Living in New England, winter is a cruel reality for a grill lover. After getting some of Steven Raichlen’s great books, I’ve realized there is hope. If you cook indirectly (which is how a smoker works) and pick a recipe that involves little to no lifting of the lid, you can use your smoker throughout the winter (See 2009 addendum below). Indirect cooking is where the food is placed away from the heat source and you cook with the lid down. You are basically using the smoker as a low temperature outdoor oven. In the CharGriller you place the charcoal in the side firebox and the meat goes in the main chamber. One big advantage to using the smoker instead of your oven is you can use wood chunks to add smoke flavor. The picture above is Thanksgiving Day, where I smoked a turkey despite 6” (15 cm) of snow. This entry will talk about what I’ve learned so far, smoking throughout the winter. Some of this information will apply to my CharGriller Smoker but a lot of it is universal.
Grill Modifications: If you go over to the discussion boards at the Barbecue Bible Website, http://www.barbecuebible.com/board/index.php (Web Link) you will find a very large thread called the CharGriller Family thread. Owners of the CharGriller discuss all kind of topics including grill modifications. There are many posts there about modifications to the grill to help get longer cooking times, insulation against the cold etc. For my inaugural season smoking, I elected to use the grill stock. I wanted a baseline benchmark to use should I decide to make a grill modification. The only item that is not stock is the use of charcoal baskets in the Side Fire Box.
Recipe: Pick a recipe that involves the minimum amount of opening and closing the lid, Every time you open the lid you lose a scary amount of heat. A quick up and down with the lid can knock off 20 degrees (11 C). I’ve lost 100 degrees (55 C) taking a turkey off the grill. This was open the lid, grab the Turkey and set it on the side shelf, close the lid. This was all done as fast as possible. Even with a helper that still is about a 50 degree (28 C) loss. Cut down the amount of mopping or basting you do. Combine this type activity with a charcoal swap, so you lose temperatures once.
Cold: For cooking in the Side Fire Box, I’ve found a charcoal briquettes like Kingsford to be the best. I’ve tried lump charcoal and it doesn’t last as long as briquettes. So far I have not had trouble keeping the temperature at 225 (110 C) in normal but cold weather. I’ve cooked in temperatures down to 15 degrees. You’ll use more charcoal and you may have to light a few more charcoals to get started, but the cold is not the real enemy.
Wind: Wind is the true enemy at any temperature. I now know I have to come up with something to act as a wind screen. I’ve used my gas grill a couple times as a very expensive wind screen. The trick is to find something light I can move and set up myself. It also needs to be strong enough to withstand the wind without blowing over. A cold wind can instantly knock the temperatures down 30 degrees (16 C). I’ve cooked every weekend this winter except for 2 where it was cold and windy.
Vents: I’ve found several time where the positioning of the vents goes against conventional wisdom. After swapping in new charcoal you usually open the vent in the SFB to help get the coals burning. When it is real cold and a bit windy, I’ve found you lose temps leaving the vent open. Several times I’ve had to keep the vent open just long enough to help get the coals ignited. All this time I was watching the grill temp continue to drop. You can hear the new coals begin to ignite. After a few minutes I shut the SFB vent and the chimney vent to keep the cold wind out. The temperatures then reversed direction and started rising. Vent positioning is a bit tricky in the Winter, but it is doable.
Remote Read Thermometer: This is the key to a comfortable Winter smoke. The remote read thermometers transmit their signal to a receiver you can keep in the house. You can monitor what is going on from the comfort of your home. The only problem I’ve had, is the thermometer sometimes stops sending a signal. I used to think it was the cold affecting the batteries. Several times I’ve had the signal cut out when the temperature were higher than they were when I first started that day. This sometimes also happens when it gets dark. I don’t have a handle on what causes it yet, but I will.
Water Freezes: This should be a no brainer, but I’ve been bitten by this one. A couple weeks ago I covered my smoker after dark. There must have been some water on the smoker or condensation inside the cover. The following weekend it was 18 degrees (-8 C). My smoker cover that went on as a one-piece, came off as a five-piece. ‘Nuff said.
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