BBQ FAQ Section 7.5

 

7.5 Smoker fire control

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[Can you give me some pointers on fire control using wood and charcoal?]

Kit Anderson--

Charcoal- Use natural lump hardwood. Get one of those chimney starters from the hardware or barbecue store. Put two sheets of newspaper in the bottom and fill the top part with charcoal. When the coals have started, dump them out of the chimney onto your smoker's burning surface. If the pieces of lump charcoal are too big, carefully break them into several pieces with a hatchet.

Wood- I use medium-width, fireplace-length, hardwood logs. Bark on or bark off--your choice. Seasoned logs have less creosote. (Editor--wood-burning beginners using NBBD-type smokers should use hardwood pieces of 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter by 8-12 inches long and progress to larger logs as they gain experience.)

Burning logs in a SnP Pro/NBBD--Open the chimney and intake dampers wide open. Start a secondary charcoal fire in a grill, Habachi or some other suitable container, and one in the smoker's firebox. When the coals are going, put three logs on the secondary fire. The logs will flame. After the flames die down a bit (10 minutes), put one log in the smoker firebox and close the damper halfway. Every half hour add another log to the secondary fire pit and move one from there to the smoker firebox. Control the temperature with the firebox damper. Unless you're burning hickory or oak to fuel the smoker, add a chunk of smoking wood (mesquite, hickory, pecan, apple, etc.) every time you add more fuel for the first three hours.

Charcoal in a SnP Pro/NBBD- Skip the secondary fire pit part and add a few of the larger chunks of charcoal every 30-40 minutes to keep the fire going. You can get some lump charcoal going in a secondary fire pit to have it ready for adding to the smoker's firebox when necessary. A gas grill makes a good lump charcoal pre-burner.

Charcoal in a Weber Kettle-

Open one bottom vent and the top vent. Position the top vent opposite the open bottom vent. Put a pie pan below the meat to catch the juices. Bank a small amount of coals on one side of the grill over the open vent and let the smoker warm up for 20-30 minutes. Put another pie pan above the fire and add water to it. Put the meat over the drip pan. Stick a meat thermometer in the top or side of the grill, and work the fire to stabilize the temperature around 200-240F. Hotter fires will significantly shorten cooking times and not allow slow-cooking of the meat.

Soak hickory, mesquite, cherry, apple or other wood chips in a bowl of water for 20 minutes or more, and place small amounts of the chips on the coals every 20-30 minutes or as often as desired. Place meat away from the heat source, on the side opposite the banked coals. If you have two or more slabs of ribs, use a 'rib rack' to help stand the slabs of ribs on their side next to each other. Place ribs thick side up/bone-end down, so the small ends stay moist. That's it! Sit back for 4 to 6 hours, watch the smoke rise, and drink your favorite beverage. Don't forget to add soaked wood chips every so often, and keep the water pan half full. You may want to turn the meat in-place to give each rib end or side equal time nearest the heat source.

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[Can you tell me some more about smoking in a Weber kettle?]

Ken Haycook--

If your Weber is a charcoal dome-lid type, simply put 5 - 6 briquettes on opposite sides of the charcoal grate. Light them and wait until they turn gray all over. Put a foil pan in the middle of the grill area and add a little water to it. Place the meat, beef, pork, etc. over the pan. Add smoking wood to each side and lower the lid. Close the bottom vents but open the top one.

The 10 briquettes will keep the temperature at about 240F for about one hour, depending on the brand, your vents, and how you light it. Every hour on the hour, check the charcoal and bump the handle to knock off the ashes. Add no more than one briquette to each side. After the first hour, add another chunk of smoking wood. Make sure the wood is heavily soaked in water.

Continue this procedure until the meat is done. For briskets/pork butts, cook about 1 1/2 hours per pound. For chicken or turkey use 3/4 to 1 hour per pound, check it on the low side to prevent dryness. For turkey breasts use a higher heat at 3/4 hour per pound and use a butter, paprika, garlic salt, and black pepper blend of spices. It will come out like pepper bacon. For fish, 30 minutes per pound is usually good. I would put some lemon slices in the fish cavity to prevent drying and I would use about 4 briquettes per side rather than 5 - 6.

For whole turkeys I usually use peeled grapefruit, oranges, and lemons in the cavity. It doesn't add any flavors but a lot of moisture.

It's easy, just remember to keep your addition of coals to a minimum. The Weber tends to hold the heat well.

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David Klose--

Here's an interesting trick in a grill: line the charcoal up in an "S" shape, only lighting the first end of the coals. If done properly, the charcoal should burn "down the line" thus creating a smoker effect, allowing for easier cooking.

