As we learn to do more and more foods for ourselves, including preservation techniques, smoking has risen on the priority list. Last year we bought a nice used grill/smoker from Show Me Eats, and then never got around to trying it for over a year. It sat there under its cover, making me feel guilty, but we also didn’t have much spare meat last year to practice with. This year, between three goats, a pig, and at least one deer, we have more leeway to experiment. And so up was fired the smoker.

The first test was a couple-pound section of a fresh goat kid’s ham, just a basic hunk of decent meat. Loosely following a recipe from Charcuterie, I kept the temperature in the smoking chamber between 200-300ºF, while brushing every so often with a bourbon/sorghum (replacing maple syrup)/brown sugar glaze. This cut took four hours to reach an internal temperature of 180F. It was decent, but a little dry/tough and the glaze’s flavor didn’t really come through. The major learning curve was practicing with how often to add (hardwood lump) charcoal to keep the temperature in the right range, with the chamber ranging from sub-200 to over-300. I did this on a day when I had lots of indoor housework to take care of, so it worked out nicely to keep running outside every 15 minutes or so to check on things. A good start, but room for improvement.

Pretty quickly I decided that the single biggest thing I’d done wrong was not brining the meat. I had known that I should; I like brining other cuts, I had just been in a hurry and not planned enough ahead. And I needed to keep the temperature more steady; I was shooting for 250F.

The next test was a venison ham. This is what I wanted to serve for Thanksgiving, but needed to know I could do it right. And, of course, I needed a deer. That was taken care of Saturday afternoon, with the addition of a nice young doe to the larder. We kept both hams whole, other than deboning them, and froze one while readying the other for smoking. This time, I made a gallon of curing brine and left the meat in there for 10 or so hours, a little shorter than recommended by Charcuterie but I didn’t want to stay up any later that night. I took it out just before bed and left it open in the fridge overnight to dry a bit, then fired up the smoker after breakfast and morning chores. By 10:00 I had the chamber at 250 and the nice 5.5lb ham tied in a neat bundle and inside smoking away.

This was a major housecleaning day for me, starting to get ready for family visiting all of next week, so again the setting was perfect for tending a smoker all day. This time I was brushing with a glaze of sorghum syrup, brown sugar, and rum as I had used all my bourbon on the goat (and myself while doing it). I did a better job of keeping the temperature even this time, rarely departing too far from 250, and brushing on glaze while turning the meat every hour or so. Overall I left it in there until after dark, 9 hours or so. Then I pulled it out and sliced off a few slabs to have for dinner with a fresh salad:

Apologies for the terrible color, our remaining small camera doesn’t handle indoors well and I’m no whiz at playing with color balances. Hopefully you get the idea. This was noticeably better than the goat, very tender and juicy with a richer flavor. I credit that primarily to the brine, along with better temperature control. It would be fun to do goat & venison side-by-side sometime; later this winter. Writing this up an hour later, I can still taste the just-right smoke flavor and the crispy-sweet crust of glaze.

Having only done this twice in my life now, I’m sure I have far more to learn about getting things just right. The glaze crust was good but also a bit blackened; maybe I should use lower temperatures? And I don’t have a lot to compare it to, having eaten largely our own meat for years and having no clear memory of what really good smoked meat ought to taste like. But man, was that a good start by our own standards. Can’t wait to play with our own pork, which we’ll process sometime in December.

Tips from others with more experience than I, based on what I’ve described here?

3 thoughts on “Smoking

  1. Looks great. Hovering around 250 is about perfect, temperature-wise. If the glaze/crust ended up a little burnt, you could just wait a bit longer into the cooking process, then apply more frequently.On brining, I've been reading more lately about the downsides of it – a significant amount of the meat flavor ends up getting absorbed into the liquid, which then gets dumped. Have you considered trying a dry rub? It function as a sort of "brine" without the liquid.

  2. Interesting point on the brine. Both Harold McGee and Ruhlman/Polcyn really talk up the brine, and I've always felt I had really good results with using one. But I haven't done a side-by-side comparison. Would a dry rub thoroughly integrate the cure into the meat the same way? I suppose if you used enough, like packing a ham in salt, but the brine seems more resource-efficient.Something to play with.

  3. Actually, it was one of McGee's recent articles in the NY Times (another "myth debunking" style article, this time Thanksgiving themed) were he discusses the trade-off involved in brining meat. Essentially, the process trades meat flavor for retained moisture in the final product. He doesn't really offer an alternative, but I've heard others recommend a "dry brine", really just a salt rub.