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

Dry Run

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I have always been a big advocate of doing dry runs for my cooks. This is particularly true when I'm making something I haven't done before, or using a technique I've never used before. Now you would think that as my experience has increased, my number of dry runs would decrease. This is somewhat true, but there're still good reasons for doing dry runs. I will let a recent cook, where I made cedar plank burgers and cedar planked steak fries serve as an example of the benefits of a dry run. I will go step-by-step through the various parts of the cook and point out where the dry run helped me out during both the original practice run cook and final version 1 week later. After looking at my example, I think you'll see there are many beneficial reasons for trying out some meals ahead of time.

Two weeks ago, I saw a recipe on a video podcast that made both
CEDAR PLANKED BURGERS and CEDAR PLANKED STEAK FRIES. It looked very interesting, and also seemed like a likely candidate for the Memorial Day weekend meal I would be having with my parents. This meal would also serve as a birthday meal for my mother. I was guessing (correctly as it turned out) that she would be choosing hamburgers as her meal of choice. These burgers seemed like they would fit the bill nicely. The question was: How would they taste, how many planks would I need to serve four and what would the timing be so the steak fries and the burgers finished together? A dry run was definitely in order.

I made a trip to the store and bought the ingredients I needed. This was a simple recipe so the prep actually wasn't too difficult and it didn't take very long. But sometimes one of the reasons that I do a dry run, is to see how long each of the stages of the cook will take: pre-prep, prep, cooking, carving & plating. This way on the day I do it for my guests I know how much time to leave for each stage. This can be very important when you have side dishes that you would like to have finish up at the same time as your meal. When I do these dry runs it is often just for myself, or at most one other person. On this particular day I would be cooking for me, so the timing wasn't critical. Having some time freedom for a test run like this is a big benefit because you can relax and focus on some of the fine details. One of the things that I will do during these test runs, is take my food pictures for that item. If you have been on this website very long at all, you'll know that I take pictures of everything. Taking pictures for the website during the dry run, gives me a chance to take all the pictures in a more relaxed environment. If it turns out some of the pictures do not come out, I can always retake just those not so great pictures during the final run for the actual meal. This frees me up on the day of the actual cook to concentrate on the prep and cook without having to worry about pictures too. Other than any re-takes that is.


The first thing I needed to test during my dry run was whether my method for soaking two overlapping planks actually worked. I had to keep the planks separated and underwater. The method worked and worked well. On the day of the final run I’d be able to rest easy.

One of the first things that I learned before I even started the prep work for the food, was that two planks would not fit in one of the Rubbermaid plastic bins that I normally soak my planks in. I had to come up with a strategy to keep the planks separated but still underwater while soaking in the bin. I did have a second bin, but one of the other things I needed to discover was exactly how many planks I would need cooking for four. Bottom line: if I needed more than two planks, that meant I needed the two bins and would have to discover a way to keep the planks separate but underwater. this is the type of thing you like to discover ahead of time and not on the day of a cook. I put the planks in at 6 AM and planned to let them soak till around 3 PM. I used some tiny plastic discs to keep the planks separated but still underwater. Every hour or so I swapped the planks top for bottom, as well as turning them over. This way the areas where the disk had been would also have exposure to water for long periods of time. As it turned out my method to keep the planks separated worked like a charm, so I had a proven method to use on the day of the cook.


My second lesson from the dry run was that with 6 burners lit the griddle grate ran too hot and the buns toasted beyond a golden brown. The solution would be to toast the buns before the planks got preheated.

When it was time to get started, I made an unexpected discovery. This was an even bigger bonus of my dry run. The problem that came up was totally off my radar screen and it never happened before. I had lit each of the six burners and set them to medium. I had replaced my center open grate with my flattop griddle grate so I could toast the hamburger buns. What I didn't realize until I place the buns on the grate, was that the griddle grate was running higher than medium. I think this was because I had all six burners going, instead of the four I often use for the griddle grate and one of the open grates. With the open grates lit on both sides and where the heat can't vent out from under the grill griddle grate, that heat had collected under the griddle and caused it to be warmer than I was looking for. The bottom line is the buns were a little more well done than I would've liked, not burned but not toasted golden brown either. I am glad this happened during the dry run, because it only affected two buns. On the day of the cook where I might have been even busier, it would have affected four buns and things might have gotten more out of hand and the buns gotten more burned. So far I had just barely gotten started and I had dodged two bullets doing this dry run. As far as the buns were concerned I decided that next time I would cook them before I started preheating the grill for the cedar planks. This way the rest of the grill wouldn’t contribute any extra heat to the center griddle grate. I would also not replace the center open grill grate with the griddle grate. I would simply place the griddle grate on top, making it easier to quickly remove it when I was done. This also solved the problem if I needed more than two planks. I would then have the entire grill surface to use because I no longer needed the griddle grate.


