Getting Better All The Time - Pt. 3
05/21/14 - 18:10 Filed in: Smoking | Lessons Learned
As mentioned in the other entries in this series: This blog started out life when I noticed I was suddenly having a string of successes of late. Some of these have come despite some technical issues I was working through. I don’t consider myself a natural cook or a well trained cook. Some folks seem to just come at this naturally and can throw things together and get great results. Others are formally trained. I am neither. What I can do is to take someone else's great recipe and by following the directions, get great results. I recently realized I have been able to work around some issues that might have resulted in a crash and burn in prior years. I decided to try to document some of the things that I have picked up along the way. This might help some other folks just starting out or who are having issues. As I started organizing my thoughts, this entry spiraled out of control and has taken on a life of it’s own. What I originally envisioned as a single part entry, turned into 4 parts. The first entry, PART 1, is on general topics related to getting started and some things that will help you along the way. PART 2, covered items specific to grilling. This entry, PART 3, will cover smoking and PART 4 will cover Baking. I owned and used a CG Smokin’ Pro horizontal offset barrel smoker for 9 years, before I bought my lump charcoal-powered BGE nearly two years ago and I will discuss items related to both. This entry will be somewhat more specific than the first two. I will speak about the two smokers I know and will not pretend to have an exhaustive knowledge of other models. Some of what I write here that isn’t about the gear itself, but about smoking itself, will apply to other types of smokers too.
FIND OUT MORE:
As I mentioned above, I have written one or more times in my blog on many of the topics below. At the bottom of these 4 blog entries, I will included links to these blogs, organized roughly in the order I have discussed them here. The reason I am doing it this way is some of these other blog entries touch on several of the topics referred to in this blog. Rather than have the same entry appear multiple time in the main body of this blog, it will appear once below. So if any of these topics interest you and you might be interested in reading more about them, scroll down to the links below.
SMOKERS & SMOKING - General:
What is Smoking?: I am defining smoking as cooking low and slow at temperatures of between 225 degrees to 325 degrees. This is done indirectly where the food is not exposed directly to the flames. There is a separation between the flames and the foods. for most home smokers, the fuel source is charcoal, either in briquette or lump form. Wood smoke flavor is added through the use of wood chips or chunks. For the backyard user wood logs are rarely used as the fuel source because they are hard to manage in the smaller sized smoker.
Why Low and Slow?: The cuts of meat used for low and slow smoking are typically cheaper cuts of meat with high fat content. Cooked conventionally the meat would be too tough to eat. But cooked slowly over low heat allows time for the fat to be broken down and rendered off. These cuts are often the tastiest cuts as long as you have dealt with the high fat content through your cooking method. The long cooking time also allows the meat to be exposed to wood smoke for a longer period of time.
What is Smoke Roasting?: Smoke roasting is a hybrid method where the food is cooked at higher grilling temperatures and smoke is added via wood chips or chunks.
What Type of Smoker Should I Own?: For the amateur backyard smoker my personal choice was the Big Green Egg, or other kamado style cooker. I think the Big Green Egg is the finest outdoor cooking tool I have ever used. No contest. It is used and has won grand championship prizes on the professional competition circuit. When compared to the inexpensive CG Smokin’ Pro their simply is no comparison. I never used my CG even once after my first smoke on the Big Green Egg. I used to feel lucky if I was able to keep the CG at a stable temp for two hours. My first smoke on the BGE was stable for the entire 9-10 hours I cooked the brisket for. When I was done I cranked the Egg up to 600 degrees to cook a pizza. You can’t do that on a normal smoker. Before you remind me that the CG cost me $200 and the BGE cost $800, let me remind you it also replaced my gas grill and serves as an outdoor oven. My charcoal costs are less than half what they were before.The ease of smoking on the Egg is something you have to experience for yourself. There are automatic pit controllers, like the BBQ Guru line, made for use with the Egg. But in my personal opinion they are not needed for the backyard smoker.
You can find Blog Entries here on this site where I described my learning curve and my discoveries about the BGE. You can also read older entries where I describe my learning curve and discoveries about my CG. But everyone is different and had different needs. So I am not going to take back one thing I just said. But that is my opinion and while I think I have made a good case for the Egg here over the last nearly two years, others think differently. What I am going to say is do some research. Go to sites where people make cases for the type of smoker they use. Just keep in mind what these folks biases are. Me I have come to love my Big Green Egg and other kamado style grills share the same virtues. But read the comparison where folks compare different types of smokers to see what the plusses and minuses are. Me, I tend to give more weight to positive comments about an item and give less weight to comments where they are dumping on another product they may or may not have actually used. A great way to evaluate a smoker is if you know someone who owns one, ask them to cook you some food. Just be sure they actually know what they are doing.
Read the Manual - Preferably First: I know this sounds boring when you have a bright shiny new smoker out there ready to use. But there could be some valuable time saving or in some cases life saving tips. The instructions will recommend the proper startup procedure. Or it may tell you the proper amount of coals to light for a given temperature. For kamado grills it will tell you about flashbacks and how to burp the grill lid to avoid them. No matter how bad the manual, there is usually some good advice in there somewhere. If you know yourself well enough to say you are going to want to fire it up the second you grit the smoker home, there is an alternative. The manuals for many smokers are available online in downloadable PDF form. You can read them before you buy the smoker. This may also help you make the final decision whether this is THE smoker for you.
Read the Manual - Break In: Even if you ignore my suggestion to read the manual first, at least read the section on break-in. On the CG they had you do a break-in where you coated the interior surfaces and the cast iron grates with vegetable oil. Then you brought the smoker up to 250 (120C) degrees for two hours. You did a second session where you brought the smoker up to 200 (93C) degrees for two hours. This began seasoning the metal of the grill. Obviously this is not something you would think of doing by yourself. On the Big Green Egg it is suggested you don’t do high temperature cooks for several cooks. This is said to help the adhesive for the gasket set.
