Smoking has come far from curing and preserving meat out of sheer necessity. While restaurants continue to develop the art of "smoky" and expand culinary techniques, smoking at home is also on the rise—still fueled by the innate human desire to cook with fire.
Smoke drifts early in the morning from behind Famous City Bistro at Glen and Sheridan. Inside, Ken Humphreys, Jr., vice president, opens the doors to an Ole Hickory smoker and pulls out a large pork butt—actually the hog’s upper shoulder—ideal for pulled pork with its high fat and tissue content. The comforting smell of hickory wood and smoldering smoke fills the small kitchen.
“Once all the meat starts to get really tender, but is still juicy—that’s when it’s ready to come out and be pulled,” he explains. This pork’s been smoking for nearly 15 hours—put in the oven by the closing shift the night before. “Depending on the size and particular meat, the process can take anywhere from 12 to 15 hours,” he explains. We cook it ‘low and slow,’ as they say—at a low temperature for a long period of time.” Humphreys' smoker is state-of-the-art, but “low and slow” is nothing new. Back in the day, meat was smoked for weeks, lasted for years and was crucial to survival in hard times.
Early Meat Lockers and Smoke for Curing
Before refrigeration, slaughtered animals spoiled quickly. Early on, smoke’s ability to cure and preserve meats led to the advent of small smokehouses—an essential element of daily life in colonial times. The early versions were small, enclosed wooden sheds where a smoldering fire could burn for weeks and meat could hang, protected and dry, until eaten.
In the Colonial Willamsburg Journal, author Michael Olmert summarizes early descriptions of the typical 18th-century, eight-by-14-foot square rooms, built of dry wood, with conical roofs and nails in the rafters to hang the meat: “A fire is made on the floor in the middle of the building in the morning, which it is not necessary to renew during the day,” he writes. “This is done for four or five days successively. The vent for the smoke is through the crevasses of the boards. The meat is never taken out 'till it is used.”
Though it’s possible these early cooks might have noted that smokiness also enhances the flavor of the meat, suffice it to say we’ve come a long way from smoking’s early roots, from a focus on survival and preservation to a “tender, juicy and fall-off-the-bone” kind of passion.
TIPS FOR HOME SMOKING
Mike Citchens has learned a lot in his smoking career. Here are some of his tips to avoid most beginners’ mistakes.
- Choose the right wood for the meat. Beef and pork go best with a heavier, smoked wood like oak, hickory or mesquite. Use a fruitier wood like cherry, apple, pecan or pear for a lighter taste that won’t overpower the smaller cuts of meat.
- Start with a good rub. Most rubs require something sweet: cane sugar or light or dark brown sugar to caramelize the meat and lock in the juices; garlic—powder or salt; onion—powder or salt; pepper for flavor; and paprika for color.
- Don’t open the smoker until it’s time—every time you open the lid, you set back the cooking process about 30 minutes.
- Don’t add the sauce until you’re about to serve the meat, except for poultry. The barbecue sauce makes a great marinade for birds before grilling—the sugars in the sauce act like the sugar in a rub to keep the meat juicy.
A Fall-Off-the-Bone Kind of Love
Mike Citchens has just this sort of passion for smoking. He is owner of the Peoria barbeque staple, the Smo-King Pit, located in the Northwoods Mall. The restaurant’s soul belongs to Citchens, but its heart is the Cookshack250—an electric-based smoker which, as the name implies, can cook up to 250 pounds of meat at a time—enough to feed the average 350 people coming through the mall restaurant Sundays through Thursdays, and 500 or so on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Smo-King Pit started out of necessity. Citchens, out of work after a ten-year stint in the automotive industry, returned to cooking—his true passion—converting a 250-gallon propane tank into a smoker, just for fun. He then developed and bottled his own barbeque sauce recipe. One lucky spring day in 2005, he was inquiring about getting a kiosk to sell his sauce at Northwoods Mall when the leasing agent asked instead, “Why not try opening a restaurant?”
Seven years later, the Smo-King Pit is running strong with the Cookshack250, a step up from his homemade smoker, but for large catering events, Citchens relies on a Southern Pride, made by the Tennessee-based commercial barbeque pit and smoker company of the same name. Citchens’ model, the 1400, is a gas-fed wood burner that runs on electricity to turn the inner carousel. The smoker can cook 200 slabs of ribs at one time.
Southern Pride and Ole Hickory seem to dominate the commercial barbeque smoker field. “Most barbeque restaurants usually have one of the two,” Humphreys, Jr. explains.
Trusting Your Smoker
The industrial-sized smoker at Famous City Bistro was purchased directly from the manufacturer, Ole Hickory, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “There were really just two choices,” Humphreys, Jr. says. “The Ole Hickory or Southern Pride. They’re both very similar, but the Ole Hickory had all the features we were looking for.”
Approaching its one-year anniversary, Famous City Bistro strives to serve the “best from every city”—sandwiches make up the bulk of a menu featuring quite a bit of smoked meat: Memphis pulled pork, Dallas brisket, Sante Fe chicken, Iowa City pork loin…
The restaurant owners, Ken Humphreys, Sr. and Patty Cirilli, don’t take their mission lightly; their smoker is one of the best on the market, Humphreys, Jr. explains. “We knew we were going to be doing a lot of barbeque and wanted to do it right, like they do in Memphis or the other big barbeque places. In order to cook like them, we needed to have the equipment like them.”
Citchens agrees that the right equipment makes a world of difference, but trusting that equipment can be even harder, whether at a restaurant or at home. “One thing a lot of people don’t realize is every time you open your smoker…you add 30 minutes to the cooking process. It takes that long to recover the heat when you open it up,” he says.
Proper smoking adheres to the “low and slow” mantra—a low, 200-degree Fahrenheit range. “Smoking is a process,” Citchens says. “You’re going to burn some meat up in order to get it right. [But] once you…know your equipment, it becomes automatic.”
Big Green Eggs
At home, Humphreys, Jr. is the proud owner of a Big Green Egg, a ceramic-style cooker. Touted as “the ultimate cooking experience,” the product’s design allows for a wide range of cooking temperatures to sear, high and fast, or smoke, low and slow. Humphreys, Jr., who also uses the Big Green Egg to bake pizza for a “perfect crust,” says the benefit is being able to trust the cooker—“you can put in the amount of charcoal you want and just let it go—you don’t have to worry about adding more charcoal to keep the temperature consistent—it just knows and keeps it the same.”
Jerry Buysse, president of Hearth and Patio in Peoria, says the Big Green Egg is by far their most popular item. The store offers cooking classes that focus on how to use the product for smoking, grilling or searing. But Buysse says passion for barbeque goes beyond the product. He’s been seeing an increase in people spending more time outdoors cooking. “Grilling is a family event,” he explains.
Citchens agrees. “When I was younger, I would go to my aunt’s house and they always barbecued on a Weber grill. If I made it their house I didn’t leave until the food was gone!
“They cook it in different ways in different regions but everyone loves barbeque. Think about it: how did we cook food first? On an open fire,” he says. Fire just draws people in, he adds, “crossing all barriers.” a&s