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

Cold Weather Smoking - 2011 Version - Part 1

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I was recently answering a question on a message board about Winter smoking and I was thinking of keeping it simple and referring to several blogs on Winter smoking that I’d written here in the past. When I read those three entries I saw there was some good information in all of them, but my thinking on some of these items have evolved over time. Plus I’ve also learned some more since then too. So I hit the high points in my message board reply and I’ve been thinking about doing a more comprehensive blog entry on Winter smoking ever since. It took me a while but here we go. It ended up getting lengthy enough that I am going to split it up into two entries. The first part will be about some big picture items you should have in place before you begin smoking in the Winter. It will also talk about steps to deal with the weather. Part 2 will discuss the actual process of smoking in the Winter and the changes you will need to make to your normal routine.
Right off the bat let me say it is absolutely possible to smoke year round, including the Winter. I got my first and so far only smoker, the CharGriller (CG) Smokin’ Pro, in August of 2005 and have been using it year round ever since. In October of 2005, I had an extra weeks vacation coming to me which I used to practice smoking in colder weather to see if I was going to even bother trying to smoke in the dead of Winter. I found it was definitely possible, with some adjustments to suit the conditions you’ll be facing. These tips are based on my CG Smokin’ Pro offset smoker, most of them will apply to any horizontal offset smoker and many of them will apply to other types of smokers. Here is what I’ve learned in 6 Winters worth of smoking:

Get to know your smoker by getting as much practice in before your first Winter arrives. The more you know about the idiosynchracies of your smoker going in to your first Winter, the better. I am going to contradict myself a bit here now: While I did say you can smoke successfully year round, I am going to amend that by saying if the first time you fire up your smoker is a cold stormy day in December, you will most likely fail. But if you have some cold weather time in already on your smoker, you stand a better chance of succeeding.

Have more supplies in. You will blow through more of everything: Charcoal, batteries, mop sauce, BBQ sauce etc. Now I am going to recommend avoiding mop sauce below, but if you do use it make extra because your food will most likely be on the smoker longer.

Have a remote read smoker thermometer such as the Maverick ET-732 around. This allows you to monitor the temperatures of both the smoker and the food from the comfort of your Kitchen. This sure beats going out to the smoker all of the time to check the temps. Best yet you avoid lifting the lid to take the temps. It is estimated each time you lift the lid, it lengths your cooking time by 15 minutes. The ET-732 is made for smoking and is gasketed and weatherproof.

Keep cooking logs that show the readings for grate temp, food temps, food weight, when you added more charcoal, mopped, turned the food etc. These logs will give you a baseline to start from the next time you make the item. You may have to adjust for colder or warmer weather, but this gives you a place to start from. After you have been doing keeping logs for a while, you will have logs for year round. Then you can use a log from a similar set of conditions as a starting point. Once again with that remote read thermometer you can do these readings from the comfort of your Kitchen, without cracking the lid of the smoker.

If possible try to cook ahead. BBQ can be quite variable in the time it takes to begin with-hence the saying “It takes w and you throw in cold and/or windy weather and it is hard to predict when you will be eating. I’ve found pulled pork actually tastes better if I smoke it, pull it and sauce it and then store it in FoodSaver bags. I can then reheat it another day and it comes out with enhanced flavor than when I eat it the same day I make it. The reheat process is quite predictable and it is easy to pick a time to eat. Since I discovered that I NEVER make pulled pork the day I want to eat it. By making it ahead, I’ve cut down on all nighters. I am not trying to have it finish up and have a couple hours rest for 5:00PM, which meant a midnight start. Cooks take longer in the Winter and it is a tough call trying to predict exactly how much longer things may take. I’ve found ribs are just about as good being reheated from FoodSaver bags, so I cook those ahead. Brisket is NOT better so if I make brisket, it is still an all-nighter. Another thing I cook ahead is meat for stews. These items can be refrigerated over night and go in the stew the next day.

Have some Winter friendly recipes in your arsenal. What makes a recipe Winter friendly? Little to no lid lifting and quicker cooking time/higher cooking temperatures. One of my 3 favorite recipes for pulled pork requires no mopping, the others have you mop every 30 minutes. Guess which one I use for the winter? A recipe that cooks at 250 (121 C) or 275 (135 C) is going to be on and off your smoker faster than one that cooks at 225 (105 C). The only trick is you need to know just how high you can drive your smoker. That is going to depend on the charcoal, the air temps, and the amount of wind. This is something you’ll need to experiment with so you’ll know how your smoker performs.

Everything tends to take more time in the Winter. You need to use more charcoals in your chimney so this is going to take more time to get going. When you add the coals to the smoker, it will take longer to warm up. The cooking time will run longer. How much longer is something you will learn when you get some time in on your smoker.

The weather predictions can change fast in the Winter, so pay attention right up to the last minute to see what the weather is going to be. Last New Years Eve I grilled Lechon Assado. The weather conditions were fine that day and I had no difficulties grilling. We had a blizzard 24 hours later that came faster than originally expected. If it had accelerated even more I would have run into conditions which would have been impossible to smoke in. Another example of this happened last winter. We had a couple days of temps in the 60’s on Thursday and Friday and then they were going to drop to the low 30’s ((-1 C) Saturday morning and the low 20’s (-7 C) by Saturday afternoon. I didn’t pay attention to the weather on Thursday when they changed the forecast to include high wind advisories. By the time I found out, I’d already started the process of marinating the turkey breast and really couldn’t pull out. This was not a meal that could be cooked indoors. It was either proceed with the meal or waste food. With winds in averaging in the 20 MPH (32 kph) range and gusts from 35-45 MPH (56-75 kph), I just barely pulled it off.