Use Online Resources to Help You Buy Your Smoker: There are often reviews of various smokers online. These amy be in the form of articles or videos and can help you make your decision. There may also be promotional videos from the manufacturer about there grill. There may also be You-Tube videos put up by regular folks who are users of the grill. In the case of my Big Green Egg there are hundreds if not thousands of videos. There are also many BBQ specific forums/massage boards with threads discussing the plusses and minuses of the various gear. Just keep an open mind and keep the source of the info in mind. There are some videos on YouTube by an online seller of grills, who used to sell Big Greens Eggs, but lost that right. They now have videos of other kamado grills that tend to put the BGE in the least favorable light. While the info may be accurate, it may also be self-serving. Videos by the manufacturer are certainly going to be all positive, but knowing this you can see the features the manufacturer deems important and see if they are also important to you. User videos can be a real mixed bag. Some are quite good and some are put up by clueless people, you will need to decide. Forum comments can be open minded or biased. Someone who has purchased a smoker tends to have a vested interest in that unit. They will often be defensive about something they have spent their hard earned money on. You could certainly apply this logic to me. I will let what I’ve written over the years make my case. But your mileage may vary. Retail sites selling the smoker will often have user/buyer comments. These can vary between highly useful and totally useless and stupid. You can probably ignore (or not give much weight to) comments from people that have had the grill for a week or two. If they Don’t like the grill after a few uses, that would be a surprise. My brother was looking at a grill that shall remain nameless. But it was a popular model by a well known company. It used a cheap grade of stainless steel which would start rusting almost from the moment you got it. The new owner reviews where the grill was 1-2 weeks old were all positive. The reviews from a month onward all started mentioning rust issues. You will also need to filter out reviews I will summarize as: “When I used this grill in a manner totally different than the manufacturer designed it for, it failed.” Gee there’s a surprise. If there are one or two bad comments about something, it is probably not a typical problem. Yes it is a problem for the people that had it, but not indicative of the product’s performance for most people. On the other hand, if most of the long term owners mention something it is probably a valid issue.
Use Online Resources to Help You Learn Your Smoker: There may be websites and message boards out there dedicated to your smoker. Or BBQ related message boards may had areas of interest within the message board with dedicated threads which are for users of your smoker. The Egghead Forum is an example of the former and the “CG Family” thread on the Barbecue Bible Message Board is an example of the latter. When I bought my CG, the “CG Family” thread was just over 100 pages long. I saved the pages out as PDFs and put them on my laptop. In the month leading up to the purchase of my CG, I read those pages during my morning and evening commute into the city. When I brought home my CG, I hit the ground running. I had an idea in my head of how to use it. Rather than make the same beginner’s mistakes, I was free to find my own new and more creative mistakes to make. Seriously this made a HUGE difference to me. I was worried about whether I’d be able to get the hang of this smoker quickly. I’d never used a charcoal grill or done low and slow cooking before. What I learned online accelerated my learning curve. The same was true when I bought my Egg. Reading some of the posts there helped me learn some of the basics. More Info
Don’t Go Crazy with Mods - Pt 1. Pit Controllers: Learn to use your smoker as it was shipped, before doing a bunch of mods (modifications) on it. It is important to learn the baseline performance of your rig first and know how to work with that. If you are thinking of using a pit controller, like a BBQ Guru, to automatically adjust the temperatures of your rig, don’t install it at first. Learn to use the rig unmodified. This way if the pit controller suddenly stops working, you aren’t left hopeless and helpless. Many people buy these units for Big Green Eggs and personally I feel they are totally unnecessary if you are using the Egg for backyard BBQ. If you hold off buying the pit controller until you have learned your Egg, you may find for your usage it is not needed. I would not hesitate to use my Egg for an overnight cook. I would be sure it is stabilized at my cooking temperature, put a Maverick remote read thermometer on it and set the alarms for the grate temps and cooking temps and go to bed. My CG was another story. I thought about getting a pit controller, but it seemed silly to spend more on a pit controller than I paid for the smoker. When I started working from home I was able to do long cooks during the day.
Don’t Go Crazy with Mods - Pt 2. Other Mods: I mentioned learning your rig before you add a pit controller. The same can be said about making lots of mods at first. In the 9 years I used my CG I made two mods. I used larger charcoal baskets in the Side Fire Box to hold more charcoal and extend my burn time right from the start. This was a mod, but nearly everyone did it, so it felt more like good practice than a mod. Plus it didn’t affect the cooking performance of the CG. It lengthened the time between charcoal changes. The second mod was when I began using a welders blanket in cold weather during the last year of owning my CG. Contrast this to many first time owners of the CG. The “CG Family” thread on the Barbecue Bible message board was filled with posts I can only describe as “Pimp my CG”. They would extend the chimney higher in the air or extend it lower into the Main Chamber. They would modify the opening size between the Side Fire Box and Main Chamber. There was no end to the things people tried. The posts that would really make me shake my head were the folks who took there new CG out of the box and started making mods before even using it. Then they would be making posts saying either they couldn’t get the CG up to 225 (107 C) or the could get it to go down to 225 (107C). The problem was, these people hadn’t learned to use the stock CG. They had introduced other variables into the equation. Was it their lack of knowledge of the CG causing the problem or that their mod made it impossible to use the CG right? To me the stock CG seemed to have a sweet spot at 225 and it was easy to get it to and keep it at 225 (107 C) once you’d spent a little time with it. So learn the performance of the unmodified model first and then screw it up, er I mean then modify it to your hearts content. At least you will know whether your “improvements” are really “improvements”. More Info
Daytime Inaugural Runs: Before using your smoker for long overnight cooks, you should use your smoker in the daytime to get the feel of things. Learn how to use the controls and how long it takes these adjustments to work. It is easier and less dangerous to do things this way, than fumbling around on a dark night trying to pull off both your fist all-nighter and your first use of the smoker.
Decent Weather Inaugural Runs: This is similar to the item above. Learn to use your rig in relatively normal weather before attempting a bad weather cook. This will allow you to establish some norms so you know how your rig is supposed to work. Then on a bad day you can set the rig the way you reached temperature on a good day. Then you can start making adjustments for the weather from a known baseline starting point.
