Before you smoke a pork shoulder, ribs, or any other kind of meat, smoke a cabbage first.
Throwing a big ol’ cabbage in there will help build your confidence. This is especially useful if you’re using a charcoal grill or any other kind of smoker without precise temperature control. Locking in and stabilizing the ambient temperature inside your smoking device can be kind of tricky if you’re used to the numbered dials of an oven (and who isn’t?), and if you’re using a Weber Kettle or even one of their simple charcoal smokers, you’ll have to manipulate the temperature by opening and closing air vents at the top and bottom of your smoker. It’s not hard, but it does take some getting used to.
Why a cabbage? Cabbages are cheap. An entire cabbage costs less than a single pound of any meat — even the most deeply discounted pork shoulder doesn’t come close to approaching the low cost of a cabbage. It’s unlikely that you will encounter so much trouble during your first attempt at smoking that you ruin your cabbage — or even a pork shoulder, for that matter — but if you do happen to ruin your cabbage, it’s no great loss. All you have “wasted” is a few hours of your time and maybe $2 worth of ingredients. (The sting of wrecking a pork shoulder? Devastating.) Smoking a cabbage instead of an expensive piece of meat removes a certain amount of stress from your first smoking experiment, which means your brain is more likely to learn and you’re more likely to enjoy the learning process.
And smoked cabbages are also quite delicious. They’re soft and savoury (and obviously smoky), and make a perfect side, especially when dressing with something cool and creamy. There are a lot of smoked cabbage recipes out there, so pick the one that sounds best to you. (I like this one, which is stuffed with butter and bacon.) I would, however, choose a recipe that keeps the cabbage whole — the point of smoking a cabbage is to get you used to holding the temperature of your smoker constant for a long period of time, and it’s a point you’ll miss if your quartered cabbage is done smoking in a mere 60 minutes.
Another thing I’d recommend — nay, command — is that you get some sort of probe thermometer for monitoring the temperature. The little dial that sits on top of your grill or smoker is wildly inaccurate, especially if it’s positioned right above the coals. (Mine was off by about 60 degrees!) I have this dual probe thermometer, which lets me measure the food and smoker temp at the same time, which is very helpful. Whether you’re smoking a cabbage or a big hunk of meat, temperature control is an important part of the equation, and equations have a way of not working out so well if your numbers are off.