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Smoke signals: Expert grillers share secrets of success

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ALL Dan Erickson wanted was a good brisket. After spending more than a decade in Texas, he found Indiana woefully lacking in the deeply flavored, paprika-rubbed brisket he was used to — sliced against the grain, not torn into chunks.

But as they say, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

So 10 years ago, armed with a basic backyard grill, some aluminum foil and a bag of wood chips, Erickson went on a quest to re-create the Texas treat, using the ‘low and slow’ method of cooking meat known as smoking. The technique enlists low, indirect heat during a period of several hours to tenderize meat and imbue it with flavor.

A new hobby was born.

Tools of the trade

Light a fire under your smoking efforts with these simple supplies.

A good cookbook. Dan Erickson recommends “Smoke & Spice, Cooking with Smoke, the Real Way to Barbecue, on Your Charcoal Grill, Water Smoker, or Wood-Burning Pit,” by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison.

Heavy-duty aluminum foil. Use the sturdy stuff to contain water-soaked wood chips for smoking over a gas grill, or to insulate meat when it has been removed from the grill for a little additional cook time — the foil also helps keep meat tender. “Foil is your friend,” said Shawn Erfmeier.

Ozark Oak Natural Lump Hardwood Charcoal. $11.99 for a 10-pound package at Savory Swine, 410 Washington St. Hardwood charcoal lights faster and produces less ash than charcoal briquettes, and adds a subtle smoky flavor to smoked or grilled meats.

Perfect pair

Whether you whet your whistle with a white or reach for the red, Cork Liquor’s wine co-director Matt Gordon suggests medium- to full-bodied vino that can stand up to intensely flavored meats. Cork Liquors, 3502 Two Mile House Road, 812-342-9237.

Opposites attract with d’Arenbry The Hermit Crab, a Viognier out of McLaren Vale, Australia. Gordon said there’s no oak to this wine, and the floral aroma is a nice contrast to savory smoke flavors. $18.37.

The Cotes du Crow’s Morgan, a 50-50 Grenache Syrah blend with well-integrated tannins, is versatile enough to pair well with both red meats and lighter poultry. The Syrah grape adds a subtle smokey note that will complement the meat. $18.17

Tips and tricks

Buying quality meat is key. Be sure to pick up cuts that are free from injections and additives, like those offered at Lisa Abendroth’s The Savory Swine in downtown Columbus. Erfmeier said that meats that have been injected with filler can’t absorb the flavor of marinades and rubs as well.

If you aren’t too squeamish, Perry suggests letting meat marinate at room temperature. Cold meat takes longer to cook. Again, quality meat is key here.

Heed the phrase, “If you’re lookin’, you aren’t cookin’.” Once the meat is on the grill, keep the cover closed to maintain steady heat.

Don’t overthink it. It’s a pretty simple process, Erfmeier said. “If you are agonizing over it, you are doing something wrong.”

If you are a little pressed for time (or cold temperatures make it difficult to maintain heat on your grill) try finishing the meat in the oven. Erickson said most meat absorbs all of its smoke flavor within the first three hours on the grill.

Erickson soon traded in his more primitive tools for store-bought smokers, and began experimenting with different cuts of meat, spice rubs and varieties of wood chips.

Last spring, Erickson (dubbed “Dan Dan the smoker man” by his buddies) traded up one more time, investing in a large-scale smoker and launching Erickson Barbecue. He set up shop at the downtown Columbus farmers market and other local events, regularly smoking at least 100 pounds of meat each Saturday.

Shawn Erfmeier of Columbus might not take the spoils of his smoking hobby on the road, but he’s just as fanatical. He started smoking meat at home on his Big Green Egg grill — a high-end ceramic charcoal grill with a cult following — a couple of years ago after sampling a friend’s smoked pulled pork.

The expert smokers agreed that while the fancy toys are fun, they aren’t necessary.

“You can smoke on a classic Weber grill that you can pick up for less than $80,” said Travis Perry of Columbus, who also owns a Big Green Egg but said more basic methods are just as effective.

Here’s what our panel of experts recommends:

Start by removing the grill grate and building a fire on one half of the grill, and place a drip pan on the other side. Replace the grill grate. Fill a second pan about two-thirds full of water, and place it directly over the coals. When the coals are good and hot, place the meat over the drip pan, and put the lid back on the grill.

Airflow is key, so be sure to keep the top vent partially open over the meat, so that the smoke is forced to flow over the meat on the way out.

Gas grills can work, too, but you’ll need wood chips (wood from fruit or nut-bearing trees work best). Soak about 2 cups of wood chips in water for at least an hour, wrap up in heavy duty aluminum foil, and poke large holes in the top. Place the packet over a lit burner, opposite of the meat — remember, you want indirect heat.

When you are ready to get cooking, start with a quality product, free of hormones and injections, Erfmeier said.

He explained that oftentimes, meat can be injected with water or saline solutions to make it more moist and juicy, but that means the meat can’t absorb as much flavor. The Savory Swine stocks good options, he said.

But don’t skip straight to the fire. Flavorful seasoning is key.

“It’s all about the preparation,” said Perry, who favors an apple cider vinegar-honey-dijon mustard marinade for his trademark pork ribs.

Whether you are using charcoal or gas as your heat source, aim for a steady temperature of about 200 to 230 degrees Fahrenheit for most meats, though Erfmeier said that vegetables and delicate whitefish fare better around 160 degrees.

All that’s left to do now is keep your hands off. Consult a cookbook or your butcher for ideal cook times, and resist the urge to baby-sit the meat until it’s time to check the internal temperature.

And above all else, keep practicing.

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