Learn How Your Smoker Performs in All Types of Weather: After making some good weather inaugural runs, start working in other types of weather. If you plan to use your smoker to make the Thanksgiving Turkey or Christmas roast for the first time this year, do some practice runs. Do some test cooks to see how you smoker performs in similar types of weather. Even if you ultimately may NOT cook on those types of days throughout most of the year, do some test cooks while learning your rig. Holidays come on one day a year and you don’t get to choose the weather or postpone the holiday. You won’t want to find out on the day of the big event that either you or your grill aren’t up to the task of cooking in this type of weather. My CG used to take an extra hour or so in the cold weather from heat losses associated with opening and closing the lid. If the walls of your smoker aren’t insulated learn how heavy rains affect the temperature. I used to crank up the heat about 20 degrees just before it started to rain heavily to make up for the temperature loss. I made a smoked pork shoulder for a family member’s birthday in what looked like a monsoon. While I certainly could cook it indoors, I couldn’t smoke it. One year I smoked a Prime Rib on a wicked windy Christmas Day. I wasn’t sure I even had a choice to go inside. The high winds were causing power losses all over the region. I really didn’t even have my Kitchen’s electric oven as a fallback. Practice runs were what allowed me to pull these meals off when I had no alternatives but to cook outside in terrible weather. I knew I was in for a bit of a battle, but I knew what to do and I knew I could do it. More Info
Learn How the Weather Affects Your Charcoal Consumption: The insulating properties of the Big Green Egg seem to make it pretty much immune to the effects of outside air temperature. There is very little if any difference in warm up time and charcoal consumption due to the weather. My CG on the other hand used to take far longer to warm up and I used to see my charcoal consumption doubled in cold weather. My time between charcoal fill ups decreased by an hour or two. These are all important things to know. You need to allow more time for your cook, less time between charcoal refills and you need to make sure you have extra charcoal on hand.
Have a Plan for Charcoal Disposal: On a long cook you may be faced with the prospect of both adding more charcoal and removing some of the spent charcoal. If the ash and spent coals build up too high they could potentially snuff out the fire. My CG would at best go 5-6 hours between loads of charcoal. Once I got up to around the 16 hour mark I was faced with having to empty out the ash drawer. Have a plan for what you are going to do with these hot ashes that you must dispose of on the fly. I had a metal container that looks a bit like a small trash can that was made just for this use. You also may need to have one or probably two pairs of BBQ gloves to wear while pulling out the ash drawer and dumping out coals. Also have a safe spot to do this so you don’t set your yard on fire. Honestly this was the most scary and dangerous aspect of cooking on my CG. I used to always hope the food would finish before I had to dump the ashes. But the point here is plan for this in advance. Don’t be scrambling around trying to figure out a plan at the last minute. My Big Green Egg seems like it will go longer than I will ever have to cook. Even so I have the ash tool, gloves and ash pan and can use the same metal container in the unlikely event I need to remove ashes from the Egg before my cook is done.
Learn Techniques to Extend the Life of Your Fire: Soon after I got my CG I leaned a technique for doing a long low and slow burn called the Minion method. It involved making a large pile of charcoal and adding a small amount of lit coals to one end of the pile. You would get a small controlled burn where the lit coals would ignite the adjacent unlit coals and the fire would spread through the pile. This was a key to getting a long burn on the CG without refueling. Opening the lid less often will help make the charcoal last longer too. More Info
Learn Techniques to Control Heat Loss: The last few cooks I did on my CG I used a welders blanket to cover the Main Chamber of the smoker. This helped make for a longer more stable cook with less temperature fluctuations due to the wind and cold. But there were things you needed to learn about the welders blankets. In windy weather you needed to take steps to make sure the blanket was secure. You did not want it blown around so it was making contact with the Side Firebox. Although these blankets were rated for a high temperature (1000 F / 535 C) burning coals can reach even higher temps than that. So while the Main Chamber stayed below 1000 (535 C), you did not want the welder’s blankets to make contact with the Side Firebox where the coals were burning. You could not use a welders blanket in the rain. The moisture would cause it to loose it’s insulation properties. Lastly you might want to taylor the recipe to whether you will need to use the welders blankets or not. In other words opening and closing the lid of the Main Chamber is complicated by the presence of a welder’s blanket. More Info
Tailor the Recipe to the Weather: When I was using my CG I had recipes I would use more often in the winter. I had a pulled pork recipe and brisket recipe that involved little to no mopping, turning, moving etc. This meant I could keep the lid closed for most of the cook. Save the more high maintenance recipes to the days with nicer weather, where opening the lid multiple times has less of an impact.
Learn Your Charcoal - Briquette Types: What the average person thinks of as charcoal is charcoal in briquette form. I found that for the Side Firebox of my CG, briquettes were the way to go. Their uniform shapes made for a predictable burn. Lump charcoal with it’s wide variations in shapes and sizes could not produce a uniform burn for me in that smoker. Briquettes come in regular and all natural. The regular type, like Kingsford Blue Bag, use other ingredients besides real wood to act as fillers and binders, They also may have items added to help them light easier. These briquettes can be controversial, with some folks saying they can taste these non-natural elements in the cooked food. These type of briquettes tend to produce the most ash and you may need to take this into account on extended cooks. One charcoal may require you to clean the ash drop area during the middle of a long overnight cook. Important to know! All natural briquettes are made of real wood and use natural ingredients like vegetable oil for the fillers and binders. When you light them it smells like a real wood fire. Blue Bag Kingsford just doesn’t smell natural at all. I used DuraFlame, Wicked Good and Stubbs all-natural hardwood briquettes regularly and was quite happy with them. They all had their individual quirks and differences you needed to learn, but they were all good. In general they burned hotter, longer and produced less ash than regular briquettes. They were more volatile in many ways, a little adjustment could make for a sudden drastic swing in temperatures. But once you learned to make little fine adjustments, they could actually burn quite steadily for longer periods of time than regular briquettes. Kingsford Competition Blend All-Natural Hardwood briquettes were a slightly different animal. They used Borax as a releasing agent to help the briquettes come out of the moulds they were made in. This is just a guess, but I would bet that the grooves on the Kingsford briquettes make them cling to the moulds more than a non-grooved briquette. There were arguments about just how natural Borax is and how good it is for you. I will just say my experience with them was mixed. On the Plus Side: They lit easily, took next to no time to fire up in the charcoal chimney, got the smoker to temp in record time and over short periods of time burned hotter in the Side Firebox of my CG than any other briquette. On the Minus Side: While they reached a high temperature quickly they didn’t hold it very long, They didn’t last very long compared to other all-natural briquettes and they made more ash than any other all-natural briquette. The did make less ash than Blue Bag Kingsford, but not by much.
Learn Your Charcoal - Lump: The Big Green Egg and other kamado style cookers are made to use lump charcoal. I had tried using lump in my CG, but the variation in sizes of the pieces seemed to make the temperatures fluctuate wildly. Lump charcoal is 100 percent natural charcoal. It is chunks of charcoal in various sized pieces. Various species of wood are used. Some brands may be one type of wood and others a blend of two or three woods. The smoke characteristics of various brands can vary widely. Some impart quite a bit of smoke flavor of their own and other brands like the Wicked Good Weekend Warrior Lump Charcoal I use are relatively smoke neutral. Where I bake on my Egg I like this smoke neutral characteristic. When I bake there is little to no smoke flavor present. When I want to add smoke I do it by adding my own wood chunks or chips. Lump charcoal can differ in how hard or easy it is to light, how much sparking it does, how long it takes to warm up, how much smoke it produces, how hot it burns, how long it burns and the amount of ash it produces. These are al important items to know because they all can have an impact on your end results. The Naked Whiz website with its extensive lump charcoal database containing reviews of 75 types of lump charcoal is a great resource. More Info
Learn Your Charcoal - Availability: This item seems to apply to briquettes here in New England and not lump which can be had year round. Around here briquettes start disappearing out of the stores around Labor Day. Many of the stores would have blow out sales on Labor Day to get rid of their charcoal inventory. I would often have to buy enough charcoal to last me through the winter, so I would look out for these Labor Day blowouts. The only briquettes you could typically find throughout the winter was Blue Bag Kingsford and that was my dead-last desperation choice. Around here in the dead of Winter all-natural charcoal briquettes were next to impossible to find. Some years there would be a brand available throughout the winter, but it varied from year to year. The first year the Red Bag Kingsford was released, the Home Depots around here carried it throughout the winter. The next winter it not carried. Fortunately I found Lowes had brought in Stubbs brand and they carried it through the next few winters. Once I got my Egg my life was easier since lump is easy to find, even in the winter. The bottom line here is if you live in an area with cold winters and “normal” people don’t grill in your winters, you should plan ahead. When you buy your charcoal ask in the store if they keep a supply in throughout the winter. You may find you will need to stock up for the winter. Better to find out when you can do something about a winter charcoal shortage.
Learn Your Charcoal - Big Picture Performance: As already discussed, charcoal is a natural material and as such has differing performance characteristics depending on the species of wood, size, manufacturing process etc. You should learn the characteristics of the various charcoals you try. These include: Ease of lighting, time required in the charcoal chimney, time to get the smoker to temperature, maximum temperature reached, reaction time (to damper adjustments), burn time, ash production etc. You may find you prefer or need to use a certain charcoal depending on your cook. For example Red Bag Kingsford was the fastest to light, fastest to get the smoker to temp and could get my smoker up to about 300 degrees for 60-90 minutes. Stubbs was slowest to light, once lit got the smoker to temp relatively fast and could hit 325 and hold it for several hours. So if I was cooking a recipe that called for 300 degrees I needed to use Stubbs or Kingsford Red Bag. If I only had Duraflame or Wicked Good Briquettes around I shouldn’t try that recipe, These two briquettes had other good properties, such as longer burn times and less ash production, but they couldn’t hit 300 degrees in the SFB of my smoker and I’d be wasting my time trying. So you can tailor the charcoal to your cooks and you may need to tailor the cooks to the charcoal available to you on a given day.
Learn Your Startup Time. How long your startup takes impacts the overall length of your cook and what time you are eating. The weather and brand of charcoal can affect this time too. Red Bag Kingsford All-Natural Competition briquettes were very quick starters. They would often be ready in the charcoal chimney after 10 minutes or less even in the winter. Stubbs was a slow starter and would take 30-45 minutes depending on the time of year. But Stubbs could also reach very high temps for reasonably long periods of time, even in cold weather. The method you use to light your fire can impact the startup time too. All of these things are important to know. Keep some good written or mental notes.
Never Use Lighter Fluid or Lighter Fluid Impregnated Briquettes for Low and Slow: There are several brands of briquettes, with Kingsford’s Match Light being the most well known, where the briquettes have had lighter fluid added to the mix. On a low and slow cook not all of the lighter fluid may be burned off. Also you are not going to be burning all of the briquettes at once using something like the Minion method, so your food will be on the grill before the lighter fluid in the briquettes has been burned off. NEVER use lighter fluid on a ceramic kamado grill. The ceramics supposedly absorb some of that lighter fluid and it will take a long time to get rid of the smell. If you don’t believe me, let me cite a real world example. On the show BBQ Pit Masters one of the competitors used a loaner Big Green Egg from a local dealer rather than transport her Eggs down to Texas. When it was time to judge the foods, ALL of the judges complained about the taste of lighter fluid. While no lighter fluid was used for THIS competition, that Egg had recently been used for a cooking demo at the BGE dealer and someone, who should have known better, used lighter fluid to help get a fire going faster.
