Smoke is the soul of the barbecue. Without it, there wouldn’t be Kansas City baby back ribs, Texas beef brisket, or Carolina pork shoulder, not to mention the pastrami, bacon, and kipper salmon.

You might think you need a professional barbecue for smoking, but it’s easy to smoke at home using a charcoal grill, like a Weber kettle, or a kamado stove, like a Big Green Egg. If you’d rather invest in a smoker, there are hundreds of them (see our choices here): water smokers, like the Weber Smoky Mountain; pellet smokers (eg Green Mountain); gas smokehouses (eg Masterbuilt); electric smokers (eg Bradley), and more. Sorry, folks: it’s hard to get an authentic smoky flavor on a gas grill.

So what exactly is smoke?

We know it when we see it, smell it and taste it. But why does this make the food so deliciously delicious? Simply put, smoke is a wispy byproduct that occurs when you burn wood or other organic materials like hay (used in Italy) or tea and rice (used in China). Smoke contains literally hundreds of compounds, from carbonyls – responsible for the beautiful brown color of smoked foods – to phenols, such as creosol (which produces a whiskey flavor) and vanillin (which gives smoked foods a vanilla sweetness) .

It is about regulating the temperature.

Different foods need different temperatures. Adjust the grill vents to get the right temperature: the more air raises the heat, the less air lowers it. (Another way to reduce the temperature is to use less charcoal.) Good air circulation is essential – your smoke should be a wispy pale blue (black or white smoke indicates too much wood or fire in lack of oxygen).

For classic barbecues, such as brisket or ribs, smoke “low heat” at 250 degrees for an extended period: 4 to 5 hours for pork ribs; 5 to 7 hours for the pork shoulder; 8 to 12 hours or more for the chest.

To smoke chicken and salmon or trout, work at a higher temperature (350 to 400 degrees): 1 to 1 1/2 hours for the first; 20 to 30 minutes for the latter.

If you smoke on a charcoal barbecue …

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Set it up for indirect cooking, with the embers on opposite sides of the grill and an aluminum drip pan in the center. If you’re using wood chips (check out our guide here), soak them in water for 30 minutes to slow the burn rate, then drain and add to the coals. (You will need about 1 1/2 cups.) If using pieces of hardwood, add 1 large or 2 small pieces to the embers – no need to soak them. Refill the wood every 45 minutes or so and charcoal as needed – your goal is to maintain a light but steady flow of smoke.

Season raw meat with salt and pepper or your favorite barbecue sauce (mine is made up of equal parts salt, pepper, paprika and brown sugar). Bacon and pastrami begin with a week-long soak in brine, prepared by adding 1 cup of sea salt and 1 tablespoon of sodium nitrite (a curing salt) – along with optional flavors, such as garlic or sugar – to 1 gallon of water. Drain the meat well by blotting it with paper towels, then air dry in the refrigerator until tacky (sticky), 2 hours. Smoke adheres best to moist meats, but not wet.

How do you know when it’s done.

When you get the process right, your meat will display a smoke ring: a nice pinkish red band 1/4 inch just below the “rind” (the crispy surface of the meat) – the result of the nitrogen in smoke, which binds to myoglobin to turn the periphery of the meat pink.

Many pit masters finish their ribs with barbecue sauce, applied towards the end of cooking so that the sugars in the sauce don’t burn. I like to brush the ribs with barbecue sauce, then sizzle them directly over a hot fire for 3 to 5 minutes per side just before serving.

Don’t limit yourself to smoking meats and seafood, as veggies, cheese, eggs, and even desserts and cocktails are delicious smoked. The next time you make a gazpacho, smoke the tomatoes and peppers. Or smoke hard boiled eggs cut in half to make amazing stuffed eggs or an egg salad. Or instead of baking a crisp, crumble, or fruit cobbler, bake them in the smoker. You can even smoke tomato juice in a shallow pot to make a cocktail that I call a Smoky Mary.

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