That’s smokin’

By Bill Dwyer For Chronicle Media

Sean Young (left) of Risky Brisket Competition BBQ team, teaches a barbecue class at Wannemaker’s Home and Garden in Downers Grove. (Photo by Bill Dwyer/for Chronicle Media) 

With Memorial Day behind us and heading toward the Fourth of July, the air is increasingly filled with rich, woody scents that make the mouth water and the stomach growl.  

All those fragrant rings of smoke through the trees come from thousands upon thousands of barbecues and smokers in back yards throughout the Chicago area and across the state. It’s both an enjoyable tradition and a modern-day renewal of an ancient practice going back before recorded history.  

Smoking meats likely began soon after fire was discovered. When hunters brought their kill back to their caves to cook, those caves filled with smoke, which flavored the meat. As our ancestors grew more adept, meat and fish were trimmed, cut into thin strips, brined, then hung over a smokey fire to dry. The flesh both cooked and absorbed the smoke flavor.  

If taste alone wasn’t reason enough to smoke meat, modern science has since determined that smoking has an antimicrobial and anti-oxidative effect on the meat, which makes it safer to eat and allows it to be kept longer. 

As with all human practices, while the origins of smoking meat lies in pre-history, the basic technique came to the United States from the Caribbean. The word barbecue comes from the language of a Caribbean Indian tribe called the Taino. Their word for grilling on a raised wooden grate is “barbacoa.” 

George Washington mentions attending a “barbicue” in Alexandria, Va., writing in his diary on May 27, 1769, “Went into Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night.” 

While smoking meat — and fish and fowl — almost certainly came to America via several ports of entry, in the 1800s it made a major splash in New York City, when eastern European Jews — mostly Romanian — brought the technique for making what we now call pastrami. 

According to the North American Meat Institute, Pastrami — seasoned with garlic, coriander, black

Matt S.’s Traeger pellet-fed smoker. (Photo Bill Dwyer/for Chronicle Media) 

pepper, paprika, cloves, allspice, and mustard seed — was first served in New York City in the late 1800s by Lithuanian Immigrant Sussman Volk, who was given the recipe by a Romanian friend as repayment of a favor. 

Pastrami’s rich flavor became so popular that Volk opened a deli, where he served his savory creation on rye bread. 

The practice is now a mainstay of numerous regional cultures. The area of the U.S. known as the “barbecue belt” houses four distinct barbecue traditions — Carolina, Texas, Memphis and Kansas City. 

There are the purists who adhere to technique, the competitors who face not just the clock but exacting standards by judges, and the backyard weekenders who judge success mainly by their own taste preferences, as well as the smiles on their friends’ and family’s faces.  

The Chronicle talked with two men who came to smoking in different ways, but who share a common love for both the process and the product.  

Matt S., who asked that his last name not be used due to his sensitive work circumstances, is a self-proclaimed “paleo-guy” who lives in a near southwest suburb of Chicago. 

Brandon Bressner is a Eureka resident and chief operating officer of Chronicle Media. 

Matt remembers excitedly helping cook meat with his parents as an 11-year-old. “The main thing was always the meat,” he said. “I could go all day and just eat meat.” 

“In high school he started “experimenting on meats,” and “learning through mistakes.”  

“I’d try to make a steak out of a roast,” he recalled. “It turned out terrible. Tough as nails.”  

He quickly learned what all savvy smokers know, that it’s the quality of meat that matters, particularly the fat, aka, “marbling.”  

A family trip to Texas during his senior year of high school was Matt’s epiphany.  

“You’re down the block and you can smell it,” he said. “I had brisket, and it wasn’t like any brisket I’d ever had.” 

He had only one question: “How on earth do you make this?”  

Matt S. takes a smoked brisket from peach butcher paper. (Photo Bill Dwyer/for Chronicle Media) 

Freshman year in college Matt bought his first smoker, a vertical charcoal burner. He soon learned the challenges the wrong technology can present. 

“I couldn’t regulate the temperature,” he recalled. To keep the temperature going, he had to add more charcoal, which required constant attention, leaving him house bound.  

But Matt was hooked, and he persevered. And smoked. A lot. Year-round.  

Bressner starting smoking meat in 2003, after his trusty old hand-me-down Weber grill finally gave up the ghost. He purchased a “Green Egg” — a ceramic charcoal smoker — from a neighbor who sold them. 

That was Bressner’s epiphany. “It opened my eyes to smoking meat, as opposed to grilling,” he said. “You can do both with the Green Egg.” 

Depending on the size, the Green Egg costs from $800 to $1,500; Bressner spent “over a thousand” on his. “Walmart sells Green Mountain smokers for $500 to $600,” Bressner said. “Traegers start at $1,000.” 

Like Matt, Bressner said he learned the ins and outs of smoking “a bit at a time,” gradually learning what works best and honing his skills.  

Unlike Matt, in 2011, Bressner decided to try his hand at competitive smoking. Competition takes a large commitment of time and money and demands concerted attention and effort. There are strict rules and no shortcuts.  

“It’s a lot of money to compete,” he said. “It’s a huge investment.”  

One that can easily run well north of six figures.  

“Some guys have trailers with porches on the back.” 

Bressner later became certified as a judge, and has judged dozens of events, one as recently as mid-May. But he doesn’t compete anymore.  

Both men agree on a few basic smoking facts; first and foremost, that a regular smoking practice is both an addictive joy, and an expensive obligation. 

“You get addicted to it, man,” Matt said. “The flavor of the charcoal smoker is unbeatable. I like that heavy smoke taste.” 