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[What color smoke do I want coming out of my smoker?]

Ed Pawlowski--

You want a light white or an invisible smoke. Even though you do not see smoke, the products of combustion are still in the air and working. Heavy white, dark or colored (green, yellow, orange) smoke is to be avoided at all costs.

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Tom Street--

John Willingham says in his book - "When you think of barbecue, stop thinking of smoke. Smoke is nothing more than dirt, wafting into the air from burning wood. When the wood is properly burned at the right temperatures for barbecue, it does not smoke."

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Editor--

Several List members have reported seeing greenish and yellowish smoke coming out of their pits. This is a sign of a very poorly managed fire. The fire is starved for oxygen. Open those exhaust and inlet valves all the way and keep that fire smaller and work to get a light white to invisible smoke.

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[I'm a little confused about the amount of smoke I should be seeing out of the smoker. I read where some List members say that one should see a very small quantity of white smoke while others say that the more smoke billowing out the better. Based on what I've seen at barbecue stands around the country the pros tend to use less actual smoke.]

Dan Gill--

Don't feel bad about being confused over the right amount of smoke. Even experienced cookers, competitors and judges still deal with the question of how much and what kind of smoke works best for their smoking units. How and what you burn to produce a good smoke flavor is dependent upon what type of smoker you have. In general, unless you have a lot of airflow through the cooking chamber, thick white smoke is full of particulates that can precipitate out on the meat and result in bitterness.

The method that works for me is to burn a charge of wood down to a bed of good hot coals before putting the meat on. This gets everything heated up. I start cooking in the 250-300F range (at the meat rack) with little visible smoke. As the cooker cools, I start adding wood but I keep the fire active and maintain a good air flow through the smoker (inlet and exhaust vents open). As the raw wood burns, there is a fair amount of white smoke, but it is clean and smells good. Starting with everything hot, it does not take much wood to keep temperature in the 225-250F range (at the meat rack). For a long burn, such as needed for a brisket or a pork shoulder, I reduce the heat to around 200F after the meat gets up to an internal temperature of 160F. This keeps the meat from getting dry.

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Belly--

You want to see very little white smoke coming from your pit. The secret is in the smell of the smoke coming from the firebox. You want a good sweet-smelling smoke. If you got everything working right, the correct amount of wood, the right amount of air--that will equal the right amount of heat and the smoke will smell so good you think you can eat it. That's the way we do barbecue in the hills of Texas!

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[How do you control things while smoking to prevent that bitter creosote taste?]

Dan Gill--

There are several approaches used by List members to avoid stale smoke, condensation and the bitterness of creosote deposition: Allowing the meat to warm to room temperature can help but is risky (bacteria may multiply); Maintaining a small fire with open dampers works but may tend to dry the meat; Pre-burning or making coals separately drives off the bitter volatiles but is a lot of trouble.

I like to start the fire a couple of hours before I plan to put the meat on and let the first charge burn to coals. This gets everything hot. There should be little if any visible smoke when the meat goes on, but the smoker may be hotter than you would normally operate it (say around 300F). Let the meat warm and the smoker cool for up to an hour then start adding raw wood to keep the temperature up around 250F and to make smoke. With this method, you don't need to keep the intake damper wide open (meaning better humidity control) and you avoid condensation and creosote problems.

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[I just got my brand new NB Black Diamond smoker (Brinkmann Smoke'N Pit Pro) seasoned and I'm all set to go. The only fire I've built in a pit was in my old bullet water smoker. I have some questions.]

Question: 1. I used a Brinkmann thermometer stuck in the factory hole (about halfway up the lid). Is this anywhere near accurate?

This section is a summary of a thread begun by Tom and answered by Harry, Ed, Bear, Kurt, Mike, Rodney, Pat and Jim.

Answer: Nope. The temperature in the lid could run anywhere from 25-75F higher than meat rack temperature.

Q: 2. I had lots of smoke escaping from both the firebox lid (at the hinge seam) and at the cooking lid (mostly at either end but some along the bottom). Is there a gasket material that would work well? If I do nothing, is it a big loss?

A:  My SnP Pro does the same thing. I've never bothered to mess with it. Doesn't seem to be a problem except maybe in the winter.

Q: 3.  Temperature control was iffy. I started up with a small charcoal fire and the inlet damper open 1/4 or so (same for the outlet). It held 225F for a good 30 minutes and then it started to drop a bit. I threw in some more charcoal and opened the inlet and it took a good while to get back up. Overshot (hit 325 - 350F). Closed down on the damper from 3/4 to about 1/2 and the temperature dropped to 220F in less than a minute. Is it that sensitive to damper setting? I had a hard time maintaining any constant temperature.

