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

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First Year Smoking

First Image
This weekend marks the one year anniversary of the arrival of my CharGriller Smokin’ Pro on the scene. I thought I’d use this blog entry to share what I’ve learned in my first year of low and slow smoking.
 
THE GOOD:
It has been a great first year and with the help and support of many others, it has been a great first year.
  • Great Results: If you get a good recipe and follow the directions, you are going to turn out BBQ better that what you can get in most restaurants. Restaurants have to hold and reheat most of what they are serving you. Your ‘cue is coming straight off the smoker and you are serving it at it’s peak.
  • Smoking is NOT Seasonal: As the picture above shows, you can do this year round in all kinds of weather. I’ve tried in this past year not to let the weather stop me from grilling or smoking. The only thing that has kept me from firing up the grill has been family functions or travel. It has NEVER been the weather.
  • It  gets easier with a little experience. This seems self-evident. But when you are first starting out with anything new it can feel overwhelming. It seems like there are so many things to remember  you’ll never feel at ease. That soon passes. When you first start driving a stick shift it seems like you’ll never get it right. Soon you are doing most of the shifting without really thinking about it. Since this was my first year anniversary I’ve been thinking about where I was then and now. I realized during my cooks these last couple weeks, that a lot of what I’m doing is now second nature. I think enough about it to do it , without having to break it down into all the fundamentals
  • Don’t be Afraid  of Charcoal: Cooking with charcoal is easy once you get the hang of it. The key is using a charcoal chimney to start it and finding a good charcoal.
  • All Charcoal is NOT Alike: There can be a BIG difference between charcoal brands. I recently switched to DuraFlame Hardwood Charcoal rather than move to the New Kingsford. I found the DuraFlame was better than the old Kingsford and my cooks have gotten even easier. Here is a recent blog entry: NEW CHARCOAL ON THE BLOCK
  • Great Recipes EQUALS Great Food: The key to success is to start with a proven recipe. You can’t beat Steven Raichlen’s books. Even though HOW TO GRILL isn’t written with smokers in mind it is still a great place to start. There is a treasure trove of great general knowledge in there. There are often suggestions for how to adapt a recipe to the smoker. My second pick would be BBQ USA
  • Help is Everywhere: There are many discussion groups, such as the Barbecue Bible website where you can get all kinds of useful information from people who have been there and done that. The CharGriller message thread on that site got me up and running on my CharGriller in record time.
  • Remote Read Thermometers Rule: Remote read thermometers that allow you to monitor your cook from the comfort of your house are a key item to year round or all night smokes. You can be comfy in bad weather doing other things while keeping tabs on your cook. When the weather is nice you can  go outside, but remote read thermometers let you make the choice of where you want to be.
  • Extra Time: The extra time you get doing an all night cook is “bonus” free time. Since you would not normally be up at this time, this is unscheduled free time. You can do as much or as little as you want and it doesn’t matter. I often use this time to work on this website, visit the various barbecue boards to catch up on my reading, web surf to research products I’m interested in buying, download and install software updates I was too busy to get to during the week.
  • Can’t Find it Locally....: The internet is a great resource. Yeah I know: Duh!!??  Besides the great websites and discussion groups dedicated to this hobby, there are a wealth of online stores. This is particularly important for me. Here in New England many of the stores put out the BBQ items between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Just about any BBQ accessory I’d like to own is a few clicks and a day or two away. I had to get away from the concept of seeing and touching the product first before buying. But with BBQ gear I’d be waiting 9 months for this. If there is a local brick and mortar store around I’ll support it. But you can get anything you want on the internet.
  • You Get What You Pay For: You really can’t go wrong buying good meat. For me: I try to get the best meat I can. I pay a a bit more but I’ve gotten consistent, outstanding results this way. It is one less thing to worry about when making a special meal. I used to shop at the best meat counter I could find among the local supermarkets. Then I started getting meats from my local butcher and while more expensive, the results were better too. This past year I started buying my meats at Whole Foods. Their meat department was much bigger than my local butcher. While it costs more money, once again I get even better quality. Since I can see and taste the results, the peace of mind is worth the extra cost.
  • Fresh Ingredients: Unless a recipe specifically calls for a powdered ingredient, your food will be best if you use fresh. I used to substitute jar spices for fresh ingredients to save time. Once I tried fresh spices in these recipes, I could immediately tell the difference and I was hooked. The same goes foe Lemon or Lime Juice. I’d use bottle 100% lemon juice in the past, but I recently bought a lemon  and lime press and can taste a HUGE difference.
  • Foil Nap Time: The foiled nap time your brisket or pork shoulder spends in the cooler can be a plus. It allows you to transport the meat to a new location while it is resting and you can still serve it at it’s peak. Also since the nap time is anywhere from 1 to 4 hours you can use this as fudge factor if your cook takes more or less time than planned. I’ll usually shoot for 2 hours in foil, but I can add 2 hours to that if the meat finishes early or reduce it by an hour if it finishes late.
  • Multiple Meats: Once you get comfortable with your smoker, you can take advantage of the long cook times to do multiple items. This is one I’ve only recently started getting into. I recently did 2 rounds of ribs (4 hours each) while doing a pork shoulder 14 hours. Or throw on some  smoked beans, potatoes or hot dogs while smoking something else. The CharGriller has lots of room for multiple meats.
  • Reheating BBQ: Getting a FoodSaver vacuum storage device allows you to cook multiple meats in one session, and then  vacuum seal and freeze the leftovers. I’m new to this party and I’ll probably do a future blog entry on the topic. For now  let me say: So far the reheated food stored in the FoodSaver bags has been virtually as good as the original. Thinking ahead to the winter: I’ll cook twice as much each session and spend half as much time outside.
  • Get in the Zone: Your smoker has warm and cold areas. While this would seem like a negative it can be a positive. Once you learn your grill, you can use these zones to your advantage. Your food placement can even out cooking times of dissimilar items. Recently I made smoked potatoes that I moved to a cold zone so I could cook them at the higher 300 degree (150 C) heat called for by my smoked meatloaf. With a half hour left the potatoes were not as far along a they should have been, so I moved them to the hottest zone and they finished off right on time with the meatloaf.
  • Write it Down and Shoot it: Take lots of pictures, keep a time temperature log  and a general log.You’d think that as you learned to do more, you’d need the logs or pictures less. For me the opposite is the case. Now that I’m making more, more time can pass before I revisit an old favorite. Having logs and pictures around helps me get back up to speed quickly and not make the same mistakes twice. Plenty of new mistakes to make, no sense repeating old ones!
 
