A specialized cooker for the professional and the backyard gourmet is charcoal smokers. Smoking is the process by which meat or fish is slow cooked at lower temperatures (around 200 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit) with the addition of some sort of wood that gives the food item a distinctive taste, look and feel. Smoking food was originally a way to preserve food as the smoke tends to dry out the water in the food item. Smoking food items add flavor as well as tenderizes the meats. This is why some tougher cuts of meats, like a brisket, do very well when cooked ‘low and slow’.
In order to smoke meat you need to be able to regulate the heat keeping it constant temperature for the entire cooking time. The time itself may be from an hour to a full day for larger, tougher cuts. Smoking fish may even take days if you smoke at a very low temperature. Although you can make your own charcoal smokers, your job will be a lot easier with a more consistent end product if you get a cooker that is especially designed for smoking.
Charcoal Smokers, Types of
The low end charcoal smokers are the bullet type smokers such as the Weber Smokey Mountain cooker. These cookers are designed simply yet remain reliable both in execution and build. The charcoal goes in the bottom of the cooker, a pan of water can be placed above it both to deliver moisture and keep the temperature in check. There is a vent at the bottom and one in the lid which regulates airflow and hence the temperature of the fire. The more air or fuel for the fire the hotter your fire will be. Most of these smokers have two or three grates in them to be able to layer food items and cook more at once. There is a large door to be able to add more charcoal as you continue to smoke.
The offset smoker is a grill that can be gas or charcoal but it has an additional box built on the side where wood is burnt and is connected to the grill area. This provides offset smoking where the heat source is not directly under the food item. This design is used in everything from the backyard cooker to the big rigs barbecue pits that the professionals use at competitions.
There are accessories that you can purchase to be able to turn a regular grill into a smoker. I use a Big Green Egg or Kamado style cooker for all my outdoor cooking. I have a device that is used in kilns to fire plates that fits in my cooker over the fire making an indirect smoking environment that works very well. In addition there are fan units that you can purchase to fit the kamado or the bullet smokers that will regulate the temperature of your grill so you do not have to constantly watch the smoker. Twenty hours is a long time to cook. These fan setups allow you to start one night, go get some sleep and continue to cook through the next day.
Most of the large commercial charcoal smokers are all custom made. If you have the money by all means check out some of the builders of these or the tow-able competition pits. They have all the bells and whistles you would ever need.
You do not have to spend a lot of money in order to be able to smoke food items at home. I saw one built by Alton Brown from the Food Network with a couple of terracotta pots and some additional items. Buying commercial charcoal smokers are a good investment especially if you are new to this type of cooking.