Barbeque on a budget. Real wood and charcoal cooking, low and slow, without investing a full week’s pay into a giant piece of specialized hardware. Meat and fire on the cheap. Can it be done? The question was raised last week, a plaintive wail in the comments about the Big Green Egg. And yes, it can be done. Some of the best barbeque I have ever had was done in an upright freezer that had been fitted with a firebox and had a gas-fitters ball valve jammed into the old drain plug. Since the freezer was found dead by the side of the road and the owner built the firebox and fitted the valve himself, the total cost was under 20 bucks.
With that in mind, I’ve come up with three options here, all under the magic 500 dollar mark. Two are items you can go out and buy right now, and one is a bit of a frankenstein project. You might have to limit yourself to just how “low and slow” you can go, you might have to invest some sweat and battered hands, and none of the options here are going to give you the full range of cooking styles you can pull out of the Egg, but at least you have a choice.
Choice The First – Weber Smokey Mountain 22 Inch
Large firebox and cooking area
Easy to use
No option to use wood as the only heat source
Long cooking times use briquettes instead of lump charcoal
Pesky to maintain even temperatures on windy or cold days
400 – 450 dollars at Canadian retailers
Until a couple of years ago, I would have found it difficult to recommend the Smokey Mountain. The thin metal walls of the body combined with the fairly small firebox meant that you pretty much had to camp beside the thing during the entire duration of a cook, continually fiddling with the vents to try and keep a stable temperature. That, however, was the original 18 inch model. And while you can still get that one, you really don’t want to, because the new 22 inch model cures pretty much all of those woes. The bigger firebox and larger charcoal load help to mitigate temperature issues that arise from the thin metal walls of the body. The operative word here being “help”, since you will still fight to keep a stable temperature on days with gusty winds or any time that it is cold and damp outside.
You aren’t going to be doing any grilling here, and your main heat source is going to be charcoal and not wood. You can use lump charcoal for shorter cooks, but once you get past 4 hours or so you are going to have to use briquettes and go with the “minion method” (nutshell: fill the firebox with unlit charcoal briquettes, then put 12-15 fully-lit briquettes on top of that, then assemble the smoker normally). Some people dont like the taste that you get from the lighting process of the briquettes as they come to life over the duration of the cook, but as long as you use a brand that doesn’t use a petroleum or resin binder, you should be okay.
Whatever you do, do not use the “self-lighting” briquettes. Not here, not in your grill, not ever, no how. Period.
What you get is a well-built machine that you will have for years and should give you some more-than-acceptable results for everything that you knock out in the 225 degree to 325 degree range. It breaks down for easy cleaning, doesn’t take up too much room, and with the 22 inch model Weber even throws in a cover.
Choice The Second – Weber One-Touch Silver 22 Inch
Large cooking area
Grilling or short-term smoking
Easy to use
No option to use wood as the only heat source
Long cook times are unworkable
90 – 130 dollars at Canadian retailers
Sensing a theme here? Once again with the Weber, once again with the 22 inch. It’s not surprising, really – Weber makes quality stuff, they pretty much invented the kettle grill, and have always known about the joyous results you get from indirect heat. Like the Smokey Mountain, the One-Touch benefits massively from being up-sized to 22 inches. You have more grilling apace, and – more importantly – more area to arrange your charcoal and food to be able to cook using indirect heat (essentially, charcoal husbanded into one small area of the bowl and the food everywhere else).
The deep bowl shape and lid give you some impressive results when you do an indirect cook, and the vents and dampers are designed so that you can get 3 or 4 hours out of one load of charcoal with the indirect method. This lets you do ribs (pork or beef), a nice tri-tip, pepper poppers, roasted chicken, wings, shrimp bakes, chicken shakeys, vegetables, chicken for dipping, anything that gets into that short- to mid-length cooking time.
You also get the option of doing some first-class grilling, over charcoal as nature intended, and without any of the nasty benzine tang that you get from the dreaded gas grill. Webers are built to last, are easy to clean, and when you invest an extra 20 bucks into a charcoal chimney they are up and ready to cook in 10 minutes. Remember to use proper hardwood lump, you should stay away from the briquettes entirely with a grill like this.
Don’t be tempted by look-alikes and knockoffs, though. Shop around, get a deal, but don’t try to save 20 bucks with a dodgy brand. You get what you pay for here.
Choice The Third – The Ugly Drum Smoker
Customizable to your needs
Traditional low-and-slow wood fire smoking
A significant investment in time and labour to build
Your neighbours may think you are some sort of backwoods hilljack
Looks like crap
10 – 150 dollars, depending on how you scrounge the parts
Feeling hardcore? Feeing cheap? All of the above? Then maybe it’s time you got your hands dirty, did a little banging and bashing, and made yourself what is fondly known in barbeque circles as the UDS, or Ugly Drum Smoker. They look like something you would find out behind Jed Clampett’s shack just north of Hooterville, but they turn out some really good Q and they certainly have a low-tech cachet that is hard to beat. Better, you use real wood and and the sturdy sides mean that you can hold temperatures for stupidly long amounts of time.
On the downside, they can be a bit of a bitch to clean (investing more time in your construction and design can make this more bearable) and I have heard horror stories about the reactions of wives / girlfriends / POSSLQs when confronted with the spectre of having one of these babies in the backyard.
Also, if you live in an apartment or condo this is completely not going to work.
However, if you have the space and you are up for a project, you could do a lot worse. People using UDS rigs have won national barbeque titles and if nothing else, you get to make a big freaking inferno of doom when you cure and clean the barrel. Check out Pickled Pig’s incredibly complete and (for lack of a better word) “upscale” instructions and photos here, or a cheaper and slightly-more “backwoods” version from The Grilling Companion here.
Cheap, traditional, and pride of construction. Let me know how it goes.