If you’ve been soaking in the sunny spring days like a true Jackson resident, you’ve already dusted off the grill and stocked the freezer with your favorite cuts of meat from Sweet Cheeks Meats. But Monday is Memorial Day, which I would deem the inaugural picnic event that kicks off the season of backyard summer cooking. This year, I challenge you to step up your grilling game by instead smoking those meats. Even if you don’t own a smoker, it’s still possible to get the same effect in your trusty ol’ barbecue, with a few modifications to your technique.
Preparing the grill
Modifying a charcoal grill for smoking is relatively simple. Pile your coals on one side and place a drip pan on the other. When the coals have reached adequate cooking temperature, layer wood chips on the coals. Place your meats over the drip pan, with a layer of liquid in the drip pan for optimum smoking results. Close the grill and leave an opening for ventilation.
Put your wood chips in a metal pan over the flames of your grill, off to one side. Preheat everything by having all your burners on high for about 15-20 minutes. After this preheating session, turn off the burners that are not directly below the wood chips. Put your meat on the opposite side, close the lid, and again leave a little opening for ventilation. Smoke flow is highly necessary to prevent a charred, ashy taste on your meat.
Die hard meat smokers differ over their preferred wood and wood type (chunk vs. chips vs. pellets). This area is open to experimentation. Here, we got some tips from Palmer Nelson, general manager of Jackson’s own Moe’s Original Bar B Que. At Moe’s, home of the Alabama style barbecue, they currently use hickory, but will be switching to white oak, which Nelson says lends a good smoke and color. He encourages people to switch it up for different meats, noting that many people like to use fruit woods at home. While there are no hard and fast rules in this department, those sweeter woods are great for chicken and seafood, but you might prefer stronger smelling woods (like the hickory used at Moe’s) for pork and beef.
You can smoke just about any type of meat, that’s what’s so fun about it. Cooking times will differ by the type of meat you select. At Moe’s they smoke ribs for about two hours wrapped in foil, chicken and turkey for 2-2.5 hours, and their pork butts take the longest. Wrapped in foil, they smoke these overnight in an Alto-Shaam that regulates the temperature. Nelson recommends that beginners start with smoking chicken. Smoke a whole chicken at 300 F for about 1-1.5 hours. When you press on the meat clear juices should come off, but to be safe you can use a meat thermometer or cut into the meat.
Preparing the meat
Sauces, rubs and seasonings, oh my! Here again, there is plenty of room for individualization and creativity. At Moe’s they use a rub on their meats that is available for purchase. Otherwise, start simple with salt and brown sugar, adding spices like paprika, cayenne and garlic for your spice preferences. Tip: Nelson coats his meat in mustard, telling us that the flavor cooks off while keeping the meat tender. Then, once your meat has been smoked, sauce it up with your favorite barbecue sauce. Moe’s sells their sauce by the pint.
As you can see, smoking meats is as much an art as navigating the mighty Snake River this summer. It takes time and patience to hone your skills, but the results are all the more worth it. You’re more likely to achieve those fall off the bone ribs by smoking the ribs rather than grilling. Smoking tenderizes meats in a highly unique manner, especially meats that would normally be too tough to eat. So give it a whirl and get creative- experiment with different meats, rubs and woods until you find the result that makes your taste buds thrive.