How many tries does it take to master the wonderful world of “Smoking” food? I’m not sure yet because clearly I still haven’t mastered it. I’m a stickler for figuring things out especially when it interests me, then I’m subject to give my failed attempt another try until I have mastered whatever it is I’m working on. Then there are those things that fall to the wayside when they don’t go right. Who has time for that?
Yet I am a self-proclaimed and self-taught “Grill Master”. I’ve been doing my grilling thing for many years now. I love grilling! I love grilled food! In a lot of families the men are the “Grill Master” or King of the Grill but in my family, women have been Queens of the Grill for years, and so now I have stepped into my position. The title wasn’t given to me, I’ve worked hard to gain that much confidence behind the grill and in the kitchen. I love the fact that my husband loves my grilling ways. He is completely cool with me doing it, plus it’s going to be good…every time. Yes, I’m that good. But even though I’m very skilled at grilling everything from pizza’s to whole chickens indoors or outdoors, I have little experience smoking (I want to laugh everytime I think of smoking…I’m talking about food in case anybody else got lost, lol). I have used foil packs of wood chips in the oven or on the grill before) but I’ve never owned or used a device or machine that was made mostly or solely to smoke food.
Lucky me I shop at Wal-Mart way too much so I stumbled upon the Expert Grill Smoker for $35.00. It was a score before I even realized that I could also grill on it too, hence saving me money from buying that second charcoal grill I intended to get. I was stoked because I’ve been wanting one for a while but between you and me, I’ve been holding out with the hopes of being able to buy the super nice expensive model first. I have visions of grandeur that I’m coping with every day. So when I came back to reality it was a great idea to pick up the smoker because it was a small investment to try something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. The smoker in its box at my patio door for two days before I finally put it together while my oldest son hibernated. He was supposed to help me but of course he was fast asleep in his room when I was finally ready to start. I’m a self-starter though, I get shit done. So I managed to put the smoker together rather easily once I realized I had put it together upside down at first. Once everything was right side up, the smoker was together and ready to go.
Being the constant professional because I believe if you’re going to do something, do it right. Go hard or go home. You get where I’m going with this? I had also picked up my hickory pellets and charcoal. It was smoking time! While my box had rested on the floor I thawed a pork butt and brined it for about 15 hours. With the smoker upright and ready to smoke, I pat dry my pork butt and massaged yellow mustard all over it. Once covered in mustard I then rubbed my dry rub mixture all over the pork butt.
With the pork butt ready it was time to find a You Tube video to help me. Help is always good. I found a great video from a guy who I won’t name because maybe he’s not as good as he thinks. (LOL) The video instructed me to dump my charcoal in my smoker bottom and then saturate with lighter fluid. Once covered in fluid, allow the charcoal to rest for 15 minutes before saturating yet again with lighter fluid. After that I lit my coals with a match and watched the blaze begin. It didn’t take long for the fire to enrapture the smoker. In the meantime I soaked my wood pellets in water.
The video then instructs you to let the fire burn for about 15 minutes while the coals heat up and start turning white. With the flame tamed, I then set up my water bowl, filled it with a little less than a gallon of water and then arranged my racks inside the smoker. I still allowed it additional time to come to temperature with the vent open on top and the door open. I was sure that I was cooking…with charcoal that is and I was becoming more pumped to see how it would all come together. An initial read on the thermostat confirmed my smoker was too hot at 300 degrees so I closed it up for a bit to try to bring the temperature down. My temperature gauge hadn’t moved and was stuck at the first line but my coals looked hot and ready to go. I second guessed myself and went ahead and put my pork butt on the middle rack.
In the process of preparing for the smoking process I had discovered some pork rib tips in my deep freezer. I had thawed those out and seasoned those to smoke above the pork butt on the top rack. With the ribs in place I closed the smoker up and ran back inside to escape the cold frigid air. I positioned my smoker at the base of my deck so I could watch it from my kitchen window as I cooked. That placed had proved to be perfect for my last grill. I watched intently from the window as the smoke bellowed out thickly at first before it barely looked like it was any smoke coming out of the vent at all. Mind you only an hour or so had passed and it looked like my coals were quitting on the job. I couldn’t resist the urge to peak so I ran outside to check it and it was confirmed the coals had been extinguished when I accidentally went overboard covering them in the wet wood pellets. Doh! I felt like Homer Simpson as I dismantled the smoker layer by layer.
I was back at square one. With a smoker full of fresh charcoal and significantly less wet wood pellets I was ready to try my hand at the “smoking” process again. Even though it was kick ass cold I stood my ground and re-lit that fire, paced the process, step by step till I was satisfied with the whitening coals. With the smoker fully loaded again I retreated back to my kitchen window as I watched with satisfaction as the smoker puffed away. It was late at this point and I had guestimated that my pork butt would be ready around 3 am. Even though I hadn’t coined the thought of “cooking to temperature” as Michael Simon taught us today on “The Chew” I had long considered that you have to cook food according to your own taste. Times are meant to be suggested time frames not etched in stone directions that could cause you to flop your dish. There are lots of other factors that influence cooking times but I think Michael Simon hit the nail on the head when he urged people to cook to temperature over time when cooking meats. With that being said I figured I had plenty of time, my little fiasco with the flame that went away had slowed me down and set me back. Even though I wasn’t in a rush to finish I was still eager to finish it. So I laid down.
