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While I've cooked professionally for almost a decade, when it comes to smoking meats at home, I'm admittedly a novice (though an ardent one). I like to experiment with various types of meat as well as non-meat foods—like blocks of firm tofu, peppers, and fish—to maximize the effort it goes into starting up my smoker. And while this process is a little trickier and a little more time consuming than just firing up a grill, don't let it deter you.
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Depending on how much meat you’re smoking, this will be either a half-day or full-day project. The good news is, the end result will be delicious and surely make your neighbors sniff the air with envy. Here's everything you need to smoke meat at home.
1. A smoking apparatus
I have a CharGriller Akorn—a relatively compact egg-shaped device known as a kamado grill that allows me to both smoke and grill—that also happens to be one of the best kamado grills we've tested. You could also use a pellet grill or a smoker to smoke meat at home if that's what you've got handy. Generally speaking, grilling entails cooking over direct heat, but smoking means cooking over indirect heat, so you’ll need some additional tools to get things cooking.
I’m looking for the smoker to get to around 225°F to 275°F, depending on what I’m smoking, especially if my cuts of meat are on the thinner side. I don’t want the smoker to go over 300°F—you can kind of cheat the smoking process a bit and cook meat faster at close to 300°F, but ideally you want the smoker to hold steady at a lower temperature for optimal results.
I generally don’t trust the temperature of the smoker until I’m about an hour into the process, and I fiddle with the temperature by opening the upper and lower vents. The Akorn has four layers of grates and the upper, smaller grate can be placed on top of the main cooking grate and used for items I don’t want to smoke as long or want elevated for any other reason (like if I have a super fatty piece of pork belly that's thinner than the rest of the meat and I want to keep it from dripping fat into the water pan).
2. Quality meat
Go for the highest quality meat you can get your hands on, whether you stop by your local butcher or order it online from a meat delivery service like our favorite, Crowd Cow. We recommend Crowd Cow because it delivers some of the best meats we’ve tasted (that are also ethically sourced) to your doorstep, frozen and safely packed in dry ice. Pro tip: Make sure your meats are thoroughly thawed before smoking (or cooking, in general).
Thick cuts of meat will serve you well. Remember, you’re essentially recreating the conditions and temperature of an oven on low heat outdoors, so you’ll be cooking a piece of meat slow and low. Reach for the pork belly and the brisket!
3.Salt and seasonings
You need salt because it pulls moisture from meat, giving you that delectable smoked crust on pork bellies and briskets and enhances their flavor. I generally prefer coarse Hawaiian sea salt rubs, but I might be a little biased on that front because of my island roots. I have a large collection of salts and rubs, from Hawaiian sea salts tinged with balsamic vinegar to Korean bamboo salts to Icelandic seaweed salts.
Once my meat is thoroughly thawed and about room temp, I rub and pat it generously with coarse sea salt. I do this on half-size restaurant sheet pans, because I also find these sturdy enough to carry hefty cuts of meat downstairs from my kitchen to my backyard smoker.
4. Baking sheets
I like the half-size commercial variety, like the Nordic Ware Natural Aluminum Commercial Baker's Half Sheet, which also happens to be the best baking sheet we've tested. They’re sturdy and fit perfectly on the side panels of my Akorn.
5. Charcoal briquettes
When it comes to charcoal, you really don’t need anything fancy. How much charcoal you need will depend on your smoker, how long you're smoking your meat for, and the size and thickness of your meat. I started with about 5 kilograms of charcoal briquettes to smoke in my Akorn.
6. Wood chips or wood chunks
The main things to look for when it comes to wood chips are untreated and thoroughly dry options. (Some people soak their thoroughly dried wood chips in water prior to smoking, but I do not.) You should choose a flavor you think you'd like to eat because with smoking, you’re permeating chunks of meat with smoke, so it should be an aroma you enjoy and want your food tasting like. I have a couple of fig trees in my backyard and a ton of herbs, so I’ll add fig leaves, branches, and dried sticks of lemon balm and lemon verbena to make my smoke more fragrant.
7. A smoking stone
Akorn makes a smoking stone that turns direct heat into indirect heat, but I used a pizza stone because it's what I had on hand.
8. Optional: a water pan
I use a disposable 9-inch aluminum cake pan to place on top of my pizza stone. I think the steam makes the heat more indirect, especially since the relatively compact size of my Akorn makes it difficult to arrange the meat so it's not directly on top of the source of the smoke. (A larger, barrel-shaped grill like the Traeger Ironwood 650 would allow me create this set up for indirect heat without a water pan, but again, I'm working with what I've got.)
9. A charcoal chimney
This gadget makes lighting your charcoal easier. If you own a grill or smoker, you should also own a chimney.
10. Newspaper for kindling
I stuff loose balls of newspaper into the bottom of my chimney, then I place charcoal briquettes on top. I light the newspaper from underneath the chimney using a basic stick lighter and wait for the charcoal to catch.
11. Heat-reistant gloves
Yes, I know I’m supposed to say that you should use heat-proof gloves, but I don't own any. Instead, I use basic Williams-Sonoma oven mitts and they work just fine. I know there are better products on the market for this, but I’m generally in favor of buying less stuff for any endeavor.
We've tested a lot of tongs, and the OXO Good Grips 16-inch Grilling Tongs are the best for handling hot grates and hot food.
13. A probe thermometer
My Akorn tells me the temperature of the smoker on the lid, but it's important to have a probe thermometer on hand to check to make sure your meats are cooked to safe internal temperatures. We've tested a bunch of these products and the ThermoWorks ChefAlarm is our best overall pick for probe thermometers.
14. A grill brush
It’s easiest to clean your grates when they’re hot, so have your grill brush clean and ready before you sit down to eat. If you need a step-by-step guide to grill cleaning, we've got you covered.
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This article originally appeared on Reviewed: Everything you need to smoke meat at home