Category Archives: The Cult of the Big Green Egg

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.

Preparing for Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

Tomorrow will begin with the F1 Race in Monaco, followed by the Indy 500. We’ve got MadTree Lift and Galaxy High on the kegerator.
And this guy is sulking in the fridge in a foil-covered foil pan waiting for his early morning date with The Egg.

It’s going to be a good day. For us anyway.


And, aye, here’s the rub:

2 Cups Turbinado Sugar
1/4 Cup Paprika
1/4 Cup Chili Powder (I like Fiesta brand)
1 TBS Garlic Powder
2 TBS Fresh Ground Black Pepper
2 TBS Onion Powder
3 TBS Cumin
4 TBS Salt (kosher)
1/2 TSP cornstarch
1/2 TSP Tumeric

Used about half on the 8lb butt. The rest is in airtight containers.

Until tomorrow, then…

Spring is Here and I Smoked Some Country Ribs

Country Ribs

On today’s menu…

I’m probably jinxing us to a massive freak April snowstorm, but I’m going to say Spring has finally arrived. Not that it’s all that spring-like out there at this moment. It’s 44℉ and I think it’s only supposed to hit 52℉ today. But the sun is out and the birds are singing and the grass is greening up. The Astros are 2-2 and took two out of three from the Yankees.  They got hammered last night 11-1 by the Angels, but it’s a long season and I feel OK thinking at this point that they won’t lose 1oo games this year.

So of course I’ve fired up The Egg.

Part of the motivation came from texting back and forth with my friend Nate last weekend when we were down in Evansville, IN visiting Carla’s nephew. Nate has writes a blog called Bread & Whiskey that documents his passion for cooking. Before I had the Egg I had an offset New Braunfels Black Diamond that my mom bought Carla and me for our wedding present. When I was turning 50 and decided to step up my game with respect to smoking, I knew I wanted the old smoker to go to a good home. It had always served me well. Long story short, I ran into Nate out at the 50 West Brewing Co. and we talked barbecue. It came up in passing that he was looking for an offset smoker to restore and modify and I told him he could have mine for the price of coming to get it. It was a win-win-win.  He got his smoker and I got it off my back patio and it went to a home where it would be treated with the love it deserves. I haven’t seen the smoker itself, but I’ve seen pictures of the restoration job he did.  It looks awesome. I’m so happy that it all worked out.

Smoker Underway

Aaaaaaand we’re underway

So anyway, Nate was getting a chance to cook on a Big Green Egg for the first time last weekend. He was over at some friends who bought their Egg the same place I bought mine (Wardway Fuels on the West Side. Cannot recommend them highly enough). He was excited, to say the least. He did things a little different than I’ve been doing. He ran his top vent open all the way and just used the bottom to regulate the temp. He was also using a water pan, which I hadn’t done up to this point. The pictures he sent looked great and I’m sure the meat was fantastic. But what it mostly did for me was get me in the mood. Then Tuesday was really nice and Carla and I were able to sit out on the back patio. Looking at the covered Egg I decided that I was going to cook something today.  And here we are.

Thursday I had my “Congratulations!  You’re 50! Let’s shove a camera up your ass!” colonoscopy. It went fine. No problems. Don’t have to worry about another for 10 years. Knowing it was coming, then the joy of the prep on Wednesday, made it a less than fun-filled week. Funny thing about the anesthesia:  I wasn’t knocked out all the way, but its effects really hung on.  I slept for much of the day Thursday and even last night I slept hard. How this all matters to what I’m cooking today is Carla rightly suggested I do something easy. I rushed the last cook. The country ribs were terrible (about half were pitched) and the sliced butt was uninspiring.  Edible. OK, even. But not all that great. I need to nail something to get the season off to a good start, and a good tray of country ribs are the way to go. They only take 4-5 hours and that let me sleep in and take it easy this morning.

Country ribs aren’t ribs, of course. They’re actually chops from the shoulder near the front end of the baby back ribs. I love the damned things. My usual pattern is to do a tray of country ribs in addition to something else — a pork butt or brisket, even — with the intent of eating on the ribs that day to scratch the itch of getting some barbecue and giving the larger hunk of meat the time it deserves. Since I just have a tray of ribs on now I decided to try a couple of things a little differently this time around.

