Long before the sauce to coat your meat, there was the wood to smoke it.
Modern barbecue practitioners will tell you wood is as much an ingredient as a heat source.
Sure, rubs and sauces are part of the tool kit, but wood choice and smoking technique are foundational. And they’re far from the exclusive domain of professionals. Quality smokers can be had for under $200 (Masterbuilt’s two-door vertical propane smoker is a fine choice for rookies), and even your charcoal or gas grill can be supplemented by smoke from water-soaked wood chips.
Three experts sound off on the ways and means of backyard smoking:
➞ Joe Muench, executive chef at Maxie’s, on technique: “You don’t want to suffocate the smoke. If you ever have any green smoke coming out of your smoker, you’re going to get a bitterness to your end product. You need to have a good airflow going through. Trapping the smoke into a smoker is not a good thing.”
➞ Alex Sazama, executive chef at Smoke Shack, on promising pairings: “For me, brisket and mesquite, winner. Applewood and pork, winner. Cherry and chicken, winner. And hickory and turkey. But there are all sorts of things happening in the industry, like almond wood and people using grape vines.”
➞ Don Michals, chef and co-owner of Milwaukee Smoked BBQ, on seeking perfection: “Experiment. It’s all a matter of taste. There are so many different woods. Once, by a friend’s house, the only hardwood we had available was willow. We ran it through a small backyard shredder, and we smoked ribs. I was impressed.”
This story is part of The Epicure’s Guide to Milwaukee feature in our March, 2015 issue. Click to read the rest of the guide.