Charcoal, the old favorite, is always a stable and readily available heat source. Invest in a starter chimney to get your first bunch of briquettes going without using lighting fluids. Practically all serious smokers use a starter chimney nowadays. You stuff the bottom of the starter with newspaper and heap charcoal atop the paper. [Editor's note: Here's a tip from Alton Brown- spray a tiny bit of vegetable oil on the newspaper before you place it at the bottom of the chimney, it will help you on your way.] Light the paper and viola, you will have ashed briquettes in about 20 minutes. Let all the briquettes get covered with an ash layer before you spread them out and take the next step of adding flavoring woods, which we will talk about in a second.
If you are in a hurry and need a ready fire in 30 minutes or less, add your own charcoal lighting fluid; heres how. Make a pyramid of the briquettes you want to initially fire up, the steeper the pyramid the better. Start squirtin the fluid in circles around and around from bottom to top of the mountain. Continue this until a trip from the bottom to the top is not needed because the top is still wet. NOW WAIT AT LEAST 2 MINUTES BEFORE YOU LIGHT THE PILE OF CHARCOAL IF YOU VALUE YOUR EYEBROWS!! Keep your face away, toss a match on the pile and it will ignite slowly. All briquettes will ash over in about 20 minutes and you will be ready for the next step.
briquettes dont last forever. Your initial fire will last a good two hours minimum depending on your initial load. Have enough charcoal on hand to maintain your fire by adding at least a dozen briquettes on an hourly basis.
Wood & Smoking
Where there is fire there is smoke? Not necessarily...
You can cook directly over wood but this is a little more involved that just tossing a match into a fireplace. The type and condition of your wood will effect, and may even ruin a meal. In future lessons we will explore using a hardwood burning fire to make sure you are well prepared for a tasty meal.
However, you will need to add wood chips or chunks to your fire to generate flavorful smoke. Use chunks (golf to baseball size) for 2 hour or more sessions because they will last longer, are more economical and generate less ash. Use chips for sessions less than 2 hours because they are more intense for a short smoking.
Your wood needs to be soaked prior to use at least 30 minutes for chips and one hour for chunks. You immerse the chips or chunks in water so they dont burst into flames and burn away instantly without adding smoke. Adding water to wood is what makes the moist, flavorful, lip-smacking smoke that will flavor your food and have the neighbors sniffing around your house. Can you use liquids other than water? Sure. I have used beer, apple juice, red wine and others to add to the smoke flavor with very good results. Dont use too sweet of a mixture because the sugars may team up, concentrate and burn creating a nasty odor.
So what kind of wood do you use? Hickory and mesquite are most common and available. Hickory is smooth and is good for a long smoking like a turkey or pork roast and mesquite has a twang that is good for the short run. But be careful- mesquite coals burn hotter than regular charcoal. I have used Cowboy brand mesquite and Mikes Authentic Mesquite Charcoal. I've had had good results with both and they are available on the web.