Step aside, ribs. Leg of lamb can also be wood smoked

It’s summer in the Barbecue Belt of America, where the smell of slow-burning hickory never quite fades. In other regions, wood-smoking is left to the professionals because the technique is thought to be too challenging, time-consuming, and just overall intimidating for the home cook.

But at The Culinary Institute of America, we consider it our duty to find the chef inside every cook. And that doesn’t mean buying expensive equipment and tools, because with nothing more than a no-frills charcoal grill, wood chips, and some time, you can be the pitmaster of your own backyard.

Smoking meat –the technique behind favorites like barbecued brisket, ribs, and pulled pork — is the process of cooking an item at a low temperature, surrounded by smoke from burning wood. Sometimes known as “low and slow,” cooking meat at a lower temperature for a longer period works to tenderize tough cuts of meat. For more tender cuts, like a pork loin, the cooking temperature is low, but not-so-slow, since they are suited to a quicker slow-roast (just like the oven), with the added flavor from the wood smoke.

Just about any meat or poultry can be smoked, and while there are classics that you should try (you’re going to be doing this a lot once you get the hang of it), less-traditional items like prime rib and leg of lamb can also be smoked with unexpected results.

CIA chef-instructor Thomas Schneller says, “Lamb has a nice robust flavor that holds up well to all sorts of rubs that are meant for smoke roasting,” like the flavorful herb rub in this Greek-style Smoked Leg of Lamb. And compared to a big brisket, it takes a fraction of the time to cook, making it a terrific way to ease yourself into the technique.

Put simply, using your charcoal grill as a smoker is a matter of keeping it hot for longer than usual. Smoked items are ideally cooked at around 250 F and can cook for more than 10 hours. There are many ways to do this, but we’ll discuss two.

First, you can simply start your fire with fewer coals than usual (you’ll top the burning coals with a handful of wood chips to make smoke), adding new hot coals as the day progresses. This works, but isn’t ideal for two reasons: if you’re smoking a large item, like pork shoulder, you could spend eight hours babysitting your coal chimney, plus, you’ll have to open the grill lid to add the hot coals over and over, making it hard to maintain a constant temperature.

Alternately, fill your grill with about 74 unlit coals spread out on both sides of the grill. Then light about 14 coals in your chimney starter, and when they’re hot, carefully divide them among the two piles of unlit coals. As the hot coals burn, they’ll slowly ignite the others. Depending on your conditions, you can get six or more hours of cooking using this method.

Once your covered grill is holding temperature, it’s just a matter of control. The vents in your lid control airflow, so if your grill is too hot, close the vents. If it’s too cool, open them to provide extra air to the fire. It takes practice to get the hang of it, but you’ll quickly learn your grill’s quirks.

Many recipes will suggest how long your meat should cook. This can be helpful for planning, but don’t put too much faith in it. Many variables influence the time it takes for your meat to reach the proper temperature, which is what really matters. Keep a good probe thermometer in your meat for the entire time it cooks, and watch the temperature, not the clock.

GREEK-STYLE SMOKED LEG OF LAMB

Servings: 12

Start to finish: 12 hours (Active time: 35 minutes)

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

1 tablespoon fresh oregano

2 teaspoons lemon zest

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 5- to 6-pound boneless leg of lamb, tied

In a food processor, combine the garlic, rosemary, thyme, oregano, zest, salt, and pepper. Process until finely ground. With the machine running, slowly stream in the olive oil.

Place the lamb in a large baking dish or roasting pan. Rub the garlic mixture all over the lamb. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Prepare a charcoal grill for smoking over indirect heat. Place about 74 charcoal briquettes on the bottom rack of your grill, divided evenly along both sides of the rack. Place an aluminum pan filled halfway with water between the piles. Meanwhile, soak about 2 cups of wood chips in water and set aside.

Fill your charcoal chimney starter with about 16 charcoal briquettes and light the chimney. Once the coals are hot and gray, carefully transfer them to the grill, dividing them among the two piles of unlit briquettes.

Top each pile of charcoal with about 1 cup of soaked wood chips. Set the top grill grate in place, then cover the grill. Bring the grill to about 275 F, using the top vents to adjust the temperature.

Insert a grill-safe probe thermometer into the thickest part of the lamb. Transfer the lamb to the grill, centered above the water tray. Cover the grill and cook until the lamb has reached an internal temperature of 140 F (for medium-rare), about 2 hours (see note). Adjust the vents as needed to maintain a consistent cooking temperature of 275 F.

Remove the lamb from the grill and carefully wrap in aluminum foil. Rest at room temperature for one hour before slicing and serving.

Chef’s Note: The cooking time will depend on a host of variables, including weather, size and shape of the lamb, and position of the coals. Two hours is only a guideline, and your lamb may take less or more time to come to the proper temperature. Monitor the internal temperature of the lamb, rather than going by the time.

Nutrition information per serving: 318 calories; 126 calories from fat; 14 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 145 mg cholesterol; 456 mg sodium; 0 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 48 g protein.

This article was provided to The Associated Press by The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. For more information about wood-smoking, preparing meats for cooking, or other recipe ideas, check out “Low and Slow,” by CIA chef instructor Bob Briggs.

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