Slow and Steady Wins the Race When It Comes to Smoked Meat and Fish

The Kowalski’s barbecue team took sixth place in the ribs competition at the 2016 Minnetonka BBQ & Beer Fest. From left, Max Maddaus, Boyd Oase, Ryan Wojciak and Troy Schmeling.

As summer slowly but surely makes its way to Minnesota, a backyard barbecue starts seeming like a better and better idea. Rather than going for a run-of-the mill grill-out, why not try smoking your meat instead? Thanks to the savory flavor and tenderness that they introduce into even a simple slab of meat, pellet grills and smokers are now a popular presence at summertime get-togethers. For the uninitiated, the task of smoking might be a bit intimidating—it’s a long process, after all—but with some helpful tips and a little practice, anyone can become a pitmaster.

Meat and fish aren’t the only things that can be smoked, but they certainly are the most popular. Boyd Oase, vice president of operations for Kowalski’s Market, introduced the smokehouse program to Kowalski’s stores, and the team at Kowalski’s has participated in barbecue competitions across the country. Oase is something of an expert when it comes to barbecue. He says that when it comes to smoking, just about any kind of meat or fish works, but the process changes slightly depending on what exactly you’ve chosen.

“Any type of meat you can smoke, whether it’s beef, pork, poultry or seafood,” says Oase. “Most smoking is done as hot smoking, [which] consists of smoking hams and a lot of different variations of sausage, bacon and turkeys.” Though cold smoking also exists, Oase says it’s typically reserved for certain types of fish and Italian meats; cold smoking doesn’t cook the food product like hot smoking does, but is used to add flavor.

The smoking process, Oase says, essentially acts like a curing process. It combines indirect heat, smoke from wood chips, and moisture from liquid vapors. “Between the ingredients you use, some have preservatives, and some of them don’t, and you generally smoke for flavor and for cooking. So, you typically smoke and cook at a much lower temperature for longer periods of time and then introduce smoke as a flavor,” Oase says.

There is a wide range of smoking equipment available, but there’s nothing wrong with starting simply. A regular ol’ charcoal grill can certainly do the trick and, if you’re new to the world of smoking, might be your best bet. “If you’re doing barbecue—so briskets and back ribs and spare ribs and chicken—a lot of your backyard grills will work for that. Salmon and other fish would be easy for somebody at home to smoke,” Oase says. “It’s a fairly simple process that can get really complex. It just depends on how you want to do it. You can buy a simple electric smoker anywhere, or you can use a Weber-style grill.”

According to Weber, maker of classic charcoal grills, smoking on a charcoal grill is easy to do. “Pour all of the charcoal on one side of the cooking grate...and place a large disposable foil pan on the other side,” says Weber’s website. “Then, carefully add about 2 or 3 cups of water to the pan. The water in the pan is important because it helps to maintain a low cooking temperature. It also adds some moisture to the food. Allow 30 minutes to 1 hour for the coals to burn down to the correct temperature and the water to heat up.” Next, add damp wood chips (or dry chunks of wood) onto the coals. Your meat goes on top of the grate, and the grill gets covered to start the cooking process.

Smoking inevitably is more time-consuming than grilling, so patience and a bit of planning are required. Low and slow is the key, which might make for a longer process, but the final results will be well worth it.  “Since you’re cooking at a much lower temperature, it’s going to be a matter of hours, and the most critical part is the internal temperature,” says Oase.

Throughout the smoking process, each type of meat will require a particular internal temperature to be reached in order to kill off bacteria and ensure the food is safe to eat. “If you’re doing a ground sausage item or poultry, you’re typically targeting a 165- to 180-degree range for a finished product … but then as you get into whole muscle products, like if you’re doing a pork butt to make pulled pork, that might take you seven to nine hours, and you want to cook that in a 205 to 210 range.”
For whole muscle products, once the internal temperature exceeds 165 degrees, the meat is safe to eat, so further smoking becomes a matter of flavor and preference rather than food safety and preventing food poisoning. “It’s about tenderness after that,” says Oase. “You keep cooking it longer and longer and longer to get the tenderness that you’re looking for. Barbecue is about seasoning, and that varies depending on taste and where you’re at in the country.”

Resist the temptation to keep sneaking peeks of the meat as it cooks. If you do, you’ll let out all the heat and smoke, so the meat will cook even slower and won’t be as flavorful. “It isn’t something like cooking steak on the grill, where you’re constantly flipping it every few minutes. With smoked meats, you have a general time of what it takes to get it done, and what you’re monitoring is mostly the temperature. So really, the less you look at it the better,” says Oase. “If I was going to smoke something like back ribs, I’d maybe look at them once an hour at best. Even that would be mainly to do something like spritz it with a butter.”

Oase says that the internet is a great resource. “If somebody was interested in wanting to learn more about barbecue and smoking, I’d suggest they Google something like ‘competition barbecue,’ because they’re going to learn an awful lot in that regard.” Of course, you can also go into Kowalski’s and talk to the butcher, who can certainly offer advice and insight.

But above all, just try to enjoy yourself throughout the process and, of course, while tasting the final product. “Barbecue and smoking meats is mostly about what flavors you like. There’s not a right or a wrong, aside from maintaining a good temperature. There’s a million variations between that for flavor.”

Pellet Grills and Smokers from Frattallone’s

If you’re looking to step your grilling game up a bit, a smoker or pellet grill will help you do just that. There’s a lot to think about when it comes to finding the right fit, but there’s no need to stress—the friendly people at Frattallone’s Ace Hardware have you covered. Read on for some top picks, or stop into their Woodbury store to check them out in person. Your backyard barbecue dreams will come true in no time.

• Weber Smokey Mountain Cookers are among the most popular and efficient charcoal smokers available. They come in a variety of sizes: 14 inches, 18 inches and 21 inches, all equipped with two grill grates, built-in lid thermometer to help you find the smoking sweet spot, and any one of three will cook your food to perfection. They’re also portable, so from backyard cookouts to tailgates to camping trips, you can take your smoker just about anywhere.

• The Traeger Bronson Wood Pellet Grill is a favorite among barbeque and smoking enthusiasts, as it leads to memorably mouthwatering meals. Though a bit smaller than most grills, it works just as well and has plenty of room for multiple slabs of meat. Able to be used as both a grill and a smoker, it’s a space-efficient option that combines the best of both worlds for meat with that falling-off-the-bone kind of tenderness.

• If you’re new to the realm of smoking meat, the Pit Boss Pellet Smoker/Grill makes for an excellent guide. Easy to assemble and easy to clean, it can hold a surprising amount of food at once. Reasonably priced—especially considering how pricey smokers can get—it also provides you with the most bang for your buck.