I believe in barbecue. it's not just cooking, it's poetry.
Most Yankees and Californians confuse barbecue and grilling. Not the same. Whether you call it BBQ, Bar-B-Q, or just 'Q, barbecue requires smoke and a lot of time. As delicious as a grilled steak is, nothing that is done in 12 minutes can count as proper BBQ.
I have always longed to make real BBQ at home but didn't want to add yet another backyard gadget. It bugged me that I already have, in my Weber gas grill, a perfectly adequate big metal firebox on wheels, with grates for the food and an excellent heat source. But the damn thing won't barbecue.
I tried -- but the $60 "Steam 'n Chips" smoker attachment that Weber sells doesn't work at temperatures below 300 degrees F. That's too hot for the kind of barbecue I want. At that temp, few things are in there long enough to develop a smoky flavor with any depth. I want the cool, smoky environment between 200 and 250 degrees that makes killer ribs, turkey, and pork shoulder by turning collagen into silky gelatine and transforming tough cuts into fall-off-the-bones mouthfuls of flavor.
I was close to building something. I have seen plans that use flower pots, cast iron, and even cardboard and dowels to pipe smoke from a separate firebox. I was ready to fiddle with duct pipe and poke holes in my Weber.
I had a middle of the night idea and last weekend, had a four-hour pork shoulder that exhibited real smoke rings, the sub-surface pink tinge that is the mark of real BBQ. It's not perfect BBQ, but it was pretty darned good, especially for a first shot.
The technique is very simple. It relies on the discovery that running just one of the three burners on low yields a nice, even temperature under 250. But that burner setting won't energize Weber's smoking accessory -- so I didn't use the smoker. Instead, I placed the soaked wood chips in the firebox, directly over that one flame. Here are the details.
Depending on the size of what you are cooking, you'll need 3-12 hours. I was using a 3-1/2 pound bone-in pork shoulder, which took about four hours (and could have used another hour, longer if I'd wanted to make pulled pork).
1. The night before: Apply a dry rub to the meat. You can buy rubs but it's very easy to make your own. Use any spice blend that does not contain sugar (read the labels). I used ancho chili powder, sage, garlic salt, and Old Bay. Apply rub to meat, place in a plastic bag, refrigerate overnight.
2. That morning: Soak a pound (a quart or two) of wood chunks (not chips) in a gallon bucket for an hour or more. I used Weber's Hickory Chunks. They also sell chips so make sure you are getting larger chunks of wood. Any wood will do but most smokers are partial to hickory or fruit wood.
3. Start the grill. You can goose it up to temperature on high if you want, or set it low and wait. I turned the back-most burner on low and left the other two off.
I used a rotisserie attachment, but you don't have to.
4. Prepare your wood. The trick here is to think "time-release." You want a third of the wood to start smoking soon, some to come on-line a little later, and some later still. One way to do this is to feed in more wood ever hour or so.
What I did, which worked well, was to prepare two aluminum foil packs full of well-soaked chunks alongside several chunks without foil at all. The exposed chunks formed the first smoke. The middle smoke came from a pack, maybe 4 x 6 inches, which was open at the top and had a lot of holes in the bottom, so heat can pass through. A second, larger, pack (around 4 x12") was sealed shut. I poked a lot of holes in it, making more holes at one end. I left some water in both foil packs to further delay action and to make steam, an essential ingredient for long BBQ.
5. Open the grill. Remove the grate and lay your wood directly on the diffuser bars (Weber calls them "flavorizer bars"). You want the wood over the flames from the one burner that is on. Place both foil packets plus the unprotected, still wet chunks, all directly over the heat source.
Place the grates and the meat and close the lid.
6. The unprotected chunks began smoking very soon. As those began to wane, the open packet started smoking, followed an hour later by the large pack. The end of the pack with fewer holes held out the longest. Net result was a good four hours of steady smoke (and wood still left to burn — I think I would have had smoke for six hours).
There was not a lot of smoke, but it was steady. There was always a curl of smoke leaving the firebox.
Over time, I will tune my technique but I think it was pretty close to right.