I Like Big Butts I Cannot Lie

Pork Butt just put on smoker

One of the many nice things about working from home is that the Egg sits out on the patio about 10 feet from my desk. It’s actually a little closer to me than the two-tap kegerator across the room.1 The picture above is the Before view of Smoke #4.2 It’s a 7.5 bone-in pork butt that’s spent the last 24 hours coated in mustard and a rub I like. It’s called Lantana of Texas and it’s described as a “South Texas Rub.”3 The butt’s also been injected with a brine of Rivertown Brewing’s Wit, some salt and some brown sugar. I tossed a couple of chunks of cherry wood in with the lump, but there’s some remnants of some hickory in there from earlier smokes. We’ll know later this evening how it all turns out. In some ways this is the first real smoke because it’s the first that’s going to take significant time. I think the longest I’ve gone to this point is 4.5 hours. That’s just getting me started today.

I’m so very happy I bought this thing. I’m still learning its quirks, but it’s not hard to figure out. Those first country ribs I did turned out great. Normally I would have sauced them about an hour before I pulled them off, but I didn’t for reasons I don’t remember at this point. I liked them, but Carla really missed the sauce and I think she’s right — they would have been better with it. I don’t want to relive the month of July — it sucked enough the first time — but sufficed to say things went to hell the week after the first smoke. The second smoke was a very small (3-4 lb.) pork roast that was cooked for slicing, not pulling. Just rubbed it with Lantana about an hour before it went on the smoker. It turned out well, but I can’t say I remember much about it. It was a Tuesday and we’d just driven back from my brother’s memorial service in Atlanta the day before and were getting ready to drive to Portland, Maine and Boston the next day. We did 3000 miles in 12 days. The fact that I got anything cooked that didn’t kill us is a win.

My third smoke was this past weekend — country ribs again — and they were less than successful. I rushed the fire at the beginning and I got some bad flavors into the smoke. Completely my fault. I ignored a basic principle Chef JJ stressed over and over at Eggfest: establish a strong fire and then start regulating the temperature. I didn’t really let the lump get lit well at all before I shut down the dampers. I killed what little fire there was. I opened up the dampers and got the temps back up, but the meat was on the whole time just absorbing all the crappy smoke from an oxygen-starved fire. They weren’t ruined — but there was almost a lighter-fluid taste in there (and I assure you, I haven’t had a can of lighter fluid around my place for nearly 20 years).

This morning I swore I wasn’t going to rush it, and it appears (two hours into the smoke) that I did it right this time. First I topped off the lump charcoal supply. I’ve used about half the 20 lb bag (of Royal Oak) they gave me when I bought the Egg. I figure my three smokes up to this point have run a total of maybe 10 hours. I’ve pulled 6-8 tablespoons of ash from the bottom all told and, to “top off” the lump this morning, I added maybe 2-3 lbs more lump. It’s the only time I’ve refilled the thing since I got it and I put in less than what was already in the firebox. What I’m trying to say here is this thing is efficient. Holy crap efficient. (And yes, the ISO has approved “Holy crap” as a descriptor of efficiency).

Anyway, I lit off the fire using a single firestarter square and then piled some of the bigger lumps around it. I left the lid up and made sure the bottom damper was open all the way. I walked away for about 10 minutes. When I came back there was a nice fire going. I shut down the lid and put on the top damper. I left the top damper about half-open and closed the bottom damper down to about 1/4 of an inch. Once the flames died down a bit (less than a minute), I burped it and then opened it up to put in the plate-setter (legs up) and the grate. I also rigged up the smoker probe of my thermometer. I use a Redi-Check dual thermometer rather than relying on just the thermometer in the lid if it’s something more than just ribs. I do have to say, though, that the lid thermometer and the one at the grate level are pretty darn close. Anyway, I closed the lid and shut the top damper to the same 1/4-inch, following what I’ve come to think of as Chef JJ’s Law: the bottom damper and top damper should be open the same amount. I walked away for 10 minutes to see where the temperature would settle. It was at 210 and climbing slowly after the appointed time, so I figured I was in the neighborhood. I loaded the butt onto the grate, inserted the thermometer probe and snapped the picture you see above. About half an hour later I shut the bottom and top dampers down to about the width of the wire on the thermometer.

Now we’re about 2 hours and 45 minutes into the smoke. I’ve been able to keep the temps between 206 and 216 with very, very small adjustments spaced out no less than half-an-hour apart. I’m still looking for the sweet spot that will park me at 210, but I’m not complaining about the 206 I’m at right this very minute. The movement of a millimeter or two can mean 10 degrees.

I’ll update this post as the day progresses.

UPDATE: It’s 11:30 AM and the butt has been going since 8:00 AM and I think I got the temp dialed in. I opened the top damper about half an hour ago just a couple of millimeters just to match it up better with the bottom damper. I didn’t touch the bottom. The temp rose to 210 and has been sitting there solid for the last 20 minutes. That’s it. I’m done. I’m not touching it again unless something unexpected happens.

UPDATE: 2:10 PM. Well, things changed, but nothing serious. I think this is just part of the learning process. The 210 fluctuated between 209 and 210 for a good half hour (and in my mind that’s a steady temp) Around noon the meat temp hit 140 which, as I understand it, is when things start to get interesting. 140 to 190 is where all the various fats melt and what might just be a cooked hunk of meat turns into something amazing. Right around the same time it started raining. And right around the same time the grid temp started heading down, leveling out around 206. I decided to wait to see if anything would happen. The temp kept falling off, so I opened the bottom and top damper a bit. By 12:30 the meat temp had gotten “stuck” at 143 for almost an hour, but the grid temp started to rise.

