Say hello to my little friend SmoBoT

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a very long time. Just under two years ago I was on the Egghead Forum. It’s the one of the online crack houses for members of the Cult of the Big Green Egg. While on the site I came across a wholly remarkable video made by a guy named Eric Reinhart. He had built a robotic damper to fit the top of a Big Green Egg. It differed from other smoker controllers I’d seen in that it was completely passive. There was no blower or anything to change the way the smoker worked. All it did was adjust the top damper in order to maintain a temperature.

I love my Egg in that I can easily dial in a temp for the first six hours of a cook. And, to be realistic, six hours covers an awful lot of cooks. But the thing is stupidly efficient with fuel and long, long (12+ hour) cooks are perfectly within reach — if you’re willing to futz with the damper after that six hour window is up. Why six hours? I’m guessing ash buildup, but it’s just a guess. Anyway, I was looking for tips and tricks so I could contemplate such a thing and still have some possibility of getting sleep. The idea of getting up every couple of hours to check on a fire isn’t nearly as attractive as it was a few years ago. And then I saw that video.

I dropped him an email asking what his plans were. The forum thread was already getting lengthy and there was a lot of interest. I emailed him and said I’d be interested in buying one if he ever decided to build them. I heard back from him within a few days and he said he was going to put some together. I told him I was absolutely interested. Nearly two years goes by. We emailed back and forth every few months. He’s doing this on his own time and his own dime and it wound up being more complicated than he thought it would be. It’s really his story to tell and I don’t want to say too much about it. I do know Eric has burned a sizable percentage of some forest in lump charcoal working out the algorithm that drives this thing.

I’ve been fortunate enough to use two units. The first one was based on the original hardware and it was an amazing experience. I’d wanted to just build a fire and see how well it worked, but when I was three or four hours in I was seeing how rock solid it was holding the temperature, I ran up to Kroger and bought a pork butt to throw on. I’d wanted a small one since it was nearly noon, but they didn’t have any. So I got like a six-pounder. My first run at using this thing and I wound up doing an overnight cook. I dropped the temperature from 220 to 190 (took about a half-hour) and let it run overnight. It apparently stayed in a stall all night because the next morning I had to kick it back up to 220 to get it up to it’s target temperature by noon. The fire went 28 hours. The butt was on for 23:45. I was hooked. I am hooked. This thing rocks.

Christmas Eve I got a second unit. It’s essentially the same until that will be going out in April. The software was a little wonky, but I’ve done several really nice cooks with it. That’s what I used in the video. The software issues have been worked out. That’s not to say there might not be more issues lurking. That’s why this is a pre-production beta. Now you can monitor your cook using your smart phone. You can see a near-realtime (+/- 15 seconds or so) graph of the cook (pit temp and two food probes) on a website. The data are archived. It just works. I think one of the biggest challenges they face is getting people to actually trust it and leave the cooker alone. You get so used to screwing around with them it’s hard to just walk away. But that’s what you need to do.

I volunteered to do a demo video as well as some instructional materials for the folks who will be participating in the Beta. I can honestly say I don’t really know what the plans are beyond the beta testing, but I’d love to stay involved with it somehow. Since I’ve hung out a shingle to do instructional materials for organizations needing instructional materials, this is a good portfolio opportunity for me. I’ve gotten to know Eric and his business partner Curtis (who’s doing a lot of the software work) a little bit and they’re good guys. As I said, I don’t know what the plans are but if and when they start selling these things, they are move a boatload of these things. I feel lucky to be able to participate early on.

So with no further ado, meet SmoBot, your smoker robot.

Beef on Weck

Once upon a time I dated a woman from Buffalo, NY. It didn’t work out. We both went happily on with our lives afterwards, so I guess in a real sense it actually did work out. Anyway, the point here is that I’ve spent some time in Buffalo. I’m not one of those people who cares to hear jokes about the place. It has problems. Every place does. Given how I feel about food — I’m all in favor of it — that shouldn’t be a surprise. They do food well in Buffalo.

