We've been wanting to acquire a smoker of some sort since last year, but it wasn't until Chef K recently came up with 'the most ideal solution for our needs' that we were able to make this happen. There are lots of considerations when buying/building a smoker. The first big question is the fuel: wood, charcoal, electric, gas, or any combination thereof. There are good arguments on all sides of this equation, and none of these will ever reach full consensus by all. The point is that personal needs should be carefully assessed before making the decision. Our first thoughts had us pushing towards one of the Weber style upright smokers. The capacity to get true great flavor from pure wood smoke is a given, but there's also the loss of consistency and ease. There are arguments against electric when it comes to getting that classic smoke bark in the end. Does combustion really make all of the difference? Meathead at Amazingribs.com has strong opinions on these subjects, and his incredible website became the ground zero of all of our research. If you're going to seriously dive into this site, give yourself about a week (at least) to fully digest it all. We've been perusing his writings for about a year now.
Without re-documenting the entire process, we ended up deciding on a Bradley Smoke Generator. This decision was strongly enforced by the capacity to accurately control temperature (which is super super important to us and the many needs we need to be met by a smoker) and the steady stream of smoke it provided. This was determined after weeks of web-research by Chef K visiting threads, reading customer reviews (often the best reference for purchase decisions, so please go online and rate your purchases), and many conversation/debates between the both of us over beers. The only problem with the Bradley Smokers is the size vs. price. The revelation came when Chef K decided we could buy the Smoke Generator and hook it up to a large box (a used Cres-Cor being the first thought, and we found one fairly quickly from a local chef with equipment in storage that he was trying to liquidate). This box is actually large enough to supply a restaurant with a variety of smoked foods. Another great advantage of the Bradley Generator is the added ability to cold smoke items. The greatest advantage is that we would end up with a smoker with hell of a lot of room for smoking items for the same price as one less than half it's size. Since the Bradley generator was reputed to produce enough smoke to maintain a small smokehouse, this seemed like the way to go.
So, how to actually go about this process. After getting the Cres-Cor home, we needed to add holes to attach the smoke generator and the chimney.
Step #1: Cut a Hole in the Box
Taking a cue from Justin Timberlake and the Lonely Island crew, we used a hole cutter for a drill to put a 6" hole on the side and up on top. The generator port and 'muffler' was attached and sealed using FireBlock heat-proof caulk. Once the caulk is dried, the generator can be hooked up (a nice advantage to this is that the generator can be removed when not in use, or when travelling).
The chimney was attached by sliding it snugly into the 6" hole we made in the back right corner and using the heat proof caulk to seal it both on top and underneath. Chef K went vintage with the chimney which is designed to look like an old wood stove cast-iron damper.
Creating a steady flow of smoke is important for getting that essential smoke flavor. Smoke that is stagnant will produce a sooty carbon-like flavor... not good. With our generator set as low to the bottom as possible and the chimney installed on the opposite corner up top, we were set to create an up-flow of awesomeness (not to mention also that heat will rise as well hopefully creating a fairly uniform temperature throughout the box... which was confirmed later with thermometers).
So, the next move before firing it up was to seal all other areas that smoke might escape prematurely. For this, we again used heat-proof caulk. The ridges along the sides of our box seemed like they would suffer much smoke loss, so we plugged these up. Since many Cres-Cor style boxes and proofers are designed differently, I would suggest studying all areas of yours over a beer and closing up any gaps.
Step #2: Put your pig in that box.
Well, some pig (for us ribs sprinkled with Magic Dust and some experimental bacon slabs) and also some chicken thighs and beer-brined catfish.
Yessss!!!! Rock & Roll!!!!! If any style of food could be compared to pure unadulterated rock and roll, it would be BBQ... it's unmatched in it's simplicity, boldness, heavy metal and fire, and massive cult following. We are still drawn to the fire.
But... any foray into a cooking experiment would be seriously boring if not for some snags. Our main issue here... the temperature. It seems that our research fell short of discovering that the Bradley Smoke Generator does not produce a significant amount of heat. Since most porcine applications require a slow driving temperature of 140ºF (60ºC), we were falling short of that mark. After 4 hours of smoking, we basically had only raw food with an infusion of smokiness. Oh well, no problem with the Weber sitting right next to the smoker. We simply finished the meats on the grill (except the bacon slabs which were finished in the oven and temped to 140ºF).
Here is a nice side item to run on the grill. Instead of roasting potatoes in the oven, try cooking them on your grill with some smoke. These potatoes tossed with that nicely smoked piece of pancetta on the back (actually this is a Michael Ruhlman pancetta recipe that I have to say that although it's not traditional or authentic to smoke after curing and drying, it is pretty damn good), and some lemony garlic mayo for a kick-ass potato salad.
I know that there are some jackasses out there who dispell cooking with gas all together, but in my defense I have run my little Weber Spirit 2 or 3 times a week over the past year and it's amazing what wonders can be worked with gas control, a smoke can made from a #5 squat tuna can, and a water pan. My pork is good, and more on that later (this post is getting long). Yes, I get all the arguments that wood is good and gas is fast and all that BS, but I'm just saying my pork is damn good. The best way to smoke is with your brain, and mine has smoke in it. Is gas easy? No, not if you're constantly tweaking it and working with it (it took me a full year to learn my grill well enough to get the results I want). So, I refute the comment that gas grills are a sign of American laziness... no, laziness would be sitting at your computer writing about BBQ instead of actually going through the ritual so much that you smell like a pig on a spit.
Back to the Bradley... since some Bradley generators are controlled using PID devices, we decided to hook one up just to see if we could get more heat rise (a long shot, but just in case). This did not work, and the temp got up to 37ºC at the most. Although good for some nice cold fish, cheese, or vegetable smoking, not good for ribs.
Although the temperature probe wire was only long enough to slip into this vent on the bottom, a couple of oven thermometers set throughout the box confirmed that our temperature was pretty consistent within.
So, now what? Chef K researched a bit again and discovered a digital hot plate that many smokers out there used in conjunction with the Bradley generator. It will allow us to cook with substantially more heat and it's also capable of plugging right into the generator and running fairly accurate temperatures. And so, it is on order and soon we will be making yet another hole in the box.
One thing remains clear is that this year's Sol Sunday menus will be heavy on the smoke.