I have learned that on my Chargriller horizontal barrel smoker there is a 75 degree (42 C) temperature variation in the main chamber. The end nearest the SFB (Side Fire Box) where the charcoal and wood are burned runs 75 degrees (42 C) higher than the left end of the main chamber.
I have learned my smoker runs about 75 degrees hotter at the SFB (Side Fire Box) end than at the other end of the grill. When I set up the grate probe of my Maverick ET-73, I put it in the front middle. Based on this positioning I have a plus/minus 38 degree (21 C) temperature difference to deal with. Having 3 remote read probes for checking meat temperatures gives me a lot of flexibility. When cooking a large item like a turkey, I will put a probe in each thigh. This way I can insure that both sides of the bird are cooking evenly. I will put two probes on a big piece like a Boston Butt or prime rib roast. This gives me two readings to gauge doneness by and if one probe gets dislodged while I’m turning the meat around, I still have another probe to go by. This is a good check because while one probe may get dislodged in moving the meat around, it is unlikely two will. So if both probes were reading 120 degrees (49 C) and after turning the roast pan on reads 140 (60 C) and the other 120 (49 C), it is a pretty good bet that one probe got dislodged. Instead of having to lift the lid a second time to reseat the second probe, letting out more heat, you can elect to go with the one working probe. With two probes, I take the lower reading as the judge of doneness. Lastly with multiple pieces of meat, like racks of lamb or pork chops, I can place probes in a piece of meat from each of the left, right, and center positions. As I rotate the meat to even out the temps I have probes to confirm the results.
Cooking two meats often requires placement decisions. Brisket is more delicate and more sensitive to higher temps than Boston Butt, so the brisket is placed on the left end which runs cooler because it is farther away from the SFB.
As for the food: When I am cooking a single piece I place it in the middle of the grate of the main chamber. I try to position the meat so it places the narrowest dimension facing the front. This way there is less side to side variation in temperature while cooking. If the piece is more or less dense on one side I will often face the denser side facing the warmer SFB end of the grill. In this last case it may not be necessary to rotate the piece midway through because the thicker end is facing the warmer end of the smoker to start.
Cooking more than one piece at a time not only requires you to think more about placement of the various pieces, you need to think about the orientation of the individual pieces of meat too. I place the food that is most sensitive to temperature variations farther away from the SFB. Also I often place larger more dense pieces of meat closer to the SFB. Additionally I start with the denser side of each piece facing the SFB end. When I am cooking a number of smaller pieces I come up with a scheme for rotating them throughout the cook to even out the temps each piece is exposed to. This is something you want to know in advance so you can minimize the time the lid is open. This is particularly important in cold or wet weather. I will discuss some specifics below.
For a turkey I start it on the smoker breast side down. I orient the turkey with the neck facing forward so the width of the turkey is less than the length. Less temperature variations this way. When it is time to flip it, I bring it in the house (left) and flip it to breast side up (right). At this point I foil the wing tips and insert the probes. When the bird is returned to the smoker I make sure the bird goes back on so the side that was previously facing the SFB is now facing away from the SFB.
The next example is prime rib and smoked potatoes. The prime rib is seared at the end for 15 minutes and then rests for another 30 minutes. This means the potatoes go on somewhat after the meat and stay on 45 minutes longer too. When the meat comes off, I start making adjustments as needed to the potatoes. I generally start with the potatoes to the left of the prime rib, away from the SFB. If I need to speed up their cooking I move them to the right of the meat nearest the SFB. I have found that there is nearly an hours difference in cooking time for these potatoes depending on wether you cook them on the hot end or cold end.
This particular prime rib roast is equal density on the left or right side so I oriented it facing front to back & I rotated the pan midway through the cook. The potatoes were started on the left end but needed to cook faster, so I moved them to the SFB end.
This second prime rib was less dense on the side closer to the bone. The roast was oriented front to back as shown and the denser side away from the bones was faced towards the SFB. I did not turn this roast as my orientation evened out the temperature within the meat.
The next example was a multi-meat cook with a Boston Butt for supper and chicken wings for lunch. The Boston Butt was started off in the middle of the grill. When it was time to add the chicken I moved the larger Boston Butt towards the warmer SFB end and placed the chicken on the cooler side of the smoker. A 180 degree rotation of each pan, midway through each items cooking time, evens out the cooking temperatures the meat is exposed to. The pan is not moved left to right, it is spun 180 degrees around the middle.
The smaller chicken pieces were placed on the cooler side of the smoker and the Boston Butt towards the warmer side. Mid-way through the cooking time for both the chicken and the Boston Butt, their roast pans were rotated 180 degrees in place so the cooking temps evened out. When the chicken was finished cooking, the Boston Butt was moved back to the center of the smoker where the 225 degree (105 C) temps are being measured.
The next example is Boston Butt and brisket. Experience and research has shown brisket is very sensitive to temperature variations and you don’t want to cook them too high. So in this multi-meat cook the brisket went on the cooler end of the smoker and the more forgiving Boston Butt was placed on the hotter end of the smoker.
The smaller more sensitive brisket is placed on the cooler end of the smoker. Midway through the cooking time for each piece of meat I rotate their pans in place to even out the cooking temps on each side of the meat.
Ribs and Boston Butt are similar to what you saw above. The ribs are smaller and less dense so I put them on the cooler end of the smoker. Both items get rotated 180 degrees in place midway through their respective cooking times. Once the ribs come off, I move the Boston Butt back to the middle of the grill.
The dense Boston Butt goes on the warmer end and the ribs go on the cooler end. Both items are also rotated 180 degrees in place midway through their cooking time.
The next example was 6 racks of lamb. These weren’t on a tray or pan so they needed to be moved manually. I made sure to have a temperature probe in pieces of meat that would be on the warmer and cooler side of the smoker. When it was time to rotate I moved the pieces left to right and front to back which is the same thing that happens when you spin items in place on a pan.
Midway through the cooking time I exchange front left and back right pieces, left center for right center and left rear for right front. This is the same as rotating a roast pan in place 180 degrees.
The last example was 8 pork chops. I started them with two columns of three in the middle and a column of two on the right. When it was midway through the cooking time I moved the two columns of three just as described above, exchanging them both left for right and front to back. The two chops on the warm end were jumped over the 6 chops and placed on the cooler end. I had probes in one chop from each row and they confirmed my moves had evened out the temperatures.
The two columns of three were in the middle of the smoker. The remaining column of two was started on the warmer end and flipped to the cooler end to finish.
All of the items shown above were all cooked evenly and to the same temperature plus or minus a degree or two. So learning a little about your grill is really helpful in assuring both evenly cooked food and multiple food items finishing at the same time. Having multiple remote temperature probes allows you to quantify your results. Finally a little forethought about the maneuvers you need to make with the meat before you actually put it on the grill will make it easy to do when the time comes. Hopefully if you’ve been having difficulties with unevenly cooked food and you’ve made it this far, some of the items mentioned here will help you change things for the better.
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