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Barbecue basics: Getting started with a vertical smoker
There are a number of factors that affect a given dish, such as the fat content of the pork, the thickness of a rack of ribs, the humidity inside your smoker, and the elevation at which you cook. You will learn to rely on your senses when a dish is perfectly done. You’ll know by sight when coals are hot enough to start cooking, by touch when a steak is ready, by smell when you left that fish in the smoker too long.
In the design of all vertical smokers most commonly used at home, the charcoal fire sits directly beneath the grates holding the food being cooked. Generally, a water pan or metal plate acts as a heat buffer between the fire and meat, and allows for indirect cooking. Airflow is restricted by adjustable vents, to allow the charcoal and wood to burn steady and slow.
The gold standard of inexpensive, highly functional vertical cookers is the Weber Smokey Mountain. On the competition trail, this $300 cooker is often used to kick the butt of teams with $10,000 rigs. Numerous other manufacturers that follow this basic design include the popular, but more expensive, Big Green Egg, Backwoods Smokers, and Spicewine Ironworks. We have seen contestants use smokers made out of refrigerators and metal trash barrels.
To get started with a vertical smoker, clean it, remove any ash or old charcoal from inside the smoker, and if your smoker does not have a built-in thermometer, place a probe or oven thermometer on the grill grate. Fill the charcoal area almost to capacity with hardwood lump charcoal.
Fill a charcoal chimney with hardwood lump charcoal, crumple two pieces of newspaper and stuff them into the bottom. Light the paper and wait about 10 minutes for the charcoal to become fully ignited. Flames should just be starting to peek through the top of the pile. Wearing heat-proof gloves, carefully pour the lighted charcoal evenly over the bed of unlighted charcoal in the smoker.
Fill the water pan with cold water. Depending on your vertical smoker, either close the doors or cover with the smoker lid. Open top and bottom vents completely. When the temperature inside the smoker reaches 250 degrees, remove the lid and clean the grill grates with a brush. If your recipe calls for it, now is the time to add what is known as the “smoke wood” — usually two to three fist-size chunks of dry hardwood such as apple, cherry, oak, or hickory. Close the smoker and let it return to the target temperature your recipe calls for. Add food to be cooked, and allow the smoker to return to target temperature. Close bottom vents by three-quarters.
Adjust bottom vents to maintain the temperature (close the top vent halfway to lower temperature, open slightly to raise temperature). Don’t let the pan run dry; add water every 3 to 4 hours.
A full load of charcoal should be enough fuel for most cooking sessions. But keep an eye on how much charcoal is being used and add more as needed to maintain your target temperature. Adapted from “Wicked Good Barbecue.”