A:  You'll continue to have the same problem until you use it many times and get a good feel for it. I had the same problem with mine and found out it wasn't the smoker having the problem, it was me. After many, many uses, I've got it down pretty well. And then the weather changes and you have to figure it out all over again. Ignore what the book says and keep the exhaust damper wide open. You'll be better off if you keep the inlet damper 3/4 to full open all the time.

Q: 4.  I chopped up some oak and wild cherry to try. Every time I added a "log" to my fire, I got thick, white smoke until it caught good. Is this how you do it?

A: Yep, it is a smoker. Try smaller pieces if you're worried about incomplete combustion. You can also warm or pre-burn your wood. Get some wood started in another pit or grill and add it hot to the firebox.

Q: 5.  Speaking of fires, for the second seasoning at 350F, I had 3 or 4, 8 inch long by 2 inch diameter hunks of wood, burning away! Nice flames in the box, not too much smoke visible from the stack. Do you generally have actual flames? How big a fire (quantity of wood) is normal for smoking in a NBBD? Fill 'er up and choke it down or have a small amount and keep adding?

A:  NEVER "Fill 'er up and choke it down ". That's the best way to get bitter-tasting meat. Stick to a small amount of fuel and add to it as you need to or you'll have high temperatures. I like to get my wood burning with just the right flame. Open the outlet damper up all the way. Control the temperature with the inlet damper. If you close the outlet, the smoke will not vent, get stale, and you've just added that bitter taste everyone complains of to the meat. A big fire choked down will give you bitter smoke.

Q: 6.  It was really great firing this up for the first time. I just need to learn a few things about the fire before I ruin several hundred dollars worth of meat practicing.

A:  You probably won't ruin anything. It may not be the way you want it for the first few times, but still better than what you'd get from the local 'Q shack. By the time you learn with an empty smoker, it is too late. When you put meat in the thing, temperature control will be different, as will be the flow of air through it, around the meat. Don't fill it, but put something in it to try, a whole chicken is a good way to start. Just start cooking with it. Experience is the best teacher. I doubt that you will totally ruin much meat, if any.

You are going to see some temperature variance, especially when adding more fuel. Once I get the intake damper set, I don't mess with it much. When I add fuel, I leave the side door of the firebox open a little to let in more air and get the fuel burning quicker. When the temperature comes back up I close it. When I first started using my NBBD, I was always opening and closing the intake damper and trying to keep the temperature exactly where I wanted it. I now keep my hands off of it as much as possible and don't worry about 25-35F temperature swings and I get along much better. I cook almost exclusively with wood, although I learned a neat trick of starting a fire with charcoal to provide a good coal bed to get going.

I have found that if there is a LOT of smoke (i.e. under the doors and around lids, etc.) there is something wrong with either the air intake or the wood itself. The right-sized fire burns with hardly any visible smoke, that's what you want. You need to keep a good air flow through the unit at all times. This keeps a good clean burn going. Avoid using unseasoned wood, as it will tend to over-smoke and CAN cause bitter meat. Wet bark also can cause this problem. While I can't speak for everybody here, my best results are obtained when there is very little smoke from the stack and none at all from the doors or other openings. I use both vertical and horizontal off-set units (homemade) and usually if there's a bunch of smoke coming from the stack, I know it's time to put the brewskie down and check the fire.

You will learn to regulate the temperature by the amount of fire in your firebox. There will always be some open flame, but the best fire is the kind you would cook your marshmallows or "smores" on later. Regulating the amount of fuel, combined with the correct amount of intake air (never choke the exhaust) will give you the best results.

You already have lots of good suggestions. I'll add another. I used fiberglass wood-stove gasket to tighten up my NBBD. I found that it gave me much better temperature control, especially on breezy days. Look for flat gasket material, the round stuff is too thick for the doors to close. If all you can find is round material, you can use it on the outside of the NB, butted up against the seams, but not under them like you can with the flat stuff.

Using the gaskets has allowed me to start with a much larger load of charcoal to give a longer burn without fiddling with the fire. Before I added the gaskets, I had to use a much smaller charcoal load to keep the fire from getting too hot. This required much more frequent additions of charcoal and a lot more fiddling. The reason was too much air coming in through the gaps.

Q: 7.  Just for point of reference, I have a grill that's about 12" x 14" that sits in the bottom of the firebox. My first lump charcoal fire was enough to make a 10 inch or so diameter pile that was only a few inches tall at the center. Is this too small?

