The Smoker Project – Rehabilitating a Backyard Cooker

When you decide that you want to get into cooking as more than just sustenance and more of a hobby, one of the things you have to do is evaluate your gear. You don’t have to have the best gear and you may not have the money to spend on the most expensive equipment, but you need to have the right tools for the job. One of the things I love to do most is to smoke on a good smoker. The flavor of smoke combined with the caramelized flavors from your rubs and the “bark” of the meat is an art. Competitions around the country for smoked meats begin and end with the competitors trying to outdo each other on their rigs, and quite often they rip ideas off from each other to make the most complete cooker possible.

The question I get most from my friends who I cook for and are interested in getting into the hobby is, “What kind of ____ should I get?” People will try to skip a few steps in the learning process and go straight to overbuying for their skill of cooking. You have to spend time learning how things are cooked to really understand what kind of gear to get, although you never want to go with the cheapest thing you can find.

It’s like playing guitar. Sure, you can go out and buy the most expensive guitar you can find, but you won’t really appreciate it if you have no idea how to play a guitar. Most teachers will tell you to get as much as you can afford when you are starting out, then upgrade as you begin to know the difference. Always try different pieces, but most important is to get as good as you can get on your own, then try out other people’s instruments when you can and figure out what you like more/less about yours compared to theirs.

Now then…with all that out of the way, there is something that you should know: despite what hobby you are getting into, you should always try to minimize the amount of work you have to do in order to get the best results.  That goes double for cooking food.  Furthermore, if you don’t mind being a little bit creative and once you get your feet under you, then you should take the opportunity to use what you’ve learned and put it to practice. In regards to any smoker, these are the things you need to have as a constant:

-regulated temperature that’s not hard to control

-good airflow from intake (where the air comes in) thru flue/chimney (the “exhaust pipe”) and out the vent (where the smoke comes out)

-no flames directly on the meat

I don’t care how big or small your smoker is, if you don’t have those three things you won’t have a good experience. There are many other things you need to do, but those three are constants.

In regards to our backyard smoker project, we’ll keep those same things in mind. I had a smoker that was about five years old. I mainly kept it at my house for quick meals and I can use it as a pit because the firebox (where you build the fire) has an area for me to put a grill rack in for direct grilling. However, like any smoker off the rack, it’s not exactly built for heavy-duty use. After a few years, the paint was gone and rust sat in. Sometimes meals turned out good, sometimes they didn’t, mainly because it’s hard to control temperature on a smaller rig.  If you are handy with a welding rod, you can do some amazing things.  So, off to the Arcadian Ranch we go to do some metal fabrication.

This is what we are working with:

It’s just your standard smoker. This one is manufactured by a company called New Braunfels, and I think it came from Academy for $150. Nothing expensive…just a typical little smoker that definitely has its place in the world.  When you open it up:

You have decent access to the grill, which is actually pretty good sized. You can put a whole brisket in there and probably a rack or two of ribs at one time. That’s crowding it, though because:

The hole that goes to the firebox lends itself to direct flames on the meat. Direct flames create carbon, which is NOT GOOD TO EAT. A closer look at the firebox and the hole that goes to the smoking chamber (where you put the meat) shows the inefficiency of the design:

I took one of the grill grates off so you can see. The hole is so big that once you get a fire going, there’s nothing to stop the fire from attacking your food. Also, note that ash and cinders that are picked up in the airflow will be carried directly into the smoking chamber without anything to slow it down. Ash on food is NOT GOOD TO EAT.

The firebox design is pretty good, all things considered. You have a hinged door, a nice long handle to move the smoker, and a way to control your airflow.

Speaking of airflow, let’s go ahead and look at the basic design flaws that we are trying to remedy. First of all, airflow is key when you are trying to smoke. One of the basic principles that people fail to learn early on when taking on the hobby is how to make the damn thing work. You have to open up the vent (where the smoke comes out) and adjust the intake (where the air goes in) to regulate the temperature. Never, ever, evereverevereverevereverEVER close down the vent on the top. Creating an area that has stagnant airflow will result in building up a creosote, and creosote is NOT GOOD TO EAT. This particular smoker is originally designed so the air flows like this:

That’s a great design if you want to be able to get this thing fire engine red and cook the ever living shit out of anything within about a five foot radius. The suction from the intake is so strong you can actually feel it if you put your hand down there. As well, the air almost feels like it’s being propelled by a fan coming out of the vent. That’s just not what we are looking for if we want to keep our temp around 225-250® for 6-20 hours at a time. What we want to do is keep the good airflow but minimize the exposure to flame. To do this, we are going to need to put a plate inside the smoking chamber right under the grills over that giant hole. We want the airflow to be more like this:

This will:

-allow us to keep the temperature down (much lower than before)

-keep good airflow to reduce the risk of creosote

-eliminate the food in the smoking chamber from direct flames

Boom. That’s our design. It’s the design that any smoker should have. You can add on modular pieces, like a warming box or even another stack so that it’s easier to get the fire started to begin with, but we want the smoke to travel under the grill for heat and then across the meat for flavor and then out as soon as possible.