I went to sleep. Deep sleep that is. The kind of sleep that ignores your husband’s inquiries to check on the food. I vaguely remember mumbling that it would be alright before turning over and going back to sleep. When I did wake up it was 6:30am, the time I usually awake and begin procrastinating to get up to start the morning routine. I jumped right up though knowing full well that I should have checked my pork fest hours ago and was worried that it was dry and ruined. Can you imagine my horror and relief when I saw my pork butt had clearly stopped cooking hours ago and was now cold and undone. The rib tips had even fared better on the top tray but were also not done. It was time for the “texas cheat” if I’m correct. I set my trusty oven to 250 degrees and finished both in the oven. It still took the pork butt hours to get it to the 200 degree internal temperature time recommended.
I was worried though. As I waited for my pork butt to finish in the oven I was miffed and began trying to research how to make my second attempt a successful one at smoking my food to completion. I had learned a lot over the time period and had begun to worry if I might have made a boo boo when I used lighter fluid to light my charcoal at the suggestion of the original video I watched. Supposedly you could cause your food to have a really bad taste caused by the lighter fluid. It was too late to turn back so I was hoping for the best.
I was definitely content that it was finally finished that I had almost started pulling the pork before I had let the pork butt rest. And on top of that I moved so fast I didn’t take a picture of that beautiful pork butt when it was completely finished from the oven.
With a fully rested brined and smoked pork butt I was ready to pull. The bone of the pork butt slid out with ease. It was so tender I couldn’t help eating as I pulled and discarded fat or muscle. I basted the pulled pork with its own juices. When the pork was finally done I had boiled a couple of bags of white rice to go along with the bbq rib tips and pulled pork and made a simple side salad. Surprisingly it was all very delicious and there was no taste of lighter fluid at all. There was a good amount of smoke flavor in the ribs and pulled pork, plus it was all very tender and juicy. Even though my food still came out edible and tasty I am still slightly disappointed that I wasn’t able to complete it using the smoker.
After further research I found out that I should remove the legs from my smoker as the gap beneath the smoker was causing air issues that could have also helped to extinguish my heat. I think I’ve also learned less is more. I won’t go bananas with the wet wood pellets in the future. And even though I couldn’t detect the lighter fluid in my food I definitely don’t want to risk having that happen either. I purchased a chimney starter as well that would allow me to light my coals easily with paper and then transfer the heated coals to my grill or smoker. I’m ready for my next attempt. I think. And I know that even if for some reason my smoker should quit on me too soon I’ll just finish it in the oven. No sweat off my back. Dinner is still served.
As fresh as I could be off of maybe 6 hours sleep and a belly full of my delicious pulled porkand rib tips I perused over my news feed as I did many times a day trying my best to stay “woke”. Next to Twitter where I first saw the horrible image that was represented as world-famous “Brooklyn BBQ” that was supposed to be claiming notoriety one slab of boring brisket at a time. Then back to my news feed where I saw an article about the Republished story from Vice.com that was taunting people all over the world and causing a serious debate about BBQ. Personally I was disgusted, even my non-“smoking” ass could put together a BBQ plate that would put this reported world-class BBQ to shame. Sidebar – I really don’t care. I was going to make additional sides anyway but it definitely felt like a good opportunity to show off my cooking skills. My husband had suggested that I make jalapeno mac and cheese to go with it. There’s a spot here that we frequent that makes a good one sometimes. What the heck? It was definitely worth a shot. I scouted out some inspirational recipes and formulated my own with ingredients that my family would like. I even decided to add crumbled crispy bacon to take it to the next level.
There’s no way you can have BBQ, jalapeno mac and cheese, and not have any cornbread! It was just my luck that I had the perfect recipe that I was dying to make again. Y’all at this point I was ready to short cut my dinner and get a can of collard greens…but I couldn’t. It was not going to be the best compliment to the flavors that I had already worked so hard to achieve. I couldn’t turn back now. I would have to make a pot of fresh collard greens. Yep, and I couldn’t forget the cole slaw. What is pulled pork without cole slaw? Again my plate was full but I could almost taste it as I dreamed. The next five hours or so was devoted to crafting the rest of my take on a Southern BBQ plate. If it was summer I would probably have made some potato salad too. Either way it all looked and tasted so good. It was a lot of work and there is still a lot to be learned but even though my smoking attempt was a failure, my dinner was still the winner. Literally in the un-heat of adversity I was still able to garner the smoke flavor and tenderness that the low and slow cooking process is supposed to ensure.
I can’t wait for Spring. With warmer weather I’ll be practically living in my back yard till I master the Art of Smoking…food that is. So check back for my next edition of Diary of an Amateur Smoker. I’m just getting started!
Amateur Smoker Mek