Smokin’ on the 4th of July

I have resided in the Unites States for just about the same amount of time I spent in my native Perú, roughly 13 years. Prior to coming to the States, my family packed our bags and moved us to Vancouver, BC, where I lived for nearly 10 years.

My life in the U.S. has been educational, inspiring and challenging to say the least, and as much as I observe my other sovereign nations’ patriotic holidays, nothing comes as close to my growing fondness towards 4th of July. 
Perhaps it was the historic and cultural vibe I experienced during my impressionable ~7 year tenure in Philadelphia, or maybe it is the celebratory spirit and sense of pride this holiday brings to Americans of all mixed descents. Of course, the sun, great beer and grilled meats certainly has something to do with it. 

Not many cultures (except for Koreans, Argentinians and a few others) can master a grilled steak and document the process as well as Americans can. And while I hope I’ve gotten my grilling reasonably on point by now (naturally due to some tragic mishaps along the way), never before have I tried my hand at smoking meats. That was until a few days ago.

One of my favorite BBQ houses in Memphis, Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous.

Zara got me an 18.5” Weber Smokey Mountain cooker for my birthday, but I have to admit that in the past I’ve been a bit apprehensive about assembling this beautiful beast. You see, aside from the alchemy involved in molecular gastronomy, the science behind amazing baking techniques, smoking procedures are as formulaic as the aforementioned culinary genres. Well…so I thought. 

To demystify my assumptions I went on to research what others have written on the subject by deconstructing articles written by both novice and expert-level smoking aficionados
Considering that I’m still a complete amateur when it comes to smoking, the bottom line is that while it does require the right tools and plenty of patience, it can be fairly forgiving as long as you keep calibrating the smoker’s temperatures to your desired outcome. 

There are a plethora of cuts out there with new ones being discovered over time, which understandably can be a bit overwhelming to the less experienced eye. Rely on your local butcher’s expertise as he/she should be able to guide you in the right direction. It goes without saying, but never concern yourself with failure as that’s the best way to learn.

There are a million of permutations on rubs, marinades, injection infusions, sopping/mopping/basting brushing or spraying techniques as well as finishing tricks for your smoked meats, fish/seafood, vegetables or even desserts. Initially, just try to keep it simple to learn how to control heat in order to achieve the right textures as you’ll be able to intensify flavors with time. This reminds me of what I used to tell my Muay Thai students back in Philly: first learn your body dynamics (coordination) and technique as speed, accuracy and power develops over time. At the risk of sounding like Yoda, I’ll move right along…

I thought I’d put together and season the Weber and prepare the meats the night before so I could get going right at noon the next day. What better opportunity to christen the smoker than on the 4th.

Tip: Before firing up your smoker for the first time, it is recommended to season it prior to first application. This involves wiping it down, spraying a thin coat of pam on the inside and firing it up without any contents for a few hours.

Heating up your coals 

Smoking requires commitment and patience as you will need to keep an eye on the temperature and adjust the valves throughout your watch. So grab a book, get a drink or chill with your friends until serving time rolls around. Better yet, if you got company that has some smoking knowledge, you may change guard at any point.

As it turns out my Weber produced a considerable amount of smoke upfront after placing the soaked chips on top of the hot coals; I used 100 briquettes. Following those 10-15 minutes until the smoke died down a bit, it actually remained pretty minimal through the end as I didn’t want to bother our nearby neighbors.

Since this smoker’s instructions have already been published online as I’m sure with other manufactures’ guides, I’m going to skip on the steps for firing up the coals. 

You will need: 

  • Charcoal Briquettes: It is important to get proper briquettes that haven’t been treated with lighter fluid. 
  • Wood chunks/chips: I recommend the thicker chunks as supposed to the smaller, flakier chips. The latter will generate quite a bit of smoke once placed on top of the hot coals, but that should decrease within 10 minutes. For both meats I used mesquite chips.
  • Paraffin lighter cubes: For health reasons it is very important to use non-toxic lighter cubes or lighter fluid. These are optional as you can always get your coals going in your own coal chimney, but do avoid using paper/cardboard as a starter given that it will generate paper ashes, which you don’t want on your food. 
  • Digital timer/thermometer: To measure your meat’s temperature from the outside once you’ve closed the lid.
  • Fire-proof gloves: To regulate the valves and to lift your chicken in the end. 

Beer can chicken 

I found a great beer can recipe, which I adapted from the virtual-weber-bullet website. 

Step 1

To enhance the flavor, I coated the chicken the night before with a home-made rub mixture comprised of:

  • 3 tbsp reg paprika (1)
  • 3 tbsp smoked paprika (2)
  • 1 tbsp black pepper (3)
  • 1 tbsp sugar (4)
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt (5)
  • 1 tbsp white pepper (6)
  • 1 tsp cayenne. Chili power can also be 
    used in addition to or instead of cayenne (7)
  • 1 tbsp saffron powder – optional (8)
  • 1 tbsp onion powder (9)
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder (10)
  • 1.5 tbsp thyme powder (11)

Step 2

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Taste it in the end to determine if it has the right heat and balance to adjust accordingly.

