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posted: 6/5/2013 6:00 AM

In search of a rig that will light my fire

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By Jim Shahin
Special to The Washington Post

Contemplating my smoker at rest, gleaming in the sunlight, it's obvious she isn't what she used to be. Her firebox vents are rusted open. Her metal charcoal insert, which should lie flat, is warped. Her chimney keeps falling off.

We had 13 good years together. Some epic debacles, sure. But I'll remember the good times, the amazing rides into the winner's circle of backyard acclaim. Memorial Day, the official start of the barbecue season, seemed like a good time to move on. But what comes next?

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I have begun a quest for the holy grill -- or, more accurately, the holy smoker. A well-built, smartly designed unit. A thoroughbred, you might say.

First, a lesson in semantics: A grill, such as a kettle, is built for hot and fast cooking directly over the fire. Think burgers, franks, steaks. A smoker is made for low and slow cooking -- temperatures from about 212 to 250 degrees (low) and long cooking times of six, 12, even 24 hours (slow). The food is cooked with indirect heat -- fire on one end, food on the other -- and flavored by smoldering hardwood. Smokers come in different shapes (drums, rectangular boxes, bullets, eggs) and can use a variety of fuel sources, from wood chips to chunks to compressed-wood capsules called pellets.

What most barbecue fanatics think of when they think of a smoker is something out of a comic-strip rendering of the South. You know the one. Daisy Mae flitting around in her cutoffs while Jim Bob drinks beer in his lawn chair. Inevitably, there is a barrel-shaped contraption with a firebox at one end and a chimney on the other, expelling a curl of smoke. The fuel source? Split logs.

You can buy one for about $300 at national hardware stores. They're known as COSs: Cheap Offset Smokers.

My quest does not include them. They are made of thin metal. Their fireboxes often are positioned poorly; consequently, airflow is lousy. Their thermometers are notoriously inaccurate. They leak more smoke than Anonymous leaks classified documents. During a long smoke (for a brisket, say), you have to get up through the night to tend the fire as if it was a demanding newborn.

The 'cuenoscenti will tell you that a COS is all but impossible to cook on. Not true. That 13-year relationship I'm all emotional about? It was with a COS. I learned on a COS, back when I lived in Texas. Everyone there, it seemed, owned one. I've cooked on a COS, among other rigs, ever since. The way I figure it, when it comes to barbecue, a gazillion Texans can't be wrong.

Indeed, the food from those barrel smokers (as they're also called) transformed the taste buds of a nation and, in no small measure, gave rise to today's barbecue craze.

True barbecue, I believe, is the result of a mystical bond between man and fire. Nothing teaches a guy about controlling fire like a COS. Its very flimsiness educates a novice about the vagaries of wind and airflow and wood and temperatures. The top-end smokers are so well made, they are practically set-it-and-forget-it. It's like the difference between deep-sea fishing and sticking your pole in a stocked pond. The latter effortlessly yields a fish, but the challenge of the former is more satisfying. In struggle, we learn more, I think, about the elemental nature of the thing we love.

I dare say the ribs, pulled pork and brisket from my COS would not be appreciably improved by cooking in a high-end smoker.

So, why not replace it with another COS? Because, having cooked primarily on COSs and kettles since I started barbecuing, well over a quarter-century ago, I am tired of the hassle and unpredictability.

I no longer appreciate the struggle. I'm older now. I like my sleep. And I like the prospect of turning out great barbecue without hovering over it every second. Plus, there is something to be said for luxury. A Lexus and a Ford both take you where you want to go, but the Lexus is just a nicer ride.

Not only that, but in recent years the market has changed. There are fewer choices for even halfway decent low-end offset smokers.

About a month ago, just in time to aid my search, a blogger who goes by the nom de 'cue Meathead unveiled a directory that lets you choose a rig by price, brand, function, fuel and capacity. The guide, which debuted on April 1, includes more than 100 manufacturers and 300 models, and it has a category for smokers.

"Smoking in the back yard was relatively unknown a decade ago," says Craig Goldwyn (aka Meathead), who started Amazingribs.com in 2006. "But it has really taken off in the last 10 years."

The guide helped me narrow my choices to a half-dozen smokers. But I want to see them, touch them, ideally try them out before I buy one.

And that is a challenge. A lot of good smokers are available only online. Sometimes you can find a retailer that carries specialty rigs, but because they take up a lot of floor space, few retailers carry a comprehensive line. That leaves you with two options: Visit the manufacturer or take a leap of faith based on reviews.

I have no intention of taking a leap of faith. Smoke is its own leap of faith. It's mysterious and transforming but also capricious. I want to tilt the odds in my favor. My quest isn't to rule the smoke. It's just to reduce the chances of the smoke ruling me.

I had hoped to have a new smoker by Memorial Day, but I've discovered that finding the right rig will take time.

Just like barbecue.

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