Smoking with the Master – Tips and Tricks of the Trade

“Matthew was born with BBQ sauce running through his veins,” said Matt Russo’s father in a comment on The Gambling Stick’s Facebook page, “He’s been in love with barbecue for as long as I can remember.”

The smoky love child of Matt Russo and Marshall Hamilton, The Gambling Stick is Nashville’s newest mobile BBQ joint that sits just outside of the east Porter Road Butcher shop. Russo, an employee of PRB for just shy of 3 years now, actually got his first real job working in a barbecue joint in his hometown of Louisville, KY when he was just 16 years old. He’s had smoke in his eyes ever since.

Not only did Russo get handed the position of “smokemaster” almost immediately due to his substantial smoking prowess—which came mainly a result of his love for sunny afternoons and sharing great food with great friends—but working at PRB he was afforded the opportunity to learn how to fully break down animals and quickly discovered the vast difference that high-quality meats make when it comes to cooking.

With his knowledge of whole animal butchery coupled with his classical training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and even further aided by his southern roots and love of smoke, what Russo has done with The Gambling Stick is unparalleled by any other BBQ joint in town. Or in the region.

Loaded Smoker at The Gambling Stick | Porter Road Butcher

Both originality and tradition clearly play into the menu, and likely their most popular item is one that exudes both: the “pigsket.” The pigsket (or, pig brisket) from the Gambling Stick is sweet and smoky, full of flavor, not the least bit dry, and has clearly been on the smoker for just the right amount of time: a typically tougher cut of meat, Russo turns it into something incredibly juicy and tender. Of course, beef brisket is a fantastic staple on their menu as well.

Another Barbecue classic-turned-original, Russo and Hamilton have been playing around in the world of ribs, giving hungry meat-lovers entire 12- to 14-inch “whole slab ribs” (for which they are still trying to come up with a suitable name) instead of the traditional rib cuts like St. Louis style, spare ribs, or rib tips. James said, “After eating a whole rib, I was almost full. Those things are serious.”

Following years and years of experimenting, playing, and learning on the smoker and in the kitchen, Russo can pretty much do it with his eyes closed and his hands tied behind his back. It just ain’t no thang. Which is why he’s giving us (and you) tips and tricks of the trade:

Matt Russo of The Gambling Stick | Porter Road Butcher

Smoking Tips from the “Smokemaster,” Matt Russo

Pigsket Sandwich from The Gambling Stick | Porter Road Butcher1. Use Good Meat
And like, duh. Of course that’s going to taste better. But there’s actually a good reason as to why you should use high-quality meat when you’re planning to smoke it. As a muscle works, aka as an animal roams around, it develops connective tissue and flavor. So, if an animal uses their muscles a lot, meaning they are roaming out on the field with their piggy and beefy friends, they will develop more connective tissue and more flavor than those who lived their entire lives in a small crate where they couldn’t move. In the smoking technique, you generally go for a long time and at a low temperature, aka “slow and low,” so that it will break down those well-worked muscled filled with connective tissues and then turn those tissues into gelatin. That gelatin is the meaty tacky goodness that makes your lips stick together and makes you feel happy when you eat BBQ. So, by using a pasture raised animal, the meat will initially be tougher, but with the slow and low smoking process, it will become more tender and gelatinous and amazing.

2. NOT too HOT
As do most cooking processes, smoking meat elicits moisture. So when the temperature is high, more moisture will be drawn out from the meat, causing somewhat of a steaming effect and thus leaching moisture from the meat. Leaving you with dry meat. Nooo, gracias.

3. Pick Fruity Wood
“Fruity woods, like cherry, impart a sweeter smoke, whereas woody woods, like hickory or oak, impart less flavor and can sometimes leave you with an acrid or bitter flavor,” explains Russo. “When using good, sweet cherry wood you can smoke something for 16-18 hours and it will come off tasting sweet and smoky and delicious, but if you did the same with hickory the meat could become inedible.” Talk abut a waste of time.

4. You don’t need a smoker to be a smoker
Most people don’t have badass smokers like The Gambling Stick’s, but even without such a piece of equipment, you can still get great smoking results.
Gas grill – put wood into a small, shallow cast-iron pan on top of the grill’s heat source (on medium-low heat). Set your meat on the grill and then simply close the top and let ‘er go.
Charcoal grill – build a fire made of wood—not charcoal—on one side of the grill base and place your meat on the grill as far away from the heat as possible, so as to avoid direct heat, aka grilling. Close the top and smoke on.
Note: don’t wet the wood; instead keep it dry. That way you’ll get a better smoke on your meat instead of smouldering it.

Pigsket

5. Be on top of it but also be flexible
“It’s important to keep an eye on the temperature and try to keep it consistent,” advises Russo. A good range is 225o to 275o but that range can vary depending on what you’re smoking and how you want it to turn out. “With chicken I like to smoke it a little higher at first to get the skin nice and crispy, and then turn it down to finish it,” he says. But remember – recipes and rules are always subject to change when it comes to cooking. “You’ve got to keep an eye on things so that you can change strategies if you need to: turn up the heat, turn it down, or even taking the meat off the smoker way before or way after you’d initially planned. Just like grilling, after a while you’ll begin to get the hang of it.”

6. Don’t limit yourself
Smoking is not just for meats. Fish, like trout and salmon, are both excellent on the smoker. Smoking things like vegetables, particularly in a vegetarian setting, can add a sort of meaty characteristic to a dish that would be otherwise without. And even using smoked goods in baking—smoked lard, smoked salt, smoked fruits—can add in a little umami to what would otherwise be a traditional sweet!

The Gambling Stick is open Thursdays – Sundays from 11am until they run out. They are located at Porter Road Butcher East, 501 Gallatin Ave, and are available for catering events as well. Follow them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.