PURCHASE: I had first gotten interested in smoking meat when a friend had given me a smoked chicken. That bird was so good I thought I would like to try it myself. So, after doing a little research, I decided to purchase a Brinkman. Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World sells the Brinkman with their name on it, but it is exactly the same. The older gentleman who sold me the unit has smoked meats for years, so he was of great assistance. Along with the unit, I bought a vinyl cover (since it has to sit outside), a cast iron wood chips holder (save yourself the money), some cajun flavored tenderizer with injector (available at WalMart also), and some other odds and ends. I spent a lot more money that you need to. The unit is $34.99. I spent $90 altogether - I wasted money on accessories I never have used. All you need is the unit, charcoal, and a small bag of wood chips to get you going.
Recommend this product?
PARTS & ASSEMBLY: The Brinkman is easy to assemble. The legs are just bent sheet metal. (They are a little sharp on the corners -- be careful.) The body is rolled sheet, and the lid is stamped. It includes two pans, one for the the charcoal and wood chips, the other for water. There are two grills included, which sit one above the other -- meaning that you can smoke four or five 5 lb. chickens. Although I have yet to try it, the Brinkman should easily smoke a 12-15 lb. turkey.
INITIAL EXPERIENCES: My first time, I smoked three 5 lb. chickens and a pork roast. It was early November and the weather was cool. Although it is not necessary, I lined (and still do) the charcoal bowl with heavy duty aluminum foil. I started around noon on Saturday. Since I wanted to make sure the meat was cooked properly, I had bought a small digital thermometer with a probe. It wasn't until evening that I deemed the meat sufficiently cooked. Everything was okay, but frankly, the chicken was overcooked -- dry and flaky. The pork was fine. One thing I found as a beginner, after reading a bit more on the topic: smoked meats tend to be pink, even when they are properly and fully cooked. So, you can't go on color alone in determining whether the meat is done.
The next time I used it, I smoked just three chickens. This time I decided that I would use my judgment based on roasting chicken in the oven to decide when the meat was done. Of course, I used the thermometer as a backup. When you pull on the leg and it wants to come off, that it a sure sign the chicken is cooked. I cut into the breast meat just to be sure, and I used the thermometer. This time the chicken was much better.
WOOD CHIPS: I have used hickory chips (available in small bags just about everywhere grills are sold) mainly because that is what my salesman prefers. You can't go wrong with hickory for smoking. However, I believe it is possible to over-smoke meat. These last chickens were good, but the smokey flavor was very strong. Next time, I am going to use fewer chips. A handful thrown on top of the burning charcoal should be sufficient. Forget buying a cast iron chip holder. It is not cheap, plus it is more trouble than it is worth. Remember, it gets hot sitting on top of the charcoal.
By the way, soak your wood chips in a bucket (with enough water that they float) for about 10-15 minutes before you need them, while the charcoal is getting hot. When the charcoal is ready, with the meat inside, and with the top cover on, open the little trap door on the side of the unit and throw the drained chips in on top of the coals. Be careful that you don't get burnt by the hot metal sides. I use heavy work gloves with leather palms and fingers. You will get a plume of smoke for awhile, which I estimate to be sufficient to smoke the meat without over-smoking it. However, try it yourself and see whether you want more smokey flavor. You can do this more than once, if you want.
PROS: The Brinkman is where everyone should start, in my opinion. It is nothing fancy, and the price reflects it. But it does the job, and it will give you some good smoked meat. If you decide you don't like smoking, you haven't lost much money.
CONS: Like one of the other reviewers noted, you probably will not get a lot of use out of it during the winter, especially if you live in one of the northern states. The wind will penetrate from underneath and the heat will rise easily from around the lid. In smoking, you need a relatively low, steady heat over several hours. Each strong gust of wind on a 40 degree day will plunge the temperature inside, making your task take just that much longer.
Also, the unit has handles on the side that make it easy to pick up and move. However, whenever you move it, the bottom charcoal pan tends to fall out the bottom. The water pan tends to fall down as well. For a $35 investment, I can be careful or just put up with it. Don't move it when it is hot and has meat in it. It could be a real pain if the pans fell out then.
RECOMMENDED ACCESSORIES: As I said, just buy the unit, some good charcoal (Wal-Mart Briquets w/o lighter fluid are very good), and a small bag of wood chips in the wood of your choice. Make sure you have some relatively heat resistant gloves. If you are a beginner like me, however, I have another recommendation. Get a good book on smoking. I bought two at Amazon.com:
1. Ray Lampe, "Dr. BBQ's Big-Time Barbecue Cookbook: A Real Barbecue Champion Brings the Tasty Recipes and Juicy Stories of the Barbecue Circuit to Your Backyard." ISBN: 0312339798 Price: $11.53
2. Richard W. McPeake, "Backyard BBQ: The Art of Smokology" ISBN: 0971801428. Price: $15.95
MY OVERALL IMPRESSIONS: I like my Brinkman smoker. It's been a good investment. You can easily keep yourself and your extended family (if you wish) in smoked meats for little money. I am looking forward to using it on a turkey. Next time, I'll use fewer wood chips and see how that works. A good investment, even for the occasional smoker.
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Amount Paid (US$): 34.99