Step 3

I went for a 5.2 lbs chicken, which I could’ve brinedd the night before, but not this time around. Using your hands, drizzle the whole chicken with a little light oil (olive or vegetable) to act as a binder. Sprinkle the rub inside the body cavity, all around the chicken, as well as under the skin until the poultry is fully covered. I was left over with one third of the above mixture, which I set aside for another occasion in a well-sealed container. 

Step 4

Cover and place inside the fridge overnight. This is ideal, but not required as you can also coat it hours prior to smoking it. 

Tip: Some like to inject chicken or other meats with a solution for added moisture during the cooking time, albeit this step is entirely optional.

Step 5

The next day, remove the bird from the fridge and let it sit long enough for it to reach room temperature, otherwise the meat will be at fridge condition when you place it in the smoker. Same goes for the pork.

Empty out about one half of the beer from your regular-sized can and punch 2 additional holes at the top. In this case I opted for a light Tecate so the rub flavors could shine. After washing the outside of the can throughly, place the chicken inside the container. 

Tip: Alternatively, you can use any beer or dare I say, even soda of your choice based on the rub. Also, feel free to add any flavorful additions inside the can such as chopped shallots, crushed garlic cloves, liquids (soy sauce, vinegar), lime/lemon wedges, etc…

Step 6

Place the meat on the top tier with the legs resting on the rack for leverage, as you don’t want the chicken to topple over during cooking time. 

Step 7

2 hours into your session, lift the lid and spray the whole chicken with apple juice by using a spray bottle before closing the lid. This is to add additional moisture and to let it sweat further. You may spray it once more 30 minutes before the chicken is done. 

At a regulated setting of 250°F, the chicken should take approximately 3 hours to reach the internal breast temperature of 165°F, at which point it is ready. While the thigh bony area should register 170°F.
At this point I placed a poblano pepper on the top rack to cook alongside the pork. I was inspired by Blue Plate‘s creative smoked jalapeño buttermilk dressing accompanying one of the best fried chicken dishes the Bay area has to offer. I’m gonna give this dressing a go at home.  

Tip: Bear in mind that anytime you lift the lid for basting purposes, you will need to smoke your meats for an additional 15 minutes as the cooker temperature needs to climb back up to normal.

Step 8

As soon as the chicken reached 165°F, I removed it from the smoker by using fire-resistant gloves so I didn’t burn my hands with the bottom of the hot can. 
Once you remove the can from the chicken, place it on a tray or board with the back facing up so the juices can run down towards the breasts. Let it sit and cool for 5 minutes before carving your smokey goodness. 

Since we only ate one half of the chicken, I deboned, sliced and froze the other half to use in future sandwiches and/or salads. The remaining bones, on the other hand will be used in a home-made stock.

Aji panca/aji amarillo & OJ-glazed pork loin roast

Most people would prefer to do pork butt, ribs or racks, but since we are trying to be more health-conscious these days, I went for a leaner cut. 

Step 1

Mix all your ingredients in one bowl and whisk until all are combined. These include:

The original recipe called for tiger sauce, but since I didn’t have any handy, I replaced it for some aji panca and aji amarillo to add some spiciness and heat. Tiger sauce is pretty rich indeed, and this cook claims to have cracked the code by creating her own interpretation

Step 2

Place the loin inside a bowl and cover to the top with your mixture. I used a large ziploc bag and poured the marinate inside it before sealing it airtight. Let it sit overnight to let the flavors sink right into the pork. 

Step 3

The next day, pat the pork dry and place on the bottom rack. Keep the marinate to baste the pork at the same time that the you spray the chicken with the apple juice. 
The beauty about smoking multiple items on separate racks is that the pork gets to be constantly basted as juices drip down from the chicken. 

Step 4

Remove the pork loin as soon as its interior temperature peaks 170°F and set aside to cool before serving. 

Lessons learned

Everything went down very smoothly, but there are two main take aways I realized along the way: 

The first is to use bigger wood chunks (instead of chips) only after the meats have been placed on both racks and the top lid is shut. There is an intense burst of smokiness released at the point you insert the chunks and you want that to seep right into the meats as soon as they are fired up by the hot coals. Simply open up the middle door and distribute the wood chunks evenly by using longer tongs before closing it.

Secondly, you need to keep a close eye on the temperature measured by your smoker. While there is a threshold that you should maintain during the entire process (~250°F), you can simply control it by opening and closing the valves. Typically you start with them open at 100% and close more and more over time.  

Tip: While some purists own two separate sets of smokers: one designated for red and white meats and the other for fish and seafood, I personally don’t have the space for two; maybe one day. One thing to keep in mind, though, is to never mix very distinct meats in one session. For instance you may smoke pork and beef with chicken, but don’t mix any of these with fish in the same smoker as the fish flavors will permeate through your other food, which you definitely want to avoid.

Buena suerte,
: Jaime

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