Confession: I’m A Heavy Smoker
Smoke Elevates your Game, Whether You Smoke Hot or Cold with Sticks or Pellets
If you bow hunt, you already know the enhanced pleasure of slowing down to tackle a more challenging process.
You also know the rewards when an outing with your bow hunt switches up from hunt to success. One of the top-drawer ways to celebrate that success is by taking your bow-harvested game and making a meal for friends and family. Smoking is a time-honored way to make the most of the game on the table.
Confession: I Am a Heavy Smoker
My family and neighbors can confirm my heavy smoking. Several (mostly) evenings each week, they can detect hickory, maple, or fruitwood smoke wafting in the breeze across the fence.
Often, the smoke will be combined with the scent of cured black bear bacon, Whitetail deer tasso ham, seasoned goose legs, or some variant of game sausage. In June, there will be dry-brined lake trout. In September, there will be ruffed grouse and spruce grouse. There might be an elk roast, pork ribs, or whole chickens any other time of year.
Stick Burner vs. Pellet Smoker
I now own three smokers (or four if you consider my innovative, Artisan maze sawdust holder as an additional one).
A few years back, my family bought me a CharBroil offset smoker for my birthday. These are classic Texas pits. Heavy smokers refer to these rigs as “stick burners.” The obvious thing is these types of smokers burn sticks, logs, and charcoal or a combination of all three. The stick burner pros often use lump charcoal lit in a chimney starter with crumpled newspaper.
Another confession: I sometimes cheat and use a fire- starter cube. It is fine to use briquettes, too. Once the coals are rolling and the smoke is clear, place whatever items you are smoking in the smoking chamber and add wood chips of your choice over the coals. There’s no need to soak the wood chips in water. The preferred smoke is mostly invisible, anyway.
I like apple and hickory. You can light a fire of logs, sticks, or whatever you choose, but avoid the resiny stuff, like pine and spruce. Or, opt for birch, maple, or even poplar. Or simply buy smoking wood shipped west from eastern hardwood forests.
All in the Family
Having heavy-smoking nephews-in-law (if that is a thing), each owning top-drawer smokers; interviews with winning competitive smokers; and attending a couple of pro-level barbeque smoke workshops, I settled on a Yoder YS 640 mounted on a competition cart as my first pellet smoker.
If the Yoder were a pick-up truck, it would be an F 350 King Ranch with a custom orange paint job (the YS 640 is Yoder orange) or a Dodge Limited Longhorn with a full load of options.
Let’s say the YS 640 will handle a truckload of black bear shoulder, elk ribs, and moose brisket–simultaneously. I cook my birthday brisket on the Yoder. If not for recent COVID-19 restrictions, I could smoke enough meat for a feast to feed a backyard full of hungry friends and family. The Yoder is a beast, and as a pellet grill, it burns sawdust pellets. There’s a side hopper to hold enough fuel for a day-long smoke. The steel auger rotates to refill the burner box with fuel, and the electric fan runs continually. There are switches and toggles to set the smoke temperature and a baffle to control, direct, and adjust where most of the heat and smoke go.
Late last year, I was lucky enough to win a CampChef Woodwind––also a pellet smoker––but it’s more of F150 loaded with the latest Bluetooth bells and whistles. It still has good capacity and gives better mileage. The camp chef is Wi-Fi-enabled so that you can link the detailed controls to your phone and manage the smoking cabinet temperature and amount of smoke separately. (There are 100 different levels of smoke.) There are four different temperature probes to help you manage and monitor terminal temperature simultaneously, all the while getting the readout of progress on your iPhone or other Wi-Fi- enabled devices. Technically, you can have four separate products on the smoker, each one tracked with its own temperature probe and its own Wi-Fi progress readout.
The Cold Smoker
The fourth smoker is really a genius-designed stainless steel mesh tray. It’s a maze. The Artisan holds pellets or ground pellets in a maze. As the pellets smolder slow and steady, the ash ring proceeds around the maze. I recently smoked hams for 24 hours with one loading of the maze. It’s a cold-smoking arrangement. You can use this tray in any fireproof box, from your regular barbeque to an old fridge. It’s perfect for cold smoke, slow, steady, and low temperatures.
Grills versus Barbeque
In addition to smokers, I have two grills: a Broil King with a side burner, and a Lodge manufacturing Sportsman’s Grill. The Broil King is what we Canadians referred to as a barbeque, but in fact, it’s a natural gas grill intended for high-heat grilling over clean natural gas. I purchased the rotisserie and regularly use it to slow-cook pork hocks and whole chickens.
The Lodge Sportsman’s Grill is a small-ish hibachi-style grill that runs on lump charcoal or briquets. It is small and portable with one arm. It’s perfect when you want the high heat sear on a mule deer loin over red hot charcoals, a bit of smoke and a ton of direct heat.
Making Wild Protein Even Better: Dry Brine There are many things heavy smokers do regularly to enhance the smoke even more: such as brine and air drying.
Dry brines draw moisture out of meat and add flavor. A rub of 3% coarse salt by weight is a good place to start. (Buy and use an electronic scale and keep good records of exactly what you did and what the results were. This information will inform your next curing session and improve your results over time.) Leave the brine on the meat overnight, rinse well with water, air dry until there is a sticky, shiny pellicle on the surface, then smoke until you achieve the desired doneness.
Salt, sugar, and liquid make your wet brine. Michael Ruhlman recommends a ratio of one part salt to 20 parts water in his book Ratio. This is a good rule of thumb. If you want that red colour and hammy taste, you will need to add cure: sodium nitrite. (I advise you to refer to details on your package about using this product, follow the instructions to the letter, and measure very carefully.) Most of my smaller pieces of brined meats are submerged in the liquid for five to sevendays. A good rinse and even a soak for a couple of hours in fresh cold water takes the briny edge off. Let these pieces air dry in the fridge for 12 hours after that to create a pellicle before smoking.
Rubs are exactly what they sound like: a combination of spices rubbed into meat. Hot smoked pork shoulder destined to be pulled pork is a great candidate for a rub. The further you get into smoking, the more you will experiment with your own rub mix.
Here is a good place to start:
- Mix one part sweet paprika, smoked paprika, coarse black pepper, coarse salt, onion powder, and white sugar. (Optional garlic powder.)
- If you want a bit more heat, use hot paprika or add a bit of cayenne pepper.
- Rub these spices well into the pork shoulder before smoking.
My preference is to rub the shoulder the night before a long smoke and leave it in the fridge. It gives the spices time to absorb into the meat. Select from a number of different rubs here.
Mops are wet additions to the meat during the smoking or grilling process. These are wetter than sauce; think vinaigrette texture. The point of a mop is to moisten the meat throughout a long smoke.
Get yourself a grill mop; it looks like a mini cotton fiber floor mop. This tool holds just enough liquid to moisten smoking meat but not wash the layer of spice and smoke building up. Mops have a sweet, sour, and spicy note. There are endless options, but the magic combination is two parts apple cider vinegar to one part water with some spice mix added, and possibly a bit of barbeque sauce.
Be a Heavy Smoker
Smoking meat is part of our ancestral heritage. It is how we as humans survived living in caves. The first heavy smokers discovered fire and how it made meat delicious. We have been tweaking the process ever since.
A long gentle smoke that tenderizes wild protein and pushes complex delectable flavors deep into the meat on the smoker. isa rewarding and satisfying process––for both you and your guests. Smoke on!