For the dry run I cut the potatoes down in the Kitchen (left) & I seasoned them out at the grill (right). For the final run cook, I decided it would be smart to do all of the prep out at the grill. This proved to be the most important change I made

I ran some of the prep items out to the grill and got ready to start the steak fries, which took about twice as long as the burgers. Or at least that's what they took on the video podcast. I needed to find out on my own grill, exactly how long each of the two foods would take. This way I could have them come out together on the day of the real meal. The prep for both items was very simple. You quartered the Russet potatoes, and then cut the quarters in half again. Then you tossed them with some olive oil and cajun seasoning. On this day I cut the potatoes indoors and seasoned them out at the grill. I decided on the day of the real cook I was going to do everything outdoors while I had the plank for the steak fries on the grill for preheating. This way I could compact the total time a little bit by combining preheating the plank while I was prepping. This would make up for cooking the buns ahead of time. I would also make the burgers and season them out of the grill for the same reason. It would allow me to make the total cooking time a little shorter and I could be out of the grill keeping an eye on the preheating planks. It's never a good thing to have a plank to catch on fire before you even get to use it. Don't ask me how I know this, but if your interested let me refer you to my 2009 UP IN FLAMES Blog Entry. Scroll down to the second half of the blog for the “cedar Plank Flambe” story.


Another thing I discovered is I needed to use my wider planks for the steak fries. As you can see even turned at an angle they didn’t fit on the plank without the tips of the longer pieces sticking out. This turned out to be a problem this day-a wider plank would solve things on the final run.

As I started putting the steak fries on the plank I ran into yet another unanticipated problem. The steak fries, even when turned at an angle, did not completely fit on the plank. I had planned on doing two rows of steak fries turned at about a 45° angle. Even when turned an angle, the larger steak fries still stuck out about an inch. I decided there was nothing I could do today and so I put the plank on with some of the fries sticking out. On the day of the real cook I would use some wider planks I had that were about 2 inches wider than the planks I was using mistake. Once again I learn valuable information during the dry run that saved me some extra gray hairs on the day of the real cook. I wouldn’t have time to soak new planks if I had a problem.


While two burgers fit comfortably on the narrow planks, I could see I could fit 4 staggered burgers on the wide plank. This would save me having to cook on 3 planks for the final run.

On the video podcast I got these recipes from, specific times were little hard to come by. I had inferred that the french fries would take about 45 minutes. I was guessing that the burgers would take about 15. One of the big reasons for this dry run, what's to figure out exactly how long both items would take. Plank cooking is a whole new ballgame and I had no gut feelings about how long things would actually take. This was the biggest reason for the dry run. For the burgers, it was even more important to know their cooking time because you have to preheat the plank before you can cook the burgers. So it was very important to know when in the process I needed to put that second plank for the burgers on. Then you have to place the burgers on the plank and season them. So it was important to get this timing down. One of the things I hoped to discover during this dry run, was whether I would be able to insert a temperature probe into the 1/2 pound burgers and have it give me accurate readings. This would take a lot of the guesswork out of cooking the burgers. when you plank grill, you want to keep the lid closed as much as possible to keep the heat and smoke in. With remote probes I would only have to open the lid at the very end to confirm the readings with an instant read thermometer. I was relieved to find out I was able to use the temperature probe and get useful readings out of them. In fact I used two, one in each burger.

So at this point I was two thirds of the way along with the cook. My dry run was yielding some useful information. Things were moving along nicely, the burgers were on and the french fries were looking good. After the burgers had been on the grill for about five minutes, I noticed that the smoke coming out of the grill was starting to get a little darker. This was a sign that the planks were getting close to combustion point. Most likely, it was the plank for the fries which is now been on for 25 minutes. The plank for the burgers had only been on for five minutes, but just to be safe I dialed down the temperature on all of the burners. I was a little surprised, because I thought I had the temperatures under control. But after seeing what happened, I decided that if I did this cook again next weekend I would set up shop out at the grill. This way I could be there the ENTIRE time the planks were on the burners. I would set up shop by bringing my Black & Decker Workmate and a full sheet pan out to the grill area to serve as a quick and sturdy prep table. See my Tip Section entry: QUICK & STURDY TABLE TIP. If you have already seen my blog entry F-I-R-E!! you will already know that the decision to cookout at the grill the entire time proved to be a wise one.


The good news seen in this picture is I was able to get temperature probes in the thick burgers. The bad news was the probes told me the burgers were cooking unevenly. You can see from the plank in this picture what the temperature probes told me-the burger in the back was cooking faster than the burger in front. I would need to turn the plank around 180 degrees to even out the cooking.

