Cold Weather Smoking - 2011 Version - Part 2
In Part 1 of this blog on Cold Weather Smoking, I talked about some of the big picture items you needed to have in place or think about before smoking in the cold weather. Part 2 below, picks up where Part 1 left off and covers the day you are actually smoking your food.
ADDENDUM: 11/14/11 I linked to this two=part blog entry from the Barbecue Bible message board and long time poster BBQueZ had a couple good suggestions for addition items, which I have inserted below with credit to him.
FIRE IT UP:
WHEN TO START 1: The first thing you’ll need to do is figure out when to start. I mentioned trying to cook ahead of time. This takes the “when do we eat” question out of the equation. You just need to get it on the smoker so it has it’s cook and any rest time before you plan to go to bed.
WHEN TO START 2: If you are eating that same day that is another story. Do remember things take longer in the cold. I take the length of time the item is supposed to cook and add in some time for the cold. If it is a short cook of an hour or so, I may add in an extra 30 minutes of cooking time. For 2-3 hours I’ll figure an extra hour or two. For a long cook of 8 hours or more for an item that is also supposed to rest for 1-4 hours, I’ll add in 1-2 hours of extra cooking time and then add on say 3 hours of the rest time. This way if the two hours of extra time for cooking is too long you can rest the meat for the full four hours. This way the meat can cook for it’s normal time, plus 1-2 extra hours and it could still take an extra 3 hours and you’d still be able to give it the minimum one hour rest. Remember to factor in a longer time for lighting the charcoal and preheating the smoker, which I will talk about below. Also figure an extra 15 minutes or so for each time you lift the lid. These are the type of thing you will discover for yourself through trial and error, but the information above should get you in the ballpark.
CHECK THE SMOKER COVER FIRST THING: Go out to the smoker early and check to make sure you can get the grill cover off. If there was any dampness when you covered your smoker, you may find some or all of the grill cover is stuck on. You will need to be patient and work slowly and steadily to remove it in one piece. In cold weather I often go out to the smoker first, before starting my prep, to check on the cover. I also have a second grill cover in my basement in case I do rip the one that is frozen onto the smoker.
LIGHTING THE COALS: There are two adaptations you will have to make for the cold weather when lighting coals in your charcoal chimney. You will need to use more coals as the temperature gets colder and you will need to allow for more time the more coals you use. The info I am about to give is for my CG Smokin’ Pro using a Weber charcoal chimney looking for a 225 degree (105 C) cooking temperature. Your mileage may vary if you are using different gear. When the temperature is 50 degrees (10 C) or above I fill the chimney about half way. For 50 degrees (10 C) down to freezing I use 3/4 of a chimney. Below freezing down to zero (-18 C) I use a full chimney. As you add more coals to the chimney it takes longer for all of them to light. When the chimney is 3/4 full, it takes just under 50% longer to light. A full chimney takes just under twice as long. Remember I mentioned getting to know your charcoal ahead of time? One of the reasons is they can vary widely in the time they take to light. The red bag Kingsford charcoal takes 15 minutes or less to light. The Stubbs all natural hardwood briquettes I am currently using take 45 minutes or more to light. When trying to plan your cooking time things like this make a difference. Another factor to take into account is the temperature I am trying to reach. About 90 percent of the time I am shooting for a 225 degree (105 C) cooking temperature, which the CG reaches easily any time of the year. Every once in a while I will find a recipe that calls for a 275-300 degree (135-149 C) cooking temperature. This gets difficult with some brands of charcoal in the cold weather. No matter what the time of year, I double the amount of charcoal I would normally use. In the Winter this may mean lighting a second chimney of charcoal. In the Winter I try to avoid long cooks above 275 degrees (135 C) and I avoid trying to hit 300 (149 C).
WARM-UP TIME: Just like different brands of charcoal take different amounts of time to light, different brands take different times getting the smoker to your cooking temperature. I’ve had the red bag Kingsford get my smoker to temperature in 15-20 minutes on the coldest Winter days. Other brands take 30 to 45 minutes. Once again this is something you will find with experience. This is why you’ll want to get in some practice before Winter comes. I’d mentioned keeping a cooking log earlier. The time to light and the time to get the smoker to cooking temperature are worthwhile items to note in your cooking logs.
WATER PAN: If you are using a foil pan filled with water or some other liquid, make sure you add that liquid just before adding the coals to the SFB. Make sure that the liquid is at room temperature or higher. If you add a gallon or more of cold liquid to the pan (or let the liquid cool off) it is going to take that much longer for the smoker to warm up. So I usually get the pan in place when I light the coals and I add the liquid just before adding the coals to the SFB. If I am using water, I use hot water which I bring out to the grill in large pitchers and pour into the pan. If I am using juice, I make sure it is at room temperature before adding.
