Q: I've started using my smoker and the results are great! However, my guests are saying that meat isn't done enough because it's pink inside, even after many hours of low n' slow cooking. I'm using a thermometer so I know it's cooked. What's going on?
A: Welcome to the world of barbecued meat! What you are creating is known as the 'smoke ring.' It's a layer of pink that runs anywhere from 1/8 to 1/2 inch just inside the outer crust of barbecued/smoked meats.
 Without getting too technical, the smoke ring is the interaction between the natural pigment in meats, called myoglobin, and the nitrogen oxide created by the combination of nitrogen from the burning charcoal/wood and the oxygen in your cooker.
Since the nitrogen oxide (NO2) is water-soluble it gets absorbed into the moist surface of the meat to create the 'smoke ring.' Be aware that with chicken, the myoglobins are concentrated in the bones, so that is where the pinkness is most evident; almost like a 'reverse smoke ring' when compared to those near the surface of pork and beef. Many a bbq'r has had to explain to family and guests that the chicken is indeed done after they see the pink around the bone of the chicken! Quick-read meat thermometers are an ideal way to ensure that chicken is thoroughly cooked (minimum 160 breast, minimum 170 thigh) regardless of meat colour around the bone.
 
Q: What is 'smoke cooking' and how does it work?
A: Smoker cooking is a process of cooking over a low smokey fire for a long period of time. Meats that have been cooked this way have a distinct smokey flavour and are very tender and moist if done correctly. For most smoke cooking, a pan of hot water is placed between the heat source and the cooking grid. The water simmers, adding moisture to the smoke and keeps the heat lower. Soaked wood pieces are added to the hot charcoal or placed on the electric heating element as needed to produce the smoke.
 
Q: What sort of woods should I be using for smoke cooking?
A: Hardwoods, mesquite and fruitwoods are the best woods to use. Hickory and oak add a robust flavour that complements beef, pork and chicken. You have to be careful with mesquite as it can overpower many milder meat flavours, but this wood has become synonymous with Texas BBQ. Fruitwoods such as apple and cherry add a light smoked flavour and go well with poultry. Alder has a delicate aroma and complements fish, especially trout and salmon. Do not use cedar, fir, pine, spruce, or any other woods with evergreen needles; the resins in these woods give food an unpleasant bitter taste.
 
Q: How do I use the wood, and how much do I put on the charcoal?
A: Soak dry wood chips in water for at least 30 minutes. Soak larger chunks for several hours. This will cause the wood to smoke longer instead of burning up too fast. For foods that cook in 30 minutes or less, use chips. For meats that require a longer cooking time, use chunks. Just before putting the meat on the grill, scatter the wood evenly over the hot coals or on the electric element and wait for a few minutes for it to begin smoking, then just add the food to the grill. For a smokier flavour, add more wood as the food cooks.
 
Q: Are there alternate methods of cooking with smoke on my BBQ?
A: Yes, of course. Another way to cook in a charcoal smoker is to dry-smoke or roast in it. This method adds a delicious flavour to meat when the fat and juices drip on to the hot charcoal and smoke. To do this, remove the water pan and place the meat on the cooking grid in its highest position above the charcoal and smoking wood. Cooking times are generally shorter using this method since the water pan is not there blocking the heat. Some of the best Southern pork barbecue is made by cooking a 20 lb whole pork shoulder for 12 to 14 hours using this method and hickory wood for smoking.
 
Q: It seems like a long time to make dinner! How much time is needed to smoke food?
A: Long, slow smoker cooking is quite a variation from today's hurried lifestyle, but the results are worth the extra time that it takes. It also requires some planning on your part. Base your schedule on the average cooking time for a recipe and count backwards from the time that you plan to eat. From there, add 1 hour for starting the fire, removing the meat from the fridge to get the chill off, and preparing everything to cook. It sounds like a lot of work, but don't worry; this first hour of preparation is the most work you will have to do!
 
Q: Okay, you've sold me. I've got the smoker and I've got the 1 hour prep down. Now what?
A: To get started, place the smoker outdoors on a level surface that won't burn and in a spot away from open windows and doors. For a charcoal smoker, build the fire in the fire pan in the bottom of the smoker using at least five pounds of good quality hardwood charcoal. When cooking very large cuts of meat requiring longer cooking times, start with 10 lbs of charcoal if the fire pan allows for that volume. Allow the charcoal to burn until covered in white ash, about 40 to 45 minutes. For an electric smoker, plug it in and preheat about 10 minutes.
 