Let’s start with the plate running across the bottom. I didn’t take pictures of the welding itself, but you could imagine how hard it is to weld on thin metal that’s rusty, especially when you are welding it to brand new sheet metal. There are actually two pieces of sheet metal here that we’ve overlapped for strength. By placing the sheets directly under the lip of the smoker, we’ll have built in stability. As well, we need to tack a few spots along the side to keep it up. You could put in a brace underneath for stability, but once the weld should hold them in place. There won’t be any weight on them other than the drippings from the meat.

As well, we need to put a level on the plate and make sure that it’s tilted down towards the hole where grease falls out. Otherwise, you’ll have excess buildup that could create a flame.

Once we get the first plate on, we’ll slide the other one on and attach it both to the smoker body itself as well as the first plate we put down.

It doesn’t have to be air tight, but it does need to direct the airflow down the chamber as well as keep flames from licking the bottom of the food.

I have to move that chimney over to the other side of the smoker chamber. I stuck a piece of cardboard up to the hole from the inside and traced the hole with a pencil. Then, I cut the hole out and cut a hole into the chamber on the exact same spot on the opposite side of the back of the smoke chamber.

Now, I need to seal up the original chimeny hole.  I just took another piece of sheet metal and cut it into halves, putting one section on the outside and one on the inside, making sure they covered the hole completely.  Using the same bolt holes as before, I bolted the sheets on.

That creates the perfect path for smoke/air to flow so that I achieve my three constants of not being able to control my heat easily, not having stagnant air, and not having flame ups.  Once it’s all finished, I took a product called Ospho and coated the outside.  That kills the rust and it’s now ready for high heat paint.  (The two pictures above are post-Ospho)

After the paint cures for a couple of days, then go ahead and fire it up and get it hot.  With a spray bottle of oil, cover the outside and let it season.  Same on the inside…you need to spray it down when it’s hot with oil from time to time to make sure it keeps its season.  Once it’s seasoned, you can go ahead and cook on it.

There she is…my little backyard smoker.  I will add some other modifications down the road, like a more stable brace and bigger wheels, but as for now it’s ready and functional.  As they say in the Army and in prison:  smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Pulling Your Pork – The Essence of BBQ

I’m a Texan, and any good Texan loves BBQ. However, BBQ can be a tricky. You can’t just throw a slab of meat onto a grill and then slather it with sticky sweet sauce and expect to have good BBQ. BBQ needs LOOOOONG slow cooking with delicious smoke from well-seasoned wood. What that means is that you have to have a piece of meat that has lots of fat, so chicken breasts and backstrap are out. Those boys in Tennessee and South Carolina know this as a BBQ must.

Here in cattle country, we know that brisket is the key to a Texas BBQ. And if you’ve read the Big Red Ribs recipe, you know that if you are going with ribs they need to be pork ribs and not beef. However, Texans have a really bad habit of overlooking the greatness of the Boston Butt. It could be because it’s pork and not beef; it could be because it’s got a yankee name and the fact that yankees call a shoulder roast a “butt”. Let’s overlook the sins of our sisters from the North and look deeply into what could potentially change everything you’ve known about BBQ and become a staple in your stable.

They call this thing a pulled pork; if you go to a Hard Rock Café, you should find a dish called the Tennessee Pulled Pork or the “TPP” (‘If you’ve been to the HRC and you haven’t had the TPP, you haven’t been to the HRC’). Before they closed the HRC in Dallas, that was one of my favorite things to get. I actually had a kidney stone attack one time eating a TPP, but it’s so good I hung in there for the whole sandwich before heading to the emergency room. True story. On a toasted bun, this might turn into your favorite BBQ sandwich, and again…this is coming from a Texas Beef fan.

First of all, let’s take another look at our pig diagram:

Right above the ear, you’ll see the words “Boston Butt”. Yeah, it’s the shoulder. They also call this a “blade roast”. Either way, when you go shopping you’ll be looking for the biggest slab of non-ham pork you can find. Note: there’s also a “picnic roast”, which is a nice alternative if you can’t find a shoulder roast. However, the bone isn’t quite as easy to remove for presentation, so stick with the shoulder if you can.

In the package:

That’s an eight-pounder, which is about the average of what you’ll find. On occasion you’ll run across one a little bigger or smaller, but for the most part that’s what you’ll get when you buy one. First thing’s first….take it out of the package and rinse it under water. Be careful…there are a couple different muscles here, so it may try to fall apart on you. When you get it rinsed off and set aside, let’s get the bag out. I like to use a turkey bag. Reynold’s makes a perfect product for this:

Take the bag and put it into one of those cheap plastic storage bins.

I’m doing two roasts here, but you can double this up easily in the same bag and bucket.

