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

The Case for Keeping a Cooking Log

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Many years ago I wrote several blogs about the importance and benefits of keeping a cooking log. My methods of doing a log have changed, the ease of making them has vastly improved, but the importance and benefits have not changed. This past weekend’s brisket cook reminded me of the importance and benefits of having logs of past cooks. I figured a new blog entry was in order. If you are interested in the specifics of how I used my graphing capabilities this weekend, scroll to the bottom. For a little background on the How’s and Why’s of keeping a Cooking Log, read on here.

The Beginnings - When I got my CharGriller Smokin’ Pro horizontal offset barrel smoker, I began my entry into the world of low and slow BBQ cooking. A world I had no experience with. These weren’t fast direct grilling type cooks, these were multi-hour or overnight cooks lasting 5,10, 15 or 20 hours. Many folks on the various BBQ boards I frequented kept cooking logs where they logged the weather conditions, pit temperature, food temperature, damper settings, woods used and when they were added and charcoal swaps. I looked at various cooking log samples some of the folks shared and came up with a form of my own. These initial logs were in chart form (not a graph) with readings taken at 15 minute intervals.

What are the Benefits? - Where I was new to all of this, the primary benefit was giving me a point of reference for how long a given piece of meat I was using would take to smoke on my gear. Over time I built up a collection of logs for various cuts of meats under various temperature and weather conditions. By cross referencing two of the logs, I could see how air temperature affected the cook, how the weight of the meat affected it or high wind conditions. With enough logs available to me I could begin to guesstimate how long a cook I was planning would and should take. During the cook I could compare my progress to historic cooks to see if I was on schedule. 9 times out of 10 I was able to come pretty close to the mark in terms of cooking time. But there is a saying about low and slow BBQ that it is done when it is done. Every once in a while you run into a piece of meat that behaves differently. Having a log of one of these exceptions to the rule is hand too. when planning future cooks, you can see worst case examples. Also if you have a new cook that is tracking strangely, you can look to see if you have a log of another cook that went this way. To summarize, here is a list of some of the potential benefits of keeping cooking logs:
  • You can use them predict the length of future cooks by looking at similar historical cooks.
  • You can see how the air temperature affects your smoker.
  • You can see how the weather affects your smoker: wind, snow, rain.
  • You can see how temperature and weather affects your warm-up time.
  • You can see how the weight or shape of a particular cut affects it’s cooking time.
  • You can compare how processes like brining affect the cooking time for similar sized cuts.
  • You can see any quirks your smoker may have. For example my CG had a temperature spike that occurred about 90 minutes to 2 hours into a cook. This happened each and every time. Knowing when this spike occurred could help you compensate for it in advance, as opposed to reacting to it as it starts happening.
  • You could see the timing and effects if you need to refuel during the middle of your cook. You could see how the weather affects your need to refuel. This is good to know in advance to make sure you have enough charcoal around for this cook in this weather. Also you can be proactive and refuel just before you will need it as opposed to waiting too long and suffering temperature losses as you wait for the new coals to heat up.

Early Logs - My early logs where all manual labor. At that time I was using Maverick Remote read thermometers to track my temps. I only got a reliable signal in the Kitchen, so I would hang the Maverick’s receiver on my side door. I would take readings every 15 minutes for the pit temp and the food probe(s) temps. I would check on the internet and use temperature readings from a weather station at a nearby middle school. I would note the damper settings I was using and note any changes I made to them. I would record any changes to the weather conditions as well as any changes I made at the smoker, such as adding more wood chunks or charcoal. By recording all of these items I could see how much charcoal or wood chunks I needed to have on hand for future cooks. I used to record these by hand on a blank physical copy of the log. Later I would manually enter the handwritten values into a copy of the log on the computer.

Lemonade from Lemons - The logs were a case of turning several lemons into lemonade. The CG Smokin’ Pro could only hold temps steady for 1-2 hours depending on the weather, air temperature and the wind. This meant it wasn’t realistic to expect to get any sleep. Sure I could sleep for an hour or two, but short naps like that usually leave me even more tired and groggy. Plus where the Maverick had to hang in the Kitchen, I ran the risk of not hearing any alarms if I got into a deep sleep in my bedroom 50’ (15 m) away. Back then I had to record the cooking logs manually, looking at the thermometer readings and writing them down. But by doing the cooking logs, this gave me a reason to stay up. It also made it hard to fall asleep because I needed be awake to do the readings every 15 minutes. I got the benefits from the logs and the logs helped keep me awake during the long cook. I will note that I said it was hard to fall asleep… Hard is not impossible I used a 15 minute countdown timer on my laptop or my iPhone as insurance.

Totally Different Eggsperince - Starting to use a Kamado cooker was a totally different experience. The Egg could run for hours and hours without the need to tweak the dampers. The Egg was not really affected by the cold weather. Lastly the Egg could run for 20 or more hours on a single batch of lump charcoal on a low and slow cook. All of these meant far less trips to the grill were required. Additionally I began to work at home and with the Egg I could get in a smoke during the day and get in a full day of work with minimal interruptions. All of these made it so that I got away from keeping cooking logs.

Change of Focus - This was not something I did consciously, but the Egg (and all Kamado cookers) are so flexible you can cook more things on them on them and the results are fantastic. I began doing stir fries on the Egg. I also began using it as a replacement for my indoor oven for baked goods and desserts. High temperature Pizzas and steaks on the Egg are amazing. So I was exploring all of the new options I had, and in the process was I was doing less low and slow BBQ.

