Sunday, July 29, 2012

Smoking with a Weber Kettle

A lot of people have asked for advice on how to get competition quality BBQ results at home. In fact, as I was writing this post, my brother Mike stopped by to get my thoughts on what kind of smoker to buy. I shared with him what I am sharing with you today. If you have a Weber kettle grill, you already have what you need to make great tasting low and slow cooked BBQ right in your own backyard today. 

The main difference between a smoker and a charcoal grill is that a smoker keeps the fire away from the food. Cooking low and slow on a smoker produces juicy, tender, mouth-watering meats that taste incredible. The secret to cooking low and slow is using an indirect heat source and controlling your temperature. Setting up the Weber for 2-zone and/or indirect grilling allows you to do just that.

In a 2-zone set-up, the heat source is on one side of the grill (heat zone) and you cook on the other side (indirect or cooking zone).

To create the heat zone, build a pile of coals on the lower charcoal grate to one side of the grill.

The side opposite the coals will be the indirect or cooking zone. Place an aluminum drip pan on the lower grate opposite the coals as pictured on the left. I like to use an aluminum turkey roasting pan and bend it to the shape of the kettle.

This is the basic concept for creating a 2-zone set-up. There are a couple of options though for controlling temperature that will impact how you start your coals and how to bring the grill up to 225 degrees, the ideal temperature for low and slow smoking. We will cover those in bit.

Regardless of option you chose, you need a reliable way to measure the temperature inside the Weber. When I first started using the Weber for smoking, I drilled a hole in the lid and mounted an analog thermometer (see picture at right). The issue is that most of the analog thermometers designed for mounting on a grill or smoker are calibrated at the factory and there isn't a way to recalibrate them. Over time they lose accuracy. In fact, they can be as much as 50 degrees or more off. Since we are striving for a consistent cook at 225 degrees, I wouldn't recommend this option unless you truly know the actual temperature variance.

A more reliable option is to invest in digital smoker thermometer. Maverick industries makes a wireless digital smoker thermometer with a transmitter and a remote receiver. This unit allows you view the internal temperature of the smoker and the internal temperature of the food being cooked in the smoker from up to 100 feet away. Best of all, at around $30, these units are very affordable.

I use the Maverick ET-73 RediCheck Remote (pictured at left). I have found the internal smoker temperature probe to be very reliable. The meat temperature probe is fairly accurate, however, there are better quality instant read digital thermometers available in the market. It's really a matter of personal preference. This unit is more than sufficient for the backyard. Now that we have covered how measure temperature, it's time to take a look at some options on how to control it.

The first option is what I will call old school or low-tech and requires using the vents (dampers) to control the airflow and regulate temperature. The second option is more high-tech and involves using an electronic device to automatically control airflow and temperature. The benefits of having automatic temperature control are numerous, however, the greatest advantage is you can set it and forget about it. On the flipside, that comes at a cost. Each option uses a different method for starting the coals and getting the Weber up to temperature. Both, however, use the same 2-zone set-up described previously. Let's take a look at both methods.

Old School (low-tech)

With this method, the dampers on the bottom (intake) of the Weber and on the lid (exhaust) are used to control the internal temperature. Set the exhaust damper on the lid about 1/8 inch open. This is sufficient enough to allow heat and smoke to escape as well as draw air from the intake damper on the bottom of the Weber. The intake is how we will control the internal temperature. The best way to start is to open the intake damper about 3/8 inch or the width of a pencil. Closing the damper will reduce the temperature, opening the damper will increase it. Now that we have a way to measure and control temperature, let's cover how to start the coals and bring the smoker up to 225 degrees for some low and slow cooking.

With the old school temperature control option, we will use a a standard charcoal chimney to start the fire. Fill a charcoal chimney to the top with coals. Dump half of the coals onto the lower charcoal grate in the heat zone and spread them evenly along the bottom. Now start a fire and light the remaining coals still in the charcoal chimney. When the coals are fully lit, dump them on top of the unlit coals in the heat zone, spread them out evenly and close the lid. Now it's just a matter of reading the digital thermometer (or analog) and adjusting the intake damper to bring the smoker up to temperature. As soon as you get to temp, add your preferred smoking wood, throw on the meat and start cooking low and slow. By the way, you will need to regularly monitor the temperature and adjust the damper as necessary to keep a consistent temperature. Now let's look a the high-tech option for controlling temperature.

