Confessions of a smokin’ addict
A confession: I’m addicted to smoking. Not cigs, not weed (OK, maybe the occasional cigar) – usually I just stick to chickens.
I love smoked food, but I can’t quite figure out why. Of course I enjoy the complex flavours with which smoking imbues meat or fish; the heady scents of apple, hickory, mesquite and maple combined with the slow cooking process that softens the textures and makes each morsel almost melt in my mouth. But if it were just for the flavour, I could throw a few drops of liquid smoke into the seasoning and rub it into anything that I’m planning to cook.
No, there is something primal about smoking that speaks to my inner boy scout. I like to think that you could drop me off in the woods and I’d survive. I’d snare a rabbit or pick off a grouse, set up a grill and build a fire.
Sure. In reality, my idea of living off the land extends to carrying a debit card into a supermarket.
And yet, there is a mythic Flavourguy in me who comes from an earlier time – and a barbecue brings him out. It’s the aroma of burning wood, of charcoal turning into embers, of a chicken or a tough cut of meat slowly becoming something ambrosial over a fire.
Smoking makes me realize how human I am. It lets me connect with a time when cooking took patience and persistence. Smoked food is slow food. It tells me I might make mistakes in a way that fast-food cooking (whether it’s frying a burger or opening up a can) does not. The heat can be too low and the meat partially raw (so I have a last minute dance with the microwave) or it cooks at too high a heat and is scorched (so I reach for sauce to smother the burnt bits). Smoking makes me remember that I can’t take food for granted, but when I get it right, there is nothing better than making it at home.
When I smoke a chicken I require three things: a brine, a rub, and heat. First, I put the chicken into a large pot to see how much brine I need. I cover the bird with water, remove the chicken and am left with the right amount of liquid. To make each gallon of brine I take a gallon of water, add a half cup each of brown sugar and salt, and various spices (bay leaf, cinnamon stick, juniper berries, pepper corns, a garlic clove and dried chili pepper or two – they are all good). I boil the water until the salt and sugar have dissolved then let it cool to room temperature. I then put the chicken in the pot and leave it in the fridge overnight. The next morning, I prepare a dry rub by mixing salt, black pepper, chili powder, onion powder and garlic powder. I drain and dry the chicken and rub the mix over the bird as well as inside the cavity. I let this sit for a few hours in the fridge.
In the early afternoon I start a small fire in the charcoal grill. Gas works well, too. In either case, the key is low, indirect heat. If this is difficult, place a pan of water between the fire and the food. Some grills allow this, or you may have to improvise a rack. I soak the wood or chips in water (use hard woods – no pine, spruce or plywood) and put some on the fire when the coals are ready. Gas grills often have a box or chamber for smoking.
Aim for low and slow, around 210F or 100C. Place the chicken on the grill away from the heat and put the cover back on. A small chicken takes a couple of hours. The lower the heat (anything above 180F is fine), the longer it will take to cook – and the tastier it should be. When a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reads 160F (72F), it’s done.
While I’m waiting I pull up a chair and get into a routine. Maybe a good book, maybe some music I’ve been waiting to hear. Every hour, I add a little wood and some more charcoal. On a regular basis, I take out another can of beer. On a nice warm day if I have a big enough chicken and if I can keep the heat low, it might take five or six hours to reach perfection.
E-mail Barry Lazar at Flavourguy@theseniortimes.com