I’ve talked about my reverence for wings before, but there’s something Buffalo that’s really much harder to find outside western New York:  Beef on Weck.  It’s basically a hot roast beef sandwich on a kimmelweck (sometimes spelled kummelweck) roll. All great cities have a great roast beef sandwich.  The Philly Cheesesteak.  The Chicago Italian Beef. The Buffalo Beef on Weck.  You know Buffalo Wild Wings? Ever wonder why its nickname is “BW3” when there are only two “W”s in “Wild Wings”? The third “W” stood for “Weck.”

You’re welcome.

The big thing is the roll.  Kimmelweck is a chewy white roll with a crusty outside that’s topped with a mixture of salt, caraway seeds, and pumpernickel flour. And I mean chewy. The recipe I used calls for half high-gluten flour and half bread flour (which is higher in gluten than plain AP). The only tweak I made to the recipe is adding a tablespoon of granular lecithin. I pretty much put at least a tablespoon in any bread I make because I like what it does with the texture of the bread. It makes the crumb very fine.

I made the dough in my bread machine using a straight dough setting. I think next time I’ll program the machine to do the 10 minute knead, 10-minute rest, 10-minute knead  sequence the recipe calls for. I think if I do I’ll get a little more chewiness (though what I got was very good). I also think I’m going to make twelve rolls from the batch rather than the six the recipe calls for. They were good, as I keep saying, but they were also really big. I can easily see making these my go-to buns for whatever I need buns. Insert your own joke here. I also need to do something about that topping.  More seemed to end up on the pan than on the buns when it was all over.

These wound up being dinner last night with some smoked chuck roast I did on the Egg the other day. They were lunch today.  Carla had her last one with butter with some soup. I had another sandwich.

I love it when a recipe works. Practice makes perfect, though.

Leap Day

I got busy today working on a project.   I’ve made some passing references to this since I started posting every day, and I guarantee I’ll be talking about this a lot more going forward. But until then, meet SMOBOT. It’s a robotic damper controller for kamado-style cookers. Basically it monitors the air temperature inside the cooker and adjusts the damper so it maintains your target temperature. I’m helping out with some documentation and video work. It’s a nice day at the office when you have to fire up your smoker to get work done. 

I’ve already missed posting one day this year. I don’t want to miss another. I’ve had a good leap day. 



King-Arthur-Flour-Logo-119xI love to bake. I get it from my mother and grandmother. It’s such a cliché, but my mom really did make an awesome apple pie. It was the crust. I’m pretty sure she used Crisco in hers. My grandmother did too, but she never thought it worked as well as lard. When Mom’s arthritis got so bad that rolling out the dough was too painful for her I remember gently asking her to save all the effort and just go to store-bought. Her pie in someone else’s crust just wasn’t the same and not worth the pain it still caused her. I did a lot of cooking with her under her direction, but we never did pie dough. I regret that a lot. Or maybe I don’t. The last thing I probably need to be doing is baking pies because then you eat them.

I did, however, learn directly from her how to make one of my favorite things in all the world: cinnamon rolls. Whenever Mom started rattling the baking pans in the cabinets when I was a kid it was always “please be cinnamon rolls, please be cinnamon rolls.”  My grandmother made the best doughnuts that have ever been made in this or any other temporal plane. They were simple little fried dough balls of goodness tossed in sugar and cinnamon (are you sensing a trend here?) and stored in a round yellow tin that originally held potato chips. Whenever we’d get to her house for a visit I’d sneak into the kitchen to see if the doughnut tin was in the kitchen (there are doughnuts!) or out on the enclosed back porch off the kitchen (no doughnuts).

I started baking bread when I got out of grad school. My first adult purchase was a washer and dryer so I’d never have to go into a laundromat again. A bread machine was the second. This was the early 1990s and bread machines were getting common enough that the prices were coming down. “It’s the perfect machine for me,” I remember telling one of my classes, “It lets me press buttons and then later there is bread!”1

IMG_0091So I made a few edible hockey pucks and decided maybe I ought to get a cookbook or something. I found a book called Bread Machine Baking: Perfect Every Time by Lora Brody and Millie Apter. I liked it because it adapted recipes for specific bread machines. Each machine has its own quirks and they actually tested recipes in multiple machines and adjusted them accordingly. Following their advice I had some success and really enjoyed that first machine. The most lasting effect of that book, however, is that it introduced me to the King Arthur Flour Company.

