FAQ OF THE INTERNET BBQ LIST
Tell Me About Using Smokers
- Tell Me About Using Smokers
7.1 Most common mistakes made by beginners
- [Can you tell me some of the most common mistakes beginners make?]
Editor--A summary of several posts--
7.2 Smoker modifications
- Getting in too big of a hurry. Barbecue takes time and patience. You can't rush it. Figure 1 to 1 1/2 hours per pound for most meats. If you're tending a wood-burning pit, figure on checking it out every 30-60 minutes.
- It helps to be a semi-good cook in the kitchen before you get into barbecue. If you can't boil water, let someone else do the barbecuing. I'll bet that almost all the old hats here were pretty decent cooks in the kitchen before they learned to grill and barbecue.
- Opening the lid to peek too often. This lets out the heat and the pit will be below temperature. Open the lid only when necessary to mop or move or turn the meat. The meat's not going anywhere, so you don't need to keep checking up on it.
- Trying to do a brisket or spare ribs the first time you use your pit. Start off on the road to "Perfect Q" with the simplest meat to smoke--a whole chicken or a pork picnic roast. They're cheap and hard to ruin. Don't fill up the pit with meat until you've had some successes. Start with just one item.
- Using lighter fluid to start your charcoal briquettes. This can give you some really awful odors and tastes in your smoked meat. Use a chimney starter for charcoal.
- In a wood burning pit, making the fire too big and closing the inlets and exhaust dampers to control the flame. This is a no no. Open that exhaust damper all the way. Regulate the oxygen intake with the inlet damper. Be careful how you close that inlet damper--your fire can smolder and give you some nasty-tasting smoke. Best advice--keep your fire low and your dampers open.
- Using green wood. You must use seasoned wood to get good results when you begin barbecuing. The old pros can use a mix of green and seasoned wood, but beginners should not use the green stuff until they know about fire and temperature control. Using green wood without knowing what you're doing is the surest way to ruin the meat. You'll get creosote and that will make bitter meat that cannot be saved.
- Trying to adjust too many things at once. Don't adjust everything on the pit at once. Change one thing, see what happens, then change another.
- Changing things too much at once. Make small changes to the pit. Open or close the intake vent a little bit, not a lot. If you are continually making big changes, you will continually overshoot the correct temperature point. Your temperature curve will look like a giant sawtooth. Make the changes in small increments.
- Putting cold meat into the smoker. This can lead to the condensation of creosote on the surface of the meat. Always allow the meat to come to room temperature, about an hour, before you put it in the smoker.
- Don't invite the family, the in-laws, and the preacher and his wife over the first day you get that new smoker pit. Practice some, get to know your pit on a personal basis. Do a pork shoulder, some chickens, then some ribs and finally when everything's coming together, do a brisket. Then invite the whole gang over and wow 'em good.
- Trying to learn to barbecue without reading this FAQ and subscribing to the Thead BBQ List. Ruin good meat every time. I was lucky, I discovered this list before I started to barbecue. My very first try (pork picnic shoulder) was a great success. After nine months on the BBQ List and barbecuing in my backyard, I can make some pretty good barbecue. I'm no Danny, Belly or Ed, but the people who have tried my barbecue say it's the best they ever had. They'll be saying that about your barbecue too.
7.2.1 Modifying charcoal-burning bullet water-type smokers
The pit modification Section was edited by Tom Kelly from a summary of posts by Mike Roberts, Pat Lehnherr, Harry Jiles and The Bear--
The Brinkmann water smoker is an inexpensive tool which can make some excellent barbecue. It is sometimes referred to as an ECB on this mail list (El Cheapo Brinkmann). Don't let this moniker fool you however. The ECB makes some mighty fine BBQ right out of the box. However, there are several modifications which can improve its performance, ease its use and therefore enhance your enjoyment.
- Modification 1 - Improve accessibility to the firepan.
WHY? - The small door on the side of the Brinkmann does not allow for easy access to the firepan. Adding wood, lump charcoal or briquettes is a hit or miss prospect. Try throwing in a few preburned Kingsford briquettes and you'll see what I mean. This modification makes fire maintenance a snap.
HOW? - Remove the legs from the unit and install them on the outside. Obtain a length of ungalvanized threaded rod and six matching nuts. Alternately, obtain 3 bolts of sufficient length and 6 matching nuts. Drill through the lip of the firepan at three locations approximately 120 degrees apart. Center the hole between the inside and outside diameter of the lip making sure that the nuts can be installed without interfering with the pan. Measure from the ground up to the ledge on the legs that the firepan used to sit on. Cut three pieces of threaded rod about 1 inch longer than this measurement or use your 3 bolts in an inverted position. Now all you do is thread on a nut above and below the lip of the pan to secure it in place at the same height it used to sit. Set the Brinkmann smoker over the pan and you are ready to smoke.
Starting a fire and maintaining it is now much easier. When you have to add fuel or 'shake up' the fire or remove ash, all you have to do is CAREFULLY lift the unit straight up about 6 inches and set it aside. You have to be particularly careful if you have water in your water pan. Tend to the fire and then replace the main unit. The top is never removed and the door is not opened so less heat is lost.
- Modification 2 - Improve firepan airflow
WHY? - The Brinkmann firepan has no air holes to improve combustion of the fuel. It apparently used to but rumor has it that someone used the smoker on a deck and some hot embers dropped out and set the deck on fire. Ergo, no more holes. But, no holes means poor combustion and incomplete burning. This modification lets more air get to the fire.
HOW? - Take the firepan and drill about five 3/8-inch holes in the bottom of the pan. This will give you about 1/2 square inches of airflow area. This increased airflow allows for better combustion.
Another advantage of this modification (assuming you have made modification number 1) is that you can lift off the main unit and using fire gloves or a couple pairs of pliers, pick up the firepan and shake it. This gets rid of much of the ash and keeps the holes free for air supply.
CAUTION - CAUTION - CAUTION ------- DO NOT USE THIS MODIFIED UNIT ON ANY COMBUSTIBLE SURFACE (Such as a wood deck). If you plan on using this on a deck, make sure that the unit is placed in a sand-filled tray or similar fire resistant arrangement.
- Modification 3 - Improve accessibility to the water pan
WHY? - The small door on the side of the Brinkmann does not lend itself to easily refilling the water pan. Adding water is a hit or miss prospect and can end up with water spilling into the firepan.
HOW? - Technically this is not a mod but more of a tip. Run down to your local K-Mart or auto parts store and purchase a plastic funnel with a long flexible filling end. Then, adding water is a snap. Open the door, hold the funnel end over the pan and fill with water safely from the other end.
