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Barbecuing with Wood Chips – Adding Flavor to Your Meat

: A CAVE, SOMEWHERE IN MIDDLE EUROPE, CIRCA 100,000 BC.

A hunter arrives to the acclamation of his fellow cave-mates for he has brought home a large dead animal. But he does not allow them to tear into it, just yet. He remembers from last year that cooked meat stays edible longer, and that lower heat and longer cooking makes it last longer. He has previously constructed a crude mound of stones, open at both ends, but able to be closed off. In one end, he starts a fire, and places the dressed animal parts in the other end, then closes it off. After several hours of cooking, he removes the meat and shares with everyone, proud of his accomplishment. Not only is the meat preserved, but the flavor has been unbelievably enhanced. Thus was born not only the process of barbecuing with wood chips, but the world first Chef D’ Cuisine…, Ooogah Emeril.

The history of smoking meat is so old that we can only speculate on its origins. It was well established long before there were written accounts, and possibly even as far back as Homo habilis, or Homo neaderthalis. Smoking meat probably got started soon after the use of fire, and cooking. Another theory is that Stone Age gourmands discovered that meat could be preserved by drying, and that smoke from the fire kept insects and animals away from the meat during the dehydration process. Barbecuing with wood chips is easier, as it is much more recent. The first settlers to America had a hard time at first. They ate a lot of pork, because swine production required much less resources and care, than beef andchicken. Their supplies were limited, so they tried not to waste anything. When their smoked meat would eventually start to ‘turn’, they covered it up with spicy sauces. This is the combination of smoked meat and sauces that we recognize today as ‘barbecue’.

Smoking preserves meat in two ways: Dehydration, and by the actual curing properties of the various chemicals in the smoke itself. Both retard the reproduction of bacteria. Smoking and salting meats were the only forms of food preservation available to most peoples until the advent of refrigeration.

In the modern world, meat is smoked for the enhancement of flavor, rather than preservation, and to this end, many different types of wood have been experimented with. Each contributes its own unique flavor characteristics to the food. Here is a partial list of woods that can be used to smoke most common meats:

  • Acacia – similar to Mesquite, but a bit stronger flavored. Wonderful for beef, red game meats, chicken, turkey, waterfowls, and most game birds
  • Alder – mild with a slightly sweet overtone. Excellent for fish and poultry. One of the best for salmon, to make Lox.
  • Almond – sweet and nutty. Great for fish, poultry and pork.
  • Apple – delicate, sweet and very fruity. Wonderful for pork, ham, poultry and game meats.
  • Apricot – similar to hickory, but slightly milder. Good for when you don’t want as much ‘smokey’ flavor. Works with all meats.
  • Ash – has a light, clean flavor. But it burns very fast so it is advisable to soak the chips in water for several hours, and wrap them in foil when using. Be sure to have lots on hand. Works well with most meats.
  • Birch – similar to maple, CAUTION: Make absolutely sure there is no bark on the wood. It contains tars and oils that will make your food taste horrible and bitter.
  • Cherry – sweet and very fruity. Works great with all meats I have ever tried, even exotics.
  • Cottonwood – mild, subtle and slightly woody. Works with all meats. A Texas favorite for camp-outs.
  • Hickory – the undisputed King of Smoke Woods. Strong, pungent and ‘smoky’. Without hickory, there would be no bacon, or ham, and the world would be way less fun. Hickory can be used for all meats and fish, but it really shines with pork.
  • Maple – mild, slightly sweet, with an almost haunting spicy aroma and flavor. One of my favorites for fish, and even mushrooms, oysters, carp, shark, and vegetables.
  • Mesquite – second only to hickory, strong, earthy and very woodsy. The absolute best for chicken and beef, and most game. Works great on catfish and carp as well. The favored wood of the Lone Star State.
  • Oak – very heavy, woody flavored smoke. Great for strong red meats if you want something different.
  • Pecan – similar in character to oak, but milder, sweeter, and a little less ‘woody’. One of my favorites for chicken and fish, but also works well on beef, game and pork.
  • Walnut – heavy, oily, bitter smoke. Some people like it for strong flavored game meats like old elk, bear, and moose. Personally, I think it makes the meat taste like furniture, but to each his own…..

