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

Know Your Limits - Smoker

As I mentioned in my previous blog entry KNOW YOUR LIMITS - GAS GRILL, I recently did two cooks that pushed the limits of what I could do with my current gas grill and smoker. In the case of my grill, I simply couldn’t wait for warmer weather to try a GRILLED BREAKFAST PIZZA that wasn’t really a good candidate for cooking in cold weather. The smoker meal was a case of ignorance and sad to say arrogance. I have gotten to the point where I feel like I can cook on the smoker in all but the most extreme weather. This has led to my not paying attention to the weather like I used to. For last Saturday’s dinner with my parents, I picked my meal without even knowing what the weather for Saturday was going to be like. As a result I picked an inappropriate recipe and committed to making it before I knew what I had actually gotten myself into.

In my defense, we had beautiful weather on Thursday & Friday with temps reaching 60 degrees and it was dead calm. Who would have expected what was forecast for Saturday? Certainly not me. I decided to make a stuffed turkey breast from Smoke & Spice called WILD STUFFED TURKEY BREAST with BBQ RICE PILAF for the side. The turkey was rubbed and injected, then refrigerated for 24 hours. It wasn’t until that process was under way that I found out what the weather was going to be for Saturday. The temperatures were going to be in the low 30’s (-1 C) to start the day and would drop to the low 20’s (-7 C) when I was done. This was workable, but the real bad news was the winds. There was a high wind advisory out for Saturday. This was not good because the winds they were talking about were the highest winds I had ever smoked in. What made matters worse was this recipe called for the turkey breast to be wrapped in cheesecloth and sprayed every 30 minutes with water for the first 3 hours. This is definitely not the recipe I would had chosen for smoking under adverse conditions. What was I going to do? I wasn’t sure if I could even pull this one off, but where the turkey was already marinading I really had little choice. Try it or throw out the turkey. The last little piece of “good news ” was I had to pack up the food and take it over to my parents house for the dinner.

I decided to go for it and made several changes in my plans. I had a feeling I’d need to spend lots of time out at the smoker, so I made as much of the other food ahead of time that I could. I also added in more time for the cook, about an hour. I also allowed for extra time to get the grill lit and up to temperature: 90 minutes instead of 45. The last thing I was going to do differently is add the food to the smoker when I added the lit charcoal from the chimney. This would eliminate one extra lid lift and I would not be putting cold food on a smoker that had just reached 225 (105 C). When I went to light the chimney, I found one thing had gone my way. The 60 degree (16 C) heat on Friday had melted the ice that had my grill and smoker locked in place. This allowed me to do several things. First I was able to turn the CG so the MC end was facing straight into the wind. I was also able to move my gas grill in front of the CG so that it could act as a 6’ (1.75 m) wide wind screen. This wind screen served double duty in helping me to screen both the CG and the charcoal chimney too. Even so some winds were making there way around the wind screen and the chimney blew over several times before I got the coals in it. I had to weight down the remote read thermometers which were trying to blow away too. I filled the chimney full up with charcoal. Even with the wind screen It took a while to get the chimney lit and at times I had 12” (30.5 cm) flames shooting out the sides of the chimney. Yes I did say the sides and not the top of the chimney. I’ve never seen that before and I stayed out with the charcoal chimney the entire time it was warming up. This was the most Stubbs charcoal I had ever used in a charcoal chimney, but it heated up faster than normal. I think the wind may have actually helped here. I waited until all the coals were very ashed over and added them to the CG along with the turkey breasts. It only took 30 minutes to reach 225 (105 C), but I actually let the temps run higher.

The reason I let the temps go higher was to make up for the wind gusts. I had the temps running so that in the infrequent calm spells the temps ran up to 240 degrees (116C). With the average winds, which ran 20MPH (32 kph) this day, I was registering 225 (105 C). The wind gusts, which averaged 34MPH (55 kph) and peaked at 44MPH (71 kph), would drive the temps down to 210 - 215 degrees (99 - 102 C). Fortunately the temps would bounce back quickly. The high winds were pretty consistent so the temps actually ran around 225 (105 C) most of the time. The other problem I had to deal with was the recipe’s requirement that the cheese cloth be re-mopped with water every 30 minutes. Rather than use a mop, which is slower and requires the lid to be raised higher, I used a spray bottle. I filled the spray bottle with hot water every time I sprayed with it. I was trying to minimize the temperature losses from spraying warm meat with cold water. Another thing I did to help with the winds was to pile up some charcoal bags on top of the grill. I thought of it after I was finished filling the charcoal chimney & SFB. I put the partial bag on the side table of the grill and it occurred to me that I had 8 more full bags I could use as building blocks to raise the height of the windscreen I’d made with my gas grill. This last step really seemed to help keep the wind off the front of the CG.

I had guessed this cook would take an extra hour with all of the mopping and the winds, so I had started an hour early. As it turns out it took another hour beyond that. The recipe for the rice pilaf said it could be held for an extra hour if you covered the pan with foil and that is exactly what I did. When the breast finally hit 170 (77 C) it was into the car for the 10 minute drive to my parents house. I had warmed up the car for 15 minutes and started moving the other food in 5 minutes before the turkey was to be done. The turkey had a resting period of 15 minutes which allowed me to make the 10 minute drive and set up shop at my parents house. The turkey carved quickly and easily with an electric knife. While I was doing that, all hands got on deck and got the other food I brought over into serving dishes. The turkey was wonderful and the adverse conditions seemed to have had no ill effects on the meat. The rice had come through its 1 hour hold time in foil and was also very good.

So although everything turned out great, I have learned (more accurately re-learned) several valuable lessons. The first is not to be so arrogant about the weather. It is one thing to say you can cook in most any weather, but I should at least be aware of what I am getting myself into before I pick a recipe and commit to making it. The second lesson is to pick a recipe based on the expected weather. I already knew this, but it bears repeating. If I had known the weather ahead of time, I would have picked something to make that didn’t require all of the mopping this one did. I would also say that these winds were about the upper limit for what I can do with the CG. I have thought of getting welder’s blankets to help with the cold, but with mopping every 30 minutes I don't know that it would have been practical to use them for this turkey. Bottom line I was just about over the line separating success from failure. I succeeded despite my best efforts to fail. I guess that although the weather gods frowned on me, the BBQ gods must have been smiling down on me this date.

Here are some links for the previous Blog Entries about hitting my limits on a gas grill, as well as the Picture Entries mentioned above

  BBQ RICE PILAF Vegetable Picture Entry

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