I adore King Arthur Flour, both the company and the things it makes. I can’t think of another brand of anything that I have such loyalty to. Some of its products are more expensive than similar ones from competitors. I don’t care. If I have any question about baking or am looking for a recipe, my first stop is the King Arthur website. We have become utterly addicted to their Cinnamon-Pecan Scone mix.. ‘Addicted’ meaning I never let us have fewer than three in the pantry at any given time. Let it go any lower and there might be a scone morning that doesn’t happen, and that cannot be allowed. My biscuits got infinitely better when I said ‘screw it’ and just started using their self-rising flour. Now I always keep it on hand along with their All-Purpose, Bread, and White Whole Wheat flours.

I bought my second and third bread machine from them. The process of buying the third one illustrates our relationship nicely. They’ve been singing the praises of the Zojirushi Home Bakery Supreme for years. A while back I decided my old machine, while functional, was not quite doing what I wanted, so I decided to buy the Zojirushi. Amazon had it for a couple bucks cheaper, but I wasn’t going to buy it from them. King Arthur is employee-owned, which I like a lot, and they were the only reason I knew about that machine in the first place. They made the sale. So I ordered it.

I received the wrong one. They’d accidentally shipped the next model up, the Virtuoso. It’s essentially the same machine, but it has heating elements in the lid for baking gluten-free bread. Since I have utterly no interest in gluten-free bread, I have no interest in the feature. So now I was in a quandary. Do I ship it back? What a pain. Do I just say nothing and keep it? I’m no saint. I rather enjoy screwing over large multinational organizations whenever I possibly can, but KAF, Inc. is, as I mentioned, employee-owned. Those employees tend to identify themselves by name, and not in the bored “hii’mashley-thankyouforcalling-howmayIhelpyou-pleasekillme” way of the minimum-wage slave. I figured this was an honest mistake and I’m betting that somewhere someone who ordered a Virtuoso got my Supreme. That wouldn’t qualify as a happy accident for them.

So I fired up the chat feature on the website and explained the situation. After looking at my order I was cheerfully told that I was welcome to keep the machine. I said I wouldn’t feel right, so how about we split the difference. She must have asked three or four times if I was serious. I assured her I was. It was just $15 bucks, but it made me feel better. For the record, my only reaction to the same thing happening with Amazon would have been fits of happy laughter. The machine is fantastic, by the way. Highly recommend it.

I know this is reading like some sort of commercial for them. It’s not. Other than sending them money when I want things they happen to sell, I have utterly no relationship with them. Advertising here would be a really bad idea anyway. It’s not like I have a huge readership.

I just put in another order this morning. Some high-gluten flour because I want to start doing some pizzas on the Egg, and maybe some kimmelwick buns for Beef on Weck. Rye and pumpernickel flour because Carla has made this Reuban Strata that’s pretty amazing and I’ve wanted to try making some for a while anyway.

More punching buttons. More bread. It’s a good thing.

1“Is that what you’re looking for in a wife?” one of my older students asked me. Best comment in class. Ever.

It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that wing

Yeah. Those will work.

I think I had my first Buffalo-style chicken wing in 1985. I know I liked them immediately, but at the time I never could have guessed what percentage of my body weight they’d eventually account for. If you are what you eat, I’m a mostly superfluous appendage for an animal that can’t fly. And I’m OK with that.

I consider the Buffalo-style chicken wing a perfect food. It’s the second-best dish to come out of Buffalo, after Beef on Weck. That’s not something you find much outside Western New York, though in Covington, KY you can get a very credible one at Kelly’s Public House in the Radisson Hotel.

