Adding smoke to meat is more than a cooking method. It’s part of a larger barbecue culture, a world that encompasses pulled pork in North Carolina, brisket in Texas and every kind of protein you can cook low and slow for down-home eating. Barbecue is the stuff of American legend, and like America, barbecue is inclusive by nature: salmon, tofu and even fruit can join the party.
FM talked to onsite operators and chefs who’ve got their smoke signals down pat to find out what to do (and what not to do) to get the most out of your barbecue smoker, whether you use it for special events or an everyday ‘cue concept. Here are their words or wisdom on volume, menu, types of wood, common mistakes to avoid and more.
“When you are thinking about purchasing smoker equipment, always find people who are doing what you might like to do and talk to them. They can tell you, ‘I wish I had this model instead of what we got, and here’s why.’ They’ve been through the learning curve.
“Take the time to do the math. Start with a solid recipe, for say, brisket. Look at the raw product and the yield and multiply up. If you want 400 sandwiches a day, that’s x amount of brisket and if you don’t have the capacity in your smoker, you don’t want to find that out after you’ve purchased it.
“Different types of wood have different characteristics. Know what you want your product to be in terms of flavor. Brines are good, and rubs are a great way to add flavor and to get that great crust that you see on the outside of smoked meats. It’s called the ‘bark.’ Rubs can include garlic powder, chili powder, cumin, paprika, cayenne, dry mustard, sugar…For smoked salmon, sometimes we crust it with mustard and dill. ‘Pig Pickin’s’ are big here in North Carolina. ‘Pig Sauce’ usually includes vinegar, brown sugar and crushed red pepper.
“Some people add apple cider vinegar to the water pan of the smoker or mist the vinegar onto pork while it’s smoking. We’ve tried smoked tofu... pressed, marinated, basted with BBQ sauce and finished in the oven.
“We’ve also smoked tomatoes and used that for a smoky salsa—you can utilize end pieces of tomatoes that don’t make it into sandwiches. When testing new items, take the time to notice how well that item accepts smoke.”
—William Brizzolara, Executive Chef, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC
More BBQ Techniques
“At our barbecue concept, Smokin’, the rotating weekly menu includes brisket, ribs, pork and turkey. We use a combination of hardwood pellets in hickory or oak for the smoker. We prefer those types for the flavor they impart. In Texas, you might see more mesquite.
“In terms of different styles, we like to go beyond our own geographic region. We get into both tomato- and vinegar-based sauces. It’s good to have variety and choice…a little something for everyone.
“I’m from northern Alabama. In the Tennessee River Valley, you will find white BBQ sauce. I grew up having this with chicken or pulled pork. It is typically mayonnaise, cider vinegar, a little hot sauce, a touch of mustard and spices.
“Barbecue requires soul and love, and if you forget those ingredients, you’ll miss them.”
— Bryan Varin, Associate Director, Meal Plan Operations, University of Georgia, Athens
“Utilize your smoker for multiple things. We use ours for weekend game days and also for catering. And make sure the product is fully utilized, too. Look at the brisket—could that be turned into tacos or burritos at another concept? Unless you’re doing that, you’re wasting your capital investment.
“We have a manager, Sam Ford, who went to a smoker program in Texas. He learned the craft and then he taught the staff. Training is important, and so are spreadsheets that let you track times and temperatures.
“Don’t get a smoker that’s too small. You’ll find out real fast that you can’t keep up. Think about what you’re producing and the timing. A lot of times, the smoker is running all night long.
“Do cut brisket and ribs in front of your customers. And you’ll get regulars…remember who likes the ‘ends’ of the ribs. That’s the stuff you do that separates you from the rest.
“Don’t be afraid to experiment. We’ve tried fruit, but that didn’t work so well.”
—Kevin Barker, Director of Retail Operations, University of Oklahoma, Norman
“When you get a slice of brisket, most people are as happy as can be. We smoke roasts for the patient menu. In the cafe, we set up a chef’s table to showcase our barbecue. If you put in the time and effort, you may as well showcase it.
“Smoking already-cooked sausage gives it a dark red sheen that’s really nice. You can smoke a boneless skinless chicken breast and that gives it a lot of flavor. Also, try different flavor profiles on ribs, like Asian spices."
—Ralph Van Winkle, retail foodservice manager, DCH Regional Medical Center, Tuscaloosa, AL