Barbecue Trials: No. 1

After receiving a charcoal basket and two new digital thermometers, I’d finally reached the breaking point. I’d intended to wait until the convection plate I’d ordered arrived, but I couldn’t take it any longer. Yesterday, I fired up the smoker.

Initially, I’d planned to just throw charcoal and chips into the fire box and get a feel for how the basket affected things, learn the heat zones and heat differentials. While in the grocery store yesterday morning, I told myself if I could find a cheap, trimmed brisket, I’d toss that on, as I also wanted to experiment with temps higher than 250 and try out the so-called Texas Crutch. But no luck on the brisket. So I picked up a 5.6 pound piece of pork shoulder.

This was at 11 a.m. yesterday morning. Counting the time to get back to the apartment, get the fire started and temps in the smoker leveled out, I was looking at meat on at 1 p.m. Going the low-and-slow approach typically demands 1.5 hours per pound of meet — which would have meant 8 hours of cooking and a 9 p.m. finish

But, as I said, I wanted to play around with high heat and the Texas Crutch (wrapping the meat in foil after it hits a certain internal temperature). Worst-case scenario, I’d have some slightly chewy, underseasoned pork on my hands and some knowledge about the smoker.

Equipment used:
*Brinkmann Trailmaster Limited Smoker (Note: The only decently built smoker you can at Home Depot, it’s made of heavy-gauge steel and holds heat like a champ.)
*Charcoal basket.
*Two Maverick ET732 digital thermometers.
*One 8.8 pound bag of Cowboy brand hardwood chunks (and some leftover Kingsford)

Things I learned:

  • Cowboy brand hardwood charcoal burns fine, but too fast. Entire 8.8 pound bag gone in four hours or so.
  • Kingsford briquets work, are consistent and last a little longer.
  • I can’t expect to cook longer than five hours with one 8.8 pound bag of Cowboy and the quarter bag of Kingsford I had left over from last season.
  • I can empty the ash pan without setting the yard on fire.
  • Internal temp matters more than time.
  • A pork shoulder can be done on relatively short notice — well, within a five hour window.
  • The charcoal basket works wonders.
  • Minion method makes life easy.
  • The temperatures can vary widely from one end of the smoker to the other and from the grate to the lid.
  • The thermometer that came with the smoker is fairly useless.
  • “The Stall” is a real thing.
  • The “Texas Crutch” works to beat the stall.
  • AmazingRibs.com is right about the above things and is a website that anyone interested in barbecue should be using.

A few words about that last item. I stumbled across AmazingRibs.com a few weeks ago while searching smoker modifications and fell into a rabbit-hole of links, each one more useful than the last. The site is run by someone named Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn, a man who is obviously a huge fan of barbecue and, more important for our purposes, fact-based findings. Spend much time cruising through barbecue websites and you see a good bit of myth, hard-to-reproduce results, fights over proper technique and a lot of wretched writing. According to Meathead’s bio, he was a journalism major at Florida (but I won’t hold that against him), and it shows in the writing and in his insistence on finding out if some technique works and why it works.

Take a look at his writing about “The Stall.” This was something I hadn’t even heard of until I hit his site. Never mentioned in the barbecue books I’ve read. And since I’d never barbecued with a thermometer in the meat, I’d never realized it was going on. The Stall, for those of you too lazy to click over, is the tendency for cuts such as brisket and pork shoulder to hit an internal temp of 150 and just stay there for hours. Meathead and a science friend of his studied this phenomenon, charted it out and figured out why the Texas Crutch beats it (it has nothing to do with fat rendering or collagens breaking down and everything to do with evaporative moisture).

At any rate, the chart produced on his page about The Stall? The internal temp of the pork shoulder I put on yesterday tracked that chart exactly, as if it had memorized what it was supposed to do. Science!

Truth be told, all the other things I learned from yesterday’s experiment I could have learned from reading AmazingRibs.com. But what’s the fun in that?

Take the temperature differentials and the factory-installed thermometers. These are actually things explained everywhere on the web. Things you sort of just know if you’ve played around with barbecue equipment for a while. But I was surprised at the degree of variation.

Let’s look at the installed thermometer. It’s actually not a bad thermometer as far as these things are concerned. It measures the real temperature, rather than an imaginary one. But it’s located in the lid of the smoker, a good nine inches or so higher than the grates on which the meat sits. Big deal you say? Well, at various points yesterday the temperature in the lid was reading 75 degrees hotter than the temperature on the grate nearest the firebox. And the temperature on the grate nearest the firebox measured anywhere from 8 degrees to 30 degrees hotter than the temp on the grate farthest from the firebox. This is useful information! (And we will have to see how the convection plate affects these things.)

Enough about heat differentials, what about the food? As I said, this was all short notice. I tossed the shoulder in a Ziplock bag with a dry rub that I didn’t even bother to measure (salt, sugar, pepper, paprika, dry mustard, chile powder, onion powder, garlic powder). Got the fire going and let it stabilize at 330 or so. Yesterday, I tried the Minion Method for the first time: unlit charcoal and wood in the basket; load and light the charcoal chimney; dump lit coals into basket.

Meat went on at 1 p.m. Internal temp, slowly, slowly climbed. It seemed to get stuck in the 130s between hour one and hour two and, as prophesied, right after the two hour mark, it hit 150 and just wouldn’t budge. So I wrapped it in foil and, sure enough, temp started to climb again. I was shooting for an internal temp of 190, after which point I’d yank it out of the foil and let the flames crisp up the bark again. Right at hour five, it hit 189/190. And right at hour five, I found myself completely without charcoal. ARGGHHHHH!

I could have finished in the oven, but by this point I was growing impatient with the experiment — and even in an experiment I didn’t want to rely on the oven.

So how did it come out? It could have been a little more tender. Don’t know if that’s a result of the high temp or not letting it go longer. I’m suspecting the latter. As it is, the crust came out pretty good, the smoke ring was perfect and the flavoring was decent considering the lack of preparation and measuring. And slapping it in that foil made for a lot of juice that could be poured back over the meat once it was properly shredded.

Aside from learning a few things about my own equipment, yesterday also proved to me that, if it comes down to it, I don’t necessarily have to have a lump of meat on the smoker for 14 damn hours.

Finally, I didn’t take any pictures, so I guess none of this actually happened.

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