I started the fire the same way I did last time, but it started much easier this time. I may have had too much small lump pieces the last time because I got to the nice blue smoke really fast this time. Last time I let the fire establish itself for 20 minutes with the lid up and the vents all the way open, then went another 20 minutes with the lid down but the vents wide open before the smoke cleaned up. This time?  Once I got the plate setter and the grids placed after the first 20 minutes the fire and the smoke were perfect. I’m thinking I had too many small pieces of lump in a single layer that choked the air flow. This time the lump was piled much looser and I think that’s the difference.

I’m using a water pan this time. That’s straight from Nate’s experience last week and I figured it was time to try it. So far so good.  If nothing else, having another thermal sink between the fire and the grid has kept the temps pretty well planted between 215 and 220. I’ve been writing this post for several hours now and — as I was expecting — using the water pan is inhibiting the formation of a good bark, but the color on the meat is beautiful and I’m really happy with the moisture level inside. I suspect I’ll be using a pan of water when I do my next large cut of meat. I started with just under a gallon of water in a 9 x 17 pan. Three hours about half the water was gone and I put the remainder water from the glass jug so the pan won’t go dry. What I may do when I do a large butt or brisket is just let the pan go dry so bark has a better chance of forming.

I thought about doing what Nate did and trying to control the temperature strictly with the bottom damper, but I wimped out. I did some reading on any number of the Big Green Egg forums and came to the conclusion I’d try it the other way around. So what I’ve done is tried to keep the bottom damper at a single position and tweak the top damper to adjust the temperature (open increases the temperature, while closing lowers it). Following what I was taught by Chef JJ the weekend I got the Egg, I’ve always moved the top and bottom dampers together under the assumption that the input and output should be equal. I don’t think you can ever go wrong doing it that way.

What I’ve seen today, though, is that you can seemingly affect the rate of airflow through the bottom simply by manipulating the top damper. Opening the top allows more air to vent which forces air to be drawn in faster through the bottom damper because the pressure has to remain equal inside and the bottom aperture size remains constant. The only way to account for the increased outflow due to a larger top opening is to draw more air faster through the same sized bottom opening. This sets up more rapid air circulation within the Egg, which encourages a bit hotter fire and the temperature rises. I’m probably screwing up the physics, but that’s what I think is happening. The key thing to remember is never let the top be open less than the bottom. The top isn’t tight enough to shut off all airflow, but you could easily starve the fire and create some nasty smoke.

I’m well over 1300 words and I apologize if at any point I’ve actually had anything useful to say. I don’t write regularly enough and spending the day tending the Egg gives me an excuse to write about something I actually care about. I start and stop as the day goes on and I do other things as needed. My practice up to this point has been to start a post and publish it before things are done, then add to it throughout the day.  Since I’m doing things differently today while cooking, why not blog it differently as well?

That said, this is how the meat pictured above looked 4.5 hours later when I was taking it off. You can assume they taste as good as they look.

Finished Country Ribs

I think these turned out pretty well.

A Pause In the Winter of Our Discontent

Smoker topper

That there is what you call clean smoke.

There’s no nice way to say it. This winter has sucked. I mostly mean the weather, but there have been no shortage of things that have sucked. Tomorrow we’re supposed to get an ice and snow storm. I’m so ready for winter to be over it’s not even funny. If there’s a day where I don’t say “What fresh hell is this?” I consider myself lucky.

I’ve not used The Egg all winter. Part of the reason I got it was because its thermal properties are such that outside temperatures are basically irrelevant. I don’t mind cooking in cold — I don’t stay out there that long — but dealing with an eternal snow cover and the ice and the gunk that sort of coats everything just hasn’t been appealing. Early in the week it because pretty clear that today wasn’t going to be too bad weather-wise, so I decided to fire up The Egg.

The last thing I cooked was a brisket and it was OK. Nothing great, but still better than most we can get around here. I still have some work to do on that. I went ahead and got a better dual thermometer. This time it’s the classic Maverick ET-732. I’ve been using it for all of an hour, but I believe I already have some evidence that it’s a better unit than what I used before (also a Maverick, but a cheaper model). For one thing, both probes agreed with each other when I turned them on away from the smoker. That right there is an improvement over the old unit.


This is how the smoking began.

