Terrible Weather, Terrific Cook
Recently I emerged from a period where I was having various temperature control issues, both during start up and while cooking. I have detailed these in a series of blogs which I will provide links for at the bottom of this entry. This blog is a bit of a hybrid in that it covers 3 aspects of a recent low and slow cook in very bad weather. First it helped show me I am past my various issues as long as I do things right. Secondly, it also gave some more ammunition to a recent theory about how the Looftlighter lights the fire in a totally different manner than the paraffin starters I was using before. Third, on his day I was making a new dish in very bad weather and the Big Green Egg once again showed what a great cooker it can be.
The recipe I was making was from Dr. BBQ's SLOW FIRE. It was a recipe for low and slow pulled beef, called logically enough: PULLED BARBECUE BEEF. Originally, I was planning on cooking and serving this on Saturday for lunch. My casual read-through of the recipe early in the week made me think I could get up around 5:00 AM, light the Egg, and stand a good chance of having this on the table at 1 o'clock for lunch. Then midweek I started looking for a side dish to pair with the barbecued beef. One recipe look very attractive was from Myron Mixon's book: SMOKING WITH MYRON MIXON for BARBECUE-STUFFED BAKED POTATOES. One of the attractions of this recipe was the fact it used 1 pound (450g) of pulled pork as part of the filling for the potatoes. The lightbulb went off in my head and I thought: Why not use some of the barbecue beef instead? While this is was a great idea, it also cause some problems with my preliminary scheduling. I would need to have the barbecue beef done even earlier so I could use it to fill the baked potatoes to serve with the barbecue beef sandwiches. This meant getting up closer to 1:00AM and since I started working at home this is just not something I will do. But then I thought: This is just like pulled pork, why not do it a day or two ahead of time and put it in FoodSaver bags? I could set aside 1 pound (450 g) of the pulled beef in its own separate FoodSaver bag to use with the filling for the potatoes. On Saturday this bag could be reheated independently, three hours early, when I needed to start the potatoes. Later Saturday morning I would have a very predictable warming process for the pulled beef. Pulled pork takes 45 minutes to warm up at 170 degrees (77 C). A similar size bag of pulled beef should take the same amount of time. The other thing about warming food at this relatively mild temperature is that you do not have to worry about overcooking the meat. This is a gentle reheat and if people are late or you are running a little behind on other things, you can leave the food in the bag and it will not overcook.
Having to smoke the beef prior to Saturday, meant I had to do it on Thursday. Friday I had errands to do which would keep me away from the house. The only problem with this is we were having REALLY nasty weather on Thursday. We got about 2" (5cm) of snow, and then the bottom fell out of the thermometer. It went from freezing to 16 degrees (-9 C) in the space of about an hour. The winds picked up too. For much of this cook I had winds that were steady around 20 mph (32kph) with gusts up to 30 or 35 mph (48-56kph). This put the windchill well below zero (-18 C). There is no way I would've been able to do this cook on my old horizontal barrel smoker. The temperatures in the smoker would've been bouncing up-and-down, I would've been constantly running out to the grill, and I probably would've blown through two 20 pound (9kg) bags of charcoal. And if I was actually able to do the cook, it would've taken far longer than the recipe called for. The wild fluctuations in cooking temperature on the smoker the weather would've caused may have added 1 to 2 hours more.
The Big Green Egg was another story. Provided I could get it lit and stabilized at 235 degrees (113C) without overshooting my mark, I knew I would be okay. My last few cooks had proven that. The big trick was to not overshoot the target temperature. I planned on lighting it nearly an hour before I needed it, so it would be stabilized at 235 degrees (113 C). Having it stabilized would mean far less trips out to the Egg to tweak the temperatures. Also when I lifted the lid to add food or smoking wood, the Egg would bounce back to it stabilized temperature without my having to make further tweaks to the dampers. I lit a pile of coals in the middle of the firebox with my Looftlighter. The cold and the wind did not affect its performance at all. In fact if anything the coals were sparking more on the sooner side. I think this may have been due to the strong wind. Due to the more extreme conditions, I actually lit a few more coals that I normally do. Once the coals were lit, I added my Adjustable Rig with the oval pizza stone and two racks back onto the Egg and close the lid. The grate probe for my Maverick ET-732 was clipped to the lower sliding oval grill grid, above the pizza stone and just below the upper grill grid I would be using to hold the beef.
This start up was similar but different to other start ups with my Looftlighter. Usually the grate probe of the Maverick show's temperatures in the low 30s (+/- 0.5C) when I closed the lid after lighting the coals. This time it showed “LLL” meaning the temperature was below 26 degrees (-3C). This didn't surprise me due to the low air temperatures, but I decided to stay right out at the Egg and monitor things until the grate probe temps started climbing. The only problem was, after a couple minutes the grate temps still hadn't started climbing. I placed my bare hand above the chimney opening on the top lid and didn't really feel any heat rising out of the Egg. Also I wasn't hearing the crackle from the charcoal like I normally did. Concerned the fire may have gone out, I opened the Egg and pulled out the Adjustable Rig to see what was going on. The upper charcoal that I had lit was completely gray and showed no signs of any combustion going on. It looked like all of the charcoal I had lit had gone out. I was thinking I was going to have to relight the fire. Then I looked a little closer and saw deep below the top layer of charcoal there were some faint glows showing through. I decided to give things some more time and I placed the Adjustable Rig back in the Egg and close the lid. After another couple of minutes I saw the first temperature reading that wasn't “LLL”. After that the temperatures began to climb slowly and steadily.
