Everything is Under Control - 2016
My nearly 6 month hiatus from grilling has given me a new or refreshed perspective on many things about my hobby. I was away long enough that I was forced to think again about things I took for granted. A tiny bit of the information in this entry is specific to the Big Green Egg or other Kamado type grills. Almost all of it applies to any grill or smoker you can use with a pit controller. Last year, around Christmas time, I got my first pit controller. I soon added a second one to control my baking Egg. I had about 3 months or so using pit controllers when I had to hit the pause button on grilling to take care of some important real-life issues. I have been back at it full time for about 4 months now and I have found it interesting revisiting processes again. With the pit controllers, I had a certain base knowledge, from the 3 months I used them. I have also learned some new things and changed the way I operated a little. This will eventually be a two part blog because I went through the same process with the software, CYBERCOOK I use to remotely control my CyberQ WiFi. I will write a separate entry about getting reacquainted with this aspect of using a pit controller. It may not be one of the very next entries, but coming soon. But for now lets talk pit controllers.
BACKGROUND:First Pit Controller - Until I got my third Big Green Egg I could not see a use case for a pit controller for me. After all I was a backyard BBQer. Once I added a third Egg dedicated to baking, I found my cooks were getting to be a little bit complex and stressful in terms of the amount of time I was spending out at the Eggs firing them up, stabilizing them and dealing with any issues related to opening the lid. One Egg is relatively maintenance free, but you still have to spend some time outside controlling them. With 3 Eggs being lit at different times, I found I was outside quite a bit and this was cutting into my prep time and getting more complex. I decided it might make sense to add a pit controller to take over the duties of indirect grilling and/or smoking the main course. I started with the CyberQ WiFi, which in addition to controlling the pit, has WiFI capabilities that allow you to monitor and control your cook from anywhere you have an internet connection. I found the CyberQ controller was precise enough I could basically light the grill and not really have to think about temperatures on that Egg for the rest of the cook. The addition of the 3rd Party CYBERCOOK pit controller software freed up even more of my time. It allowed me to monitor and control this Egg from anywhere I could get a WiFi connection inside the house or out in the yard. Additionally I could monitor and control the cook anywhere I could get a cell phone signal.
Second Pit Controller - I found using the pit controller to be much better and much more helpful than I ever imagined. I had always looked at the issue from the perspective of a single smoker. Where the Egg was a very stable grill if you handled your warmup correctly, there seemed to be even less need for a pit controller. But when I started using the CyberQ it gave me a new perspective. I had some big holiday cooks where I was baking or making desserts on my baking Egg the day or night before. The baking was typically done indirectly at temps between 350-400 degrees (175-205 C) which was well within the 475 degree (245 C) maximum temperature range of the probes of the CyberQ. Since I was sometimes doing this the day before the main cook, the CyberQ was free and I used it on my baking Egg. The light bulb soon went off and I realized my baking Egg was a prime candidate for a pit controller of it’s own. I could light this Egg and rely on the pit controller to take care of the temps from that point forward. I could be inside dealing with prep issues and not running out to the yard to insure that the Egg was stabilized. Baking is typically an hour or less per item, the item being cooked didn’t have plateaus and often used a soft dough or liquid batter. All of these items ruled out needing even a single food probe. I just needed a device to control the temps reliably so I could be in the Kitchen doing other prep. I didn’t need the ability to control the item over the internet either. Therefor I saved about $100 and got a DigiQ for my second pit controller. I do not question my decision to get a second pit controller for my baking Egg. I will discuss below why if I had to make the decision again, I would probably pay the extra $100 to get the CyberQ.
USE CASE:Overnight Cooks - This is the area where the CyberQ really shines. The ability to monitor the cook from anywhere inside the the house on my iPad or iPhone is much better than using a remote read thermometer. With my remote read thermometer I only got a usable signal in the Kitchen. So I would have to keep heading to the Kitchen to check on progress. Going to sleep was an iffy process. It was hard to know if I was tired enough that I might just not hear the alarms going off out in the Kitchen. With the stability of the Egg I am unlikely to have any issues. But I can bring my iPad with me into the bedroom and I will be sure to hear any alarms in the unlikely event one goes off. These two items combined allow me to sleep a peaceful sleep. An overnight cook is not an ordeal because there is zero need to stay up and babysit it.