Learn Your Smoking Woods - Species: There are probably a dozen different smoking woods used for cooking food. In many ways it is a lot like pairing wine with a particular dish you are preparing. Some woods have a stronger smoke flavor than others and are said to pair well with certain foods. Some people are also as obsessive with their smoking woods as others are with their wines. Some people smoke using a blend of woods, or will start with one wood and switch to other woods throughout the smoke. Nothing wrong with this, just like wine the bottom line is it comes down to what you personally like. There are articles all over the Internet about this, so I am not going to go into it in great depth here. One last thing I will mention is some woods, like Mesquite, have a unique (some would say awful) flavor and are an acquired taste. You may want to tailor your use of Mesquite to suit the preferences of your guests.
Learn Your Smoking Woods - Amount: You're going to need to learn the proper amount of smoke for both your smoker and your target audience. Each smoker differs a little bit on the amount of smoke you get when you add wood chunks or wood chips to the mix. You will also find that people have very different tolerances for smoke. Until you learn the ropes of both your gear and the people you're cooking for, better to go on the light side. you can always add a little more the next time.
Have an Assistant Help You Raise the Lid: If cold weather, or other concerns, have you worried about keeping the lid up too long, have someone else out with you when you take food on our off your smoker. They raise the lid, you remove the food, and they put the lid back down immediately. This cuts the lid open time to a bare minimum.
Ignore the Built-in Dome or Lid Thermometer: Most smokers come with an inexpensive thermometer built into the lid near the top of the lid. The sooner you start ignoring this, the better off you'll be. On my CG this thermometer varied + or -75 degrees (24C) from the temperature you’d get measuring at the grate level. And since the grate level is the level your food is cooking at, this is the only temperature that matters. On a cold day the lid thermometer would run 75 degrees (24 C) cooler than the grate level temperature. On hot days, or when the sun was directly striking the lid of the smoker, the lid thermometer would run 75 degrees (24 C) higher than the grate level temperature. Either way, since no cooking is actually being done up near the top of the lid, you really don't care what this thermometer says. Measure the temperature at the grate level where your food is actually being cooked.
Remote Read Thermometer - MUST-HAVE Accessory: There are very few things that I would say you must have for smoking. One of those essentials is a remote read thermometer such as the Maverick ET-732 or ET 733. These thermometers allow you to monitor both the grate temperature and your food temperature from the comfort of your kitchen. They also allow you to set alarms that alert you when your smoker temperature has run too high or too low or when your food is done. This makes smoking in all kinds of weather quite bearable. It also allows you to multitask and do prep work while your smoker is warming up. Just make sure to keep the thermometer in sight and don't forget to check it every so often while your smoker is warming up. More Info
Cook to Temperature, Not Time: This is even more true of smoking than it is with grilling. Low and slow cooks can take hours or tens of hours. Each piece of meat is going to be different from the last one you did and the next you'll do.
With BBQ - It is Done When it is Done - Big Cuts: Continuing the theme of the item above, the food is cooked when your thermometer tells you that you've reached your desired doneness temperature. Sure there are all kinds of formulas saying pork shoulder takes about 2 hours per pound to cook and brisket takes 1.5 hours. Those are rough guidelines only. Nobody seems to have informed the actual piece of meat that those are the rules that should be followed. I've had a 5 pound pork shoulder that the formula says should take 10 hours, actually take 8 hours. Another pork shoulder of the exact same weight once took 20 hours. It had a triple plateau. i'm sure some of it has to do with the fat content of the actual piece of meat, but I also think it sometimes has as much to do with the phase of the moon. More Info
With BBQ - It is Done When it is Done - Ribs: There are formulas for cooking ribs such as the 3-2-1 method that break the phases of the rib cook down into hours per phase. The so called 3-2-1 method means that for St. Louis cut spare ribs you smoke the ribs at 225 (107 C) degrees for 3 hours. Then you wrap the ribs in foil and put them on the smoker for 2 more hours. Finally you remove the foil and finish the ribs uncovered for the last hour. This formula is simple and easy to remember. Only one problem: In my experience it never worked. The first low and slow cook I did involved ribs using the 3-2-1 method. The ribs were looking pretty far along after 3 hours on the open smoker, but what did I know? This was my first time cooking ribs. When the ribs came out of the foil after two hours I knew I was in trouble. Instead of 1/4” (0.6 cm) of bone showing like ribs do when they are cooked just right, I had in some cases nearly 1” (2.5 cm) of bone showing. I basted the ribs and put them back on for maybe 30 more minutes, but at this point they were falling apart. I found for St. Louis cut ribs on my CG the 3-2-1 method was more like 2.25-1.5-0.5. So once again ignore the time and go by the doneness.
Give it a Rest: Larger cuts of meat benefit from rest after they reach their desired cooking temperature. Many recipes have you wrap the meat in foil, then wrap it again in towels, and place it inside a cooler at room temperature. There it will spend the next 1 to 4 hours. The meat continues to soften and the moisture that was drawn to the surface during cooking time is pulled back into the meat helping to make the meat moist and juicy. Cut the meat right away and this moisture simply ends up on the cutting board.
The Rest Time Gives You a Time Cushion to Work With: The rest time spent in the cooler can be used to add or decrease the amount of time for a cook. I like to give a brisket or pork shoulder at least for 2 hours of rest time. If the cook ends a little early, you can increase the rest time to 3 or 4 hours, if the cook runs a little late you can decrease it. I still like to try and have the meat rest for at least an hour.
You Can Stop Cooking a Little Early if Needed: If you are really pressed for time, you can often pull a meat off the smoker a little early. The pork shoulder recipe I use the most has you stop cooking when the meat has reached an internal temperature of 195 degrees (90C). In several cases I have pulled it off the smoker at 185 degrees (80 5C) with little to no harm. This is something you will have to learn through experience and will vary by cut of meat and doneness temperature.
