Scott Munro, Master of Meats, Red’s True Barbecue:
Grilling outside with gas is ok for knocking out some steaks, kebabs and burgers for the family, but you really can’t beat cooking with wood as it imparts a much deeper and broader flavour profile. Authentic US low and slow style cooking, like we do at Red’s, is a real art and takes a lot of practice, but once you get it, you’ll never look back.
So, when Weber kindly asked me to test out one of its newer, smaller format Smokey Mountain bullet smokers I figured it would be a good opportunity to see how quick it would be to set up, smoke/grill and break down at home on an evening..
When the box arrived I couldn’t believe how small the package was. I honestly thought the delivery dude had part delivered, and a second box would arrive separately! This smoker is 15 inches wide and just over 30 inches tall. As smokers go, I’m used to working with commercial grade units that are over two metres tall that can smoke up to 500lbs of meat at any one time. This bullet-shaped smoker was frickin’ tiny compared, and I feared I’d have to call China Palace to help feed the rest of the family.
I connected all the components with the sole use of a flat head screw driver and my hands in 20 minutes flat. The trickiest part was to insert the new temperature grommet on the side of the centre frame, which is great for probing without having to constantly open the lid. Skills Weber!
Using the coal chimney, it only took a couple of twisted pieces of newspaper to light a load of lumpwood – so efficient, and not a firelighter or fluid in sight (avoid wherever possible due to possible flavour contamination into the end product)!
The great thing about bullet smokers is that they have two levels, and you can use these layers when you need multiple temperature ranges. This smoker also has a heat regulation feature in the form of a water bath, which fits directly below the lower layer and just above the coals. The theory is that the water in the bath absorbs lots of heat, maintaining even heat from the coals by pushing the heat up the sides of the smoker instead of straight upwards which could cause hotspots.
It’s also a great way to catch all the drippings from the meat you’re cooking, helping avoid fat fires in the smoker; the dread of Pitmasters alike! The issue you have with a water bath is that you constantly have to top it up during the smoke. And when the water evaporates past a certain point, does the heat from the coals and the wood stop being evenly distributed? Probably.
Over the years, I’ve heard a few tricks that you might find helpful. The first is to remove the water bath, and replace with a thick terracotta plate of similar dimensions, something you’d find at a garden centre, which is usually used for placing plant pots on. If you cover it in foil and make sure the drippings from the meats fall into the centre of the terracotta plate, you’ll avoid fat fires and be able to keep it clean by simply replacing the foil covering after use.
The second is that if you decide to keep the original water bath in place, you can quickly determine the hotspots inside the smoker (without having to buy 10 temperature probes!) by placing lots of balls of bread dough over both grills. You’ll soon be able to tell the hotter areas of the smoker by which dough balls have cooked quicker.
FIRST TEST: DIRECT HEAT SOURCE – SKATE WINGS & SWEET POTATOES
Weber kindly sent a small fish basket, gloves and some tongs; I figured I’d try a little fish tester on a free night whilst the wife and boy were away.
I grabbed a medium skate wing, trimmed and seasoned it and placed it perfectly into the fish basket which has a clever, dynamic height control feature built in to deal with thicker fish/cuts.
Using mesquite chunks I first smoked the sweet potatoes for about 40 minutes within the low and slow “smoke” temperature range (100C-140C). I then cranked the temperature up by removing the lid to prepare for a much faster grill on the skate (probably around 300C). I grilled the fish for about 10 minutes on each side, just as the edges of the flesh started crisping up. The fish basket was awesome, and the gloves with silicon grip came in handy when flipping the basket by grabbing the side handles when reaching into the lower level. You can use the side panel for flipping etc instead of removing the top layer completely like I did.
(It’s worth noting that I purposefully avoided using the water bath feature during this test, as I wanted to create more of a fast grill environment for the skate.)
The skate came out really silky with a crunchy bite and the sweet potatoes were as smokey as I’ve ever had. First test complete, and I’d say it was a strong success.