Before the weather turns cold try out several brands of charcoal to see which one you like best. For a horizontal offset smoker like my CG, I recommend using all natural hardwood briquettes vs lump. Both are all natural products, but lump comes in all sizes within the bag and there can be all kinds of variations due to the particular mix of sizes in a given bad. Briquettes have been pressed into a uniform size. I have found lump is harder to light, is somewhat harder to control (particularly for a beginner) and doesn’t last as long. I think the doesn’t last as long part is because the irregular shape of the lump doesn’t allow it to be as densely packed as the smaller, more uniformly shaped briquettes. But if it is easier to find lump vs. all natural hardwood briquettes in your area, give lump a try too as well as the briquettes.

Before the weather turns cold try out several brands of charcoal to see which one you like best. I recommend briquettes vs. lump for a horizontal offset smoker like my CG. But it wasn’t just any briquette, I specifically said: All natural hardwood briquettes. Do not use a briquette like the blue bag Kingsford stuff. They use man made binders and fillers which means they make more ash, burn less time and don’t burn as hot as the natural briquettes. You will be doing more charcoal swaps and won’t be able to drive your smoker as high as with the all natural. Worse yet you may need to dump the ash drawer once or twice during the cook. Get to know the charcoal you plan to use before the weather gets real cold. There can be differences between them that will become more apparent in the cold weather.

In New England where I live the “official” grilling season is from Memorial Day to Labor Day. They start putting the grilling gear on sale for July 4th and by Labor Day things are marked way down to help clear them out. This includes charcoal. Unless you know for a fact you can get the charcoal you want year round, you might want to stock up on charcoal in late August or early September. If your lucky you may catch it on a good sale. Big stores like Home Depot and Lowes do carry some charcoal all throughout the Winter here, but not all brands. In fact two years ago the only all natural briquettes I could find around here were the then new Kingsford Competition All Natural Hardwood Briquettes. However this year it they stopped getting them in the Fall and there were none to be found in the store in early October. It might be best to have a conversation with the manager of the grilling department to see if they plan to carry the charcoal you want through the Winter.

If you are smoking for guests talk to them to see how flexible their schedules might be. This is particularly true for a long smoke or when you are making something for the first time and don’t know how long it may take. In situations like this, I often tell my guests what time I am hoping to eat and then say it could be plus or minus 1-2 hours. I see if they can deal with that with their own schedules. I also see if they just want to come over at the appointed time and hang out if things run long or I can call them and tell them of the new time. My guests have always been quite accommodating and I try to make sure the food is worth getting there early or worth the wait.

The wind is the worst enemy of your smoker any time of year. A COLD wind in the winter is really going to play hell with your temperatures. So part of pre-planning for cold weather smoking is to try to come up with a solution for the wind.

For really light winds you may not have to do anything. When the winds get a little stronger you will need to take some action. For my CG I have found that facing the chimney end of the main chamber into to the wind direction which puts the grate end of the SFB (Side Fire Box) away from the wind works best. This keeps the wind from blowing into the SFB (Side Fire Box) grate which plays hell with the temps.

The best thing you can do for your smoker is have some sort of safe windbreak for it where it is not directly exposed to the the wind. You’ll want this windbreak to be sturdy so the wind can’t knock it over or knock it onto your smoker. Some people take a 4x8 sheet of plywood and cut it in half to make two 4’x4’ pieces which they join with a hinge. When it is time to deploy it they simply unfold it into a V shape with the point facing into the wind.

Another approach to a windbreak is if you can locate your CG so a wall or a fence blocks the wind. You will want to take into account wether the ground below is safe: level and non-combustible. Also do not place the smoker too close to the wall or fence. The heat given off from the smoker could melt vinyl siding or start a fire.

Me, I don’t have a windscreen so I use my gas grill to create a temporary wind break. I face the CG into the wind as mentioned above. Then I roll the grill so it is perpendicular to the direction of the CG, forming a T shape. The main image at the top of this page shows this setup. This actually helps quite a bit, but ideally the barricade should be about 4’ high and my grill doesn’t get that high. A couple times I’ve placed bags of charcoal on the side tables and on top of the grill lid like sand bags to help get more height. If you do this make sure you take into account what the wind does to the grill cover. The cover may billow out quite a distance from the grill under windy conditions. Be sure to keep the grill far enough away so the billowing grill cover won’t come into contact with the hot smoker.

Welder’s blankets are rated for high temperatures and several of them can be draped over the smoker to help keep the heat in. I keep saying I am going to to this each year and I don’t. Mostly it is because I haven’t been able to find them locally when I’ve looked. But really that is no excuse because they can be ordered online. For more information you could go to the message boards at the Barbecue Bible website and then search for welders blankets.

While at the Barbecue Bible message boards you could also search for CG mods. Folks there have done all sorts of mods to their CG’s including wrapping the entire smoker with insulation. While these are for a CG, the idea could be adapted to other smokers.

This will mark the end of Part 1 of this blog. Part 2 will cover the actual cooking process from (early)start to finish.

Here is Part 2 of this Blog Entry:

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