Today I’m doing a pork butt that’s going to wind up being sliced and some country ribs.  I don’t plan to be as obsessive about documenting the details, but there are a few things I want to note mainly so I don’t forget them. I tried yet another way of starting the fire, and I think this is a keeper.  I stacked the lump and (oak) chunks around a central stick of fat wood.  I lit that off and let it go for about 20 minutes to get it nice and lit.  Then I put on the plate setter and grids and lowered the lid (lower vent wide open, top vent unit removed so it’s wide open) and let it go until the grid temp hit around 400.  The smoke was really dirty up until it got to around 350, and then it cleared out.  This probably didn’t take more than 10-15 minutes.  I put on the meat (dual grids: butt low, ribs high) and shut the dampers down to barely open.  The shot of the thermometer is where things settled. In the first hour there was a small fall off that I stopped at around 210 and I’ve got it pretty much dialed in a 235 now. It’s been going an hour and a half.  The ribs will come off for dinner.  The butt will take longer, but I got a late start today.

It’s nice to be doing this again.

UPDATE @ 4:30: I actually left the smoker unattended for a little more than two hours. That’s an all time first. Maybe it’s maturity setting in?

Nah.  It was brunch.

Carla and I met some friends for brunch, though it wound up just being lunch. Wunderbar, mmm. Just before we left the temp spiked to around 250 (+ or -) and … I did nothing.  I just left. Here’s my thinking: given constant ventilation, a temperature spike is most likely the result of new fuel lighting off. Rather than trying to chase the temps (which I’ve always done in the past, only to have to try to bring them back up), I just let it go. I figured it’d peak out somewhere and start dropping back toward the mean of 235 that this vent setting seems to be dialed in for holding. I don’t know that it happened, but I’ll pretend it did, When I got home the grid temp was 220.

The ribs were done. They’d been on for about 5 hours at that point and some of them were really shrunken.  While wrapping them up in foil I checked for toughness and none of them were rocks, so I didn’t let them go too long. Glad we didn’t hang around for another beer, though.  That would have been bad.  The butt is moving right along.  5.5. hours in and it’s at 156 internal. I’ve yet to hit the stall, so I’m figuring I won’t be taking this off the smoker until well after dark. I’m targeting 180 and I’ll probably just wrap it whole and worry about slicing it tomorrow. The big thing is that I want to get the smoker covered tonight before the crap starts moving in. I suspect the cover can take some heat, but I’m going to have to give it some time to cool off. Getting the butt off by 8 would be great.

And that’s a sentence that’s not acceptable in any other context.

26 Letters Arranged Into Words About Brisket That Will Make You Click This Link

I’ve been reading way too much BuzzFeed lately.

I hate those headlines, but damned if they don’t work. I’ve been considering doing one for Hoperatives called “10 Inane Facts about Beer That Will Make You Click This Link” but I haven’t done it yet. Maybe this will get it out of my system. The reality is that I couldn’t care less if anyone reads this or not. I do this to amuse myself, and I’m easily amused.


One of the reasons I bought The Egg is because you can’t get good brisket in this town. There are lot of fundamental problems with Cincinnati, but I actually don’t consider this one of them. This is a pork barbecue town, and there’s nothing in the world wrong with that. The only time that turns into an issue is when brisket gets treated like pork. The basic issue is one of target temperature. If you’re doing pulled pork you want to make sure the internal temps are at least 190 (and really higher is OK) so it’s easy to pull. Pulled pork is what most people around here think of as barbecue. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. I like pulled pork. But brisket isn’t pulled pork. Brisket is done at 180. It’s overdone at 181. If you’re going to miss, miss to the low side. Pull it at 175, wrap it in foil and stick it in a cooler with towels. It’ll stay hot for a long time and not get overdone. I think that’s where folks go wrong. They pull it at the right time, but let the temps rise up into the 190 range when holding it for serving.

The other mistake I think people make is somehow thinking that time and not temperature is what makes a brisket worthwhile. “I smoked this for 20 hours.” “We smoke our brisket for 12 hours.” “Our briskets get smoked overnight.” Gee. Congratulations. When was it done? If you have a whole packer brisket — one that contains both the point and the flat — you might easily hit the 20 hour mark in order to get it done. I hope to get enough experience doing long smokes on the Egg that I can put on a packer in the evening and get up the next day and finish it out. I know there are a lot of guys that have this whole stay-up-all-night-and-watch-the-pit thing they like to do. I’m getting too old for that crap. To tell the truth, I think I’ve always been too old for that crap. I’ve had an issue where I can get six good hours with a fire before it starts acting wonky. I want to understand that a little more before I attempt to do an overnight.

