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

Cold Hard Facts

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This blog entry will discuss some discoveries I made during a series of low and slow cooks on my Big Green Egg. Discoveries is a polite way of saying mistakes or bad decisions. But I also find you often learn more from your mistakes, the from your successes. The Big Green Egg (and other Kamado grills) are somewhat unique in how they cook. Some of my problems were caused by my going by past experience with my CG Smokin' Pro horizontal offset barrel smoker. Things that were the solutions to the problems on the CG, made matters worse on the Eggs. Fortunately I was able to fudge my way out of it in a couple cases. In another case, I just happened to have two Eggs going at the same temperature at the same time and was able to transfer the flag as it were. I figured some of my discoveries might be of benefit to other Big Green Egg users who haven't run into these situations before.

LESSON 1 - Leave More Time For Lighting During Very Cold or Very Windy Weather
Note here that I am saying for lighting and not for warmup. In my experience, the BGE warms up just as fast in cold weather as warm.

LESSON 1 - Example
I first discovered this on Thanksgiving Day of this year. It was very cold and very windy. I went out to light the fire starters I had placed in both of my Eggs. My butane fire starter wouldn't work. I got a spark but no flame. I got a new one out of the house but that was a non-starter in every sense of the word. I got a box of wooden stick matches out of the house and finally got the fire going. But even the wooden stick matches were a problem. I was holding them down inside the bottom half of the Egg, well below the level of the gasket, but they still didn't want to light. Many times they lit and blew out immediately. If I was lucky enough to get them down near the fire starters they would blow out there. Several times the fire starter actually lit and blew out shorty after. I am not sure if the wind was causing an excess draft blowing in through the lower damper or what. But something was blowing out the fire.

I don't remember this being a big problem last winter, but the butane fire starter I was using was a different model and was easier to light in general. I am looking into other methods of lighting the Egg, but frankly I like the paraffin fire starters. So the only solution here is go out to the grill a bit earlier. What takes me less than 5 minutes to light the two Eggs, seems to take 15 minutes in the very cold or very windy weather.

LESSON 2 - Do NOT Overshoot Your Desired Temps During Warmup
This lesson applies at any time of the year, not just cold weather. Keep a close eye on your temps during warmup. During real hot or real cold weather the temptation is to stay in the comfortable house and not go outside as much. If you overshoot by a lot it is going to be really hard to get the temps back down even in the cold weather. Remember the insulating properties of the ceramic walls of the Egg. Twice in the last two weeks I let the temps run too high during warmup and it caused problems.

LESSON 2 - Example 1
Last weekend I was making paninis and I had my Egg warming up to 375 degrees (191 C) with the platesetter installed legs up and two Half Moon cast Iron Grill Griddles on top of the s/s grill. My intent was to get it stabilized at 375 (191 C) and let it run for 30 minutes before placing my food. I was running it cap off at the top and the draft door fully open at the bottom. I had checked on it a couple times and it wasn't close yet. Then I got distracted indoors when a prep related task was causing me unexpected issues. I knew I should have gone out to check sooner, but I wanted to resolve my problem first... BIG MISTAKE!! When I got outside and shot the temperature at the griddle level with an infrared thermometer it read 525 degrees (274 C). I knew this was trouble because of what happened one week prior. I am doing these examples out of order so I had already learned "burping" the Egg to let cold air in and drive the temps down was a BIG mistake. I had no idea how long it was going to take to get the griddle level temps back down to 375 (191C).

I decided since the mass of the griddle and the rest of the ceramic portions of the Egg would lose temperatures slowly, I needed to think of something different. I didn't have time to get it back down to temp and run it for 30 minutes to make sure it was stable and at temp. Since I was making paninis, it would be a 4-5 minute cook at the most. I decided I would just shut the dampers down and let the charcoal go out, since this would give me the fastest temperature drop. I would monitor the griddle temps with my infrared thermometer and when they got down to just above 375 (191 C) I would throw on the paninis for their 4-5 minute cook. This worked in this particular case because the food I was making only needed 4-5 minutes of grill time. Also the baked beans I was smoking on the other Egg were already cooked and all I was doing was heating them and adding smoke. This meant I had flexibility in the time I could pull them off the Egg. If this had happened during another type of cook the consequences might have been far greater.

LESSON 2 - Example 2

On New Year Eve day I was preheating one of my Eggs to 235 degrees (113 C) to add some smoke to a baked bean recipe I was making. I lost track of time while dealing with something in the kitchen, and I was a bit late getting back out to check on the Egg. The temps went a little high on me: 300 degrees (149 C). I didn't sweat it at first, since I was going to let the grill run for about an hour to get stabilized at my temp. I closed the dampers down and it took me nearly the full hour to get the temps back down. After all, the ceramics had to lose their excess heat too. So after an hour I was left with a grill that was at the right temperature, but not necessarily stabilized at that temp. It hadn’t been at 235 (113 C) long enough to know if it was going to stay there. I added the beans, only to find my temps still weren’t stabilized. I spent the next 40 minutes or so running outside trying to dial in the temp I wanted.

