In your Own Backyard
How many of you have started a hobby that initially only required a minimal financial investment, only to see it slowly eat away at your retirement portfolio? That special golf club, the first of many, to add to your bag? The newest camera with the most features, many of which you may never use? Well, if your New Year’s resolution was to keep those discretionary dollars for junior’s college fund, you may want to stop reading. If, however, you enjoy the taste of perfectly smoked pulled pork or the aroma of smoked turkey, I may have the newest way to keep your wallet, if not your waist, thin: smoking your own meat.
My addiction, I mean hobby, started when my employer gave me the opportunity to choose a gift in appreciation of my years of service. I was given the link to a catalog of gifts from which I could choose an item. Most of the items held no interest for me (cocktail glasses with my employer’s logo? Really?) but then, as I scrolled down the page, there it was. A small wood smoker. It looked like a stripped down R2D2. And it was shiny. Wow, smoking my own meat; a lifetime desire that I had only just become aware of. I enjoy cooking and baking, and have done a few turkeys on our gas grill for Thanksgiving (wearing an oven mitt for warmth while sliding across a snow covered deck to check on the bird is true dedication) Without hesitation, or much thought, I ordered the smoker.
While waiting for it to be delivered, it dawned on me that I probably should read up on how to use a smoker. Mine is what is known as a water smoker. I soon wondered if I had perhaps been a bit rash in choosing this new hobby. Using a smoker, especially a wood burning one, requires a lot of time and work. Low and Slow is the battle cry of those who smoke their own meats. Low heat, maintained for hours…sometimes many hours, is a basic requirement. You don’t want to quickly bake the roast or chops; you want the smoke to have sufficient time to slowly develop, cue the flourishing trumpets, the holy grail of smoked meats: the smoke ring. That slightly reddish layer of meat on the exterior surfaces of whatever you are smoking. The goal is to avoid making jerky or to have a cut of meat that tastes like the bottom of a grill. The end results can be very rewarding, but when your Saturday afternoon is spent tending the firebox and all you end up with is a dry, tough, the-only-flavor-is-smoke end product, well, those days of shivering by the gas weber as it held a constant temperature with the mere twist of the controls and then bringing a big, bronzed, beautiful turkey to the supper table look a lot better.
I quickly realized that I have neither the patience nor the skill to maintain a constant temperature while using wood or charcoal to create the heat and smoke for the smoker. I committed what many, if not most, hardcore folks who smoke meat consider a sin; I converted my wood fired smoker to an electric one. You add small amounts of soaked wood, such as hickory or cherry, to an electric element that replaces the wood or charcoal that is normally used. The cost was minimal, and it would keep the smoker from gathering dust in the garage. Sadly, I soon learned that my ‘updated’ electric smoker, while definitely slow, was way too low. If I used it on a day when the ambient temperature was under 80, I had trouble keeping the temperature in the desired 220-240 range. This is a hobby; a past time; not a mandate to work around a hot smoker for hours in the heat of a balmy Minnesota July 4th.
It was at this time that I fondly recalled how easy it was to control the heat of my gas grill. I ordered a special adaptor that would allow me to convert my smoker to an LP gas one. The cost was not that great, and I had gone too far to turn back now.
While smoker purists reading this are no doubt in tears by now, I have been able to create some mighty tasty smoked meats with my gas fired smoker. Set it and forget it. Well, come to think of it, you don’t want to forget it. Even Slow and Low will result in leather if you allow the internal temp of the meat to get too high for too long. What I need is a remote temperature probe; I can sit on the deck under the umbrella while the smoker smokes away in the back corner of the yard. (My one serious piece of advice: don’t use your smoker on your deck) With a remote sensor, I can set it to chime when the temp is ‘just right’. I recently saw one for only $245.00. But to justify that cost, I really should abandon my ‘starter’ smoker and look into a larger model that can handle a side of beef. And then, once I am ready for the competitive circuit, a trailer to mount it on. And a truck to pull it. Yes, nothing like a little hobby; smoking meats and burning up cash.