Today I’m doing a basic brisket flat that was just under 7-lbs fresh. I’m taking a very less-is-more approach. I rubbed it with some salt and pepper on the non-fat side. I did rub some oil on the non-fat side because I read somewhere that helps with smoke absorption. I didn’t bother with the fat side because it’s just going to melt anyway. I put it fat-side-down. The fibers of a brisket are too tightly packed for any melting fat to self-baste the meat if it were fat-side-up. I’d rather use the fat as a thermal buffer. I don’t plan to flip it and I don’t plan to use a mop. I remember when I was growing up we made the best damned briskets on a simple box grill that I think my mom found at a garage sale. We’d build a fire on one end, let it bank down to coals and stick the brisket on the other end. Sometimes we flipped it. Sometimes we didn’t. My dad never used a thermometer, but he had a good sense of how the meat should be when it was done. They were always great.

I’m kind of taking that approach today and trying to be relaxed about this. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to distract me from messing with the Egg too much. I got a good fire going about 7:30 this morning. I made sure a lot of the lump was fully lit when I had the lid open. When I saw some ashed-over chunks, I stuck the the plate-setter in, dropped the grate on and closed the lid. I went ahead and left the dampers wide open so the fire could settle into a lower-oxygen mode. It got real smokey as the amount of air wasn’t able sustain the high combustion, but after about 20 minutes or so the smoke had thinned out. I dropped the dampers to about 1/4-inch and went about putting in the meat and arranging the thermometers. I closed the lid around 8:15 AM and it hasn’t been opened since. The grid temp had gotten up to 340 or so immediately after I put on the meat, but over the next 45-minutes or so the temp slid back to around 220-225. I opened the dampers an eighth-inch when it threatened to slide below 220. It picked up to to about 240 after about an hour and I just dropped it back that same eighth-inch and the temp is dropping back again. Not a lot. 237 and holding. I don’t plan to mess with it again unless I drop to 215 or so (and I’m not expecting that to happen, quite frankly). I’m 3.5 hours into the cooking and I’m reasonably confident that I’m going in the stall at 153 on the meat temp. I’m not even going to try to guess when it’s going to come off.

It’ll be done when it’s done.

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I’ll add pictures to the gallery as warranted.

UPDATE: So I took it off just a little over 8 hours after putting it on. I managed to actually fall asleep and take a little screw-it-it’s-a-day-off nap and, by the time I woke up, the temp had creeped up to 264 and the meat was at 177. The patient is currently resting in foil inside a foam H-E-B cooler for at least the next hour or so. I’ve added a picture of the final product on the Egg and I’ll post up slicing pictures in a separate post tomorrow.

Nailed it

I got this one right. The final tale of the tape was 10.5 hours. At the end I was up in the 230-degree range on the grid temperature, but I didn’t care because it was all about developing the bark at that point.

Something I neglected to mention in yesterday’s post was the fact that I set this up as a bi-level cook with the 6-lb main section down below (and monitored) while the smaller pieces were up on the secondary grid unmonitored. I knew the upper pieces would cook more than the larger pieces down below, but I figured it wouldn’t matter (and it didn’t).

When I took the meat off the Egg I wrapped all of it together in four layers of foil, then loaded it into a styrofoam cooler. We took off for dinner and when we got back three hours later I started pulling the meat into the crockpot that Carla will use to reheat and transport it. I burned my hands on more than one occasion. I didn’t even have any towels in there. It stayed plenty hot.