A: I usually start with about 3-4 pounds of lump charcoal. Let it burn down pretty good and add an oak log and let that go for awhile until I get a good bed of coals and can start controlling the temperature. This usually takes an hour to an hour and a half. I then toss on one more log and let it catch fire for about 10 minutes or so. Adjust the inlet damper about 3/4 open. Open the lid to the smoke chamber to remove any built-up heat, close it and watch the grill level temperature. It will usually be in the general area of 200-235F at this point. Meat goes on about now. I add a split log about every two to three hours from this point on.

I have a NB Hondo, same operating design as yours, just different shelves on the outside. I use two fire grates in the firebox turned so they run across the box and overlap (gets them up higher for better airflow.)

Temperature is pretty sensitive to damper positions. I usually move them in very small increments, then wait 15 minutes for things to stabilize before I judge the results. I add split wood (usually ash these days) directly to the fire. I use mesquite lump charcoal to keep things burning, and add a piece of wood as necessary to keep it smoking. The wood burns hotter than the charcoal, take that into consideration in your damper settings as you adjust (maybe add wood instead of opening dampers more). I used to fill it up with charcoal briquettes and choke it down so it would burn a long time without intervention. But I have found that I get a much cleaner, more attractive and better tasting product by using a small hot fire, leaving the inlet damper almost wide open and tending it more often.

I use about 10-12 pounds of lump charcoal to smoke all day (brisket or pork shoulder). I don't really know quantitatively how much wood for the same time, probably a half to a whole log 8 inches in diameter and 15 inches long.

The only piece of meat I ever ruined was a rack of pork ribs. At the time I thought I had gotten them just way too smoky. They were bitter, overpowering, and inedible. It was the only time I ever tried to use only wood in the smoker. Now, having learned more, I think that rather than being over-smoked that it was a creosote problem, caused by an oxygen-starved fire.

You probably won't ruin anything, and you've great advice from everybody here. I learned it all by trial and error, until I found this List a few months ago! I'm still the only person I've met face-to-face who owns a smoker.

When I started with NBBD, I had the same problem, temperature spikes and low points. One thing that helped was to stop overreacting. By that I mean, when the temperature shoots up to 350F, don't shut down every damper to bring it down. When the temperature drops to 150F, don't open the intake wide open and dump a full load of hot coals in the firebox. Make small changes or you'll be riding a thermal roller coaster. Once I realized that, even temperatures were easier to maintain.

Make sure you're only making small adjustments, even if it appears you need to make big adjustments. If it gets too hot, close down the inlet damper a little, or open the firebox door to dump some heat. If you've got a lot of heat to get rid of, open the cooking chamber door a bit. If the temperature drops a bunch, don't dump a truck load of coals in there. Open the damper all the way, or add just a few coals. Remember, it could take up to 15 minutes or so for the temperature to react to what you do to the fire or air damper.

Another thing you have going for you is that when you put a 12 pound brisket on the grill, you have one heck of a thermal mass there. A brief spike in the temperature will not harm the meat, a short drop in temperature will not add hours to your cooking time.

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Scott in Carolina--

Also, one of the troubles with the Brinkmann SnP Pro and NBBD is the lack of a damper between the firebox and the cooking chamber. My big Oklahoma Joe has a sliding damper system with convection tube that makes temperature and smoke control a breeze - assuming you have excellent fire-tending skills.

One thing we've taken to doing when not burning wood to coals is using smaller logs and placing some actually inside the fire box but away from the fire. We do this before adding them to the fire, it really heats them up and gets them going before we add them. We have very little smoke, and the barbecue never turns out bitter since I learned this trick.

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Bill Wight--

When I got my NBBD, I made all the modifications suggested, including adding a 4 inch diameter new exhaust smokestack that comes off the far end of the cooking chamber. I find that when I am burning wood and I close the inlet damper down beyond 3/4 open, I immediately get a dense, foul-smelling smoke coming out the exhaust stack. So I have decided to learn to control the temperature with fuel and not by adjusting the inlet damper. Doing this, I've never made any bitter tasting barbecue. My biggest problem was maintaining the temperature low enough. By keeping a big enough fire to last about 30 minutes, I was seeing temperatures at the meat rack of 275F or more. So took the factory smokestack that I removed from the top of the cooking chamber when I installed the new smokestack and I installed it in the firebox. So now my NBBD has two smokestacks, the factory one in the firebox and the new one in the cooking chamber. I can keep a small, hot and clean-burning fire going with the inlet damper all the way open, all the time. When I add fuel or when the temperature in the cooking chamber gets too high, I open the damper on the firebox smokestack all the way and dump out some heat. When the temperature drops, then I close down the firebox smokestack damper. This way I can get very good temperature control in the cooking chamber.

