Barbecuing is a Fourth of July tradition—and one of our favorite cooking methods is using a smoker. The thick layer of smoke makes for a spicy crisp outside and tender meat inside. A good smoker can be an expensive purchase, but Alton Brown recently built one on his TV show Good Eats for less than $80 (click here to see the process)—and made it look like a cinch. Recent American University graduate Jon Bateman tested out Brown’s process. Read on to find out how to build a smoker sticking to Brown’s budget. (Jon bought everything at Ace Hardware, except the flower pots, which he found at Home Depot.)
>>Next: What do you need?
You need two ceramic flower pots, around 18 inches each, with holes in the bottom ($19.98 a piece), a hot plate that will fit inside the pots ($16.99), three wooden blocks the size of standard bricks (or use bricks; 70 cents), a grill rack that will fit inside the pot ($9.99)—Jon’s measured 14½ inches, an old metal cake pan that you don’t mind sullying, an extension cord, a meat thermometer ($9.99), and wood chunks ($7.99; Jon got Weber Hickory Wood Chunks at Ace Hardware). In total, Jon spent $85.62, which doesn’t include the cost of the extension cord and cake pan—two items he already had. Close enough—we’ll chalk it up to the hefty DC taxes. But Brown was right about how easy it was to build the thing.
How to choose what to cook? It’s best to look for meat with a fair amount of fat—it works as a natural baster. Jon went with pork ribs. Before he placed them on the smoker, he applied a dry rub of sea salt; black pepper; garlic, chili, and onion powders; and paprika.
>>Next: How to set up the pot.
Make sure to find a level concrete surface for the cooking process that’s a safe distance from the house (you’ll want to use the extension cord here). Set up three wooden blocks or bricks in a triangle as a base for one of the flower pots, then center the pot on the blocks. Because the pot is raised slightly, air can escape once you begin cooking.>>Next: Setting up the electric cord.
Place the hot plate inside the pot, making sure it’s level, and pull the electric cord through the hole in the bottom so that it can later be attached to an extension cord. Place the cake pan directly on top of the hot plate, making sure it’s straight. Don’t turn on the hot plate just yet.
>>Next: The wood chunks.
Take four large wood chunks and place them to the cake pan.
>>Next: Dealing with the grate.
Place the grate into the ceramic pot. Jon bought an 14½-inch grate, and it didn’t fit snugly against the pot’s sides. With a little Yankee ingenuity and some metal hangers, he was able to suspend the grate above the wood pieces. Make sure your grate fits snugly in the top of the pot so that it can hold a heavy amount of meat.
>>Next: Creating the seal.
Invert the other pot and place it directly over the base pot to create a seal, and place your meat thermometer into the hole in the top pot. You’ll want to keep the smoker around 220 to 250 degrees for a slow smoke.
>>Next: Cooking time!
Once you’re ready to cook, plug in the hot plate. The preheating process produces a lot of smoke and the smoker gets hot, so use gloves. Once the temperature reaches 220 to 250 degrees, place the meat directly on the grill and replace the top pot. Every time the chunks stop burning and the smoke subsides, you’ll need to add more wood.
>>Next: How would you like your meat, sir?
Jon cooked these ribs—which weighed between three and four pounds—for seven hours, replacing the wood chunks four times. They were ready to eat after four hours, but a longer cooking time—at least six hours—gives the meat a more-pronounced smoky flavor and a nice crispy outside.
So can a homemade smoker produce delicious ribs? Jon sure thinks so.