One of the many hobbies I enjoy in the outdoors is smoking meats. I happen to have a culinary background, but also love hunting, fishing, and trapping. Over the years, I have owned several different types of smokers. I probably smoke over 50 pounds of meat over the course of any given year. I find it very relaxing, and it makes for some incredible meals. Buying a smoker can be expensive. However, there are several ways to build your own smoker.
For this article, I built a smoker in my backyard and it cost me about $5 in supplies. I will warn you that it was not pretty, but it got the job done well. I smoked a venison roast using the DIY smoker, and anybody could do the same. There are several different designs you can use. You can smoke just about any type of fish, meat, poultry, or cheese. You can even smoke vegetables or sides like macaroni and cheese.
Whether you’re building your smoker in your backyard or on a camping trip, I will cover how to build it and use several different options to smoke incredible meats for you and your family to enjoy.
Why Smoke your Meat?
I think most of us that have had really good barbecue food can agree that smoking foods makes them taste better. It gives them a richer depth of flavor while cooking the meat at the same time. A really great smoked brisket or hunk of gouda cheese is hard to beat. I probably smoke at least one whole salmon filet per week. In addition to adding flavor and cooking the meat, smoking foods can accomplish other things.
Historically, man started smoking meat to draw moisture out and preserve the meat. A great deal of the jerky you have eaten was probably smoked. Smoking the meat accomplishes two things that help to preserve the meat for later consumption. It dehydrates the meat and also kills bacteria on the surface of the meat. If the process is done in a particular way, smoked and dried meats, like jerky, can last for months without going bad. This is particularly helpful if you spend a great amount of time in the wilderness away from refrigeration.
However, smoking and preserving food are not quite the same thing. To smoke a meal for immediate consumption you need to cook it faster and hotter. This keeps the moisture inside, so it stays nice and tender. To preserve meat, you need to dry it out at low temperatures to slowly eliminate the moisture. I will cover both processes in this article.
The Smoking Process
The process of smoking meat is somewhat simple, but not always easy. You just need a few different elements to be successful. You will need a steady source of heat that produces smoke, such as a campfire burned down to coals or a bed of charcoal with wood chunks or chips added.
You need an enclosure to hold in the smoke so that it penetrates the surface of the meat. You need a way to suspend your meat inside the enclosure but above the heat source. Finally, you need a source of oxygen to keep the fire smoldering. If you have these four elements, you can tweak them to produce the desired results.
Building the Fire
There are two primary ways to create your heat source. If you are at home and have access to charcoal and wood chunks or chips, that is your quickest and easiest option. I like to use lump charcoal with no lighter fluid added. This ensures that the flavor of lighter fluid does not seep into the meat.
As for the type of wood chunks, that depends on the type of meat. I like mesquite or hickory for fish. I like apple or cherry for pork or poultry. I like post oak for beef. The type of wood you use to create smoke will affect the flavor of the finished product.
Start your charcoal in a chimney if you have one. If not, you can just build it up into a pile and light at the base. I like to use newspaper to get it lit. At the same time, I fill a bucket with water to soak the wood chips or chunks. You then want your coals to burn down to the point they are covered in white ash.
If you are using a chimney, you can then dump it on the ground and spread the coals out evenly. If you built up a pile you will want to knock it down at this point. You can then add the soaked wood chunks or chips on top of the coals. You should start seeing white smoke pour out from the pile of coals.
If you are out in the wilderness and have no charcoal, you can just use firewood. The important part of this is that you do not want to work with flames. Flames are too difficult to control the heat. Factors like wind and humidity can greatly affect the temperatures. You want to let the wood burn down into coals and then build the structure over the coals.
I like to have two separate spots for fire. One is for the actual smoking process, and the other is just for burning wood down to coals and then moving them to the other spot. There is typically enough moisture in firewood to get plenty of smoke, but you can also soak a few pieces to put on top of the coals if needed. You still do want to find clean wood and pay attention to the type as it affects the flavor.
Prepping the Meat
To get the proper result, you will want to adjust the way you cut the meat as well as how you season it. If you are cooking it for eating that day, I like to keep the cuts thick. This will help keep moisture inside the meat. The only exception would be poultry as it needs to cook all the way through.
You will then need to season the meat aggressively. The flavor of any rub or seasoning will primarily stay on the outer layer of meat. For beef and fish, I like to use just salt and pepper. For poultry I add paprika to the mix. For pork I like to add some brown sugar, cumin, and cayenne pepper.
If you want to make a product more like jerky, you will need to make a few changes. You want to cut the meat across the grain in thin strips. This keeps it tender, despite the fact that you are eliminating moisture. If you have a meat slicer, you can get a much thinner strip by partially freezing the meat before cutting it. No matter what, your strips of meat should be ¼ inch thick or less.
With meat this thin, you do not have to be so aggressive with seasoning. I use the same seasonings for each type of meat except I really don’t like to use sugar. When smoking for jerky, sugar can be a little unpredictable. If you want a sweet flavor, you need to make a marinade that has some honey in it or something similar. A marinade makes the sugar much less likely to burn as moisture is added.
Building the Structure
I always like to start the structure for a homemade smoker with a tripod. Just lash three poles together with each about five feet long. Space them out so they are stable and you can attach some weight to them. You can then suspend the meat from the frame. You can run cordage through the pieces of meat and hang them around the frame. You can also build a grill or net system inside your tripod on which to place the meat.
The height of your meat is very important. You can use an oven thermometer to test various heights. You can also just use your hand. Pick a spot and hold your hand above the coals palm down.
If you can only hold your hand there for a couple seconds, it is medium-high heat. If you can hold it there for three to five seconds, it is medium heat, great for smoking for an hour or two. Six or seven seconds is medium-low heat, good for low and slow smoking for several hours. Ten second or higher is low heat, good for making jerky. Keep in mind that jerky can take all day or even a couple days. Have plenty of coals ready and check the temperature periodically. In this example, I just hung one venison roast from a single piece of cordage and cooked on medium heat.
The final step is to enclose the structure. If you have an old garbage can, clean it out and cut a hole in the top and a few at the base. Then just set it over top of the tripod. You may want to set it up on rocks or bricks to keep it from melting. You can wrap your tripod with a blanket or a small tarp.
You can even wrap it in plastic wrap or aluminium foil like I did in this example. It was not pretty, but it gets the job done. You will notice that there is space for air to come in at the base and for the heat to escape at the top. As long as you do these things and don’t melt your enclosure, it will get the job done.
To cook the meat, just check it periodically. I like to use a meat thermometer, especially with thicker cuts of meat. Always let the meat rest for 15 to 30 minutes before you cut into it. This will ensure it stays juicy. If you made jerky, let it cool and store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Jerky is done drying if it breaks when bent but does not snap in two.
No matter how you build your smoker or where you build it, you can have a lot of fun and make some great food. Just keep in mind that the process takes some practice. Try out different seasonings, different wood types, and different temperatures. Don’t be afraid to try new cuts of meat that you have not smoked before. If you have the patience, you find a hobby that could last a lifetime.