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Food Smokers

Saturday, 28 March 2009 | Tags: , ,

A technique for preserving food developed thousands of years ago, smokers add a unique flavor to food. We learned about smoking from experts at ACME Smoked Fish in New York, and put some backyard smokers to the test.

The Basics

  • Popular smoked foods throughout history include smoked salmon (North American First Nations), country ham (colonial Virginia and Southern US), kippers (Victorian-era Britain), and chipotle chilies (Aztec-era, Central America).

  • Choose your smoker by fuel type:

    • Electric smokers

      • Are user-friendly, have easy temperature control, and require little maintenance while food is cooking since there’s no fire.

      • Wood chunks, pellets or chips are gradually burned and the smoke is dispersed throughout the chamber.

      • Be careful where you plug it in because electric smokers consume a lot of power and can blow overloaded breakers. However, they’re still less expensive to operate than other types of smokers.

      • Enthusiasts tend to feel that electric models don’t allow smoke to penetrate food enough or develop a proper crust on the food.

    • Gas (propane) smokers

      • Are similar to electric in many ways: easy to use, good temperature control, low maintenance, and an element burns the wood to create smoke.

      • A downside of gas smokers is that you need to monitor the tank level so that it doesn’t run out and allow the food to cool, which can create health concerns.

      • However, gas smokers are more portable than electric since there’s no power cord.

    • Wood pellet smokers

      • Tend to be trickier to operate than gas or electric, but are lower maintenance than charcoal/wood smokers.

      • Many also require electricity to run the inner mechanisms.

      • Wood pellets are more efficient than charcoal, and aren’t prone to flare-ups or hot and cold spots.

      • Pellets are available in “flavours” and are fairly inexpensive.

    • Charcoal-Wood Pellet combination smokers

      • Produce fantastic flavour and texture if used correctly. They are more difficult to use, however.

  • There are two common designs:

    • An offset design has a “firebox” separate from the cooking chamber, which allows you to stoke without letting out much heat or smoke.

    • A bullet design has the food and fuel all in the same chamber and is a little trickier to master.

  • Good temperature control is the most important aspect of smokers. Look for as many features as possible that help control temperature.

    • Make sure that the temperature is fully adjustable. Avoid models with only a high/medium/low setting.

    • Look for a design with the thermostat near the heat source and another far away from it. Thermostats should have a tight seal so that smoke and moisture won’t cause damage.

    • The broader the temperature range advertised, the better, since it will give you more ways of using the smoker.

  • The heavier the metal of your smoker casing, the better it will retain heat. Stainless steel is more expensive than regular steel, harder to keep clean, and also tends to be thinner.

  • Check handles, hinges, controls, etc. for thick and sturdy construction.

  • Look for thick, strong, airtight seals. You don’t want any leaks letting heat and flavourful smoke out, or oxygen in, which makes it difficult to control temperature.

  • Vents and dampers control airflow to the smoker. There should be two: one near the heat source to let oxygen in, and another at the top to expel heat or smoke as necessary.

  • Look for products that come with accessories like rib hooks, a cover, and a manual with some recipes to get you started.

  • For easy stoking, look for a model that allows you to access the firebox without opening the smoking chamber. For example, offset designs or front-loading cabinet designs.

  • Your smoker should be wide enough to fit a long rack of ribs (around 16 inches) and tall enough to fit a big turkey (at least 12 inches from rack to lid).

  • Look for adjustable and removable shelves so you can cook different foods and clean up easier.

  • Many smokers have water pans, which regulate humidity and keep food moist. The bigger the water pan, the less often you have to refill it.

  • Drip pans are either placed directly under the meat, or else under the heat source. If you like making sauces from the drippings, pick one that’s positioned under the meat.

  • Stainless steel racks are the quickest to clean. Water pans and drip pans are often dishwasher-safe.

Other Considerations

  • You can turn your barbecue into a smoker with a foil packet of wood and a water pan. Consult your library, local bookstore, or online for specific instructions on how to do this.

  • Consider placement of your smoker: small electric models and bullet-style charcoal/wood smokers work for smaller spaces. Remember to allow for plenty of space on all sides to protect from heat.

  • Cold-smoking is done at temperatures under 120° F and is a great method for smoking nuts, spices, lox, cheese, and more. Some smokers come with cold smoking settings, and others have “baffles”, which keep heat out and let smoke in.

  • Some smokers able heat up to 450 to 500° F can also be used as grills. But smokers can be a bit trickier to operate than the average barbecue, so if you already have a barbecue, don’t bother with a grill-capable smoker.

TEST CRITERIA

We visited ACME Smoked Fish Inc. in New York to learn about smoking, and to test these smokers:

  • Bradley Original Smoker (electric, wood pucks): $379.99
  • Weber Smokey Mountain 22.5” Smoker (charcoal-wood): $479  (Available at Homedepot.ca)
  • Traeger Lil’ Tex Smoker (wood pellets): $800

Usage Test

  • The Bradley was really easy to start: you just load the pellets and press the on button, and then add more when needed. It was also easy to control the temperature.

  • The Weber took a little bit of work: you put in the charcoal, light it and get it going, then add the wood chunks to start smoking. This one required the most maintenance during smoking, and was difficult to maintain at a constant temperature.

  • The Traegar had an offset firebox in which you load the wood pellets. It was hard to figure out whether it was working or not. It was only when we saw smoke billowing out that we knew it was working. And we couldn’t find the water tray. It was a hard smoker to figure out. The Traegar also only had 3 temperature settings: smoke, medium, and high. We had it on smoke and still blackened the fish!

Taste Test

  • The fish from the Bradley looked really good. It was a golden brown colour and had an intense, smoky flavour, though was still quite moist.

  • The Weber fish was also a good colour and flavour similar to the Bradley.

  • The Traegar only had 3 temperature settings: smoke, medium, and high. We had it on smoke and it blackened the fish! It also was dry and unappetizing.

  • Then we compared our test fish with some of ACME’s own smoked fish, which was delicious.

OUR TOP PICK

Both the Weber charcoal and the Bradley electric smokers did a good job of smoking the fish. In the end, we decided that the Weber charcoal smoker did the best job and was the most versatile.

 

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