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

Comedy of Errors - 2014

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The cook I did this past weekend looked like it was going to be a rocking chair cook. Instead I made a mistake that started a chain reaction of missteps and bonehead plays. I always say that we learn more from our mistakes, than we do from our successes. If that's the case, this was one of my biggest learning experiences. This included some things I'd rather not have had to learn. But since I suffered through this "learning experience" I figured I'd share it with others so they could benefit too. And please, unlike me, learn from these mistakes I made so you don’t make the same silly mistakes.

On paper, the cook I was doing seemed very easy, low stress and nothing to worry about. Perhaps that was my problem. Perhaps I took it too much for granted. Also I had just gone through some learning curve exercises in cold weather low & slow cooking that I had written about in my recent blog
COLD HARD FACTS. As I mentioned, I was feeling pretty good about everything and looking forward to a simple fun day using my BGE’s. I was making SMOKED MEATLOAF WITH DR PEPPER BARBECUE SAUCE and TWICE-SMOKED CHEESY POTATOES from Dr BBQ's latest cookbook, Slow Fire. I had made the rub and the barbecue sauce for the meatloaf the night before. All I had to do in the morning was light the two Big Green Eggs at 8 AM and get them both up to 235 degrees and stabilized by 9 AM. The food would be on the cooker for hours and with the stability of the Egg I expected a relatively stress-free cook. Although both meals were cooking indirectly at 235 degrees (113C), the set up for the two Eggs was slightly different. To cook the potatoes I was using the platesetter, legs up with the stock stainless steel grill grid. For the meatloaf I was using the Adjustable Rig, the oval stone, the s/s drip pan, and the oval grill grid.

I was planning on using my new ET-733 remote read thermometer to give me the grill grate temperature of the two Eggs. The ET-733 comes with hybrid probes which can be used for food or grill grate temperatures. The receiver of the ET-733 can be customized to reflect how you are using each probe. I would monitor the temperature of the two meat loaves with the ET-732.

So it looked like I really had all my ducks in a row for this cook. I had dealt with by windy weather lighting issues by buying my Looftlighter (See recent blog entry:
FLAME ON - THE LOOFLIGHTER). I now had two Maverick thermometers for my Eggs, so I had all my temperature needs covered. This would also allow me to monitor the cook from inside the house and allowed me to do any remaining prep, while being able to keep an eye on what was going on outside The food prep was relatively simple and I had done some of it the night before, so I had very little to do in the morning. The cook itself was very simple both Eggs would be going low and slow at 235 degrees (113C) both using some oak chips.

As expected the Looftlighter made quick and easy work of lighting the Eggs. One thing about lighting the charcoal this way is once you remove the Looftlighter from the charcoal, the flames die down quite a bit and the fire seems to go deeper into the charcoal pile. Visually it makes it a little harder to tell what's going on. I planned to stay outside and keep an eye on the two Eggs. When you are going low and slow, you really need to keep a close eye on your temperatures. You do not want to overshoot, because you have the dampers set to such a small opening you have little room to try and bring the temperature back down if you overshoot. While I was waiting for the Eggs to come to temperature, I decided to set the interface for the ET 733 to reflect the fact I was using both probes as grill grate. probes. The interface to the ET 733 is similar to my ET-732, but just different enough I had no idea how to set it to show whether the probes were being used for food or the smoker. Thus began my trip down the potential road to ruin.

Instead of waiting until the Eggs had reached their target temperatures and I had them stabilized, I decided to run into the house to grab the manual for the ET 733. Both Eggs had been going for a while now and the temperature was only around the 120 degrees (49C) for the first Egg I lit and under 100 degrees (38C) for the second. I knew exactly where the manual was, so I thought it was safe to run inside and grab it. First mistake! When I came back out, to my horror, the Egg that had been at 120 degrees (49C) was now at 400 (204C) and climbing. I was very annoyed of myself and I shut the Lower draft door down to virtually a slit and I set the daisywheel on top to a slit. But I had the feeling I was not going to be able to get the Egg down that far. In fact for the first couple minutes the temperature kept climbing. Meanwhile the second Egg was still under 100 (38C) degrees and showing no sign of rising. I went back to work trying to reset the receiver unit of the ET-733 to reflect the use of two smoker probes. I now have the directions, so things should go smoothly right? Wrong!

