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

Picking Up Where I left Off

After a two month hiatus I returned to grilling. I made two new dishes that couldn’t have turned out better, despite my being a bit nervous about getting them both done at the same time and in good shape. In this blog I will describe how a combination of the right tools and past experience ruled the day. I have some friends who are afraid to venture beyond cooking hamburgers, hotdogs and steaks on the grill between Memorial Day and Labor Day. They seem to think I am some sort of freak or that I got to where I am now in one step. This may be beating a dead horse since I’ve written about this several times: But nothing beats experience and the best thing anyone can do is keep trying since things do get easier. At some point it begins to feel like you are on this incredible roll where things that once confounded you, now seem to just work out. Now maybe I was just lucky, but I am actually prepared to take some of the blame for the success of this meal. But not to get ahead of myself, lets begin at the beginning.

A combination of work being slow, illness, extreme bad weather and flooding combined to result in a two month hiatus in enjoying my hobby. Actually I was prepared to make this meal a week ago for Easter, but a week spent helping to bail out my parents basement forced us to move our meal back a week. I was a bit nervous about the meal itself since I was combining the best of three different ham recipes and so didn’t have a clear idea just how long things would take. I’d also picked a new recipe for the side dish that was a “hobo pack” where you put the ingredients together with some herbs and spices in a foil pack. I’ve made these hobo packs before, but the problem here was I would be making this for the first time and cooking it at a different temperature than the recipe called for. So I had two items I was making for the first time, I wanted them to finish at the same time and I had no idea how long either one was going to take to cook. An interesting challenge but I thought it would be fun.

We were having dinner at my parents a few weeks before Easter and my father suddenly launched into this spontaneous speech about ham and its greatness. I figured there was no need to wrack my brain coming up with a candidate for this year’s Easter dinner. To me this was a sure sign that ham should be on this years menu. I turned to one of my favorite web sites I go to when I need to learn more about a cut of meat and find a good recipe to make:
THE VIRTUAL WEBER BULLET. I learned a lot about ham and how to cook it. I also found not 1 but 3 recipes that had aspects that I liked. I simply couldn’t decide and picked parts of each to use. From one recipe I took what sounded like a wonderful mustard and whiskey based glaze. From another I took the cut of ham. From the third I took the cooking method. The problem here was the time temperature cooking charts for none of the recipes would work. I was taking a smaller cut of ham from one recipe and cooking it at a different temperature because I was using a different cooking method from another recipe.

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The final ham chosen was uncured with natural juices as I’d hoped for, I hadn’t planned on spiral sliced and 8 pounds vs. 10 pounds.

The cooking method I used involved indirect grilling the meat 325 degrees with just a little smoke. This is because a pre-cooked ham has already been smoked and so the goal is to add a touch of smoke. Now the Virtual Weber Bullet web site recipes are made using a charcoal grill/smoker and I often take their recipes and adapt them to my charcoal smoker. Here was a case where I figured this was a perfect use for the gas grill. There were three good reasons: I was looking for a little bit of smoke and the smoker drawer on the gas grill gives a hint of smoke not the full bodied smoke flavor I get on the smoker. Secondly, the cooking temperature of 325 (160 C) is easy to maintain on the gas grill, but is a bit of a stretch on the smoker which is optimized for 225 (105 C). Lastly due to reasons one and two the gas grill was not going to turn out an inferior product and was far more convenient: I could set it and forget it. I’d also be using the gas grill to be preparing my side dish and this would kill two birds with one stone. The set-it-and-forget-it nature would give me plenty of time to prep my sides.

These so-called foil hobo packs make tender and tasty steamed vegetables.

As for the sides I was originally thinking of making sweet potatoes plus another veggie. In looking around for a second veggie recipe I found a site that was focussed on foil packs, or hobo packs as they are sometimes called. This is where you combine veggies and herbs, oils and seasonings in a sealed foil pack. The veggies end up steaming in the seasonings and if you do your job right, they come out moist, tender and infused with flavor. There are three keys to foil pack success: Getting a good seal, leaving some extra room for expansion due to heat and not over cooking. If you don’t get a good seal the liquids may escape and you end up with veggies that reek of smoke as they cook too fast and burn. The same thing happens if you overcook them and something begins to burn. The smoke gets trapped inside and all your food reeks of the smoke. I found a wonderful sounding hobo pack recipe called Sweet Potato & Green Beans Diablo. My only concern was the cooking temperature needed. the recipe called for medium high and this might present a problem for me due to how I had to cook the ham. The ham was to be cooked indirectly at a temperature of 325. When cooking indirectly on my 6 burner gas grill I try to light one or two burners on both the right and left sides. The food is placed in the middle which provides even heat on both sides of the meat. Adding to the complications was the smoker drawer which does best with high heat. So basically I was committed to burner 1 (the smoker drawer) and burner 6 on high. I was worried this might actually meet or exceed the 325 (160 C) I needed.

