BBQ FAQ Section 7.4

 

7.4 Smoker temperature control

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[Will the wind affect my barbecue smoker while I'm smoking?]

Editor--

Definitely, the wind will affect several things while you're barbecuing. A cold wind blowing across the smoker will remove more heat than a smoker working in still air. So you'll have to compensate for the additional heat loss. The wind can also get into the cracks, vents and joints of your smoker and increase the air flow through it, causing the fire to burn quicker and hotter. Try putting your smoker in the lee of the wind or erecting some wind baffles. Remember, it's the temperature inside your smoker that's important, not what's going on outside. You can also insulate your smoker. A water heater jacket might work or you could check with an air conditioning company to see what kind of wrap they recommend.

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[I have real trouble keeping the temperature up in my ECB smoker in cold windy weather. What can I do?]

Vince Vielhaber--

Go to the hardware store and get some flashing to make yourself a wind break for the smoker. Then you can happily barbecue all winter. The cold air is getting in from the bottom and cooling everything off.

If you're using the electric element plate for the regular ECB, get at least a 6 ft. piece of 15 inch wide aluminum [1] flashing and attach the ends together [2] into a hoop with either screws and nuts or pop rivets [3].

If you're using the charcoal pan with either wood or charcoal, you want to make sure you have ample air so the fire gets enough oxygen. Here you want at least a 7 or 8 ft. piece of 15 inch wide aluminum flashing and attach the ends as above.

After the ends are attached, take some duct tape or 100MPH tape and tape the top and bottom edges and the joint where the ends meet. This will help prolong the life of the windbreak and your fingers and hands. I've cut myself on the sharp edges a few times before doing this.

[1]   You don't want to go much wider than 15 inches since the handles of a standard ECB are only 20 inches from the ground and you want room to work.

[2]   The best way to attach the ends is to overlap an inch or two but not too much. A standard ECB only has a circumference of about 55 inches so a 6' long piece of flashing is going to allow a couple of inches clearance between the windbreak and the cooker. If you go beyond a couple of inches overlap you won't be able to slide the windbreak over the handles.

[3]   Use caution over the fasteners you use. While sheet metal screws make sense, the points can be hazardous to your hands. Screws and nuts are more preferable but the best way is to use pop rivets and washers.

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J. Jacobs--

I recently fired up the electric smoker and after a while, I was shocked to see the temperature rise only to 188F. So I decided to give it some time to heat up and take a break and read the BBQ List messages I had missed the last couple of weeks. Between reading messages and sneaking outside to check if I had got any more heat--no such luck! Back to the computer where I happened to read a message about having a tough piece of meat and being chided by Danny G. that he had cooked it at too low a temperature. Alarm bells went off in my head that I was about to ruin some excellent meat. Then I read a post about not being able to get an electric smoker up to temperature in cold weather. Then I came across someone's comment recommending to buy some flashing to keep the cool wind from dropping the temperature. Then the light bulb went on. I got my wife's favorite heavy blanket, wrapped it around the bottom of the smoker and the temperature shot up to 228F. Only don't use you wife's favorite blanket, as she ate my food and sent me to the garage. Now all I have to keep warm with is my wife's smoke-ridden favorite blanket.

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[Would putting firebricks in my off-set firebox type smoker help even out the temperature spikes and lows?]

Edwin Pawlowski--

If you increase the mass, the thermal dips would have to be lower. Aside from the mess of dripping grease, the underside could be lined completely and hold in a lot more heat.

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[So let me get this straight. If using firebricks to help retain heat, do you put them in the smoking chamber or the firebox of an off-set smoker?]

Lloyd Carver--

The more mass you have in all parts of the smoker should hold the temperature more stable in that area. In the firebox would be good to keep the output of the firebox stable and in the smoke chamber would be good to hold the temperature more stable there. Just remember the drawback, it takes longer to get the smoker up to smoking temperature.

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Edwin Pawlowski--

Actually, the best way would be to do both, put bricks in the firebox and cooking chamber. One of the reasons a Klose or an Oklahoma Joe's smoker has better temperature control is because they are made from heavier metal than the typical discount store rig. Adding brick to the firebox would help, but adding it to the cooking chamber would help even more. Next would be adding a fiberglass insulating blanket around all of this. It would take longer to get all the brick up to cooking temperature, but once there, be less subject to fluctuations. The drawback is cost. If you buy a $179 NBBD or SnP Pro, then add $400 in modifications, you will have an improved but still lacking smoker.

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Tom Kelly--

I think you're both right in a way. Once you get the beast up to temperature (bricks in one or both sides) you'll have a large thermal reservoir that will withstand temperature loss better, but it won't prevent high temperature spikes.

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Rodney Leist--

Tom's observations correspond with mine perfectly. I've used one firebrick in the firebox and one in the cooking chamber of my NBBD for a few months now and am satisfied with the results. I use the firebrick in the cooking chamber to cover the top half of the opening into the firebox in lieu of a metal baffle. If anyone tries this, I suggest putting the bricks through a break-in session before using them in close proximity to meat. Several small flakes of brick blew off during the first firing.

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[Would insulating my smoker make it easier to control the temperature?]

