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

Expect the Unexpected

I had a very strange cook yesterday, and I think the only explanation is sometimes you just have to expect the unexpected. To begin at the beginning: I decided almost on a whim to make a smoked chuck roast after reading some posts on the Barbecue Bible message boards. I love pot roast and I love smoked food so the combination of the two should be great, right? Well I’d tried it in the past (see PIT POT ROAST) and the results were mixed. I decided to try it again using chuck roast. The recipe I found on the Virtual Weber Bullet web site had three things that gave me hope this recipe might be the one. The first was it used chuck and not bottom round and I’ve used chuck for other things in the past and it was quite good. The second was the rub used here: A blend of powdered brown gravy mix plus powder ranch dressing & Italian dressing mix. Lastly this recipe had you cook carrots and potatoes in with the roast for the last couple hours, just like a New England boiled dinner. However this is where things started getting interesting.

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A potential 12 hour cook meant a pre-dawn start in brisk 21 degree (-6 C) temps

The recipe had you rub the roast and cook it at 240 degrees (116 C) for two hours uncovered in a foil pan. You also pour 1 cup of beef broth in the open pan, I assumed this was to help keep the meat moist while it was uncovered. Then the recipe had you place foil over the pan and finish it covered for 5-6 more hours. For the last two hours you add in the potatoes, Kg carrots and a quartered onion for flavor. The roast was supposed to be done when you could easily stick a fork in it and twist. Well that method of testing doneness isn’t really practical in my humble opinion. You have to keep opening the smoker and in the Winter that is not something you want to do very often. Once you open the smoker you have to pull hot aluminum foil off a hot pan, all without tearing it. If the roast wasn’t done you need to reseal it once again you are dealing with hot foil on a hot pan. The reality is the only way to do this the right way is to keep bringing the roast indoors. For me the only sensible way to do this was to find out what the end temperature should be. This way I could use my remote read thermometer and not have to open the smoker or unfoil the meat until it was really done.

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While the smoker was heating, the meat got rubbed with a rub from three powdered mixes: brown gravy mix, ranch dressing mix & Italian dressing mix (left). Once the meat was rubbed it was placed in a foil pan with some beef broth. The last step was to insert two temperature probes.

The other problem was going to be figuring out when the last two hours were. If this sounds like a trick question, it isn’t. It seemed to me that a cut like this with lots of fat may have plateaus just like a Boston butt. When this plateau occurred could affect when the last two hours was. Boston Butts plateau at 160 (71 C) and sometimes again in the 180‘s (82 C). If this roast got to 180 (82 C) and I thought it was time to add the potatoes and then it plateaued, that could be a disaster. Plus I don’t like cooking to a time very often because there are just too many variables that can affect cooking time. The funny thing was the last time I had these type of questions was for the other pot roast I did on the smoker- PIT POT ROAST. That recipe had you cook for 7-8 hours and foil the meat together with some canned whole peeled tomatoes at the mid point. Well they didn’t give a finishing temperature and I really feel you should always cook to a temperature not a time. Or if you don’t cook to a temperature you cook to a physical degree of doneness: fork tender, the poke test etc. Time is only the roughest of guidelines. As mentioned before it is simply impractical to cook this roast in the Winter (or really any other time) and have to keep unfoiling it to stick a fork in it. Every time you open the lid to check time, you add 15 minutes or more to your total time. Remote read thermometers are the only way to go. You are constantly monitoring the temperatures from the comfort of a warm house. You can spot trends as they are happening. I needed to find an end temperature to shoot for. Like I did with the Pit Pot Roast, I looked on the internet for the answers. I posted questions on the BBQ Bible message board and mostly due to lack of time I got some, but not all of the answers. The done temperature seemed to be 210 (99 C) degrees. The time was said to be about 3 hours per pound. What I still didn’t know was if and when there was a plateau and at a done temp of 210 (99 C) would I be slicking it, cutting chunks, or shredding it. Now the 3 hours per pound led me to believe there would be a plateau because this told me my 4 pound roast would take 12 hours no the 7-8 suggested in my recipe. So I decided I would simply go with the flow and see what developed.