Long Cooks - Many of the same points I made about overnight cooks apply here. During the day I am not a prisoner at the house, With my old smoker, I felt in an emergency I could be away from the house for 15 to 30 minutes and on a good day maybe an hour max. With the a pit controller and my BGE’s I could be away for 1 to 2 hours easily. This is without WiFi monitoring turned on. If I am using the CyberQ and get my external IP address to access my network over the internet, I can monitor and control things from my iPhone. This means I could be away for 3 or 4 hours or more. I normally wouldn’t want to do this, but in a pinch it is nice to know I can. I will give several real world examples. Last February I was making a side dish with a hard to find ingredient. I fired up my Egg to smoke the main dish and was controlling the Egg with the CyberQ and using CyberCook Mini on my iPhone. The plan was I would go to the local Asian Market after lighting the Egg and putting the main dish on it. I would be gone for 45 minutes tops. The only problem was the Asian market in town didn’t have the ingredient. I could see the cook was going fine and it would be hours before the meat was done. I went to several Asian Markets in a nearby city and they didn’t have it. I finally bit the bullet and drove 30 minutes away to get it at an H-Mart super sized Asian market. All the while I was keeping and eye on the cook on the iPhone. I thought I would be gone for 30 minutes and ended up being gone for 2 1/2 hours. But it wasn’t a problem and wasn’t stressful in the least because I knew what was going on at home. This year I have been making regular grilled or smoked meals for my dad and other family members every Saturday around 12:00 to 1:00 PM. I usually go pick up my dad around 10:00 AM and bring him over to my house. With the CyberQ and Cyber Cook on the case the 20-30 minute trip is never a problem. I know the CyberQ is keeping the tens as close or closer to the mark than I could. Two weeks ago I was making pulled pork. I threw the Boston Butt on my Egg at 5:00 AM. The next step was when the internal temp of the meat reached 160 degrees (70 C) was to pull the meat, wrap it in foil and return it to the smoker. My original plan was to swing by a store on the way backhoe with my dad, so he could run in and get something he needed. As we were leaving his place, I got an alarm on my phone telling me the meat had reached 160 (70 C). So instead of swinging by the store, I was able to head straight home deal with the meat and go shopping later after we ate. This was the difference between the food running high for 8 minutes vs. 40 minutes.
Multi-Grill Cooks - With the setup I have now I can use pit controllers on 2 out of my three Eggs. This frees up time, makes things less complex and less stressful. Win-Win-Win. I can light the two Eggs being used with the pit controllers and know within 30 minutes or so they should be ready to grill of smoke on. I can focus on prep work in the Kitchen without worrying if the temps are overshooting their mark. If for some unforeseen reason the pit temps did run amuck, I would be alerted to that too the moment it happened. I can put the food on the Egg and know the pit controller will get the Eggs back to my desired cooking temperature without any intervention from me. These cooks are far more relaxing and efficient. The extra time spent in the Kitchen and not out at the grills often allow me to easily stay ahead of the cleanup and get fresh loads of dishes in the dishwasher as I go. Sometimes I am even able to leave the Kitchen and take a break or visit with my guests.
LESSONS LEARNED:Spreading the Load Out - Although the pit controller(s) save me time, there are a couple of additional things I do to lighten the load even further. The first is to try to do any baking of breads or desserts the day before. Some things are fine when made ahead and stored overnight. The second thing is to restock and set up the Egg(s) hours or a day before I intend to use them. This way I have as much time as I need. If it turns out I have to spend more time than planned cleaning the Egg(s) out, the extra time isn’t delaying the start of my cook. Sometimes you will find the charcoal that is left isn’t worth keeping. Then it is necessary to completely clean out the fire bowl and ash drop before adding fresh charcoal. I Will often pre-flight test my intended grill set up. I set up the Adjustable Rig in the configuration I plan to use and sometimes test out the setup with the actual food to make sure everything fits. I make sure the food is safely bagged, wrapped or covered. But best to find out ahead of time and come up with an alternate setup, than finding out with a hot Egg when you need to start cooking. I basically get the Egg restocked and read to go. On the day and time of the cook all I have to do is go out and light the Egg. While the paraffin fire starters or stump chunks are burning down, I keep the lid open and set up the pit controller, pit temperature probe and fan. At this point the fire starters are just about spent and I can close the lid and turn on the pit controller. From this point forward, maintaining that grill is pretty much out of my hands. I can go inside and focus on my prep. I know that when I come back out with the food, the pit controllers will have that Egg up to my desired cooking temp.