CAUTION - CAUTION - CAUTION -------- ADD WATER CAREFULLY! IF THE WATER HAS COMPLETELY BOILED OFF, ADD WATER VERY SLOWLY TO AVOID BEING BURNED. THE WATER CAN FLASH TO STEAM OR BOIL VIGOROUSLY IF ADDED TO A VERY HOT, DRY WATER PAN.
- Modification 4 - Improve temperature indication
WHY? - The temperature gauge that comes as standard equipment with the Brinkmann leaves a bit to be desired. The 'LOW, IDEAL, HIGH' indication doesn't really tell you what's going on temperature wise. You'll be hard pressed to maintain 220F using the stock gauge.
HOW? - Obtain a good quality candy or meat thermometer (temperature range about 150-350F) that has a shaft at least 4 inches long. Obtain two matching corks, each about 4 times the diameter of the thermometer shaft. Drill a hole through the center of one of the corks (top to bottom) just slightly smaller than the shaft diameter. Now drill two holes, one in the side of the dome and one in the side of the body. The hole should be sized so you can push the cork in about half its height. The holes should put the shaft within an inch of the upper surface of each grill. Now you can monitor the temperature at the grills more accurately. Plug the unused hole with the undrilled cork.
NOTE - Don't try to use the existing hole where the stock 'thermometer' is installed. For one thing, it's too large to easily get a good fitting cork. For another, it's several inches above the upper grill and that location will read somewhat hotter than the grill level itself.
A more expensive but easier fix is to obtain a Sunbeam or Polder electronic remote reading thermometer. They can be purchased for around $25 to $30 at kitchen shops or stores such as Service Merchandise. Push the probe through a small piece of wood or a cork so that it is not in direct contact with the metal grill, replace the lid and you can read the temperature at the remote display. Very accurate.
7.2.2 Modifying the Hondo/NBBD or SnP Pro smokers
The Hondo/NBBD and the SnP Pro are both off-set firebox smokers. Both can produce excellent barbecue right out of the box. However, there are several modifications which can improve their performance and ease of use and therefore enhance your own enjoyment at the same time. These modifications may be applicable to other, similarly designed smokers.
- Modification 1 - Improve heat uniformity in the smoking chamber
Why? - The design of these smokers is such that the firebox is at one end and the exhaust stack is at the other. In addition, the hole between the firebox and cooking chamber is located about mid height of the cooking chamber. Since hot air rises and since the heat source is much closer to one end of the cooking chamber than the other, the actual temperature at the grill level varies greatly end to end.
HOW? - There are two modifications offered by the list members.
- The easiest method is to obtain a piece of 12 inch or so aluminum flashing. Roll this flashing up so that it can be inserted into the smoke stack from below (remove the grill to gain access). Reinstall the grill and pull the flashing down to the level of the grill. If you need additional grill space, just push the flashing up into the stack to clear whatever you are cooking.
- This method saves grill space but requires the services of a good welder. Obtain a 4-inch piece of steel pipe (one list member used a diesel exhaust stack from a semi). Don't use a 3-inch pipe (same size as presently exists) as this is too small. Remove the existing stack and weld a patch into the hole. Cut a hole in the side wall of the cooking chamber at the end furthest from the firebox and about an inch above the bottom (so as not to allow grease to enter the new smokestack). Now, either bend or cut and miter the 4-inch pipe so it has a 90 degree bend in it and weld it to the opening just made. You will also probably have to weld a flat bar support (hanger) near the top of the cooking chamber to support the pipe, between the pipe and chamber side wall. The pipe should extend above the chamber about the same height as the one you replaced. Clean and repaint and you're ready to cook.
What these modifications do is force the combustion gas to escape the units at a lower level, thereby maintaining a more uniform temperature in the chamber both side to side and top to bottom.
- Modification 2 - Eliminate the radiant heat hot spot
WHY? - The hole between the firebox and cooking chamber is wide open! This is great for airflow but bad from the standpoint of thermal uniformity. Any food close to the hole will not only be exposed to the high temperature combustion gasses but also to the radiant heat from the fire. Just like sitting in front of a fireplace in a cold room, the side facing the fire picks up radiant heat and gets much hotter than the side away from the flame.
HOW? - There are four methods offered to solve this particular problem.
- Cut an aluminum piece of flashing large enough to cover the firebox to cooking chamber opening from its highest point down to a level about 1/2 inch below the grill level. Make sure your grill is at its lowest normal working level. At the top of the cut piece of flashing, include enough additional material to engage the top bolt and the next two lower bolts that hold the firebox to the cooking chamber. You'll have to bend the flashing a bit to clear the small 'shelf' at the top of the cooking chamber to firebox opening on the NBBD. Push the flashing up against the bolts to mark their locations. Drill three holes slightly smaller than the bolt diameter at these marked locations. Now, either push the flashing in place over the exposed ends of the bolts or remove the nuts one at a time and install the flashing secured behind the bolts.
- This modification is similar to number 1 above except that the flashing is sized and fit to extend INTO the cooking chamber instead of just vertically blocking the opening. For this mod, you want a piece of flashing that will hook to the top bolt and end up at the grill level but slanting down at a 45 degree angle. You will lose some grill space but you will maintain the opening at its original area and at the same time, force the hot gas out below grill level and protect the food from radiant heat.
- This modification was developed by Mike Roberts and is the most ambitious of all. It consists of a welded piece of steel at the opening and several more shields as you travel the length of the cooking chamber. First, a piece of steel is cut to close off the firebox to cooking chamber opening to just below grill level. A second piece of steel is welded to the bottom of this one, at a 90 degree angle, to force the exhaust gas further into the cooking chamber. This second piece is cut to the width of the first vertical piece and is 6-1/4 inches deep into the firebox. In effect, you will end up with a 'shelf' just below the grill level that extends 6-1/4 inches into the cooking chamber. All the exhaust gas has to pass under this shelf to escape the smoker. This baffle could also be fabricated from heavy gauge sheet metal and bent into shape without needing any welding. The sheet metal baffle would then be bolted onto the top two bolts holding the firebox onto the main smoker section. Next, 3 additional plates are cut out and set in the smoker at the same level, basically extending this shelf. Each shelf is 5 inches long by the width necessary to rest on the chamber sides at the same height as the first shelf. The edge of each shelf (nearest the chamber walls) has a cut out made to let heat rise as it progresses along. The cutouts are 1/8 X 4, 1/4 X 4 and 1/2 X 4 inches for the first, second and third portable shields respectively (you will end up with an "H" shaped piece of metal with a really thick center section). The shields are placed in the chamber about 1/2 inch apart so the total length of this shelf becomes 22-4/3 inches (6-1/4 plus 1/2 plus 5 plus 1/2 plus 5 plus 1/2 plus 5). According to Mr. Roberts, this evened out the temperature, side to side, to within 20 degrees. NOTE - This modification could probably also be done using flashing to avoid the expense and time of welding.