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On the left is the meat after smoking for 3 hours at 147 degrees (64 C). It was time to cover the pan with foil. The picture on the right was the meat at 200 degrees (93 C), back in the house ready to get the potatoes & carrots added.

I started around 5:45 lighting coals in the charcoal chimney. It was still dark out and a brisk 21 degrees (-6 C), but happily it was very calm. The wind is the big problem in the cold weather, not so much the air temperature. This was my second time using Kingsford Competition Briquettes and once again they lit quickly and brought the smoker from 21 to 240 (-6 to 116 C) degrees in an amazing 15 minutes. Since it looked like the time was going to be closer to 12 hours not 8 I decided I would extend the uncovered time from two hours to three. Plus I bumped up the amount of beef broth from 1 to 1 1/2 cups. Many people cooking this cut foil it at 150 degrees. So I’ d decided I would cook it uncovered for either three hours or 150 degrees (66 C), whichever came first. As it turned out they were about the same. At the three hour mark the roast was measuring 147 degrees (64 C). I took it inside to foil the top of the pan, feeling pretty good about the progress so far.

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As it turned out this was a lot of room temperature items to add to the roast pan. Little did I know the effect it was going to have.

With the foil on the pace accelerated. I ASSumed if it was like a Boston butt it would start to plateau around 160 degrees (71C). At that point something unexpected happened. I had an unexpected guest who was there for an hour and I didn’t do a temperature check during that time. I relied on the low high temperature alarms to warn me if anything was up with the temperatures on the smoker and as I said I ASSumed a plateau would happen. When my guest left I was shocked to discover there had been no plateau and the meat was at 186 (86 C). In the earlier part of the cook the meat had been rising 10-12 degrees (5.5-6.5 C) every 30 minutes. I’d figured to add the veggies around 180 degrees (82 C) figuring I might lose some temperature in the process of opening the smoker and adding room temperature food into the mix. Also I could take it to 215 (102 C) if needed to extend the time. But suddenly I was at 186 (86 C) and hadn’t begun to peel & chop the potatoes and carrots. By the time I was done the meat was showing 199-200 (93 C)degrees. At this point I really couldn’t do anything but add the veggies and see what happened.

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The veggies were peeled and chopped & ready to go back out to the smoker (left). It took 3:45 but I still had solid potatoes & carrots plus lots of potential gravy stock (right). All the liquid still in the pan gave me great hope the meat would be moist.

I added the veggies and resealed the foil on top of the pan and got it back out to the smoker. I began trying to figure out what to do when the meat finished up early as I ASSumed it would. I noticed when I plugged the leads for the temperature probes back in, that the meat had lost five degrees. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. But then the temps continued downward. At first I thought this is good as long as they start climbing again with an hour to go. Now normally you’d think I would have freaked out a bit with the temperatures going the wrong way. It turns out I had seen this behavior once before and guess what meal it was? Wait for it: Pit Pot Roast. In that recipe you put the meat in foil midway through. To help add flavor and moisture you add in a can of whole peeled tomatoes when you seal it in foil. Both times I made this meal the temperatures headed south by about 10 degrees (5.5 C) before rebounding and heading quickly upward. At that time I wasn’t sure what was going on, I mean a few tomatoes at room temperature couldn’t have that big of an effect ? Could they? I was worried that perhaps I‘d dislodged the probes when I foiled it. But I was using two probes in different places in the same piece of meat. What were the odds of dislodging both? When the temperature dropped 10 degrees (5.5 C) in the Pit Pot Roast I felt like I needed to do something. The only problem was what do I do? Fortunately at that point the temperatures rebounded and once they started rising again, they rose quickly.