New Lighting Method (Stump Chunks) - On the two Eggs I don’t bake with, I use Stump Chunks fire starters pretty much exclusively. It used to be I would light the Egg with 2,3 or 4 paraffin fire starters depending on my final desired cooking temperature. The higher the cooking temp, the more starters I would use. I would keep the upper metal draft cap wide open until I got to within 75 degrees (23 C) of my desired cooking temp and then I would set the opening in the petals to suit the final cooking temp. Lately with Stump Chunks, I have been using more or less Stump Chunks to suit my desired cooking temp. I set the metal draft cap to suit the final temperature instead of coming back outside and adjusting it when the pit temps get close. The intent here is I have used enough Stump Chunks to get me in the neighborhood once the fire is fully lit. The pit controller has little work to do the get me to the final temp. This method is both faster and more time efficient for me. I don’t have to run out and make a final adjustment to the metal draft cap when I am getting close. I am at my desired temp within 10-15 minutes with only one trip out to the grill to light it, and one trip to add the food. The pit controller has taken care of the rest.
All Pit-Controllers are NOT Created Equal - I didn’t have a ton of time with my DiGiQ before I ended up on hiatus for 6 months. But I had started to notice the DiGiQ seemed to overshoot the mark. I didn’t have enough time to study this in detail, but it did seem to run 25-50 degrees high. I also observed that the fan control did not seem to be as precise as the CyberQ. The fan on the DigiQ seemed to come on and off in longer less controlled bursts. When the DigiQ got close to temperature the fan still continued to do 30 second to 1 minute long bursts and did not turn right off when the the pit temperature was reached. It also sometimes came on when the pit temperature had been reached. The fan on the CyberQ behaved differently. When the pit temperature was close to the set point, the fan would come on in short little on and off bursts lasting mere seconds. It sounded like it was puffing. Additionally I never heard the fan come on after the desired pit temperature was reached. It seemed to me the two units used different logic to control their fans. This was confirmed when I wrote to BBQ Guru support. They replied that the logic used for the DigiQ was designed more for completion type cooking where minor overshoots are tolerated more. They suggested setting a 20 degree lower pit temp. They also suggested closing the damper on the Pit Viper fan a little more and doing the same with the top cap of the Egg. Knowing what I know now, If I had it to do over again, I might spend the extra money to get the more precise control. The other difference between the two is the CyberQ has flashable firmware so the features of the unit can be updated over time. When I bought the DiGiQ the lower cost wasn’t the main driving force. I would have these things for years, so the difference in cost wasn’t that big a deal over time. I didn’t need WiFi, I didn’t need all of the extra settings, I didn’t need 3 food probes (or even 1). The $100 savings was the icing on the cake. Now I think the finer control and updatable firmware features would trump the cost savings.
Feed the Probes Through the Chimney - This is particularly important if you are cooking at higher temperatures. Any kind of direct grilling using temperature probes can be risky. If fat from your food drips onto the coals and causes flare-ups this can take out a temperature probe in short order. Don’t ask how I know this. Even with a Big Green Egg where the tight seal of the dome helps prevent flare-ups, you can get flare-ups when you open the lid and introduce more oxygen into the equation. Low and slow indirect isn’t so much of a problem, but higher temp indirect can still be. When you open lid in situations where the vents are nearly closed you can get a “wall of flame” around the perimeter of the grill. If your probe’s wires happen to be running through the path of the flame this is a recipe for a burnt out probe. BBQ Guru support suggested running the probe wires up thru the chimney and Dual Function Metal Cap of the Egg. With indirect cooking the flare-ups tend to happen around the perimeter of the grill. With the wire going vertically up through the chimney this tends to keep it out of harms way. Interestingly they did not like the solution that many folks use, which is wrapping the probe wires in aluminum foil. They looked at it as a quick fix because once the foil gets hot it’s heat can speed the “cooking” of the probe wire. Think of foiling your ribs to help speed up the cooking.
Check Your Connections - If you are getting strange temperature readings, check that the probe wires plug is fully seated. The probes plug in with a double click. After feeling the first strong click the probe is not fully seated. It goes in a little further and you will feel a second click. Then you are fully seated.
