When you decide that you want to get into cooking as more than just sustenance and more of a hobby, one of the things you have to do is evaluate your gear. You don’t have to have the best gear and you may not have the money to spend on the most expensive equipment, but you need to have the right tools for the job. One of the things I love to do most is to smoke on a good smoker. The flavor of smoke combined with the caramelized flavors from your rubs and the “bark” of the meat is an art. Competitions around the country for smoked meats begin and end with the competitors trying to outdo each other on their rigs, and quite often they rip ideas off from each other to make the most complete cooker possible.
The question I get most from my friends who I cook for and are interested in getting into the hobby is, “What kind of ____ should I get?” People will try to skip a few steps in the learning process and go straight to overbuying for their skill of cooking. You have to spend time learning how things are cooked to really understand what kind of gear to get, although you never want to go with the cheapest thing you can find.
It’s like playing guitar. Sure, you can go out and buy the most expensive guitar you can find, but you won’t really appreciate it if you have no idea how to play a guitar. Most teachers will tell you to get as much as you can afford when you are starting out, then upgrade as you begin to know the difference. Always try different pieces, but most important is to get as good as you can get on your own, then try out other people’s instruments when you can and figure out what you like more/less about yours compared to theirs.
Now then…with all that out of the way, there is something that you should know: despite what hobby you are getting into, you should always try to minimize the amount of work you have to do in order to get the best results. That goes double for cooking food. Furthermore, if you don’t mind being a little bit creative and once you get your feet under you, then you should take the opportunity to use what you’ve learned and put it to practice. In regards to any smoker, these are the things you need to have as a constant:
-regulated temperature that’s not hard to control
-good airflow from intake (where the air comes in) thru flue/chimney (the “exhaust pipe”) and out the vent (where the smoke comes out)
-no flames directly on the meat
I don’t care how big or small your smoker is, if you don’t have those three things you won’t have a good experience. There are many other things you need to do, but those three are constants.
In regards to our backyard smoker project, we’ll keep those same things in mind. I had a smoker that was about five years old. I mainly kept it at my house for quick meals and I can use it as a pit because the firebox (where you build the fire) has an area for me to put a grill rack in for direct grilling. However, like any smoker off the rack, it’s not exactly built for heavy-duty use. After a few years, the paint was gone and rust sat in. Sometimes meals turned out good, sometimes they didn’t, mainly because it’s hard to control temperature on a smaller rig. If you are handy with a welding rod, you can do some amazing things. So, off to the Arcadian Ranch we go to do some metal fabrication.
This is what we are working with:
It’s just your standard smoker. This one is manufactured by a company called New Braunfels, and I think it came from Academy for $150. Nothing expensive…just a typical little smoker that definitely has its place in the world. When you open it up:
You have decent access to the grill, which is actually pretty good sized. You can put a whole brisket in there and probably a rack or two of ribs at one time. That’s crowding it, though because:
The hole that goes to the firebox lends itself to direct flames on the meat. Direct flames create carbon, which is NOT GOOD TO EAT. A closer look at the firebox and the hole that goes to the smoking chamber (where you put the meat) shows the inefficiency of the design:
I took one of the grill grates off so you can see. The hole is so big that once you get a fire going, there’s nothing to stop the fire from attacking your food. Also, note that ash and cinders that are picked up in the airflow will be carried directly into the smoking chamber without anything to slow it down. Ash on food is NOT GOOD TO EAT.
The firebox design is pretty good, all things considered. You have a hinged door, a nice long handle to move the smoker, and a way to control your airflow.
Speaking of airflow, let’s go ahead and look at the basic design flaws that we are trying to remedy. First of all, airflow is key when you are trying to smoke. One of the basic principles that people fail to learn early on when taking on the hobby is how to make the damn thing work. You have to open up the vent (where the smoke comes out) and adjust the intake (where the air goes in) to regulate the temperature. Never, ever, evereverevereverevereverEVER close down the vent on the top. Creating an area that has stagnant airflow will result in building up a creosote, and creosote is NOT GOOD TO EAT. This particular smoker is originally designed so the air flows like this:
That’s a great design if you want to be able to get this thing fire engine red and cook the ever living shit out of anything within about a five foot radius. The suction from the intake is so strong you can actually feel it if you put your hand down there. As well, the air almost feels like it’s being propelled by a fan coming out of the vent. That’s just not what we are looking for if we want to keep our temp around 225-250® for 6-20 hours at a time. What we want to do is keep the good airflow but minimize the exposure to flame. To do this, we are going to need to put a plate inside the smoking chamber right under the grills over that giant hole. We want the airflow to be more like this:
-allow us to keep the temperature down (much lower than before)
-keep good airflow to reduce the risk of creosote
-eliminate the food in the smoking chamber from direct flames
Boom. That’s our design. It’s the design that any smoker should have. You can add on modular pieces, like a warming box or even another stack so that it’s easier to get the fire started to begin with, but we want the smoke to travel under the grill for heat and then across the meat for flavor and then out as soon as possible.
Let’s start with the plate running across the bottom. I didn’t take pictures of the welding itself, but you could imagine how hard it is to weld on thin metal that’s rusty, especially when you are welding it to brand new sheet metal. There are actually two pieces of sheet metal here that we’ve overlapped for strength. By placing the sheets directly under the lip of the smoker, we’ll have built in stability. As well, we need to tack a few spots along the side to keep it up. You could put in a brace underneath for stability, but once the weld should hold them in place. There won’t be any weight on them other than the drippings from the meat.
As well, we need to put a level on the plate and make sure that it’s tilted down towards the hole where grease falls out. Otherwise, you’ll have excess buildup that could create a flame.
Once we get the first plate on, we’ll slide the other one on and attach it both to the smoker body itself as well as the first plate we put down.
It doesn’t have to be air tight, but it does need to direct the airflow down the chamber as well as keep flames from licking the bottom of the food.
I have to move that chimney over to the other side of the smoker chamber. I stuck a piece of cardboard up to the hole from the inside and traced the hole with a pencil. Then, I cut the hole out and cut a hole into the chamber on the exact same spot on the opposite side of the back of the smoke chamber.
Now, I need to seal up the original chimeny hole. I just took another piece of sheet metal and cut it into halves, putting one section on the outside and one on the inside, making sure they covered the hole completely. Using the same bolt holes as before, I bolted the sheets on.
That creates the perfect path for smoke/air to flow so that I achieve my three constants of not being able to control my heat easily, not having stagnant air, and not having flame ups. Once it’s all finished, I took a product called Ospho and coated the outside. That kills the rust and it’s now ready for high heat paint. (The two pictures above are post-Ospho)
After the paint cures for a couple of days, then go ahead and fire it up and get it hot. With a spray bottle of oil, cover the outside and let it season. Same on the inside…you need to spray it down when it’s hot with oil from time to time to make sure it keeps its season. Once it’s seasoned, you can go ahead and cook on it.
There she is…my little backyard smoker. I will add some other modifications down the road, like a more stable brace and bigger wheels, but as for now it’s ready and functional. As they say in the Army and in prison: smoke ’em if you got ’em.