Go ahead and put the roast(s) in the bag. Now, for the next 24 hours, we need to brine this bad boy. Remember…a brine is for moisture, not for flavor. If any flavor is garnered from the brine, it’s a bonus and not the original intent. The brine will be a mix of sugar, salt, and acid to break down those muscle fibers to be as tender and moist as possible. For our brine we are going to use about this much apple juice:

Just pour it right into the bag. No reason to scrimp, but no reason to over do it.

And about this much apple cider vinegar (about a cup):

You can mix them right in together. Swish ’em around a bit, but you don’t have to worry about getting them perfectly mixed. Go ahead and close up the bag and get as much air as you can out. It’s not imperative to get it air tight, but it will keep your fridge from being too vinegared up if you get it closed.

Into the fridge it goes for the night. The next day, take it out of the fridge, unfastened the closure and pour as much of the liquid out as possible. We are going to use a dry rub on this, so you want to make sure you get as much liquid out as possible. No reason to save the brine…it’s done it’s job, and we’ll have ample liquid from the drippings from this after it’s cooked.

Using the Arcadian BBQ rub, liberally coat these things down on all sides and any cracks and crevices you can find. Then, put it back into the bag and close it back up. It needs another night to get seasoned up.

So that your timing is right, this is your timeline:

Day 1: brine in the evening, in the fridge overnight and into the next evening

Day 2: season with rub, into the fridge overnight

Day 3: smoking for six-ten hours (including the rest)

Fire up your smoker. Now, you guys know how I feel about mesquite. That’s not changing. However, I really like pecan/hickory on this recipe. Because you are cooking for so long, though, you’ll want to use a mixture. Mesquite is a harder wood and will cook hotter and longer than pecan, which is a softer wood. That’s why my nickname in college was “Mesquite”. What’s up, ladies?

Get your smoker rolling to 225-250deg and put your roast on fat side UP. It’s totally up to you on how much smoke you put on it, but you need at least 2 hours of pure unadulterated smoke. Some might argue with me on the fat thing, but if your smoker is designed correctly you’ll have indirect heat, full smoke, and the fat will melt into the meat fibers. That’s important in this dish. You see, it’s different from brisket because on brisket we cut against the grain. However, with TPP we are going to literally pull the pork apart so the meat fibers will be long. Since they are going to be long and not short, they need to have a lot of fat in between them to lubricate the fibers and make them easy to masticate. Get your mind out of the gutter.

After you’ve put all the smoke you want on it, take your digital probe thermometer and stick it into the opposite end of the shoulder blade bone longways and push it in as far as it will go. Then wrap the roast in foil VERY well. That is, lay down the foil with the shiny side down and lay the roast on it.

Then wrap the foil around the sides and back over the roast, making sure the thermometer is sticking out and the foil is tight around it. Then put another layer of foil around it. The reason is that there will be lots and lots of tasty liquid that we want to save, and if you don’t have it wrapped well the drippings will escape.

Note: the temperature we are looking for does not reflect doneness in any way. Instead, it’s just a marker for us to go off of because once we get to 195deg internal temp, then we know that the roast is cooked the proper amount of time to melt all that delicious fat intertwined into the roast meat fibers.

For the next few hours, keep your smoker going at 225-275. When you wrap the roast, it will probably be around 110-120deg. After you wrap it, the temp will start coming up relatively more rapidly.

Don’t rush it. We need it to go slow, so take your time and pay attention to the temp of the smoker and look for 195deg on internal temp. Once you get there, pull it and put it into a cooler. You know the drill…you need at least two hours of rest in the cooler, but the mass of this thing will let you go much longer. You can keep the probe in and keep the therm on and watch the temp. As long as you don’t drop too far down (130 or so), then you can let it rest a long time.

When you pull it out of the cooler, get one of those disposable foil pans. Get a deep one because the presentation is going to get kinda messy. Using your cooking gloves and with the assistance of your favorite sous chef, open up the foil and take the roast out without spilling any of the juice. The juice is good. The meat should be receded from the shoulder blade enough so you can grab onto it, give it a jiggle or two and take it out.

Jiggle to remove the bone

Throw it away…it’s duty to the world is over (or at least until some critty comes along to chew on it).

Using two large forks turned back-to-back, start ripping the meat apart. Don’t worry about being gentle, just rip. Break up all the chunks. It needs to be stringy.

When you get it all ripped apart, pour the juice over the top and toss the meat in it. Do as little or as much of the drippings as you want, but keep in mind that if you have any too much juice after serving the drippings will coagulate and make pork jello when it cools.

This is great straight up on a plate with some Texas Toast, or you can toast up some buns and throw some of the meat onto the crispy bun. Add some sauce if you like, a couple of pickles slices or onion slices, and you’ve got yourself a gen-yoo-wine TPP. Texas Pulled Pork, made the way Texans eat BBQ.