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The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke


Comedy of Errors

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I just had a cook which was a series of little problems, any one of which could have spelled disaster. While everything turned out OK, I’ll share the problems so hopefully others can avoid them. Saturday I cooked Louisville Wings the BBQ USA cookbook which was birthday request. I’ve made them before and decided I would try several new things to make them even better. While the prep was uneventful, the cook was anything but.
Why Change When Something Works?
I’ve made Louisville Wings several times and they came out great so why mess with a good thing? Well usually there is always room for improvement. The first thing I did was use fresh squeezed lemons for the marinade sauce. I’ve discovered that you really CAN taste the difference between “Real” Lemon Juice in a bottle and real fresh squeezed lemons. This recipe was no exception, so this little tweak worked well.
The second change I made was to attempt the indirect portion of this cook on my smoker. You cook these wings for 45 minutes using indirect heat and then crisp them up for 10 minutes with direct grilling. I’ve found you get much more smoke flavor using the smoker vs. the gas grill. Where the gas grill has an advantage is in the higher temps you use. The 350 (175 C) degree temps get you a nice crisp skin. Using 2/3 a chimney full of DuraFlame charcoal in the side fire box (SFB) I’ve been able to get the smoker up to 325 (160 C). Kingsford seems to top out at 275 (135 C) in the SFB, but I thought I had it covered. I decided I would light 2 full chimneys of charcoal to get the temperatures higher.


Let the Games Begin
When I poured the coals into the SFB I hit 225 (110 C) in a record 6 minutes. This looked good. Once again the temps topped out around 275 (135 C), but tinkering with the vents I got it to climb above 300 (150 C). To give it that added kick I added some lump and hit 325 (160 C). I ran in to grab the tray full of wings and my problems began. At this point I was now about 20 minutes behind schedule.

I was thinking I should set up my Black and Decker WorkMate to provide a safe landing surface for the tray of wings. I decided I could land the tray on the front shelf of the smoker and support it bracing it against my leg. Bad idea, the tray soon tipped over. Somehow I managed to catch it on the way down and saved all but 8 wings. I had extra so this wasn’t a deal breaker. Bottom line: Don’t be stupid, if something bad can happen it probably will. Don’t chance it.
Adding the cold chicken to the smoker did two things. Keeping the lid open long enough to add 40 wings to the grill drove the temps down to 180. The cold chicken helped keep them down to only 235. This was a bit of a shocker and no matter what I did, I could not get them to climb higher than 260. I had two time temperature combinations to use. Either two hours at 225 (110 C) or 45 minutes at 350 (175 C). I was now about 45 minutes in at between 230 (110 C) and 260 (127 C). The smart thing to do here would have been experiment when it wasn’t a special event. But it was too late now. What could I do? I was beginning to regret deciding I had this under control and could do it on the smoker.

Outta Gas??
As a last resort I decided to fire up the gas grill and finish them on there. Imagine my surprise when I went to light the gas grill and found my propane tank was on fumes. To make matters worse I hadn’t refilled my spare propane tank. I always say have a spare on hand because propane tanks seem to run out at the worse possible times. At this point I had to keep my fingers crossed that this wouldn’t be the last straw.


I was an hour in to what I’d expected to be a 45 minute cook and had no idea where I really was at. Fortunately there was flexibility in the schedule. This was one good thing I had going for me. If you are going to experiment, don’t paint yourself into a corner time wise. I decided to fire up the grill 400 degrees to try to speed up the remaining indirect part. I decided to guess I was midway through the indirect part and would go another 20 minutes at 400 (205 C).
Then I ran into my next problem. My gas grill has 6 burners arranged left to right. I tried setting burners 1,2,5 and 6 to Medium, leaving 3 and 4 for the wings. My luck continued. There was not enough room for all of the wings. I ended up having to turn off burners 2 and 5 to keep from direct grilling some of the wings. Setting burners 1 and 6 to High gave me 400 (205 C) degrees. Learning from my mistakes I ran in and got the Black and Decker WorkMate to support the tray as I transferred the wings to and from the grill.

Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire
I was concerned that I may not have had enough smoke exposure on my CharGriller.  I decided to throw some wood chips in the smoker drawer over burner 1. I didn’t have any time to soak the wood chips for an hour but I figured I wanted instant smoke so what was the harm? Once again my luck continued and there was no smoke to be had. The plan was after my 20 minutes was up I’d crisp up the wings under direct heat. This meant burners 1 and 6 only. In an effort to speed the process up, I’d fire up burners 2 through 5. This would start the direct grilling of the bottom side of the wings and the burners would be hot when it was time to crisp up the meaty side of the wings.
Several problems reared their heads. First: High heat was starting to cause massive flare ups. With 40 wings and only two hands I couldn’t work fast enough. Reducing the heat to Medium tamed the flare ups somewhat. Second problem: The woods chips went straight from the no smoke state to inferno. Five minutes before I was due to use the first burner I had a raging inferno on my hands. Luckily the flames died down within 5 minutes. Bottom Line soak your wood chips if you want smoke not fire. The final problem was in my haste I forgot to oil the grill grate. Instead of being able to work quickly I had to carefully pry each wing off the grill.
Flipping the wings onto the now hot grill grates I was able to crisp up the skin on the meaty side of the wings, There was quite a bit of smoke and some minor flare ups but I was able to finish up. I had to work slowly to avoid leaving the skin behind on the grill grates. I did have several pieces that were a little black but fortunately several people like it that way.


Road Trip
The wings were going to be eaten at my parents house 7 minutes away. I figured if I left the wings uncovered they’d cool off too fast. If I wrapped them in foil they would lose there crispiness. I voted to lose some of the crispiness to maintain the heat. I tried one of the wings as I headed to the car. I was pleasantly surprised to find the wings were cooked just right and had a nice crispy skin. After 10 minutes the wings were still nice and warm and had lost some of the crispy skin. Everyone one enjoyed them and I was told they were my best batch yet. With all the things that went wrong, I was so relieved I had something to show for it, never mind my best Louisville Wings yet. The problem with this cook was I could never duplicate the exact comedy of errors even if I wanted to.


What have I learned from this near disaster in the making: 
  • If you are cooking for a special event don’t experiment. Save the experiments for a better time like a week or two before.
  • If you put something where it could fall, it probably will. Don’t risk it. I could have had all my food on the ground before I even got started. Look at all the subsequent fun I would have missed.
  • If you are going to experiment have a flexible schedule. This I had going for me and it helped. I was an hour late on a cook I thought would take only 45 minutes total.
  • Cold food on the grill drives the temps down. If you were struggling to make your target temperature BEFORE the food went on you are unlikely to hit it again afterwards
  • Have spare propane around. I thought I had a nearly full tank on my gas grill and was almost caught empty handed.
  • There is a reason why they say soak wood chips prior to using them. My dry chips went straight from no smoke to blazing inferno.
  • Oil your grill grates. I knew better but in al the excitement I forgot.
  • Have a plan for how to get your food from the grill to the table. I need to find a better way to hold the wings without them losing their crispy skin.
  • In conclusion I must say I am very grateful to the Barbecue God’s that despite my best efforts to blow it, they didn’t let me ruin someone else’s birthday meal. Phew.


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