I’m a purist when it comes to putting the word “Buffalo” in front of the word “wing.” The wings should be deep-fried crispy and tossed in a mixture of Frank’s Hot Sauce and butter. Maybe a touch of garlic. Anything other than Bleu Cheese for dipping is an abomination. Celery must be present to remind your body that green food exist. I have, however, gotten quite fond of the trend of smoking or grilling the wings instead of deep-frying. That’s what I’m doing right now: smoking a mess of wings on the Big Green Egg. They went on partially frozen and I have the temp set to 325 (so the skin will get crispy). We’re not going Buffalo tonight. Carla found a teriyaki sauce recipe that sounds delicious. We’re going with that.

Not a bad way to end a weekend.

Coming Attractions

IMG_0242It’s been a long time since I got up in the morning on a Saturday looking forward to all the stuff I have to do this weekend. Truth be told, it’s been a long time since I got up any day looking forward to what I had to do. I have five more days of training my replacement at my soon-to-be-former job, then this becomes the new normal. I can’t wait.

I have a fair bit to do today and tomorrow. I can’t talk about what I’m working on in any great detail, but I can talk about two things in general. I’m working on a short feature about a local brewery for a national beer magazine. It was kind of fun going to a brewery yesterday evening and work. It’s tempting to put that word in quotes, but I actually was working. It’s a place I’ve been many, many times, but this time I was getting to look at it with new eyes. There may be something to this whole writing thing.

The other thing I’m working on is some documentation and demo of a gadget. I assure you I’ll be talking about it more than some of yo probably like very soon, but at the moment it’s not my place to talk about details. The gadget works with the Big Green Egg, so I’ve spent part of this morning getting a fire going and now I have a GoPro taking time-lapse photos. Later I’ll shoot some regular video and record a voiceover. Tomorrow I’ll run the Egg again with food this time and not rags stuffed inside a sock and soaked in water to simulate food for the gadget’s thermometers.

Last time I went the freelance route I think I limited myself too much to doing one thing. The webcasting work I did in the past is something I’m always going to be thankful that I got to do, but I think that part of my life is mostly over. That’s not to say I’ll never stream anything on the Internet again. This time around it’s just one possible thing in the toolbox.  Last time it was the only thing. Lesson learned.

So here’s my post for today. Sorry to cut this short, but I have things to do. Ain’t it great?

Johnny Football is the NFL

football-brain-800pxI’ll watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. It’s what you do on the Sunday they play the Super Bowl. I’m slightly in favor of Denver because this is probably Peyton’s last year, but I won’t lose a moment’s sleep if Carolina wins. I’m amazed by the things Cam Newton can do. Assuming he stays healthy, the sky’s the limit for the number of records he could own when he hangs them up. He’s that good. I don’t get all the hate about how he celebrates. He’s among the best at doing what he does. He shows the joy in doing it. I don’t see what the problem is.

I’ll watch the game.  I don’t care who wins. I’ll drink good beer and eat food I’ve smoked on the Egg down on the patio. My day will be better than 95% of the world’s population because I’ll have had more than my share that day and my next days’s sustenance will not be in doubt. But my day will come at a price. One I’m not sure I want to pay anymore.

I’ll watch the NFL’s biggest day, but I won’t enjoy it all that much. I cannot see a hit without wondering if this is the one that ends a life. Will that player be the next Junior Seau? Chris Henry? Andre Waters? Or “just” the next Kenny Stabler who knows something is wrong but doesn’t end his own life? Is that going to be the hit that two, five, or ten years from now will be the one that starts the player down the road of not recognizing himself when he looks in the mirror?

Then there is Johnny Manziel. You want to say “oh, that kid’s just a head-case asshole.  It’s just a moral failure on his part.  His parents are probably at fault.” I’m not going to claim to be a scholar of the kid’s life, but from what I’ve read his parents are at their wit’s end. They fear for his life. Apparently, though, he’s managed to find enough people who aren’t worried enough about his life to support him in ending his destructive ways. They’re willing to ride him as far as he’ll go, then move on when he’s spent.

