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


Wicked Windy

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I’ve mentioned in previous blog entries about cooking in bad weather and in all seasons. One of the reasons you do this is so when push comes to shove and you have to cook in bad weather you can. This past weekend was a case in point: I had one thing I had to cook and another I wanted to do. Ultimately I was able to accomplish both. Better yet I learned some new things in the process.

I was invited to an office Holiday Party next week for another firm in our building. Some of the people there had been hinting they’d love to try some of my BBQ. I decided that I’d bring some cue to the party. It would be pulled pork since that seems to loose the least when you reheat it. I would start this Friday night and shoot for it to come off the grill mid day Saturday. After that I’d throw on some Icelandic lamb and make rack of lamb for Saturday supper. I would make a double batch of lamb to share with my parents Saturday night and another to have on Sunday. Now that I feel I have a decent grasp of the basics, I’m trying to push myself a bit and learn to do more. Part of this learning process was coordinating the back to back cook. But I also want to keep trying new things too. I decided some smoked Sweet Potatoes would be fun to try along with the lamb. So the plan was Round 1 starting Friday night would be the Pulled Pork, which I wanted off the grill by noon. Round 2 would be 6 racks of lamb and 4 smoked Sweet Potatoes. Those would be started around 2:00 PM for a 3:30 to 4:00 PM finish.

This all sounded great at the beginning of last week. Then as the weekend got closer the weather started becoming a challenge. You’ll notice I didn’t call it an issue. At this point I wanted it to be a challenge not an excuse. We were slated to have a front that caused bad weather and extreme temperature changes throughout the country pass through New England Friday night. According to the National Weather Service: the Friday night forecast was for a 30 degree temperature drop, strong winds, severe thunderstorms & the potential for tornadoes. Obviously the winds precluded the use of my Ez-Up shelter. Since we don’t get a whole lot of tornadoes in this part of the state I figured we’d be spared that. So that left me faced with the cold, high winds and rain. Definitely enough fun for one evening. But just like Thanksgiving where the weather was less than ideal, I was confident I could still go through with my cook. One of the reasons I figured I could still do it was: I have already cooked in rainy, cold and windy weather. I still did these cooks even when I didn’t have to. My family and friends would think I was nuts for doing it too. “Why don’t you take the weekend off?” they’d say. Part of the reason I went through with these bad weather cooks, was to be ready for situations just like this: Times where I couldn’t postpone the cook or delay it. I wanted to know going in whether I would be able to get it done at times when it really did matter.

One thing I have learned from the practice runs is I would need to make some adjustments to my plans. Past experience with the wind, rain and cold have shown me that things take longer to cook under these conditions. Therefor I would move up my starting time to the minute I got home Friday night. The pork was going to be pulled as soon as it was done and the put in FoodSaver bags and refrigerated. As a result it really didn’t matter what time it finished. It definitely HAD to be done for me to be able to fit all 6 racks of lamb and the Sweet Potatoes on the smoker. The second thing I did is decide to use the Firefly’s pulled pork recipe which doesn’t use a mop sauce. I know this is a bit odd but I’ve made it many times and it always comes out great (Firefly’s Pulled Pork Pictures link). Not having to open the lid to mop would help me maintain the right temps in the smoker and not prolong the cook. The third thing I did was to stock the smoker’s Side Firebox (SFB) with coals the night before when it wasn’t pouring outside. This way I could keep the CG covered right up to the last minute The final thing I did was to do as much of the prep as I could Thursday night. I had to make the rub Thursday night so the meat would have 24 hours in the fridge with the rub. But I also made the sauce for the pulled pork and chopped up the fresh herbs for the lamb and trimmed the racks of surface fat. Part of this was in case I had to be baby sitting the smoker more than normal due to the weather. I also figured it would be prudent to be wielding the knife at a time where I was rested not sleep-deprived.

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You know it is windy when you have to clamp down the thermometer to keep it from blowing away

When Friday night rolled around the rain had started and the winds were picking up as I drove home. I decided to light the grill right away and throw the meat on the grill at the same time I added the lit coals. I’ve always been interested in the weather and I recently subscribed to the Professional Version of Accu-Weather for the home. This allows me to indulge my life long interest in the weather and get very detailed information about the weather virtually real time. The live doppler had only a 5 minute delay. They provide a time line for the storms path and it showed I was within minutes of getting clobbered with some heavy rain, winds and thunderstorms. Rather than try to add the meat in the bad weather when the smoker hit 225 (110 C), I put it on when I ran out to add the coals from the charcoal chimney to the Side Firebox (SFB). The other change I made due to the approaching weather was to let the temps run a little higher than normal before I closed the SFB vent. Normally I close the vent around 200 (93 C) degrees and the temps will coast up to 225 (110 C) and level off. This time I let it go to 220 (104 C) before shutting the vent. I knew under normal conditions this would put me up to 240 degrees (116 C) or so. This time I was counting on the rain and the wind to come in and hold the temps down. The real bad weather came in right on cue and the winds really howled for a while. My temps stayed above 215 (102 C) even in the worst of it and I pretty much stayed high and dry. I did have to run out and use a clamp to hold down the remote read thermometer’s transmission unit because the wind blew it off the smoker. On nights like this I am glad the ET-73 thermometer is gasketed and weather-tight.

