Up In Smoke – The Pit Mistress
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Beginning in July 2020, I became a regular contributor to Wisconsin Outdoor News (WON) in "From The Little Cabin In The Woods" column.
This article was published in the WON September 18, 2020, issue.
“Mom! You have a RED smoker. You are a Pit Mistress. Own it!” Shannon laughed as she teased.
We were just sitting down to dinner at the cabin after a pleasant afternoon spent smoking St. Louis-style ribs and brats. Shannon and Dan Honl (our daughter and her husband) were visiting. Dan’s mom, Roberta Laine was out for the afternoon as well. The week of the visit was a breath of fresh air in the midst of the COVID-19 disruptions. It was a chance to feel normal for a few days.
The ribs were our second smoker meal that week. Two days prior, we did a brisket. Dan provided the meat from one of his favorite suppliers and was my partner on both projects. He had followed my quest to find a new smoker via links I sent him in texts and emails. He had also followed my trials and tribulations as I stumbled through the process of learning how to master running it.
The smoker had arrived about six weeks before the visit. While I was waiting for it to arrive, I purchased virtually every accessory you could think of as I sure did not want that beautiful red beast to arrive and be missing the one thing that would make it go. I watched dozens of videos on how to run it and investigated recipe after recipe. I was ready, I thought.
I asked Stan what he would like me to cook first.
“Brisket,” he said emphatically.
So I purchased baby back ribs. Actually, I would have purchased brisket, but my local butcher, Ski’s in Stevens Point, did not have it. I did order a full packer brisket for the following week. I was relieved. I thought ribs would be a lot easier way to begin.
The list of decisions that you need to make to get started will boggle your mind. You-Tube videos and internet research can provide a great deal of information that can help the novice smoker decide answers to questions ranging from which charcoal to use to what sauce to put on. However, I found that there are as many opinions on each subject as there are videos, blogs and discussion group members. In the end, it comes down to you, your smoker and your taste buds.
Things did not go smoothly on the rib cook. There were two places where I went wrong in my first outing with the smoker. Step one in most smoking processes is to put some kind of rub on the meat. The rub was the first mistake. Virtually all the videos that you will watch on this subject discuss the importance of layering of flavors. The pit masters slather liquid ranging from olive oil to mustard onto the meat to bind the the rub to it. Then they rub on some combination of dry ingredients – usually something they are trying to sell you. Generally, these rubs contain salt, pepper, sugar and garlic as a base. I am, personally, not a fan of garlic (sacrilege, I know).
At the risk of hate mail, you are going to get a little cook’s philosophy here. Meat should taste like itself. The purpose of seasoning is to enhance the natural flavors, not substituting for them. I should have known better, when I picked out a rub recipe and coated the ribs with a thick layer of it. My very first step set the unfortunate course for the rest of the day.
The second place I went wrong was on the choice of fuel for the fire. We use natural wood charcoal for our Weber kettle grill. We had it in inventory (and I had spent a lot of money on accessories), so I used what we had. I fought that fire all day long. It was too hot. It was too cold. I could not leave the smoker for more than a few minutes all afternoon. In the end, the ribs were tender, juicy and overwhelmed by the salt and pepper in the rub. My first attempt at ribs was edible but not stellar. The UWSP wildlife student who helps us with chores around the land and bow hunts there, Hayden Walkush, was the unfortunate soul who happened to be there for the first meal. He was polite.
By the following week, the disappointment of week one faded. I picked up my full packer brisket from Ski’s and jumped back into the fray. I corrected my two mistakes from the first week. I purchased briquettes made especially for smokers. The fire ran smoothly all afternoon. I am not saying this is the answer for everyone. For my smoker and me, this worked.
As to the seasoning, I sprinkled small amounts of salt, pepper, paprika and thyme on the meat. I wanted that juicy, beefy flavor to shine. I used hickory chunks for the wood. This was, I thought, a conservative choice. It worked.
Six hours later, I served the best brisket I ever made, but not the best I ever had. It was very good. It could have been better. This was a full packer. What that means is that it has both parts of the brisket, the flat and the point. The leaner flat cooks faster. It is difficult to achieve the right temperature in all parts of the meat at once, potentially resulting in the flat being dry or the point being not quite tender enough. This is what I had at the end. It was all good. None of it was perfect. I did learn from the experience. Less is more on the rub. The briquettes were the ticket to a good fire. Hickory did not overwhelm the meat. I was gaining confidence and experience. I was ready for the Shannon and Dan to come and try this with me.
I had fun sharing things I learned over the course of the summer. The brisket that Dan brought was a flat, so we started with a more manageable piece of meat then the first one I had tried. He learned how to fire the smoker. I showed him how to trim the brisket so you can easily determine where to start slicing when it is time to serve it. I threw out terms like the “the stall” and the “Texas Crutch” like a pro. We had a lot of fun together over two days of smoking.
These were the best ribs and brisket I had ever eaten. Yes, Laurie Ross’s Secret Rub was great on them. Yes, the sauce I made out of Rufus Teague Sweet Honey Sauce cut 50% with Jack Daniels Single Barrel was awesome. The great thing was we prepared and ate these meals in the little cabin in the woods with the people we love most in the world. What is not to like?
Pit Mistress? I don’t know, but maybe I need a You-Tube channel.