One of the other surprises of the cook was at the burgers were cooking unevenly. When they first went on, the burgers registered the same starting temperature and it was a reasonable starting temperature. This told me the probes were inserted correctly. As the cook progressed the temperatures registered in each burger were different. The burger closer to the rear wall of the grill was starting to cook faster. It looked like it was heading for a 10 degree difference (5.5 C) by the time the cook was over. The recipe had called for the burgers to be pulled out of the fridge for about an hour to get them near room temperature when they went on the grill. My starting temperature was 60 degrees (16 C). My finish temperature was 150 degrees (66 C). So doing the math, the difference between 150 and 60 was 90 degrees and half of the was 45 degrees. So I decided to turn the burger plank at the halfway point which would be 105 degrees (41 C). When I opened the lid to turn the plank with the burgers, I checked on the steak fries. They were generally looking very nice, but I noticed that the edges of the fries that were sticking out beyond the plank were beginning to cook faster than the main body of the fries. At this point there wasn't a whole a lot I could do about it. I smiled to myself thinking about the concept of wrapping little pieces of foil around the end of the fries like you sometimes do with chicken wings when cooking a whole chicken. I closed the lid to let the cook finish. If there was a next time I would definitely use the wider planks and make sure that the french fries did not stick out beyond the edge of the plank.Yet another another valuable lesson learned from my dry run.


While I had the lid open to rotate the burgers 180 degrees, I noticed the tips of the fries that stuck out beyond the edge of the cedar plank were cooking up fastest.

My rotating the plank with the burgers 180 degrees at the midpoint did the trick and the temperatures were starting to even out. By the time the burgers hit their finish temperature, the two readings would be just about the same. One lesson I learned is the burgers took 20 minutes, not the 15 minutes I expected. This was not the end of the world because the steak fries looked like they could use a little extra time. All but the tips of the long fries overhanging the plank that is. The overhanging tips were starting to burn, but for today I would just have to live with that. But at least this was happening during the dry run and not the day of the real cook.


The burgers were just about done. (left) I’d left 2-3 minutes for the cheese to melt, but due to the presence of the plank it took 5 minutes. (right). This was good to know for the final run.

As things wound down, there was still one more lesson to be learned. Although the target temperature for the recipe was 150, I really wanted to split the difference between a well-done 160 and get them up to 155. So I figured when the burgers hit 150 I would start putting the cheese on. I figured it would take about 2 to 3 minutes to melt the cheese and during this time the burgers would reach 155. When I added the cheese, I removed the plank with the french fries on it. While the cheese was melting I was putting the french fries into their serving bowl. To my surprise the cheese took even longer to melt than I expected. Normally my grill takes about 1 to 2 minutes to melt the cheese on a burger. I had gone to the longer end of this time, but I didn't take into account that the plank shielded the burgers (and therefore the cheese) from the direct heat of the burners. So next time I would use five minutes instead of 2 to 3 minutes.


The burgers & steak fries were done. Where this was a dry run I got to take time and get my food pictures out of the way this day. One the day of the cook I was able to go from grill to table because these pictures turned out fine.

At last everything was done. I had learned that the french fries took 50 minutes total, and I could not let any part of the french fry overhang the plank. This would be solved with a wider plank. The burgers took 20 minutes plus another five minutes for the cheese. Now I had precise times to use for the cook next week. A last advantage of doing a dry run was I could take my time with the pictures at the table. After all I was not keeping three other people waiting while I took pictures of the food on the table. I am usually quick about it and most of my guests are trained by now, but I still don't like to keep people waiting. The cook turned out very successfully and I knew after my first few bites that I would indeed make it a week later. By doing the dry run, the pictures were already done so when I made it for my mother's birthday we could sit right down and eat. Having done the dry run, the cook for four was actually easier and more relaxing than the cook for two. Actually there is one big exception to that, I had a plank fire. To learn more about that you can read my blog entry F-I-R-E!!. But thanks to the dry run I'd set up shop out at the grill and stayed there the entire time. Otherwise I never would've caught the plank fire before was too late. So in this case I can say without exaggeration, that the dry run save me from a meltdown.


The burgers & steak fries passed the audition & I would make them for my mother’s birthday in a week. I’d learned that I needed to make sure the fries would need to be completely over the plank so the tips don’t burn (left). I also needed to allow 5 minutes to melt the cheese (right).

I hope this rather long blog entry helped illustrate some of the benefits of doing a dry run. I achieved my goals of finding out how long it took each item to cook. But I also discovered a bunch of little unexpected minefields that may have spelled total disaster on the day of the cook. So whenever I can, I'll do a dry run of something I'm unfamiliar with and I think you'll agree that there's some valid reasons for doing it. Another important reason I completely forgot to mention, is that by doing a dry run you can try new food ahead of time and see if it's even worthwhile making for your guests. You may discover that a certain dish is okay for you, but you'll just know that one of your guests won't like it. There's also a similar but different use of a dry run. Sometimes I'll do a dry run to try something and I realize my mother would love this, but it might be too spicy for my father. In those instances I may pack up some leftovers and bring them over to my mother’s house. This way she gets to enjoy a meal that I wouldn't have made for her and my father. And a lot of times my father will try out what I've made, usually I’m right about a dish being to spicy or too radical for my dad. But he's been surprising me a lot lately. He will try something I don't think he'll like and I'll hear back through the grapevine that he actually enjoyed it. So the dry run helps give me another meal I can make for my parents-one I would've never made for them otherwise. So there you have some of the advantages of doing a test run ahead of time. Hopefully it will give you some food for thought for your own cooks.


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