Measure Temps at Grate Level - I was having some issues, particularly in cold weather, when I was trying to use the Big Green Egg’s dome thermometer. When I measure my temps at the grate level my cooks are predictable and the results are great. One thing you don’t want to do is have your grate probe really close to or in contact with your food. It will throw off the readings. I often use my Adjustable Rig to help deal with a situation where the food is going to take up most of the grate space. The AR has notches for setting your shelves at 4 different levels. The level names reflect the distance from the shelf to the top of the ceramic fire ring as measured in inches. I sometime use an extra grate at the level just below the cooking grate level to hold the pit probe. This gets me within 1 1/2” (just under 4 cm) of the level I am cooking at. I still try to keep some distance away from the food or roast pan. This separate level lets me route the probe wire where I would like without worrying it will interfere with the food. I can have the pit probe towards the rear of this grate and run the wire to the front or sides before going vertical to pass through the cooking grate. So for indirect grilling I place the ceramic pizza stone at Level 1.5, the temp probe grate at Level 3 and the cooking grate at Level 4.5. Or I put the pizza stone at Level 1.5, the temp probe grate at level 4.5 and the cooking grate at Level 6.
Lubricate the Pit Viper Fan Gasket year Round - When I got my first pit controller it was December. I was advised by the support people at BBQ Guru that I could put a little canola oil on the fan’s gasket to help it go in easier in the cold weather. I have continued this practice even in the warmer weather. I’ve found the pit viper fan is still hard to insert at times even in the warm weather. Rather than force it, I used the canola oil. Now I save time and simply lubricate the gasket in the Kitchen before I head out to the grill.
CyberQ WiFi Network Anomalies - If you do not have a CyberQ WiFI or don’t plan to network your own CyberQ via the Infrastructure mode, feel free to skip this section. It can make your eyes glaze over. I am not sure if this is general weirdness, something with the CyberQ WiFi, something with my Linksys EA8500 router, some combination of issues or simply a full moon. There are several ways to set up your network so http information is forwarded to the CyberQ. You need to get your router to send incoming http requests to the CyberQ. This allows the CyberQ to create the web page(s) you use to view and change settings. The CyberQ sends http information via Port 80 to your network and this needs to be routed to the specific computer you are running the pit controller software on. I initially tried assigning a fixed IP address to my CyberQ. In the CyberQ’s Network Setup screen I assigned a fixed IP address of 192.168.1.117. All network devices have something called a MAC (Media Access Control) address that are unique to that device. In my routers setup screens I told the router’s built in software I wanted to assign the device with the CyberQ’s MAC address the IP address on 192.168.1. 117. I also told the router’s software to use port forwarding so that any incoming http requests are forwarded to the device with IP address 192.168.1.117. Seems pretty straight forward, except it didn’t work. The CyberQ would not grab the right IP address. I checked, double checked and triple checked the settings, but no glory. I finally tried a different approach. There is another way for a device to get an IP address, called DHCP. In this case the router assigns an IP address to new devices trying to join the network. The router doles out the next available free IP address. Rather than saying here I am I use IP address 192.168.1.117, the device basically requests an IP address from the router. I had already set the router to assign the CyberQ to 192.168.1.117 and had set up port forwarding for that port. I know had to tell the CyberQ to ask for an IP address rather than tell the router it wants a specific address. I went into the Network Setup screen for the CyberQ and told it to use DHCP. I restarted the CyberQ and it received the proper IP address first time out. Not quite sure why this approach worked and the other didn’t. But I can tell you for my network what worked was using DHCP for the CyberQ and set up a reservation on the router so the CyberQ got a specific IP address. Then you forward http requests on Port 80 to that same IP address.
Setting Up e-Mail and Text Alerts - Last year I was not able to get this feature up and running. This time around I was determined to get it to work. The CyberQ manual gives you a series of setting to use for the email server settings and I think I overthought it last year. The manual lists a series of settings for the mail servers and the user names and passwords. They are items such as: user@cyberQmail.com which looked to me like placeholder text and I assumed I needed to put my ISP’s mail servers there instead. Wrong!! At one point I actually got the e-mails working, but they contained no information about the status of the various probes. As it turns out, you only need to supply one setting of your own. A newer rewrite of the annual makes this much clearer than it was in the manual that shipped with my CyberQ. You use all of the settings in the manual and in the e-mail recipient field you put the email address you wish to receive the emails at on your end. Once you have this working switching to text message (SMS) alerts is easy. You change the email recipient to XXX-YYY-ZZZZ@txt.att.net where XXX-YYY-ZZZZ is your cell phone number and the info after the @ sign is a specific extension for your cell phone carrier. The manual lists the extensions for Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.