- This modification accomplishes the intent of A and B although not to the same degree of effectiveness. Get an aluminum tray which is approximately the width of the firebox to cooking chamber opening. This tray should be tall enough to block the top of the opening and approximately 3 or 4 inches wide. Fill this tray with water and set it in front of the opening. It will block some radiant heat, force the gasses below the tray (to some extent) and boil off and maintain a more humid cooking environment. NOTE - This mod is only for the lazy and does not work anywhere near as well as the other three.
- Modification 3 - Add a drain connection to the smoking chamber
WHY? - The NBBD and NB Hondo do not have a connection to drain away grease from the cooking chamber. Although not an absolute necessity, a drain hole can be quite useful.
HOW? - Weld a 1/2 or 3/4 inch piece of pipe or a 3/4 inch half coupling at the far end of the bottom of the smoking chamber. Attach a shut off valve and you have a drain connection. NOTE - Some propose to install a 90 degree elbow before the valve.
This arrangement allows you to do several things. You can put water or a combination of water and seasonings in the bottom of the smoker during its use. After smoking, simply drain away the leftover liquid/grease. You can also eliminate the use of a grease drip pan although this really isn't recommended. Additionally, should you ever want to clean your unit, you can fill it with cleaning solution, scrub it and then drain away the spent mixture.
- Modification 4 - Improve the tightness of the unit openings
WHY? - These units are nicely made for the money but they are not precision made. Therefore, the doors and openings leak (allow air and smoke in and out) and thereby reduce the cooking efficiency and your ability to control what's going on.
HOW? - Install a gasket. A BBQ List member is evaluating a method using a high-temperature silicone sealant to make formed-in-place gaskets for his NBBD. This experiment will be reported in the next version of the FAQ. Another List member suggests using flat fiberglass gaskets made for wood-burning stoves.
HOW? - Do some body work. Another List member reports that a poor-fitting door can be made to fit better with some auto body type hammering with a dead-blow hammer and wood blocks.
- Modification 5 - Improve the thermal efficiency of the unit
WHY? - These units are made of fairly light gauge steel. They heat up and cool down rapidly in response to changes in the fire intensity and outside weather conditions (wind and temperature). Adding fuel generally causes a temperature spike and letting the fire go too long without refueling generally causes a dip.
HOW? - Line your cooking chamber with firebricks. Remove the upper grates and set firebricks all along the bottom. Wrap them in aluminum foil to ease cleaning. While adding bricks will naturally extend the amount of time it takes to initially get the unit up to temperature by 15 - 30 minutes, it will be much more tolerant of fires which get too low or those times when you add a few more lumps of charcoal and the fire intensity subsides until the new fuel catches. The bricks hold heat and will tend to stabilize the temperature. They will not prevent temperature spikes but they will prevent the dips from being as low before the addition of the bricks. This can also be done to the firebox if you have sufficient room.
HOW? - If you are going to make modification 2 'C', use thick steel plates for the lower distribution plates. A steel plate that is 3/8 or 1/2 inch thick will add additional mass to the pit and help to stabilize temperature dips.
- Modification 6 - Increase the volume below the fire-grate
WHY? - On some units, the position of the fire-grate is such that after a long day of cooking, there is very little room left under the grate for air to get in. This space is filled with ash from the fire so combustion efficiency suffers.
HOW? - Raise the fire grate. This can be accomplished by welding some angle iron to the sides of the firebox at the desired level so there is more room for ash to fall into while still having sufficient room for combustion air. Another method would be to obtain some 1/4 inch steel rod. Drill four holes (two in front, two in back) of the firebox at the level you want your grate. Push the rods through the holes and set the grate(s) on the rods. If you use two grates, you may have to increase the number of holes and rods accordingly.
- Modification 7 - Improve temperature indication
WHY? - No temperature gauge comes as standard equipment with these units. Without something, you'll be hard pressed to maintain your desired temperature.
HOW? - There are a few proposed solutions:
- Buy a thermometer that will fit the hole in the door. Just remember, the location of this thermometer is higher than the grill and will give a somewhat higher reading than the actual grill level temperature. Also, if it is directly above a large piece of meat, your initial temperature indication will be lower than the actual temperature.
- Obtain a good quality candy or meat thermometer that has a shaft at least 4 inches long (temperature range about 150F to 350F). Obtain two matching corks, each about 4 times the diameter of the thermometer shaft. Drill a hole through the center of one of the corks (top to bottom) just slightly smaller than the shaft diameter. Now drill two holes, one to the left of the cooking chamber door handle and one to the right (about 18 inches apart). These holes should be sized so you can push the cork in about half its height. The holes should put the shaft within an inch of the upper surface of each grill. Now you can monitor the temperature at the grills more accurately. Plug the unused hole with the undrilled cork and swap positions as desired.
NOTE: - You can use the existing hole provided for a stock thermometer. However, it's several inches above the upper grill and that location will read somewhat hotter than the grill level itself.
C. The preferred but more expensive fix is to obtain a Sunbeam or Polder electronic remote reading thermometer. They can be purchased for around $25 to $30 at kitchen shops or stores such as Service Merchandise. Push the probe through a small piece of wood or a cork so that it is not in direct contact with the metal grill, set it anywhere on the grill, close the door and you can read the temperature at the remote display. Very accurate, very easy.
7.3 Smoker maintenance
- [I just got a new off-set-firebox type pit. How do I condition it?]
A new barbecue pit should be cured like a new iron skillet. You may chose to rub the inside of the pit with Pam, peanut oil, cooking oils, or even bacon grease. Light the pit with a medium fire using lump charcoal or seasoned wood, say to 220F.
Choke the smokestack control about 1/2 way closed and let it smoke heavily. A few hours is good--the longer the better. A pit will cure without oils, but the build-up of the resin base on the doors etc., doesn't seem to hold very well over the years without using oil. I have made maybe 100,000 barbecue pits. I have noted that pits cured with oils seem to produce better end product.
- [Do I need to clean my BBQ pit? And if so, how do I do it and how often?]
The type cleanup required is partly determined by your type of equipment. If you have a vertical water smoker, there is very little to clean up. In the water smoker of course you need to dump the ashes each time the smoker is used. Next you will need to clean the water pan. Each time you use the water smoker grease drips into the water pan and is cooked down. This needs to be cleaned out before using again. If soap and water will not break this down, a little oven cleaner will take care of it. Lastly, when you take the last of the meat out of the smoker, you should brush down the grills. If you clean them with anything else you will need to re-season them before using again.