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The meat didn’t give off too many juices during it’s 10 minute rest, so I wasn’t so sure my assessment of Lots of “Liquid in the Pan = Moist Roast” was right

While the temps were heading downward with no sign of stopping any time soon, I got that same feeling of: “I must do something”. Only what? Once again the odds of both probes becoming dislodged when I refoiled the meat and took it back out to the grill was low. Plus the reason I used two probes in one piece of meat is just for this reason: One might give a bad reading due to bad placement, but at least one should be right. Plus in the event of different readings, you go by the lower reading. Plus if a probe was dislodged it should go to a part of the meat where the temperatures were higher, it couldn’t go lower. I thought back to what a small amount of canned tomatoes did to the pit pot roast temperatures (10 degree (5.5 C) drop) and realized with chopped pieces from 4 potatoes and 3 carrots and an onion, we were looking at far more mass here and it was going to take a while for the temps to start rising again. Now I did raise the temperature in the smoker up from 240 (116 C) degrees to 250 (121 C) degrees, but there was little else I could do at this point. This time around the temperatures took an hour and 45 minutes to start rising and their rise was slow at first and picked up headway later. The bigger problem was the meat temperature had dropped 30 degrees (16.6 C) meaning that about a 40 degrees (22 C) rise was required for the meat to be done. Based on the earlier pace, I was looking at two more hours before the meat reached 210 degrees (99 C). The one smart thing I did was make this on a day where there was no schedule to keep. I could have this meal for lunch or supper or anything in between.

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When I cut into the roast my worries were over, it positively glistened. I was also happy to see that the meat was sliceable - as long as I kept the slices a little thick. I added the slices into a bed of veggies.

The question now was: What to do about the potatoes and carrots? I was supposed to put them in for the last two hours and now I was looking at twice that time before the meat was back to 210. (99 C) I decided that the meat was the most important part of the whole equation here. Therefor I would have to let the chips fall where the they may with regards to the veggies. Part of my thinking here was the hope that while the meat temperatures were falling, not much cooking was going on in the veggies. While this was my hope, I still wouldn’t have been very surprised if I took the foil off the pan and found veggie purée. Fortunately after the 3:45 the meat had reached 210 (99 C) and the veggies were still intact. I pulled the meat out let it rest 10 minutes and began to scoop the veggies out of the pan and I was happy to find they weren’t falling apart. There was lots of liquid in the pan to use for gravy. The fact it was still there gave me hope it had been steaming the meat and that I had a nice moist piece of meat to look forward to. When I cut into the meat I was pleasantly surprised I was actually able to slice it. I did have to make the slices a little thicker than normal to keep the slices intact, but that sure beat the shredded beef I thought I might have on my hands. The meat simply glistened when I sliced it, and really didn’t need the gravy I’d just made from the pan drippings.

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The meat was so moist it really didn’t need the gravy. It had a deep red smoke ring & a rich taste.

So while it was a bit of a strange journey, I was thrilled and lucky to end up with a moist tasty piece of meat on my hands. It was fork tender and had a nice hint of hickory smoke. The veggies were a slightly soft but considering what could have happened, I’ll gladly take that every time. Despite my successful results I’ve gotta ask: how the hell did I do it? And what was up with that recipe from the Virtual Weber Bullet site? I mean they had you add all of those veggies and in my case it cost me a thirty degree temperature drop and took four hours, not two to finish. How could something like this not have happened to the Virtual Weber Bullet folks as well? The only difference here is I used a horizontal barrel smoker and they used a vertical water smoker. In fact according to their cooking log, I kept my temperatures more stable over the course of the cook than they did. The strange thing about their cooking log was they listed the temps of the smoker and all, but not the meat. A coverup perhaps? I am just kidding, but how could it be this didn’t happen to them? If It did happen how could you not mention it? This was a great meal, so I do plan on making it again. I just need to figure out what to do about the end game. I see no way to avoid the temperature drop, I just have to decide if there is some way to reduce it. Right now all I can think off is to take the meat to nearly 210 (99 C) before adding the veggies. That way perhaps it will drop a little less because it was warmer to begin with. More experimentation is definitely required. So I guess the moral of the story is: When you are dealing with fatty cuts of meat cooked low and slow expect the unexpected.

Here are some links for the Picture Entries mentioned above:

  PIT POT ROAST Beef Picture Entry
  POT ROAST A LA STOGIE Beef Picture Entry


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