A journey into what has gone from a fun, part time hobby to a fulfilling and rewarding obsession.. Culminating in a style I like to call "Authentic Southern (Utah) Barbecue"

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

So back to the drum and beyond..

The UDS was a simple but extremely effective design once I got the hang of it. The only real challenge came from getting used to the temperature fluctuations that would occur every time the lid was opened or if it was windy.

The drum got plenty of use during the next several months as I found as much time and as many excuses as I could to cook with it. There were plenty of failed experiments that gave plenty of knowledge as to what and what not to do. The biggest of these was that it was very important not to leave the lid off for any period of time if it could be helped. The large influx of air would cause big flare ups and if they were severe enough, would bring about a grease fire that would be a bugger to get under control and had a nasty tendency to affect the taste of the food.

The lessons learned along the way were easy enough to repeat or avoid but the problem with getting the temperatures stabilized needed to be addressed. At first I was still using the old dial oven thermometer and to see it meant having to lift the lid high enough for the smoke to dissipate and leave it off long enough to read the temp, not a great way to insure good control of the heat.

Fortunately my wonderful wife supports my passion in earnest, mostly because it means she doesn’t have to cook and she thoroughly enjoys the fruits of my labor. What it also did was make it very easy to answer the ever present question of, “what do you want for (insert holiday or birthday here)”. Since I was doing all I could to learn and improve my methods, there was always some new tool or gadget that was the do all, fix all barbecue tool that one could not live without. During my endless reading and searching I had found some information about remote digital temperature gauges and decided that is something I could really use. Our anniversary was quickly approaching and this seemed to be the perfect gift. I compared several different models and settled on the Maverick ET-73. Aside from it being very affordable, it included two probes, one for the pit temp and one for the meat temp and the biggest advantage of all being that it had a separate, wireless receiver which meant that I didn’t have to continue to wear out the hinges on the door going in and out to check the temperature. I gave my wife the information and my anniversary gift that year was just what I wanted.

Once I had the Maverick in hand, I drilled two small holes just above the grate level in the side of the drum so the probes could be easily passed into the cooker. There is a short learning curve to using the Maverick, but once the different buttons and settings are figured out, I would never be without one again. I was doing a lot of cooking through the fall and winter so it was nice to be able to sit inside and monitor things. The unit has alarms that can be set for high and low temps so that was a nice bonus for those times I would doze off without realizing it. The alarm was loud enough to wake me in these instances and saved me from a few potential failures.

The drum gave me the opportunity to really explore using different types and varieties of wood and ratios of wood to wood or wood to charcoal. I had pretty much settled on the rubs and spices to use on different meats but the fuel type was still a work in process. I found that by using less charcoal and more wood, the amount of smoke flavor increased dramatically but not necessarily in a positive way. Depending on the type of wood it sometimes became a little overpowering and took away from the flavor profile. I used many different combinations of fruit and nut woods, too many in fact to remember. There were a few occasions where I was using combinations that included Cherry wood. It started off with just a few small chunks and gradually began to add a little more. It got to a point where I decided to use a large majority of Cherry for a particular cook of spare ribs. Things started off great and everything smelled wonderful. I used the same methods I had been using for several months but once all was said and done, suffice to say it didn’t go as planned. The ribs came off the cooker a very bright red color, about what you see on a cooked Lobster. This didn’t bother me much until we started eating and I’m here to tell ya’, for some reason they were hotter than hell. To this day I am still not sure why, be it the Cherry wood or some other unseen force, it was as if I had soaked the ribs in something like Jalapeno juice or Cayenne Pepper. They weren’t just overly spicy, they were freakin’ hot! Lesson learned.

The Cherry wood fiasco showed me that I had found the fine line where you should cook to satisfy your taste and not try to over reach for something that just doesn’t work. I had found that I was trying too hard to get more flavor out of something that didn’t need it and it is best to just enhance the flavor of whatever you are cooking, not change it completely. I stepped back a bit and started concentrating more on woods that gave a subtle, consistent flavor. As this developed I also figured I had better make sure that whatever I did use for wood could be easily obtained and there was plenty of supply.

Since we live in an area that is not known for having orchards of fruit and nut trees this could become problematic. Not that there aren’t fruit and nut trees around, rather there aren’t a lot of places to get a ready supply. However, since we do live where Oak is abundant, I found myself leaning more toward that anyway. I discovered that oak by itself had just enough sweet to it to bring out the mild tones of some of the spices I was using yet not overpower or completely destroy the flavor of what I was wanting to achieve. So, by default, Oak is now the only thing I use since I can get it cheap and there is plenty of it and it was a very simple process to adjust my rubs and sauces so they were better complimented from its use.

