Build a Better Burger: SmokingBy Todd • May 1st, 2011 • Category: How To Cook Burgers
Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? I found out this past week that, for all of my self-proclaimed grilling expertise- especially when it comes to burgers- that I still have much to learn. The lesson has come courtesy of a shiny birthday present from my wife, the newest weapon in my griller warfare arsenal:
That, my burger-loving brothers and sisters, is a Big Green Egg. For those of you not familiar, it’s the United States’ most popular brand of kamado. A kamado (short for mushikamado) is a type of traditional Japanese cooker fueled by wood or charcoal. Kamados were historically made of earthen materials like clay, but modern versions are usually ceramic. The Big Green Egg’s unique shape is specifically designed to help the cooker retain heat far better than conventional grills, say the brand’s fans. These cult-like devotees, who call themselves Eggheads, swear that anything you can grill can be cooked better on an Egg: ribs, roasts, pizzas, whole turkeys, even breads and baked desserts. In a surprise to no one, I put mine to the test with burgers.
Cooking with a Big Green Egg begins with lump charcoal. Once the fuel of choice for only the most rabid of grillers, lump charcoal (whole pieces of wood that have been exposed to extremely high temperatures to expel all volatile chemicals, leaving behind pure carbon) is now pretty readily available.
It weighs less than charcoal briquettes (thanks to a lack of fillers like wood or sawdust and because it’s not compressed into a uniform shape), but costs a lot more. The upside is that it burns much cleaner and way hotter than your granddaddy’s Kingsford. I can attest to that personally; just 15 minutes after lighting, the temp inside my Big Green Egg was over 500 degrees and still climbing.
The Big Green Egg has made a name for itself as a smoker, and that’s how I used it for my burgers. In smoking, the cooking is done over various hardwoods to infuse the food with flavor. Mesquite, hickory, and pecan are classic smoking woods, available to backyard grillers in bagged chunks or chips.
There are dozens of other woods, some better suited to certain types of food than others, and all supplying slightly different tastes. You can buy chips made from smashed-up barrels that have been used to age wine, Tabasco hot sauce, or even Jack Daniel’s whiskey. I’ve used ‘em all in my Weber kettle grills over the years with smashing success. (Chicken, pork, and fish take smoke really well. And I’ve put a smoked turkey on my family’s Thanksgiving Day table for the past 15 straight years.) For these burgers, I used cherry wood. Simply soak the chips in water for an hour or more, drain, and sprinkle the damp chips directly over the burning charcoal.
You can tweak the technique for gas grills, too, with clever little metal boxes that safely contain the wood chips and are placed on top of your grill’s lava rock or flavorizer bars. You can also DIY it by rolling the wet chips into an aluminum foil “log” and poking a few holes in the foil to allow the smoke to escape. Whatever method you use, the smoke starts rolling pretty quickly, dropping the overall temp of the fire. Generally speaking, let the smoke get going for a few minutes before you place the food over it- to avoid an overpowering, acrid taste from that initial blast.
Smoked meats take on a distinct reddish hue. (BBQ enthusiasts look for the telltale pink “smoke ring” in a cross-section of meat and award style points for a more pronounced one.) At a casual glance, smoked meat can appear undercooked because of this coloration, so using a meat thermometer to check the internal temp is always a good idea. Even after just 5 minutes of bathing in the cherry wood smoke, my burgs had taken on an obvious rosy glow.
Airflow is the key to smoking. Your cooker needs to maintain a fire to sufficiently burn the wood chips- so good air intake is a must. Then the idea is to draw the smoke being generated across the food on its way out of the grill- without trapping it inside- so a vent is also critical. The Big Green Egg does this with a bottom hatch that pulls air into the firebox and an adjustable chimney piece that controls the airflow leaving the Egg. The bigger the openings, the more air you’re letting in, the hotter the fire will burn, and the more smoke you’ll produce.
My cherry smoked burgers were not the best I’ve ever made. Truthfully, they were one of my weaker efforts. But I credit that not to the smoking technique, but to me getting used to kamado cooking. There’s always a learning curve with a new tool, and I’m still in mine with the Big Green Egg. I’m simply not used to an apparatus that hits 700 degrees with zero effort. I’m still figuring out how to control temperatures and how to adjust my timing accordingly. But that’s part of the fun of outdoor grilling, and I’m eager to master my new toy. As for smoking in general, it’s a cool way to jazz up your next round of backyard burgers and get your neighbors talking as waves of aromatic smoke waft over the fence.