When it comes to smoking meats, John Rivers of 4Rivers Smokehouse certainly comes to mind. With over a decade of experience and several restaurants spread throughout Central Florida, Rivers surely knows a thing or two about the process.
Rivers, who started off as a home cook, says that smoking meat is a beautiful balance between varying cooking elements: meat, wood, temperature and time.
“The one thing about smoking meats is that it has the opportunity to release flavor,” Rivers says. “When you are burning a piece of wood, the heat will release compounds of the wood, and as it rises, it is attracted to the proteins on the meat.”
With summertime officially upon us, there has never been a better time to try your hand at smoking and curing your favorite cuts of meat at home. But before you get to indulge in a new world of flavors, you must first ensure you have the appropriate equipment.
“I suggest that if you’re smoking meats for the first time that you ease your way into it,” Rivers says. “Don’t go off and buy a $1,000 smoker. Start small and get yourself a small dome or Weber smoker.”
He also suggests starting off with a Boston butt, which is a cut of pork that comes from the shoulder of the animal, for your first go-around. He explained that this cut of meat is the most forgiving, as it contains a great deal of fat.
Choosing the correct variety and style of wood is equally as important as the cut of meat chosen. Rivers explains that oak or hickory wood would pair beautifully with the Boston butt. Pecan wood will pair well with fish, while oak and hickory are some of Rivers’ favorites for meats.
Try to use larger pieces of wood, as the thicker it is, the more effective it will be for smoking. Rivers also recommends using a small internal meat thermometer to correctly gauge the internal temperature of the meat. For pork and brisket, the internal temperature needs to be above 190 degrees and consistently stay at that temperature before it can be safely eaten.
“A lot of people forget about that,” Rivers says. “The time is of less consequence than the actual temperature of the meat itself.”
The best part about a smoker is that it is not just confined to red meats. You can throw just about anything into your smoker to add a new flavor that the food source is not accustomed to, including sausage, turkey, fish and vegetables.
Along with the proper equipment and cut of meat, Rivers also offers tips to ensure your food comes out exactly how you want it.
Tip No. 1: Quality
It all begins with the quality of meat that is chosen. The higher quality your cut of meat is, the better it will taste.
“You have to start with a good piece of meat,” Rivers says. “The higher the grade is, the better chance the meat will come out better.”
Tip No. 2: Practice
Practice makes perfect. Your first attempt may not come out perfect, but the only way to get better is to practice.
“Don’t make the mistake, like I did, of trying to smoke meats for the first time right before a party,” Rivers says. “Practice at least once or twice before you intend to serve people.”
Tip No. 3: Patience
Do not rush the process. Rivers notes that people sometimes panic when they are smoking meats at home and may turn up the heat inside the smoker.
“When you change an element, like the heat, it will change the outcome of whatever you’re smoking,” he says.
Also, try to keep your meat whole for as long as possible. When you cut open your meat, you run the chance of losing the moisture that it is retaining.
“The moment the air reaches the inside of the protein, it is a natural reaction to dry,” Rivers says.