By Steve McGrath
If you really want to change the way you spend time in the outdoors pick up a new habit, smoking. No, not the one the surgeon general warns you about it’s the one that will have you looking at the animals you hunt in a whole different way.
Hopefully this past fall left you with a freezer full of wild game but don’t let freezer burn set in on your hard earned meat. Make the most of the hunting “offseason” to learn a new way of cooking. Smokers are simple to use and will change the way you enjoy the harvest.
Contrary to popular belief, the skill of smoking meat does not need to be passed down from generations of southern ancestors. Just like any other hobby, there is specialized gear required to make smoking food successful and fun. Start with the obvious, the smoker. They come in various shapes, sizes and of course price. Keep it simple to begin with, there is no reason to invest $20,000 in a smoker only to find out it’s not something you are interested in. There are great options for less than $400, ones that will do the job and last for years of loyal duty. Electric and propane smokers will shorten the learning curve and are also easier to regulate the temperature and smoke output. Two principal practices govern smoking, time and temperature. I usually keep my smoker around 200°-225° Fahrenheit, to keep the wood chips smoldering and to bring the meat slowly up to temperature. The prolonged cooking time allows smoke to penetrate the meat and the connective tissues, that can make it tough, to break down.
Controlling the temperature is the number one goal of smoking. Learning your smoker and its settings will help you turn out good food, time and time again. Though most smokers come equipped with thermometers, they are better used as temperatures guides for the smoker’s internal temps. I recommend getting an aftermarket remote thermometer or two. Why two? Use one to tell the temperature on the inside of the smoker and the other to show the internal temp of the meat you are smoking. The beauty of those thermometers is the remote feature, meaning you can monitor what is going on with the smoker from a distance, or in the case of this time of year from inside your warm home. I utilize a couple different ones and am always open to trying new ones but for the price the Camp Chef Remote Thermometer is tough to beat.
Typical smoking temps are around 220° -250° Fahrenheit. That number can and should vary for different types of meat being smoked. For fish, I like to keep the smoker closer to 160°; whole meat jerky is near 215°, brisket around 225°. Experiment a little to decide what will work best for you. Speaking of temperature, internal temp of the meat is crucial to making sure it’s done just right. Overdone and it ends up like jerky, underdone and the meat could be tough and tasteless. There are some great websites to reference for recommendations; a quick Google search will give you a starting point.
Perhaps no option has more bearing on the flavor of the food than the wood selection. Quite often the wood used depends on regional availability, folks in the northwest tend to use a lot of alder as opposed Texans that use mounds of the abundant mesquite. Generally hickory and mesquite create a heavier smoke flavor and seem to work best with beef. Maple, oak, pecan or alder produce a medium smoke, great for the myriad of superb pork products commonly smoked. Milder meats such as poultry and fish can be easily overpowered with the stronger wood smoke; fruitwoods are the perfect solution for them. There isn’t anything that says woods can’t be mixed and matched. Matter of fact I rarely use just one type of wood, mixing can produce a great combination. For instance with brisket I have used mesquite, apple and cherry. For fish I normally use apple and alder. When it comes to wood selection there is no wrong, you pick what will work best for you and stick with it.
When you’ve dialed in the smoker, temperature control and wood types it’s time to try your hand at the age old cooking tradition. I suggest starting with something relatively easy and inexpensive, for me that was a pork butt, or shoulder. The recipes for rubs, cooking times and temps are all over the Internet. That is where I started my search and for my first outing it suited me just fine. Check in on the Sportsman’s News Forums under the “General” section. There will be monthly tips and recipes as well as occasional giveaways. The purpose is to share ideas, photos and maybe a little bragging! Mastering smoking will leave you not only popular amongst your peers but it should entice you to hunt more this coming fall! Leave your favorite outdoor recipe in the comments below for a chance to win an 18′ smoker from Camp Chef.