In a horizontal unit (off-set firebox type), the ashes will need to be cleaned out of the firebox or wherever the fire is built. The ashes can adsorb water and speed up the rusting process of the firebox floor. The horizontal unit could have a special problem not usually found in water smokers. Often there is no drip pan under the meat. This means rendered fat will accumulate in the smoke chamber. This could cause health problems, flavor problems, and even, if it got warm enough in the smoke chamber, possibly a fire or an explosion. This grease must periodically be cleaned out. Scraping followed by soap and hot water should get rid of this problem. This would be followed by re-curing as done when you first started. The last would be cleaning the grills/grates. This would be accomplished as in the water smoker.
After many uses or at least once per year you should check for buildup of carbon in the lid and smoke chamber. A wire brush should be used to clean this out. If you take it down to metal, re-season the inside.
Rust spots should be wire brushed, sanded and re-painted with high temperature grill or stove paint.
R. W. Ramsey--
Well, last night I thought I'd be a smartypants and clean the excess goo off the inside of the smoker, so I heated that sucker up to about 450F and sprayed it out real good with the water hose. Worked real well. All the goo was gone. Trouble is, it was starting to rust by this evening, so I have coated the interior with cooking spray and am sacrificing a perfectly good chicken to build up the goo again.
I clean mine the same way. The steam produced when you spray in the water really cleans things up. I brush the whole inside down with soy oil as soon as it dries, which is only about 5 minutes after spraying, and have no problem with rust.
Some spray oven cleaner is a great way to get the grease and gunk off the bottom of an electric bullet water smoker and the grills. Do it outside and then spray it with the hose to wash it off. Also, my bullet smoker builds up a thin layer of soot/smoke residue on the inside of the middle section and inside the dome lid. I spray them with the water nozzle every month or so and knock off the stuff. This keeps it from dropping onto my barbecue and into my beans.
- [What's the best way to repaint my pit?]
If the paint is peeling from the exterior of a barbeque pit, I recommend going to a large hardware store, and buying the best heat paint you can get. Try for Rust-o-leum 1000F, or 1300F paints if you can find them. When heated, epoxy paints are TOXIC and cannot and should not be used on food equipment like barbecue pits. The paint breaks down when heated and gets inhaled, so to speak. Not real good for you. You might not die right away, but it may be harmful to you.
Most commercial pit manufacturers usually use 500F or 700F paint. As I understand it, charcoal burns at 700-959F. Hardwoods burn at roughly 1050-1180F. Due to the expansion and contraction of the surfaces of barbecue pits made from sheet metal and steel to 1/2" thick, I have found that the metal can move as much as 1/8" during the heating and cooling process. The heat oxidizes and embrittles the paint, and the repeated expansions tear it, causing it to flake.
Start with the best paint you can find. I use 1300F paint on my barbecue pits. I give them five coats, painted over a three day period and dried a week before I will let a customer touch them. Smoking out (curing) the pit should also help set the paint just like you would a new skillet. Wire brush the bad areas well and then wipe down with water and allow that to dry. You can even light the pit with a LOW FIRE, say 200F, to help expand the metal so the paint will penetrate deeply into the pores. Then spray or wipe the paint on while the pit is warm. This helps bake it on. Apply a few coats, with an hour in between. Let the pit cool naturally. Cold water or high humidity at this point only counteracts the steps taken. Be sure there is a 70% humidity or less for the application of the base coat of paint if possible.
Your pit will probably peel again as there are very few paints of the quality needed for this application that the average person could afford. You can also apply Pam or peanut oil to the outside of the firebox after it has cooled when you finish cooking, as this will help keep the paint pliable, thus inhibiting cracking of the paint to a small degree.
7.4 Smoker temperature control
- [Will the wind affect my barbecue pit while I'm smoking?]
Definitely, the wind will affect several things while you're barbecuing. A cold wind blowing across the pit will remove more heat than a pit working in still air. So you'll have to compensate for the additional heat loss. The wind can also get into the cracks, vents and joints of your pit and increase the air flow through it, causing the fire to burn quicker and hotter. Try putting your pit in the lee of the wind or erecting some wind baffles. Remember, it's the temperature inside your pit that's important, not what's going on outside. You can also insulate your pit. Check with an air conditioning company to see what kind of wrap would work.
- [Would putting firebricks in my off-set firebox type pit help even out the temperature spikes and lows?]
If you increase the mass, the thermal dips would have to be lower. Aside from the mess of dripping grease, the underside could be lined completely and hold in a lot more heat.
- [So let me get this straight. If using firebricks to help retain heat, do you put them in the smoking chamber or the firebox of an off-set smoker?]
The more mass you have in all parts of the pit should hold the temperature more stable in that area. In the firebox would be good to keep the output of the firebox stable and in the smoke chamber would be good to hold the temperature more stable there. Just remember the drawback, it takes longer to get the pit up to smoking temperature.
Actually, the best way would be to do both. One of the reasons a Klose or an Oklahoma Joe's pit have better temperature control is because they are made from heavier metal than the typical discount store rig. Adding brick to the firebox would help, but adding it to the cooking chamber would help even more. Next would be adding a fiberglass insulating blanket around all of this. It would take longer to get all the brick up to cooking temperature, but once there, be less subject to fluctuations. The drawback is cost. If you buy a $179 NBBD or SnP Pro, then add $400 in modifications, you will have an improved but still lacking pit. For the same money, buy a good pit to begin with.
I think you're both right in a way. Once you get the beast up to temperature (bricks in one or both sides) you'll have a large thermal reservoir that will withstand temperature loss better. It won't prevent temperature spikes.
Tom's observations correspond with mine perfectly. I've used one firebrick in the wood chamber and one in the meat chamber of my NBBD for a few months now and am satisfied with the results. I use the firebrick in the meat chamber to cover the top half of the opening into the wood chamber in lieu of a metal baffle. If anyone tries this, I suggest putting the bricks through a break-in session before using them in close proximity to meat. Several small flakes of brick blew off during the first firing.
- [Would insulating my smoker make it easier to control the temperature?]
Definitely. Some list members, especially those in the northern climates, have put water heater blankets around their smokers. Makes a big difference. Some insulate the outside of the pit with professional oven-type insulation and then cover the pit with sheet metal. Doing this will dramatically reduce temperature swings while barbecuing and save a lot of fuel.
On the subject of heat retention, I have seen people use moving blankets to retain heat during rain storms, cold snaps, and Jack Daniel's holidays away from the pit on Super-Bowl Sunday, with great success. Another interesting trick, in a grill, is to line the charcoal up in an "S" shape, only lighting the first end of the coals. If done properly, the charcoal should burn "down the line" thus creating a smoker effect, allowing for easier cooking.
- [I've seen people on the list writing about creosote. What is it and how does it form?]
