Smoker image thanks to Todd Dwyer under CC licence via Flickr
The weird thing about BBQ smokers is that there is a real cult following with these things. The people who love this method tend to be rather obsessive about the best way to smoke anything.
The process we're talking about here is hot smoking. It’s a relatively long and slow method with temperatures somewhere round 200F/90C to cook as well as flavor meat, fish and other types of food over several hours.
This isn't for those who like instant gratification - cooking times can be anything up to 10 hours or even longer, depending on how big your piece of meat is.
OK, so there are three basic designs of smokers - the offset smoker and the upright smoker.
Brinkman Offset Smoker
The picture right is of the Brinkmann 805-2101-S Pitmaster Deluxe Smoke 'n Pit and is a classic example of this type of barbecue smoker.
The upright smokers, such as the Weber Smokey Mountain cooker, pictured left, are generally a wide tubular shape with a domed top.
Both types ideally should have a thermometer mounted on the outside which displays the internal temperature of the cooking chamber.
Vents and chimneys are used to control and maintain airflow, and therefore temperature, which is actually the key to mastering BBQ smoking.
Prices for smokers can be high for the big professional offset or upright drum type smokers - but backyard versions should be in the $300-400 range for something like the Brinkmann or Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker (pictured). Although perfectly usable models of either design can be bought for third of that price.
Electric smokers offer another, more sanitized way to to do all this. Personally I think the experience is a little too close to using a microwave oven to be much fun, but the cooked results are immaculate.
So, I'd hesitate to call using one of these barbecuing - but converts absolutely swear by them. The masterbuilt electric smoker is one of the best around, so check out our review. More of the best electric smokers are made by Brinkman and also Old Smokey.
This brings us to what is technically referred to as smoke-roasting - an indirect barbecue technique which can be emulated in an ordinary covered gas or charcoal grill.
Here is a clip of an offset smoker in action to give a better idea of how it works and what you can cook in one.
Barbecue smoke can be made either with logs of specific types of wood placed directly in the BBQ smokers’ fire box and burnt or using BBQ wood chips.
These wood chips are made from common barbecue woods like mesquite, hickory and many others.
This is the key thing.
The temperature will drop radically every time you open the lid and take 15 minutes or more to stabilize again. This extra cooking time adds up over a longer cooking session.
That means, don't open the lid to see how things are going in there - open it to mop some sauce on there, or to add some charcoal periodically, and no more.
You control temperature via the vents at each side of your BBQ smoker. Open them up to let more oxygen in and create more heat, close them a little to starve the fire and therefore reduce heat.
Do this gently, allow time for temperature to increase or decrease and stabilize. Over time, you'll get a feel for how much is enough - a skill that will reduce the need to open the lid
Charcoal briquettes have the edge over lumpwood because they burn cooler and longer; meaning there's less opening the lid to fill up.The Minion Method is even better for long sessions of 6 or more hours.
Use a meat thermometer with a probe that can be left in for the duration of cooking so you can monitor the temperature of the meat without opening the lid.
Sweet, sugary sauces like Kansas City BBQ sauce are added after the meat is cooked, so that is less of a problem.
But with mopping sauces where you have to baste more than once, so it is unavoidable that you open the lid. Just don't over do it - once every couple of hours might be enough. Maybe even save it for when you have to add more charcoal and the lid is open anyway.
Here are 6 mouth watering examples of food you can cook in your BBQ smoker:
BBQ Pork ribs
Whole salmon or fillets
Smoked whole chicken
Smoked whole Turkey
Just choose your smoking wood accordingly for the best results.
As a side note, cold smoking is used to flavor food rather than cook it; the temperature is very low - around 100F/40C. I won't go into it on this site, but you can find out more about cold smoking here.
Cold smoking is possible on an electric smoker like the Masterbuilt, I've never tried it, but I doubt it can be done on a charcoal smoker.