Summertime means sunny weather, baseball, sweet corn and, of course, grilling season.
Residents across Adel will be firing up their grills, smokers and cookers this summer. But for those who truly like to smoke meat or fire up their grill, it doesn’t have to be summertime.
“I’ve used it before in the dead of winter,” says Kevin Wichtendahl, who primarily cooks with a Big Green Egg smoker. He had wanted one for a while and received it as a Father’s Day gift about four years ago.
Wichtendahl says he became interested in smoking meat because of his brother, who lives in Kansas City and has won the ribs category of a prestigious barbecue championship there in the past. His brother’s meat is some of the best he’s had, Wichtendahl says, adding that his wife, Teresa, also enjoys it, so he decided to start smoking his own meat.
Wichtendahl says he wanted to speed up the time it takes to smoke meat, however. His brother will spend eight to 12 hours smoking meat. With Wichtendahl’s smoker, he can cook in much less time because the ceramic of the smoker holds in heat better. He says the curvature of the smoker’s ceramic body also allows the heat to cycle back into the meat. Sometimes he experiments with different types of wood, but Wichtendahl says he mostly prefers to use hickory or cherry wood.
He recently smoked baby-back ribs and bone-in chicken breasts in his Big Green Egg. The ribs took about 2.5 hours to cook; the chicken about an hour. His smoker will maintain 250 degrees for about 12 hours, but it can get as hot as 600 degrees, which he says is perfect for making thin-crust pizzas.
“It kind of acts as a brick fire oven,” he says.
Wichtendahl also has set up his meat and smoker so he can monitor the temperature of the meat from inside his house, which he says also makes smoking meat more convenient. He uses his Big Green Egg about once a month or so during warm weather months or when he needs to cook larger quantities of meat for guests or when his children are home visiting. He has the largest smoker Green Egg makes, which will fit six racks of ribs or four chickens.
After about four years of using his smoker, Wichtendahl says he pretty much has it narrowed down to what he cooks best. The family likes smoked chicken, ribs (he uses his brother’s winning rib recipe), shoulder cuts and pizzas, all cooked on the smoker.
When the Wichtendahls want a steak or a burger, Kevin fires up his gas grill.
Others prefer different types of cookers for smoking meat
Tim Merical also likes to smoke meat and is just starting to experiment with different types and cuts.
“I think anybody that when they start smoking meat, there is a learning curve there,” he says. “Everybody has their different tastes, whether they like more seasoning and less smoke or more smoke and less seasoning. You just have to play with it a little to learn what your likes are.”
Merical bought a Louisiana wood pellet cooker a couple of years ago. He uses mesquite or hickory pellets, but mesquite is his favorite.
Thus far, he’s smoked whole chickens and chicken cuts, deer roasts and loins, pork loins, turkey, ham and rabbit on his cooker. He says the family likes smoked chicken and pork loins the best.
“I still want to get into doing ribs and briskets, but I haven’t got into those yet,” he says. “Part of (the success of smoking meat) is knowing the meat, and the other part of it is if you want good smoked flavor, you have to do it at a lower heat and cook longer and make sure you don’t dry out your meat.”
Merical decided to go with a wood pellet cooker because he says it’s less work than some smokers.
“I knew a lot of people that did smoked meats, and I really liked the flavors, but the old-style cookers are a lot of work where you put in the charcoal and the wood and monitor it with the temperature,” he says. “Then I heard about these, where once you get it set, you don’t have to baby-sit it all day.”
Merical says he uses his smoker more or less depending on the season but averages once every month or couple of months. He says he’d like to get to the point where he uses it a couple of times a month but preparing the meat can take a lot of time and forethought, especially if marinating or injecting is involved.
He says he buys all of the rubs he puts on his meat, though he mixes different ones together to get the seasoning he wants. He makes his own marinades using a combination of items.
“I’ll go to the refrigerator or the cupboard and start throwing things together,” Merical says.
He grills out more frequently.
“If there’s any way we can get outside, even in the winter, it’s not unique for us to throw something on the grill,” Merical says.
He uses his grill to cook steaks, burgers, hotdogs, brats, beer can chicken, pork chops and loins, and sometimes makes rotisserie chicken.
However, Merical says he wishes he had more time to smoke meat rather than grill it and that once he’s retired, he’d like to smoke meat at least once a week.
Hobby becomes a business
Merle Cox knows a thing or two about smoking meat.
He started serving smoked meat sandwiches during lunchtime from his Adel backyard about 10 years ago. His business gradually grew from there into a stand at the Adel Sweet Corn Festival and the Adel Farmers’ Market, and catering jobs.
Cox was a hog farmer for many years. He says he “had a liking for pork and cooking pork,” but most of his eating of it consisted of grilling.
He eventually switched exclusively to smoking meat. He is now known for his ribs, which is also his personal favorite to eat. Cox also smokes a lot of pork, beef brisket and some chicken through his part-time hobby business Brick Street BBQ.
Through his years of smoking meat, Cox has learned some valuable tips. The key to a good smoked meat is patience.
“It takes time,” he says. “A common phrase is low heat, and a long time. It may take time with low heat.”
Cox uses a Horizon brand smoker — one is a stationary unit kept at his house that he does most of his cooking on; the other is on a trailer that he takes to various markets and to keep food hot while serving it.
Cox uses chunks of wood, usually oak, hickory or fruit woods such as apple and cherry. He incorporates pre-made spices and sauces that he then mixes to make his own recipes to season or marinate his meats. For a sauce, he likes to use Harvey’s BBQ Sauce.
“I use it all of the time,” Cox says. “I think it’s a great sauce.”
Cox can be found by his smoker throughout the year, even in the winter months when he receives a lot of special orders from customers who want his ribs.
“You shovel the smoker out of the snow and get it done,” he says. “It takes a little longer because you need more heat and wood.”
In summer months, he’ll smoke meat at least two days a week to keep up with orders and to keep everything as freshly cooked as possible. Recently, he completed one of his biggest orders: 100 pounds of brisket and pulled pork for a graduation party.
Even with all of the smoking done for others, Cox can oftentimes be found by his own grill at home.
“My wife gets a little tired of the smoked meats,” he says with a laugh.