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Editor--

I thought it would be beneficial to those barbecue beginners attempting their first use of a wood-burning off-set firebox smoker to have the step-by-step instructions of a fellow beginner (about 8 months into barbecue) who learned it the hard way--trial and error. This article features the NBBD smoker, but the tips will work on the Hondo, Bandera and SnP Pro as well.

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[Rick, did you modify your NBBD smoker in anyway before you started using it?]

Rick Otto--

No. I began using it right out of the box. No modifications.

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[How many doors in the firebox does the NBBD (Hondo and SnP Pro) have?]

The NBBD firebox has two doors. It has a door lid on top that opens like the one in the cooking chamber. This top firebox door has a flat shelf welded on top for warming things directly over the heat. (Editor--the current model of the SnP Pro does not have this warming shelf.) The top firebox door opens wide and holds open. The NBBD also has a door on the end. The door is fitted with a latch. The 'butterfly air baffle' (the inlet air adjustment device or inlet damper) is in this door.

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[Can you put wood into the firebox from either door?]

Wood can be placed into the firebox by either opening the top of the firebox, (the worst scenario when you've got a fire going) or by opening the end door wide and placing wood directly on the fire. Using the firebox end door keeps the heat a little more constant and avoids a massive loss of heat when you open the top firebox top lid door.

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[Do you pre-heat your fuel wood?]

No, I do not preheat my wood, but it's not a bad idea.

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[What do you use for fuel?]

I start and continue with wood all the way. I tired to use briquettes, but the ash clogged the firebox too soon; I was smothering any fire I had. I didn't like wood chunks either. Seems as though if I used them dry, I got too hot a fire. If I used soaked chunks, I didn't like the color of the smoke.

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[OK, briquettes didn't work for you and you didn't like the wood chunks, so what wood do you use?]

I contacted an orchard owner and got a wonderful deal on some cherry, peach and pear wood. It's cut into anywhere from 12-18" lengths and from 1" to 3" in diameter. I split anything larger than 3" diameter before I burn them. The wood was aged at least a season before I got it.

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[Tell me how you start a fire in your NBBD and keep it going]

I like to use one of those waxy fire-starters (the kind you use to start campfires and fireplaces). It burns down pretty fast and it has no residue or odor. I just place it on the grate and pile some small kindling on top of it. I slowly add some larger pieces of wood until I can add two medium-sized logs (that's what I'll call them) to the fire and make sure they start. My fire starts with the two logs, and when I add wood, I try and make sure that I can add two more logs at a time. It just seems as though when you add two at a time, they seem to feed off of each other instead of just one fighting to get started.

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[In what position do you keep the exhaust vent on the smokestack?]

The vent to the cooking chamber (smokestack) is always left wide open! If that is closed down in any way, it concentrates the smoke in the cooking chamber and you risk getting bitter meat.

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[How do you control the temperature in the smoking chamber?]

Any temperature adjustment I make is done by the firebox side door butterfly air baffle opening/closing only. The exception to this is when I get a high heat spike. Then I open up the cooking chamber door for a couple of seconds and let some heat out. Sure, some smoke goes out too, but that's never been a problem. I just relax for a while until the temperature evens out in the smoker.

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[How do you measure the temperature in the smoking chamber?]

I use a round analog thermometer that is mounted right into the cooking chamber door. It's not accurate as to the actual heat at the grill level, but it is accurate in determining what the heat is inside. When I have a steady fire going, the door-mounted thermometer reads 300F, while the grill level, where the meat is, is about 225F. What I DON'T DO is constantly mess with temperature adjustments. Very small adjustments to the butterfly air baffle in the firebox will make big temperature changes in the smoking chamber. I keep the air baffle open about 1/2 way all the time. To lower the smoking chamber temperature a little, I close the baffle about 1/4 turn. To increase the heat a little, I open the baffle 1/4 turn. Sometimes it takes even less adjustment than that.

The point is, the fire will react, but not immediately. It's something that you can't adjust like a knob on a stove. If you keep this in mind: "the reaction to an adjustment is not immediate", then this will help you relax and not mess with the air baffle adjustment so often. Another thing to remember is this is: "LONG cooking times". The temperature spikes that do occur won't hurt the meat at all, and you should look at the whole process, not just at a momentary spike that makes you want to panic. I use a Sunbeam thermometer with the probe inserted into the meat and the wire extending out the exhaust pipe and the thermometer sitting on the shelf outside. That's what I judge the meat by, not the thermometer in the door. The one in the door give me an indication of how my fire is doing--not the actual temperature at the meat level.

