ILBBICNL* 2: The Butt’ning

bad_chickenThis chicken kind of sucked. I screwed up the fire completely and I don’t think there’s really anything else to say about that. Most of it got pitched. It was supposed to be a no-big-deal cook, but it wound up being a very big deal. Carla has a Faculty Senate retreat this Wednesday and she volunteered me to make pulled pork for it (with my knowledge and approval beforehand). Last week was weirdly busy and she’s the one who had time to go get the meat.

She came home with a 10-lb butt. I freaked a little on the inside because I had a 7.5-lb butt take 13.5 hours and never really get to temperature, and she’s bringing home a 10-lb one? Yikes. And that’s on the heels of building a completely underwhelming fire for the Chicken-That-Shall-Not-Be-Discussed. When I finally was able to ask her about it without making it sound like “My God, what are you trying to do to me?” she said that the one she got was the smallest one they had. All-righty then. Gotta deal with it. Gotta be smarter than the meat. You’d think that’d be easy, but I can think of one chicken that did better than me.

I did what any good nerd does. I turned to the Internet to look at more ways to build and manage a fire in the Egg. And I found them here. It’s not obvious from this link, but these guys are famous for their incredibly obsessive reviews of lump charcoal. I’d be disturbed by them if (a) there was anything fundamentally wrong with being obsessed with lump charcoal, or (b) their research didn’t benefit me directly. I came across the linked article and from reading that I vowed to do three things when it came time to cook the pork for Carla’s group:

  1. Go back to my roots and use a frigging charcoal chimney to start my fire. Back when I had my New Braunfels Black Diamond offset I was a firm believer in what’s called The Minion Method. That link goes to the Ur-article on the method (developed for a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker), but the principle is the same no matter what you cook on. Load all the fuel you want available for your cook in your cooker’s charcoal vessel. Light a small amount of fuel in a chimney starter and let it get fully lit. Put the lit fuel on top of the unlit fuel and let it get established, but start regulating the dampers. This is actually the theory behind how the Egg does its thing, except the recommendation is often to use a firestarter cube or something like that right in the firebox. I’ve been trying to use the fire starter cubes. I don’t like them.
  2. Divide and conquer. Using the 1.5-hours-per-lb rule-of-thumb, a 10-lb butt will take 15 hours to get to the magic 190 (note to those who read the Naked Whiz article linked above: they were going to 200 and that took closer to 2-hours-per-lb). I didn’t want to do either. So my plan was to divide the butt into two 5-lb sections so there would be more surface area and the cook-time would be reduced (plus more surface area for rub, so more bark!
  3. Hey mister! Leave them kids alone! The largely-accepted rule for smoking temperatures is the range 200 -225. I vowed to get the temp into that range, set the alarms on my grid thermometer for 199 low and 226 high and not touch the dampers unless an alarm goes off.

I put this all into practice around 6:00am this morning when I lit off the fire. I probably used too much charcoal in the chimney starter, but the only effect of that is that the handle of the Egg’s lid got really hot. I’ll use less next time, but it didn’t hurt anything this time around. The ceramic doesn’t get to temperature immediately, so in the first half hour of lighting the fire it’s OK if the temps spike really high. Once the cold platesetter and grid and such go on, the temps will drop. That’s what happened. I lit off the fire around 6:00am and by just after 7:10am I had the meat on and the temps were rising through the 180s and into the range I wanted. The temp leveled out about 187 and held for about half an hour, so I bumped the dampers open a few millimeters and in just a little while (within half an hour) I was planted between 216 and 219 for the next six hours. It was a beautiful thing. Just as the meat temp was climbing up to 168 — the prime zone for getting stuck — the grid temperature began to drop. It took more than an hour and a half, but it finally dropped below 200. My alarm went off and sometime around 2:30pm and I opened the dampers by maybe a 1/4-inch to really let some air in. The temps started a slow rise and in about 20-25 minutes I was over the 226 mark. I shut the dampers back, but the grid temp kept rising. Interestingly, the meat temp actually dropped from 168 to 165. Evaporative cooling can be really efficient. Anyway, when I hit 241 I decided to shut the dampers back to barely open. I’ve gotten the grid temp to fall back to 231 and the meat has risen to 173, so it’s past the stuck stage. I probably shouldn’t have opened the dampers so much when I needed to increase the temperature, but I seriously doubt I hurt anything. The lid temperature never exceeded 230. I consider the lid to be the average temperature of all the cooker components. Don’t know if that’s accurate, but that’s my rationalization.

About the cooking time ahead of me. It turns out the bone didn’t extend through the entire butt, but did extend more than half-way, so I deboned it rather than just dividing it into two equal parts. I wound up with a 6-lb piece and the remaining 4-lbs are in three pieces (one of which has the bone on it). I heavily rubbed all of the pieces with a rub I made up. I’m not going to be one of those “it’s a secret” jackasses, but I’m holding back until I know if what I did is any good. It’s a wet-rub based on the one used by Walt Disney World’s Flame Tree BBQ at Animal Kingdom. With variations. Like I said, I’ll share if I like it. Anyway, the rule-of-thumb says I ought to be getting close to done at around 9 hours and at the time I’m writing this it’s been about 8.5 hours. I’m guessing it’s really going to be 10-11 hours and I’ll be happy if that’s where we wind up.

I’ve been much better about chasing temperatures. I made sure I said something to Carla about not screwing with the dampers unless I’m out of range and I’ve stuck to that. I’m still technically over temperature now, but it’s falling at a good rate and I’m hoping it’ll level out between 200-225.

I’m not going to do a running update on this post. I’ll do a follow-up (with after pictures) tomorrow sometime and give the post-mortem then. As I finish this we’re at 174 (meat) and 231 (grid). Target is 220 (grid) and 190 (meat).

I’ll let you know.

* ILBBICNL == I Like Big Butts I Cannot Lie