Barbecuing with wood chips is easy. If you have a smoker, just start your coals in the smoke box. There are two ways to do the wood. You can soak it for several hours in water, then lay chips directly on the coals, or you can wrap them in foil, and punch holes in it. Lay the whole package directly on the coals. Or you can combine the two methods. Whichever method you use, adjust the air vents so that the temperature stays between 225 and 250 F. Never go higher than 250F. If you do, then you are not smoking meat, you are just cooking it. For most meats, you’ll want to let it smoke for 10 to 12 hours or longer, depending on what you are cooking. Check the smoker often, and replace wood and coals as necessary. Check the meats well, and monitor the process closely. Do not baste, or spray water on the meat. This will interfere with the smoking process. However, you can brine the meat before smoking it, and this can create some very memorable cook-outs. You can eat it as is, or turn it into barbecue just by basting with your favorite sauce during the last stages of cooking.

If you don’t have a smoker, but you do have a barbecue grill, just start your coals under one side of the grill, add the chips, adjust the temperature, and place the meat on the other side of the grill, away from the direct heat. If all you have is a Hibachi-type grill, you can still capture some of the character of true smoked meat by using the smoke wood as coals, and cooking directly over them.

There are those that advocate methods of smoking meat in a regular oven, inside the house, but I strongly advise against this. To smoke meat, you need smoke, and few people want their kitchens (and most of the rest of the house) full of smoke. Even with a blower, the smoke will flavor your stove and house for weeks, and everything you cook will have that flavor. Simple Smokers are very inexpensive, and can even be made from discard 55 gallon oil drums, and other cast-off materials. I have made perfectly good small smokers out camping with an old large metal coffee can. Your only limit is your imagination.

There is nothing on the planet that can equal the culinary experience of well-smoked foods, and expertly crafted barbecue, in my opinion. If you have never done it, then I highly recommend that you try it, at least once. You may never be the same, again.

With the holiday season upon us, I feel obliged to include a bonus with this article. Here is my personal recipe for smoking a turkey. You’ve never had turkey like this!

Ocoee Smoked Turkey

This recipe makes a tender juicy turkey with subtle fruity overtones.

It is important to select a good turkey for smoking. Fresh killed is best (wild), but if you have to buy one, make sure it has no injected oils or anything in it. And smaller turkeys are better than large ones. A 20 pound turkey can take 15 hours or more to smoke, and larger birds have an added risk of food contamination. It’s better to smoke 2 or 3, 10 to 15 pound turkeys, than 1 large one. And be sure to always use a meat thermometer, because the turkey HAS to be at an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees F.

For the brine:

2 quarts water
2 quarts apple juice
1 cup salt
½ cup brown sugar or maple syrup
10 whole clove
10 whole peppercorns

Dissolve 1 cup of salt in 2 quarts of water. Do not add any more spices until the salt is dissolved. Heat on stove until boiling. Then add brown sugar, or maple syrup and dissolve. Remove from heat and add cloves, peppercorns, and apple juice. Allow to cool.
While it is cooling, rinse thawed out turkey well with clean water. Remove any excess skin, entrails, ‘pop-up’ thermometers, and such. Pat the turkey dry (I use Cham-Wows).

When the brine is close to room temperature, place turkey in a basting bag, and pour brine over it. Add water if needed to make sure the turkey is completely covered with the brine. Seal the bag tightly and place in the refrigerator for 12-14 hours, turning every few hours.

After the turkey has brined, pat it completely dry, inside and out, and start your smoker. I use pecan or mesquite wood, but you can use whatever you like.  If you want a lovely, crunchy, brown outer skin, brush the bird with olive oil several times during the smoking process. Smoke the turkey for 10-14 hours, or until the internal temperature is at least 165 degrees F. More is better. The meat will have a pinkish hue, but that is from the smoke, not under-cooked meat, so don’t worry about it. As long as it is 165 degrees internally, it is done.

Slice and serve with sweet potatoes, squash, mashed potatoes, and anything else you desire.

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