'Creosote' is a term for a group of organic compounds that can form during the destructive distillation of wood and coal. They are oily and sticky materials that condense out of the smoke on cooler surfaces--meat and the walls of the pit--when wood, charcoal or coal are burned without sufficient oxygen to affect complete combustion. The formation of creosote in your barbecue pit is to be avoided at all costs as it will ruin the meat.
Stephen J. O'Connor--
Bitter creosote occurs when smoke cools enough to allow certain substances to condense out of the smoke. Overwhelming the pit with too much cold meat can cause the smoke to cool. Other factors can cause it as well: a smoldering fire, poor air circulation, cold ambient temperature. Also, in my experience throwing a lot of cold fuel on a fire--especially when the fire has gotten low, can cause creosote to form.
Ways to reduce the odds of creosote occurring include:
- allowing food to warm up for at least an hour before putting it on the cooker;
- putting less cold food on at a time;
- running a small hot fire that does not need to be choked down by closing vents;
- regulating air flow with the intake vents rather than the exhaust chimney damper;
- barbecuing in nice weather;
- giving the pit plenty of time to warm up thoroughly before putting on the food;
- adding new fuel gradually;
- preheating or preburning the fuel.
I generally give my smoker a good long warm-up and get it up to a temperature well above the temperature at which I want to cook. I cannot let food sit out to warm up, so I put it in gradually. I preheat my logs by leaving them on top of the firebox before adding them to the fire. When I do add them, I often put them on the side of the main fire allowing them to further warm up without cooling the main fire. They ignite on their own, then I push them into the rest of the fire. When the fire goes down more than I intend, I carefully add small pieces of wood at frequent intervals.
When the weather is cold, windy, or wet, I need to be more careful. When the weather is warm, I can get away with a little more.
7.5 Smoker fire control
- [Can you give me some pointers on fire control using wood and charcoal?]
- Charcoal- Use natural lump hardwood. Get one of those chimney starters from the hardware or barbecue store. Put two sheets of newspaper in the bottom and fill the top part with charcoal. When the coals have started, dump them out of the chimney onto your pit burning surface. If the pieces of lump charcoal are too big, carefully break them into several pieces with a hatchet.
- Wood- I use medium-width, fireplace-length, hardwood logs. Bark on or bark off--your choice. Seasoned logs have less creosote. (Editor--wood-burning beginners using NBBD-type smokers should use hardwood pieces of 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter by 8-12 inches long and progress to larger logs as they gain experience.)
- Burning logs in a SnP Pro/NBBD--Open the chimney and intake dampers wide open. Start a secondary charcoal fire in a grill, Habachi or some other suitable container, and one in the pit's firebox. When the coals are going, put three logs on the secondary fire. The logs will flame. After the flames die down a bit (10 minutes), put one log in the pit firebox and close the damper halfway. Every half hour add another log to the secondary fire pit and move one from there to the pit firebox. Control the temperature with the firebox damper. Unless you're burning hickory or oak to fuel the pit, add a chunk of smoking wood (mesquite, hickory, pecan, apple, etc.) every time you add more fuel for the first three hours.
- Charcoal in a SnP Pro/NBBD- Skip the secondary fire pit part and add a few of the larger chunks of charcoal every 30-40 minutes to keep the fire going. You can get some lump charcoal going in a secondary fire pit to have it ready for adding to the pit's firebox when necessary. A gas grill makes a good lump charcoal pre-burner.
- Charcoal in a Weber Kettle- Open one bottom vent and the top vent. Position the top vent opposite the open bottom vent. Put a pie pan below the meat to catch the juices. Bank a small amount of coals on one side of the grill over the open vent and let the smoker warm up for 20-30 minutes. Put another pie pan above the fire and add water to it. Put the meat over the drip pan. Stick a meat thermometer in the top or side of the grill, and work the fire to stabilize the temperature around 200-240F. Hotter fires will significantly shorten cooking times and not allow slow-cooking of the meat.
Soak hickory, mesquite, cherry, apple or other wood chips in a bowl of water for 20 minutes or more, and place small amounts of the chips on the coals every 20-30 minutes or as often as desired. Place meat away from the heat source, on the side opposite the banked coals. If you have two or more slabs of ribs, use a 'rib rack' to help stand the slabs of ribs on their side next to each other. Place ribs thick side up/bone-end down, so the small ends stay moist. That's it! Sit back for 4 to 6 hours, watch the smoke rise, and drink your favorite beverage. Don't forget to add soaked wood chips every so often, and keep the water pan half full. You may want to turn the meat in-place to give each rib end or side equal time nearest the heat source.
- [Can you tell me some more about smoking in a Weber kettle?]
If your Weber is a charcoal dome-lid type, simply put 5 - 6 briquettes on opposite sides of the charcoal grate. Light them and wait until they turn gray all over. Put a foil pan in the middle of the grill area and add a little water to it. Place the meat, beef, pork, etc. over the pan. Add smoking wood to each side and lower the lid. Close the bottom vents but open the top one.
The 10 briquettes will keep the temperature at about 240F for about one hour, depending on the brand, your vents, and how you light it. Every hour on the hour, check the charcoal and bump the handle to knock off the ashes. Add no more than one briquette to each side. After the first hour, add another chunk of smoking wood. Make sure the wood is heavily soaked in water.
Continue this procedure until the meat is done. For briskets/pork butts, cook about 1 1/2 hours per pound. For chicken or turkey use 3/4 to 1 hour per pound, check it on the low side to prevent dryness. For turkey breasts use a higher heat at 3/4 hour per pound and use a butter, paprika, garlic salt, and black pepper blend of spices. It will come out like pepper bacon. For fish, 30 minutes per pound is usually good. I would put some lemon slices in the fish cavity to prevent drying and I would use about 4 briquettes per side rather than 5 - 6.
For whole turkeys I usually use peeled grapefruit, oranges, and lemons in the cavity. It doesn't add any flavors but a lot of moisture.
It's easy, just remember to keep your addition of coals to a minimum. The Weber tends to hold the heat well.
- [What color smoke do I want coming out of my pit?]
You want a light white or an invisible smoke. Even though you do not see smoke, the products of combustion are still in the air and working. Heavy dark or colored (green, yellow, orange) smoke is to be avoided at all costs.
John Willingham says in his book - "When you think of barbecue, stop thinking of smoke. Smoke is nothing more than dirt, wafting into the air from burning wood. When the wood is properly burned at the right temperatures for barbecue, it does not smoke."
- [I just got my brand new NB Black Diamond pit (Brinkmann Smoke'N Pit Pro) seasoned and I'm all set to go. The only fire I've built in a pit was in my old bullet water smoker. I have some questions.]
This section is a summary of a thread begun by Tom and answered by Harry, Ed, Bear, Kurt, Mike, Rodney, Pat and Jim.
