One Small Detail Can Revolutionize The Way You Use A Smoker

Barbecuing is an art, the literal definition of low and slow cooking. Some find it intimidating because there is a big learning curve and different techniques to master. It takes patience, time, and plenty of practice to get great results. Meat can go from tender, juicy, and flavorful to dry, burnt, and bitter in a matter of seconds, thanks to improper temperature regulation or flare-ups. It's one thing to get great results on your grill but a whole other can of beans when it comes to using a smoker effectively.

Smoking meat (or eggs or macaroni and cheese, or even a fruit cobbler) involves indirect heat versus cooking over the direct heat of a stovetop or grill. As the wood burns, it breaks down into complex flavors giving smoked food elements of sweetness, spice, and woodiness, depending on the wood used. It's a great way to tenderize usually tough pieces of meat like briskets and pork shoulders due to the low and slow cook, which gives the fat and connective tissue to break down and keep the meat juicy. Smoking also gives the meat a crusty exterior that barbecue masters call "bark," which is enhanced by using spice rubs before the meat goes on the smoker (via MasterClass).

For those looking to move from the grill to a smoker, there's one detail you shouldn't skip when using your smoker.

Like your oven, your smoker needs to preheat

One rule of thumb for using a smoker is to let your smoker preheat before adding your meat. When smoking, this is a necessary step if you want the best results. When you light the smoker, pay attention to the smoke that escapes from the vents. At first, it'll be heavy, grayish-white smoke that will smell bitter and sting your eyes. This is what's called "dirty smoke" and will dissipate in about a half-hour when your smoker is heated and the wood has broken down to embers. Dirty smoke has a lot of compounds like creosote that will make your meat bitter and taste like a chimney if you put it on at this stage. 

According to The Meat Smoking Guy, there's no way around the wait time; it would be a shame to ruin a rack of ribs or a brisket with dirty smoke because you weren't patient. After about 20-30 minutes of letting the fire do its job of breaking down the wood, the smoke will change to a wispy, thin blue smoke – nearly invisible, just a shimmer in the air. This smoke is clean and will give you the best flavor, and it is when you should put your meat on.

All that being said, smoking meat is not for people who are in a hurry and is best for a slow, sunny Sunday with friends and a few beers, or puttering in the yard.