Grilling Meat Versus Smoking Meat

Written Sara Shea

Modern families planning a summer afternoon barbecue opt for grilling meat versus smoking meat. Although we enjoy the smoked flavor that charcoal grilling can add to a burger, most of us don’t own a smoke house or relish the idea of storing a side of beef in order to save it for months. Today, American families most likely purchase beef a few steaks at a time, or store a portioned and wrapped side of beef in the basement freezer.

Smoking meat is an ancient method of preserving food that has been practiced throughout history. Archeologists have found proof that the earliest Medieval Europeans, as well as some primitive South American and Asian cultures, smoked meat as well as substantial amounts of fish and poultry.

Caribbean natives smoked meat to ward off flies. Early Caribbean communities hung meat from spiked sticks on a rack over a smoky fire, a system that they referred to as "barbacoa." In fact, "barbacoa" may be the origin of our contemporary word "barbecue", as well as the impetus for the trend toward grilling meat versus smoking meat.

Smoking effectively works as a preservative for raw meat because smoke contains chemical compounds that prevent the growth of bacteria. Phenolic compounds in smoke halt the oxidization of meat, carbonyl compounds result in the distinctive smoked flavor and aroma, while carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide assist in the rendering of fat, the breakdown of connective tissues and collagen and the production of pigment in the meat. Smoked turkey, smoked brisket and other meats are excellent choices for enjoying the results of traditional smoking.

The secret to successfully smoking meat is committing a significant amount of time to the task of preparing it, and smoking it in a low temperature environment (200° to 300°F.) Since meats that are not fully cooked can be dangerous to consume, it is recommend that smoked meat be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F, while poultry and fish should be cooked to 165 degrees F. Maintaining a consistent, steady temperature for a lengthy period of time is the key to smoking meat. Smoked meat is listed as an ingredient in many traditional country cookbooks.

As summertime barbeque season rolls around, many foodies and backyard barbeque chefs may be interested in trying something new and exciting. It is relatively easy to transform your covered grill into a smoker, with just a few small modifications.
Begin by piling charcoal briquettes in the center of the heat grate in your covered grill. Fifty briquettes will be enough for any average sized cut of meat. Once the briquettes are covered in gray ash, divide them into two separate piles. Next, center a pan of water in between the two piles. Position your cut of meat on the grill rack above the water pan. The water turns to steam as it heats, and the steam penetrates the meat, destroying any harmful bacteria. The water is also important because it prevents fire or flare ups caused by fat dripping on to the coals.

Once the charcoal briquettes, water and meat are correctly positioned in your grill, close the grill lid and open the vents. Adding ten fresh briquettes every hour or so will help to maintain a steady and even temperature inside the grill.

If you plan to undertake the culinary adventure of smoking meat at home, it is highly recommended that you purchase two thermometers, in order to ensure food safety. One thermometer is needed to monitor the air temperature inside the smoker or grill. A second thermometer is needed to determine the internal temperature of the meat. Oven-safe thermometers are suitable for use in grills or smokers.

The flavor produced by grilling meat versus smoking meat has been widely debated by chefs worldwide. Many people do prefer the "outdoorsy" smoky flavor of smoked meat. While the smoky flavor typically results from the charcoal, many professional smokers recommending adding soaked wood or wood chips for a richer flavor. Wood from fruit trees or nuts trees is typically regarded as ideal for use in smoking. Apple wood, peach wood, cherry wood, hickory wood, pecan wood or red oak wood are some of the favored options.

Cooks who smoke meats regularly may invest in a smoker like the small upright Brinkmann smoker, which can be purchased for less than $50 at a local hardware store, Home Depot, Lowes, or even some grocery stores. Complicated, professional-grade smokers can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars.