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Wok Talk-Cooking with the Lid Up

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This blog entry will cover a lesson I learned this past weekend about using my Big Green Egg with the lid open for doing a stir-fry. The occasion was the publication of a recipe by Grace Young in the Big Green Egg Lifestyle magazine (edition 04/14). This magazine features recipes by various well known chefs who are Big Green Egg users, either as a so-called Culinary Partner (paid spokesperson) or as a “fan”. The chefs often provide a recipe of theirs. The recipes are rewritten from their original version to specifically take into account cooking it on a Big Green Egg. I was excited because here was a recipe from a chef whose cookbooks I own, the recipe described exactly how to cook it on my grill. I had come up with a method I used, and what I discovered is the correct method may be a combination of my method and the method in Big Green Egg Lifestyle magazine.You may be wondering why this is not in the TIPS section? Simple: At this point it is a working theory that I strongly believe to be the case. But with only one test, I am not ready to declare it to be a certainty and therefor a good tip candidate. But if I had to bet money, I would say I am onto something.

Before getting into specifics, I will give a little background information. If you are not familiar with the Big Green Egg (or other brands of kamado type grills), you may wonder what is so special about wok cooking on a BGE. Wok cooking involves cooking with the lid up. The Big Green Egg is generally intended to be used with the lid down. The insulating properties of the grill, together with the tight seal, are intended to allow you to cook with very little combustion air required. Virtually all of the cooking done on a Big Green Egg is done with the lid down. Raising the lid to cook introduces large amounts of combustion air and can drive the temperates way up. You need to deal with this. The second thing you may be wondering is: Who is Grace Young? Grace Young is a well known Chinese-American author who has written award winning cookbooks specializing in Chinese cuisine. She has since branched out into videos and other media. When I was getting started in stir-frying, two of her cookbooks were recommended to me by many, many people :
Breath of a Wok and Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge. Her books are extremely detailed, leaving no detail to chance. I have loved every recipe I have tried from her two cookbooks. So you can imagine how pleased I was when I saw the article about her in Big Green Egg Lifestyle magazine. I knew it would be a great recipe because it was Grace Young and it would be adapted specifically to the Egg. As it turned out, the recipe was in Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge and had flown under my radar screen. As a result I was able to see exactly what changes were made for the BGE versions.

One other thing I learned was the “recommended” temp for a Grace Young recipe on the BGE. Where the cookbook version of the recipe was written for various types of devices there was a range of temperatures given to use. This recipe said: “Set up the Egg for direct cooking at 600 degrees (315 C). When I first began making stir-fries, I had started out using 550 degrees (290 C). Subsequently I started upping the temps in 50 degree increments. It turned out 600 degrees (315 C) was still doable, but 650 (345 C) was beyond my skill set. I simply couldn’t keep the food moving fast enough to keep it from burning. I reverted back to 550 degrees (290 C) with the theory that if the temps drifted up to 600 degrees (315 C) I could still keep the food moving fast enough to avoid burning. Going forward I will use 600 (315 C) as my starting point.

The way I had stumbled onto for cooking on my Egg with the lid permanently up was to fire up the Egg and stabilize it at my desired cooking temperature without using the Dual Function Metal Cap over the chimney. This achieved my temperature strictly through the use of the lower draft door. I would let the grill run at this temperature for 30 minutes or so to make sure it was indeed stabilized. When it is time to raise the lid I would set the lower draft door to 50 percent of it’s current setting. Just to be doubly clear here: I don’t mean 50 percent open, I mean 50 percent of the amount I had it open to reach my desired temperature. So if the damper was 1 1/2” (4 cm) open, I would close it down to 3/4” (2 cm) open. The recipe from
Big Green Egg Lifestyle Magazine said to close the damper completely. I was looking forward to making the recipe STIR-FRIED CUCUMBER & PORK WITH GOLDEN GARLIC to test this cooking method out.

Two events: One expected and one unexpected, served to make this open lid temperature control more critical. Normally when cooking with a wok the cook is over in about 5-6 minutes. If the temps are rising or falling slightly this is no big deal, you will be done cooking before the temperature rise impacts your cook. But this recipe involved essentially two cooks with some time in between. The first cook involved frying some chopped garlic in peanut oil for a minute or so. The garlic turns golden and crispy. The wok is removed from the heat and the liquid and garlic are poured into a strainer. The garlic is spread out and dried on paper towels and the peanut oil is reserved. The wok is cleaned completely and dried. The main part of the cook begins when the cleaned wok is returned to the Egg. This means that the Egg is sitting there for about 10 minutes with the lid up. If the temperatures rise or fall, it is going to be more serious with this 10 minute time out. The unexpected event was Mother Nature. The air temp was around 60 degrees (16 C), which meant this was the warmest wok cook ever for me. The problem was the wind. There was a front moving in, which came a bit early and the winds started howling while I was doing my prep. The winds were gusting between 20-30 MPH range (32-48kph). I really didn’t know what this type of wind would do to the fire. Besides potentially affecting with my cooking temps, I was worried the wind might fan the flames and I might have to wear my welding gloves to stir-fry. This would not be ideal because I would be far less nimble. When the time came, I went back out to the Egg and put the wok back on it to warm up. I used an infra-red thermometer to shoot the bottom of the wok to check my temps I found the wok was only reaching 560 degrees (295 C) as opposed to the 600 degrees (315 C) I was shooting for. I opened the lower draft door about 1/8” (3mm). Within a minute or so my wok was at my desired 600 (315 C) and I began. Fortunately the winds did not fan up the flames and the cook was textbook perfect after that.

Later that evening I recapped in my mind what I had learned this day. The completely close the lower damper had almost worked, but not quite. I am sure the winds drove the temps down a bit. Upon further reflection over a beer, some items occurred to me. The first was this was my first somewhat warm weather cook. All my other wok cooks had occurred at air temps of -3 to 20 F (-19 to -6 C). This may have explained why at those temps I needed to close down to 50 percent of my current setting. I started thinking about the other times I had cooked on the Egg with the lid up. That would be when using the Dutch oven to start making soups or stews. This was also a cold weather activity, I generally don’t desire stew in the middle of the summer. Lastly I thought what temp was this recipe written for? Well Grace Young calls San Francisco home and the BGE Company is out of Atlanta. So I am ASSuming those recipes were written for an air temperature of 72 degrees (22C). The 60 degree (15 C) temps and winds could easily explain why I had to open the damper up a little. In my mind this could easily explain my experience.

My working theory for cooking with the lid open is this: When working at “normal” air temps of 72 (22 C) close the damper completely. In the dead of winter, close the lower damper down to 50 percent of it’s current settings. For temps in between you will need to leave the damper open somewhat. Note the current lower draft door setting and your range will be 50 percent of your current setting to fully closed. I would also say be conservative, with the Egg it is easier to raise temperatures than lower them. Bring an infra-red thermometer and shoot the wok to determine if you’ve hit the proper setting.

SOME RELATED LINKS:
Here is a link to the picture entry for the meal made this date.

   STIR-FRIED CUCMBER & PORK WITH GOLDEN GARLIC Stir-Fry Picture Entry

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