I said in yesterday’s post that I’d share my rub recipe if I like how it turned out. So here it is:

2 Cups Turbinado or Maple Sugar***
1/4 Cup Paprika
1/4 Cup Chili Powder (I like Fiesta brand)
1 TBS Garlic Powder
2 TBS Fresh Ground Black Pepper
2 TBS Onion Powder
3 TBS Cumin
4 TBS Salt
1/2 TSP cornstarch (only if it’s being stored)
1/2 TSP Turmeric

***Or enough maple syrup to cover meat. Wrap in plastic wrap or cover tightly with foil overnight at least.

This is basically a modified version of the Flame Tree BBQ rub from Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I reduced the black pepper from the original, substituted some amounts of the other spices to replace the seasoned salt the recipe calls for and tweaked the sugar specifications. For this particular batch I mixed up the dry parts of the rub sans sugar and applied it very, very heavily to the meat, then dumped a bottle of maple syrup over the whole thing and rubbed it in. Then I applied the remaining rub just for good measure.

The photos pretty much tell the tale (you can click them to get a better view). The first shot shows the basic setup and the second shows some details of how the bark developed. The third one shows the main section of the pork and the last shows just how ridiculously little fuel was burned in the 10.5 hours. I think I added too much lit lump charcoal initially — the chimney starter was 3/4 full — and I think the widespread coverage of ash screwed with my air flow. I can keep rock-steady temps for six hours, but then I have to do adjustments. I’m going to go with maybe a 1/4 to 1/2 load of lump in the chimney starter next time and try to get it to sit more in the middle rather than spreading out. Just to see. But the big improvement this time is that there was a strong, established fire from the beginning and that made all the difference as time went on.

The irony is that I’ve only been able to eat a very small amount of this batch. I’ve definitely tried it, but the whole reason I did this batch was for a retreat Carla has tomorrow. It’s not that many people, so I’m hoping some will come home.

Or I’ll just have to make another batch. Darn.

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

Wherein I Describe How I Learned Some Things About Cooking

The ResultThe first long smoke is in the books. If I were grading I’d call it a B-. It’s good. I think I did more things right than wrong, and the things I did wrong are correctable now that I know what’s happening. I don’t think we’re going to have any trouble finishing the outcome from this round, but there are things I’m definitely going to do differently next time. And the next time is coming pretty soon. This week, probably. I have to keep the momentum up. And it’ll be better than what I did this time. That’s the point.

I think vinegar did me in. Specifically, the vinegar in the mustard I used to coat the butt. My first mistake was coating the butt with the mustard before coating it with rub. Chalk that one up to a rookie mistake. The salt in the rub helped the vinegar soak into the meat more than it might have had the rub been a bit more of a barrier. There were two negative outcomes of this as best I can tell: there’s a distinct vinegar taste I don’t care for immediately under the bark, and I think the vinegar is the culprit for the long cooking time. There’s no way an under-8-lb butt should take more than 13 hours and still never reach the 190-195 range I wanted to hit. I was reading up on brines here and I was struck with his discussion of what happened when he used a vinegar brine:

As you can see from this plot, the “plain” and salt-brined samples (blue and purple curves) behaved pretty similarly. But the vinegar curve (red) took much longer to cook, and more gradually approached “done”. As we explained in the article on barbecue stall, slower rising temperature curves are the result of evaporative cooling. That is, water migrates to the meat’s surface during cooking and cools the meat- just like sweat on a hot summer day.

brine curve


I’m not going to definitively say that the vinegar in the mustard is the cause of the weird temperature behavior, but I think there’s evidence to support the idea. And the flavor issue bothers me more than the cooking time. I know there’s a whole school of barbecue that elevate the vinegar sauce and mop to a defining characteristic. That’s fine; It’s just not what I prefer. I was worried that what I was perceiving as an off-taste was the Rivertown Wit I used in the injection brine. I don’t think that’s the case because I’m not finding the flavor down deep where I injected. I’m finding it right under the bark. And I keep calling it an “off-flavor,” but that’s not really fair. It just took me a long time to finally identify what I was tasting. It didn’t click until I though of some sauerbraten I had recently. Imagine that flavor without the sweetness. Add a little sweet sauce (Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey and Brown Sugar) and it’s pretty damned good.

Firebox remainsLet’s talk about the things that went right.

Fuel usage? Fantastic. As I said in the last post I’d added a bit of fuel, but I’d hardly describe it as jamming the firebox full. The picture on the left shows the remaining fuel before I knocked the ash down. Essentially what you’re looking at is a single layer of fuel on the bottom of the firebox. The firebox is just the bottom “bowl” part of that picture. The fire ring is the cylindrical part right above it. When I started the fire I’d say that the top of the charcoal was pretty even with the top of the firebox and hardly poking ip over the dividing line between the box and the ring. What you see is what there was left after 13.5 hours and whatever time it took for the fire to be smothered once the meat came off and I closed the top with the ceramic cap and shut the bottom damper altogether. I’m guessing I could have gotten another five hours out of the fire.