The bottom of the gas grill cover billowing out nearly 2 feet (0.66 m) shows just how windy it was outside

Once the heavy rains stopped, I had to make a few temperature adjustments to the smoker but my temperature swings were pretty much in the same range as one of my fair weather smokes. All of the practice I had doing smokes in all kinds of weather was paying off nicely. One thing that did almost catch me flat footed was the first charcoal replenishing I had to do. The temps had started to drop a little at 1:00 AM, 5 hours in, and when I went outside to tweak the SFB (Side Firebox) vent I decided to peak in the SFB. I was quite surprised to see the coals were almost spent. I usually get 6-7 hours using Duraflame charcoal but the wind and the rain had taken their toll. I could only imagine what it would have been like if I was mopping every hour and loosing even more heat in the process. The Duraflame charcoals tends to hold their temps right up to the end which is good and bad. This is good in that the temps are quite steady, but if you wait too long you don’t have enough coals left to keep your fire hot. I quickly raked all of the coals to the main chamber side of the SFB and added more fresh coals. My temps did dip to 200 degrees but this wasn’t the end of the world. I think I will get a mesh grid to go in the bottom of the SFB baskets to help hang on to more of the shrunken coals which can drop through the large openings in the baskets.

Based on the first basket taking 5 hours not 6 or 7, I figured the refill would give me another 4 hours. This time I had it right and did another in-flight refueling. Despite the winds which were in the 25-30 MPH (40-48 kph) sustained and 35-40 MPH (56-64 kph) gusts, I was holding temps between 215 and 225 (102-110 C). After the second refueling I stayed up an hour to make sure the grill was dialed in at 225 and then settled in for a 2 hour nap. This was unheard of for me, but having some other bad weather cooks under my belt and knowing the smoker I figured this was safe. Where I was going to be starting a second cook this day I figured it would pay to get a bit of rest so I could be sharp. I set the temperature alarms to wake me if the temps drifted more than 10 degrees (5.5 C) up or 20 (11 C) down from 225 (110 C). When I woke up the winds had gotten a bit stronger and the air temperature was 30 degrees (16.6 C) lower than 12 hours before. Ir was bitterly cold outside in the wind. The grate temperature was 209 (98C) and I ran out to find I was within 30 minutes of needing a charcoal swap. I decide to do it sooner rather than later.

With the wind direction as indicated with the red arrow, opening the vent as shown actually did let the temps go up not down in the smoker

Allow Me to Vent:

Although I made quick work of the second charcoal replenishing, my temps had dropped 30 degrees (16.6 C) not the 10 or 15 (5.5 or 8.3 C) I normally see. Worse yet despite opening the SFB vent all the way the temps continued to plummet. One of the things I’d discovered was in the real cold or windy weather opening the chimney vent led to even greater temperature drops. So instead of helping to jump start the fire, opening the chimney vent typically made matters worse. I opened the chimney vent and sure enough the temps continued to head South. I closed the chimney vent and hoped that having the SFB vent open would soon get things headed in the right direction. When the temps continued to drop with no sign of recovery I ran out from the house and decided to try opening the chimney vent. I approach the smoker from the back side and opened the chimney vent. To my surprise the temps started climbing almost at once. What gives? Well it turns out that coming up from behind the grill had caused me to open the other half of the vent. Sure enough when I uncovered the other half of the vent the temps quickly started to decline.

What I seem to have discovered is that if the vent is opened so that the opening is closer to the wind direction (as shown by the red arrow) the temps rise. If I have the vent opening at the back side of the chimney, so it is away from the wind direction, the temps drop. When I stand at the grill I always open the vent by pushing the flap away from me, which opened the back side of the vent. The temps always fell. The happy accident of opening the vent while standing at the back side of the grill caused me to open the other half of the vent. I have a theory as to why this is , but I’ll spare you my armchair physics. I will just say on this day, with high winds and cold temps my findings were 100 percent repeatable. I know because I tried it a dozen times. Open the vent so the opening is closer to the wind direction and the temps rise. Crack the vent open so the opening is away from the wind and the temps actually decline. Needless to say this was an important discovery and makes me even more confident of my ability to smoke in all kinds of weather.