Once I came to this conclusion I tried a few different formulas of Oak wood vs. Charcoal. It was easy to gauge and manage the amount of smoke flavor I would get during my cooks since Oak burns slow and consistent and it was easy to keep the smoke from being too overpowering. The best thing I found was that by adding more wood the temps of the cooker settled a little lower than they did with charcoal. On one particular cook I was planning to do a couple of racks of ribs and a brisket flat, something that was much more easily done with the extra grate space in the drum. I got things ready and just for grins, I loaded the basket up with a large amount of wood and cut way back on the charcoal. The cook went well although the temperature swings were bigger than I was used to or expected but all in all it came together quite well in the end. So much so that when I cut into the brisket I was highly surprised to find that I had achieved a very pronounced smoke ring. Up until this point I hadn’t really given much thought about the smoke ring, although I had read many things about how to achieve it and how elusive it could be. Once I sliced up the brisket I was tickled to death to see how well the ring had formed, which also seemed to add to a very good flavor.

So, it had been settled. Oak wood only and plenty of it and a lower temperature in the pit. This process change worked well for all the meats and such that I cooked from this point forward. The drum gave us some great food and I was having a blast using it, although some of the late nights and early mornings in sub-zero temperatures outside almost shut the whole thing down, it was all worth it come dinner time.

Monday, March 12, 2012

About the patio

As was stated earlier, our original plans for the patio were to have the brick smoker and fire pit built along with possibly a Dutch oven pit and grill. As we got deeper into the plan, the evolution started to become quite dynamic and it seemed ever other day brought a new change to the overall design.

One of the websites I had discovered was part of a group of sites called “The Lexington Collection” authored and maintained by a gentleman named Dave Lineback somewhere around Lexington, North Carolina. I was intrigued by his methods and recipes as well as his take on the history of BBQ, especially in his area. What I was most interested in was the smoker he had built on his property which became the basis of what my original idea was.

He had named his creation “Wilbur D. Hog” and according to him, was a good way to get authentic smoked barbecue. It included two separate parts to the structure; one being the coal hearth where the wood was burned down to usable coals and attached to it on the other side was the smoker. The smoker area is two separate chambers, one above the other, with the coals being placed in the lower chamber and the smoking grate above it. Both chambers on the smoker side included doors and the whole thing has dampers built into it to control the smoke and temperatures.

The original intent was to build a reasonable copy of Wilbur with just a few modifications plus the other included items so we got the bricks and began planning our spring and summer project. But, this ended up not coming to fruition.

Once the weather cleared up, we began the process of getting things going. The area we had chosen not only already had an old beat up storage shed on it, but also had a big Pine tree that needed to be removed. Our lot is in an area that has a bit of a slope so there was also a small terrace that was held in place with several large rocks. The design also meant having to remove the big deck off the back of the house and replace it with a smaller, more practical size.

Before we got going the first thing was to call blue stakes and have them mark any utilities that could be lurking below. This is where things started to take a turn. Unknown to us, the phone line from the corner of our lot to our house ran smack dab right through the middle of where we planned to excavate. The costs associated with moving the line, etc., were quite high so we decided to change the plan. This also meant that the original size of the area would be cut down considerably but we forged ahead with the thought that things looked as if they would work out.

We should have gotten a clue as to how things were going to go when we cut the old pine tree down. Because of where the shed was placed and the proximity of the tree to it, the tree had to come down first before we could disassemble and remove the shed. No problem, it was small enough that we could drop it into the corner of the fenced area and in my younger days I was no stranger to falling trees. I had spent many days over many summers cutting firewood with my father so I was confident in my abilities to get the tree down with no harm, no foul.

My wife, the trooper that she is, was enlisted to help. I was a little worried that the way the tree had grown it carried a lot of weight on one side so I placed a rope up in the branches as far as I could get and instructed her to keep tension on it so the tree would fall away from the shed, and her. Little by little I cut away at the trunk and all was going well right up until the tree came loose from the trunk. As the wood cracked and began to separate, I looked up just in time to see the rope go slack and the tree twist about 30 degrees, just enough to transfer all the weight of the branches right over the corner of the shed. The sound of aluminum being crushed is a very unique sound and was only slightly more surprising than the look of complete terror on my wife’s face. I’m sure she thought I was going to be extremely upset but since we had no plans other than to see if we could give the shed away to someone, it actually was more of a help. By tearing open the corner of the shed it gave easier access to some of the structure inside and made pulling it apart a little easier. This story still gets a lot of mileage amongst family and friends. The worst thing about it was as the dust was clearing all I could hear in my head was my father chewing me out and how glad I was he wasn’t there to see this all unfold. For me to miss the mark on dropping such a small tree, I figure he would still be shaking his head.

