What is Barbecue? In this context, barbecue is a method of cooking tough cuts of meat (typically beef or pork) slowly over a low heat with smoke. This low and slow cooking process allows the tough connective tissues in these meats to breakdown, turning to sugar and water. At the same time, fats are slowly melted, providing moisture that prevents the meat from drying out. So what do we mean by low and slow? Smoking barbecue is done at temperatures between 225 F and 275 F (110 C to 135 C). Many purists will say that the lower the temperature the better the barbecue, but in recent years, many barbecue competitors have moved to higher temperatures, partly because the technology of modern smokers makes this possible. Since barbecue is cooked at such low temperatures, the cooking times are very long. Cooking times can be between 45 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes per pound. This means that a 10 pound beef brisket can easily take 10 hours to smoke. The smoke provides flavor, color, and aids in the breakdown of connective tissues (collagen) and fats.
What is a Smoker? In this context, a smoker is an outdoor cooking appliance that can maintain low cooking temperatures for extended periods of time while producing smoke and holding it around the meat for absorption. A good smoker does all this efficiently and provides the space necessary to produce the amount of barbecue needed.
Can I Smoke on a Grill? The simple answer is yes. The real answer is maybe. Gas grills are designed to pump heat through the cooking chamber. This is how they reach high temperatures; by brute force. Because of the high airflow in most gas grills, they are not good at capturing smoke and can cause foods to dry out over long periods of time. Gas grills do not make good smokers. Charcoal grills, on the other hand, can make good smokers. Charcoal grills burn charcoal, produce smoke, and if they have a lid and a good design, can hold low temperatures for long periods of time. The trick to smoking on a charcoal grill is to have a grill large enough to place the meat away from the direct heat of the charcoal fire. This is done either by cooking indirectly or by using some kind of baffle (more on this later). The limits of charcoal grill smoking, is the size. Most charcoal grills are too small to produce a lot of barbecue, so if you want to smoke more than two racks of ribs or a pork roast, then you will need something larger, or in other words; a smoker.
Which Smoker is Right for Me? There are many ways to smoke low and slow and there are many kinds of smokers and smoker/grills on the market. In the following pages I explore all the different kinds of smokers in detail, but for now lets just say that you can buy wood smokers, charcoal smokers, gas smokers, electric smokers, and pellet smokers. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but the most important factor is you, what kind of barbecue you want to smoke, and how much effort (and money) you want to put into it.