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Up In Smoke – The Quest

Updated: Feb 28, 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 4, 2020, issue.


Our smoker died in the big storm of July 2019. Its death was one of the lesser tragedies caused by the tangle of 100-year old pines and oaks that littered the cabin yard. Truth be told, I was glad to see it go. The $40.00 it cost to get the town waste hauler to cart away its rusting hulk caused me more sadness than the demise of its poorly constructed and ill-working body. The old smoker was not even cold in the landfill or wherever dead smokers go before grief gave way to giddy elation at the thought of searching for a new smoker.

This was going to be a quest. I love new cooking appliances. Where to start? I did not want anything that resembled the old smoker. It was a cheaply made, hard to control and rusted almost immediately. Having said that, some wonderful dishes did come from my efforts with it. My smoked salmon and brats were great. I made a passable butt-in-a-bag pork shoulder roast. My abject failure on that smoker was my favorite smoked meat, beef brisket. Think smoky, juicy, tender, beefy ecstasy from some Texas icon like the Iron Works in Austin, Texas. My attempts were anything but that. I just knew I could achieve brisket nirvana with a better piece of equipment.

When it comes to smoker shopping, You-Tube is your friend. The number of videos out there that can show you how to choose, unpack, set up, fire up, cook on and clean smokers will boggle your mind. Smokers seem to be a “guy thing.” Judging by the number of You-Tube videos that are out there on the subject, you would think a woman never owned a smoker. There must be videos on this subject that women created, however I did not run onto any. Conversely, smoker video research would have you believing that every male person over the age of 18 in Texas and Louisiana has at least one smoker and has done dozens of videos. Based upon this, I have proposed to Peggy Farrell, Director of the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program, that we do a workshop on the subject. I think it would be popular.

I digress. Time to return to the quest. There are many styles of smokers. Some are really fancy and convenient models that use augers to deliver pellets of your favorite woods into fireboxes. A Bluetooth connection to your phone controls these. I drooled over some of these models. None of them would work for me, as the little cabin in the woods does not have electricity. I needed a wood or charcoal-fired off-the-grid smoker. I did not need You-Tube to figure out this part.

With the fuel settled, the next consideration was the style. This was a more complicated decision. If you are questing for a smoker, I suggest you go to the BBQ Guys (yes, Guys) website and click on “How to Buy a Smoker.” There is a great article there on all the different configurations. I learned a lot from that article.

My previous model was an offset smoker. What this means is that there are two boxes side by side. One holds the food and the other holds the fire. The smoke from the fire circulates by convection into the other box, across the food and up a chimney. This is a perfectly fine plan. My smoker just did not do a good job of doing what an offset smoker is supposed to do. Many BBQ champions use this style. Since mine was not tightly constructed and the control mechanism did not work well, my fires tended to rival an eruption of Mt. St. Helens. This experience shaped my criteria for the new equipment. I wanted excellent construction, a firebox that would not need restocking mid-cook, a temperature control mechanism that was simple and effective, and a cooker that was easy to clean. My final criterion was that it would be likely to create juicy, tender beef brisket.

I watched many You-Tube videos. My favorites star is a big bear of a guy from Louisiana, Malcolm Reed. He has a website called, How To BBQ Right. Malcolm is a Pitmaster, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “professional or skilled barbecuer.” Smoking is his full-time gig. He wins competitions. He has over 40 smokers and grills in his yard. This tells me that his wife must be a really good woman. Malcolm is lucky the July 2019 storm did not hit his yard, because a quest for over 40 smoker would be quite a project.

Malcolm’s soft Louisiana drawl, his laid-back attitude and excellent instruction make smoker success look easy. I first ran onto his channel when I purchased a rotisserie for the Weber grill I have at home. I watched his video on rotisserie chicken and became a fan. At the close of each video, Malcolm asks you to “like” and “follow” him in order to keep his sponsors happy. After that chicken, I would follow Malcolm anywhere.

I narrowed my search to drum smokers. What did it for me was that they operate on direct heat. This style reduces the cook time. A drum smoker looks like a 55- gallon barrel. They all have grates, lids and a fire- box. The fire is located in the bottom of the barrel. Each one features some way to control the airflow to the fire, which is how you control the temperature. This is important because temperature is the difference between smoking and grilling.

Now I needed to figure out make and model. Gateway Drum Smokers intrigued me for a number of reasons. First, they are American-made and high quality. I read many reviews. Second, the airflow control mechanism looked foolproof. Each unit has a tubular air intake on each side, that is reminiscent of the smoke stacks on a diesel truck. Each stack has a metal flipper the size of the tube opening. You change the size of that opening by adjusting the flipper. This determines how hot your fire will be. The Gateway Drum Smoker met most of my criteria. I still needed to decide if it would meet the biggest one. How would it do with brisket?

Dave, the Pitmaster, at Hector’s Smokehouse in Australia answered the brisket question. Dave has a great video where he unpacks his brand new Gateway Drum Smoker, trims a full packer brisket, cooks the brisket in about 6 hours and serves up some tender, juicy and excellent looking fare. The best part? The smoker was shiny RED!

I got out my credit card and ordered one. COVID-19 slowed the construction and delivery. The 3-week wait gave me plenty of time to order all the accessories. You sure would not want a new smoker to arrive and not have all the gadgets you need to go with it. I was a happy woman the day we unpacked my new RED smoker at the little cabin in the woods.

My husband’s comment?

“It certainly doesn’t blend into the landscape.”

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