New School (high-tech)

With the high-tech option, you will use an electronic device to both monitor internal temperature and to control the air intake. The device I use is the iQue 110 Automatic Temperature Controller manufactured by PitmasterIQ here in the St. Louis area (pictured at right). They retail for $139.95 which is a on the very low-end for these kinds of devices. For example, the BBQ Guru DigiQ DX for the Weber will run you between $300 - $350 and you have to drill a 1 inch hole in the side to mount the manifold. The iQue 110 installs in about 1 minute with no invasive modification to the Weber.

With the old school method, there is a lot of trial and error involved in getting the Weber up to temp and keeping it regulated. It is pretty much a constant process of reading the temperature and adjusting the intake damper to correct the temperature. Don't get me wrong, you end up with great product but you spend a lot of time making adjustments to get that end result.

With the iQue 110, you start a fire, connect the temperature probe to the cooking grate, connect the blower manifold to the intake damper, dial in the desired temperature (225 degrees) and when the green light comes on you are ready to cook. No need to constantly monitor temperature and adjust the air intake dampers. Now it's all automatic, you set it and forget about it.

Starting the fire is also a much simpler process with the iQue 110. To start the fire, build a pile of approximately 40-50 charcoal bricks on the heat zone side of the charcoal grate. Place a Weber Firestarter Cube underneath a couple pieces of charcoal on the extreme right or left side of charcoal pile and light it (see picture on left). The Firestarter cube is readily available at most Lowes or Home Depot stores (or online from LSATSB). They are odorless and smokeless and burn hot until completely gone (about 12 minutes).

Once the Firestarter cube has burned out, place the lid on the Weber and set the dial on the iQue 110 to 225 degrees. Now it's time to sit back and let the iQue 110 do it's thing.

When I cook pulled pork at home, I set up my Weber exactly as I just described. I start the fire at about 11:30pm and by midnight, the Weber is usually up to temp. I add a couple of fist size chunks of smoking wood or a large Mojobrick (will write a post on these soon), throw on an  8 - 10 lb Boston Butt and then go to bed. Sometime between 8am and 9am the next morning, I will check the temp of the meat. By this time, it should be ready for foil and final 1 or 2 hours on the smoker. When the meat is done, I rest it for a couple of hours and by noon were ready to pull some pork!

With either of these set-up options, low-tech or high-tech, you can cook competition quality BBQ at home on a Weber kettle. Each has their pro's and con's.

The old school method is easier on the pocket book, but requires far more attention (as does any smoker for that matter that does not have an electronic temperature and airflow control). The iQue 110 really gives you peace of mind. There's no need to get up in the middle of the night and check the temperature or fiddle with the damper. In fact, I have cooked as long as 16 hours on the Weber with the iQue 110 with just 40-50 bricks of charcoal and a couple chunks of wood. The downside is obviously the cost.

Hopefully this post has been helpful! If you are looking to take the plunge, keep checking back for more advice, tips and techniques on how to get competition quality BBQ results at home.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Our Journey into Competition BBQ

Back in 2009, when Bren NuDelman said we ought to enter the BBQ Bash, I thought why not – it’ll be fun.  After all, we both love BBQ and it’s close to home (Wildwood) so we can invite our friends. Bren will cook some ribs, I’ll make some pulled pork and chili and it will be just like a backyard BBQ. The thought of getting into Competition BBQ never crossed our minds. We had no idea at the time that this would be the beginning of a journey.

Bren cooking on the Original Two Barrel Smoker
As we started our preparations for the Wildwood Bash, the reality of it all started to sink in.  There were assigned spaces, move-in times, food inspections, sanitation requirements, meat and garnish requirements, and specific turn-in times. It was more like a backyard BBQ on steroids.  We made a list of everything we needed and started stockpiling. And oh yeah, we still needed to come up with a team name! So what would we call ourselves? As it turned out, our preparation was our inspiration for our team name. We had a smoker our friend Jeff Busby constructed out of two 55 gallon barrels (see right) and we had a stockpile of stuff we had accumulated for the competition.  Put it all together and you get “Lock, Stock and Two Smokin’ Barrels”. And so our journey begins!

We had really no idea what to expect at the Bash. I think we started out the competition looking like deer in headlights and ended up running around like chickens with our heads cut off.  Despite all the madness, we got the opportunity to meet some Professional Competitive teams who were gracious enough to answer our questions and give us advice. They made us feel like members of the Competition BBQ fraternity. We listened and learned and when the dust finally settled, we were absolutely shocked! We had only entered half of the food categories and ended up with two top 10 finishes (pork and chili). So now were hooked and we immediately start making plans for the 2010 Bash.