Q: The smoker's up to temp and I'm ready to start cookin'! Now what?
A: Place two or three soaked wood chunks directly on the hot charcoal or electric heating element. Using heavy gloves or mitts, place the water pan in position above the charcoal or element. Fill the pan with hot tap water and any other ingredients called for in your recipe. Put the cooking grid in place and arrange the food in a single layer on the grid. Remember to always leave a little space between each piece of food so that the smoke and heat can circulate evenly over and around the pieces. Place the cover on the smoker and let the cooking begin! I know it's tempting, but do not lift the cover again until the end of the minimum cooking time unless it's absolutely necessary, to add water or charcoal for example.
 
Q: How long can I expect the water and/or charcoal to last?
A: If you are cooking longer than four hours, you may have to add more water to the drip pan. A full pan of charcoal should last about six hours. Add more wood chunks only as needed or desired for a smokier flavour.
 
Q: How do I know if the food is done after the minimum cooking time listed in the recipe?
A: At the end of the minimum cooking time, insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, making sure it's not touching bone or fat. When done, remove the meat to a platter and let it rest about 15 to 20 minutes before carving.
 
Q: Any other tips to make my smoking experience a successful one?
A: A few tips of the trade not already mentioned are:
- Always thaw food prior to cooking.
- If additional charcoal is required during the cook, be sure it is hot and covered with white ash before adding it to the smoker. To do this, you will need to start it in a separate grill or 'charcoal chimney' (available at most BBQ shops and hardware stores) at least 30 minutes before it is needed.
- Additional cooking time may be required if it's windy, colder than 60°F, or if you've lifted the cover frequently.
- Do not use 'instant lighting' charcoal as it burns with too much flame for too long of a time to justify using it in a smoker. This can damage the smoker's paint finish, delay the start to your cook and most importantly, can cause the food to absorb the petroleum fumes and result in 'chemically' tasting BBQ.
 
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The BBQ Community
Q: I've got my smoker and I'm enjoying using it, but don't have anyone to share my enthusiasm about BBQ. Where can I meet like-minded people like yourself?
A: Check out our link page and you will find the internet address for several BBQ forums. Some are geared toward users of a particular smoker or grill, while others are for folks in a particular region. Check the links and see which one best suits your particular location, cooker, and/or approach to BBQ and jump right in! The folks in the BBQ community are almost always generous with their time and expertise, so don't hesitate to post your questions and comments.
 
Q: Okay, I think I can make some pretty good BBQ, and I see that Bustin' Loose does a number of BBQ competitions. How do I go about getting a team together?
A: Personally speaking, it was contacts made through the internet and a barbecue association that first lead me to competition barbecue. If you've found the forums, you're likely to find folks living in your area who are just as interested in BBQ and BBQ competitions as you are. To find events in your area, use the links to BBQ associations. They will have a list of events that they sanction and are happening throughout the year. Choose the one(s) that are closest to you and/or suit your skill level and go for it!
 
Q: What food items should I be prepared to cook at a competition?
A: You are best to check with the organizers as they will have rules and guidelines for their particular event. For example, here in the Toronto area, we do an event that has categories for whole hog, pork ribs and chicken. Another in Barrie calls for beef, pork shoulder, pork ribs, chicken, sauce and dessert, with the 4 main meat categories determining Grand Championship. In the U.S. we do events sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Association and they require beef brisket, pork ribs, pork shoulder and chicken to be cooked for Grand Championship qualification. Depending on the contest, there are also optional categories that may include one or all of: sausage, potatoes, beans, vegetable, sauce and dessert! Again, choose the contest, categories, sanctioning body and rules that best suit your skills and commitment/ equipment level.
 
Q: How much does it cost to compete?
A: I know some cooks who will say that competitive BBQ has nearly cost them a marriage, but I think you are talking dollarwise, right? Entry fees will generally be scaled in accordance with prize money. A small, regional competition might cost $75 to $100, but one with big prize money might cost upwards of $250 or $300 to enter. Prize money can range from a pool of about $1200 to high-profile events offering $25,000 and up! On top of your entry fee, you have to consider your meat costs, your accommodations if not 'tenting' it, personal food and beverages, a canopy to prepare food under, tables, knives, utensils, charcoal, foil, sauces, rubs, perhaps some sort of signage for your team, shirts at some point.... You can see where I'm going with this, eh? There are basic necessities for competitions as laid out by the rules (for example, wash area supplies, fire extinguisher and the canopy), while others can be accumulated over the stretch of several competitions (fancy knives, tripod lighting etc). Once again, the forums are a great place to ask fellow competitors about what is required at each event and what qualifies as an extra.

Good luck, and I hope to meet you out there on the BBQ trail!
Earl
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