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

Everything Is Under Control-Part 1

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We interrupt this regularly scheduled blog entry…I had planned to continue posting my blog entries about the changes made for Thanksgiving 2014, but something very exciting happened at the ned of the year, just before Christmas, and I will write about that here and go back to the Thanksgiving blog entries shortly. What happened was as much of a surprise to me as anyone: I bought a pit controller for my Big Green Egg. Specifically I bought the CyberQ WiFi pit controller from the folks at BBQ Guru. A pit controller controls the cooking temperature of your smoker automagically. Additionally the WiFi capabilities of the unit I purchased gives you the ability to control your smoker two ways. The simplest, called Ad Hoc mode is done via a direct WiFi connection to one WiFi enabled computer, smartphone or tablet. The second method, called Infrastructure Mode, is where you can add the CyberQ WiFi onto your home WiFi network where multiple devices can control it. In Infrastructure Mode you can actually control the device remotely from anywhere you can access the internet. There is also some third party software available for smartphones & tablets that adds additional ease of use features and capabilities to your use of the device. This blog will discuss the big picture regarding pit controllers: What they are and why you might want to use them. PART 2 will discuss the specifics of the CyberQ WiFi model I purchased, PART 3 will describe WiFi Networking in general and setting up the simpler Adhoc mode. PART 4 will describe setting up the more feature laden, but more difficult Infrastructure WiFi mode. PART 5 will cover installing and setting up the CyberQ WiFi on your smoker. PART 6 will give my first impressions using it. I will write a companion first impressions blog entry about the CYBERCOOK software I am using to enhance my use of the CyberQ.

What is an Automatic Pit Controller?: At its most basic level a pit controller is a device that hooks up to your charcoal grill or smoker and allows you to set your desired temperature for cooking, which the pit controller endeavors to achieve and maintain. So at a basic level it allows you to automatically control your pit temperature over long periods of time without the user having to make any adjustments. More advanced pit controllers allow you to insert one or more food temperature probes which it monitors and displays the temperatures of. It will sound the alarm when your desired doneness temperature is reached. The most advanced pit controllers add features like Wi-Fi connectivity for the purposes of remotely controlling or observing the pit controller. The more advanced controllers also have features built in where they learn or adapt their behavior to suit certain situations. There is also third-party software available for several of these pit controllers which gives you an interface that makes the unit easier to use and also allows you to graph your cooks.

Why use an automatic pit controller?: Automatic pit controllers have several use cases:
  • First of all they are useful for competition barbecue teams who need to be multitasking during the competition so they have predictable end results.
  • They are useful for anyone who wants to do and unattended overnight cook. Letting the pit controller be in charge is far nicer then you having to stay up all night or get up periodically throughout the night check what is going on.
  • They are helpful for people who need to be away from their smoker during part of a cook.
  • They make more efficient use of your time. Assuming you have set it up right the pit controller will keep the grill temperatures within a specified range. This allows you to focus on other things and save several trips out to the grill or smoker.
  • A more sophisticated model pit controller that allows you to record and graph your cooks gives you the benefit of historical records you can refer back to is a reference for your current cook.

The hardware for these units typically consists of four components. Some of the more simple units may combine these parts. For example on some units the fan is part of the Control Unit. But the intermediate to advanced units typically have these four components.
Control Unit: This is the brains of the operation. All of the other parts plug it into this unit. The Control Unit typically has a display screen and some simple buttons for controlling operations. It displays the temperature readings from the Pit and Food Temperature probes and sounds alarms when the food is done or the pit temperature is too high or low. It controls the operation of the Blower Fan which is used to raise or lower the cooking temperature of your pit.
Power Supply: This is typically a small power brick supplying 120 V or 12 V power to the unit.
Blower Fan and Adapter: Other than some basic models, these pit controls get tailored to the smoker they are to be used with. There is a blower which is what is used to control the temperature of the smoker. The control unit turns the fan on to provide more combustion air and raise the temperature of the pit. The fan is turned off to level off or lower the pit temps. These actions are done as needed to achieve and maintain the proper temperature. There are usually several models of fans to choose from with various CFM ratings to suit the size of the smoker the pit controller will be paired with. Additionally there are adapters sold that allow you to plug the fan into your smoker. They typically replace some or all of the draft door assembly and you choose one suit your smoker.
Temperature Probes: Every pit controller has at least one Pit Temperature Probe that goes in the cooking chamber. The Pit Temperature Probe is what the Control Unit uses to measure the cooking temperature and turns the blower fan on and off to maintain the proper temperature. More advanced pit controllers come with one or more Food Temperature Probes you insert in your food to monitor the temperature of your cooking food.

My Reasons for NOT wanting a Pit Controller for my Big Green Egg: I became aware of pit temperature controllers around eight years ago now when I first got my CharGriller Smokin’ Pro horizontal offset barrel smoker. I even seriously considered getting one. I actually had gotten pretty good at controlling that smoker. I could sometimes go two or three hours without having to tweak the grates. But this was in good weather conditions in the summer. The winter was a totally different story. Between the wind, cold air and the the need for frequent charcoal changes, I would be lucky to get an hour and without having to run out and make adjustments for any one of those reasons. Plus every time I opened the lid the grill took a long while to recover, extending the cooking time and requiring multiple trips out to the smoker to make grate adjustments. Perhaps it was the Yankee in me, but while I considered getting a pit controller several times, I just never could get myself to pull the trigger on one. I just couldn't see spending more for an accessory for my smoker than I paid for the entire smoker. Another potential use I had for a pit controller was for overnight cooks. To have a brisket or pulled pork ready for Saturday afternoon I had to start it around midnight the night before. This involved trying to stay up all night so I could babysit the smoker. Sometimes I would set an alarm for myself and I would try to get a couple hour nap between 3 AM to 5 AM. But these overnight cooks could take a lot out of you. Then in 2008 I began working for myself. Suddenly I could do rib and pulled pork cooks cooks during the day during the week, and keep an eye things while I worked. When the food was done I would refrigerate it in FoodSaver bags for reheating on the weekend. Suddenly a pit controller for use monitoring overnight cooks was no longer necessary.