In 2010, we are going to cook every category. We will have all summer to practice. It will be great! We will do even better! Leading up to the Bash, were cooking every weekend and our confidence is growing. We are better organized, we have our timings down and everything tastes great. We are going to win the whole thing! When the competition starts, it’s not nearly as frantic as last year. Sure, were still drinking from a fire hose, but were not spilling a drop!  Whew! Were finished! We head over to the awards ceremony with visions trophies dancing round our heads. We’re pumped! The first category is Chef’s choice. They start calling the top 10. In 7th place: Lock, Stock and Two Smokin’ Barrels. Wow! Bren is called to the stage in the very first category! We are so going to win this thing! We move on to the next category. They start calling the top 10. They get to number 2 and we still haven’t been called. The anticipation is building. Could we have won! And the winner is … Oh no! It’s not us! No worries, it’s just one category, we have 6 more opportunities!  And as each category is called, we wait and wait and wait and never hear our name called again. What could have happened? We don’t get it. We turned in great food! The judges must be Smokin’ something too.

The simple fact is that this was only our second competition and we still had no idea what we were doing. But at least we had the right attitude! Despite the outcome, we competed in all 8 categories, finished 34th out of 91 teams and got a call to the stage. We looked at that as something we could definitely build upon. We just had to figure out what we should have done differently, so we embarked upon a quest for knowledge.  All aboard!

First stop, SLBS certified judges training. Richard and Susan Schmidt are extremely knowledgeable and experienced judges. They shared valuable information on what judges are expecting and how they score for appearance, taste and tenderness. Armed with that knowledge, our next stop was the Internet. We joined forums and discussion groups focused on competitive BBQ in order to learn cooking and presentation techniques; everything from how to build a turn-in box to how to achieve bite through skin on chicken.  And finally, the last stop, and perhaps the most fun, was in the application of what we learned. We made the decision in 2011 to enter some smaller contests to gain more experience heading into the Bash. Our end goal and what we had our sites on was to better our 2010 performance at the Bash. What we didn’t realize at the time is that is when truly started to become a Competitive BBQ team.

2011 Wildwood BBQ Bash
2011 Great Pacific BBQ
Eyes on the Bash, we entered two events to sharpen our skills. Our first event was Harrah’s High Steaks in June of 2011. This was a one-day event and it gave us the opportunity to practice pork steaks, chicken, ribs and chef’s choice. We ended up with a 2nd Place in pork steaks, 5th Place in Chef’s choice and 7th overall.  Our second event was the Great Pacific BBQ. We finished top 10 in ribs and pork and 13th overall. What we didn’t realize at the time was that 7 of the top 20 teams in the KCBS point standings were also competing at Pacific. So we felt pretty good coming in 13th out of 42 given the competition. With these two events under our belt, we gained valuable knowledge and experience on what we needed change heading into the bash.  So how did we do? If expectations influenced outcomes, we would have won the overall championship. Although we didn’t win, we achieved our overall goal of improving upon our 2010 results. We finished 6th place overall with 3 top 5’s (4th in pork, 5th in brisket and 5th in dessert).

Enter 2012, Two and half years of trial and error and 6 competitions later, we are all in. We decide we will enter 8 to 10 events culminating with the BBQ Bash in September.  We are now a competitive BBQ team! And so the journey begins!

Welcome to our Blog!

I am Bill Grenko and along with teammates Anne Grenko, Bren Nudelman, Kathleen Nudelman, Jeff Busbee and Penny Tenbruggencate compete on the SLBS and KCBS Circuits as Lock, Stock and Two Smokin' Barrels BBQ Team.

For us, the journey so far from Backyard BBQ to Competition BBQ has been fun and incredibly rewarding. We've met great cooks, made many new friends and gained a wealth of information from the Competition BBQ community. It has taken years of trial and error, seeking advice and practice to develop the recipes and techniques to not only start taking home trophies, but to enable us to win multiple Grand Championships. We are passionate about BBQ and are constantly striving to refine and perfect our recipes in order to gain a competitive edge.

We started this blog to share our passion for BBQ with other enthusiasts. If you have never tried competition quality BBQ, you are in for a real treat. Our goal for this site is to share the recipes, products, tips and techniques that we are learning along the way so you too can cook and enjoy competition quality BBQ!