Justin Walls feeds wood into his $4,000 LV Offset Smoker while at the 2023 Red, White, BBQ in Westmont’s Ty Warner Park. The smoker is made from an abandoned old propane tank out of a farmer’s field. (Photo by Bill Dwyer/for Chronicle Media)

Matt became a competent smoker, he said, “after thousands of dollars of meat. I’m not exaggerating.” 

Matt has purchased five smokers; a total of $1,100 on his first four, and $1,400 on his fifth, a Traeger pellet fed with a 40-pound hopper. 

Bressner recently invested in a second smoker, a big old pellet fed Camp Chef Woodwind Pro, for “$1,500 or $1,600.” He said he simply needed more square footage to smoke for as many folks as he does. His Green Egg has 288 square inches of grill space; the new smoker has “over a thousand.” 

“It changed my world,” he said. Developments in smoking technology have made quality smoking easier. Some call that progress, others consider it akin to blasphemy. More on that a bit later.  

“It has Wi-Fi controls,” Matt said of his Traeger, smiling and holding up his iPhone. That means he is no longer house bound. 

“In the winter I smoke at lower temperatures,” he said. “200 to 245 (degrees) is ideal. I learned that once you set the temp, don’t change it. You want to make sure you’re not opening and closing, opening and closing (the smoker).” 

But Matt can’t stay away too long; there are still pitfalls, even with high tech smoking. He talks of “beef stall,” where the meat reaches 150 degrees and “doesn’t change for an hour.” 

“So, you wrap it in either foil or peach butcher paper.”  

Gesturing to industrial-size boxes of the material, he says the paper “allows the smoke to penetrate,” while foil, “retains the moisture and doesn’t allow the smoke to get in.”  

“It’s a matter of preference,” he said, adding, “Foil for ribs and pork, paper for brisket.”  

“The quality of the meat is by far the most important part,” Matt said.  

Bressner agrees. Like Matt, he looks for good marbling. But while the quality of meat is essential, there’s no guarantee simply spending more money will produce great results. 

Both men say that good meat is good meat, wherever you find it. 

“I’ve seen bad meat at good places and I’ve seen good meat at bad places,” Matt said.  

“Prime is desirable, of course, but “a “choice” could be just as well-marbled,” Bressner said. 

Matt recalled meat shopping with his father.  

“It was never about price or going there to buy a certain type of meat. He’d look at the meat, and whatever was good, he’d buy.” 

Still, when it needs to be special, Matt said, his go-to outlet is Snake River Farms, an online meat retailer. Bressner seconds that, and also gives a thumbs up to Tischler’s Market in Plainfield as a great place to source meat. 

“That is the gold standard,” he said of Snake River, where a 15- to 20-pound brisket goes for $280 to $400. And that’s before the meat loses about a third to 40 percent of its weight through cooking.  

Matt said he recently bought a 21-pound brisket for $78 that weighed 12 pounds when it came out of the smoker, about standard for weight loss from cooking. 

Besides quality, well-marbled meat, seasoning the meat is essential. But how and how much is a personal preference. 

Serious smokers have been known to spend lots of hours and money to create their own unique rubs. Bressner said he’ll spend the money, but not the time.  

“There’s a bazillion rubs out there,” he said. 

“I’ve gotten a lot more simple with my process,” Matt said. “I add salt and pepper and a little bit of water then I wrap it.” 

“I used to splash-spritz,” he added. “Now I’ll leave a small pan of water in the smoker. That’s it.” 

As with the type of meat and equipment one chooses, the process of smoking varies widely, utilizing either hardwood, charcoal or pellets. “The way I look at it is, smoking is so personal,” Matt said. “Everyone does it different.” 

That’s a problem for some people who cling to tradition. However, Bressner said he doesn’t find any difference in the end product of hardwood, charcoal and pellet-fed smoking, saying, “Twelve to 14 hours (or) five or six hours, you’re not going to be able to tell the difference.”  

“The old view was if you don’t cook with just wood, it’s not manly,” Bressner said. “Technology comes along and makes things easier and some people can’t (accept that).” 

“Everyone says ‘low and slow.” I don’t agree with that. Guys are mad at ‘hot and fast,’ and they think it’s cheating.” 

“It’s the way things used to be, they don’t want to let go of it, because they were good at it.”  

Matt, an imposing former football lineman, isn’t concerned about appearing “manly.” He just doesn’t have enough time for old school and values the freedom and ease his high-tech smoker provides him. 

While “fall-off-the-bone” ribs are a big no-no in competitive smoking circles, few people will complain about fall-off-the-bone tenderness at a backyard smoker. Because most people just want the taste that only smoking can produce.  

Bressner still judges competitions, but when smoking now, his joy and satisfaction lies in providing tasty backyard cuisine for friends and family. And even people he doesn’t know … yet. 

“The only time I cook now is for my family,” he said. “Mostly meat.”  

And fish?  

“A little bit. My wife would like me to cook more fish.” 

To paraphrase veteran political operative James Carville, when all the talk and opining about the proper approach to smoking is concluded, “It’s the taste, stupid.” 

“It does go back to family enjoying it,” Bressner said. “The satisfaction of pleasing families.”  

He pleased a whole lot of families recently, when he smoked for not one, but two graduation parties, a total of 375 people. 

Matt said minimizing his domestic workload is a must.  

“I work a lot, so for me this is perfect,” he says, gesturing to his pellet fed Traeger on his rear deck.  

But he appreciates old school too.  

“When I retire, I’ll be back to the charcoal and wood. With a big ol’ barrel smoker.” 

As Matt stood carving up a just-smoked brisket, a visiting writer bite into a piece; as the rich flavor flooded his mouth, he inadvertently let out an approving expletive. 

Matt smiled and looked. “So, you ask me, what is my goal (when smoking),” he said. 

“To have more people do that.”