SECOND TEST: INDIRECT HEAT SOURCE – BABY BACK RIBS & BEER CAN CHICKEN
For the second test run, I wanted to use the smoker to its full capability so opted for two full baby back ribs, a 2 kilo beer can chicken, bacon rashers, egg and more sweet potatoes. Yes, I was thinking exactly the same: how the hell are you going to fit all that into one baby smoker? Well, it’s a test, so let’s really test it!
I skinned, rubbed and marinated the ribs overnight – a really important step to infuse the meat with tonnes more flavour. The next day I used the 2-1-1 cooking method; two hours meat side up at around 120C, wrap in foil for one hour, meat side down and sprayed with a little apple juice and cider vinegar baste, then one last hour unwrapped to get that Memphis-style dry finish with an extra sprinkle of rub. SEE HERE FOR THE FULL RECIPE
I brined the chicken for about 4 hours (2 hours per kilo) and then let the skin dry fully in the fridge uncovered for a couple of hours (helps to crisp the skin up). I then oiled and rubbed it with the rib rub and stuffed the neck with some fresh herbs from next door’s garden (tarragon, sage and some rosemary – thanks Richard and Carolyn!). Remember to drink some of the beer from the can before “seating” the chicken on its throne. It took a bit of co-ordination getting the chook into the smoker whilst the ribs were in the middle of their cook process, but as you can see, I made full use of both layers.
It’s a much smaller format, so you have to be really careful how much fuel you add at the start of the process. I added too little lumpwood, and found it a little tricky to regulate the temperature, especially when I included the use of the water bath feature. This was exacerbated when I added the volume of meat mentioned above, keeping the temperature in the “smoke” range.
The key is to match the level of fuel with the volume of product you intend to cook. It’s a matter of knowing your smoker, and knowing when to open and close the lid moreover. The easy access side flap is great for adding coal and wood chunks without having to open the lid and remove the racks, although it does feel a bit cheap (light aluminium) to the touch. The addition of the temperature probe grommet is an ingenious feature. It means once you’ve connected your meat probe (as I did with the beer can chicken to make sure it’s internal temperature hit safe levels), you no longer have to worry about loose lid connections, allowing heat to escape unnecessarily because of unruly probe cables.
If I was to be critical, I would suggest one enhancement. Because I was smoking my chicken in the “throne” position, I could only fit the chook on the lower grill layer. This meant that I couldn’t smoke my ribs at the same time because the top layer grill would not fit back into position due to the height of the chicken.
However, if the top grill was designed in a way that one half could be folded over the other down the middle, you could use both layers at the same time. It’s a simple improvement, but could make all the difference to a smaller volume smoker like the 37cm, which does have limitations on larger primal cuts such as a full packer brisket and pork shoulder.
As an entry level smoker, its size really works well, although for more advanced “q’ers”, it will have its limitations (see pressure marks on chicken breast from top grill). It’s fully portable in this format, so if you fancy taking it to the park for an afternoon in the sun, you’re golden.
Weber’s accessories are second to none. They have a massive range and the quality of design is class. The fish basket comes in two sizes, in case you fancy using a larger cut/fish. I love the way it expands according to its contents. The tongs are some of the best I’ve used because they have a fortunate lip inside the paddles, which means you can actually grip your target without it slipping out all the time. The slim heat resistant gloves work as well as any I’ve tried, although handling hot meat with them is a no-no as they have a fabric finish. For this I prefer to use silicone finish gloves.
All-in-all, I really enjoyed using this smoker. It’s a great entry-level product, and at £250 RRP it’ll sell well against its larger 47cm and 57cm cousins. I would recommend it to my friends, but suspect there might be a little pushback on the price point….
Weber Smokey Mountain 37cm – RRP £249.99
Weber Original Fish Basket (Small) – RRP £29.99
Weber Original Stainless Steel Locking Tongs – RRP £15.99
Weber Original Chimney Starter– RRP £19.99
Weber Premium BBQ Gloves – RRP £29.99