I used to be afraid of smoke. Generally, plumes swirling out of my Weber kettle weren't a good sign ... they meant the chicken breasts or brats were getting charred beyond recognition.
But after inhaling a few new cookbooks on the topic and spending a few afternoons with my grill, some wood chips and water, I've realized smoke can be a cook's best friend.
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Ted Reader knows what I'm talking about. "Once you get the desire and taste that sweet smoke, you're hooked," says Reader, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Smoking Foods" (Alpha, 2012).
Before I get too deep into the subject, I want to point out that smoking is not the same as barbecue. True, you can't barbecue without smoke, but barbecue refers to cooking with smoke for a long time at low temperatures. Smoking, on the other hand, can occur at higher temperatures and in just a few minutes.
"Ignore the preconceived ideas that (smoking) has to be complicated and time consuming," says Jamie Purviance, author of "Weber's Smoke" (Sunset, 2012). "It can be simple and make a huge difference to food in a matter of minutes.
"Wood is a form of seasoning," he continues, "and it's a simple seasoning."
His Dijon and Garlic Rib-eyes are a perfect example; they cook in 6 to 8 minutes over a blend of hickory or mesquite chips and thyme sprigs. (Get the recipe at dailyherald.com/entlife.food.)
"This is one of the most delicious steaks I've ever had, and I've had a lot of steak," he says. "It surprises people that a little bit of smoke can add so much flavor ... it's like something you'd eat in California wine country."
Many of the recipes in Purviance's book can be cooked easily enough on a traditional Weber charcoal grill with soaked wood chips scattered directly on the glowing coals.
If a gas grill makes its home in your backyard, smoking foods can still be an option but you'll need a smoker box. The vented metal boxes get filled with soaked wood chips and placed on the grates over the lit burners, Purviance says.
Cook's Illustrated tested several smoker boxes in 2011 and liked the GrillPro Cast Iron Smoker Box that allowed the chips to smolder steadily. A stainless steel V-shaped smoker box also scored high marks.
If you want to get really serious about smoking, then a specially designed smoker should be on your wish list.
"When you decide yes, I want to smoke, get yourself a smoker," Reader says. "Decide how hard you want to work -- electric versus old school -- and your budget. You can get something in the $50 range or up to thousands of dollars."
Vertical models have a heat source at the bottom with a water pan above it, or there are horizontal designs that have separate sections for the coals and the food (which reduces drying). Both varieties will produce tender results, but still need coals added to them regularly and must have the vents monitored to keep the temperature stable, according to Jim Romanoff in an article for The Associated Press.
Once your new smoker is out of the box, read the instructions, Reader says.
"Don't just buy it on the Fourth of July and fire it up," he says. "It's not like turning on a gas grill and saying 'I'm ready to cook.' You're going to need a little practice."
Whatever equipment you select, maintaining consistent temperature is key. The goal is to open the lid and add charcoal as infrequently as possible.
"Add a good, healthy amount of charcoal at the start. Use regular briquettes, not lump charcoal, because they last longer," Purviance says.
Nick Iverson with Cook's Country magazine, part of the America's Test Kitchen dynasty, uses a layering technique called the Minion method that maintains heat for up to four hours. The method entails laying unlit coals in the grill and then adding lit coals on top.
"The idea is that this type of fire burns twice as long as a big pile of lit charcoal dumped in all at once," Iverson writes. He layered corncobs between the lit and unlit layers, but soaked wood chips could be swapped for the cobs.
"It worked perfectly, giving me four solid hours of heat and subtle smoke." he says.
When it comes to selecting what food to smoke, the world is your oyster. Foods from cheese to nuts, steaks to salmon, brisket to pork butt can all benefit from smoke.
In "Smokin' with Myron Mixon," Myron Mixon, a judge on TLC's "BBQ Pitmasters," suggested starting with chicken.
"Cooking a whole chicken in the smoker is probably the easiest thing you can master," Mixon writes. "I say that a whole hog isn't for beginners, but a whole chicken sure is."
He puts a pan of apple juice under the chicken to circulate moisture and sweetness through the smoker "so the chicken is smoky in flavor and melt-in-your-mouth in texture."
Or start with an ingredient you're familiar with like pork tenderloin or shrimp that cook more quickly and don't require as much fire tending.
And don't get discouraged. I charred two racks of ribs last summer when I walked inside to make the salad, but I have learned from my mistakes (note to self: ask hubby to make the salad) and am learning more each week and reaping the delicious rewards.
"Smoking requires work, but it's a lot of fun," Reader says. "The more you do it, the better you get at it."
By summer's end, I think I'll be seasoned enough to give those ribs another try.