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

Looftlighter Lesson Learned

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I love the Looftlighter I recently purchased and would buy it again in a second. But I have come to the realization that it has probably been a contributing factor to some wacky startup issues I’ve been fighting with lately. This is a working theory right now. I may be wrong about exactly what is happening because I can’t watch and observe the process. But I am very sure my startup process has been altered a bit. This is repeatable and I just realized it has been happening since I got the Looftlighter. If you are thinking of the Looftlighter, and will be using it with lump charcoal on a Big Green Egg or other Kamado style cooker read on.

I have been working my way through some recent temperature related problems recently. It has been a little tough because things were working fine and suddenly everything changed. This is also around the time I was adding new Eggcessories to my cooking arsenal. I recently wrote two blog entries
GETTING BACK ON TRACK and GETTING BACK ON TRACK II, where I thought I had gotten to the bottom of things. As it turns out, I may not have gotten entirely to the bottom of the situation. The situation was a bit of the classic not being able to see the forest for the trees. It is true I was loosing control of my startup because the temps were going too high on me on low and slow cooks. Overshooting the mark on a low and slow cook is almost fatal because the Egg holds temperatures so well. I was writing a blog entry on SLOW FIRE, Dr. BBQ’s cookbook for beginners to BBQ. I mentioned it was convenient that all of the recipes were cooked at 235 degrees (113C). In my head I started thinking this was when I started having my startup problems.

Then I quickly realized I was wrong! I had some of the panini cooks that I did before that had run over temps at startup. I was using 2 BGE Half-moon Cast Iron Grill Grates and I figured this had somehow changed the startup times. Now when you are looking for 235 (113C) degrees and you find yourself at 400 degrees (204C) this is a BIG and nearly fatal problem. If you are shooting for 375 (191C) for your panini and you hit 400 (204C), this is inconvenient but fixable. I started thinking back to what the first cook was when I had startups overshot the mark unexpectedly: It was January 19th. Guess what day I bought the Looftlighter and used if for the first time? That would be January 19th.

Suddenly some other things in the back of my mind started coming into focus like little missing pieces to this same puzzle. I was aware that the startup process with the Looftlighter seemed faster overall right from the start. But I also remembered at times it almost seemed like the fire had gone out. I would look into the Egg and I would see a glow deeper down into the charcoal, just below where I had lit the fire initially. Also it is strange what happens to the coals you light. When you start the Looftlighter you touch the tip of the Looftlighter to the coals you wish to light. These coals begin to spark after a minute or so. You pull back about an inch (2.5cm) and the coals begin to glow brightly and break out into a flame while the Looftlighter is still on. When you pull the Looftlighter away, the flames go down and you are left with some coals that are glowing. The glow doesn’t seem to be on the top surface, but actually a ways inside these coals. At this point the lid is closed, so I haven’t seen what happens next.

The temps barely rise at this point. The lid thermometer barely budges off the point it was at when you started. Sometimes you can hear the crackling sound the lump makes when it is either just lighting or going out. Several times I have cracked the lid to make sure the fire hasn’t gone out. The fire hadn’t gone out, but I noticed something interesting. The coals I initially lit were grey and ashy looking. If they glowed red at all, it was the bottom side of the coal. There would also be a red glow visible in the layer of coals just below the top coals. Until a couple days ago I hadn’t given this too much thought. I’d close the lid and the temps would slowly rise to about where the low readings on the lid thermo start, 125 degrees (52C). Once I’d seen the coals were indeed lit and the temps were finally rising, I would head into the house and plan to monitor the temps from inside. What was happening after that, is the temps would seem to jump up must faster than I expected based on my prior experiences. That coupled with several times where I let myself get distracted just when the temps had started rising, made for some nasty overshoot issues.

I now have a theory that actually seems to fit the evidence on hand. I believe that when the coals are lit with the Looftlighter it is a different experience than you get with the paraffin starters. The paraffin starters burn and ignite the coals they are in physical contact with. The Looftlighter ignition process is different. I believe the fan on the Looftlighter forces combustion air deep inside the top coals and lights the interior of the lump. When you remove the Looftlighter the top surface tends to go out. But you still have the middle to bottom portion of the coals which are lit. I think what is happening next is the coals on top continue burning, but they are burning downward. They begin igniting the layer of coals just below them. It isn’t just the coals directly below them, it is the coals below
and adjacent to the coals below. This fits in with what I have observed when the temps have stalled and I raised the lid to see if my coals had gone out. I think what happens next is this lower layer of coals continue to ignite a little at a time. At some point they ignite with an open flame and this serves to reignite the coals immediately above them. This causes the rapid temperature rise that has seemed to happen in the space of a couple minutes. All I know is on some of these cooks the temperatures appeared stalled and then rose several hundred degrees in the matter of two minutes. I’d get distracted or fail to look for a couple minutes and I’d be shocked with how fast the temps had risen.

This theory certainly fits what I have observed and seems to make sense to me. But the bottom line is: If you are starting to use the Looftlighter on a Kamado style grill with lump charcoal, it definitely behaves differently than a fire lit with paraffin fire starters. The fire seems to be stalled (or like it has gone out) and then suddenly it is off to the races. Now whether this is also partially due to the Wicked Good Weekend Warrior lump charcoal I use I don’t know. It is all I ever use. But Wicked Good Weekend Warrior has a reputation as being hard to light. So to all you new Looftlighter owners using Kamado style grills, keep a really close eye on your startup. I really wouldn’t plan on sneaking in too much prep or other tasks while the grill is getting started. When the temps start rising they go from zero to volcanic in the blink of an eye. Perhaps once you get a handle on the time frames involved you can pay less attention and sneak in another task. But just remember that about the worst thing that can happen with a Kamado cooker, is to have your temps overshoot their mark. At this point I can see a future blog entry when I have more hands-on time with my Looftlighter and I can be more definitive about the startup process. In the mean time you have been warned! Learn by my mistakes and find your own new ones to make.

ADDENDUM - 03/15/14:

A 9 hour low and slow cook a week later both proved the main premise of this theory, but caused some modifications to the specifics. This cook followed the same pattern. Slow rise after the lumps was lit, followed by a rapid rise several minutes later. When I opened the Egg up a few days later I was greeted by an interesting site. The upper coals were actually still mostly black, with about 25 percent of them having some greyed corners. The coals one level below the top level were totally grey as were some of the coals below this level. So yes the coals are burning at level below the top layer of coals. I had thought the rapid temperature rise seen a few minutes after starting was caused by the flames of the lower level of coals bursting through the surface and getting the top layer of coals going too. The look of this charcoal pile seems to show otherwise. I’m thinking the temperature rise is probably caused when a certain critical mass of lit coals on the lower level is achieved and they are able to start heating the air in the chamber.

SOME RELATED LINKS Here are some links to other blog entries about the temperature control issues I have been having recently & what I’ve learned. Also a blog entry about my initial impressions on my newly purchased Looftlighter.

  GETTING BACK ON TRACK 2014 Blog Entry on how getting back to basics solved some of my recent temperature control problems.
  GETTING BACK ON TRACK II 2014 Blog Entry on the unexpected solution to some of my recent baking problems.
  COMEDY OF ERRORS - 2014 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 LOOFTLIGHTER 2014 Blog Entry where I review my recently purchased Looftlighter.
  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.

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