Winter Grilling - 2011
This has been a strange winter around here. Our first snow didn’t come until a couple days before Christmas. Most years we can have snow anytime from a week or so before Thanksgiving on. This year our first snow was a dusting three days before Christmas. But starting the day after Christmas with a blizzard and continuing through January, we have had medium to large sized snow storms every couple days including another blizzard. I’ve been using my smoker throughout the winter ever since I got it. In the winter of 2008/2009 I discovered my current gas grill could also be used throughout the winter. This has meant as long as I am willing to go out in the cold or snow, there are very few items I can’t make year round. I actually don’t mind the winter cold and I like it better than the extreme heat of the summer. You can simply add more layers of clothes and stay warm in the winter. This is as opposed to summer, where at some point you have no more clothes to take off. About the only thing that I can’t make in the winter is paellas, because with Paellas you spend a large amount of time with the grill open. Thanks to a new recipe, I’ve even grilled pizzas 3 times this winter. This blog will describe some of the new lessons I’ve learned, plus reinforce some old lessons.
The first thing you need to know about winter smoking and grilling is you need to allow for MORE of several items. More fuel, more grill prep time, more warm-up time, more grilling or smoking time and as previously mentioned more layers of clothes for the griller. You will go through much more fuel, be it charcoal or propane, so have extra around. Go out to your grill or smoker earlier in case mother nature has left you an icy surprise. The bottom of your grill cover may be encased in snow or worse yet ice if you’ve had a freeze thaw cycle. Even worse yet: Moisture may have gotten under your grill cover and now it is frozen onto the grill and the underside of the grill cover. This condition requires slow patient work to free it without tearing it. Try to make sure there is no snow or ice on the surface of your grill before you cover it. The sun will heat up the dark cover of your grill during the day. This will melt the snow or ice which may refreeze as soon as the sun goes down. If it is raining or snowing when it is time to cover the grill wipe it down with a towel. If it is really raining or snowing hard, wipe and cover the grill in sections. Dry a small section and cover just that section. Wipe off the next section and pull the cover over that section etc. Also make sure there are no holes in your cover which will allow rain inside. In December I had a small hole in my grill cover over the side table. Some rain got in and puddled on the side table. A few days later it was frozen solid when I went to use the grill. It wasn’t pretty, and it took about 45 minutes to get the cover off the grill. Once off I patched the cover immediately. What I do now in the cold weather is to go out and uncover the grill or smoker before I start my prep. This way I am not hurting any of the freshly chopped or refrigerated ingredients that are setting out while I screw around with the grill.
One more thing about grill covers. Try to get one that remains flexible in the winter cold. The first two covers I had for my smoker got very stiff and brittle in the cold. When you took it off the smoker, it was so stiff it would stand up unsupported as if the smoker was still underneath it. It was so brittle it would be very easy to tear it. Even if it wasn’t frozen to the grill, it was easy to put a hole in it if you kinked it. I’d go through one grill cover per winter. But then CG started using an new thinner material. At first I was disappointed that they had gone cheaper on me - another case of “value engineering”. But I actually found out this thinner material remains flexible even in sub-zero temps. It also can be removed when it is frozen to the smoker if you take it slow and easy. If you use your grill manufacturer’s cover you may have no choice, but check out their latest model to see if they have made improvements to it like the CG folks did. If you use third party covers, check out the different offerings to see if one looks like it will do better in the cold weather.
Continuing on with the MORE theme, you also need to allow more warm-up time. For my gas grill I normally allow 15 minutes for it to warm up. In the winter, depending on how cold and windy it is, I need to allow 20 to 30 minutes for the grill to warm up. With a propane grill you don’t get the same heat for a given setting on the temperature control knobs. You may need to set the knobs to Medium-High or High to get the same heat you would for a setting of Medium in the summer. I’ve found my infra-red thermometer invaluable for measuring the actual grate temperature. This assures the cooking times are in the ballpark. The smoker may need more time to warm up too. I say “may” here because there are some other variables in place. Certain charcoals take more or less time to light. Kingsford Competition Briquettes seem to take 10-12 minutes to light while other charcoals take 2 to 3 times that long. The Kingsford Competition Briquettes also heat up a lot faster than other charcoals I have tried. This makes it a good winter charcoal, but sadly I can’t get it this winter. So you must know the charcoal you are using and how it performs in the cold. If it is slow to warm up the smoker, you may want to light more coals. For most charcoals I use a little over half a chimney of charcoal in the spring , summer and winter. In cold weather I light 3/4 of a chimney and in the really cold weather or if it is very windy I use a full chimney. Once the charcoal is lit, the smoker will take longer to come up to temperature than it does in the warm weather. Extra lit charcoal can help make up for this, but you will burn more fuel having more lit coals in your SFB.
