To get from the kitchen to the grill chez Haverchuk takes a few dozen paces, through a small hallway past the linen closet and the bathroom, across the length of the dining room, past the couch and the telly and the toys in the living room and down the front steps to the porch. This shlep is one reason that I often avoid cooking out of doors but there are others. I think steaks and burgers are just as good cooked in cast iron and grilled fish can be a real disaster. But for some special things, I heed the call of the smoke and fire.
Smoking on a charcoal kettle grill is easier than it might sound. For barbecue, which means smoking at very low temperatures, you need only about a dozen briquettes or the equivalent in volume of hardwood charcoal to get enough heat. I have tried both briquettes and the real stuff over the past couple of weeks and for this job I prefer the briquettes. They don't burn as hot and they last longer. It is essential to have a hinged grate with flaps that lift up on the ends so that you can add fuel without taking everything off the grill. Other than this no special equipment is needed. When the charcoal is grayish, no longer glowing red, you add a handful of soaked woodchips (I have been sticking with hickory but I'm open to new things) and cover the grill with the vents (open of course) on the side opposite from the heat. This way the smoke has to pass the food on its way out of the grill. I drop the probe of my thermometer through a vent hole to monitor the temperature in the kettle, which I want to be between about 200 and 240. I do wish I had one of those wireless remote thermometers so that I wouldn't have to scamper down to the porch to check in on my cooking, but the scampering keeps me moving and physical activity can't hurt when dinner is going to be barbecue. When the temp goes too low, you add charcoal and chips.
Cooking times for low and slow cuts like brisket and ribs depend on temperature and on the dimensions of the food, but rough guides can be helpful. Ribs take half a day. Briskets or pork shoulders take all day. I started a brisket too late in the day a couple of weeks ago and it was cooked through but tough at dinnertime. So I wrapped it in foil and put it in a 190 degree oven overnight. The next day it was perfect. It had picked up plenty of smoke in an afternoon of outdoor cooking, so it didn't taste like I had cheated. The problem with judging cooking times with these things is that you're not cooking them to temperature, you're cooking them until they're tender and falling apart. If it's time to eat and they're not there yet, it's best to find something else for dinner and keep on cooking into the night.
The worst excesses of grilling and barbecuing are the seasonings, the rubs and sauces. I have been finding that when it comes to smoking, "less is more" doesn't quite capture it. Less is simply appropriate, more can be a travesty. You are cooking very flavorful foods with hardwood smoke, but it is possible to obscure these assertive flavors with heavy doses of sweet gloop or with macho hot sauces that numb your tastebuds. In cooking baby back ribs the other day I rubbed on only salt and brown sugar in equal quantities and a moderate amount of black pepper. After four hours in the smoke we were not wanting for flavor. I did dip the ribs in some Sweet Baby Ray's original doctored with a few dashes of Tabasco, but this was strictly condiment and sparingly applied. No slathering. E didn't go for the sauce at all. When I made the brisket I used Texas seasonings in a rub--ancho and cayenne chile and cumin in addition to the salt, pepper, and sugar--but it would have been just as good without them. Regardless of the cut, it helps to rub on the salt and sugar at least a couple of hours ahead of time.
My other revelation has been that white meat chicken, a lean cut suited to grilling over high heat, is also great smoked at low barbecuey temperatures. If it's been salted or brined ahead of time (my brine is 1/3 cup table salt to 1 quart water, and my brining time is about three hours) and cooked with its skin and bones, it's not likely to dry out, and if you keep track of the chicken's internal temperature you can keep it from overcooking. If I'm going to spend the afternoon cooking I might as well make enough for several meals. So if there's just a brisket or a rack of ribs in there, there's also room for some chicken pieces or even a whole bird, standing up impaled on a half-full beer can. Like ribs and brisket, smoked chicken is good enough to eat all by itself, without any sauces or condiments. But it is nice to serve it cold with some spicy mayonnaise mixed with lemon juice, shallots, cornichons, capers, and anchovies.
Don't think I buy any of that malarkey about men cooking outside being the expression of some fundamental connection to our Pleistocene ancestors. That's the patriarchy speaking. But smoked foods are good to eat, and that's the God's honest truth.
More: Cooking With Fire in Slate.