The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke
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Cure for the Uncommon Cold

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In some other blog entries I’ve talked about grilling or smoking in bad weather even if you really don’t have to. That way if you run into a bad weather situation where you still have to grill, you’ll have some experience under your belt. For me this was no more true than Christmas Day 2008. I’ll describe this unusual and somewhat trying cook that proved me right. This entry will not have a lot of pictures and some will be retreads, because frankly I was too busy trying to avoid a costly cooking disaster to stop and take pictures.

For the last 5 years I have been making a standing rib roast for Christmas. At first I cooked them on the gas grill and for the last few years the smoker. Well yesterday was Christmas Day and I had a roast to smoke that cost me over a hundred dollars. I woke up to winds were around 20 MPH (32 kph) with gusts of 30, 40 and later 50 MHP (48, 64 & 80 kph) predicted. What was I gonna do? You can’t postpone Christmas dinner, you own the roast, so l just go do it I thought. I’ve smoked in winds approaching 30 MPH (48 kph), I’ve smoked in weather colder than the low 40’s (4 C) predicted for today. In a pinch I could always finish it off in the oven I thought to myself.

Honestly, the weather had caught me by surprise. For about the last week I knew we had rain moving out the day before Christmas and Christmas was going to be clear and in the 40’s (7 C). I really didn’t pay attention to the weather once I’d heard that. When I woke up and heard the wind howling I just thought: “Well this will be “fun”, but I’ve done it before I can do it again.” My first stop was to my computer to look up the Hour by Hour forecast which showed the wind intensifying throughout the time I’d be cooking. I was a bit nervous about the expensive roast, but I’d go back to thinking I could always use the oven as a backup. That was until I heard them talking about power outages on the news. I decided that I was gonna do this outdoors because even if we lost the lights, I’d have prime rib and smoked potatoes coming off the smoker and grilled asparagus from the gas grill which could pass for a complete meal.

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What I learned in this picture from 2006 I applied in the wind this year. The CG is turned so the chimney end is facing straight into the wind and the gas grill can double as a wind screen

When it was time to light the CG I decided to add more coals to the charcoal chimney. This would make a hotter fire which would help get the temps up. In cold or windy weather it is harder to make the temps go up, it is easy to get them to drop. The first sign I was in for more trouble than ever before was when it took 10 minutes to light the charcoal chimney. Even though I was using my gas grill as a wind screen nothing would work. My zippo lighter wouldn’t even produce a flame and the matches kept blowing out. I finally waited for a brief lull in the gusts and holding the match box 1” away from the newspaper I got it to light and stay lit long enough to ignite the newspaper. As it turns out the extra coals took longer to ash over and my cook started 15 minute late. Not a biggie under the conditions I figured..

Instead of getting the smoker up to 225 (110 C) first, I decided to put the meat on at the same time I added the coals from the charcoal chimney. This would avoid sacrificing the heat I’d just built up to the cold air and winds. So I added the meat and poured the coals from the chimney into the SFB (Side Fire Box). I positioned the gas grill to use as a wind break and aimed the grill into the wind and went inside. From the warmth of the Kitchen I watched the temps rise on the remote thermometers. It is days like this I truly appreciate remote read thermometers the most. The temps rose steadily if not a little slowly until they topped off in the mid 130’s (54 C). At first I thought the remote reader may have just lost contact with the base station at the smoker so I gave it 10 minutes. I mean stop at 130 (54 C), that has NEVER happened. It is not unheard of, particularly in cold weather for the two units of the remote read thermometers to lose touch with one another.

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Another lesson learned from foul weather smoking: If you can add the meat when you add the coals to the SFB. Every time you open the lid you lose heat and it is hard to recover in the wind and cold. The extra time in the smoke can be a good thing too.

When I went out to the smoker I found the temps really were still at 136 (58 C). I was feeling a tad screwed because I’d already used all my usual tricks. The smoker was pointed so the chimney end was into the wind, I was using the gas grill as a wind screen and I had the SFB vent opened 100% and the chimney vent opened 50%. I’d found in my first winter smoking that if you open the chimney vent 100% the temps go down not up. I also found in windy weather you can only open the chimney vent up 50%. That opening in the chimney needs to be closest to the wind direction or the temps go down not up. This is why I suggest getting out there in the bad conditions even when you don’t have to. Christmas Day would not have been the day for me to have to waste time learning this lesson for the first time.

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CG Vent-Arrow
Another lesson learned several years ago: 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

It was time for Plan B, which was light more coals. I’d never had to do this before at the beginning of a cook, but I figured I’d light another chimney of coals and add those in to get the temps rising again. Heck I’d even let them run high to make up for the false start. Or so I thought. After some more fun and games I got this chimney lit and after 25 minutes (instead of the usual 15) the coals were ready to add. I went back into the house to monitor the temps and pat myself on the back as the temps began a steady rise. When the wind gusts would intensify, the temps would stop rising or drop but the trend was generally upward. I started doing some cleanup and thought I was out of the woods. The temps actually had risen into the mid 180’s. but the wind got stronger and they dropped back to the mid 170’s (77 C) and didn’t budge. A trip outside showed this wasn’t a case of the base station and remote losing their signal.