This additional peek I made into the Egg helped serve to verify a theory I’d had developed about the way the Looftlighter gets the charcoal going. I had speculated that while ignition initially occurs on the top layer of coals, it actually goes down to the next lower layer and spreads there. When this lower layer of charcoal starts igniting, the flames burst through openings in the upper layer of coals and relights the upper layer of coals just above it. And at this point you are off to the races. I stood right out of the grill and witnessed the temperatures doing something that reflected just that type of behavior. The temperatures rose to around 85 degrees (29C) slowly, but steadily. After that the temps began climbing quickly and soon they were at 200 degrees (93C) at which point I closed the lower dampers down 50 percent. At first the temps continued to rise fast but when they got up to around 225 (110C), they started slowing down significantly. At this point I closed the dampers down to the position I expected they should be in for my target temperature of 235 (113C). The temperature actually rose a few degrees higher than I wanted, but I stood there and waited to see if they would go back down or continue rising. The next reading showed they had risen again, so I closed the dampers slightly. For the next reading the temperature still rose, but not as fast and I watched to see what would happen next. The temperature finally started dropping down ever so slowly but it was headed in the right direction. It reached 235 (113 C) and settled in there. At this point I went into my kitchen to begin prepping the roast to get it ready for the smoker.
The temperature on the Egg remained rocksteady at 2:35 (113 C) and I had stable temperatures for about 40 minutes before I actually brought the roast out to the grill. I pulled the Adjustable Rig out of the grill and landed on my Corian sheet which serves like a giant trivet. I added some oak chips and put the Adjustable Rig back in place. When I went to close the lid I found I had a problem. The set up I was originally planning on using didn't work the way I expected, so I had to keep the grill lid open longer than I wanted in order to rearrange the V-rack and roast. This caused a big temperature drop initially at the great level. Where the Egg had been stabilized at 235 (113 C) for over 45 minutes, I didn't tweak the dampers yet. I went back inside and never let the remote receiver for the Maverick ET-732 get out of my sight. The temps soon began rising and got up to 235° (113 C) once again. The temps passed right on by 235 (113 C) heading up quickly to 250° (121 C). I was hoping to avoid having a runaway train, so I raced out to the Egg and closed the dampers up a little. No doubt, the extra combustion air let into the Egg while I was fiddling around with the roast placement served to stoke the fire. This is why I normally pretest all of my setups ahead of time. In this case I had used this particular set up before, but the roast rack was one layer level lower on the Adjustable Rig. This little difference in height between level 4.5 and level six meant the sides of the roast rack at the corners were contacting the dome of the Egg. This once again reinforces the reason I always try and pretest my set ups before the grill is heated up. If I hadn't been right on top of things, the extra combustion air I let in fiddling around with my setup could've caused my temps to run away and hide on me.
Since I stayed right on top of things during start up, I was rewarded with a very steady low-key cook despite the weather conditions. The conditions were unbelievable. Normally if I am making a quick trip out to the Egg, I won't bother putting my coat on. This day not only did I have to put my coat on, if I was going to be there more than a minute or so I needed to put on earmuffs and gloves. The wind was absolutely howling, but the Egg was behaving no differently than if it was a hot day in mid July. The next time I had to open the lid on the Egg was three hours after I put the food on. At this point the beef roast was brought back into the Kitchen. The chuck roast was placed in a foil pan along with some beef broth. The roast was topped with sliced onions and barbecue rub. The disposable foil pan was covered with aluminum foil and then it was back on the Egg for another three hours. Once during this three hour period, the temps begin to drift up slightly again. It was a quick trip out the egg to tap the dampers slightly to close them a little more. It rather amazed me that on a cold day like this I was having troubles with the temperatures climbing not falling. The weather had gotten even worse after the sun set. The temps fell even further and the winds picked up. But other than the rise I just mentioned the temps were rock steady.
After six hours on the Egg, it was time to take the foil pan with the roast off the egg and shred the beef. While the chuck roast was cooking, I had learned a great tip from various sources on the internet that made shredding the meat brain-dead simple. I have detailed this tip in a new entry in my Tips section called EFFORTLESS SHREDDED MEAT. The quick and dirty version is I was able to use my KitchenAid stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment to shred the beef in less than two minutes. Definitely check out that new Tip entry! When I took the foil off the pan, I was surprised at what I saw. I had thin sliced a large onion, but most of the onion was actually gone. There was very little onion in the liquid and the only entirely intact onions were several it were still sitting on top of the chuck roast. After I removed the chuck roast from the foil pan, some barbecue sauce was added to the liquid. When I stirred this mixture, I could see what was happening with the onions. They were basically so soft they were dissolving in the liquid. In fact an hour later, when everything was finished cooking there were no intact slices of onions left. There were just little pieces that looked like they had been finely diced.
