The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke
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What is Your Position

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Most grills or smokers have hot and cold spots-it is the nature of the beast. On the surface this could seem to be a minus, but in reality it can also be a plus. I will discuss some of the ways you can work with this reality so your food is cooked evenly.

Background:
Last week I was talking with a friend who got a smoker for Christmas. I was asking how he was making out so far. I was rather surprised at his answer: He said his smoker has hot and cold spots and he was having trouble with his food cooking unevenly. When asked if he was moving his food around while he cooked to help even this out, he replied no. Part of the reason was with the cold weather he was trying to minimize opening the smoker. While this is a valid point, if you have a good hot fire going recovery won’t be too bad. Truth be told when I know it is going to be cold and windy I will try to use a recipe that minimizes opening the grill or smoker. As we sat at his Kitchen table I borrowed some of his young son’s blocks and gave him some examples of how to move the food around. While I can’t do that here, I will try to use some marked up photos to illustrate some of the same points.

Prerequisites:
There are several items I feel are essential to getting evenly cooked food on your grill:

  • You must know your grill or smoker. Where are the hot spots? Where does it run cooler? Does the weather effect the size and location of these areas?
  • You should use remote read thermometers to measure the cooking temperature of the smoker and the food. I actually have two thermometers: One with two meat temperature probes - the Maverick ET-7 and another specifically for use on a smoker - the Maverick ET-73. The ET-73 has a grate level probe which is key to measuring the actual cooking temperature of the smoker. Don’t rely on the lid thermometer which can be off from zero to 75 degrees depending on the weather.
  • You must give some forethought to the food you are cooking. Is it big and therefor will take a long time to cook? Or, Is it a series of small items that will cook quickly? Sometimes you will be cooking several items of different sizes and densities and it pays to give some thought to their shape and delicacy.

It doesn’t take too long to learn the grill or smoker. To speed up the process you could run some tests. You can take some grate level temperatures at the four corners plus the front and back middle areas using your grate thermometer. Heat the smoker to 225 (105 C) degrees at the middle front and make sure the temps are running stable. Then using BBQ gloves and working quickly, raise the lid as little as possible and move the probe to one of the other five positions. Give the smoker 10 minutes or so to recover the temps lost opening the lid and note the reading. Repeat four additional times until you have temperature readings for the six locations. Meanwhile this doesn’t just have to be a science experiment: You could be doing something on the smoker that is not temperature sensitive, like say a tray of smoked hot dogs. You might want to eventually try this experiment at several air temperatures to see if that affects the temperature variations.

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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.

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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.

Examples:
I will now show some specific food placement examples.

The first is a smoked turkey. To get the most even cooking the bird is started breast side down and then is flipped to breast side up mid-way through the cook. Rather than keep the lid open all this time I bring the bird back into the kitchen. After flipping the bird over I foil the wings to slow down their browning and insert the temperature probes into the thighs. The probes aren’t really needed for the first half of the cook and this way you don’t run the risk of dislodging them when you flip the bird over on its back.
 

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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