To my surprise, the display of the ET 733's transmitter unit got dimmer and then went out entirely. It seems when I wrote my blog entry on the ET 733 several weeks ago, I forgot to turn the unit off when I was done. I went inside to get batteries bringing the receiver unit with me. I found the batteries with no problems and brought the batteries back outdoors where I could keep an eye on things while I changed the batteries. The first Egg had finally stopped climbing and had fallen back down to around 400 (204C) degrees. The second Egg was still not climbing and I began to wonder if the fire had gone out. When I went to remove the back cover to the transmitter unit of the ET 733, I rediscovered the fact that you need to use a small jeweler's screwdriver to remove two tiny Phillips head screws which help seal the battery compartment and keep out moisture. Now one would've thought I should have learned my lesson from what happened when I ran inside to get the ET-733 manual earlier. But no!! Instead of waiting for the second Egg to come up to the right temperature, I ran inside to grab the jeweler's screwdrivers. Once again I knew exactly where they were. Second mistake! I think you know where this is going. When I got back outside the other Egg was at 350 degrees (177C) and climbing. Words can't describe how pissed off I was at myself at this point. I now had two Eggs that were over temperature by quite a bit on a low and slow cook. I also closed the dampers on the second Egg down to two tiny slits as well and hoped for a double miracle. These days for longer cooks, I tend to light my Eggs about an hour early. which gives them time to get stabilized at my target temperature. Assuming of course I don't do bonehead plays like I had just done. The important thing to realize here, is both times I ran indoors, it was to deal with an item that could've waited until I had both grills at the right temperature. It's one thing if it's a pressing need, it's quite another if it's something that really can wait.

I went back into the kitchen. There was some prep I need to start if I had any chance of getting this thing going on time. Both Eggs were losing temperature, but far too slowly. it also seemed like both of them wanted to stabilize around 325 degrees (163C) with no further temperature drops after that. I gave them a few more minutes and sauce no change, so I decided desperate times require desperate actions. I decided to shut down both Eggs completely and let them go down to around 200 degrees (93C). At this point I would open up the dampers and try get the Eggs back to temperature. While I realized there was a chance I would put the fire out, I kept the metal cap top and shut it down. I figured there would be just enough air leakage with the metal cap that the fire might not go out completely, like it would with the ceramic cap. This was a truly desperate situation and one you should avoid at all costs. The temperature started to sending, much quicker now, but there soon became about a 35 degrees difference in temperatures between the two Eggs.

This is when I make my BiGGEST and DUMBEST mistake of the day. When you turn the transmitter unit for the Maverick thermometers around and look at the back, the two ports are labeled. The one on the left is designated Port 1 and The one on the right is Port 2. So from the readings I was getting in the kitchen it look like the grill that I was to do the potatoes on was the one that had reached 200 degrees (93C). But I really did a dumb thing, so dumb I am embarrassed to be admitting to it here. When you turn the transmitter back around so the front is facing you the ports are reversed from the position they are when viewed from the back. Port 1 is now on the right and Port 2 is on the left as you face the unit. I didn't notice anything was amiss at first other than the fact that when I open the dampers up on the two Eggs the temperatures continue heading down. If this point things were getting a bit surreal. It reminded me of an episode from the original Star Trek, called The Naked Time, where the Enterprise is spiraling into a planet's atmosphere and a delirious crewman had shut the warp drive down. If the warp engines weren't working the ship would burn up in the atmosphere and the only solution was to try a so-called cold restart. This was something that had never been done before and the outcome looked grim. I felt in a similar situation: I had closed off the dampers to the two Eggs and my fires had shut down. At this point the only thing I could think of was to pull out the Looftlighter and try to relight the fires. I had no idea what would happen at this point.