The now shredded beef was added back into the liquid in the pan and thoroughly mixed. The pan was covered in foil again and it was back out to the Egg for a final hour. At this point the Egg had been lit and running at 235 for 9 hours including warm up, the various phases of the cook and the intermediate prep steps. It was still holding temps nicely, which was my reward for getting the Egg stabilized before starting to cook on it. During the last 15 minutes the temps began to rise a little, once again. I didn’t bother tweaking the dampers in part because of the short time left, and frankly I didn’t relish the idea of an extra trip out to the Egg in this weather. When the final hour was over I grabbed the foil pan off the Egg and shut it down for the day. I was truly amazed at how well things had gone. I really don’t think I could have even done this cook on my CG Smokin’ Pro. If I tried, I would have been constantly running outside to tweak the dampers to adjust for rising and falling temps. I probably would have had to do 3-4 inflight refuelings, using up two full bags of charcoal.
The shredded beef was divided up and stored in 3 FoodSaver bags. For 1 bag I weighed out a 1 pound (454g) portion on my Kitchen scale. This was for use in the BARBECUE-STUFFED BAKED POTATOES. The remaining 3 1/2 pounds (1.6kg) of meat was divided between two FoodSaver bags. These would be warmed up on Saturday for 45 minutes in a large pan of water heated to 170 degrees (77C). What I like about this is on the day I am eating the meat, I have a very short reheat that is very repeatable in terms of reheat time. The end product on Saturday was pulled beef sandwiches and some of the PULLED BARBECUE BEEF was used in the BARBECUE-STUFFED BAKED POTATOES. Now pulled pork is my favorite barbecued dish, and I’ve got to say this pulled beef was a close second. It was similar, but different, to the pulled pork. When the pulled beed entered my mouth, my initial impression was it was similar to pulled pork. As the initial flavor went away, the flavor that replaced it was different than pulled pork. It was stronger in nature and different. I think this is the beef flavor (vs pork) coming to the front after the initial burst of flavor from the sauces used. My parents absolutely loved this meal, with my mother declaring this meal to be the best meal I have made. Now that I know it is easy to cook, even in an extreme weather situation, and even easier to shred I have no excuse not to make pulled beef or pulled pork more often.
In a technical note: On Saturday when I went back out to the Egg I used on Thursday, I received another piece of evidence to help verify my theory about the Looftlighter. I’ve started to feel the fire does not spread on the surface of the lump like it does with paraffin fire starters. Instead I felt the fire goes deeper into the charcoal. Once it spreads a little at this lower level, the coals begin to flame and they burst back through the top layer of coals causing a fast temperature rise. When I opened the lid several days after this 9 hour cook, I was greeted by a sight that surprised me a bit. It confirmed my theory, but caused a modification of it as well. The top layer of lump charcoal was still pretty much black with some pieces having greyed edges. Below the top the charcoal was much more fully consumed. So it would seem that the high powered, very hot air stream from the Looftlighter ignites charcoal deeper into the pile. The fire is spread at this level, and it actually doesn’t burst through the pile reigniting the top layer. The rapid temperature rise I see must occur when a critical mass of lit coals is achieved at the lower level. Now that I know my startup process and timing is indeed different, I am keeping a much closer eye on the startup process. Eventually I will get a better handle on the new times involved and eventually I might be able to sneak some prep in while the fire is coming to temperature.
This cook showed once again the key to a smooth cook, especially for low temperature low and slow cooks, is to pay close attention to your startup and get the Egg stabilized at your desired temperature before adding your food. I cooked on a day that featured really horrible cold and windy weather. With the Egg stabilized correctly, I could have been cooking in the middle of July. Having to open the lid for short periods, SHORT periods, of time had no effect on the operating temperature. The Egg snapped back to the operating temperature without any tweaking required by me. The key as I have learned, is to try to keep the lid open for as little time as possible. Not because of the temperature loss from letting cold air in. This is a short term issue. The problem actually is the reverse, you are letting in potential combustion air which could serve to drive up your temperatures long term. This seems a little counterintuitive, but it makes sense if you think about it. The Big Green Egg has such a good seal it needs very little air to maintain your desired temps. Your letting in a lot of air by keeping the lid open has just added a bunch of cold air, but this air also is combustion air and a lot of it. So stabilize your Egg before using it and take steps to minimize the amount of outside air you let in during the cook. Do this and you will spend the majority of the cook from the comfort of your house.
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 there are several links to blog entries about my initial impressions on my newly purchased Looftlighter. Lastly a link to the picture entry for the meal made this date.
PULLED BARBECUE BEEF
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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