Smokin’ with fire

blog-brianna-118801-edited Yesterday, I wrote about how to make the perfect steak. I explained that the reverse searing method I described works on the same principle as barbecuing (not *grilling*, but smoking meat)–indirect cooking.

My Weber Smokey Mountain Smoker

But today, I want to explain why I fell so in love with smoking to begin with. It went from something I was curious about to something I was obsessed with in the space of about a month.

Smoking meat is a practice that dates back to the age of primitive cavemen. These early humans would burn fires in their caves to stay warm and to cook their food. When they returned from a hunt, they’d hang their game up in the cave to dry. Eventually, they noticed that meat hung in smoky areas developed an appealing flavor and stayed fresh longer than the meat that was hung in other areas of the cave.

Maybe it’s some kind of deja vu–some primal memory–that I tap into when I’m smoking. There’s something about cooking with fire that is unequaled by any other method, and the gas flame on the stove just doesn’t cut it.

There’s more than that, however. Smoking evokes a fantasy of being down South on a sweltering summer day…an activity that mostly involves hanging around, drinking (beer? mint juleps?) and socializing while you wait (and wait and wait) for that savory, luscious meat to be done. Not that I’ve ever experienced such a thing in the South, or anywhere else. It just has a mystique and a romance that stokes my imagination.

Me at 5:30 am, cranky, and also shocked that the sun comes up that early.

That said, smoking has the stigma of being a very masculine activity. My ex-husband, who is South African, never let me get close to the barbecue (braai, they call it in Afrikaans). He was pretty clear that women are supposed to cook inside, and men outside. Maybe it was the beer part. But after 13 years of marriage, I wanted to get my hands on the damned barbecue, already!

My current partner has no interest in cooking with fire. He’s a novelist and poet who’d rather spend his time tapping away on his laptop, achieving great things while I barbecue. Unfortunately, he’s also a weight lifter, and his weights are right next to my smokers (because we have about 5 square feet of outside space). So he sometimes gets irritated when he wants to do squats, and my smoker is belching out hickory smoke like a forest fire. But even he has to admit that it smells absolutely divine. And, being the generous soul that he is, he helps me trim the larger cuts of meat (like brisket, which can weigh up to 20 pounds) before I smoke it. This is fortunate, because I’m super accident prone and probably would have lost a finger or two by now. And of course, he’s only too happy to eat the products of my travails.

It can take 10-12 hours to finish smoking a large cut of meat. Like cooking the perfect steak, however, it’s no use cooking by the clock. It’s done when it’s done. And to thoroughly break down the connective tissue and collagen within the meat, it takes a very long time at very low heat (like 225-270 degrees). Once it reaches about 200 degrees, it’s done. Except when it’s not. Every cut of meat is different. It’s done when you insert a temperature probe and wiggle it and the meat easily yields (like buttah).

My one and only perfect brisket.

Because it takes so long, if you want to serve smoked meat for dinner, you have to drag your arse out of bed at the butt crack of dawn to crank up your smoker. I’m not. A. Morning. Person. At. All. So, you know that if I’m getting up at 5 am on a Saturday, I’m highly motivated.

Truly, it’s a pain in the butt. You have to clean that grill, carefully arrange your charcoal so it doesn’t burn too fast (real BBQers do NOT use gas or electric smokers), and prepare to spend your whole day tending the fire. There’s a delicate balance involved with adjusting all the various vents on the smoker to achieve the perfect temperature and not incinerate your coals in the first hour. This is not easy to learn. I’ve spent countless hours fretting over my smoker when the heat is soaring out of control, or when I just can’t get it up to temp. But this is all part of the process. Every time I do it, I can identify ways I could have done a better job. It motivates me to try again the next weekend. I’m always in pursuit of the perfect smoked creation.

I’m proud to be a woman who can “Q.” There aren’t too many of us. I feel like a badass when I’m doing it.

But most of all, I’m proud because I am getting pretty good at it now. I spent every weekend last summer cooking pork shoulder after pork shoulder, brisket after brisket, and rib after rib. I can make a mean rub. I know all about the different regional barbecue sauces and what works with what meat. And people positively DROOL over my food.

As I’m writing this, I’m getting ready to spatchcock and smoke my first turkey tomorrow, as a dry run for Thanksgiving. Can’t afford to screw that up. I need to make sure I’ve got this DOWN before the big day. I really want it to be perfect. But God help me if it’s not, because I’ll end up doing another one next weekend, four days before Thanksgiving. At least there’s never a dearth of people who want to eat the leftovers.