It became trendy in the Paleolithic era, when Old Stone Age humans found that hanging meat in their smoky caves not only imparted a coating and aroma that warded off pests, but also made it taste good. While it might not have been difficult to improve the taste of a raw woolly mammoth shoulder, that practice of smoking meat to both preserve it and enhance its flavor has continued and improved throughout mankind’s history. Today, smoked meat is its own cuisine, and the practice of smoking food has become its own culture.
The advent of small backyard charcoal smokers allows modern humans to channel their inner Flintstone when preparing dinner, even if they live in a luxury townhome and get their meat from Whole Foods. Charcoal smokers vary in size, form, and function, but good smokers all share certain characteristics. Here are three things to look for when you’re shopping for a charcoal smoker:
1. Thick walls.
Because smoking is quintessential low-and-slow cooking, Smokers must operate for long periods to get a piece of meat to the proper stage of doneness. A smoker with thin walls will require more fuel to keep the temperature at a certain level, which means prolonging cooking time exacerbated by changing the environment inside the smoker when you open it up.
2. Good Seals
Food must be enveloped in smoke and the cooking environment kept at a specific temperature to get that good flavor deep into it (and to make sure it’s cooked properly). Ill-fitting lids, doors, and attachment hardware all allow heat and smoke to escape at an uncontrollable rate, which can make for improperly cooked food at best.
3. Temperature and smoke control
Good seals allow you to manipulate the lower and upper vents, or dampers, so you can easily manage the temperature inside the smoker and allow smoke to circulate. Dampers located beneath the combustion area and above the food allow you control the burn rate of the fuel, and thus the temperature and amount of smoke. Dampers should be easy to operate and capable of being finely turned so you can make minute adjustments in the heat level—which you should be able to easily read on a built-in temperature gauge.
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