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.

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