My temps had plunged 50 degrees (28 C) after the charcoal was added and the howling wings were knocking them down further. My chimney vent discovery had the temps back up to snuff in 7 minutes flat. The other thing I did was face the CharGriller into the wind so the SFB was facing away from the wind direction. I also positioned my gas grill perpendicular to the CharGriller. This turned the gas grille into a very expensive but somewhat effective wind screen. Even as the winds got stronger a few hours later, I had zero trouble holding the smoker near 225 degrees (110 C).

In a pinch the gas grill does double duty as a very expensive wind screen. The CG has been turned to face directly into the wind which is heading straight at us in this picture

As mid day approached I began to worry if the pork would finish on time to allow starting the lamb and sweet potatoes by no later than 2:00 PM. I originally thought 18 hours was more than enough but the meat had stalled out at 179 (82 C) degrees and I thought I might have a double plateau on my hands. I ran out and took some measurements of the grill grate that proved what I already knew: The 6 racks of lamb, 4 sweet potatoes and pulled pork could not all fit on the main grill grate. What to do? There were several choices: 1) Delay supper, 2) Finish the pulled pork in the oven, or 3) Cook the potatoes in the oven. Fortunately the pork rose quickly and hit 190 (88 C) just before my 2:00 drop dead time.

The 6 racks of lamb on the smoker the foil prevents the bones from getting charred

I removed the pork and added the lamb and sweet potatoes. I had a total of 3 temperature probes in the 6 racks. I arrange the food in 3 columns-left, middle and right. The sweet potatoes were on the right nearest the SFB making up the first column. The racks of lamb were arranged in two side by side columns, 3 rows deep one in the middle one on the left. Knowing my smoker I figured I’d need to flip the two columns of lamb so the lamb closer to the SFB wouldn’t finish ahead of the lamb on the far left end of the grill. It really pays to know hot hot and cold spots on your grill. The lamb racks to the rear of the grill were also running warmer than the items on the front. True to expectations the lamb in the left column farthest away from the SFB was almost 10 degrees (5.5 C) cooler than the lamb in the middle. The lamb in the left rear was 5 degrees (2.75 C) different that the lamb in the left front.

The pork shoulder ready to be wrapped in foil and rested in the cooler for 2 hours

So a round of swapping was in order. When the lamb hit 115 degrees (46 C) with 25 degrees (14 C) left to go I rearranged the food to even out the temps. The lamb on the left front was swapped with the center rear. The lamb at left middle changed places with center middle. Left rear and center front changed places. The sweet potatoes stayed on the right side. I was happy to find that the 10 degree (5.5 C) temperature differences had evened out by the time the meat reached the end temperature of 140 (60 C). The readings from all three probes were within one degree. The only surprise was the sweet potatoes finished in 2 hours not the 2 hours 30 minutes I expected. The sweet potatoes were the same size as baked potatoes that typically take 2 hours 30 minutes, so I figured they would take the same amount of time. I held the potatoes for the last 30 minutes in a 175 degree (79 C) oven while waiting for the lamb to come off the smoker. The last 30 minutes before the lamb came off the smoker was spent pulling the pork.

The finished pulled pork

The lamb reached 140 degrees (60 C) in ninety minutes and I brought them inside. The 8-bone racks were cut in half for serving and the sweet potatoes came out of the oven, where they were being held. The 30 minutes in the 175 degree (79 C) oven seemed to have no ill effects as the sweet potatoes were great! The Mustard Crusted Rack of Lamb recipe called for an end temp of 135-140 degrees (57-60 C). The last time I made this I used the 135 (57 C) and I felt the lamb was a little underdone for my taste. This time I pulled them at 140 (60 C) and the doneness was perfect. Everyone really liked the lamb on Saturday and then again on Sunday when it was reheated. I feel I can put this recipe in the “Don’t change a thing the next time” category.

The finished product was well worth the effort

To wrap up: I was very pleased to complete this back-to-back cook, my first, in very challenging weather. This didn’t just happen. It was a combination of having good log files, knowing my smoker’s idiosynchracies, and most importantly having prior experience cooking in bad weather. There were many times in the past, where I could have bailed out on cooking in the bad weather because the meal in question was not a special event. I decided these would be good learning experiences and still went through with them. I’m really glad I did. My Thanksgiving Day turkey and this meal are the end results of those bad weather experimental cooks This time around I really needed to do the pulled pork this day at this time and I had the confidence I could actually do it. An added bonus was the fact I learned something about my smoker that should help me out in future bad weather cooks. Going forward I am even more confident about my ability to be able cook in all kinds of weather. So I’d strongly recommend testing your limits in bad weather even though the meal may not be a special event. When a special event and bad weather converge you’ll know ahead of time what you can and can not do. Plus hopefully you’ll get some good some good que from all the practice sessions in the meantime.

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