Third Egg was the Tipping Point - When I bought my third Egg for Baking I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was going to be the trigger for getting a pit controller. When I had all three Eggs going at once, I found I was making lots more trips out to tweak one of them. I was going to be doing a Prime Rib for Christmas Dinner. I was also going to be making desserts and baked goods and side dishes on the other two Eggs. In addition I was going to be making some items in the Kitchen too. I started thinking if I got a pit controller I could leave the (very expensive) main dish under the control of the pit controller giving me some time back to use for other things. As I started shopping for pit controllers the models that had WiFi capabilities intrigued me. I liked the idea of being able to control and monitor the pit controller from any where in the house. Even more interesting to me was with third party software I gained graphing capabilities as an added benefit.

Current Logs-General - I am going to describe my gear, but there are several ways to get automatic graphing capabilities. My setup uses the the CyberQ WiFi and 3rd party software called Cyber Cook to give me remote control, monitoring and graphing capabilities on my iOS devices. Other 3rd party software for iOS devices has graphing capabilities as well. There is also software for Android OS. Their are other models of pit controllers with WiFi capabilities coming to the marker now. There are also certain models of remote read thermometers that are said to have graphing capabilities.

Current Logs-Specifics - With the CyberQ/CyberCook combination the graphing capabilities just come along free for the ride. You create a cooking session where you can list the grill, charcoal, item being cooked, and any additional notes of your choosing. After creating a cooking session you can begin recording it and this creates the graph. You have settings for what you wish to call each of the 3 food probes and the pit probe. For example I rarely have need for a 3rd food probe. So I leave this one outside coiled up inside a small zip lock bag. I name it Air Temp and use it to record the outside air temperature. There are settings for the intervals you wish to have the probe temps graphed. You want to choose something that doesn’t give you an artificially irregular graph. I use 5 minutes for mine. But once the graph is recording, your work is through. It really doesn’t get any easier than this. You can call up this graph or any stored graphs at any time during the cook. If you export the graph in PDF form you also get a version of the data in chart form and graph form. Chart form is how I used to do my old cooking logs. It is nice to be able to view the information in tabular form too. For me graph form is more convenient because you can tell by the shape of the curve how fast the cook is going. You also can project the path of the curve into the future to give you a ballpark idea of when you will reach your desired temperature.

I was doing a full packer brisket consisting of both the flat and the point. I was going to slice up the flat and use the point to make burnt ends. I began recording the session shortly after I lit the Egg. I put the meat on at 10:45 PM Friday night and the internal temps began rising quickly. According to the recipe I was looking at 8 or 9 hours to reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees (70 C). After that it was another 3 or 4 hours to finish. I was expecting to eat around noon time Saturday. With the rapid temperature rise I was seeing I became very concerned. I placed a straight edge on the early returns from the graph and the temps were rising at 40 degrees per hour, which meant 3 1/2 hours to hit 160 (70 C) and potentially I was facing brisket for breakfast. I must admit I was quite nervous at first. This brisket was a bit smaller than normal, but this projected time was less than half what I was expecting. I began doing some research on the internet to see how long I might hold brisket if it finished early. With a potentially short cook time, I gave up any thoughts of going to bed until I had a better plan. After 2 hours the temps were still rising at the rate of 40 degrees per hour. Then I remembered I had done a full brisket back last February. I had totally forgotten about it. This was my first overnight cook with the Cyber Q and Cyber Cook. I guess I was more focussed on the process, than on the food I was making. Well I was right: It was a full packer brisket and to my surprise and relief I found this brisket had exhibited the same rapid temperature rise. But when the temps reached the 140’s (60 C), they began to slow down and level off. Then when the temps reached 150 degrees (66 C) they leveled off and there was a multi-hour plateau. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Based on this new information, my plan was to stay up long enough to verify the temperature rise slowed down in the 140’s (60 C) and then go to bed.

Sure enough the slope of the graph began to flatten out as the probe temps approached 140. Greatly relieved I went off to bed and slept a good sleep knowing the CyberQ/Cyber Cook had things under control. When I woke up the temps were still in the high 140’s (65 C). Once again I pulled up the graph from the other brisket and saw it too had a prolonged plateau in the high 140’s (65 C) into the mid 150’s (68 C). I used a straight edge to project the curve for this current cook forward and it seemed to indicate the brisket would reach 160 (70 C) around 9:00 AM. At 9:15 the brisket was at 160 degrees. As the cook progressed, having data on the rate of temperature rise proved very helpful. I used this information to help in projecting the end to various phases of the cook.

There is an old saying to the effect that people who don’t learn from the mistakes made in history, are doomed to repeat them. A case in point here was my forgetting I had a graph of a similar cook. If I had pulled up the cook from 1 year ago right away, I would not have panicked when I got an initial high temperature rise during the first several hours. I could have gotten more sleep and I might have actually started the cook an hour or two earlier. Having graphs of your various low and slow cooks has many pay offs as I described above. Also these days, getting a graph of your cook’s temperature is a totally brain dead easy. So if you have some gear now that allows you to graph your cooks, and you don’t take advantage if it, you should start doing it. It doesn’t take more work on your part and it can make your life easier in the long run. If you are shopping for new remote read thermometers or a pit controller, give careful thought to spending a little extra money to add the graphing capability to your grilling arsenal.

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