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

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New Day, New Lesson Learned

First Image
When I was in High School one of my teachers had a poster that read: “The More I Learn, the Less I Know”. Just when I think I’ve got using my smoker down pat, something comes up to remind me of this saying. Yesterday I learned a subtle, but important, lesson about heat control I’ll share.

The Background
For Saturday’s dinner, I wanted to try a new recipe. While I’ve made pork chops on the gas grill, I’ve never smoked them. I looked in my Paul Kirk’s Championship BBQ cookbook and sure enough there were several interesting recipes. The one I selected was called: CHEESY SMOKED IOWA PORK CHOPS (with Honey-Ginger Marinade). The chops used a marinade which was reserved, boiled for 5 minutes and used as a mop sauce. The chops were cooked at 230-250 degrees (110-120 C), a little higher than the 225 (107 C) most recipes I make call for. You smoke them 45 minutes on the first side and 30 more on the second. Then you top them with fresh grated ginger and two types of cheese. The recipe called for frequent mopping, and I decided frequent would be every 15 minutes, a number that went nicely into both 30 and 45. I was a bit concerned with opening up the lid every 15 minutes and what kind of temperature loss might result. The topping with cheese at the end was another story. Oh and just to make it more interesting the recipe called for 6 chops, I bumped that up to 8. More meat equals more mop time.

The (Mis) Execution
When it came time to fire up the smoker, I’d forgotten about the 230 to 250 degrees (110-120 C) part. So I lit the charcoal chimney at the same time I would have to hit 225 (107 C), not 250 (120 C). I did add a few more coals to the chimney to help with the temps. I was afraid that with all of the mopping in the 50 degree10 C) temps,, I’d be looking at an extended cook due to the temperature loss. The smoker hit 225 (107 C) right at 2:45 PM when I wanted to start, but as mentioned I had forgotten the extra 25 degrees (14 C) when figuring the start time. So when the smoker hit 225 (107 C) and was still climbing, I figured I’d throw the chops on anyway because I didn’t want to keep my guests waiting too long.

I brought the meat out on a large sheet pan and used my fingers, rather than tongs, to place the meat on the smoker. While I was able to work faster than with tongs, a 225 degree (107 C) grill grate is still quite hot if you touch it. Don’t ask how I know this. I worked quickly, opening the lid long enough to place each chop. I arranged them in 3 columns. I placed 2 chops in the middle column and 3 chops each in a column to the left and right of the middle column. The idea here was when it came time to turn them over I would also swap the chops in the left and right columns. This would even out the cooking temps since the Side Firebox (SFB) is on the right side and items on that side of the smoker cook faster. After the last chop was placed, I closed the lid and waited to see how low the temps would dip.


Second Image
The pork chops on a sheet pan headed out to the smoker

Venting My Frustrations

The temps dropped to 157 degrees. I figured that would not be the end of the world, they’d come back quickly. But no, they were actually not budging too much. It was then that an error I’d made became apparent. Normally when I shoot for a temperature I use the SFB vent to coast up to it. When I start approaching the target temperature of 225 (107 C) I get within 10 or 15 degrees (5.5 - 8.33 C) of it and start closing down the vents. When I hit my target temperature the SFB vent is just about closed. Coasting up to the temperature that way allows me to add the meat and open the vents again if the temps don’t start to recover right away.

I realized I’d made a double mistake. First: I hadn’t even quite reached my desired cooking temperature when I threw on the meat. Second: I had hit this temperature with the vents wide open and therefor had no way to try to make the fire hotter. I was heading down to my basement to get some lump charcoal to toss on and try to jump start the fire, when the temps started to climb. I decided the lump might swing me out of control in the other direction so I held off. It took 15 minutes that first time to get back to 225 (107 C). I waited another five minutes on the first mop to let the temps climb a bit higher. I have learned how to mop quickly with the lid down low, so this time I only dropped to 180 (82 C).

On many of my longer cooks I’d actually avoided this problem without realizing it. Often I will put the meat on the smoker when I add the hot charcoals to the SFB. It gives me an extra 45 minutes or so of smoke exposure, and I’m not opening the lid to add the meat just when I hit my target temperature.

Rather than bore you with a blow by blow description of the rest of the cook, let me summarize. I did indeed see proof of my theory that I should have let the temps coast up to my desired cooking temp. I now know I should try to hit that temp with the SFB vent less than half open. This gives me the ability to open it to start the temps climbing faster. How do I know this? Well once the temps finally hit my target temp and were stable, they recovered quickly. I’d mop and the temps came back in under three minutes, not 10 or 15 like they did early on.


“Third
The grated ginger had the constancy of a spice paste

Necessity is a Mother

As if I wasn’t having enough fun for one afternoon, another little problem presented itself. Lets be positive, shall we say a situation in need of creative thinking occurred. At the end of the cook you are supposed to add fresh grated ginger to the chops and then top them with cheese. I’ve never grated ginger before, I’ve only cut it into matchstick sized slivers. I imagined it would sprinkle on like a powdered spice. When I grated the ginger, it had the consistency of an herb past. If I tried sprinkling it with my fingers it would take forever and would probably just stick to my fingers. Trying to apply it with a spatula while the chops were on the grill would take way too long. I couldn’t run the meat into the house as the temp probes would make that awkward. Plus getting the chops on and off the grill was a double temp loss.

The solution I came up with was to spread out the 8 slices of Monterey Jack cheese on a large platter and apply the ginger to the cheese. I could spread it out on the cheese out using a spatula. When it came time to add the cheese I would flip the cheese over so the ginger side of the cheese would be in contact with the pork. I used the spatula to form the ginger paste into a square and then divided it into 8 equal sized lumps of paste. When I tried spreading it with the spatula, I found it didn’t work very well. As I have found with home improvement projects: Sometimes the best way to apply things is to use your fingers. This worked well and the “Top it with cheese” phase went very smoothly.


“Fourth
The chops are done and ready to come off the smoker

Good Eats

Perhaps I’ve done enough penance to the BBQ Gods in the past, or perhaps they just pity fools. Whatever it was: I ended up with some real tasty pork chops. They even finished on time despite my heat loss. The recipe gave an “About 45 minutes on the first side” and an “About 30 on the second side till cooked to 150 degrees” (66 C). My chops were 1-1/2 inches (3.75 cm) thick and the recipe said 1-1/2 to 2” (3.75 to 5 cm) thick. The times given were probably for the 2” (5 cm) version. My heat loss made up for the faster cooking time a thinner chop would have had.

The chops were tender, moist and tasty with a great smoke flavor. I used Apple wood so as not to overwhelm the sweetness of the marinade. These chops reminded me of Thai food with the sweet and slightly hot sauce. Although I am not a huge pork chop fan, I would gladly eat these any time they are put in front of me.


“Fifth
The finished product

Bottom Line:

Get your smoker at the desired temperature and stable before opening the lid to add cold food.


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