- I used a Brinkmann thermometer stuck in the factory hole (about halfway up the lid). Is this anywhere near accurate?
Nope. The temperature in the lid could run anywhere from 25-75F higher than meat rack temperature.
- I had lots of smoke escaping from both the firebox lid (at the hinge seam) and at the cooking lid (mostly at either end but some along the bottom). Is there a gasket material that would work well? If I do nothing, is it a big loss?
My SnP Pro does the same thing. I've never bothered to mess with it. Doesn't seem to be a problem except maybe in the winter.
- Temperature control was iffy. I started up with a small charcoal fire and the inlet damper open 1/4 or so (same for the outlet). It held 225F for a good 30 minutes and then it started to drop a bit. I threw in some more charcoal and opened the inlet and it took a good while to get back up. Overshot (hit 325 - 350F). Closed down on the damper from 3/4 to about 1/2 and the temperature dropped to 220F in less than a minute. Is it that sensitive to damper setting? I had a hard time maintaining any constant temperature.
You'll continue to have the same problem until you use it many times and get a good feel for it. I had the same problem with mine and found out it wasn't the smoker having the problem, it was me. After many, many uses, I've got it down pretty well. And then the weather changes and you have to figure it out all over again. Ignore what the book says and keep the exhaust damper wide open.
- I chopped up some oak and wild cherry to try. Every time I added a "log" to my fire, I got thick, white smoke until it caught good. Is this how you do it?
Yep, it is a smoker. Try smaller pieces if you're worried about incomplete combustion. You can also warm or pre-burn your wood. Get some wood started in another pit or grill and add it hot to the firebox.
- Speaking of fires, for the second seasoning at 350F, I had 3 or 4, 8 inch long by 2 inch diameter hunks of wood, burning away! Nice flames in the box, not too much smoke visible from the stack. Do you generally have actual flames? How big a fire (quantity of wood) is normal for smoking in a NBBD? Fill 'er up and choke it down or have a small amount and keep adding?
Stick to a small amount and add to it as you need to or you'll have high temperatures. I like to get my wood burning with just the right flame and then I close down the damper almost, but not quite, all the way. Open the outlet damper up all the way. Control the temperature with the inlet damper. If you close the outlet, the smoke will not vent, get stale, and you've just added that bitter taste everyone complains of to the meat. A big fire choked down will give you bitter smoke.
- It was really great firing this up for the first time. I just need to learn a few things about the fire before I ruin several hundred dollars worth of meat practicing.
You probably won't ruin anything. It may not be the way you want it for the first few times, but still better than what you'd get from the local 'Q shack. By the time you learn with an empty smoker, it is too late. When you put meat in the thing, temperature control will be different, as will be the flow of air through it, around the meat. Don't fill it, but put something in it to try, a whole chicken is a good way to start. Just start cooking with it. Experience is the best teacher. I doubt that you will totally ruin much meat, if any.
You are going to see some temperature variance, especially when adding more fuel. Once I get the intake damper set, I don't mess with it much. When I add fuel, I leave the side door of the firebox open a little to let in more air and get the fuel burning quicker. When the temperature comes back up I close it. When I first started using my NBBD, I was always opening and closing the intake damper and trying to keep the temperature exactly where I wanted it. I now keep my hands off of it as much as possible and don't worry about 25-35F temperature swings and I get along much better. I cook almost exclusively with wood, although I learned a neat trick of starting a fire with charcoal to provide a good fire bed to get going.
I have found that if there is a LOT of smoke (i.e. under the doors and around lids, etc.) there is something wrong with either the air intake or the wood itself. The right-sized fire burns with hardly any visible smoke, that's what you want. You need to keep a good air flow through the unit at all times. This keeps a good clean burn going. Avoid using unseasoned wood, as it will tend to over-smoke and CAN cause bitter meat. Wet bark also can cause this problem. While I can't speak for everybody here, my best results are obtained when there is very little smoke from the stack and none at all from the doors or other openings. I use both vertical and horizontal off-set units (homemade) and usually if there's a bunch of smoke coming from the stack, I know it's time to put the brewskie down and check the fire.
You will learn to regulate the temperature by the amount of fire in your firebox. There will always be some open flame, but the best fire is the kind you would cook your marshmallows or "smores" on later. Regulating the amount of fuel, combined with the correct amount of intake air (never choke the exhaust) will give you the best results.
You already have lots of good suggestions. I'll add another. I used fiberglass wood-stove gasket to tighten up my NBBD. I found that it gave me much better temperature control, especially on breezy days. Look for flat gasket material, the round stuff is too thick for the doors to close. If all you can find is round material, you can use it on the outside of the NB, butted up against the seams, but not under them like you can with the flat stuff.
Using the gaskets has allowed me to start with a much larger load of charcoal to give a longer burn without fiddling with the fire. Before I added the gaskets, I had to use a much smaller charcoal load to keep the fire from getting too hot. This required much more frequent additions of charcoal and a lot more fiddling. The reason was too much air coming in through the gaps.
- Just for point of reference, I have a grill that's about 12" x 14" that sits in the bottom of the firebox. My first lump charcoal fire was enough to make a 10 inch or so diameter pile that was only a few inches tall at the center. Is this too small?
A: I usually start with about 3-4 pounds of lump charcoal. Let it burn down pretty good and add an oak log and let that go for awhile until I get a good bed of coals and can start controlling the temperature. This usually takes an hour to an hour and a half. I then toss on one more log and let it catch fire for about 10 minutes or so. Close up the firebox damper almost all the way, open the lid to the smoke chamber to remove any built-up heat, close it back up and watch the grill level temperature. It will usually be in the general area of 200- 235F at this point. Meat goes on about now. I add a split log about every two to three hours from this point on.
I have a NB Hondo, same operating design as yours, just different shelves on the outside. I use two fire grates in the firebox turned so they run across the box and overlap (gets them up higher for better airflow.)
Temperature is pretty sensitive to damper positions. I usually move them in very small increments, then wait 15 minutes for things to stabilize before I judge the results. I add split wood (usually ash these days) directly to the fire. I use mesquite lump charcoal to keep things burning, and add a piece of wood as necessary to keep it smoking. The wood burns hotter than the charcoal, take that into consideration in your damper settings as you adjust (maybe add wood instead of opening dampers more). I used to fill it up with charcoal briquettes and choke it down so it would burn a long time without intervention. But I have found that I get a much cleaner, more attractive and better tasting product by using a small hot fire and tending it more often.
I use about 10-12 pounds of lump charcoal to smoke all day (brisket or pork shoulder). I don't really know quantitatively how much wood for the same time, probably a half to a whole log 8 inches in diameter and 15 inches long.
