I love cooking and especially playing with new cooking techniques, which is why I was excited this Christmas when my dad bought me a budget backyard smoker.

There’s nothing like a piece of really great grilled meat, but smoking is kind of like grilling’s close relative. While grilling can give you a good sear or char on your steaks, burgers, chicken breasts, whatever, smoking is one of those “low and slow” preparation methods that can cause pieces of meat to just melt in your face.

On top of that, smoking is like supercharging that delicious flavor you get from grilling on charcoal (I have a gas grill at home and sometimes miss the flavor of coal, although the convenience of propane is just too good to pass up) into your meat, adding a new flavor profile that can really enhance the protein you’re putting in there. A heavy smoke flavor is still there and still comes through even if you’re the type of person who goes inside and bathes your meat in sauce.

Smokers work by slowly burning wood chunks, chips or pellets inside a closed area to produce both heat and smoke. As the meat sits there, it not only begins slowly cooking due to the ambient heat but also bathes in the smoke which is absorbed by the protein.

On a more technical side, burning wood basically breaks downs sugars and oils in the wood and then causes them to caramelize, which is why smoke gives a rich flavor because, in some respects, it’s the same as pouring some sugar into a pan and cooking it down until it becomes sticky, gooey caramel.

The meat then sponges up these molecules in the smoker and absorbs them, allowing the meat to capture and retain that flavor. Smoking can also help preserve meat, although you’re not going to get much of that effect doing short-term backyard smoking for that night’s dinner.

My smoker is a budget model — the Little Chief by Smokehouse Products — that retails for about $100. It’s an electric smoker that’s small enough to be portable but big enough to smoke a good amount of food. For a novice to smoking like myself, it’s a good way to get in at the ground floor without buying a bigger unit that can run hundreds of dollars and take up another spot on your patio.

That being said, the low price point comes with some drawbacks. The Little Chief works great to impart smoke flavor to stuff inside of it, but it doesn’t have adjustable heat and is only designed to stay at a constant 165 degrees, which is low. You technically can full cook meat to safe levels like that, but generally you’d want something that can heat in the 200-degree-plus range to so some roasting if you wanted to drop a big cut of meat in there for several hours and actually have it fully cook.

But, even with that drawback, my budget smoker still does a great job of imparting a lot of smoke flavor into meat in a short time, which I can then take out and either toss on the grill, toss in a saute pan on the stove or pop in the over to bake to finish the cooking process.

Since it’s been winter out, I haven’t done many smoker-to-grill combos yet or worked with bigger cuts of meat like pork shoulders, briskets or ribs — stuff more suited to a warm weekend when I can babysit it all day. But that hasn’t stopped me from working with some quicker, smaller meals.

If you’re looking to get started and want to try out some easier smoker recipes, here’s a few things I’ve toyed with so far:

Apple wood smoke maple pork chops

Pork and apples are a pair. The same goes for apple wood smoke and pork.

Put some chops in the smoker with some apple wood and give it an hour or more to impart the smoke flavor to the chops. After that, take them inside and toss them in a saute pan with a little butter and cook the chops through.

Once thoroughly seared and cooked through, remove and keep warm. Toss more butter into the pan with some chopped up apples (sweet, tart apples work best) and saute until they begin to soften.

Once your apples are soft, add maple syrup and a little apple cider vinegar and cook until the sauce thickens a bit. Serve the thickened glaze and apples over your chops for what has instantly become one of my favorite meals to make out of my smoker.

Cherry smoked chicken drumsticks

I had purchased a powederedmaple and bacon flavored blend, which I mixed into with a marinade including a little honey, soy, brown mustard and vinegar and sprinkled that over my drumsticks before sticking them in the smoker with some cherry wood.

After two hours in the smoker, I pulled the chicken legs out and tossed them on the grill on high heat to finish cooking them through and get a nice char on the drumsticks.

The completed drumsticks had a sweet and savory flavor from the rub and marinade but underneath had the undertone of smoke which took some usually kind-of-bland chicken legs up to the next level.

Smoked salmon

Now that I have this smoker, I finally have an excuse to buy the huge salmon filets from Costco and actually use them. My wife isn’t a huge fan of fish, but salmon has a milder flavor and the smoker has convinced her to make this a more regular part of our dinner menu.

I’ve done two different types of salmon preparations that have both turned out well. I always start by massaging the fish filet in a little oil, olive oil or vegetable oil, then apply some spice rubs.

For a more typical fish, I will use like a garlic herb spice blend and then toss that in the smoker with some alder chips before bringing it in and baking it off in the oven. Then pair that with some side dishes like rice, noodles and a vegetable and we’ve got a rounded meal.

But for something a little more flavor-forward, I’ve hit the salmon with a Montreal steak seasoning and them tossed it in the smoker with some hickory to get a more forward smoke flavor. After finishing in the oven, I’ll glaze it with a little teriyaki sauce and then serve it with some homemade fried rice for fish that has both some sweet, tangy Asian flavor but an undertone of a full-bodied smoke.

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