What is a Plateau and Why do I Care?: Meats that are cooked low and slow often reach what is called a plateau where the temperatures level off, or in some cases actually decrease, for the period of an hour more. The meats that are being cooked low and slow often have a high-fat content. The plateau represents the time where this fat is reaching temperature where it starts evaporating. The process of evaporation involves a material changing state. The material absorbs heat and when it changes from a solid to a liquid to a gas, the surrounding air is cooled off. So in this case the fat is being rendered off and evaporates, cooling the meat in the process. I have had plateaus where the meat actually drops 5 degrees or so while the plateau is taking place. I've also had other pieces of meat where the meat has shot past the point where the plateau usually occurs and never stops rising in temperature. The first plateau usually occurs around the 160 degree level (70 C) and can last for one, two or three hours, or sometimes even more. I’ve had pieces of meat that have had up to three plateaus. They will reach a second plateau around the 170° (77 C) level and the third plateau occurs in the low 180 degree range (82 C). I am not sure what causes these multiple plateaus. One possible explanation I could see, would be multiple levels of fat occurring deeper and deeper into the meat. In this way the increasing temperature of the meat triggers the first plateau. The second layer of fat is deep enough where it is not affected until the meats temperature has risen further and has reached deeper into the meat. All I know is the pork shoulder that took 20 hours had three separate plateaus where the temperature not only stabilized, but went down at each plateau.
Foil-Based Temperature Weirdness: I have made several recipes where you are taking a 3, 4 or 5 pound (1.4, 1.8 or 2.2 kg) roast, pulling it off the smoker and wrapping it in foil, and then returning it to the smoker to finish off wrapped in foil. The same strange thing happens every time. When the meat goes back on the smoker the temperature may have dropped a degree or too. I expected it to start rising very quickly once it is back on the smoker. Instead the temperature keeps dropping, usually about 10 degrees or so over the course of the next hour. Then it begins rising again rapidly and steadily. The rise from that point on was faster than the meat was rising before it went into the foil. I was mystified the first time this happened and figured it might be a one-time fluke. But every time I have wrapped a big piece of meat in foil midway through a cook, the same thing has happened. I have zero explanation, other than thinking that wrapping the meat in foil is forcing evaporation of the fat and inducing a plateau.
Making Ahead and Using a FoodSaver to Remove Uncertainty: There is nothing that can drive you more crazy than a piece of meat finishing way too soon or taking way too long. Meanwhile you've got people scheduled to come over and eat it at a given time and side dishes you’ll want to have ready too. In the case of pork shoulder and ribs, cooking the meat ahead and storing it in FoodSaver bags can help smooth out the kinks in the process. In the case of pork shoulder, vacuum sealing the bags with the pulled pork and sauce results in a even tastier version of the pulled pork on the day you get around to using it. Ribs come out nearly as good on the day you reheat them, so this can save the day when you have lots of ribs to cook. Brisket is the only one of the big three that doesn't handle this process too well. But if you are making pulled pork or ribs, definitely think of making it ahead and using the FoodSaver and just store the finished product on the day you cook it. This way here on the day you are cooking it you're not worried about when it finishes up, because you're not going to be eating it that day. On the day you do plan to use it: You place it in some 170° (75C) warm water for about a 45 minute gentle head. Once you have your time to warm the water up and the reheat time down it is predictable and repeatable. So on the day you are actually cooking the food, it can take what it takes. You are not going to be eating on that day, so the finished time matters a lot less to you. Then on the day you are serving it, you know you have maybe a 30 minute warmup time for the water and then a 45 minute reheat on your hands. This is a very useful technique, and I have not had to do all-nighters since I started using it. Please refer to the links at the bottom of the page for a blog entry I've written about it. More Info
SMOKERS & SMOKING - Device Specific
Learn In-flight Refueling for Procedures for Your Smoker: This is smoker specific and really doesn't even apply at all to the BGE. Based on what I've seen so far, I am guessing I can go nearly 24 hours on the large BGE without needing to add fuel. On an offset smoker you'll need to learn how long you can go on a given size basket of fuel. You do not want to wait too long to refuel, or you may suffer severe temperature drops. One lesson I learned the hard way is some types of all-natural hardwood briquettes burn nearly to the point of extinction. You'll look in and see large marble or perhaps mothball sized shrunken briquettes sitting in the charcoal basket. When you go to start stirring into a single consolidated pile with your ash tool to make room for fresh briquettes, you'll find they go: "Poof" and disintegrate into nothingness. You are suddenly left without any intact lit coals to maintain the heat and ignite the fresh coals. The coals that just fell apart are now glowing ashes sitting in your ash drop. The key is to refuel while you still have some old coals available to maintain your heat and ignite the new coals. More Info
Smoke on the Big Green Egg-Less is More: With it's tight seal the Big Green Egg requires far less smoking wood, be it at chips, or chunks, than other types of smokers. You're not letting much combustion air in and you are not letting much exhaust air out, so what you put in for smoking woods goes a long way. To add the same amount of smoke flavor, I find I use about half the amount of wood I used to use. Whereas I used to use two fist-sized chunks of wood per hour in my CG, I use one chunk per hour in the Egg. Or I just pour on a palm full of wood chips every hour.
Do NOT Overshoot Your Cooking Temps on the Egg: When you are warming up your BGE keep a close watch on the temps. You do NOT, under any circumstances, want to overshoot your temps. You are dealing with such small damper openings to maintain 225 degrees (107C) that you have little margin for error. Better to drift up to your temperature and stop it, then overshoot by a wide margin and then try and drive the temperatures down. At higher temperatures used for grilling and overshoot is not that critical, but for low and slow you really want to drift up to your temperature and not try and drive yourself back down to it. More Info
Learn If Your Smoker Has a Temperature Spike: My CG used to have a temperature spike about an hour after you had it stabilized. The temps would suddenly start heading up. Woe is you if you didn’t catch it and deal with it immediately. If you caught it as soon as it started happening it was easy enough to close the dampers a bit and beat back the temperature rise. If it got away from you, you’d find your temps had risen from 225 (107 C) to 240 or 250 (115 to 120 C) and they would want to stay there. I got to the point where I would start keeping an extra close eye on my remote read thermometer and would head out to the smoker if the temperature rose even a degree. So pay attention to your particular rig and see if there are repeatable and predictable patterns like this.