The only piece of meat I ever ruined was a rack of pork ribs. At the time I thought I had gotten them just way too smoky. They were bitter, overpowering, and inedible. It was the only time I ever tried to use only wood in the smoker. Now, having learned more, I think that rather than being over-smoked that it was a creosote problem, caused by poor airflow in the pit.
You probably won't ruin anything, and you've great advice from everybody here. I learned it all by trial and error, until I found this list a few months ago! I'm still the only person I've met face to face who owns a smoker.
When I started with NBBD, I had the same problem, temperature spikes and low points. One thing that helped was to stop overreacting. By that I mean, when the temperature shoots up to 350F, don't shut down every damper to bring it down. When the temperature drops to 150F, don't open the intake wide open and dump a full load of hot coals in the firebox. Make small changes or you'll be riding a thermal roller coaster. Once I realized that, even temperatures were easier to maintain.
Make sure you're only making small adjustments, even if it appears you need to make big adjustments. If it gets too hot, just close down the INLET damper 1/8th to 1/4 of the way. If you want to get rid of excess heat immediately, open the cooking chamber door a bit. If the temperature drops a bunch, don't dump a truck load of coals in there. Open the damper 1/8 to 1/4 of the way, or add just a few coals. Remember, it could take up to 15 minutes or so for the temperature to react to what you do to the fire or air damper.
Another thing you have going for you is that when you put a 12 pound brisket on the grill, you have one heck of a thermal mass there. A brief spike in the temperature will not harm the meat, a short drop in temperature will not add hours to your cooking time.
Scott in Carolina--
Also, one of the troubles with the Brinkmann SnP Pro and New Braunfels BD is the lack of a damper between the firebox and the cooking chamber. My big Joe has a sliding damper system with convection tube that makes temperature and smoke control a breeze - assuming you have excellent fire-tending skills.
One thing we've taken to doing when not burning wood to coals is using smaller logs and placing some actually inside the fire box but away from the fire. We do this before adding them to the fire, it really heats them up and gets them going before we add them. We have very little smoke, and the barbecue never turns out bitter since I learned this trick.
I thought it would be beneficial to those barbecue beginners attempting their first use of a wood-burning off-set firebox smoker to have the step-by-step instructions of a fellow beginner (about 8 months into barbecue) who learned it the hard way--trial and error. This article features the NBBD smoker, but the tips will work on the Hondo and SnP Pro as well.
- [Rick, did you modify your NBBD smoker in anyway before you started using it?]
No. I began using it right out of the box. No modifications.
- [How many doors in the firebox does the NBBD (Hondo and SnP Pro) have?]
The NBBD firebox has two doors. It has a door lid on top that opens like the one in the cooking chamber. This top firebox door has a flat shelf welded on top for warming things directly over the heat. (Editor--the current model of the SnP Pro does not have this warming shelf.) The top firebox door opens wide and holds open. The NBBD also has a door on the end. The door is fitted with a latch. The 'butterfly air baffle' (the inlet air adjustment device) is in this door.
- [Can you put wood into the firebox from either door?]
Wood can be placed into the firebox by either opening the top of the firebox, (the worst scenario when you've got a fire going) or by opening the end door wide and placing wood directly on the fire. Using the firebox end door keeps the heat a little more constant and avoids a massive loss of heat when you open the top firebox top lid door.
- [Do you pre-heat your fuel wood?]
No, I do not preheat my wood, but it's not a bad idea.
- [What do you use for fuel?]
I start and continue with wood all the way. I tired to use briquettes, but the ash clogged the firebox too soon; I was smothering any fire I had. I didn't like wood chunks either. Seems as though if I used them dry, I got too hot a fire. If I used soaked chunks, I didn't like the color of the smoke.
- [OK, briquettes didn't work for you and you didn't like the wood chunks, so what wood do you use?]
I contacted an orchard owner and got a wonderful deal on some cherry, peach and pear wood. It's cut into anywhere from 12-18" lengths and from 1" to 3" in diameter. I split anything larger than 3" diameter before I burn them. The wood was aged at least a season before I got it.
- [Tell me how you start a fire in your NBBD and keep it going]
I like to use one of those waxy fire-starters (the kind you use to start campfires and fireplaces). It burns down pretty fast and it has no residue or odor. I just place it on the grate and pile some small kindling on top of it. I slowly add some larger pieces of wood until I can add two medium-sized logs (that's what I'll call them) to the fire and make sure they start. My fire starts with the two logs, and when I add wood, I try and make sure that I can add two more logs at a time. It just seems as though when you add two at a time, they seem to feed off of each other instead of just one fighting to get started.
- [In what position do you keep the exhaust vent on the smokestack?]
The vent to the cooking chamber (smokestack) is always left open! If that is closed down in any way, it concentrates the smoke in the cooking chamber and you risk bitter meat.
- [How do you control the temperature in the smoking chamber?]
Any temperature adjustment I make is done by the firebox side door butterfly air baffle opening/closing only. The exception to this is when I get a high heat spike. Then I open up the cooking chamber door for a couple of seconds and let some heat out. Sure, some smoke goes out too, but that's never been a problem. I just relax for a while until the temperature evens out in the smoker.
- [How do you measure the temperature in the smoking chamber?]
I use a round analog thermometer that is mounted right into the cooking chamber door. It's not accurate as to the actual heat at the grill level, but it is accurate in determining what the heat is inside. When I have a steady fire going, the door-mounted thermometer reads 300F, while the grill level, where the meat is, is about 225F. What I DON'T DO is constantly mess with temperature adjustments. Very small adjustments to the butterfly air baffle in the firebox will make big temperature changes in the smoking chamber. I keep the air baffle open about 1/2 way all the time. To lower the smoking chamber temperature a little, I close the baffle about 1/4 turn. To increase the heat a little, I open the baffle 1/4 turn. Sometimes it takes even less adjustment than that. The point is, the fire will react, but not immediately. It's something that you can't adjust like a knob on a stove. If you keep this in mind: "the reaction to an adjustment is not immediate", then this will help you relax and not mess with the air baffle adjustment so often. Another thing to remember is this is: "LONG cooking times". The temperature spikes that do occur won't hurt the meat at all, and you should look at the whole process, not just at a momentary spike that makes you want to panic. I use a Sunbeam thermometer with the probe inserted into the meat and the wire extending out the exhaust pipe and the thermometer sitting on the shelf outside. That's what I judge the meat by, not the thermometer in the door. The one in the door give me an indication of how my fire is doing--not the actual temperature at the meat level.
