Cooking with smoke

  • Joe Kohl-Riggs inspects his ingenious slow cooker. After gathering the parts, he built it in just a few hours. Picture by Reed Young.
  • A look inside a completed smoker. Picture by Reed Young.
  • A diagram of the hole placements. Illustrated by George Retseck.
  • Illustrated by George Retseck.
  • Pictures by Reed Young.
  • Assemble the four air intakes. Pictures by Reed Young.
  • Handle parts. Pictures by Reed Young.
  • A completed handle mechanism. Pictures by Reed Young.
  • Pictures by Reed Young.
  • Constuction of the fire basket. Pictures by Reed Young.
  • Construction of the fire basket. Pictures by Reed Young.
  • Diagram of how to construct the fire basket. Illustrated by George Retseck.
Date:1 July 2012 Tags:,

A steel drum and a few plumbing parts make up this no-weld smoker. Add meat and smouldering wood and plan to feast! By Joe Kohl -Riggs

Men can admit that they like a barbecue (as in slow cooking over the coals, not grilling as one would with the typical braai). The reason for that is because it’s not really cooking ““ it’s a DIY project that ends with eating meat.

After a few years of cooking with smoke, I got good at it. Then, after a few more years, I fancied myself a magician, shrouding my cheap cuts of meat in the mystery of secret-recipe dry rubs, brines, sauces and blends of flavouring woods. But it wasn’t enough.

I wanted to own every step of the process. My landlord said no to raising livestock in the apartment, so that left building the smoker itself to express my rugged individualism. Online research led me to the ugly drum smoker, which rightfully enjoys a cult following. Using a 200-litre steel drum and parts found in any decent hardware store, the design produces an exceptional smoker. Building it is like the classic barbecue itself, turning modest ingredients into something truly satisfying.

• One 200-litre steel drum, open head, no gasket or lining

• Three M6x25 mm bolts, plus nuts; stainless steel
• Six flat washers, 6-mm hole and 25-mm outer diameter; stainless steel
• One cooking grate, 545-mm diameter (Weber part No 7435; ‚ ts 570 mm kettle grill)

• Four 20-mm, 60-mm-long threaded pipe; Sched. 40 black iron
• Four 20-mm close-nipple pipe ‚ fittings; Sched. 40 black iron
• Four 20-mm locknut pipe fittings; Sched. 40 black iron
• Four 20-mm 90-degree elbow pipe ‚ fittings; Sched. 40 black iron
• Four U-bolts, 57-mm inside length (to ‚ t 20-mm pipe); 10-mm threads; dual mounting plates; stainless steel
• Four 20-mm ball valves; brass; female connection

• One 12-mm close-nipple pipe ‚fittings; Sched. 40 black iron
• One 12-mm flange pipe fitting; Sched. 40 black iron
• One 12-mm to 6-mm reducing elbow pipe fitting; Sched. 40 black iron
• One 6-mm, 150-mm-long threaded pipe; Sched. 40 black iron
• One 125-mm long spring handle with 16-mm hole diameter; stainless steel
• One 6-mm cap pipe fitting; Sched. 40 black iron
• Four M12x40 mm bolts and nuts; stainless steel

• One 300-mm x 1,2-metre piece of flattened, expanded metal; 40-mm hole; 1,5-mm plain steel
• One charcoal grate, 340 mm diameter (Weber part No. 7440; ‚fits 470 mm kettle grill)
• Six M6x25 mm bolts and nuts; stainless steel
• 12 flat washers; 6-mm hole, 25 mm outer diameter; stainless steel
• One length of 1,63 mm diameter; stainless steel

• One barbecue thermometer
• Eight plugs, 6 mm pipe size; stainless steel

Using 20-mm threaded pipe and fittings (see parts list), connect the close nipple to the 90-degree elbow and the elbow to the 600-mm pipe. Slip a U-bolt and mounting plate over the pipe, then attach the brass ball valve (positions shown above). Hand-tighten the parts (below). Then clamp the elbow in a vice, and secure the connections with a spanner on the valve’s facets.

