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.