Smoking Meat – The Basics

The first smoker I ever bought was a shoebox smoker at the Ideal Home Exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham. I got it home, managed to smoke some sausage (reasonably successfully) and some duck breast (less successfully) and then for some reason that was that.

I think part of the problem was that my shoebox smoker was a bit primitive, didn’t really have a recognised recommended heat source (I used a camp stove burner) and to some extent I didn’t know what I was doing.

That said I’ve been a barbecue grill enthusiast all my life and love cooking outdoors so when I started to read more about barbecue and understand the differences between what Americans call barbecue (hot smoking) and us Europeans call BBQ (basically grilling) I became captivated not only with learning how to smoke but also about building my own smoker – something somewhat larger than a shoebox I hasten to add.

So what is the basic principle of smoking?

Consider a kitchen oven running at 225 Fahrenheit with meat on the top shelf and water bath underneath – essentially slow roasting in a humid environment. That’s all there is to it plus a bit of smoke, the challenge of course is to use the same heat source to create the smoke as to provide the heat and to make sure that there is a continuous supply of both.

That is the traditional way, in more modern hot smokers you may find that the energy (heat) supply for the food chamber is independent of the energy supply for making the smoke. Arguably this will make everything easier to control and so your results will be that much more consistent but you might be humbled by the purist.

What is needed to create smoke?

Either smouldering wood shavings on a hot plate or wood smoke (this can be direct from burning logs or wood chips on a charcoal fire). It’s nothing more simple than that other than you need to keep the smoke flowing as there’s nothing worse than cooking in stale smoke.

It’s here that we get to the absolute basic principle of the smoker, a vent by the fire and a chimney vent above the food chamber. Hot air rises, so creating a draft that allows the smoke to continually pass over the meat. The clever bit is that this draft also provides air to the fire making it hotter, as it gets hotter the air draft flows faster and the fire gets even hotter. So careful control of these two vents controls the supply of smoke and the amount of heat.

That’s all there is to it. It doesn’t matter what your smoker is made out of, whether you’ve made it yourself or it is “top dollar” manufactured, the basic principle of how a smoker works is exactly the same. Of course there’s a lot more to smoking meat for competitions etc but if you can hold a humid food chamber at a constant 225 Fahrenheit and pass smoke through it then you have the basic skills required for smoking meat.