Hand-tighten a 12-mm close nipple into the flange pipe fitting (above, centre). Align the 12-mm opening of the reducing elbow over the nipple, and turn the elbow on to it. Thread the 150-mm-long piece of 6-mm pipe into the elbow, and tighten the connection with pliers. Slip the spring handle over the pipe, and thread the cap on the pipe’s end to hold the handle in place. The entire assembly will be bolted to the lid (left) in a later step.

Cut a 300 x 1 200 piece of expanded metal. The best way to do this is to mount the material to plywood with drywall screws, mark the dimensions on it, and make your cuts with an angle grinder and cutoff wheel (above). Then mark the metal lengthwise 60 mm from the bottom; align the charcoal grate on the mark, and roll the metal into a cylinder (below, left).

Where the metal overlaps, secure the cylinder using three M6 stainless steel bolts, washers and nuts. Use two bolts above the grate and one below it; then space the remaining three bolts evenly around the basket’s circumference. Form the handle out of stainless steel wire. Thread one end through the basket and twist the wire back on itself. Take the free end of the wire and do the same at the other side of the basket.

Use a 200-litre food-grade drum with an open head. (Some drums are treated with epoxy to prevent rust, but meat smoked in such a barrel is toxic.) You can buy a new drum at an industrial supply store. Make sure that the drum and lid are untreated, and buff their insides with a scouring pad or fine sandpaper.

Mark a 290-mm-diameter circle centred on the lid. Using a step bit, drill eight equally spaced 12-mm holes around the circle. Thread a 6-mm pipe plug into each hole. Place the handle assembly on the lid.

Mark the four bolt locations; drill them with the step bit. Bolt the handle to the lid. Mark the hole locations for the air intakes, grill supports and thermometer. Start each hole with a centre punch and bore the 25-mm intake holes with a step bit (above). Test each one by threading in a 20-mm close nipple. Using a 6-mm bit, drill the grill-support holes. The hole size you make for the thermometer depends on the model.

Add the air intakes by placing the close nipple into each hole and rotating the assembly. Align the intakes vertically, mark the U-bolt locations, drill on the marks, and slip a faceplate on either side of the barrel wall. Then tighten the nuts on the U-bolt. Secure the air intakes at the barrel’s base by threading the pipe locknuts onto the close nipples. Create grill supports using the M6 bolts, washers and nuts. Attach the thermometer with its included nut.

Before you cook, load the fi re basket with untreated charcoal, ignite it (use a coal chimney, not lighter fluid), and attach the lid. Fiddle with the intakes to make sure they’re working, and let the fire burn hot to season the barrel and remove any impurities. After this dry run, stoke 3 to 6 kg of charcoal in the fire basket, and add two or three fi st-size chunks of flavouring wood, such as cherry, hickory, oak or maple. Place the basket in the smoker and the grill on its supports. Drop on the lid and open the intakes. When the thermometer reads 175 degrees Celsius, close all but one valve to reduce the heat. Dial in a temperature from 100 to 120 degrees by adjusting the intakes. Load the grill with meat and settle in for the long haul with some good company.

Smoking takes 3 to 18 hours or more and occurs over indirect heat maxing out at 100 to 120 degrees. Tough cuts such as beef brisket and pork shoulder make the best barbecue because they contain a lot of collagen protein, which forms the fibre that surrounds the lean muscle. Over low heat, collagen breaks down into gelatine, which is as tender as, well, jelly. In labspeak, the collagen converts into hydrogen and hydroxide. This process, which occurs most readily at 60 to 70 degrees, makes the meat moist. By contrast, when a tough cut is prepared at high heat (say, in a 250° C oven), the muscle fibres cook through before most of the collagen converts to gelatine. The result is a tougher, drier finished product.

In 1927, the American Engineering Standards Committee standardised the measurement of steel and iron pipe sizes and strengths. This led to the pipe schedule, a scale of 5 to 160. As the number grows, so does a pipe’s wall thickness and ability to withstand internal pressure.

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