Bottom Line:
Do whatever you must do to avoid overshooting your temperature. This rule becomes more important the lower the temp you a cooking at. A little extra time spent going out to the Egg or staying with the Egg during warm up pays off in the long run. I have done low and slow cooks where I have gone 10 hours between temperature adjustments. These were the cooks where I DID NOT let the temps run high at the top.

LESSON 3 - Glazing/Mopping May Best Be Done Outside the Egg
If you need to keep the lid open for a while to glaze or mop your meat, you may need to consider taking the meat off the Egg to do it. This is particularly true at low cooking temperatures where your top and bottom vents are only open a lit to begin with. With the lid open you may be worried about letting cold air into the Egg. This is not the real big picture problem. The real problem is you are letting in a large amount of potential combustion air and stoking your fire. The big problem with having your temps rise on you at low and slow type temps, is that your vents are most likely only opened a crack to begin with. This means you have next to no room for adjustment when the combustion air you have let in stokes the fire to higher temps, and you need to lower it.

LESSON 3 - Example 1
I recently made a ham which heated for 3 hours at 235 degrees (113 C) and during the last hour you glazed it twice, 30 minutes apart. I was wondering whether I should pull it off the Egg to glaze it. It was about 6 degrees (-14C) so I decided not to and my thought process went like this: Keeping it out in the cold might cool the meat off too much and extend the cook. Also the glaze might thicken up too much making it harder to apply and making it take longer. I was worried about loosing temps in the Egg but I figured at my relatively low cooking temperature it wouldn't be a problem. Plus the Egg had been running at that temp for the last 3 hours, so the ceramics would be heated through and not lose much heat. After the first glazing session the temps at the grate level were only 98 degrees (36 C), but I figured they would recover fast. Recover fast they did and then continued to shoot up past 235 (113 C) to 275 (135 C). There was no getting the temps back down.

Accidental Solution:
I will explain what I tried that didn't work in LESSON 4. The bottom line was I didn't solve the problem. What got me out of a big jam was a totally coincidental circumstance. You see I was smoking up a batch of beans on my other Egg also at the SAME temp of 235 (113 C). I had fired up the second Egg because I didn't think the beans and the ham would both fit on the same Egg. Even if they fit, I figured the positioning would not be ideal. Parts of the food would be beyond the protection of the plate setter. But before I went in to fire up my oven, I decided to see if the ham and beans actually would both fit on the second Egg. Before doing so I added the second and final glaze to the ham while it was on the Egg that had run amuck. This way I wouldn't cause the same problem on the second Egg. To my great surprise and relief, the ham and beans both fit. I had guessed correctly that the positioning wasn't ideal, since corners of both pans extended beyond the protection of the ceramic disk of the plate setter. Where there was only 30 minutes to go I didn't sweat this detail. Now obviously you can't go through life getting by on pure luck, so you need to take cake you don't keep the lid open very long. The lower your cooking temps, the less time you keep the lid open.

LESSON 4 - Burping the Egg to Lower Temps Will Probably Just Raise Them
One of the things I did to try to correct my temperature issue in Lesson 3 - Example 1 above, was to “burp” the Egg. By that I mean I raised the lid to let some cold air in and drive the temperatures down. This used to work real well on my non-insulated metal-walled smoker. While burping lowered the temperatures initially on the Big Green Egg, the ceramic walls of the BGE allowed it to reheat the cold air I had let in rather quickly. Worse off all the air I had let in when I burped the Egg had stoked the fire. So the temperatures were now worse than before I tried to fix things. I basically had a runaway Egg on my hands, and no way to get it back under control any time soon.

LESSON 4 - Example 1:
This is a off shoot of Lesson 3 - Example 1 above. It was one of the things that I tried to do that was a mistake. With the grates nearly closed due to my low cooking temperature, there really wasn’t a quick fix for this problem. As I mentioned above: what saved my bacon (or in this case ham) was the fact I happened to have my second Egg running at the exact same temperature and I was able to transfer to the second Egg. This was pure luck because the whole reason the second Egg was fired up, was because I didn’t think everything would fit on the one Egg. This was probably a once in a lifetime occurrence that I certainly can’t count on again.

To sum things up:
Leave more time to light the grill in cold or windy weather.
  • Do NOT let it overshoot your desired cooking temperature.
  • Do NOT leave the lid open long to glaze or mop something, particularly at low cooking temperatures.
  • Do NOT try to cool the grill by burping it (raising the lid to let cold air in and driving the temps down).

You have been warned!!

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