After the temperature settles down, and the fire is even, I add the meat. Make sure it's at room temperature. When you open the cooking chamber to add the meat, naturally, the temperature in the smoking chamber will drop. DON'T adjust anything yet! When the door is shut again, the temperature will rise and level out without you making any adjustments. I try and look ahead and predict when the temperature will drop again. It just seems that if it's been at an even keel for a long time, it's probably time to add a couple of logs again. Anticipating the need for fuel prevents the temperature from dropping from 220F to 150F. Then panic addition of more wood, opening the air baffle, the temperature goes too high, then closing the air baffle, and waiting for the temperature to settle again. An even feed of a couple of small logs, about every 1/2 hour, is all it takes for me. I think that's important and I don't know why. I just get a better fire when I add two logs.

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[How big is your fire? How much flame?]

I try and keep a small 'flicker' of a flame going between the two logs. If there is NO flame, the smoke is pretty intense (it's smoldering).

I get some pretty darn good results out of the NBBD and it sure beats gas or anything else I have ever tried. I sure hope I can help someone with this information . . . it works for me.

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[I just finished some splitting logs into NBBD-sized fodder (2 ft. x 2 inch x 2 inch triangles) and then fired up the band saw and hacked them into chunks about 8 inches long. Am I taking this stuff way too far?

Editor--

That's a good size piece of wood that works well in the NBBD and SnP Pro fireboxes. Using small pieces of wood and keeping that fire small and hot with lots of oxygen is the best way to keep that meat tasting great.

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[I have a horizontal Oklahoma Joe cooker. I have trouble keeping clean, invisible smoke when it comes time to stoke up the fire with more wood. Is it OK to keep open the firebox lid long enough for a new log to get hot, thus reducing white smoke? I'd really like to avoid the need for preparing coals in a separate fire chamber.]

Ed Pawlowski--

Wood burning is an art. The science part is simple, add heat and oxygen and it burns. Getting the quality of smoke you want is another story. Try splitting the logs down smaller and adding more frequently. Don't let the existing coals burn down too low before adding more wood. Practice. A split piece will start easier than an equal sized barked piece. Don't damper the inlet. Practice more. Keep the logs to start next on the heating box to preheat. Use wood that is aged more. Expect to get some white smoke under any circumstances.

The more you burn, the better you will get at knowing when to add fuel and how much to add. There is no formula; it is an intuitive feel learned from a lot of wood burning. Most of all, learn to anticipate. If you see you have to add more wood and then add it, you are already too late. Practice more.

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Harry Jiles--

I burn wood in a Klose pit and do not preburn it. I use well-seasoned wood and add logs directly to the fire as needed. I keep a supply of kindling sized pieces of wood handy and add a couple of them whenever I add a couple large logs to the fire. I try and make sure I add the logs while there is still a good bed of coals in the firebox. If for some reason the fire has burned down to the point that there isn't a good bed of coals, I add a couple of handfuls of lump charcoal to get more coals quickly. After adding the wood, I leave the end door of the firebox open a couple of inches for an extra shot of oxygen to the fire. I usually open the cooking chamber to mop the meat at the same time I add wood.

This dumps off the initial smoke as the fresh wood catches fire. The kindling pieces catch fire almost immediately and get the large logs going quickly. The open firebox door lets in more air to also helps the fresh wood get going quickly. When I am done mopping the meat, which is just a minute or two, I then close everything back up and the temperature in the smoker comes back up in a couple of minutes. At that time the fire is burning well and producing a thin blue-white smoke.

This procedure has worked very well for me.

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David Klose on smoker operation--

Most offset firebox smokers have the thermometer at the center or top of the door. In my opinion this is not the correct location for the thermometer. Near the meat rack is where it should be located.

Keep the environment moist:

I assume that you know to make a fire on one end and cook on the other. You also need a moisture source, like a pan of water over the coals. The water not only adds moisture, but it also helps with temperature control. This is particularly true with the bullet type smokers and it also helps with off-set firebox type cookers. I am not too sure how much help a water pan will be in controlling temperature, but you do need it to keep the moisture up in your cooking environment. You can place an aluminum pan on the meat rack closest to the firebox, placing water, cider vinegar, onions and bell peppers, etc. in the water to steam into the meat as you cook. Also throw some whole onions in the fire from time to time, as they are a natural meat tenderizer.

Controlling the fire:

Only use the INTAKE damper to control your fire. Never use the exhaust damper/control to control your fire. Keep the exhaust either wide open. The only time you would ever shut the exhaust damper down completely, would be to pull in an out of control fire, melt-down situation like a grease fire that needs to be brought under control. Otherwise, leave exhaust open and don't touch it.

The amount of fuel (charcoal, lump coal, hardwood) you use is important, particularly in NON-airtight cookers. You may have to decrease the amount of fuel in order to control or get a steady temperature without spiking it high. This is a "personality of the device" situation. Using the firegrate will make your fire burn hotter since air can get under the fuel.