I was rather desperate. It was time for a Plan C and I had no idea what that was. None. Honestly the oven was starting to look good and I was starting to feel sorry for myself. I also thought: Why does this happen with a piece of meat that is 20$ a pound (0.5 Kg), not 20$ total? What kept me from giving in was two fold: 1) What if we got a power failure and 2) I really didn’t relish the idea writing a blog describing an aborted cook with a finish in the oven. And I would do one too, because you learn more from failures sometimes than success. Well I have no idea where my inspiration came from, but a desperate Plan C came into my head. I abandoned the Minion method. This is where you have a controlled burn and use 30 coals to light the fire and they slowly ignite their neighbors, which in turn light there neighbors. The fire slowly burns from one end of the SFB to the other. In this case the compact lump of lit coals didn’t have enough oomph to raise the temps any more.

Using tongs I took the lit coals and spread them out all along the top of the coals in the SFB. I figured two things might happen. First I would have more surface area with hot coals exposed to the main chamber which would help raise the temps. Second instead of a slow controlled burn, spreading the lit coals out would light more adjacent coals and more lit coals equals higher temps. With the winds only getting stronger I probably wouldn’t have to worry about runaway temps. At first after I repositioned the coals things weren’t looking good. The temps dropped 15 degrees (8 C) and I was fresh out of ideas. Finally they started climbing and climbing faster than any time today. I seriously had to avoid the temptation of doing a Happy Dance where the neighbors might see me. The temps rose to 203 (95 C) until some stronger wind gusts beat them down to the mid 190’s (91 C). But from this point forward they never went below 195 (95 C) and several times approached 220 (104 C).

At this point with the temperatures in the CG finally being where I wanted them it was time to take stock. I had not paid attention to the temps of the meat because frankly I figured at 135 to 165 (57 to 72 C) I’d be serving at midnight not midday. This is when I received a VERY pleasant shock. When I compared where I was at in this cook with my cooking log from last year I was only 4 degrees lower (2 C). This points out the importance of keeping logs. I could compare my results to years past and figure out where I was in the process. So I could see I was only 4 degrees (2 C) off other similar cooks. Why this was the case I don’t know. I still can’t think of one good reason for this. Perhaps the BBQ gods were being kind to someone silly enough to be out cooking in those winds.

The only problem here was if this meat would finish at my originally projected time of 4 hours, I was in serious time trouble on some of my other items. My baked potatoes should have gone on the smoker 30 minutes earlier. But this is also a case where knowing your equipment paid off. The potatoes went on about 45 minutes late, but I put them on the smoker closer to the SFB end. That end runs hotter and tends to heat potatoes about 45 minutes faster than the far end of the smoker chamber. I like the lower temps at the far end and I can always move them to the SFB end to speed things up. In this case the higher heat was needed for the entire time. Fortunately for me, the potatoes finished right when I was ready to serve everything else.

The first two hours lost playing with the CG had cost me dearly in terms of prep time. At the end there was to be a very precise coordination of both oven time and oven temps. The meat gets a 500 degree (260 C) sear and rests 30 minutes. The rolls get 400 degree (205 C) cook right after. I had to fire up the gas grill and make the grilled asparagus while the meat was resting. With the lost time everything was down to the last second and I couldn’t be two places at once. Fortunately my guests jumped in and played sous chef helping with some of the things I would have been doing so I could prep the asparagus and go cook it.

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A lesson learned from windy weather smoking: light more burners than you need and there will be an area in the middle the wind doesn’t get to. Keep you food in away from the edges of your fire.

Once again having previously used the gas grill in some pretty nasty cold and windy weather before this day was valuable. I knew enough to light it early and set the knobs a little higher than normal. My 6 burner grill has a lot of surface area and could have easily cooked the 6 rafts of asparagus using only 2 burners on a normal day. I lit all 6 for two reasons. The first was that the winds would take away heat from the edges of my fire so I needed more burners to get a controlled heat area. Also I’d seen lesser winds try to blow out the burners. If you lit only two burners they might easily blow out. With 6 burners going if a burner blew out, its neighbor would relight it. Speaking of rafts of asparagus: While the recipe didn’t call for it, I used the rafts to make it easier to quickly turn them over and losing less heat in the process.

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You don’t get a smoke ring cooking your meat in the oven.

Bottom line: Although it was a bit of a wild ride, I ended up with a great meal. Plus I still would have been able to enjoy even it if the lights had gone out. I really think the only reason I was able to pull this off was my prior experience. This experience was gained during times where I didn’t have to cook in the bad weather, but chose to. The experience I gained there marked the difference between success and failure today. So if you are debating about not cooking some day when the weather is questionable and you don’t need to cook outside: Do it anyway. Even if you fail, you will learn a valuable lesson for the day you can’t afford to fail. And you certainly can’t postpone Christmas to another day when the weather is better.

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On this windy Christmas day I could have still enjoyed everything on my plate but the green beans even if the winds had knocked out the power and I couldn’t use the oven.
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SOME RELATED LINKS:
  WINTER GRILLING Blog Entry
  WINTER SMOKING Blog Entry
  KEEPING A COOKING LOG Blog Entry
  GETTING TO KNOW YOUR GRILL Blog Entry
  WICKED WINDY Blog Entry
  WINTER GRILLING Blog Entry


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