Night after night during the coronavirus pandemic, I trudged into the kitchen to cook dinner, dragging my feet the whole way. Sure, I ordered takeout occasionally, but for the most part, I was rifling through the fridge and pantry in the hopes that some magical dinner inspiration would strike.
One afternoon, I got a craving for barbecue. I’ve always loved smoked meats, but never considered buying a smoker or pellet grill myself.
But now that I was spending most of my free time in the backyard, because of the pandemic, buying a smoker seemed more realistic—maybe even necessary.
I found a lightly used Green Mountain Daniel Boone pellet grill (a smoker that also grills) on Craigslist for $300.
And just—wow. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my smoker has turned the monotony of quarantine dinners into occasions my family looks forward to with relish.
Every week I tackle a new cut of meat—salmon, pork tenderloin, chicken wings—and get to flex my creative cooking muscles. I also learn new things. (Did you know that salmon needs to form a sticky layer called a pellicle before you smoke it?)
Like swimming pools and backyard chickens, grills and smokers are a hot commodity during the pandemic. If you’re thinking about adding a smoker or pellet grill to your backyard cooking repertoire, here’s what you need to know to make the most of it.
Smokers and pellet grills are large, so be prepared to make some room on your back patio or deck.
Place your smoker at least 10 feet away from your house or any other structures on your property, on a surface that’s flat and even. This helps prevent any heat-related damage to your home, and ensures that the whole thing doesn’t topple over while you’re cooking.
You can further protect your deck or patio from grease stains and spills with a grill mat (Home Depot, $43.36).
Cook to temperature
If your pellet grill or smoker doesn’t come with a meat thermometer, it’s worth your while to invest in a good one.
Sure, you can follow a recipe’s cook times, but you could easily end up overcooking or undercooking your meats. After all, meats come in all shapes and sizes, and all grills function differently. Even the weather can affect the cooking process.
Using a meat thermometer takes the guesswork out of cooking in your backyard, says Michael Ollier, corporate chef for the Certified Angus Beef brand and a Kansas City Barbecue Society judge.
You can even insert a high-tech thermometer (Walmart, $59.99) into the thickest part of your meat, close the lid, then watch the temperature rise on an external display (or an app on your phone!) without having to lift a finger.
“I suggest using a probe thermometer, because you can get an instant read without opening the smoker’s lid,” Ollier says.
Patience is the No. 1 ingredient for a good barbecue. You’ve probably heard the expression “low and slow.”
Many cuts of meat become tender and juicy after cooking at a low temperature for a longer period of time, which helps create the optimal smoke flavor.
But you need to be patient after you’re done cooking, too. Be sure to give your meat plenty of time to rest after you pull it off the grill.
“A good rule of thumb is to let cuts rest between 10% to 15% of the cook time, to ensure you don’t lose the juices to your cutting board,” says Ollier.
Keep the lid closed
You might feel compelled to open the lid and peek in your smoker every few hours, just to check on things. Resist this urge!
“Every time you lift the lid, heat escapes, causing the temperature inside to drop,” says Ollier. “It’s important to keep the temperature as consistent as possible, to ensure even cooking.”
The type of wood or pellets you use really does matter.
If you’re cooking red meat or you simply want a bold smoky flavor, consider hickory, oak, and mesquite, says Jason Morse, a chef for Ace Hardware and the owner of 5280 Culinary. For a lighter smoke flavor, consider fruitwoods like apple (Home Depot, $18.99) or cherry.
“Both deliver a smooth, even, smoke-and-wood flavor,” Morse says.
There’s no question that barbecue sauce is delicious. But sauce is a tricky piece of the puzzle in backyard grilling and smoking.
For starters, adding sauce to your meat is all about timing. If you smother your spare ribs in sauce too early in the cooking process, you could end up with a layer of burnt, crusty, charred sauce outside your meat.
“People traditionally sauce their meats way too early in the cooking process,” says Danielle “Diva Q” Bennett, a barbecue expert for Traeger and world-champion pitmaster.
“My rule of thumb is to always sauce only about 10 degrees before your meat is done, so the sauce doesn’t over-caramelize,” Bennett says. “We don’t want it caked on or cracked on. We don’t want it to become carbon.”
Also, while we’re on the subject, go easy on the sauce in general. Let the flavor of the meat shine through—less really is more when it comes to sauce.
“We are a sugar-driven nation, and so sometimes people may oversauce their meats,” says Bennett. “A lot of times, people forget that they’re paying for the meat, not the sauce.”
Which smoker is right for you?
Wondering which smoker or pellet grill is best for you? Whether you have a huge backyard or a tiny patio, here’s what our experts recommend.
Best for beginners on a budget: Weber Smokey Mountain
The Weber Smokey Mountain (Home Depot, $329) is perfect if you want to try your hand at backyard smoking, but you don’t want to blow your entire savings account, either.
Best blinged-out version: Traeger Timberline 1300
This pellet grill offers a massive 1,300 square inches of cooking space, which means you can cook for a crowd. It also has Wi-Fi connectivity and a 20-pound hopper.
Best grill-smoker combo: Big Green Egg
If you want a backyard cooker that can do it all, consider investing in an iconic large Big Green Egg, a kamado-style cooker ($899).
“It allows me to use lump charcoal and hardwood chunks to smoke short ribs one day, and sear porterhouses and rib-eyes the next,” says Ollier.
Best for small spaces: Traeger Ranger
This Traeger Ranger smoker (Home Depot, $399.99) may be small, but it packs a serious punch. You can cook six to eight burgers or one to two racks of ribs, for example. And it weighs only 60 pounds, so, as a bonus, you could take it with you on your next camping trip or picnic.