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

F-I-R-E !!!

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This blog entry details a recent cook where several old lessons were reinforced and it basically marked the difference between success and total failure. The items being cooked were CEDAR PLANKED BURGERS & CEDAR PLANKED STEAK FRIES and the burgers came within mere seconds of being lost to flames.

To begin at the beginning, I’ve made several Cedar Planked dishes over the years. From reading and hands on experience I’ve learned Cedar Planking is both easy and tricky. You are basically trying to make a piece of wood smoke but not actually catch on fire. I have had a plank catch on fire when I was preparing it to receive the food & I had another catch fire when I’d just removed the food from it. Most anything you read about plank grilling has two suggestions which in my opinion should be mandatory, as opposed just a suggestion. The first is to never leave the grill unattended. I can say from my own experience you have mere seconds to react if you have a plank that is about to catch on fire. The second item is to have some sort of squirt bottle out at the grill to use to squash a plank fire. The key words here are “out at the grill”, once again because you have seconds to react. If you have to run inside, grab the squirt bottle and run back out, it is too late. Once again you have seconds.

On Tuesday I did a dry run of two of these burgers & steak fries to see if they were good enough to make for my Mother’s birthday meal over the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend. Things went uneventfully and I made sure to keep the lid thermometer on the grill below about 425. The burgers & fries were great and I put them on the menu for the following Saturday. The following Saturday was a little hotter than Tuesday had been, so I made sure to set the burner knobs a little lower than the settings used on Tuesday. Everything appeared to be going normally and the grill lid thermometer showed between 400 to less than 425. Certainly nowhere near 451 degrees. I had my squirt bottle out on the grill’s side table and under the hot conditions it was tempting to take refuge in my air conditioned kitchen. After all I expected no new surprises having done this same cook 4 days earlier.

Fortunately I resisted the temptation to to take refuge inside. I had a steady but light amount of pale grey smoke coming from the grill. About 5 minutes into the 20 minute burger cook it seemed like the smoke was getting a little darker in color. It was a very subtle thing over time, but it seemed to have gotten a little darker. Figuring it was better to be safe than sorry, I lifted the grill lid slightly to check things out. What greeted me was the sight of a 2” high by 1” long flame originating in the left hand corner of the plank closest to me. Shocked, I opened the grill and reached for my squirt bottle. As I was doing this I watched the 2” high flame travel slowly but steadily along the long side of the plank. It was like watching a bomb fuse burning in the movies. I pointed the squirt bottle towards the leading edge of the flame and squeezed the handle to extinguish the flames. Nothing!! I squeezed it again. Nothing again!! I realized I hadn’t set the spray head to on. It was off, so of course I wasn’t getting any results. I set it to stream vs. spray wanting a powerful but narrow stream of water. I squeezed again and still nothing. The flame had advanced along the long side of the shingle and was about to reach the corner. If this next squeeze of the handle didn’t work all was lost.

You see I had seen this whole thing happen once before. I left a plank that was preheating unattended on a very hot day. I got tied up inside and left the plank on a bit longer than I”d wanted to. Instead of the plank being slightly charred, it was blackened. I thought I had dodged a bullet. I flipped the plank and was getting ready to put some chicken thighs on the plank when a flame emerged from the left corner closest to me. It travelled along the long side of the plank, just like what I was seeing this Saturday. When the flame reached the first corner it seemed to pick up speed as it rounded the corner and travelled along the short side of the plank. The flame made it’s way around the plank and when it reached the first corner there was a swooshing sound and the whole plank erupted in 12” high flames. I didn’t lose any food that day because I hadn’t put the chicken on the plank yet. So all I had to do was soak another plank. Having watched the process once before I knew the key was stopping the line of flames before they reached that first corner. The further the flames advanced, the faster they would travel and the harder it would be to squirt the fire out without hitting the burgers.

The “must work” squeeze actually worked. I pointed the stream of water at the leading edge of the flame and caused it to stop advancing towards the first corner of the plank. The only problem was the flame was getting higher at the starting point. I took to alternating squirts, where I squirted the leading edge of the flame to stop it’s advance and the trailing edge of the flame to beat it down and prevent it from growing higher. I continued squirting the leading and trailing edges of the flames, gradually working my way to the middle and putting the line of flame out. Fortunately using the hard but narrow stream had enabled me to put out the flames and avoid squirting the burgers. I could not believe how close I had come to total disaster.

There is an expression about people who don’t learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. So what is the take-away here from this experience? Here is a list:

  • Don’t walk away from your grill even for a minute when you have a plank on the grill.
  • If you need something from the Kitchen, have someone else get it, or take steps to have everything you will need out at the grill area with me.
  • While you are out at the grill, keep a constant eye on what is going on with the grill. Avoid the temptation to sit down, relax, read, check your email etc. The differences I observed in the color of the smoke were subtle and I never would have noticed them if I wasn’t paying attention.
  • Just because the lid thermometer says you are under 425 degrees, stay vigilant. My fire occurred under just those conditions.
  • Make sure to have your squirt bottle of water right out after the grill. If you have to leave the grill area to get it, that will be too long.
  • Be sure to have the nozzle of the squirt set to something other than off. Preferably have it set to your desired settings.
  • Be sure to give the squirt bottle a few squirts to get the line to the nozzle primed and ready to go. You have very little time to react-probably mere seconds.

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