Using e-Mail & Text Alerts - I have tried both types of alerts now and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. There is a setting for e-Mail Alert Interval which you can use to tailor the type of alert you get and how often. If you set it 0 you will only get alerts for alarms such as low or high pit temps or when the food probe set temp has been reached. If you set it to a number higher than 0, such as 15, you will get alerts when they occur plus regular status messages every 15 minutes in this case. The email alerts are a little less convenient and a little harder to distinguish. On my iPhone and iPad I can’t set the e-mails to be filtered to their own folders. They come in and inter mix with my regular emails. If you get a lot of emails, it may be frustrating because you will not know which is a regular e-mail and which is from the Cyber-Q. Sure you could make this recipient a VIP and get a special alert tone when one comes in. And trying to delete these messages out of your mailbox is a bit harder than deleting the text version. At least that is my experience on iOS devices. I have switched to text messages and they have some plusses and minuses. For me, I get far more email than text messages. So when a text rolls in while I am cooking odds are it is from the CyberQ. I have seen that the alerts that are for alarms are nearly instantaneous. I have gotten several alarms that have come in via text before I got an alarm on the web browser based software connected to the CyberQ. When using email you will get the alert every xx minutes when your device check for mail. If your email uses the IMAP protocol with push notifications your alerts will be nearly instantaneous. If not they will come in the next time the device is scheduled to check for new mail. Also the text messages on an iOS device have an alert bar that slides down from the top of the screen that I find more accessible and useful than the alert for an email. A text message also sends 3 alerts 5 minutes apart if you don’t read the original message. This makes it harder to miss than an e-mail. I find text messages easier to receive when I am on the road. I get 3 chances to hear it, and as I said if it is a text message the odds are it is from my CyberQ. But it isn’t all good news. The text messages come in each time as from a different sender. So instead of combining into one thread, each message is it’s own message thread. So instead of having 1 thread to delete when you are done, you have as many threads as you do messages. Now this is the same as email, but normally text message from the same person go into one thread. So in theory text messages could have been easy to delete in one step. In reality they are no easier than email. Both methods present a problem during overnight cooks where you don’t want to be disturbed except for an important alert. I end up putting the phone in Do Not Disturb mode so I don’t hear emails or texts between 11:00PM to 6:00AM. I rely on the alarms from the pit controller software to do their thing. I can see myself switching to using this feature to get SMS text alerts only for cooks where I plan to be away for some of the time. The cleanup for a 17 hour cook resulted in me having to individually delete 99 SMS alerts on my iPhone, iPad and two Macs.
Take Cake Handling the Pit Viper Fan - Two weeks ago I had the Pit Viper fan that came with my CyberQ WiFi fail. I was able to complete the cook because the Pit Viper Fan from my Digi Q was not in use this particular day. It turned out the cause was one of the wires had come loose from the internal circuit board of the fan. I was a bit annoyed at first because it was 1 year and 1 month after I purchased this guru. Then I looked up the warrantee and found there was a two year warrantee on the fan. The support folks at BBQ Guru were excellent and I had a replacement unit in my hands in 3 days from my call. When support asked me to check to see if the wires were frayed or loose, I was very surprised to find one of the fan wires pulled right out of the fan housing. There was no type of strain relief fitting or clamp I could see to help hold the wires in place if they were given a hard tug. Now I was always a bit worried about how thin the fan wires were and I treated the Pit Viper with kid gloves. I am not sure what caused the demise of my particular Pit Viper. I never did anything I am aware of, that would have put strain on the wires. But even though I don’t know the cause, you can benefit in general from my experience. Based on the apparent lack of any kind of strain relief to help hold the wires in place, you should be extremely gentle handling the Pit Viper fan. Do not carry the fan dangling by it’s wires like a yo-yo. Do not tug on the wires where they enter the fan body.
CONCLUSION:The more I use my Pit Controllers, the more I appreciate them and the more uses I find for them. Where I am often using 3 grills at once, having two of them be somewhat self-sufficient really makes my life easier and frees up a lot of time. My results are consistently great because the grill is cooking the food at the right temperature and alerting me when it has reached the exact doneness temperature I want. Many of my guests comment on how the food is a perfect doneness. This is easy to do when you use a food temperature probe and can get an alert where ever you are in the world.
SOME RELATED LINKS:
2015 CYBERQ WIFI BLOG SERIES:
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 Attaching the CyberQ to a grill/smoker.
2015 CYBER COOK CYBERQ SOFTWARE BLOG:
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.
STUMP CHUNKS = STU(M)PENDOUS 2016 Blog Entry focussing on my latest discoveries using Stump Chunks fire starters.
BACK TO BBQ BLOG 2016
ARCHIVE OF BLOGS: 2016
INDEX OF BLOGS: ALL YEARS