NOW YOU’RE COOKING:
HAVE SOMEONE ASSIST YOU WITH THE GRILL LID: The less time the grill lid is open the better. Wen I can I will have someone help me when I am putting food on the smoker, and in some cases taking it off. When you are working alone you must land the food on the side table or front shelf, open the lid lid all the way so it stays up, grab the food and put it on the smoker and then close the lid. In the dead of Winter you can loose 75 degrees (42 C) or more doing this. If you have a helper, they can lift the lid just when you are ready to slide the food on. They can lift the lid just high enough to allow you to slide the food in. I typically use a cast iron pan with a roast rack so this makes getting the food in or out easier. As soon as the food is in place your assistant can close the lid. Doing things this way I often lose 25 degrees (14 C) or less.
A POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE: I will sometimes add the food when I add the coals to the smoker. This avoids the shock of having the smoker at 225 degrees (105 C) and then adding a cold slab of meat. This obviously increases the warm up time somewhat, but the meat is also getting some extra exposure to smoke. This is not something I came up with on my own, I’ve seen it in recipes on legitimate sites such as the Virtualweberbullet.com. But it does bring up a food safety issue.
There is a so-called “Danger Zone” for food, which is between 40-140 degrees (4-60 C) or as of last year 41-135 degrees (5-57 C). This danger zone is where harmful bacteria can grow. The rule of thumb was to not let the food be in that range for more than four hours total. Other folks say as little as two hours, but that is for the surface of the food. The internal meat has not been in contact with bacteria in the same way as the surface of the food has. So two hours for the surface of the food and four hours for the internal meat. Anything I have put on early has hit 140 (60 C) within this 4 hour time period, so I don’t worry about it. The odd thing about this is other larger cuts of meats that smoke all day and you certainly don’t hear about large groups of people eating smoked food getting sick. You should read up on this and decide for yourself how you want to handle this.
ADJUSTING TEMPERATURES-SFB VENT: In the colder weather you will find you may need to open the SFB vent a little farther to raise the temperature than you are used to and it may take a few minutes to see any change. As you open this vent, cold air is being pulled into the main chamber and it takes a little while for the coals to light up more and overcome this. On the other hand trying to cool things down, you may need to close the SFB grate less than you are used to. This is something you will just need to learn through a little trial and error. Each charcoal behaves a little differently too. Just be sure to keep an eye on your remote read thermo to make sure you haven’t missed the mark.
This is the way I open the chimney vent when it is windy: with the opening closest to the wind direction.
ADJUSTING TEMPERATURES-CHIMNEY VENT: In my experience the chimney vent behaves a bit oddly. First off in the cold or windy weather I rarely open the chimney vent more than half way. Most of the time my temperatures go down when I open the chimney vent more than half way. You also have to wait a few minutes because the temperatures may actually go down a few degrees for the first few minutes the chimney vent is open. I give it a few minutes and listen carefully. A little bit after you open the chimney vent you should hear some noises which indicate more combustion is taking place. The temperatures may be dropping, but if the fire is starting to burn more the temps should soon start climbing. One thing I have found is if there is any kind of wind, the half of the chimney I open up via the vent makes a different. With the CG turned into the wind, I’ve found you want to open the side of the chimney vent facing the wind direction. I’ve found out that if you leave the back (non-windward side) of the vent the temps often go down and keep going down. I think when the windward side is open, most of the wind passes over the open side of the vent. When you leave the back side open, the vent cover sticks out in front of the chimney. I suspect this serves as an airfoil like a wing and some of the wind is directed down the chimney by the vent cover. I have no scientific proof of this, but the results are repeatable. Leave the windward half of the chimney vent open and the temps may go down a bit at first, but quickly start to climb. Leave the back (non-windward) half of the chimney vent open and the temps start heading down and don’t seem to turn around. It is worth trying both settings and see what works best for you on your rig in the wind.
KEEP A LID ON IT: Resist the temptation to open the lid unless you absolutely have to. Every time you lift the lid you add 15 minutes or more to your cooking time. One of the benefits of using a remote read thermometer is it eliminates the need to to open the lid to take progress temperatures.
TAKE IT OFF: If you need to make a major adjustment to the position of your meat, such as flipping a turkey from breast side up to breast side down, bring it into the house to do it. If possible have a helper lift the lid for you so you can minimize the time the lid is open. You may be tempted to just flip the bird, but don’t do it outside. You may have trouble getting the bird off the roast rack, or the temperature probes may be come dislodged or something else may come up. You can quickly lose 75 degrees (42 C) or more and you don’t quickly recover from this kind of drop in the cold or windy weather. When cooking a turkey with a helper to lift and close the lid I usually lose 25 degrees (14 C) of temperature or less. By the time I bring the bird back out from the Kitchen the temps have usually recovered. If you are going to needing a charcoal change, this isn’t a bad time to do it. Add the new charcoal, then take the food inside.