Danny Gaulden--

Insulation will help you more than you will ever know, especially in a northern climate. It's one of those "you have to try it to appreciate it" things.

While I was waiting for the new pit for my restaurant to come in, I cooked outside on a mid-sized commercial rotisserie smoker. It is made from 12 and 14 gauge (rather thin) steel and took a lot of wood to bring it up to temperature and hold it there. I don't like having to keep too big a fire going in the firebox: 1), you're asking for trouble (more chance of soot and creosote), 2), you don't get as good a smoky-tasting a product, and 3), it gobbles wood at an unacceptable rate. With all the "stuff" on the outside of this pit (shelves, spare tire, etc.), it would have been very difficult and expensive for me to make a double wall stuffed with insulation, so I was at a loss with what to do with it. Everything I came up with wasn't available locally here in Carlsbad. So I went down to the hardware store and bought a roll of 3 1/2 in. Corning fiberglass insulation and some duct tape. Everybody told me this wouldn't work.

By the time I cut and taped insulation on and around everything but the firebox, this was one ugly pit. I'm talking real ugly here. But it WORKED. I really didn't care how ugly it looked, what I cared about was how it cooked.

Some facts: Temperature rose approximately 110F after I put on the insulation. The product tasted great and the wood consumption was cut nearly in half. Another big plus: I was able to keep the "right kind of fire" in the firebox.

 

After the weather started warming up, the pit was becoming too efficient. By this I mean that the fire was so low before I needed to add wood that there was hardly enough coals to get it going again. So I took off the bottom half of the insulation. Since heat rises, I still was able to maintain about 60 to 70 percent of the efficiency. Worked great until the new rig arrived. Contrary to popular belief, the insulation did not melt or burn at all, as many believed it would. I have thought about how much insulation to tell one to use. This is my best reply: Use as much as it takes for you to achieve the desired cooking temperature that you want, and at the same time, maintain what you would call the "perfect fire". The two go hand in hand and can no doubt vary between pitmasters.

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David Klose--

On the subject of heat retention, I have seen people use moving blankets to retain heat during rain storms, cold snaps, and Jack Daniel's holidays away from the pit on Super-Bowl Sunday, with great success.

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[Sometimes I get a temperature spike in my NBBD when I add wood. How can I quickly get this down?]

Editor--

There are several ways to do this. One way is to open the cooking chamber door and let off some heat. Also, opening the firebox door (end or top) will let out some of the heat in the firebox, lowering the temperature.

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[I've seen people on the List writing about creosote. What is it and how does it form?]

Editor--

'Creosote' is a term for a group of organic compounds that can form during the destructive distillation of wood and coal. They are oily and sticky materials that condense out of the smoke on cooler surfaces--meat and the walls of the pit--when wood is burned without sufficient oxygen to affect complete combustion. The formation of creosote in your barbecue pit is to be avoided at all costs as it will ruin the meat.

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Stephen J. O'Connor--

Bitter creosote occurs when smoke cools enough to allow certain substances to condense out of the smoke. Overwhelming the smoker with too much cold meat can cause the smoke to cool. Other factors can cause it as well: a smoldering fire, poor air circulation, cold ambient temperature. Also, in my experience throwing a lot of cold fuel on a fire--especially when the fire has gotten low, can cause creosote to form.

Ways to reduce the odds of creosote occurring include:

1   running a small hot fire that does not need to be choked down by closing vents;

2   allowing food to warm up before putting it on the cooker; (60 minutes maximum)

3   putting less cold food on at a time;

4   regulating air flow with the intake vents rather than the exhaust chimney damper;

5   barbecuing in nice weather;

6   giving the smoker plenty of time to warm up thoroughly before putting on the food;

7   adding new fuel gradually;

8   preheating or preburning the fuel.

I generally give my smoker a good long warm-up and get it up to a temperature well above the temperature at which I want to cook. I cannot let food sit out to warm up, so I put it in gradually. I preheat my logs by leaving them on top of the firebox before adding them to the fire. When I do add them, I often put them on the side of the main fire allowing them to further warm up without cooling the main fire. They ignite on their own, then I push them into the rest of the fire. When the fire goes down more than I intend, I carefully add small pieces of wood at frequent intervals.

When the weather is cold, windy, or wet, I need to be more careful. When the weather is warm, I can get away with a little more.

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[I occasionally get bitterness, but attributed it to a build up of creosote on the inside of my smoking chamber. I have a Brinkmann SnP Pro. When I breakdown and clean it, the bitterness usually goes away. Maybe it's coincidental!]

Dwight Inman--

I have had experience with this and no it is not coincidental. If you get a build up of creosote inside the cooking chamber it will continue to taint the meat with a bitter flavor until you clean it out. If you use the right wood there is no need to clean your smoker. However, if you ever use green wood extensively, go back to seasoned, and still have a bitter taste, then it is time to do a through cleaning job. The point is the metal will hold the creosote, and release it at each firing on every cook out.

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Rock McNelly—

You need to distinguish between creosote and soot that is deposited on the inside surfaces of your smoker. Creosote is a stick gooey resinous material and soot is just that black fluffy stuff.

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BBQ FAQ Ver 1.0, 2.0 1997, 1998 William W. Wight. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 25, 1999
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