After the temperature settles down, and the fire is even, I add the meat. Make sure it's at room temperature. When you open the cooking chamber to add the meat, naturally, the temperature in the smoking chamber will drop. DON'T adjust anything yet! When the door is shut again, the temperature will rise and level out without you making any adjustments. I try and look ahead and predict when the temperature will drop again. It just seems that if it's been at an even keel for a long time, it's probably time to add a couple of logs again. Anticipating the need for fuel prevents the temperature from dropping from 220F to 150F. Then panic addition of more wood, opening the air baffle, the temperature goes too high, then closing the air baffle, and waiting for the temperature to settle again. An even feed of a couple of small logs, about every 1/2 hour, is all it takes for me. I think that's important and I don't know why. I just get a better fire when I add two logs.
- [How big is your fire? How much flame?]
I try and keep a small 'flicker' of a flame going between the two logs. If there is NO flame, the smoke is pretty intense (it's smoldering).
I get some pretty darn good results out of the NBBD and it sure beats gas or anything else I have ever tried. I sure hope I can help someone with this information . . . it works for me.
7.6 Using chips and chunks for smoke
- [Can you tell me the best way to use chips and chunks of smoking wood in my charcoal smoker?]
If you are using charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal to fuel your smoker, you must use chips or chunks of a suitable hardwood to give your meat the smoky flavor necessary for barbecue. Some List members like to soak the chips and chunks in water before adding to the smoker, some use them dry. Some members like to use an aluminum bag/log to hold the chips, some just toss them on the coals. You will need to experiment and find the best way to add the smoking wood for your situation. You can use chips and chunks from all the smoking woods: hickory, oak, pecan, mesquite, fruit woods, grapevines, etc. Chips and chunks of these woods are available in barbecue stores, supermarkets, and places like WalMart, HQ, and Home Depot, as well as through mail-order houses. Don't buy too many chips or chunks at one time, as they tend to dry out and lose their flavor components. Buy what you need for one barbecue season.
Chips can be used by tossing onto a charcoal fire or onto the heated plate in a gas-fueled smoker. Most List members recommend soaking the chips in water for 30 minutes before using. Chunks of hardwood burn slower and last longer and are best in off-set firebox smokers using lump charcoal for fuel. Chunks are also good in electric pits where lava rocks are not used.
I have had pretty good experience with chips this way: Build a very well-sealed aluminum foil bag/log about 1" x 2" x 3" and fill it with chips. Punch a very tiny hole with a needle on top and one on bottom. Place the aluminum 'log' right on the coals or in an electric smoker, next to but not touching the element. In a gas-fueled smoker, place the aluminum log on the lava rocks or the heated plate. Plenty of smoke will start in about 10 minutes and then will keep going for close to an hour. After that, I stick the aluminum bag with a knife to make a bigger opening. Plenty more smoke will come out for at least another hour. I used to just throw the bag away after the first hour and wasted a lot of wood chips.
Soaking the chips in water will extend the smoking life. If you throw dry chips onto the hot coals, they will usually flame up and last only 20-30 minutes. Soaked chips will last an hour or so.
7.7 Wood vs. charcoal
Editor--A summary of several posts--
The traditionalist will barbecue only with wood. Many barbecuers on this list use a combination of lump charcoal and wood. Some use lump charcoal to get the hardwood fire going, some use the lump charcoal for the fuel and add wood chips or chunks for the flavor. In some areas of the US, it's hard to find reasonably-priced lump charcoal. In other parts, hardwood is expensive. It all boils down to a matter of what works best for you and where you live. If hardwood is plentiful and cheap, use that. If lump charcoal is more economical than oak or hickory, use it. Lump charcoal has the advantage of burning with a more uniform heat than logs of wood. There is less variation from piece to piece so the temperature control of the pit is easier. But with experience, you can learn to control the temperature of your pit with whatever fuel you use.
7.8 Briquettes vs. lump charcoal
Editor--A summary of several posts--
Many list members have a strong preference for lump charcoal over conventional charcoal briquettes. Briquettes are produced by crushing charcoal and mixing in additives, such as nitrates (to make them burn better), and clays and starches (as binders to allow pressing into the traditional shape). Some list members say the additives tend to impart their own undesirable flavors to meats smoked for long periods of time, as all good barbecue must be prepared. A Kingsford Company spokeswoman recently stated: "Briquettes are preferred by Americans for their uniform size and stable heat." She pooh-poohs concerns about their ingredients, which include: powdered charcoal, anthracite coal for long burning, limestone to create white ash, starch as binders, and sawdust and sodium nitrate for quick lighting. "The starch is perfectly natural and the coal is high-quality coal".
Pure charcoal (lump) can usually be found with diligent searching (some supermarkets, WalMart, HQ and Home Depot, etc.). It is sold in bags similar to briquettes. Pure charcoal is carbonized wood with no additives which might impart unwanted flavors in the meat. It usually comes in the naturally irregular shapes of the real wood from which it is made. Bags of lump charcoal are usually marked with the name of the wood it was made from, i.e. hickory, mesquite, oak, etc.
While attending a recent barbecue competition, we noticed that several contestants using charcoal briquettes, including the Grand-Prize winner. His briquettes were not Kingsford brand, however, but a brand-x type. So the lesson here is that some barbecuers make great-tasting product using briquettes. So if you want to use briquettes, experiment with different brands.
7.9 Gas-fired smokers
Some smoker pits operate on gas. You can find gas-fired pits in all configurations: bullet water smoker, off-set firebox, and vertical smoker types. The SWOCS is a good example of a vertical unit that uses gas for fuel. In all gas smokers, wood chips are added for the smoke flavor. The chips are usually placed on a plate that is heated by the gas burner. Some gas-fired smokers have lava rocks that are heated by the gas flame. Some list members have added gas burners to their traditional off-set firebox wood-burning pits for use during long smoking periods, as needed for briskets. The gas burners can be removed and replaced as required. List members who have SWOCS gas-fired smokers, often use a clay flower pot to heat the smoking wood chips or pellets. The chips slowly burn and give off a steady, light, white smoke. Add chips every hour or so as needed. Some gas-fired smokers use a system to deliver wood pellets to a heated plate. The pellets are fed automatically. List members report mixed results with these units.
7.10 Electrically-heated smokers
Home smoker pits also operate using electricity. an element heats the air that heats the pit. Most electrical pits are the water bullet type smokers. Again as in gas, wood chips or chunks are placed on or near the heating element to slowly burn and produce the smoke for flavoring the meat. If you are shopping for an electric smoking pit, we recommend that you buy a unit that comes with a way to adjust the temperature of the heating element. The Char-Broil Electric Water Smoker comes with such a control, the current models of Brinkmann Smoke'N Grill Electric and Gourmet Electric Smoker units do not have that feature. List members have reported situations where the fixed temperature was either too hot or too cool. The Cookshack smokers are a premium line of electric oven-type smokers that use wood chips for the smoke flavor.
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