Do NOT Open and Close the Lid on the Egg to Drive Down Temps: With my CG, I would sometimes lift the lid of the Main Chamber to try and drive down the temperatures if they overshoot. Sometimes I would even keep the lid open a crack to allow the cold air to drive the temperatures down. On the Egg this is a BIG, BIG mistake. While you might think of this cold air only as low temperature air, to the Egg it is cold COMBUSTION air. So you may burp the Egg by lifting the lid up-and-down to let some cold air in, and it will temporarily lower the temperatures, but it will also ultimately make the Egg run hotter. The Egg will quickly reheat that air and then use it for combustion air, light additional coals and drive your temperatures right up past 225 (107 C). Don't ask me how I know this. More Info
Minimize the Time the Lid is Open on the Egg at Low and Slow Cooking Temps: I found this one out the hard way too. At low and slow temps, the dampers on the Egg are just barely open. If you keep the lid open too long for mopping, basting, turning or other operations involving your food, you'll find you have just let in a "ton" of combustion air and you will have difficulty holding 225 (107C) again when you close the lid. More Info
Why the Adjustable Rig is Better Than the Platesetter for Low and Slow - Item 1: This is just my opinion, but based on the concept of not having to keep the lid open very long during low and slow cooks here is why I prefer the AR to the Platesetter. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Adjustable Rig (AR) is a third-party solution for the Big Green Egg that allows you to do up to five shelves worth of food and insert a a pizza stone for indirect and/or low temperature cooking. Even if I am using a simple set up where I need just the pizza stone and a shelf for what I am doing, my choice is still the Adjustable Rig over the Platesetter and a shelf. Here is the reason: If I am doing a low and slow cook where I need to turn or mop the food, or perhaps add smoking chips every hour or so this is time that the lid needs to be up to perform these operations. As I have mentioned, it is not a good idea to keep the lid open on the Big Green Egg for long periods of time at low and slow cooking temperatures. The Adjustable Rig allows you to remove the whole unit in one operation. You lift the lid, remove the AR with all of it shelves and food intact, and close the lid again. I have a piece of Corian on the countertop adjacent my Egg. This is where I land the hot AR. With the AR out of the Egg I can close the lid quickly. I can pop open the lid and quickly add wood chips to the Egg, and close the lid again. I can make any tweaks needed to to the food or the shelf location on the AR with the lid closed. When ready I pop open the lid and quickly return the entire setup, food and all, to the Egg. Removing the Platesetter, particularly if it is installed legs down, is much more difficult. It is essentially a two-step operation. You must remove the grid and the food in one operation and then remove the hot plate setter in the other. You have double the amount of hot items to find a landing place for and the lid of the Egg is open for a lot longer period of time this way. There are handles on the AR to make removal easy. The AR and food is heavier but using the handles is less awkward than removing the food/grid and then the hot ceramic Platesetter
Why the Adjustable Rig is Better Than the Platesetter for Low and Slow - Item 2: The Adjustable Rig gives you more flexibility in your set up. If you are using the Platesetter legs up, with a drip pan sitting on the Platesetter and a grid on top of the legs, there are some potential problems. First you really want to shim the drip pan so it is not sitting directly on the ceramic Platesetter. Otherwise you will end up with burning drippings that make a bitter smoke that will flavor your food. Some people use balls of aluminum foil, others use half-inch copper plumbing T's, but you really should shim the drip pan. Also if you want to get a grate level temperature probe up on the grill grid you may not have enough room when the pan with the food is also sitting on the grill grid. The Adjustable Rig solves both of these problems easily. You install your oval pizza stone at Level 1.5. You install a sliding D-grid (shelf) at Level 3 and this shelf holds the drip pan up away from the oval pizza stone avoiding the burning drippings problem. I am usually able to get the temperature probe for the grate on this shelf as well and I put the shelf with the food at level 4.5. If the drip pan is too big to allow the grate probe to be on that level, I make this change to the set up: Oval pizza stone at Level 1.5, sliding D-Grid at Level 3 for the drip pan, sliding D-grid at level 4.5 for the grate probe, and the food goes on an 18 inch shelf on top of the AR at Level 6. Either AR set up is a one step removal, using the wire handles made for that purpose. On the other hand, the Platesetter is a one or two step removal plus you are trying to handle very hot ceramics.
Know How the Wind Affects Your Particular Smoker: I found when the weather got really windy, I needed to turn my CG so it was putting the smallest profile possible into the wind. You definitely did not want the wind blowing into the vents on the Side Firebox either. This would drive the temperatures all over the place. Strangely enough, I also found that the position of the chimney vent cover affected it's for performance in the heavy wind. The chimney vent cover was on a pivoting hinge. You would either swing it forward or backward towards the Side Firebox to open the vent up and let out more exhaust. Normally it made no difference whether you swung it forward or backward. When it was really windy, swinging it forward versus swinging it back played a big difference in the performance. I think the cover was acting as an airfoil. In one position it deflected the air up and over the chimney vent, letting very little go down the chimney. In the opposite position it drove the air down and into the chimney vent which helped serve to cool the Main Chamber of the smoker. There are links below to a blog entry where I discuss this further. More Info
Know the Hotspots of Your Rig: Every smoker out there, including the Big Green Egg, has areas where the temperatures are hotter or colder. It pays to learn where these locations are. In some cases you may want to avoid them and in other cases you may want to take advantage of them. With the Platesetter installed in the Big Green Egg, it is said to have a hotspot in the rear near the hinge. One of the three legs of the Platesetter goes here which may have something to do with this phenomenon. The Main Chamber of my CG actually had a temperature variation of 75° (24 C) from left to right across the Main Chamber. The temperatures were hottest when measured closest to the Side Firebox. Since this is the heat source for the Main Chamber, this makes total sense. The temperatures were lowest under the chimney which was the location farthest from the Side Firebox. Generally I would locate food in the middle of the Main Chamber. This is also where I would set my temperature probe to measure the grate temperature. If I had a lot of food I would rotate the food during the cook to even out the cooking temperatures. Any food in the middle I would keep in the middle and simply rotated 180 degrees. Believe it or not on a turkey or other big roast, there could be a 10 to 15 degree temperature difference from the left side farther away from the Side Firebox, to the right side closest to the Side Firebox. Food that was located closest to the Side Firebox, which was exposed to higher temperatures, would be swapped out with food that was located on the left and farthest away from the Side Firebox. These hotspots can also be used to speed up or slow down cooking of a particular item. When I made baked potatoes on the CG, I would often move the potatoes closer to or farther away from the Side Firebox to speed up or slow down their cooking to coincide with the progress of my main dish. These procedures soon become second nature, but you must make yourself aware of their presence. More Info
Water Pans: Depending on your model of smoker, a pan filled with water or some other aromatic liquid can be beneficial in several ways. The water can add humidity in your cooking chamber to make up for humidity lost in the cooking process. Also the large body of water in the pan has sufficient mass that it helps stabilize minor temperature fluctuations during the cooking process. Where my CG definitely benefited from a water pan, your mileage may vary depending on the model of smoker you use. In the case of the Big Green Egg, with its tight seal and the minimal amount of combustion air required to keep the fire going, a water pan is not necessary and should not be used.