And rise.

And rise.

By 1:00 PM the temp had risen 10 degrees and it kept going. Around 1:25 PM I decided 238 was high enough and I finished my lunch and came downstairs to shut the dampers down a bit. Need I say that wireless thermometers rock? Around 1:35PM the temp peaked at 241 and I shut the dampers back to about where they were when I started . Since then the meat temp has risen to 155 and the grid temp has fallen back to 228. Still higher than the 225 people cite as the upper limit, but at this point the meat isn’t absorbing much smoke and I’m more interested in developing a good bark. Briskets are renowned for “stalling” around 150, but if this explanation of the stall is correct I think it’s possible that all my futzing around really accomplished is changing the rate of evaporation for a few minutes. I expect the meat temp to sit pretty still for a while, but once again I’m taking an oath not to fool with the dampers again. I should have either waited longer when it dropped to 205 to see what would happen, or only open the dampers about half of what I did. This thing is sensitive.

Something has come up and we’ll need to leave here a bit after 5 PM. I don’t know if I’ll be able to hit 190 in the next two hours. This could get interesting.

UPDATE: 4:00 PM. This is where the Egg shines. On my old New Braunfels smoker I’d have added aded fuel in dribs and drabs, but by this point I’d be at the point of essentially starting a new fire. Which is why I quit trying to do anything that really took a lot of time. Right now the meat temp is stalled at 159 and has been for at least an hour. The grid temp has settled down to slowly fluctuating between 210 and 215. For about the last half hour it’s pretty much been staying between 212 and 214. So that part’s handled.

Turns out Carla is going to go to the beer event that came up and I’m going to stay here with the pork.

UPDATE: 6:05 PM. The butt’s been on for 10 hours now. The meat temp is 157 and the grid temp is 225. It’s been raining for the last half hour after actually being sunny for a couple of hours. What’s funny is right after the last update the meat temp became “unstalled.” It started falling. It actually fell as low as 154. I had some fluctuations in the grid temps between 4:30 and 5:00 PM, – they got down to around 201 — but I opened the dampers a tiny amount — maybe 2mm — and the temps started rising. I saw the meat temp drop a degree even as the grid temp was raising. What’s going on? I’ve been reading a lot more from this guy and I think it makes sense. This was a pretty moist piece of meat. I’d injected it with brine (and, chances are, it didn’t travel too far) and that liquid has to boil off at some point. And it’s going to cool the meat while it’s happening. When the moisture’s out, the meat temp will start rising again. I think the early stages of that started about 20 minutes ago, though the rate hasn’t been that fast. Then again, speed isn’t the point here. I have a feeling once it gets going it’ll move along reasonably well. But for the moment we’re still stalled.

I have a hypothesis about why I’ll just cruise along at one grid temp, then have it roll off like a ball hitting the edge of a table. I think I need to mound the lump a little more than I did. I think a piece burns out and there’s not enough downward force to pick up the next chunk down to get going. It’s not unmanageable by any means, and the the peak variance range has been about 40 degrees. For the vast majority of today I’ve been in the 205 -225 degree range. I’ll take it.

UPDATE: 7:05 PM. I think I’m really unstalled now. By 6:50 PM the meat temp increased by four degrees (to 161). I decided not to believe it until I hit 163. That happened at 7:00 PM. Funny note: most of the cook-by-time-instead-of-temperature guidelines (AKA “recipes for disappointment”) Say my pork butt should be finished around 7:15 PM (11.25 hours). Oops. I expect things to move faster. But not that much faster. The grid temps are staying reliably in the 224-228 range and the meat temp just as I published this is still at 163.

UPDATE: 9:00 PM. I never thought I’d still be at this 13 hours later. Not for an under-8-lb butt. I think I went overboard with the moisture injection. Either that or 220 should be more my midpoint grid target than 210. I’m running a grid temp of 218 right now but my meat temp is only 176. There has to be a time that length of cooking balances out the overall temp. 13 degrees in 2 hours after being stalled for 5 hours? I’m going to pull this thing off and see what I have. As soon as I finish this beer.

UPDATE:  I pulled the meat off the smoker at about 9:20.  The final temps were 178 for the meat and 220 for the grid.  No matter how this turns out, that means I got good smoking temps for more than 12 hours which opens up all sorts of new possibilities for me. A few more pork butts  to learn what I’m doing right and wrong and then on to the holy grail:  a brisket. I’ll check how much fuel I used tomorrow and report in a separate post. I’ve stuck the meat in a foil pan covered tightly with foil, and the plan is to stick it in the fridge whole. It’ll have rested for about 45 minutes by the time it goes in the fridge.  Tomorrow I’ll place the whole butt in a slow cooker and set it to low and get it up to 190 over the course of the day. Then we’ll pull it and finally have it for dinner.  Not the normal path, but I’m improvising at this point.

Oh, and here’s the After picture:


1 Oh? You have a ping-pong table at work? That’s nice. Yay for you! I should note that — as a matter of pride and personal responsibility — I never touch the kegerator before 5PM on a workday. In the years we’ve had it I think I’ve violated that rule once. And it was something like 4:30PM. But it’s still there and that makes it’s better than your ping-pong table you probably never use.

2 Yeah, sooner or later I’ll quit counting.

3 It’s hard to find. I first found it in the Fresh Market in Asheville, NC years ago, but the company has apparently moved from the Houston area down to Harlingen, TX and it’s only carried by small mom-and-pop stores in random places around the south. They have the worst website in the history of websites. I think I need to come up with a version of my own.