THE BAD:
It has been a good year for me, so  fortunately there are not to many items here.
  • Prep Time: Prep seems to take longer than you’d expect. Whenever I try something new I always try to start early, often an hour or more early. I figure if I get done early I can always goof off on the other end until it is time to start cooking. Many times I’m finishing up right when it is time to start. Everything just took a little longer and a bunch of little things can add up.
  • Let’s be Careful Out There: Be careful around fire and sharp instruments, particularly if you’ve pulled an all-nighter. I’ve managed to light a jacket sleeve on fire, the tops of several charcoal bags and I cut a decent chunk out of the side of my index finger with a bandsaw. All of these were done before staying up all night, so be extra careful when you have been up all night. I try not to repeat my mistakes. Now I am extra careful adding charcoal to a lit grill. When I use the bandsaw to trim the bark off wood chunks, I now use one of several push sticks I had around to keep my fingers a safe distance away. BTW my finger is fine now, thank you very much. But I was lucky. Don’t be lucky, be careful.
  • Time: One of the sayings about smoking meat is: “It takes what it takes”. This is so true. I had a brisket finish 3 1/2 hours early and a pork shoulder that should have taken 14-16 hours take 23!! Having flexible guests is one key for sure. But I’d say if a precise dining time is mandatory or you are cooking for a large group of people: Cook it beforehand and reheat it on the day of your event. So far my FoodSaver has given me great results reheating BBC. A month ago I made pulled pork and ribs on a Wednesday for an office BBQ on Saturday. This gave me needed flexibility if something ran long or short it didn’t matter.
  • Wind is Your Worst Enemy: I still need to come up with a good solution in the form of a wind screen. You can use your smoker in all kinds of cold or rainy or snowy weather-no problem. Throw in a little wind and it can really mess up your temperatures.
  • Taking Stock: Consumables have a habit of running out at the worst time-like holiday weekends when the stores are closed, or at 3:00AM in the morning. Have  a checklist for shopping for your food items. Double check you really do have that spare jar of spice in the cupboard. Check your charcoal or propane supply. 
 
THINGS TO LEARN IN THE NEXT YEAR:
I don’t fool myself for one minute. I still have a lot to learn. Rather than make a long list I will keep it short and make sure I get to all of them. Here a three things I want to learn more about by this time next year.
  • Dealing with the Wind: I want to have  a solution in the form of a windscreen in place before the cold weather sets in.
  • Multi-Meat Cooks: I want to start doing more 2 or 3 item cooks so I can spend less time outside
  • Fish, Veggies & Dessert: I want to start learning more about how to grill and smoke these items. I’d intended to do that this summer, but it wasn’t in the cards.


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