Tip: Ssssssmokin’

Smoker Basics
by: Scott Leysath – The Sporting Chef

Many years ago, I bought an inexpensive smoker with the thought that it would save me hundreds of dollars a season on jerky while reducing my inventory of frozen game.  After a few half-hearted attempts at making duck jerky, actually more like duck pretzels, the smoker found its way to the dark recesses of the garage where it sat for many years until I “gifted” it to a friend.  The problem was not the smoker, but my lack of commitment.

I later vowed to take a more serious approach to smoking stuff and discovered that home smoking doesn’t require a great deal of skill.  To simplify, here’s the skinny on smoking meat and fish.  First, there’s the brine – a salty solution that adds moisture, flavor and promotes a chemical change that stabilizes the meat.  Sounds technical, but unless you really care about chemistry, just take my word for it.
Dissolve 2 cups kosher salt or 1 ½ cups tablesalt in 2 quarts of water.  With coarse kosher salt, heat some of the water in a pan and stir in the salt until dissolved.  Add the rest of the water and make sure the brine is cool before adding the meat. Soaking raw meat in a warm liquid is a bad idea that encourages bacteria. If desired, add a cup or two of brown sugar to the brine to balance the salty flavor.  Dry seasonings like garlic powder, Italian seasoning and other seasoning blends can be added as well.  With the proper solution of water and salt, the brine actually passes through and into the meat and replaces not-so-tasty duck blood with brine.
Next, the meat is added to the brine in a non-metal container and refrigerated. For whole body ducks, brining takes 6 – 10 hours.  Duck parts like breast fillets and legs can be brined in about 4 hours, but I usually opt for an overnight soak.  I also poke a few holes  in my duck breasts prior to brining.  I use a hand-held Jaccard tenderizer that cuts through the connective tissue, but doesn’t turn the meat into hamburger.  It is especially good on big Canada goose breasts.  If you don’t have a Jaccard handy, use a fork.
The next day, the brine will look more like watery blood.  That’s a victory.  The duck blood has been replaced, or at least diluted, with the more flavorful brine.  Rinse off the ducks or duck parts, wipe them dry and dispose of the brine.  For added flavor, give them a good rub with your favorite seasoning.  Put your ducks on a rack set in a baking pan and put them in the fridge for an hour or so before smoking.  Whether you plan on smoking, grilling, baking or pan-frying your ducks, I’d highly recommend using this same brining process.  Brined ducks will always taste better.  Really.
Fire up the smoker to 150 to 175 degrees and place the meat on racks or hooks.  This lower temperature will result in meat which is smokier with the coveted reddish smoke ring around the edges of the meat.  For boneless duck breasts, it will take about 2 – 3 hours for medium-rare or roughly 135 degrees internal temperature.  If you prefer a dry, tough, chewy hunk of smoked duck, keep smoking for another couple of hours until the thermometer reads 170 degrees.  I suppose it’s necessary to mention the type of wood best suited for smoking waterfowl.  While I prefer fruit woods for just about any smoking of fish, poultry and meat, I do occasionally use more forward flavored woods like hickory, mesquite and oak.
Now, there are those smoker aficionados who will take issue with this simplified explanation of how to smoke meats.  Ignore them.  After a batch or two, you’ll have a pretty good idea about whether you want to adjust smoking times, brines or dry cures.  Dry cures?  Combine equal parts salt and sugar and rub it into the meat instead of using a wet brine.  Wrap with plastic and refrigerate overnight.  Follow the same steps after removing meat from the brine.  Again, not complicated.
Smokers come in all shapes in sizes from the Green Egg to the more traditional rectangular-shaped boxes.  My personal preference is the Bradley Digital Smoker.  I feel obliged to note that Bradley is a sponsor of my television show, but that doesn’t minimize the fact that it has a digital control panel that allows you to program how long you smoke and at what temperature.  Fire it up, check back in a few hours and your ducks are done.  Shop around and find a smoker that fits your budget and lifestyle.  If you like smoked fish, oysters, chicken, ribs, pork shoulder, brisket, venison and think that you’ll use your smoker often, plan on spending a little more for a unit that will last for several years.  If you’re fairly handy, you can also make a pretty good, but not necessarily good looking smoker out of an old refrigerator or metal drum.  I’ve been there and prefer the store-bought models best.  Less guesswork on time, temperature and smoke and, most importantly, my wife doesn’t complain about the old refrigerator in the backyard.