Leading up to the cook I had no idea how long the ham might actually take. Looking at the cooking charts in the recipes and interpolating their results, I came up with 2 hours but I certainly wouldn’t stake my life on that figure. The recipe for the glaze I was using wanted you to glaze the meat 30 minutes before finishing and again with 15 minutes to go. At this point I was dealing with 30 & 15 minutes before an unknown end time. This is where a little experience and paying attention to temperature rises on other cooks came in handy. I had already decided that the meat would take about 2 hours. Based on other similarly sized pieces of meat I’ve cooked, I guessed that the temperatures would rise at about a degree a minute once they started rising. Big pieces of meat tend to be very uniform once they start climbing. It takes a while to get them started, but once they actually have climbed about 10 degrees the time temperature rise on most big, or at least non-fatty big, roasts is almost always a perfectly straight line. As always I planned to use my remote read thermometers to monitor temps during the cook. Based on my 1 degree per minute rise and a finish temp of 130 degrees (54 C), the temperature where I’d want to glaze was set at 100 degrees (38 C) and 15 minutes later hopefully would be 115 degrees (46 C).

The day of the cook dawned cold and windy. The temps were expected to rise to 60 degrees and the gusty winds would continue. My trip to the market resulted in a few tweaks made to my thinking. I’d planned on buying a 10 pound unglazed “ready to eat ham” “with natural juices”. This meant the ham was already cooked and I would just be reheating it. This explains the end temp of 130 (54 C) versus 160 (70 C) for an uncooked ham. The natural juices meant the ham hadn’t been injected with anything and these also tend to be the better hams. The unglazed part is where I ran into a bit of a problem. Almost everything they had was pre-glazed. What I did spot was an unglazed 8 pound spiral sliced ham which the most expensive per pound, but was actually on sale. The spiral slicing would save some time at the end but would take away the cushion I’d have if I needed more time for the veggies. My plan was if the ham temperatures rose faster than I expected, the veggies might not have had their full time on the grill. I could use the carving time to make up for this. A spiral sliced ham would take away much of this carving time. I will admit that the appeal of not having to carve the ham won out over my safety net.

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Does this really look like a serving for 4? It sure didn’t to me and past experience with these foil hobo packs told me otherwise-the contents go fast. I bought enough to make two
foil packs.

The second change made at the supermarket was to the veggie recipe. It was supposed to be a serving for 4, but yet called for 4 ounces of green beans and one 9 ounce sweet potato. This seemed low to me and when I actually saw the size of a 9 ounce sweet potato and what 4 ounces of green beans looked like, I knew this wasn’t enough. I’ve made about a half dozen types of these foil packs and they are always very popular. The food is infused with flavor and people can’t seem to help going back for seconds, thirds..... I decided I would double the recipe quantity make two foil packs as opposed to one big one. Prior experience and knowing my grill made this an easy decision. While I have been successful with foil packs of veggies, the first thing I every tried cooking in foil were some ribs which were supposed to steam in foil for an hour. I had bad seals on 3 out of 4 racks of ribs and ended up with only one rack of ribs that were usable. I figured with two foil packs I’d doubled my odds of success. Also with the wind two smaller packs would be easier to position on a good spot on the grill, than one bigger one.

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The wood chip soaker makes it quick and easy to prep 2 batches of soaked wood chips. The size of the basket exactly matches the size of my gas grill’s smoker drawer. So next time I won’t bother using the measuring cup.

My parents were scheduled to arrive around 4:00PM so I decided to shoot for 4:30 as the end time for the ham. This gave me a 30 minute cushion. If the ham finished on time we could have salad before the meal and if the ham finished early we could have the salad with the meal. A 4:30 PM finish meant a 2:30 PM start and with a 15 minute warm-up the grill would need to be be lit at 2:15 PM. For once I left myself enough time and started my prep at 1:30. My Steven Raichlen Wood Chip Soaker (see BLOG ENTRY) made things very neat and easy. I was able to have two batches of chips soaking at once at any given time. As I’d empty one basket into the grill’s smoker drawer I’d have another ready to go. I’d refill the first basket and get it soaking. These baskets were the perfect size since they hold the same one cup of chips that the smoker drawer holds. Sure you could use a foil pan and colander to drain the chips, but having the right gear lets you concentrate on the more important aspects.