Controlling the fire is really a vital part of the art of barbecue. What makes it tricky is that there are a lot of variables involved--like outside air temperature, humidity, amount of wind, direction of wind, fuel being used, size and amount of fuel. etc. Each of these things can and will effect your ability to control a given fire.

Basically, don't point your intake damper into the wind. You don't want wind rushing in to "fan" your fuel, which would cause temperature spikes. On humid days, fuel tends to burn more slowly and with a bit more difficulty. Find the right sized pieces of wood for your firebox--not too big, not too small.

Wood chips/chunks:

Using chips or chunks really is a fairly simple thing with not too many gotchas. Do presoak them for at least 1/2 hour, longer if you prefer. Use chips dry if you want a strong burst of smoke for a short period of time. Use chunks when you plan on long-term smoking. Long-term is like 4- 5 hours for a butt or some relatively big piece of meat. I cook my pork (shoulder/butts) with 4-5 hours of strong smoking using chunks of mesquite and hickory. First one kind for a while then the other. Use larger 1/2 split and some whole logs on the offset smokers. Be sure to always keep plenty of different size kindling, chips, chunks, and split and whole logs around, as these will help you select the right woods for the right job. Larger logs burn cooler and longer, so you won't have to watch the fire as close.

Amount of time to cook:

You'll get a lot of different advise on this one. And, I have found the cookbook Smoke and Spice by Cheryl & Bill Jamison, helps a lot for food preparation times and recipes. It is excellent.

I think you'll find 1 1/2 hours per pound is not a bad starting point. Personally, I use 2 hours per pound. However, bone mass, amount of fat, etc. can make a difference. If you want to "pull" the butt or shoulder, don't go by time except to give you "ballpark" number anyway. Go by the twistability of the bone to determine doneness. If you can hold on to the bone and twist it easily, then you're ready to pull. If the bone feels like it would not come out of the meat with a good tug, then leave it on for more time. Always put the barbecue on early and you can always keep the meat warm if it gets ready sooner than you think. Foil works very well for keeping your barbecued meat nice and hot.

When cooking a butt or shoulder you need to remember that you are placing a somewhat large cold mass on your cooker. It will take a while for the meat to warm up and begin the cooking process. Many people will bring a piece of meat to room temperature prior to putting it on their cooker. This is why. A lot of people worry about the health aspects of bringing a piece of meat to room temperature first. Your decision, but just remember that this piece of meat is cold right to the bone and will take a while just to begin the cooking process. You have to account for that time.

Lastly:

Try to keep the cooking chamber door shut. I know that with many types of cookers, you have to open it just to add fuel. Just try not to open it for anything but adding fuel and mopping. Get a probe-type thermometer and you won't have to open the lid for checking temperatures at meat level.

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[I'm confused. I read in the book "Smoke and Spice" that barbecue should be cooked in the 180-220F range. From my reading on the BBQ List, many of the 'old pros' seem to like a higher temperature. What gives here?]

Danny Gaulden--

Higher temperatures--this is just the way I like to cook my barbecue. This is not everybody's method, for sure. I just don't like smoking below 225F. I feel that if one is cooking below this temperature, the meat doesn't achieve a good rich flavor. It seems to me that certain chemical reactions occur at this temperature and above. Don't ask me what reactions as I don't know. I just know the meat takes on a much richer flavor and tastes better. That's what I'm after. I seem to be responsible for getting this whole "higher temperature" thing going with one of my earlier posts, and am glad just about every one of our experienced barbecuers came out of the closet on this subject. Below are my guidelines on smoking meats "low and slow".

I like to smoke all my meats between 240 and 250F. This includes pork butts, brisket, chicken, turkey, ribs, wild game, goats, etc. I don't have a problem if the temperature hits 260F for short periods of time. The major exception to this is smoking sausage. I like staying in the 220-225F range, but don't mind if the temperature drops to 200F. It depends on the sausage.

There's no doubt that different pits can handle higher temperatures better than others. There's no doubt that different pits can handle hard smoke and soft smoke better than others. It depends on their design and how they function. My pit at the store (a large JR rotating rack type) does best with a wood that is slightly on the green side. I get no bitterness nor any creosote flavor in my product. Absolutely none! As a matter of fact, using seasoned wood in my store pit just doesn't work at all--I don't get the flavor I want. But the same greener wood in a Black Diamond/Hondo type pit or a Klose Backyard Chef will cause a harsh, bitter taste in the meat. The off-set firebox horizontal pits need a more seasoned wood to cook properly. There is nothing wrong with this--they just function in a different manner from my big JR.

