Do I need an expensive smoker to turn out Championship Quality BBQ?
The answer is very simple….No you don’t.
The key to cooking great BBQ starts with knowing how to properly use the equipment you have. Whether you own a 55 gallon drum or a top-of-the-line Old Hickory Pit, if you don’t know how to use it properly, you’re not going to get the best possible BBQ.
For any smoker to work properly there’s a few things that you need to know:
Every smoker will have some sort of fire box or fire pan. The designs differ greatly but they serve the same function (providing the heat source for the cooking chamber). Where you can run into problems with the fire box is not letting enough air into the fire chamber (or letting too much roll through).
The coals have to be able to get some oxygen to burn. But controlling the air intake isn’t difficult. Most cookers will have a butterfly valve or some type of vent that allows air into the fire box, but if you don’t have a valve, propping the fire box door open slightly – just enough to allow a little air into the chamber – will work. I’ve smoked on one of these and used aluminum foil to build a damper in a pinch.
Also, you have to be able to keep the ashes off the fire… or they WILL accumulate and choke out the coals. This is a lesson I learned the hard way on one of my big, expensive smokers. We kept having problems with our fire and our temps during the first contest where we used this new smoker… and after struggling for a couple hours fighting temps, we finally realized our ashes were the problem.
I don’t know why… but not all smokers come with a raised fire grate. Using bricks – or a piece of replacement grill grate – or even a few heavy-duty screws placed to make “legs” for the fire grate can elevate the coals and give you enough room for the ashes to fall below. This will make a huge difference in your air flow. If you have a fire box that isn’t raised – make this simple adjustment and try it out this weekend. The different is like night and day.
Placement of meat is something else you always have to take into consideration. For any smoker to work properly, air not only has to circulate through the fire box, but smoke also has to flow into the cooking chamber, and then vent out the exhaust. If the meat is not properly placed on the cooking grate, it can block the flow of the smoke and cause problems with cooking temperatures.
Don’t overcrowd the grates, always allow a little room around each cut of meat, and make sure not to crowd the thermometer.
I was cooking on a smaller Backwoods unit one time (The Chubby) and we were having a real problem. The fire pan was blazing hot, the liquid in the water pan was rolling, but the thermometer temperature was only reading about 200.
At first, we thought the thermometer must be broken, but we quickly realized that the smoker was simply over crowded. The meat was blocking the thermometer from reading correctly and we were really cooking at more like 300.
This is where a lot of people go wrong – they only pay attention to the thermometer and blindly follow it to the letter. But cooking good BBQ requires a lot of old-fashioned common sense.
The bottom line is that your smoker is a piece of equipment… it’s a tool. And you have to know how to properly use this piece of equipment – and this takes a little practice.
It don’t matter if you are using a homemade job, a smoker you bought outside a grocery store or $20,000 Southern Pride… you have to spend a time getting to know how it operates in order to effectively use this tool to cook perfect BBQ.