Wood smoke is one of those delightful and deeply nostalgic flavours (and one that pairs so well with pork). It sadly doesn’t come up half often enough in English cuisine – the odd (and truly inimitable) slice of smoked duck breast in a salad perhaps, and lately a Northern take in the form of ‘Ox in Coal Oil’ at The French (for which Giles Coren would “walk to Manchester barefoot in the rain”). Our weather is hardly an excuse – it’s the only form of outdoor cooking I know of that’s remotely possible in the rain. And the advent of refrigeration hasn’t stopped our American cousins from making smoking a mainstay of barbecue cooking. Well, once upon a time in the 70s a plucky young gamekeeper named Keith Erlandson made a valiant effort to bring it back with his guide, Home Smoking and Curing – wellspring of such wonderful observations as:
I do not feel there is ever any justification for smoking young grouse.
I wouldn’t seek to test Keith, so I’ll start with something a little simpler.
Last winter I lucked out and got a 57cm Weber One Touch BBQ in clearance for £50. Having wheeled it out a few times for grilling steaks, burgers and the like, I thought it was time to test it properly with a couple of hunks of belly pork. The grill’s huge diameter allows it to be bastardised into a kind of hot smoker – the main tenet of the technique being to keep a steady low-ish heat going so that the meat cooks slowly enough for the smoke to penetrate. To do this we need to get the food away from the hot coals, and cook indirectly with the lid on. So, on one side of the chamber I light around 8-10 coals and once they’re fully going, build an unlit barricade around them, walled off by a couple of bricks (the idea being to employ the ‘Minion Method‘ whereby each coal lights one-by-one in relay). See fig 1.
Once they’re nicely going, I chuck on a few chunks of applewood (go easy – I used around 250g over the first couple of hours or so of cooking). Apparently soaking them doesn’t help. Then on go a couple of 2 kilo slabs of belly pork on the top grill on the far side from the heat, with a pan of water underneath to catch fat drips and generally even out temperatures. I gave the meat a thorough dry rubdown with a mix of spices the night before – mainly smoked paprika, toasted ground cumin seed, star anise and cinnamon. I’d thought about taking off the skin, since many people seem to advise that this helps the smoke and spices penetrate further into the edible meat, but blinded by desire for crackling I foolhardily crosshatched it and left it on.
Lid on, I used a cheap but effective probe thermometer to keep watch on the temperature (it should be next to the meat, and above the grill, which I corrected after this photo). The digi-mercury quickly gets up to 125C so I close the bottom air intake vents to a couple of millimetres (always leaving the top ones fully open) and add another pan of water over the heat to calm things down. Ideally you want to keep the ambient ‘oven’ temperature at about 108C.
I add the odd bit of wood when the smoke lapses, and eventually a few more coals after around 4 hours as I try and get the pork to finish up in time for guests (meat cooking slows down at around 65C when slow-cooking – see the Stall). At 62C the meat is safe to eat anyway (according to the relatively recent USFDA guidelines), but I leave it to go for another hour until our supplies of crisps & dips run out. I take it off to rest for 15 minutes before carving, saving all the lovely smoky juices that have combined with the water tray underneath the belly (I’ll likely use them for a chilli in the near future).
The pork was pretty delicious, and I’d definitely do this again. You can see the nice pinkness around the edge from the smoke. For the future I would remove the skin before cooking, as it was unsurprisingly nothing like crackling (I grilled it further, but after a couple of beers was a bit impatient and it didn’t go so well). I would also try and give it a full eight hours cooking time to really loosen up the collagen – it was perfectly good as a belly, but I feel longer cooking would really make it melt.
A few days later and all I have curing is some heatproof silicone on a pair of new temperature probes (the one I used during this recipe broke in the last hour or so – be careful with them!). But I’m going to return to the smoke very soon.