Here is the inside scoop, secrets, pearls of wisdom, and other stuff that will turn you into a super-chef who can offer gourmet meals to crowds without breaking a sweat. As a bonus, you will be able to provide off-the-cuff dissertations on a variety of highly detailed cooking issues to educate your friends and to bore otherwise innocent partygoers into a state of stupor.
Smoking food at home allows you to create incredible meals that the best restaurants can't do. I've been smoking food since high school. I've been through a lot of smokers. My current philosophy is to make it as easy as possible and you will use it. Don't limit it to BBQ. I use for fish, roasts, turkey, leg of lamb, and steaks. The amount of smoke can be varied, so a prime rib can be slow cooked with just a hint of smoke.
1. Selection - I'll make this easy. Get a Masterbuilt digital, electric smoker. 30" is big enough for most folks. Look for sales, on the Walmart site. A window in the front is worthless, a remote control is nice for cooking in inclement weather but not critical and the ones with bluetooth seem to get mixed reviews. Charcoal smokers are cheaper, but a pain to use and controlling the temp is difficult. Pellet fed smokers seem to have more stuff to break and they really don't solve a real problem.
This one is no frills $220.
I really like the "cold smoking unit that attaches to the side of the smoker and replaces the internal smoke generator. It allows you to smoke at lower temps and to control the smoke a bit more. Do a search for master built cold smoking. It is much smaller than it looks.
Here is a cover on Amazon, more durable than the Masterbuilt brand
Get Applewood chips. Period.
Get a thermometer that can read the temp of the oven and the food like this
That is all you need to get started. Simple to use and and failsafe.
Below is a menu for a dinner party for about 20 people I did that looks extraordinarily elaborate. However, it isn't that hard to pull off, and the concepts can be applied to any meal.
Plan last minute prep or skill dishes near the beginning as an appetizer or fish course. This includes things like shrimp, scallops, arranged salads, anything that needs to be under the broiler. Cooking something live is always a crowd pleaser, but plan it so it will be low stress and guaranteed to succeed. Have everything ready to go and plan it so that you don't have other items to think about at the same time.
The key is to have help keeping up with dishes, have all ingredients on hand,
Do many things ahead of time, but not everything.
Select a bullet proof no-brainer dish as your main course. My Chicken Thighs with Ancho Chili and Shiraz is a perfect example. Other options are large roasts that can be slowly cooked to a precise temp like boneless leg of lamb, rack of lamb, or beef tenderloin. If you are going to do steaks, use my reverse cook method.
Avoid things that can easily end in disaster. Notice that at no time am I going to use the broiler, it is too easy to turn your offering into charcoal and there is no way to cover it up so that the guests don't notice. You can mitigate risk however. For example if you are going to use a broiler, let it get good and hot before placing the food under it. This will shorten the cooking time and you will be less tempted to wander off.
For this dinner I carefully selected some interesting cheeses and provided descriptions. Almost everyone likes cheese and very little needs to be done at time of service. The other appetizer items were also a low degree of difficulty, which allowed me to focus on the next course.
The duck breast takes a little attention, but with a thermometer I know that if I take it out of the oven at 126 degrees it will be perfect. I don't have to keep checking it or slicing it or poking it to see if it is done. Instead I prepare the platter that it will go on and wait for the temperature alarm to go off. The beets and cucumber were done ahead. That left the shrimp which represented the only dish so far that I really needed to watch closely because it is very easy to overcook shrimp. I was careful to avoid having overlapping critical dishes. The main course was also relatively simple. The tenderloin was prepared ahead of time, and tied with string. It slow roasted for 2 hours so all that had to be done around service time was carving. The chicken was prepared earlier in the day.
----- Appetizer -----
Artisane Cheese Board - Point Reyes Original Blue • Saint Nectaire
Parmigiano Reggiano • Humboldt Fog • Robiola Rocchetta • Berkswell
Roaring Forties Blue Cheese • Mt Tam • Red Hawk
Fresh Chevre - with olive oil, fresh herbs, soy nuts
Caprese Salad -Tomato, Buffalo Mozarella, and fresh basil salad
Antipasto tray - Selected meats and olives
----- Second -----
Muscovy Duck breast - with ginger balsamic reduction
Shrimp - stuffed with goat and Parmesan cheeses
Beet Salad - Red and Orange beets, lightly seasoned
Korean style cucumber - Rice wine and chipotle peppers
----- Main -----
Boneless Chicken Thighs - braised in Shiraz Red Wine and Ancho Chiles
Beef Tenderloin - rubbed with black pepper, kosher salt and fresh rosemary, slow roasted and served with red wine reduction.
Roasted red potatoes
French green beans - Dijon, grated parmesan, olive oil
Sauteed Crimini Mushrooms – garlic, olive oil, capers, white wine
More reverse cooking. This time it is Strip steaks. It is best to get them on the thick side, although good results can be achieved with thinner offerings
1. Start off with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Rest them on aluminum foil twisted into a snake. This keeps them from touching metal and overcooking at the point of contact. Air can also circulate in order to heat evenly and to dry the surface.
2. Put them in the oven set to 200-225F, with a temp probe inserted horizontally as close as possible to the center of the meat. By using a temp probe with a wire, you don't have to keep opening the oven door to check temps. There are many offered on Amazon. Thermpro seems to be pretty good. One model has a separate alarm unit that is wireless so you can keep near your if you walk away from the oven; There is nothing worse than getting distracted and then coming back into the kitchen only to realize the temp alarm has been going off for quite awhile
Cook until the temp is 130F for med rare; This will take about an hour maybe more depending on the starting temp and the thickness. Thinner steaks should be cooked a little less.
3. When steaks are up to temp, take them out and cover them. They can sit at room temp for an hour or more without any problem. This can be done well before guests arrive.
4. Finish the steaks when you are ready to serve them. Use either a skillet or on a hot grill. Natural lump charcoal is the best since it add flavor and gets really hot. If using a skillet, cast iron works very well because it heats evenly and is not damaged by heat. I use Ghee(clarified butter) because it has good flavor and a very high smoke point. Heat it up to about 425F and put the steaks in. It is easy to check pan temperature using an infrared thermometer; I use one all the time.
Since the steak surface has been dried by the oven, the browning reaction will occur very quickly. A minute on each side, maybe a little less for thin steaks, will give a nice brown crust
Cooking obviously requires heat. The variable that often escapes us is how much heat? Ovens have temperature controls, in fact it would seem absurd not to have this feature. How about the stovetop burners/elements? Ah, for these, we guess. For pancakes heart the griddle until a drop of water "dances" is a common line in recipes. For consistency, there is no real substitute for knowing the precise temperature of a pan especially when it is so easy to do.
1. Heat oils enough for browning but not to the point where they start to burn
2. Avoid food sticking in a pan that was not hot enough.
3. Brown food quickly without over cooking it
4. Impress friends and neighbors!
5. Avoid damaging pans by overheating them
I now have this infrared heat gun right next to my stove. Amazon Prime $20.88!! It is small and looks scientific.
To brown food
1. Put skillet on stove, and turn heat to high
2. Add oil
3. Heat pan to between 375 and the smoke point of the oil
4. Add food
5. Adjust flame to maintain pan temp