CHARCOAL SWAPS: You will get an hour or two less out of your charcoal in cold and windy weather. Check the SFB often to see the state of the charcoal. You can do this quickly and you don’t lose as much heat opening the SFB. One of the problems using all natural hardwood briquettes is they tend to burn down to almost nothing without serious temperature drops occurring to warn you of the impending problem. When I used to use blue bag Kingsford the temps used to start dropping 45 minutes or so before the charcoal was spent. The first time I used the all natural charcoal briquettes I found that when the temps started going down the charcoal was nearly spent. I usually sweep the remaining lit charcoal toward the front of the SFB near the opening to the Main Chamber and add fresh coals behind this. This first time, the coals were getting to be so small they fell through the openings in the charcoal basket or simply disintegrated into powder when I tried to move them forward. You need to add more charcoal before the remaining lit coals become too small or too soft. So if anything err on the side of adding more coals on the sooner side. If you do go wait too long and don’t have enough leftover coals to get the fire going again you may have to light a charcoal chimney full of fresh charcoal.
DO NOT OVERLOAD THE SMOKER: This is wise advice any time of the year. since each smoker has issues with temperature variations, and they typically get worse the closer to the edge you pack the food. A second problem is the temperature loss you can get from adding cold food to the smoker. I the Winter you could be adding a thermal load that is very difficult for the smoker to overcome. I can attest to this personally. I was making a 10 pound standing rib roast on a 20 degree Winter’s day. I had the smoker at 225 (105 C) and I added the roast to the smoker only to see the temps drop to 160 degrees (71 C) and take an hour to get back up to 225 (105 C). That is one of the big reasons I often add the food to the smoker when I put the coals in the SFB. Please read the food safety box so you are familiar with the potential issues with this method. (11-14-11) Thanks BBQueZ for this tip.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS: Be sure to wear clothes out to the smoker that don’t have loose flaps or hanging strings which may catch fire when you are handling lit charcoals. Don’t ask me how I know this. Also it is tempting to just run out to the smoker without throwing on a coat. After all you are just going to tweak a vent. Once out there, you may find things weren’t as easy as you thought. So I usually take the time to grab my jacket. Also wear warm, well insulated shoes. There are times when you may need to stay out at the grill for extended periods of time to get the temperatures stabilized in the cold and wind. You can be dressed as warmly as possible and if your feet are are cold, all of you is going to feel miserable.
DON’T LEAVE MOPS OR SAUCES OUT AT THE SMOKER: If you do you may find a mopsicle awaiting you on your next visit out to the grill. Better yet try to use recipes which don’t require mopping or basting. But if you do use a mop or sauce, bring it in and out from the warm Kitchen. Don’t leave it out at the grill and don’t apply cold mops or sauces to the meat, this will only extend the cooking time.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO FINISH IN THE OVEN: Once the meat has reached an internal temperature of 140 degrees (60 C) or higher, it has absorbed most of the smoke it is going to. So if the conditions are deteriorating or you are having trouble holding steady temps or if you’ve just had enough fun outdoors for one day: think oven. Preheat the oven to the temperature you are smoking at and transfer the food to the oven. Nothing to be ashamed of here. If you are careful about not dislodging your remote read temperature probe, you can continue to use it in the oven. Just don’t use the probe it if the oven temperature is higher than what the probe is rated for. (11-14-11) Thanks BBQueZ for this tip.
WATER PAN: Don’t forget to remove the water pan before covering up the smoker.
BURN OFF THE REMAINING COALS ASAP: Open up the vents when done to help burn off the coals faster.
COVER UP: Try to cover the smoker the same day as you finish using it. If you wait until the next morning you will have frost to deal with. It can take a long time to get rid of the last vestiges of frost.
COVER ONLY IF DRY: Do NOT under any circumstances cover the smoker when there is any moisture on it. Make sure it is completely dry before covering it. You’ll thank me the next time when the cover comes right off.
THERMOS OFF: Remember to shut off the transmitter and receiver units of the remote read thermometers. When you have a cook that runs long like Winter cooks often do, it is easy to forget this little thing in your rush to get onto the next thing.
So there you have it, my tips and tricks based on 6 years of Winter smoking. It may seem to be a lot of things to remember, but many of them are things you’ll pick up naturally after using your smoker. Do use your smoker as often as you can before your first Winter and get used to how it behaves. Also try to use it in bad weather even when you could change plans and cook indoors. Sooner or later you’ll run into a situation where you want to say smoke a turkey for a holiday meal and the weather isn’t ideal. You can’t postpone Christmas and you can’t smoke a turkey in the oven, but if you’ve got some time in using the smoker in bad weather, you’ll know whether you are up to the task.
RELATED LINK: Here is Part 1 of this Blog Entry:
COLD WEATHER SMOKING 2011 VERSION - Part 1
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