I realize that I’ve vaguely flirted with the idea of writing about smoking meats, but never really committed to an entire Substack about it because I assumed I had, which I have not. But I constantly post about it on Twitter, so I’m gonna start from the beginning and tell you why I love it.
I’m also gonna include a buyer’s guide at the end.
A Little History
I have never really been a big cook. I used to cook for myself in college, but kept it really simple, throwing a pork chop in a pan and making a salad and then eating it. I’d occasionally make some very simple italian food (baked ziti) and then give up on it for a while, mostly because I got spoiled by my wife’s cooking - she’s really gifted at it, and basically able to make everything really well, including meat.
I have also got the dyspraxia thing, which has made me extremely hesitant to play around with things that create fire, and things that if you mess up, people are left hungry and waiting for food. My fear of messing up has kept me from really trying, because I feared that if I did, I’d leave people hungry, or burn myself, or both. This has happened a few times in the past.
I then got into sous vide cooking for a while, which requires you to seal meat in a vacuum bag and then put it in a temperature-controlled water bath. While I loved doing this, it was both time consuming and extremely fiddly. Having to fill a giant vat full of water, wait for it to get to temperature, painstakingly vacuum-seal meat, wait for however long it took to do its stuff, take it out, throw away the bags, then sear the meat because otherwise it looked like dogfood…this was a fun trick for a while, but ultimately one that had specific problems:
- It was not fun to watch. Sous vide look gross the entire time, and while it makes great food, a reasonable response to watching the process is to get grossed out.
- It looks like you’re doing sex pervert stuff. You’re sealing stuff in a bag and drowning it.
- It’s so messy. Just water everywhere. Then plastic. Then the juice from the meat. Ew.
- It’s prone to issues. I have gone through three or four vacuum sealers and I cannot tell you why, but certain foods taint the water and give you horrible smells.
- It teaches you basically nothing about cooking. Sous vide is such a bizarre abstraction from the larger world of cooking that I learned nothing about other foods while using it.
Becoming The Smoker
Back in August, we had three or four people over who we hadn’t seen in a while, who all tested negative, and yes, it was still silly to do so. Either way, we had them over, and I for some reason got this bug up my butt about wanting to smoke food, I think because either I’d had bad barbecue delivered or I’d been remembering my favorite barbecue restaurant.
I put out a general-purpose “hey how does smoking work” on Twitter, read a bunch of stuff, and it seemed like my kind of thing - intensely dependent on not doing anything, mostly focused on being able to season stuff and put it in a box, and with results that, generally, seemed fantastic. I muttered something about it to my wife and she said I wouldn’t use it, and I assured her I would and she said I wouldn’t.
A sidenote on types of smokers: I use a pellet smoker, which means that it holds the temperature by constantly burning a bunch of little pellets that you pour into a big hopper. There are smokers that use charcoal, there are smokers that use big chunks of wood. You can do a lot of what I do with a charcoal smoker, or chunks of wood, or whatever, but it increases the amount of effort you need to put into “holding a temperature,” IE: the temperature inside the smoker.
I also believe that there are issues with the quality of smoke too - these are all issues that I do not deal with because I use a pellet smoker. I think that if I had to deal with them I’d hate this, because it seems to require a lot of attention and, indeed, can totally screw you and ruin the food.
This is not me saying that this is a bad way to do things - and it’s dramatically cheaper, too - but it’s not what I do. I also do not know how it works. I know lots of people swear by the Weber Smokey Mountain Charcoal/Wood grill. You can also get doodads that add onto it that control temperature like the PartyQ - which rocks!
Either way, I ordered myself a Traeger Pro 780 and a wireless MEATER thermometer on a lark after checking out various sites and seeing that, at worst, I’d probably be able to flog it if I didn’t use it at all, and it arrived. The first reaction, naturally, was that I now had a box that made a lot of smoke, but the stars aligned and my wife wasn’t able to cook because of whatever happened that day, and I was compelled to step up and prove that I had not just wasted money. The general sentiment from the wife and the house - which is totally reasonable based on how capricious I can be - was “oh god he bought something he’s not going to use, and even if he does use it we’re gonna have to pretend we like the food to not hurt his feelings.”
The joke was on them, because I threw some chicken thighs in there based on the advice of my good buddy Drew and the Meat Chat DM he’d added me to. The title suggests a level of patriarchy that does not exist in the house - in fact, as I have sort of explained, the reason I had not cooked before was, well, I was bad at it, and she was good at it.
Either way, I served dinner to a surprised family, who was shocked at it A) being cooked properly and B) being very good. I want to also clearly explain that my wife is not some cliché nag who considers my every move a nuisance - we’ve got a house of five people including two old people and a baby, meaning that if dinner gets ruined, that’s at least two people who are going to feel like garbage. That, and she’s also extremely supportive of everything I do (including cooking!), and I love her dearly - but she also happens to know that I have picked up and dropped a lot of things in my life and didn’t want me to do it again.
Anyway, the next day I made a tri tip (note: the virtue signaling comment is based on someone suggesting I was sexist for cooking when the wife was tired). Then I made pulled pork. Then I made ribs. What clicked was that (at least in the case of what I was cooking) smoking is both forgiving and extremely analytical - I had considered cooking to be freeform jazz for years, but with a good smoker, you tell it to hold a temperature, watch at thermometer, and then take it out. I had considered the oven a forbidden object for some reason, and I have no idea why mentally I had considered it a no-go zone, but I realized (as is very obvious) that it was the same principle of holding a temperature and waiting. Sure, there were cases where you kind of had to eyeball it, but for the most part it was just time and common sense.