PART 4 of this blog will cover items specific to Baking, and more specifically baking on the Big Green Egg.
Related Blog Entries: Here are some blog entries which take some of the items covered above and expand on them:
GRILLING/SMOKING MESSAGE BOARDS:
BARBECUE BIBLE MESSAGE BOARD: The message board that helped get me started in both grilling and smoking. The “CG Family” thread helped me learn about my CG Smokin’ Pro before I even owned it.
EGGHEAD FORUM: The message board that helped me decide if a Big Green Egg was for me. Once I decided that answer was yes, I used this board to help me learn how to use the Big Green Egg before I bought it.
SMOKER MODS: TO KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING YOU NEED TO KNOW WHERE YOU’VE BEEN: (2011 Blog Entry) Don’t make mods to your smoker before you get to know it.
SMOKING IN ALL KINDS OF WEATHER: WINTER SMOKING: (2006 Blog Entry) What I had learned in my first year of smoking in the winter.
CURE FOR THE UNCOMMON COLD: (2008 Blog Entry) Cold Weather Tips.
WEATHER INDEPENDENCE: (2009 Blog Entry) Smoking in all kinds of weather allows you to learn to be less affected by weather related issues.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS - SMOKER: (2011 Blog Entry) Learn to know what you can and can’t do so you have realistic expectations.
COLD WEATHER SMOKING 2011 VERSION - PART 1: (2011 Blog Entry) Tips on Winter Smoking circa 2011.
COLD WEATHER SMOKING 2011 VERSION - PART 2: (2011 Blog Entry) Tips on Winter Smoking circa 2011.
COLD HARD FACTS: (2014 Blog Entry) Big Green Egg related blog entry discussing mistakes made and the solutions found during some low and slow cold weather smoking sessions.
GETTING BACK ON TRACK: (2014 Blog Entry) Putting best practices into play and getting back to basics on the Big Green Egg to solve some recent issues.
TERRIBLE WEATHER, TERRIFIC COOK: (2014 Blog Entry) Using the recent lessons I had learned using my Big Green Egg in the cold weather show when I used the right practices I could do low and slow cooks in almost any type of weather.
EXTENDING THE LIFE OF YOUR FIRE: MINION METHOD - PT. 1: (2006 Blog Entry) A competition BBQ tested and proven method for creating a controlled long term burn for low and slow cooking.
MINION METHOD - PT. 2: (2006 Blog Entry) A competition BBQ tested and proven method for creating a controlled long term burn for low and slow cooking.
WELDERS BLANKET: WELDER’S BLANKET - MUST HAVE MOD: (2012 Blog Entry) About using a welder’s blanket to control temperature losses on my CG from the wind and the cold.
LUMP CHARCOAL INFORMATION:
THE NAKED WHIZ - Lump Charcoal Database - Great information on lump charcoal with detailed reviews of 75 types of lump charcoal:
REMOTE READ THERMOMETERS: These are MUST have accessories for long low and slow cooks. They minimize your need to be outside in bad weather and assure you constant results.
REMOTE POSSIBILITY: (2009 Blog Entry) Making the case for remote read thermometers. While the models described have been improved since then, the use case is just as good now as then.
MAVERICK ET-733 FIRST IMPRESSIONS: (2014 Blog Entry) This may sound like a luxury, but a remote read instant thermometer is an essential piece of gear in my opinion. Here is a review of the third generation model of this thermometer.
MAVERICK ET-732 - NEW & DEFINITELY IMPROVED: (2012 Blog Entry) A review of the second generation model of this thermometer, which is still available at a new lower price not that the ET-733 is out.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?: IT TAKES WHAT IT TAKES: (2006 Blog Entry) Documenting a cook that should have taken13-17 hours that actually took 23 hours.
Using a FoodSaver can help take the uncertainty out of some of your low and slow cooks. FOODSAVER: (2007 Blog Entry) Cook your foods ahead and then have an easy predictable reheat the day you wish to serve them.
IN-FLIGHT REFUELING: IN-FLIGHT REFUELING: (2007 Blog Entry) The method I used for adding charcoal to my CG in the middle of a low and slow smoking session.
MINIMIZING LID OPEN TIME ON THE EGG: COLD HARD FACTS: (2014 Blog Entry) Big Green Egg related blog entry discussing mistakes made and the solutions found during some low and slow cold weather smoking sessions.
KNOW HOW THE WIND AFFECTS YOUR SMOKER: WICKED WINDY: (2006 Blog Entry) Lessons learned using the CG in windy weather.
KNOW THE HOTSPOTS OF YOUR SMOKER: WHAT’S YOUR POSITION: (2011 Blog Entry) Knowing your smokers hot and cold spots allows you to deal with them and in some cases take advantage of them.
OTHER ENTRIES IN THIS SERIES: GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 1 (General)
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 2 (Grilling)
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 3 (Smoking)
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 4 (Baking)
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