In 2012 when I bought my first Big Green Egg and used it for several low and slow cooks, I knew I would never need to own a pit controller. My second cook on the Egg was a 10 hour brisket cook at 225 degrees (105 C) where I went the first nine hours without having to make any adjustments to the grates. Compared to my former smoker this was like heaven on earth. Why spend that money for something to control a smoker that is already a very stable product out-of-the-box? So for nearly 2 years my standard company line was a pit controller was totally unnecessary and overkill for a backyard barbecuer like myself. I swore a pit controller was the last thing in the world I would ever buy. So what changed? The Big Green Egg vastly expanded my cooking horizons. After about six months I added a second Egg and a year later a third. Suddenly I was doing a lot more than I ever imagined and the idea of having something to control the Egg that my main dish was cooking on suddenly had some appeal to it. Controlling one Egg is easy, controlling three isn't all at hard either, but you do is spend considerably more time fiddling around with the grills and less on cooking. The other thing that changed is the timing of my Family meals on Saturday. The last year or so I have moved them up from 4 or 5 PM to noon time. This was done so that during the winter months people could be driving home while it was still light outside. Even in the spring or fall, if people were enjoying themselves after dinner I hated to see them rush off because they were worried it would be getting dark soon . Moving dinnertime up by four or five hours changed several aspects of the cooks. I either had to make some things ahead, start at some ridiculous hour like 3 or 4 AM on Saturday morning or try to be more efficient with my time. Being able to set my main dish on the smoker and not have to keep a close eye on it all the time became attractive. The second item which made a pit controller more attractive was for some of these low and slow cooks I was back to meeting to start them around midnight the night before. While I trusted the Big Green Egg to be much more stable then my first smoker, there still might be situations where the temperature would drifting off to create problems with my cook.

Many of the more advanced pit controllers offer you the possibility of creating logs, charts or graphs of your cooking sessions showing elapsed time vs. temperature. I used to take readings and create a chart showing this information. But I had to go into my Kitchen and take and record the readings off my Maverick remote read thermometer every 30 minutes. If I was lucky enough to get some cat nap time in, there would be gaps in my data. The pit controller never sleeps and so it records the data no matter what you are up to. Plus I have my software taking readings every 5 minutes vs the 30 minutes I used to do.

During the last few months of 2014 several of the Big Green Egg dealers in my area started carrying the FlameBoss pit controller. They started featuring them in displays in the store and sent out promotional emails featuring the unit. This put pit controllers back on my radar screen. It got me thinking about pit controllers in general again. Not to the point where I wanted one, but I started becoming a little more receptive to the idea. I was looking at some “what ifs” and I could actually start to see some use cases that applied to me.

The final item that pushed me over the edge was being crazy busy between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2014. I was working close to double shifts 7 days a week and I had very little time to get ready to do Christmas dinner. I had decided to go back to a standing rib roast, which is a relatively easy and very linear cook to simplify things. But I was also making bread and desserts at the same time on the other Eggs. The thought of being able to hand off the duties of keeping tabs on the main course was actually quite appealing. Where it was Christmas time I could use Christmas cash to pay for it. So after several internet research sessions, and somewhat to my surprise, I found myself ordering the CyberQ WiFi from BBQ Guru.

PART 2 of this blog will cover my reasons for buying the CyberQ WiFi in particular. I will describe some of the features that specifically appealed to me. PART 3 covers WiFI Networking in general and cove the setup of the simpler Adhoc device to device networking. PART 4 covers the setup for the Infrastructure networking methods which is more difficult to set up, but gives you additional capabilities. PART 5 discusses attaching the CyberQ to a grill or smoker. PART 6 will give my first impressions after several uses.

Here are links for all of the entries in this series about the CyberQ WiFi, called: ”Everything is Under Control Additionally I will include any other related links for items mentioned in this specific entry (if any).

   EVERYTHING IS UNDER CONTROL - Part 1 What is a Pit Controller & why would someone want one?
   EVERYTHING IS UNDER CONTROL - Part 2 Why did I choose to but the BBQ Guru CyberQ WiFi?
   EVERYTHING IS UNDER CONTROL - Part 3 WiFi Networking overview and setting up an Adhoc WiFi connection on the CyberQ WiFi.
   EVERYTHING IS UNDER CONTROL - Part 4 Setting up an Infrastructure mode WiFi Network Connection. More difficult but more capabilities.
   EVERYTHING IS UNDER CONTROL - Part 5 Attaching the CyberQ to a grill/smoker.
   EVERYTHING IS UNDER CONTROL - Part 6 First impressions after several cooks.

   CYBERCOOK - CYBERQ WiFi SOFTWARE iOS Software that enhances your use of the CyberQ. It makes it faster and easier to use & adds capabilities such as Logging/Graphing your cooks.

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