Low and slow is the way to go when you have a larger cut of meat.
I mean, who doesn’t love a tender pulled pork, a juicy brisket or tasty rack of ribs. A turkey for the holidays, slowly smoked, will be succulent and juicy.
Low and slow cooking is essentially smoking your meat until it’s cooked.
It is not cooked directly over a hot grill, or indirectly at a medium to high heat.
It can be done on a gas grill, but is better suited to a smoker or charcoal grill. Saying that, you can buy gas smokers.
Low and Slow Grilling in a Smoker
You can find several different types of smoker that can be used for low and slow grilling.
There is the upright water smoker, such as Weber’s Smokey Mountain range. It looks a bit like a black and silver R2D2, for those of you who are Star Wars fans.
This type of smoker houses the charcoal at the bottom and a water bowl in the middle. It has a lid and vents to retain smoke in the unit.
Then we have the offset barrel smokers.
These have a large horizontal barrel which acts as the smoke chamber. The smaller firebox is welded on the side, providing indirect heat from the smoke.
Next, there is the electric smoker.
Resembling a small refrigerator, it heats hardwood pellets on an electric element.
Other types are propane gas-fueled smokers; these are excellent for maintaining a constant temperature, and pellet smokers.
Whichever smoker you have, once it’s fired up you are ready to cook. Put the wood chips in, fill the water bath and put your meat on the grill grate.
The temperature you want to reach before cooking is 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit. You will need to adjust the vents on the firebox, or the chimney itself, to achieve this.
Opening them wider increases the heat while closing them reduces it.
You will need to replenish the coals every hour for a charcoal smoker. When you do add coals, make sure they are hot. Use a chimney smoker to get them going before adding them.
When cooking slowly in a smoker, soak the wood chips in water for an hour before putting them on the coals. They will smolder instead of burning, last longer, and produce more smoke.
Try not to over-smoke your meat. This can change the flavor. You could smoke for the first half of the cook, and then wrap in foil for the second half.
Use a mop sauce (basting sauce) to help keep meat juicy. A Texas style BBQ sauce is perfect for this type of cooking. If you apply it every hour, this runny sauce helps keep juices in the meat. It also adds moisture, which might otherwise be lost in the grilling process.
Smoking meats in this way can take 4-5 hours for ribs. It takes about 8-10 hours for a pork shoulder and 12-16 hours for a full-size brisket.
The internal temperature of the meat should be about 190 degrees when cooked. It will be fall-apart tender, and smoky.
Low and Slow Grilling on Gas
Some people might be of the opinion that you can only slow cook and smoke over charcoal. This is definitely not the case.
A gas grill can also give you perfect results.
The secret of flavor lies in the smoking, which happens in the first few hours of cooking.
Getting the Smoke
Some gas grills come equipped with a smoker box.
It is made of metal and positioned above its own dedicated burner. Easy to use, you simply add damp wood chips of your choice. You can control how much smoke is produced by adjusting the burner up or down.
These boxes also sometimes have a compartment for water. This allows the meat to be steamed as well.
If you don’t have a dedicated smoker box, don’t worry, you can still cook low and slow. There are many smoker boxes available to buy for your gas grill. They are usually made from durable stainless-steel and placed on your cooking grate.
These boxes are, again, filled with damp wood chips. The heat from the grill is conducted through the metal. This allows fragrant smoke to escape through holes in the lid. If the wood chips burn out, more can easily be added.
If you don’t want pay for a smoker box, then you can always make your own.
Simply fill a foil container with your damp wood chips and cover it with aluminum foil. Poke some holes in the foil to allow the smoke to escape.
The container can be placed on the bars of an unlit burner. Maybe pop it a corner at the back, out of the way. Put your cooking grates back in place and turn the burners on high. Make sure you close the lid.
You are ready to cook when the smoke starts appearing. Although not ideal, as you can’t add more wood chips, it’s a good work around.
How to Cook
Once you have your smoker box setup, irrespective of type, turn your burners on high.
Close the lid and wait for the smoke to start. Once this happens, heat your grill to the required temperature. This is usually between 200-250 degrees.
Turn off the burners where you will place the meat. You want indirect heat from the smoke to cook the food.
If you have a three-burner grill, keep one alight and place the meat on the opposite side. A four-burner grill needs two to be kept alight adjacent to each other, and again the meat on the opposite side.
Depending on weather, wind etc., your burners might need to be set on low or medium. The ideal temperature you want to maintain throughout the cook is 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
You want the heat to reach all of your meat, so don’t overcrowd your grill. This means, for example, racks of ribs laid in a single line, and not stacked on top of each other.
