Thursday, April 24, 2008

Adventures in Cooking Part 1: Smoked Pork

I've wanted to try building a do-it-yourself smoker since I saw it on the barbecue episode of Good Eats (I told you I liked that show). So last week, I went out to get the parts for the smoker, and I spent most of Saturday outside, drinking beer and watching the smoker do it's thing. Verdict: I could definitely think of worse ways to spend a lovely spring day.

In case it isn't clear from the following am *very* proud of myself with this one--the smoker worked swimmingly and the pork was outstanding. So here's the run down in case you feel the desire to make one yourself. (NOTE: try this at your own risk. I am NOT responsible if you shock yourself/burn your house down/ruin a perfectly good piece of meat. I'm just not.)

But first, since this is a long post, I'll provide a kind of summery.

By the numbers:
$42.25 = total investment in materials for the smoker
7 pounds = weight of the pork shoulder used
8 hours = total time the pork spent in the brine
3 am = time I got up on Saturday morning
1-1/2 = bags of wood chips burned
2 = number of flareups (otherwise known as "grease fires") we had that day
12 hours = total time the pork spent in the smoke
15 = number of happy people fed

The smoker elements
1 large terra cotta pot (17.00)
1 terra cotta saucer with the same diameter (11.00)
1 replacement grate for a kettle grill (8.00)
1 hotplate with a dial thermostat (3.50 at the AA recycle center)
1 metal pie or cake pan (.25 at the recycle center)
1 metal stick-type thermometer (2.50)
1 extension cord ("free" in that I already owned one)
2 cinderblocks (ditto)

The smoking supplies
2 bags of wood chips
1 piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil (I didn't use this, and later wished I had)
1 watering can
1 fire extinguisher
1 lawn chair
1 tasty beverage

The assembly and use of the smoker
Here is an image of the smoker assembled (in my front yard--my sleeping hosta garden is in the background)

The large terra cotta pot on the bottom acts as a vessel for the rest of the elements. The earth walls of the pot aid in heat flow and retention--it is the same reason that fancy, expensive smokers have ceramic walls, and people still roast pigs in pits in the ground. In this case, I basically picked the cheapest pot I could find that was large enough to fit a grate. The cinderblocks not only give the whole thing a kind of junkyard chic, they also let a small amount of oxygen flow into the smoker through the hole in the bottom of the pot. The lid of the smoker was selected via a very scientific method--basically, I tried terra cotta items one at a time until I found something with the same diameter as the pot (believe it or not, it was the only item that had that characteristic). I was trying to find something with a hole in it (to put the thermometer in) but the saucer turned out to be useful--I rested the meat on it while changing the wood chips. The thermometer is a replacement for a turkey fryer. It worked great and cost us 2.50 at Meijer.

In the bottom of pot is the heat source for the smoker--a basic hot plate, which I picked up at the local recycle center for 3.50. The original plans had the hotplate in the bottom of the smoker, with the cord coming out of the hole in the bottom of the pot (clever, eh?). We modified this plan somewhat by taking the hotplate apart and rewiring the guts to go through the hole in the pot.

This achieved three things:
1)It left only the metal parts of the hotplate inside the pot---the plastic housing remained outside, underneath the pot. Thus, we avoided the fumes that would presumably result from leaving plastic in a 210 degree oven for 12 hours.
2)My hotplate had a dial to control the heat. This turned out to be key, because the line between partial combustion/smoke and full combustion/fire is a finer one than you might think. Dissecting the hotplate meant that I could adjust the heat from outside the pot--a real plus, as you will soon see.
3)We got to feel like real badasses. We will feel even more badass once we figure out a mounting mechanism for the bottom of the pot, so that it doesn't produce alarming blue sparks when fiddled with.

On top of the hotplate goes the metal pie tin full of wood chips. The pie plate I got at the recycle center (I don't think I would want to use it for anything else). The chips are hickory and mesquite--I got them at the local garden center/cooking supply store (be sure to use hardwood that is not treated chemically, because whatever funky tastes and chemicals are in the wood will be in the smoke, and thus in your pork). The chips should smoke, BUT NOT CATCH FIRE. We had two flareups worthy of the name--the first was at about 4am. I had just put the thing together and had no idea how high the heat should be. I turned it up too high, and the chips caught fire. Fortunately, the dial was outside the pot (see?) and I could turn off the plate, take out the thermometer, and suffocate the fire (the hole in the bottom doesn't let in enough air for fire to continue). The second fire was the result of grease dripping on the wood chips--the next time, I'm going to cover the chip pan with foil and poke some holes in it. That should both prevent it from catching fire (less oxygen) and prevent grease from getting on the wood itself. Just in case, I had a fire extinguisher on hand. I changed the chips whenever the smoking stopped--I used about 1-1/2 small bags of wood over 12 hours of smoking.

Above the chips rests the grill grate, and on top of it, the pork shoulder. The sides of the pot are slanted, so the grate should just rest in the pot without falling down. This suspends the meat about 6 inches above the heat/smoke source, letting hot air and smoke flow around it.

The whole thing is topped by the cover and the thermometer.

The Pork
I bought a 7 lb pork shoulder (bone-in, untrimmed). Fortunately, barbecue is designed to make cheap cuts of meat delicious, so the meat itself was (relatively) inexpensive. We brined the pork overnight in a mixture of molasses, pickling salt, and water. In the morning (3am--*yawn*) I extracted the pork and sprinkled it with a mixture of chili powder, onion flakes, cumin, fennel, corriander, and paprika. I smoked the meat with both hickory and mesquite chips for around 12 hours (4am-4pm), trying to keep the smoker at 210-220 degrees (in reality, it sometimes got as high as 250). We ate it with some truly outstanding Carolina-style (vinegar and hot-pepper based) sauce that a friend brought. As I mentioned earlier Ross also made a lovely omelet out of the leftovers.

Doesn't this make you want to try it?

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