Those people are easy to condemn.  Are we, who watch these men bash their heads play after play, Sunday after Sunday, really any different? Do we wonder or care what happened to the second string cornerback from the team three years ago who isn’t playing anymore?  What happened to that short-yardage running back who was so tough when he ran up the middle. He could really take the abuse, couldn’t he?  He did.  Didn’t he? What’s he doing now?

I’ll watch the game Sunday. I don’t think I’m going to like myself much after.

All the Delayed Gratification I Can Stand

I definitely got the "falling apart" thing right.
I definitely got the “falling apart” thing right.

I guess I really don’t need to rationalize why I nerd out so much about barbecue, but I do.  People are often surprised I’m not big into homebrewing given that Carla and I do Hoperatives. I have several answers that are all accurate but incomplete.  “There are lots of professionals who are willing to make it for me in exchange for small sums of money,” is what I usually say.  Sometimes I explain that I’ve tried it and liked it well enough, but just decided I didn’t want to make the investment in the gear I’d need in order to do it seriously. “Obsession” and “gear” go together in my world. In the end, though, I think smoking meat scratches the itch in me that homebrewing does for others.  While smoking and brewing take about the same amount of labor (brewing more, if anything), but the nice thing about smoking is that at the end of the day you have barbecue. With homebrew you have a couple of weeks to wait. If you build up enough inventory over time you can deal with that issue, but that gets back to the whole equipment/space/storage issue. I don’t do delayed gratification well. Barbecue works for me. And if I want to homebrew, I know lots of folks who’ll let me come over and use their gear (and who will protect me from doing something dumb that will ruin a batch).

Beats the hell out of me how gardeners manage that hobby. I respect it immensely. But it’s not for me.

So yesterday’s batch of pulled pork may be the best I’ve done so far. I wound up pulling it off the smoker at 185° internal and let it rest a half-hour or so (I expect I got a carryover to 190° or damned close).  You can see from the picture that it split as I was taking it off. I had to tug a little, but the bone came out clean.  Used a set of Bear Paws and the meat shredded in short order. The bark is flavorful, but not overpowering, so the rub was a real success. That last stall didn’t really make any difference in  the end.  I’d decided that 190° was my target temperature and was getting frustrated that it wasn’t getting there steadily. I was wondering if I’d wind up having to slice the meat rather than pull it. That wouldn’t have been a disaster. It just wasn’t the plan.

All that time I was in the second stall good things were happening, though. Collagen starts to melt and squeeze out water (that then boils away) around 160°.  I think I hit the first stall around 151° when we had a good breeze and circulation was pretty good inside the Egg. The humidity was high inside because of the water pan and I think the wind died and circulation became much, much weaker, setting up the conditions for a second stall at the higher temperature. Except it really wasn’t a “second” stall.  It was the same stall, just moved to a higher temperature.

So what does this do to my approach for next time? It turned out so well that I think I’ll continue to use the water pan and just tough out stalls when they happen. If I know going in that I’m on a schedule, I may do something along the lines of what’s discussed in this article about wrapping with foil  when the meat gets to 150° or so and the smoking is done. The article draws on the research of Dr. Greg Blonder that I cite whenever possible. It just seems kind of dumb to say “I used a water pan. I made the best batch I’ve made so far. So next time I don’t use a water pan.” But some days I may not have 12 hours. And there’s just enough futzing with dampers to keep me from trying an overnight.

The last loose end from this cook is the lump charcoal.  Most of what I put in yesterday burned.  There’s some left and I figure I have at least two long smokes left in the bag I bought. I expect less waste than what I get from your basic bag of Royal Oak or whatever.  It seemed to burn evenly and the ash is very, very fine indicating complete combustion. I still can’t decide if it’s worth the money, but I think it performed well. A Twitter friend clued me in to where I can find Humphrey up in Dayton. I want to try it.

I think I’m going to go enjoy the fruits of my labor yesterday.

Stalling Just Delays the Inevitable Deliciousness, Mr. Bond.


“Move, damn you.”

