Authentic American BBQ using offset smokers

by Liz Beavis

I had never heard of American BBQ until I read Michael Pollan's 2013 book Cooked.  The first quarter of this book is devoted to "fire" and is about the story of whole hog BBQ cooking, both the smoking and the changing methods of pig farming.  To be honest, I was more interested in the other sections: water (casserole), air (bread) and earth (fermentation), but I struggled through that first section so that I could review the book.  


Several years later I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to the USA for a work conference and study tour.  I didn't get to choose the destinations, but we happened to travel through Oklahoma, North Carolina and Missouri, three of the BBQ states.  I remembered reading that book and seeing as I had to visit those states, I made it my mission to eat authentic American BBQ in each state.  

In Oklahoma we tried smoked beef brisket, salmon and sausage.  In North Carolina it was smoked pork ribs and brisket with a vinegar chilli sauce.  The Kansas City BBQ was beef ribs and brisket with pickles and a sweet BBQ sauce.  All served with sides of macaroni cheese (smoked), beans, green beans, corn and coleslaw.  Texas toast in Oklahoma and "hush puppies" in North Carolina - deep fried corn flour balls!  It was a lot of fun to try all the different styles at small diners full of locals.



Pete and I have both been keen to try smoking because we knew people who made preserved meat with cold smoking.  However, the American BBQ type of smoking is hot smoking - you cook and smoke the meat at the same time.  Originally this was a fire pit feeding hot gases and smoke into a chamber. 

At some stage (reportedly during a downturn in the oil industry) the "offset smoker" was designed.  This is usually a barrel of some kind with an offset firebox.  The fire in the firebox provides the smoke and hot gas to cook the meat etc in the barrel.  An offset smoker can be completely mobile and takes up less space than a dedicated BBQ pit.  You can even get larger models that are fitted with a trailer hitch (to feed hundreds of people).

We recently spent a day at a smoking school organised by our local butcher.  American BBQ culture has taken off here in Australia (see the movie BBQ), including BBQ competitions.  Our teacher in this case was actually a British chef who had competed in the BBQ competitions in Australia. 

He brought two offset smokers with him and showed us how to cook pork ribs, pork brisket, beef ribs, beef brisket, chicken wings, sausages and even how to grill rump steak.  This included the necessary seasoning and rubs, and a BBQ sauce.  He also demonstrated macaroni cheese, beans and coleslaw. 



So now that we've had a good look at a few different types of smoker and Pete's had a chance to try some of the meat, we are pretty keen to make our own offset smoker.  Apparently Ironbark eucalyptus trees are prefect wood to use and we have plenty of those!  We also have plenty of the tougher cuts of meat that suit this type of slow cooking process (I already use my slower cooker regularly!). I'll tell you more about it when we start building.

What do you think?  Have you tried using an offset smoker?  Do you love smoked food?

Of course Pete made friends with both dogs at the venue!


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