THIS IS A COLUMN I’VE BEEN EAGER TO WRITE. I finally bought a smoker and got it set up in my backyard. After reading two books, visiting numerous websites, studying multiple vendors and various models, I settled on going whole hog and having Garnet in Vallejo at gstackspits.com weld me a custom offset-firebox model of my very own.
I paid over $1,000 for this big daddy of a smoker, but I’m totally satisfied. I got my money’s worth. Had I purchased a less expensive one from Home Depot or Lowes, it would have slowly deteriorated and rusted out over the coming years and eventually it would turn to crap and have to be sent to the recycler. This steel bruiser is going to outlive me and my children’s children. I can envision it smoking meat 100 years from now.
Thus, my smoker was not an expense. It was an investment. My money is safe. If I grow too feeble to lift the lid — with the most awesome-looking hatchet handle, just like the ones Garnet welded onto the big red smoker down in Rob Storelee’s parking lot next to Rookies Sports Bar — or too weak to smoke my own meats, I can sell it for at least what I paid for it, just like my two appreciating pinball machines. I can’t say that about my Yelp stock.
The smoker was delivered two Tuesdays ago. I was eager to try it out, but happened to have a lot of afternoon commitments throughout that week that would interfere with a six-hour smoking session. So I used chicken legs. Chicken parts smoke in three hours.
I tossed in several pieces of pecan and cherry wood that I bought by the gunny sack in Santa Rosa, turned on my propane assist tank, and fired it up. Wow. I blew it that day. The fire was too big, too fast, and the smoke was billowing. I struggled to regulate the heat and smoke by closing dampers on the firebox and stack. My thermometers were all over the gauge, too hot, too cold, too darn smoky.
I ate several pieces. They were juicy and tasty, but black with smoke. Susan took one bite and almost gagged. She spit it out and said, “Yuck. These are inedible.” Gino, who is here for the month, gobbled up all the rest. He agreed they were smoky but the goodness superseded.
Round two a week later I made baby-back ribs. I built a smaller fire, had much less smoke, and the ribs came out delicious, but a bit dry and tough and still with a strong hint of smoke. I stayed by the smoker the whole five hours, constantly adjusting the dampers open, closed, half open, back and forth. I was meticulous, but my meat was subpar for my standards. My confidence was waning.
I returned to my research. After a few hours of reading, I discovered my flaws. The answers were revealed to me on an old 1997 barbecue blog. In essence it said, “Don’t fool around with the dampers. Closing the chimney damper creates recycling smoke which will stale and fall onto your meat. Closing the firebox damper will suffocate your flame and cause your wood to smoke too much. Leave them both open as much as possible and regulate by controlling your fire size.”
I also learned that most smoker instructions are written for people with smaller smokers that use charcoal for heat and a few wood chunks for smoke. Their temperature range is 225-250 degrees. My smoker is capable of cooking with 100-percent wood, a rare luxury. Because I’m using all wood I need higher heat so the wood fire doesn’t go out and turn to a smoking heap. Two references suggested going up as far as 275 degrees.
Round three was yesterday. I had purchased two slabs of pork spare ribs at the Sonoma Meat Company that deals exclusively in local, happy, undrugged pig meat. I decided to risk one rack trying these new instructions, eager to get it right so I could throw a party.
I rushed home after voting Tuesday and started my fire. I figured Susan, Gino and I would be the test subjects around 8 p.m. About an hour into smoking my phone rings. It’s Gino. “Hey, I invited a bunch of people over tonight to try your ribs. Sarah and Tom Woo, Bud and Sandy Donaldson, Rick and Donna Cocanour are all coming over.”
Oh, great. I’m on the spot now.
I stayed with my smoker like a loving relative hovering over a sick uncle. I never left its side. Come eight o’clock the house was full, wine was flowing, and I came inside with my finished ribs, golden brown. After they rested for 30 minutes, I snuck over and cut off the first rib for taste testing.
Oh, dear lord. I literally dropped to my knees in the middle of the crowded room and yelled, “Thank you, Jesus! That is the best rib I have ever tasted.” My friends dug in. One rib per person. We all agreed — excellent ribs, sliding from the bone, with just the right amount of smoke.
“Thank you, Garnet!”
Steve Gibbs teaches at Benicia High School and has written a column for The Herald since 1985.