The cooking process will take quite a few hours, as mentioned above.
Remember to check and baste your meat occasionally while it’s cooking. You don’t want to lose too much heat and smoke from the grill. Make sure the grill maintains an even temperature.
Now’s the perfect time to kick back and read a book, or just chill. Make sure you have the essentials to hand, like a cool box with some iced tea or water, to keep you going. Hopefully you will be close enough to the house to call for much needed sustenance while you watch the grill.
You will know your meat is cooked when it pulls apart easily, or—in the case of the ribs—pulls off the bone.
Low and Slow Cooking on a Charcoal Grill
A charcoal grill, like a smoker, requires a lot of looking after.
Once you have your first lot of coals in, they will need to be topped up with hot coals, about every hour.
Prepare your grill for cooking on indirect heat. You can do this by placing coals on one half of the grill and a foil container half-filled with water on the other. To prolong the life of the coals, you can place a layer of cold ones on the bottom.
Once your grill has reached a temperature of about 225 degrees, put soaked wood chips underneath the cooking grate on the charcoal.
Your meat is ready to be cooked. Place it on the cooking grate above the water pan. Use a grill thermometer to ensure your grill maintains a constant temperature. Use your vents, and add hot coals when needed.
Use a mop to baste your meat regularly, about every half-hour. After half the cook time, wrap your meat in aluminum foil, so it doesn't over smoke.
Tips and Tricks and Equipment for Low and Slow Cooking
Wood chips are often a case of personal preference.
However, hickory and apple are good choices for pork. Mesquite and oak lend themselves towards flavoring beef. Maple and fruitwoods go well with poultry, alder, and cherry is suitable for fish.
Soaking your chips for an hour in water before use will make them smolder rather than burn. This way they will last longer and produce more smoke.
To avoid over-smoking the food, only add the chips for the first few hours of cooking.
A thermometer which you can place beside your meat is perfect for checking the grill is maintaining the right temperature.
An external grill thermometer is also a bonus. Some grills have these fitted as standard, but you can buy them as extras if yours doesn’t.
An instant read meat thermometer can be used to check when your meat is cooked. Turkey and chicken should have an internal temperature of 170 degrees. Pork, ribs and beef should reach 190 degrees.
Make sure you don’t read the temperature close to the bone. This conducts its own heat and might give a false reading.
Grill Mop and Bucket
A mop is used to baste your meat with the sauce of your choice.
Exactly as described, it is a smaller version of an old-fashioned mop and bucket. A cotton headed mop bastes the meat with sauce which is kept in the bucket.
Mop your meat frequently to keep it moist and juicy.
Not only is this necessary to keep you hydrated while caring for your meat during cooking, your grill needs it as well.
Make sure you keep the water bath in the grill topped up.
This will ensure your meat does not dry out, by stabilizing the humidity and heat in the grill.
Lifting the Lid
Peeking at your meat to see how it’s cooking can be an irresistible temptation. Remember, this is a long, slow process.
Every time you lift the lid on your grill it loses heat.
Try to restrict opening the grill just to the times when you need to top up the water or charcoal, or mop the meat. Then attempt to do them all at the same time, quickly.
The positioning of your vents is quite important for this type of grilling.
Make sure your bottom vents don’t get clogged with ash. This will stop them drawing air in and the coals might die quicker.
As for the top vents, you need these to pull all that lovely smoke over the meat. Try and position them on the opposite side from the meat if you can. Keep it open, but close it for a while if the fire gets too hot.
On the subject of smoke, it should be whitish and give off the aroma of the wood chips on your grill. If the smoke is black, juices and fats from the meat might be hitting the coals.
Blackish-colored smoke could indicate the grill is not vented properly or that the meat is over direct heat.
Start Cooking Early
The last thing you want is guests arriving, and the meat they have looked forward to all day, is not ready.
Leave yourself plenty of time to make sure your meat is cooked. It cannot be rushed, it needs time to soften the hard sinews and make it tender.
Patience is a virtue, and that is certainly the case when cooking low and slow.
Get yourself set up with everything you need before you start.
If the weather is nice, a comfy garden chair, sunscreen, a good book, charged electronic devices and cool drinks might be necessities. If it’s cooler or in the evening, you might need a warm jacket and a flask of hot chocolate.
However, one thing you cannot do is swan off to the golf course. Low and slow cooking needs your care and attention. Not to mention it could be dangerous to leave an unattended hot grill.
The rewards from the diligence and endurance given to low and slow cooking will be worth it.
The result is perfectly cooked, fall-off-the-bone tender meat, which is succulent and tasty. It will have everyone salivating and wanting more.