Just before it was time to light the grill, I pulled the ham out of the fridge and put it cut side down on a shallow foil tray. Even though this was one piece of meat, I inserted both temperature probes from my remote read meat thermometer. Experience has taught me that it never hurts to have two readings in the event that one probe isn’t placed just right or a probe gets dislodged while the meat is cooking. I then headed out to light the grill. The winds had me a bit worried as they were quite strong so I made two adjustments when I lit the grill. I spun the grill so the back was perpendicular to the wind direction and I lit two extra burners. Normally having burners 1 & 6 set to high would be enough to reach 325 (160 C) in the center of the grill. But with the addition of the wind I felt that burners 2 and 5 would need to be lit and set to low. This is a case where cooking in all kinds of weather and learning what your grill is capable of is invaluable. By cooking in bad weather when I didn’t have to it made it easier to cook in bad weather when I really did have to. When I returned to the grill 15 minutes later with the ham I was greeted with exactly 325 degrees (160C) at the center of the grill. Things were off to a good start.

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The ham was placed cut side down in a shallow foil pan. As you will see, it turned out my usual decision to use two temperature probes paid off this day.

I was still a bit worried about the temperature I’d have for direct grilling the veggie packs. The Bonjour Laser Probe Combo Thermometer (see MEASURING UP blog entry) allowed me to take the temperature at the cooking grate over the lit burners. It turned out to be about 500 degrees (260 C) which was a bit hotter than the recipe’s 400 degrees (205 C) medium-high. I really needed to keep burner 1 and therefor burner 6 at high to get good smoke. Between the wind and the higher temps I was tempted to do the foil pack in the oven since I did have an alternate time and temperature for oven cooking. The winds had gotten stronger and I’d raised the setting of burners 2 & 5 to one notch above Low. I decided I would place the foil packs one in front of the other in the zone between burners 5 and 6 on the right side of the grill. This would get me closer to the 400 degrees (205 C) desired. I would also swap the two packs positions front to back as well as rotating them 180 degrees would help to even out the cooking temps for the foil pack contents. Placing one foil pack on the left side over the smoker drawer was problematic because the wood chips often ignite into flames just before being spent. I didn’t want to introduce another variable into the mix. My plan was to reduce the cooking time slightly to compensate for the slightly high temps. Assuming the temps in the ham ran at the 1 degree (0.5 C) rise per minute I’d figured on, I would add the foil packs just after glazing the ham. This would give it 25 minutes cooking time, down from the 30 in the recipe.

Once the ham was on the grill it was time to start preliminary prep on the veggie packs. I cut the sweet potatoes into 1/4” x 1/4” (0.66 cm) strips, trimmed the green beans and gathered all of the other ingredients together. Keeping an eye on the ham temps on the remote read thermometer from the comfort of the Kitchen, I could see I’d made a wise choice using two probes. When the temps actually started rising it was one probe rising first and then the other. There ended up being a 10 degree difference between the two probes’ readings. I planned on using the lower reading as my reference and I was beginning to rethink bringing the ham into the house to glaze it. I didn’t want to risk dislodging the probe giving me the low reading. I decided to glaze it right on the grill and I’d drag my dad out with me to raise and lower the grill cover while I brushed the glaze on. He could hold it open just high enough for me to get the glaze on. At least this way I’d lose a little less heat. Happily once the temps did start rising, they were rising at approximately the one degree per minute I’d hoped for. That was the good news, the bad news was the temps took longer time to actually start rising than I had predicted and the cook was going to take longer than expected. This certainly wasn’t the end of the world though, since we served salad and bread first and people were able to enjoy their salads at a leisurely pace.

The ham was in the center of the grill over the unlit burners 3 & 4 cooking indirectly. The foil pan was over burners 5&6 cooking directly.

