When at last the smoke clears, brand matters less than mettle

June 29, 1994|By Joe Crea | Joe Crea,Orange County Register

For me, for years, smoked foods remained a novelty. They were something that someone else made from complicated recipes and hard-to-find ingredients with an arcane and probably expensive piece of equipment in which I would never invest because I'd probably never get around to using it.

Which, it turns out, means that I've missed a lot of years of a lot of great eating. Because in very little time, I learned how easy backyard smoking can be, how low-priced the units can be and what wonderful flavors you can conjure -- literally -- from smoke.

Here's what I learned over the course of a few days of shopping, research, setting up and cooking.

The first time I realized I could afford a smoker was when I spotted a wall full of them at Kmart. The Brinkmann Corp. Smoke 'n Grill Charcoal smoker was so well-priced that, tax included, I figured I'd scarcely break $30.

"But how well could a cheap model work?" I wondered, balking.

Heading for a specialty store, I confronted a bank of barbecues. There were models of every ilk, but only one tall, cylindrical mutant stood on line -- the Weber Smoker.

But at $219 retail, even sale-priced at $179, I balked again.

Bill Nacca, owner of Fireplace & Patio Trends in Orange, Calif., couldn't have been more helpful, even if I were a bit price-resistant.

"You've got to feel good about your purchase," he conceded. "But if you fall in love with smoking, this is what you're eventually going to own." The cheap units are a good way to measure your ardor, he suggested.

"A lot of people confuse smokers with barbecuing," he said. "A lot of people think they're smoking food, when actually they're grilling it."

Smokers are lower-temperature units that cook by indirect heat over longer periods of time, he said. While traditional barbecue grills cook by direct heat at blazingly high temperatures, resulting in far faster results, "they can't infuse a lot of smoke flavor like a true smoker can," Mr. Nacca added.

Designwise, the characteristic bullet-shape is the most overt clue. Smokers generally operate like chimneys: Heat emanates from the bottom of the unit, causing hardwoods that have been added to smolder and smoke. Evaporating liquid from a water pan above the heat source humidifies the chamber, allowing the foods arranged on the racks to absorb the smoke, while reducing shrinkage. A heavy lid prevents most of the smoke from escaping.

Three fuel sources are available. Charcoal smokers are the most common, but electric units are increasingly popular because of convenience. Propane smokers are available but not especially strong sellers, industry representatives said.

"Most people will do sort of a cross between smoking and grilling," Mr. Nacca said, alluding to our desire for speedier preparation. "But the ones who have a little patience really like the results a smoker gives."

You might spend upward of $400 for a deluxe version, find all-stainless bodies, and on and on. But at Sears, I found a nice-looking Char-Broil Charcoal Smoker (made in Columbus, Ga.) for $49.95 and a comparable electric model for $20 more.

Electricity in the air

I'd nearly settled for the low-priced Brinkmann -- ubiquitous, sturdy, simple -- when Milly Hall McDonald, head of marketing for the Dallas-based Brinkmann Corp., persuaded me to give the company's "gourmet electric smoker" a try.

"All you do is plug it in," she said. "There's almost no assembly. And although I don't like to say negative things about charcoal -- it's my livelihood -- but electric is very clean, you don't have to buy charcoal and deal with the emissions. And I don't have to get the darned charcoal thing started."

Another nerve she managed to strike was my unspoken lack of patience. Would I have the perseverance to stand by and check the charcoal? Would I nervously open the smoker to check every 6 1/2 minutes, inadvertently cooling it and further slowing the process?

The next morning I picked up a $70 electric smoker.

My real down experience came when the rains began. If you closely read the operator's manual that comes with an electric smoker, working this device in inclement weather is only one step removed from standing in a basin of water and plugging-in. (Take a gander at the heating element of an electric smoker and you'll understand. It's only a little smaller than what you'd find in a small kitchen range -- clearly, not something to fool with, or position where tots might stumble.)

Anyway, it drizzled, and I waited. Without certain cover, I busied myself with other matters of prep work. By the time I was confident of the forecast, and freedom from electroshock, it was late afternoon.

(This is something to consider if you're expecting a houseful of guests who, in turn, are expecting lunch -- as opposed to, say, dinner, or midnight supper.)

Pouring it on

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