The secret to making good barbecue with a wood fire is to get a good hot bed of coals working for you, and then add a chunk of wood as needed. There are lots of ways to make a fire. Some are good, some are not so good. As you are barbecuing take time to study your fire and how it is working--for or against you.

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[I heard from a guy who works at Oklahoma Joe's (who says he's an experienced smoker) that you should start out with a lower temperature, 200F, and a medium to heavy smoke for the first two hours. He said after two hours that the meat doesn't accept any more smoke. Comments?]

Kit Anderson--

I just got a copy of 'Professional Charcuterie' on Bill Ackerman's recommendation. It is a great book on sausage making. One particular point of interest is the smoking technique. Most of the recipes involving smoking call for putting the meat in at 135F for a hour, going up to 155F, then higher until the internal temperature reaches 160F.

This is not cold smoking, which is done at 80F. The puppies is to get the smoke ring and its associated flavor to form at a maximum depth. The reaction stops when the meat gets over 120F, or so. This makes a lot of sense when looking for 'bacon on a stick' ribs. I have advocated putting the cold ribs in a cold smoker and then starting the fire to achieve this. It works for baby backs but not all the way through on spares.

This past weekend, I was visiting a friend that has a SnP Pro. He was cooking spares and had lowered the grill in the cooking chamber to fit 6 full racks. He said he liked to smoke at 200F but was having trouble with the ribs being tough. I saw that he was monitoring temperatures on the lid which meant the temperature at grill level was probably no higher than 135-150F. He was not using a digital thermometer. The ribs had been on for 3 hours when I got there.

So, I boosted the temperature up to 300F for two hours until dry bone started to show on the ends. I could easily pull the ribs apart and found that the smoke ring went all the way through. Bacon on a stick spares, tender and moist.

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[I read in the BBQ List FAQ that the main reason to raise the meat to room temperature for a wood burner was to avoid condensation of soot and creosote on the meat. For this reason, I bring the meat to room temperature before I put it into my electric smoker then wait a little while before I add the wood chunks. Is this unnecessary?]

Danny Gaulden--

At my restaurant, for 22 years, I have taken the day's meat to be cooked straight from the walk in refrigerator into the cool smoker. The temperature in the pit will usually be around 125 to 140F. I am in total agreement with Kit Anderson that if one wants more smoke flavor and a deeper smoke ring, this was the way to do it.

My reasoning behind this is that I feel the meat is more relaxed, and the pores are more open when the meat is cold. The smoke draws to it like a magnet. Just like creosote does to a cold chimney until it gets heated up.

Now, here is where some of our novice smokers can get into trouble. If your fire isn't established, and is in a high burn state when you put on the meat, and you close the intake damper down too much to try to keep the temperature down in your smoker, you will get more creosote on the meat than if you had let it warm up to room temperature. Not only will the "good smoke" draw to the meat, the "bad smoke" will also. That's why I have stated in some of my earlier posts to let the meat warm up a bit before placing in the heated smoker. It was less of a risk for a lot of you and simply safer. However, it seems that some of the ones who have been here for a few months are becoming good pitmasters at a fast rate, and we can discuss things at a more advanced level. My problem with some of the things I do is that I don't know how to explain them, just know that they work. I guess that's why we have Kit around. From him, I have learned a lot about why what I do works and can talk to people on a more intellectual level about it. It's always better to understand why something works, not just that it works. Kit is my scientist.

Now, if you are using a water smoker, be it an electric, gas, or charcoal burner, this cold meat technique shouldn't be much of a problem. Nor should it be with the Cookshack smoker either. However, doing this with straight wood burners can be more challenging. You must know how to start out with a low heat fire, fairly smoky, and slowly bring the heat up without starving the fire for oxygen. It may be easier for you to go ahead and make a larger fire, let it burn down to mostly coals, then through in one piece of greener wood for smoke in the early stages. That way, you can go ahead and close down your firebox damper a bit without the problem of creosote, and maintain a lower heat in the cooking chamber for awhile. Notice I said just for awhile. It's much easier to have a good bed of coals in the firebox, and just add a log here and there to maintain and increase the heat, than to have too few coals and have to chunk in a bunch of wood to bring the temperature up. I do not maintain this low temperature cooking for a long time. I am continually slowly bringing up the temperature until I reach about 240F in the cooking chamber. With the cold meat placed in the cool smoker, and starting out with a smaller and cooler fire that I slowly bring up, the meat turns out nice and smoky and with a great smoke ring every time. You should not attempt to do this until you have experience in fire control however, as it is easy to get creosote to condense out of the smoke and ruin you meat.

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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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