I was very pleased with how I got the fire stared and the basic temperature dialed in relatively painlessly. I think I overreacted a couple of times as the day went on, but that’s why you start out doing forgiving cuts of meat like pork butts and country ribs. They’re pretty hard to screw up. I think there’s some value in making sure the lump and wood chunks are mounded so the self-stoking effect of the Egg’s shape can work as it’s supposed to. As it was, the fuel was in the firebox bowl very level and it was burning from the center. That meant it was relying on pieces falling in from the edges when a new piece of fuel was needed. It didn’t work badly at all, but I think it can do better if the fire works its way down a mound of lump. Gravity is our friend.

I don’t intend to document every single time I use the Egg as obsessively as I did this time, but I wanted to capture my impressions this time because I figured I’d be learning a lot and I wanted to take notes. I think next time I’m ditching the mustard and going more for a salty-sweet rub and leaving it at that. It appears there are three ways to brine (immersion, injection and rub) and you’re supposed to do one of the three. I did two.

Later today I’m firing up the egg to do a roasted chicken with potatoes and veggies. I promise that if I post anything it’ll be a picture and no more than 500 words.

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.

The Post I Where I Admit to Joining A Cult


Big Green Egg Photo

This is a Gateway Smoker

I joined a cult yesterday. It’s been coming on for a while, but it finally happened.

I bought a Big Green Egg.

My venerable New Braunfels Black Diamond Smoker owed me nothing, having served me well for 15 years.  The trouble was, it was just not getting used as much as it should have.  It needed constant tending.  The metal was too thin to really act as a really good thermal sink and air leaked all over the place.  These were all things I knew when I bought the thing on the eve of my wedding, but I was finding myself not lighting it up because I was just too tired to deal with it. What was once a source of pride being able to coax a nice piece of smoked meat off the smoker became a pain in the butt?  What can I say.  I’m getting old.

About a year ago — with my 50th birthday staring me in the face — I decided I needed to make a change, smoker-wise.  After a lot of research I settled on the Big Green Egg (‘BGE’ in Egg Cult Circles).  It has what I want.  Decent capacity, but the ability to go low and slow for hours and hours and hours. I just couldn’t go gas or electric. I’m OK with lump and chunks, and everything I saw about the BGE said that it was as close to ‘fire and forget’ without cheating.

I bought mine through Wardway Fuels on the west side of Cincinnati, and it may be one of the best retail experiences I’ve ever had.  I had specific questions when I walked in the door, and I got a young guy in his twenties who knew the product inside and out and answered the questions I had, expanded on them when there was something I missed and was the very opposite of a hard-sell.  I walked out of there after about 20 minutes and I knew I’d be buying one from them.

It turns out they co-sponsor an event called Porkopolis Eggfest that’s kind of a Woodstock for BGE owners.  One of the wrinkles is that the Eggs that are used are all demos, and since they’re used a couple of times you can pre-order one for a discount.  Since these things aren’t cheap, it’s a pretty good deal.  I wound up having to wait a couple of months to pick mine up and yesterday was the day.  I’m really glad I did this the way I did.  I’ve been reading obsessively, but I wanted to talk to folks who really knew how to make them sing.  Man, did I ever luck out.  Chef JJ from Chef JJ’s Backyard in Indianapolis was a featured speaker who gave several demos throughout the day.  I learned so much from him in just a couple of hours, especially about lighting a fire and not turning the inside of Egg into a crematorium.

We brought the Egg home last night.  This morning Carla and I took it out of the car and assembled those custom pieces I ordered that weren’t in the standard setup for Eggfest.  I was thrilled to see that Wardway had prepared the Egg in such a way that my assembly was a piece of cake.  The sucker is certainly heavy.

Today I’m smoking some country ribs. They don’t take long, and I knew I wouldn’t get a fire going before 2 PM.  It actually wound up being 3PM, but they’ve been on for 4.5 hours.  They should be fantastic.

Next post?  A post-mortem on Smoke #1.