After relighting the fires in both Eggs I still wasn't out of the woods. While at first nothing seem to be happening, all of a sudden the temperature started rising. One Egg was close to the mark according to the receiver on the Maverick and the other one was still low. So I went out and close down the dampers of the one that was close and opened the dampers of the one that still needed to rise. If this point we entered the Twilight Zone. The The grill I was trying to lower the temperature on kept rising and now it faster clip. The grill I was trying to raise the temperature on, had its temperatures fall. I made more adjustments and things just getting crazier and crazier. It took me a good 10 minutes to realize what had been going on. I had forgotten to take into account that when I turned the transmitter unit around to look at the ports, they were mirrored from their actual position that I would see them on the receiver. So the reality was, through my total stupidity I was raising the temperature on the grill it was too high and lowering the temperature on the grill it was too low, because I scrambled the actual ports in my head. Once I figured this out, I was able to get the temperatures back under control. Fortunately things hadn't gotten so far gone where I wasn't able to lower the temperatures on the grill that was running high. Once I knew what was going on the grill it was running low was easy to fix. The bottom line in terms of the meal was we ended up being about an hour late to eat, but everything came out great. People who were starting to get a little cranky and were teasing me about: Is it done yet?, came around when they actually tried the food. But I really can't think of too many cooks were I've had that level of drama and silly mistakes all coming together in a perfect storm of stupidity. With all of things I did to shoot myself in the foot, I am so grateful I was finally able to serve an excellent meal.

So what are some of the lessons learned here?
  • Earn from your mistakes (and those of others). I think part of my problem this days was I was feeling pretty sure of myself and ignored some previous mistakes I’d made. I normally try not to make the same mistake twice. Instead I try to find new mistakes to make. This day was bad because not only did I ignore some previous mistakes, I also found a really dumb new one to make.
  • Pay close attention to the Egg when you are trying not to overshoot your temperatures. Do not let yourself lose focus on the primary goal of letting your Egg coast up to and stop at the desired target temperature.
  • The Egg can go from 0 to 600 (315C) in the blink of an eye. Seriously it sometimes takes 10 minutes for the temperature to really start rising, but once it does it REALLY starts rising.
  • Don't let some little task that is not important at the current moment distract you from keeping an eye on your Egg's temperatures while it's warming up.
  • Do not overshoot your temperatures on a low land slow cook in particular. You have very little room to maneuver here. Your dampers are already closed almost all the way down and it can be next to impossible to lose temperature fast.
  • Pay attention to the little details like which probe is plugged into which port. Don't get yourself into the totally stupid situation I was in where I had scrambled the ports in my head, and was doing the right thing to the wrong port.
  • In a pinch you can close down the dampers to drop the temperatures if you've had a massive overshoot. But just like the "cold restart" I talked about in the Star Trek episode, you really don't want to be in this position. Chances are you'll extinguish your fire and then you'll have to relight it once you get the temperature down. So while this can be done, you really don't want to do this.
  • Next time you're tempted to do something that will distract you from keeping an eye on your temperatures chew on this: Correcting for missed temperatures like this is costing you BOTH cooking time and prep time. This can be a double whammy: If you spend a half hour out at the grill when you should be spending that half hour in the kitchen this is a 60 minute mistake. You've lost the 30 minutes out of the grill and then you still have to 30 minutes of prep left to do.

Don't try this at home!

Here are some links to other blog entries about the temperature control issues I have been having recently & what I’ve learned.

  COLD HARD FACTS 2014 Blog Entry about some recent mistakes made and lessons learned (or so I thought) doing cold weather cooking on my BGE’s. Part of my problem this day is I ignored some of the things I’d recently learned.
  FLAME ON - THE LOOFLIGHTER 2014 Blog Entry about the Looflighter firefighter, which helped get me out of the hole I dug for myself by allowing me to relight my fire and get it back up and running quickly.

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