You also need to make sure you have MORE fuel around. You will go through more charcoal and more propane. On the charcoal front it will take more coals in the chimney and more to maintain a given temperature. A charcoal that gives me 7 hours of continuos cooking time in the summer, only gives me 4 hours in the winter. You will need to light the gas grill sooner and let it warm up longer which uses more propane. When it comes to cooking you will need to set the temperature knobs to a higher position to reach a given temperature which also uses more propane. As I mention below, you don’t get as much out of your tank and will need to refill it sooner. Basically in the winter I refill a tank as soon as I swap it out. You can go through that spare tank much faster than you think. As for charcoal you will probably need to stock up extra early in the winter. Around here from Memorial Day to Labor Day you can find charcoal in almost any food store, convenience store, hardware store or stores that carry grills. Come Labor Day the grills and charcoal starts disappearing from stores. The one piece of good news here is if you keep your eyes peeled you can pick up charcoal at blowout prices. But in the dead of winter it can be difficult to find what you want, in the quantities you want. So don’t let your charcoal supply run out before you start looking.
Your food will also take MORE time to cook. Try to minimize the amount of times you need to lift the lid of the grill or smoker. There are several ways I minimize opening the lid. On the smoker I will often add the food to the main chamber at the same time I add the lit coals to the SFB. This is as opposed to getting the smoker up to temperature then opening the lid to put in cold food. Between the cold food which drives down the smoker temperature and the loss of heat opening the lid to add the food, you can have a significant heat loss. The rule of thumb is you can cost yourself 15 minutes cooking time for each opening of the lid. By putting the food on when I add the lit coals, I open the lid once not twice. I also extend the time the food gets exposed to the smoke. In the winter I look for recipes that minimize opening the lid for mopping or basting. I have a pulled pork recipe I use in the winter that requires no mopping. A rule of thumb is thin foods you grill with the lid open and thicker foods you grill with the lid closed. In the winter I make an exception to this rule and close the lid as much as possible.
Whenever I can, I use remote read temperature probes in my food. This eliminates having to lift the lid (and lose the heat) while you take readings with an instant read thermometer. Also it is much nicer to monitor your cook from the warmth of the house. Just be aware you’ll go through batteries a lot faster in the winter. Make sure to have fresh batteries around. This year I added an instant read rotisserie thermometer to my arsenal. For me this was a big plus, because my infra red rotisserie burner seems to take longer to cook than the time in the recipe. This meant I’d have to start checking the temps with an instant read thermometer at the time stated by the recipe. Rarely would the meat be done, but I had to check because once in a while it was done. From this point forward I had to keep checking every 10 or 15 minutes. Lifting the grill this often only served to extend the cooking time. If you do still need to use an instant read it is worth paying more for a real good one with a fast response time. The model I have is 90 percent accurate within two seconds. This accuracy is all you need when you are looking for a ballpark idea of where your meat is at. I know I can place this instant read thermometer in the meat, count to 3, take a reading and at worst case the meat is actually 10 percent higher. So if the reading is 120 degrees, it could be up to 132 degrees worst case. If this is still below my desired doneness temperature I continue on. This quick lid lift is better than one of a minute or so for a slower “instant” read.
On the smoker you may also want to coordinate your SFB refills with other operations where you need to pull the food off the grill. An example of this is flipping a turkey from breast side down to breast side up or foiling ribs. If you are doing the 1-2-3 method and you know you will need to refuel during the cook, you may want to do it early when you bring the ribs into the Kitchen while you are foiling them. This way the smoker is recovering temperatures while you are in the Kitchen foiling the ribs. Another way to minimize temperature drops is to have an assistant who comes out with you durning lid lifting operations. For example if you do have to mop, it is helpful to have a second pair of hands to lift the lid while you mop. This way your helper can lift the lid at the exact time you need it, only as high as you need it, for only as long as you need it. Same way with those ribs. Instead of having to open the lid all the way, grabbing the ribs and then landing them on the side table so you can close the lid, you can work more efficiency. One person quickly lifts the lid, the other grabs the ribs and heads off to the Kitchen while the lid gets quickly closed ASAP. This can be the difference between a 25 or a 50 or more degree temperature drop. Oh and be sure to keep the mop sauce indoors in between applications. You don’t want to be trying apply cold (or frozen) mop sauce to your food.
