling
Although the gear may look similar, the methods couldn't be more different. Grilling (or barbecue as we call it in these parts) usually means cooking a quality cut of meat over high heat for a short time. The goal is to seal in flavour. Grill that rib-eye for three minutes a side on a 500 degree fire and you won't be sorry.
Smoking is all about low and slow. Premium smoking temperatures hover between 200 and 250 F and it's usually the lesser cuts of meat that find their way onto the smoker. Smoking times run between two and 12 hours. Smoking -- as the name suggests -- also involves imparting smoked flavour through the burning of wood chips. This can only happen at low temperatures so the smoky goodness has a chance to permeate the meat (or fish).
To step into the science of smoking just for a moment, the low temperature and long cooking time allow connective tissue in the meat to break down and convert into sugar (especially in pork butt or beef brisket). This adds both tenderness and sweetness to the finished product.
Select Your Fuel
Smokers can be powered by a number of different fuels including charcoal (or charwood), propane, wood pellets and electricity. If you plan to use your smoker at hunting camp where there is no electricity, then a propane model might be your best choice.
In my not-so-long smoking career, I've found that electric and propane models require the least amount of babysitting, although every smoking projects needs at least a minimal amount of supervision. Wood pellet models mean you'll have to peek in on things a little more often. Go with charcoal and you'll be making a significant investment in getting to know your smoker and its little quirks -- much like you would with any wood stove.
If you're using an electric digital smoker, simply set the cooking temperature, estimated time it might take and the amount of smoke you want. An automatic feeding system drops smoke pucks as necessary. Because it's electric, there's no fire to build and the temperature is regulated by a thermostat.
If you have a charcoal smoker, the process begins by lighting a fire and warming up the smoker. The temperature is regulated by one or two vents on the unit. Opening up a vent a sliver can boost your temperature beyond where you want it to be. A brisk wind or an unexpected shower can make your temperature drop quickly. You'll probably also have to add some hot charcoal at least once during the smoking process. In short, there's a lot of watching, waiting and adjusting that goes on while tending a charcoal smoker.
Art vs. Science
Keep in mind that smoking involves both science and art and if you ask me, art weighs a little heavier into the equation. When it comes to investing in a smoker, ask yourself how involved you want to be in the process. An electric or propane smoker means you can set it and forget it and end up with an excellent product. If you want to test your skills and patience and have a lot more options of what you can do with your smoker, then a charcoal model is probably right for you.
If you are in possession of a little bit of ingenuity and a lot of mechanical skills, building your own smoker is most definitely an option. The best lake trout I ever tasted came out of a smoker built from an abandoned industrial hot water tank.
Nobody ever said you can only have one smoker. I have a Little Chief -- a tiny electric model with limited space. The top temperature is about 225 F, making it perfect for quick backyard jobs. Pick one up at Cabela's for around $140. I also have a Brinkmann vertical charcoal water smoker that I bought at a garage sale for $20. It's finicky as heck and falling apart, but it's where I cut my smoking teeth. It has helped me put some fine smoked pork shoulders on the table. New models sell for just over $100. Last fall, I became the proud owner of a charcoal-powered, completely manual, heavy-as-can-be Big Green Egg. Does anyone really need a smoker that costs over $1,500? Probably not. Am I happy I finally invested in one? Words cannot describe.
Shel Zolkewich writes about the outdoors, travel and food when she's not playing outside, traveling or eating. You can reach her with your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org