I’d made up the two foil packs just before we served the salad and when I finished eating my salad the alarm went off signaling the ham had reached 100 degrees. My dad and I headed out for the grill with the glaze and foil packs in hand. I attended to the glazing first since there was about 30 minutes left and I wanted the packs to cook for 25 minutes. It was useful having a second person to raise the lid just high enough to apply the glaze and lower it when I was getting more glaze onto my silicone brush. The one trick thing was trying to keep from brushing the glaze on the braided metal temperature probe wire. Glazing the ham took the 5 minutes I’d planned on and I put the foil packs on the grill. I set a timer on my iPhone for 12.5 minutes when it would be time to swap the two foil packets positions and turn them. When the timer went off it was back out to the grill for my dad and I. This time I swapped the positions of the foil packs front to back, turned them over and rotated them 180 degree. At this point I could hear the alarm going off in the kitchen telling me the ham had reached 115 degrees (45 C) and I glazed the ham for its second and last time. About 10 minutes later the ham had reached 130 (54 C) and I waited 2 more minutes for the foil packs to be done and then it was time to head out to collect the bounty.

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The ham took 2.5 hours not 2, mostly due to the wind I think, but more importantly it did indeed rise at 1 degree per minute which was the key to timing when to glaze the ham and put the foil packs on the grill.

The veggies were indeed cooked through and one pack had a few which pieces which were just starting to darken and burn. They weren’t quite there yet but another couple minutes would have been too much. The moral here is always be conservative. If they aren’t quite done you can pop them in the microwave to finish them. The ham took slightly longer to carve then I expected. Two problems there. The first was the spiral ham had sections near the bone that weren’t sliced through. So I had to pick up sections of the sliced ham after I removed it from the main piece and finish cutting through the bottom 1/2” (1.25 cm) in the very middle. I don’t know wether or not this is typical or I was “lucky”. In any event, everything was out to the table very quickly. The rewarding part is the ham and veggies disappeared almost as quickly as they had appeared. Everyone loved the ham and said it was one of the best hams they’d every eaten. I loved the glaze and was so glad I’d made my own instead of relying on the pre-glazed hams at the store. If anything the Sweet Potatoes & Green Beans Diablo were an even bigger hit and I have orders to make them again real soon.

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Foil hobo packs are a great way to quickly make moist highly seasoned veggies on the grill. This Sweet Potato & Green Bean Diablo hobo pack did not disappoint.

So while I entered this cook with several unanswered questions and some best-guest decisions everything turned out great. While there may have been some luck involved, I will also take some of the blame for how well things turned out. The reason I wrote out the saga in such great detail is so people could see my decisions weren’t random guesses and the results weren’t just a happy accident. Based on cooking logs I’ve made over the years I was able to calculate a cooking time and more importantly a temperature rise. Now I was off by thirty minutes for the total cooking time some of which I can blame on the wind. More importantly where I was right on was in the temperature rise of 1 degree (0.5 C) per minute. This allow me to pick a temperature to apply the glaze at both 30 and 15 minutes before the end. It also allowed me to know when to add the veggies. Prior experience cooking in windy weather helped me reorient the grill and set the burners to suit the conditions. Lastly the right gear helped. The Wood Chip Soakers made getting the wood chips ready trivial. The iPhone gave me count up and count down timers right in my pocket. The most important item by far was the remote read thermometers, which helped me keep close tabs on the meat. I was able to track the time/temperature rise from the comfort of my Kitchen. On a windy day like this not having to keep raising the lid to check the temps with an instant read thermometer makes a HUGE difference. I only had to raise the lid twice and only then to apply the glaze. My newest thermometer which allowed me to shoot an infra-red beam on the grill grate helped me get the right placement for the veggies.

The final reward was a tasty ham with more flavor than would have been achieved by cooking it in the oven. The homemade glaze was excellent and the addition of some apple smoke was a great addition. The veggies were the perfect compliment.

So push yourself to cook in all kinds of weather when you don’t have to. That way you will be able to do it when you do have no choice. Get a good remote read thermometer. Learn your grill and its various capabilities and quirks. File away these observations or better yet jot them down. Keep cooking logs which you can use to help with future predictions. The bottom line is: If you practice expanding your repertoire by making new items in all kinds of conditions, you will be rewarded with many good, if not great, meals along the way. Better yet: When the time comes where you are trying something new and you have to do it even in iffy weather, you will have developed the skills necessary to help insure success. Best yet: You will actually have fun doing it and will turn out a meal to remember for both you and your guests.

Here are links for some of my earlier blogs related to items discussed here as well as the picture entries for the two dishes cooked.

  MEASURING UP Thermometer Blog Entry


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