Sunday, July 5, 2020

When It Rains All Day, Barbecue All Night

Like millions of folks, I like to barbecue on the 4th - or any day of the week that ends in -y.  We've been having several days of afternoon thunderstorms lately, though, and the forecast for the 4th was 70% chance of rain and today was 80%.  I had a pork butt in the freezer to make pulled pork from, though, and smoking one of those takes around 12 hours - sometimes as much as 16 depending on the particular hunk of pork you're working from.  These are animals, after all, and it varies with the individual.  It looked like chances of having 12 to 16 hours without rain lasting until an evening dinner time hovered right around zero.   

Yesterday, I hatched a plan to barbecue in the 12 to 16 hours between rain showers or from about 10PM Saturday night until the pork was done this afternoon.  I've done this sort of cook before, but usually starting later, like midnight or getting up at 3AM plus or minus an hour to start.  Sure enough, the rain let up to "chunky mist" before sunset last night and by 10 it was drying out (to the degree it can with humidity close to 100%).  I used my electric smoker for this, a Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker (like this model) and the side smoker box.  Everything was on the back porch with the pork butt in the smoker and heating up by 10:10PM.

Up for some barbecue engineering?  Doubtless you've seen pellet grills that use a motorized plunger (an auger?) to drive a calibrated amount of wood pellets in the heat chamber.  These advertise they can be run unattended - I don't have one so I don't know if that's real world or not.  The Masterbuilt side smoker is gravity fed.  The disassembled unit looks like this:

That little screen tray (bottom center) slides onto the wood chute (bottom left) which sits inside the big assembly, just above an electric heating element.  You fill that chute on the left with wood chips, the screen keeps them from falling through, they're heated until they smoke, and the idea is that as they give up their smoke, they turn to ash, which falls into the drawer (bottom right) and now gravity pulls the stack of chips lower into place so that the next layer burns.  The whole thing is supposed to provide continuous smoke for six hours, and pretty much does.   The problem is that the wood chips also release some resins and water vapor that rise inside the chute causing the chips to stick to the sides and each other, forming a clump or clot of chips that needs to be broken up every couple of hours. 

Which is why I get up every couple of hours through the night to look after the smoker.  The alternative, without the side box, is to refill the limited amount of chips the smoker itself holds, which means getting up a few more times through the night; perhaps every 90 minutes vs 120 to 150 with the side box.  Practically, it's not a really big difference but the side box gives us the ability to cold smoke, which the electric smoker itself can't do.

Since I'd made preparations to be done by no later than 2PM, expecting it could be raining by then, the rain held off another two hours.  The pork came out great and a splendid time was had by all.  And tonight, Mr. Kite is topping the bill. 

This is almost a stock picture to represent today's barbecue - a stock butt pic.  It's not today's barbecue because I didn't think to take a picture.  For once.  But it was like this.


  1. Maybe you could rig a little vibrator with a timer on the chip holder? Every couple of hours it could vibrate the chip holder and loosen things up.

    Just how "stuck together" are they?

    1. Just how "stuck together" are they?

      I honestly can't say. It's a hostile environment. The chute they're in gets too hot to touch and I've only run a foot long screwdriver down the chute to break them loose.

      From memory, the opening at the top is about 1-1/2" on a side, too small to get more than a finger into the very top and I think they get stuck farther down.

  2. Have had a Traeger over 15 years. About a year ago had the control unit replaced (wore out) and still use it multiple times a week. Works well @250 °F and up, Never have had a failure to feed. Only problem has been at LOW temp cooking such as 180 °F where the fire dies and pellets continue to feed or the temp rises. I use it to Reverse Sear steaks. Thick steak(s) cooked @ 250 or 275 °F until internal temp is 125 °F then sear steak(s) on a top of line Weber (natural gas) grill's searing station. Also, the Traeger does fish splendidly. Prefer hamburgers on the Weber and also flanken cut short ribs also on the Weber done indirectly then seared.

    Dan Kurt

    1. Thanks for that input. Good to know they don't have the problem of the chips or pellets getting stuck. If I read you correctly about the fire going out when you cook near 180, that's why I use the side smoker. The chamber can't run that low, so with the side smoker box running, and just piping the smoke into the chamber, I can cold smoke things like salmon or bricks of cheese. Cold smoking is a whole 'nother thing. The wood chips won't smoke if I try to run the chamber below about 200.

      The advantage to the electric smoker is the thermostat works pretty consistently. A hurdle you have to know about is that chamber temperature isn't uniform; in the model I have, the heat tends to rise along the back wall of the chamber to a vent on top; consequently, on the bottom rack, where you think it's hottest by proximity to the heater, it's not. I have an external thermometer with a probe I leave near the front of the box on the bottom shelf (where I tend to be smoking things like last night's dinner). To get the temperature I want there, I need to set the thermostat about 25 degrees higher. One day, I moved that probe around in the chamber to map hot and cool spots and keep the map handy.

      I have a Weber kettle grill and have had some mixed results with long, slow cooks using that, so I haven't hit the combination, yet.

    2. RE:: "If I read you correctly about the fire going out when you cook near 180"SG

      Exactly or the temp rises into the 300s °F for some reason. This was with the original controller. With the new controller I have not tried to do a low temp smoke. I actually love to do a hot smoke of a salmon @ 250 °F. Prefer the smoked salmon texture done at 250 °F to a cold smoked salmon. Had owned an electric cold smoker in the past but eventually gave it to Good Will.

      RE: Side Smoker

      My son who lives about a mile and a half away has a Side Smoker. He is a Ph.D. Mechanical Engineer Rocket Scientist that runs his side smoker like a rocket launch. He has two probe units each with two probes and monitors not only the meat but the temperature in multiple locations in the smoke chamber. He does Briskets, Pork Buts, Pork Ribs, and various types of Poultry. The best thing that he does is giant Beef ribs. A Beef Brisket Point comes in at a close second. Both cuts are oh so fatty and delicious when finished.

      Dan Kurt

    3. I use a large traeger with the digital controls to cook large cuts of meat and as an oven (cornbread, meat loaves, pizzas) in the summertime; I don't have issues with losing fire at all. I do religiously vacuum ash and pellet dust out of the combustion chamber, before firing it up, to maintain its longevity and function. Prime rib or whole briskets started smoking in the morning, parked out in the green yard so I can't burn down my casa, run fine all day while I'm at work. Holds enough pellets (15 lbs) for 12 hours-ish on 150/smoke, 6 hours-ish at 235 It is very sensitive to the wind here in eastern Oregon in the winter months. I prefer a gas grill for steaks or burgers; they are good cooked on the pellet grill but take longer than I have patience for.

  3. The pellet heat stoves are auger-driven, and they can go for a day or 2 unattended. They work on a thermostat, when it gets to cold, they add pellets and turn on an electric starter. Or some kind of starter.

    I know a couple of people who use them for supplemental heat in winter. They need to be cleaned regularly, but I don't hear complaints. (And I hear complaints about other stuff, so...)

    I would guess that the smokers work on the same principle, but I don't know that for a fact. The pellet grills are are too expensive for my blood.