On a gas grill the propane pressure drops the colder it gets. What this means for you is in the real cold weather, say below 40 degrees, you shouldn’t let the tank drop below half full. Once the propane gets below half full in the cold weather there is not enough pressure to give you usable heat. You will get a flame, but there is no real heat in that flame. You may have seen that in the summer when the tank gets to the last little bit of propane: light but no heat. This happens at the half way mark in the winter. It is a shame having to waste half a tank of propane, but that is the price of winter grilling. You don’t waste it per se, but when you refill a half filled tank you do get charged for a full refill. This winter I found one way to get a little more life out of your tank, but it is a special case. I could tell by the condensation on my tank that it was at the mid point. If I was direct grilling for my next session I would have swapped it out for a full tank. But the next cook I was to be doing required medium indirect heat for 45 minutes. I decide to see if I couldn’t use this half filled tank to do this indirect cook. Since I knew I don’t get as much heat out of the half filled tank, I set burners 1 & 6 to high and 2 & 5 to medium with burners 3 & 4 off. In the summer this would have been too much heat, but in the winter with the half filled tank it wasn’t enough. I had to set burners 1,2, 5 & 6 to high and I did reach the 375 degrees I was looking for. So for this special use with this tank I was able to extend the life of the tank.
You also need to know your grill or smoker. Learn how they perform in the cold or windy weather in terms of hot and cold zones. In the summer, my gas grill gets very even heat, pretty much right out to the edge of the grates. In the cold weather you don’t get high temps out to the edges anymore. The front and two sides of the grill grate are considerably lower in temperature. So you don’t want to crowd the grill where you have food extending out to the edges. The very back of the grill is the hottest area. You don’t want to put food within about 2” of the back wall or it will cook faster than the other food. Throw some wind into the mix and these conditions worsen. The front and side cold zones may extend in almost 3”. The hot zone along the back wall may disappear. You also need to keep the food in away from the edges on the smoker in the windy weather. If the weather is windy enough I turn both my grill and smoker to minimize the effects of the wind. I face the front of the grill perpendicular to the wind direction and I turn the smoker so the SFB vents are facing away from the wind direction. When it gets really windy, I actually move the grill next to and perpendicular to the smoker. This faces both units into the wind correctly and the grill in front of the smoker serves as a wind screen. I keep saying I am going to get some welder’s blankets to cover my smoker in the extreme cold and windy weather. That is the real solution to smoking in the extremely cold and windy weather.
A last thing that can be helpful with winter grilling or smoking is to have a flexible schedule. Things may take a little longer or a lot longer, depending on what the conditions are and how good you and your equipment are at coping with them. I try to start smoking earlier than I think I need to, because you can always hold smoked items in foil for a while. In fact a foil nap is part of the process actually and this gives you some flexibility. In the winter I’ll sometimes warn potential guests that dinner time is subject to weather conditions. I tell them they are welcome to hang out here. But if they want I will call them before it’s time for them to leave their house to let them know if things are running later than planned. This way they can hang out at their house if they want. I don’t have to do this very often but it is nice to have this in your back pocket to use if you need it.
The bottom line here is this: It is important to get to know your grill or smoker. This is particularly important when you are using your grill or smoker in extreme weather. Even if you aren’t using the entire grill surface, take note of where the hot and cold zones are for future reference. Also take note of how long the grill or smoker takes to warm up at a given air temperature. Never stop taking mental notes of how your equipment performs. And if all this seems like a lot of work, remember this means you are able to make grilled or smoked foods year round. How cool is that? I can remember back to four years ago when I didn’t direct grill in the winter. I had a four month period where I couldn’t have my favorite grilled foods and it used to drive me crazy. It also used to affect my summer grilling, because I’d often make more grilled items to make up for the winter drought. Now with a little more time, a little more effort and a lot more outdoor clothes I can enjoy a grilled or smoked meal almost anytime I want. Some of my best meals ever have been made in the winter. Best yet: After you grill or smoke in this weather for a while, it will become second nature. Even though this winter may go down as one of our worst ever, I have grilled and smoked more items than any other winter.
SOME RELATED LINKS:Here are some links for some previous Blog Entries on Winter Grilling & Smoking
COLDEST YET Blog Entry)
MORE WINTER GRILLING (Blog Entry)
WINTER WISH GRANTED (Blog Entry)
DIRECT GRILLING IN THE WINTER (2008 Blog Entry)
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