Once the shed was down and the tree cleared we started moving the rocks around the terrace out of the way, a very cumbersome task at best. More measurements were taken and it became clear that since the amount of area we now had to work with had been significantly shortened, if we stuck to the original plan of putting the brick pit in it would take up way too much of the patio area and not be very practical. So, change of plan…again.

The overall plan was finally settled to include just the concrete for the patio, a concrete retaining wall to hold the terrace back and also replace the deck. All in all it turned out very nice but I was left with what I was going to do for a smoker.
The more I thought about the brick smoker I realized it was maybe not a good plan after all. Besides being too big for the area, it also was not altogether practical in that it couldn’t be moved and once it was in place I was stuck with it. I worried that after it was built that it may not perform like I wanted or might end up being too small or too much work to use. It was decided that we would look for a better solution, one that would be more beneficial to the overall scheme of things and with the money I saved by not building something more permanent, I had a decent amount left over as a good start for one that would better suited for us. So, we got rid of the bricks and the search began.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Boy, is that thing "Ugly"

The old saying goes that “necessity is the mother of invention” and as such, it was becoming clear that it would be necessary to develop or find another invention to accommodate my evolution into the world of slow smoking and BBQ.

As always, I turned to my dear friend the internet for advice. I was looking for something a little bigger that would allow more meat to be cooked at one time yet was portable and easily stored, two things the little brick pit wasn’t. Part of the concern came from the idea that we were gearing up to start tearing into the new patio area and I wasn’t sure what would need to be moved and how often.

I looked through many of the different sites and pages hoping something would jump out and be just what I wanted. So many different shapes and sizes, and prices, then there was the idea that I was still not entirely sure what style I wanted. The little brick pit utilized a direct heat source from underneath and through the many hours of use, I was quite comfortable with the performance and method. The local big box stores had the cheaper offset versions but I was a little put off by the quality and the idea that I would more than likely have to re-learn the majority of what I already knew about temperature control and time, etc.

Many hours of reading and research landed me on the subject of what is officially known as an “Upright Drum Smoker”. Unofficially it is known by some as an “Ugly Drum Smoker” or “UDS”. The more I read I realized this would be the next logical step. It used pretty much the same method I was used to; direct heat underneath, air inlets on the bottom and smoke outlet on the top and would burn either charcoal or wood. Sounds great, so let’s do it.

A UDS can be made from just about any type or size of steel drum. The majority are made from a 55 gallon drum so that’s what I went with. Getting the drum was easy enough, the company I work for uses steel drums to ship stuff in and what made it even better is that the drums are made so they don’t have any sort of lining or coating on the inside. If you get a drum that is not bare steel, it will definitely need to be thoroughly cleaned, you never know what heat will do to whatever is in the drum and there is a really good chance you don’t want it on your food. If we end up with a drum that is too damaged to use as a shipping container, (i.e., rust or serious dents, etc.), they will let the employees have them.

I found a drum that would suit my needs and after filling out the required paperwork, took it home and thus began the process of building, (if you can call it that), my smoker. Searching the net for the terms “UDS” and “drum smoker” netted several good results. As with just about anything like this, there were many different ways to go about it. There were some ideas that I thought looked good so I compiled what I figured were the better of them and got started.

First off, all the paint on the drum and lid had to come off. Rather than spend money on tools and such to remove the paint, I opted for the old fashioned way, a good ol’ hot fire. I found an old pallet and broke it into pieces and got the flames going inside the drum. Adding a little more wood along the way it appeared all the paint was gone after about 2 or 3 hours so I let the fire die and the next morning after it had cooled, almost all of what was left just flaked off. A quick once over with a buffing wheel exposed the steel and the drum shined like a brand new penny.

I had whittled the design down to be as simple and effective as possible. Making a quick trip to the hardware store I was able to find all the parts I needed. The cooker would include a charcoal basket in the bottom made from some expanded metal and a small round grill grate and the cooking grate came from a standard kettle type grill grate towards the top, which were inexpensive. I found some long carriage bolts to use as feet for the charcoal basket and also to hold the upper grate in place. The store clerk pointed out some good high temp stove paint and within about 30 minutes I was on my way home with everything I needed.

A quick paint job of three coats was all it needed so after letting it sit overnight to dry, the building began. It was simple enough; the charcoal basket was done first by rolling the expanded metal into a cylinder just smaller than the diameter of the small grate. Using tie wire I fastened it to the grate and then using the long bolts and washers added the feet which brought it up off the floor of the drum about 3 or 4 inches.

I punched 3 each ¾ inch holes about 3 inches above the bottom of the drum for the air inlets and in two of these holes I added a ¾ X 2 inch nipple and cap. The third hole got a ¾ inch nipple and a ball valve. The idea is that you can add or remove the plugs to regulate airflow and fine tune it with the ball valve.

I installed the other long bolts about 9 inches down from the top and the larger grate fit very nicely in the drum. The lid was a little tricky and decided that since we live in an area that is prone to wind, it would be best to add a chimney rather than just punch holes in the top. This required cutting a 2 inch hole in the lid and bolting a threaded flange on the lid. Once that was done, I screwed a 2” X 12” threaded nipple into the flange. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, that I was ready to roll.

Time to try it out.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Original "Sinder Pit"

During the time I was experimenting with smoking, we were, and still are, trying to little by little upgrade things in and around our home. One of these little projects included cleaning up an area where a metal storage shed was located and turning it into a patio and outdoor sitting area. The original idea eventually morphed into plans to add a brick fire pit and maybe even a Dutch Oven pit and brick smoker. This didn’t end up happening, as I will explain more later, but we went as far as to obtain the bricks for this purpose.

An acquaintance of ours had purchased a piece of property about 30 minutes away from us and the previous owners had left several pallets of red clay bricks. He was in a hurry to get rid of them so we were able to get all the bricks we needed for very little. It took three trips with the tired old truck I have to get them home, but it eventually happened and we were primed to get started, but this all happened during the winter months so we had awhile before we could get going.

However, since I was in the process of honing my skills in the Barbecue arena, I had an epiphany. I decided to make a “pilot unit” to hopefully give me an idea of what a brick pit might be like. I found a few cinder blocks and some concrete fence caps and used them for the bottom part of the pit. I then clabbered a bunch of the bricks on top of the cinder blocks and created a small, square structure with an interior dimension of about 12" X 12” X about 28” high that looked promising. I stacked the bricks in no particular way other than I left a few of them pointing inward so I could place one of the racks from my gas grill on them. This left the rack about 16 inches from the bottom, hopefully giving me enough room between the fire and the meat.

I had an old lid from a steel drum and it just happened to be the right size to completely cover the top or be moved a little to the side if need be to help regulate the smoke and temp. I also left a small opening in one corner near the bottom of the cinder blocks as an air inlet. I covered the opening at the bottom with an old floor tile and could also move this side to side to regulate the air into the pit.

Eventually I was happy with the design, even though it was anything but pretty, so I made a small fire with some chunks of wood and charcoal to see what the temperatures were going to do. I bought a cheap oven thermometer and placed it on the grate and spent the next few hours opening and closing the inlet and outlet to see if it was going to work. To my surprise, once the coals and wood burned down a bit, the temperature was actually fairly simple to maintain.

This little experiment gave me the confidence to go ahead and give it a try. I wanted my first test to be with a relatively cheap cut of meat so I found a decent cut of London Broil, thinking that it would give an idea of what bigger and better cuts would do. I used a rub that I had been developing over the last few months specifically for beef and was confident it would add a good flavor. I settled on my typical apple/pecan mix of wood in the chip pan. I added a small quantity of charcoal to the bottom and once it was ready I placed the chip pan on top. It didn’t take long before the smoke began to waft from the pit so I wasted no time and put the meat on.

Surprisingly the temps were easy to maintain even though I had the idea that I had to fiddle with it too much, but nonetheless I was able to keep it between 225 and 250 degrees on the grate. Being that it was my first time using the pit, I was leery of under cooking it so I left it on a bit too long and since this particular cut had very little fat, it turned out a bit tough. However, even though it was a little rough to chew, the flavor was wonderful.

Over the course of the next little while I tried several different cuts and sizes of meats, mostly beef, and learned a lot about relying less on time and more on look and texture when it came to knowing when it was done. Much trial and error netted some great meals and some not so great meals, but gave a huge sense of accomplishment. Another thing I began to use was the “Minion Method” for the charcoal and this helped the consistency of the cooks immensely. So, the time came to try something I had shied away from until now…Pork Spare Ribs.

I had been working on a different rub for pork and I felt it was time to try it. I left the ribs pretty much untouched other than removing the membrane and the flap. My research had told me that it was best not to rub the ribs too early but early enough that the meat would absorb it so I got the pit fired up and gave it a try. Reading through the sites on the Internet convinced me that I would start right off using the Trigg method of 3-2-1, 3 hours in the smoke, 2 hours in foil, (which I added a little butter and apple juice in the foil), and one more hour out of the foil in the smoke. The results were nothing short of amazing. I have always liked pork, but the flavor the smoke and method added to the ribs was incredible. I waited until about 30 minutes into the last hour of cooking and gave them a light coating of bottled BBQ sauce. They were not overly done but came away from the bone very easily. They may have been a little too done for a competition, but for my first try I thought they turned out very good.

The next several months saw many small but effective changes to the methods and format of my cooking, but little by little I got very comfortable with how things worked.

This is where some more thought had to be given to what we wanted to do for the patio and what direction I wanted the cooker and method to go…..