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What Are Smokers?
Smokers are the cooking apparatus for barbeque: they allow you to cook food at low temperatures in a controlled, smoky environment. There are all kinds of smokers—from huge custom-made offset smokers that cost thousands of dollars to ceramic outdoor ovens to flimsy smokers you can take on a camping trip.
Which Type of Smoker Is Best for Barbecue?
James Beard Award-winning barbeque pitmaster Aaron Franklin barbecues exclusively on wood-burning offset smokers. He firmly believes that the best, most authentic central Texas barbecue is cooked on smoker grills that generate both their smoke and their high heat exclusively from burning wood chips. That’s not to say you can’t make great food on charcoal grills or gas grills or propane smokers. It’s just fundamentally different from the Central Texas style of barbecue Aaron cooks with a wood smoker.
All smokers fall into one of two broad categories: direct heat and indirect heat. Offset smokers allow you to cook with indirect heat. This diagram shows how the airflow in offset smokers work:
By contrast, meat smokers designed with the heat source directly beneath the grate allow you to cook with direct heat.
Neither is better or worse than the other; in fact, you’ll find both are used at barbecue restaurants throughout Texas as they both offer temperature control. The main thing with direct heat is making sure there’s enough space between your fire and your food. Put them too close together and you’ll end up grilling rather than barbecuing.
Aaron Franklin’s 7 Tips for Southern Texas Barbecue
- Make a game plan. Before each cook, Aaron writes out a detailed schedule, working backward from the time he plans to serve the meal. For instance, if he wants to serve brisket at 5 PM and anticipates a 12-hour cook with an additional hour for the brisket to rest, then he needs to begin the cook at 4 AM If he’s going to cook at 255°F for the first three hours before pushing it to 265°F, he writes down 7 a.m. as the time he needs to start increasing the heat. If he plans to wrap the brisket eight hours in, he makes a note that he should do so at noon. Making a game plan should be your first step whenever you’re making barbecue. It’s easy to get fatigued or forgetful during a long cooking time; the game plan is a way to keep you on track.
- Be as accurate and precise as possible. When you first start smoking meat, you should aim to be precise within five degrees of the temperatures Aaron suggests. If he recommends a temperature of 265+, your fire should ideally run between 265°F and 270°F. If he says 265-, it should burn between 260°F and 265°F. That doesn’t mean you should panic if you look up and your temperature gauge suddenly reads 275°F. The idea is to avoid wild, prolonged swings in temperature. You can make adjustments to future cooks if you find that Aaron’s temperatures don’t work for you, but the only way to know that is to follow his lead closely at first.
- Collect data. Barbecue is unpredictable. Even if you built a smoker from scratch using a plan that Aaron personally gave you, you would still have your own set of idiosyncrasies to discover and work around. The quality of your wood, the composition of your meat, and even the elevation and climate of your environment can change the cook in ways you didn’t anticipate. Consider his suggested temperatures and times as guideposts to learn from. Use your game plan not only to stay on schedule, but also to collect data on the cook as it happens. Write down the weather conditions along with anything else that seems relevant, unique, or unusual. Whether your brisket disappoints or turns out even better than expected, having a step-by-step account of the cook is the best way to figure out what went right and wrong.
- Keep the seasoning simple. When it comes to seasoning meat for barbecue, Aaron likes to keep things relatively simple so that the flavor of the smoke and the meat shine through. He uses kosher salt and 16-mesh “café grind” black pepper, which have roughly the same granular size, and mixes the two together evenly. He’s not a fan of additional seasonings like garlic powder or onion powder, although for pork butt and ribs he does include a small amount of paprika to impart color. To make seasoning easier, Aaron mixes his rub ingredients in a plastic shaker with an adjustable lid and then sprinkles the rub onto the meat directly from the shaker. Before applying the dry rub, Aaron may apply an emulsifier like mustard or hot sauce to help the rub stick and form a bark. After a long cook, the slather won’t have much impact on the flavor of the meat but it’s still good to be judicious in how much you apply. The more slather you use, the more likely it is that your bark will flake off as the meat shrinks during the cook (though that’s a much bigger concern for a cut like brisket than for, say, pork butt). Aim to get the meat tacky, but not wet. Finally, always apply the rub to the “presentation side” of your meat last, so as to avoid messing up its appearance when you flip the meat over to season the other side.
- Work clean. At various stages during prep and the cook, you’ll be handling raw meat, knives, parchment paper, and seasoning at the same time. For efficiency and cleanliness, Aaron recommends using your nondominant hand to move and turn the meat, while keeping your dominant hand free and clean for tasks like trimming and distributing the rub. For heavier cuts like pork butt and brisket, use the flat of your knife as another “hand” to help flip the meat over. Keep a grill brush and paper towel handy.
- Keep things moist. Aaron recommends putting a water pan (filled with a few inches of warm water) inside your smoker to add humidity to the cook chamber and keep the surface of the meat moist and tacky, allowing the smoke to stick better. During the course of each cook, you’ll also need to spritz the exterior of the meat from time to time to prevent certain parts from drying out and overcooking. For this, you’ll want a spray bottle with an adjustable nozzle. Go with a setting that splits the difference between mist and stream. If it’s too misty the liquid will evaporate almost instantly, but if it’s too forceful the stream could break up your bark. Like the slather, what’s in your spray bottle won’t have much impact on the flavor of the meat. Water, beer, and apple cider vinegar are all fine choices. Avoid sugary liquids like apple juice, as they’re more prone to flare-ups and likely to burn.
- Wrap it up. While not all pitmasters wrap their meat in the final stages of a cook—in barbecue circles, wrapping in aluminum foil is known as the “Texas crutch”—wrapping is an effective way of finishing a long cook without drying out the meat and keeping a steady internal temperature. Wrapping also captures the meat’s fat and juices, so they can be reabsorbed once the meat is taken off the smoker to rest. Aaron wraps pork in aluminum foil and brisket in uncoated butcher paper. Be sure to purchase “wide” rolls of whichever material you’re using.
Aaron Franklin received the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2015. His popular and critically lauded restaurant, Franklin Barbecue, was awarded Texas Monthly’s coveted Best Barbecue Joint in Texas, and Bon Appetit’s Best Barbecue Joint in America.
Learn more Texas barbeque recipes and techniques in Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass.