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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Book Review: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Smoking Foods

If you're reading this blog, chances are you're into food, generally - both the cooking and the eating of it. And "foodies" (a term I try to avoid, but sometimes it works) tend to be drawn to certain foods - the foods that inspire passionate opinions. Pizza is one, obviously, but there are many others, like gumbo, chili, and barbeque.
And I love all of those too. I do barbeque on occasion, on a barrel-style grill with a side firebox smoker.

But I don't do it too often. Sure, I grill throughout the warm months (I'm not a year-round griller, like some), but true barbequeing - cooking meat slowly with indirect heat, which may or may not include much smoke - takes a serious time commitment, and between life's other tasks and my first love for baking, I might barbeque once every month or two.
The upshot is, I don't do it often enough to have gotten a tremendous amount of experience, and so I look to others more expert in the field for advice. So I was glad to receive recently a review copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Smoking Foods, by Ted Reader.
I've mentioned before that I was put off by the notion of buying a guide for "idiots," and though I've gotten over that, after going through this book, I do think that title doesn't do it justice. The "Idiot's Guide" moniker has always suggested to me that this is a book that simply covers the basics, and that's it a bit of a cookie-cutter book, that's marked more for its adherence to the Idiot's Guide format than for genuine, original authorship.
Not so here. As an occasional home barbequer, I am glad to add this volume to my kitchen bookshelf.
I've got some barbeque books at home already, and I like them, but many are long on recipes and short on technique. Maybe that's where the "Idiot" part comes in here. The first third of this roughly 300-page book is devoted to the basics, including choosing a smoker, heat sources (propane, charcoal, wood), and basic principles of smoking, such as avoiding the temptation to keep peeking at the meat, how to keep the temperature steady, and food safety.
(I should mention, by the way, that while there is arguably a difference between smoking and barbequeing, this book despite the title, is not just about smoking, in the sense of "curing" foods as a method of preservation, but about barbequeing as well.)
Reader - who's got some serious credentials as a barbeque chef - also does a nice job of taking the fear out of smoking and barbequeing. I especially appreciated his advice to think of each time you fire up your smoker as a practice session. I've had to learn that with bread and pizza making too - it may not come out perfectly, but each time I do it - particularly if something doesn't go quite right, or even if it's an utter disaster - I learn something new.
That's why this isn't just a book for beginners. Barbequeing is an art form, and as with any art form, you could spend a lifetime working at it and never get it down pat. That's part of the reason that barbeque inspires such debate among aficionados. So it's always worthwhile to get the perspectives of somebody else who's a master of the craft, and Reader delivers a lot of solid information and opinions in this book.
That includes the recipes. The roughly 200 pages of recipes cover brines, marinades, dry rubs, pastes, and liquid injections, before moving on to all the major barbeque meats - beef, pork, lamb and game, poultry, and fish. There's also a short section on side dishes and that Reader calls the "weird and wonderful," like plank-smoked Camembert cheese, smoked foie gras, smoked ice cream, and even a smoked martini. The recipe chapters also include basic information covering different cuts of meat, and the best techniques for different meats, adding even more to the technical- and advice-heavy nature of this book.
Though not lacking in recipes, then, this is not primarily a recipe collection. But frankly, barbeque is more about technique than about recipes. You learn how to do brisket, and from there on it's just a matter of tinkering, trying different rubs, types of wood, adjusting the temperature, and so on.
You won't find a lot of photos here. This is not a coffee-table book with glorious, mouth-watering photos of succulent pork shoulders, or racks of ribs artfully arranged next to a mound of coleslaw and cold fruity drinks. There are a few black and white photos, but this is a text-heavy book, which simply means that it packs a lot of informational punch into its 300 pages.
There are countless books out there about barbequeing, and I've only seen a tiny fraction of them, so I won't even attempt to tell you which is the best one, or which are essential for any serious home barbequer. But I can tell you that this is one good book, and that you could do a lot worse than to choose this as your go-to book on the subject. I highly recommend it.

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