We all enjoy a fall-off-the-bone rib with a texture so smooth, it's like butter.
The only way to achieve this kind of result is through the combination cooking method. And the good news it that you can do combo cooking on your smoker too.
You may have already tried this method of cooking in your stove, oven, or backyard grill. But today, I want to bring the combination cooking method to the smoker. And, hopefully, teach you some tips and tricks you might not yet know.
In many ways, cooking is a science, but a flexible one.
You can modify any recipe according to your preferences, as long as you follow the rules when it comes to cooking times and temperatures.
To increase your knowledge about combination cooking on a smoker, read on.
I’ll guide you through the basics of combination cooking using a smoked rib recipe for illustration.
What Is Combination Cooking?
Combination cooking is a method of cooking certain foods (including meat) that involves both moist and dry cooking methods.
When combo cooking, you’ll use different cooking methods, one after the other, to achieve the best end result.
As I said above, cooking is a flexible science.
It's all about chemistry and physics.
If you took a close look at our food, you'll find that it's a mixture of fat, protein, water and, of course, carbohydrates.
For many protein-based foods to be safe and digestible, the chemistry of the various molecules on the inside must be altered. And we do this by creating temperature changes.
When meat is heated, the molecules begin to shake, raising their temperature. In turn, the molecules become less compact. When this process is done in a certain way, the result is superbly tender meat.
This method of cooking is basically a way to ensure that the meat you’re preparing is so soft it slips right through the fork—the ultimate comfort food.
Methods of Combination Cooking
When it comes to cooking meat you'll often hear terms such as stewing, braising and pot-roasting. These methods all require you to first sear the meat on a high heat, then finish off the cooking process in a sauce or liquid of some kind to make the meat completely tender.
But it's a bit different when you’re cooking outside on your grill.
Let’s take a look at three heat-transfer methods that are at play when you put your meat on the grill: conduction, convection, and radiation.
Conduction heat transfer happens when the meat is in direct contact with the heat source.
When grilling, we usually do this by placing the item directly onto the grill above a flame or hot coals.
Soon enough, the surface heats up, and, slowly but steadily, the heat travels through to the interior. More and more molecules begin to vibrate and change, which means the meat is cooking and becoming safe to eat.
Convection is when you're applying a second element to transfer the heat.
This could be water, oil or even air. For example, when you place your steak in the oven, hot air quickly surrounds it and heats the molecules. The same goes for boiling and deep-frying.
So, when smoking, we place the meat away from the heat source and let the hot smoky air surround the meat.
However, natural convection airflow can only cook the exterior, whereas conduction cooks the interior. Which is why we usually have to finish off our smoked ribs on a high heat.
Radiation is when we utilize energy from light.
We usually do this by exposing the meat to a light source.
For example, when cooking by the campfire and you're holding your meat near it, the energy from the light heats the molecules. You can also see this method when cooking on a charcoal grill.
Now that we know a bit more about the science of cooking with heat, we can move along to the fun part—the meat and the flavors to accompany it.
Which Meat to Smoke?
The beauty of smoking is that you can smoke anything you like: fish, pork, beef, chicken, turkey.
Even other products such as cheese and vegetables taste great with a bit of a smoky flavor.
The possibilities are endless.
Most of us love a smoked rib any day of the week though. So today, I'll be putting my focus on that.
To get the right flavor, you'll need more than just smoke.
Seasoning and spices are what enhance the base flavors of meat. Spice bring things to life.
Even if you only use salt and pepper, it still makes a big difference. Without them, you'd likely notice a lack of character. Entice your taste buds to venture away from the bog standard salty and sweet flavors and choose a spice rub with personality.
A spice rub does more than impart flavor though, it also help to create the bark that so many of us love. The spice rub you use doesn't have to be anything overpowering or complicated. A few well-matched different spices are enough.
You can also be creative and add other flavors, such as lemon zest, honey, maple syrup or even mustard and ketchup.
To take your combination cooking to the next level, you’ll want to add some chunks of aromatic wood.
Woods for smoking give an extra dimension of flavor to your meat.
Charcoal is always good for a smoky taste, but I'm talking applewood, oak, hickory, pear and even maple.
When you know what meat you intend to smoke, choose a wood that will suit the natural flavors of that meat. Some woods are stronger than others.
Some will add a touch of sweetness while others may turn bitter. It's essential to know your wood and know which goes best with your meat.
I'll explain a bit more about six commonly used woods for smoking meat.
Hickory is by far one of the most popular flavors you can add. It's excellent when smoking meat such as ribs or brisket. But avoid creating too much smoke as this can create a bitter bark on your meat.
Red oak is fantastic for slow-smoking lamb or beef. It has a dominant flavor, yet not enough to completely overpower your meat.
This type of wood is very oily. It burns faster than others at higher temperatures. Yet it adds a very distinct flavor which goes with almost anything.
Apple and pork go hand in hand. The sweet, mild flavor from the fruit is the perfect complement to the fatty flavors of the pig. So, adding a lump of applewood only seems natural. But it also works wonders for your chicken or other poultry.
Cherry is another fruit which combines well with pork, or even beef. But one ability that cherrywood has is that, apart from the flavor, it will also create a mahogany-like color to the crust.
Since the taste is so mild, you can easily pair it with another wood such as hickory or oak.
Pecan burns very slowly, which makes it the perfect wood to use when slow smoking. It has a subtle flavor but can become tart when overused. So be careful.
Now that you know some of the smoking woods, let’s keep moving and see what other secrets we can reveal.
Generally, when combination cooking, you're browning the meat and creating a crust on the outside to preserve the flavors on the inside.
Except, we want a smoky flavor on the inside as well, which means we must switch the order of methods when we combo cook on a smoker.
If we were to throw our rib directly onto the high heat to get the grill marks, we would create a barrier. This fence would block all the flavors from seeping in and infusing the meat.
So, to get that desired combination-cooked character, you have to begin by smoking at a low temperature.
Depending on your meat and its size, you should try to keep your smoker at around 200–220 degrees Fahrenheit. This heat will allow the meat to cook low and slow.
Low temperatures are ideal for smoking tougher cuts of meat, such as brisket. The low heat will allow the meat to cook slowly, tenderizing every bit of it.
One cut that is served well by combination cooking on a smoker is ribs. One of my favorite methods is 3-2-1 ribs, so let’s get stuck in.
3-2-1 Method Ribs
The 3-2-1 method is all about timing. It's relatively easy to follow and usually the results are consistent and delicious.
3-2-1 stands for three hours of smoking, two hours of foil-wrapped cooking, and one hour of high-temperature cooking with a layer of BBQ sauce.
Through the first two steps, you'll utilize convection. And for the last hour, you finish off with high-heat conduction and radiation.
The goal of this method is to get the meat so tender that it slides off the bone. Much like it would if you were to braise or stew it. These 3-2-1 ribs take about six hours to complete, but they are so worth it.
The secret to combination cooking on a smoker is knowing the physics and chemistry of cooking.
But also choosing the right cut of meat and the flavors to match.
You probably already know how to use the different methods, so it's just a matter of combining two or three.
The end result should be a soft, moist piece of meat which leaves you feeling satisfied, and leaves your guests waiting impatiently for the next invite.