That’s what I’ve been saying to my thermometer for the last two hours. I’m not just in a stall. I’m in the dreaded second stall.

“The Stall” is something that happens when you’re cooking a large piece of meat at relatively low temps. I’ve talked about it before. This guy has the best explanation ever. I know what’s happening. I was even a little blasé at first when I hit my first stall around 156. It sat that way for quite a while. But then it came out of it and I was all “Cool! Dinner at a decent time!”

Then a while later I noticed I’d been sitting at 172 for a while. Then I dropped back a degree to 171 (grid temps at 240-250 the whole time). I knew it was trouble, then. The dreaded second stall. The one no one quite understands.

There are only a few things you can do in any stall. (1) Wait it out. (2) Wrap the meat in foil to block the airflow for evaporative cooling, or (3) raise the temp. Normally I’m in the ‘wait it out’ camp. Wrapping the meat in foil softens the bark and sets up something more akin to a braise. Nothing wrong with a braise, but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m looking for crusty bits.

This is a second stall, so I’ve opted for raising the temp (265-270 at the grid) figuring all the smoke that’s going to get into the meat has already done it. Once I got to 270 I got a two degree jump (174! w00t!) within a couple of minutes. I’m going to let the temp keep rising in the hopes of breaking the balance of circulation, evaporation and moisture that have combined to make the stall. I won’t let it get above 300. That’s an arbitrary number.

An observation: there was almost no wind this afternoon. When I first came out here on the patio (where I’ve been writing this on my phone, believe it or not) there wasn’t a leaf moving anywhere. There’s a bit of a breeze now. When the breeze dies I can imagine the convection inside the Egg not being as active.

I also wonder if the water pan has contributed to this. I may leave it out next time.

Short wrap up later.

The Greatest Day in Smoking Things on the Egg

"Sir, we're ready for you now."
“Sir, we’re ready for you now.”

If ever there was a year we needed nice weather for Memorial Day Weekend this was it. Winter sucked. We’ve had some cooler days this spring, but there have been some spectacular ones as well. And this weekend?  Just stunning.

Normally I’m a little grumpy when the cats get me up early on a weekend. Today it actually worked out pretty well. Porter and Dunkel tag teamed and had me out of bed by 6AM. Made up a big mug of coffee and came downstairs to get the Egg set up for the day. By 7:00am I had the fire lit off and by 8:00am  the butt was on the Egg. No drama getting the fire going.

Our local Ace Hardware has become a Big Green Egg dealer and they carry the BGE-branded lump charcoal. Holy crap is that stuff expensive.  Easily double what I pay for a bag of the GSF or Royal Oak I normally buy. The thing is, I’ve not been happy with the last two bags of those I used. Lots of ash. Weird temp spikes. Tons of small pieces. I knew I was going to pay a premium for the BGE stuff, but figured one time wouldn’t kill me.

I thought I made a mistake when I opened the bag. The lump sizes are are relatively uniform, but the size is smaller than I was expecting. As I added the fuel I worried about the smaller sized-pieces packing together and screwing up the airflow inside. Four-and-a-half hours into the smoke I’m not worried about that. The fire lit off great, and the smoke was clean from the start.  More remarkably, there was almost no visible smoke by the time I put the meat on and nearly none visible all day. If you aren’t into smoking that may sound like bad news, but it’s actually good news. That means the stuff that’s burning is combusting fully. Visible smoke is largely soot, and soot isn’t what you want. I’m feeling better about spending the money. If the ash production is low, that one bag could last me a while. It would make it a better value at that point. The jury is out. (I’d love to be able to try some Humphrey, but I don’t know where I can find it in Cincinnati.  Anyone know?)

The rub was on the meat for about 22 hours and the pan it rested in is now the water pan. I’m liking having that extra thermal body between the fire and the meat (besides the plate setter). My grid temps have been mostly hanging between 243 and 252 (with a high of 255 and low of 225).  The spices in the water aren’t going to really contribute much to flavor, but it sure makes the patio smell good.

More later.