In the case of the smoker, I also feel like it rewards you for being very good at following directions. Most smoker failures appear to be around a lack of patience - if the recipe says 3 hours, you take it out at 2 because it “looks done,” but it’s actually not done, and you undercooked dinner. Most of it is almost programatic - you put it in, you do the things it tells you to, it comes out great. The reason it’s so good is because you’re consistently slow-cooking the meal, from what I understand, in a way that an oven or a slow-cooker might not. Maybe I’m wrong.
Ribs were my big fear because they didn’t require a thermometer, but in the end they actually ended up being my go-to, and a mistake I made in the recipe ended up being my “thing” that tenderized them. Apparently you’re not meant to wrap them with sauce - just apple juice, butter, brown sugar and honey - but I put the sauce in and they turned out great, which is apparently what Kansas City style is. The recipe is simple - 225 temperature, 3 hours seasoned, spritzed with apple juice every hour, then 2 hours wrapped with those things, then seared to adhere the sauce. Great every time. The smoky flavor isn’t overpowering, but it’s nice.
My first smoker ended up breaking somehow, and I was able to get Amazon to give me a full refund, so I went big boy style and got the Timberline 1300, having now done about 100 hours worth of cooking on the other one and proven that, yes, I would use this. It’s insulated, bigger and has stainless steel grates, which is cool, and I adore it. I throw food in there, shove the MEATER thermometer in, and it just works. I think maybe I’m somewhat discounting my effort here, but what makes smoking great for me is that there isn’t really a margin of error based on me having missed a nuanced “tell” from the food - it isn’t about eyeballing anything, it’s patience, holding the same temperature in the smoker, and making sure it hits the temperature inside the meat.
And it’s made me a little more adventurous - I know what tastes good, so I add it sometimes into rubs, or try different sauces, and understand basic things like being able to slow smoke something and then finish it with a hot sear to adhere a sauce. I’ve made two 18lb turkeys now - I am confident enough to have made Christmas dinner, which is something my mother did every year of my life growing up, thus doing it for my own family is a point of pride.
All in all, it has made me fall in love with cooking. I sound like a big child, but it has made me confident enough to bake stuff (nothing crazy), to make sides, to actually prepare a whole meal, all because the consistency and quality of the smoker made me feel like I could. And the results are so good. I think one thing that stands out is that it’s replicable and consistent - there are very few factors that can suddenly change the quality of the meal, and basically every meal I make now tastes amazing. The more money you put into a smoker, from what I can understand, the more consistently and accurately it’ll hold a temperature, meaning a consistent slow cook, meaning great results. My ribs are always great. I love doing it. And I am now confident enough to buy genuinely nice meat and try it (like Kurobuta pork) and make crazy good meals.
And you will too! Really! Give it a go if you have the space. It’s something I’m proud of and that I did not think I could get into. Now I do a lot of cooking and contribute to the house in a new way, which rocks.
You know where to find me (Twitter) if you ever need any directions. I’d love for you to try too! I love doing it. I’m gonna make some ribs in about an hour. It really makes me happy, and is something off the computer for once.
If you want to get into this, it isn’t exactly cheap, but you can find cheaper ways to do it than I do. The more expensive smokers generally have better insulation and temperature control, but you’re not going to see rapid swings beyond, like, 15-20 degrees, which is totally fine for pulled pork, ribs, brisket, etc. Also, almost every smoker out there now has some form of built in probe and WiFi control.
This is the thing that actually does the cooking. You throw pellets in the hopper, set a temperature, the thing heats up and fills with smoke, and your food goes in it. Most of them have a probe that connects to the grill that goes in the meat, but my experience is that it isn’t as accurate, usually 10 or so degrees higher or lower. But that being said, it’ll be fine for the most part.
The ballpark for a smoker that’ll do the job well is about $500-900. The Green Mountain Grills are in that range and I’d argue that you’ll be very happy with one of them. The Traeger Pro series are at the upper end and I loved mine - it broke because of the thermocoupler being weird, and you can replace that yourself.
On the higher end, Traeger’s Ironwood and Timberline grills are fantastic - I use a timberline - they’re made with nicer materials, have some or complete insulation if it’s cold or hot where you are, and give a bit more cooking space too. They hold temperature better, and have a larger pellet hopper to boot. I also hear the Yoder smokers are super nice - if I ever was going to do a built-in smoker, I’d probably use one of these - the Traeger ones are wonderful, but have a weird downdraft exhaust that means building them in would be bad.
I love my Meater Block, which is four thermometers and a block that connects to your wifi, which means that I can shove it in a pork shoulder and go inside. The Meater generally uses bluetooth, which is fine if you’re not needing to obsessively check temperature.
I don’t need to give this much time - I just get my pellets at Costco for like $25 for 33lbs. You’ll maybe replace it every 5 cooks. I have tried fancy pellets and they don’t dramatically change the taste of the food.
I have used Catullo Prime Meats for over 6 years. Great meat, shipped well, and he’ll help you in any way he can. One of the best people I know. If you want fancy meat, like Wagyu or Kurobuta Pork, go with Snake River Farms.