Me and my brand new smoker…
After years of enjoying great food and having a special affinity for great meat I finally got a smoker this past Christmas. My wife told me in early December that she wanted to get me one and needed some help in choosing one. She was actually thinking about the Big Green Egg because she’d heard about it. As much as I appreciated her willingness to spend a boat load of our money on a smoker / grill I decided to do some research… actually it turned out to be A LOT of research. I won’t go through it all, but suffice it to say that electric isn’t convenient for me and a pure charcoal / wood fired smoker is a bit more of a commitment than I was looking for. So I ended up with a Master Forge propane smoker from Lowe’s for $150. Simple propane smoker with a separate door for the fire box and large water I did a few simple modifications before even using it. I added a couple of wheels and reinforced the wobbly legs. I also drilled a couple of holes to get access to internal temperatures at places other than the gauge on the front door of the unit. My next tweaks will likely be a ‘blanket’ (used towels first time out) to insulate the smoker and a couple beads of black RTV on the top seams of the two doors where heat and smoke tend to escape.
A bit more about me… I am a mechanical engineer by training. Science in general and food science fascinates me and, in my opinion, a good understanding of it makes one a better cook. As far as food people go, Alton Brown is a favorite of mine… he’s like a combination between McGyver, Mr. Wizard, and Julia Childs. If you aren’t familiar with Alton check him out on Good Eats on the Food Network.
This past weekend I decided to take my smoker on its maiden voyage with me, a rookie captain, at the helm. Against my better judgment I went straight for the brisket. I figured “go big or go home”, plus brisket is my favorite and it’s been ‘on my list’ to smoke one for the better part of 5 years so. I decided to take out an insurance policy on the brisket with a couple of chickens as well. I did a bunch of research on SMF and other sites and watch U-tube videos to get ready. I couldn’t believe it but according to you all, my brisket was going to take 15 hours. My wife told me I couldn’t eat 9 pounds of brisket alone so we had a crowd coming over to help out. That’s when I realized I’d be up at 2am to kick things off.
Anyway, on the brisket I cross hatched the fat cap and rubbed it with mustard and a dry rub around noon on the day before I wanted to start the brisket. I also dry rubbed the chickens at the same time. I got the smoker rolling around 2 am and put the brisket on. Incidentally, my brisket was larger than my smoker so I had to put it on in an inverted “U” fashion. I picked that up from somewhere on SMF. As the brisket cooks it shortened to the point where I could lay it flat. Worked out great, so thanks! I smoked with apple chips and mesquite in a 3:1 ratio. I heard mesquite could be harsh so I kept it minimal. The smoker worked well and I was able to keep 200 degrees pretty well. I used a mop sauce (beer, oil, cider vinegar, Cajun seasoning) for the first 5 or so hours. Then I went to spraying 50/50 water/apple juice.
By 10am I put on of the chickens (beer can style using small mason jars instead of canned beer) on and the other at noon. By noon I was sh!tt!ng bricks because my brisket had been stuck at 145 degrees for more than 2 hours. I know about collagen and protein denaturation and stuff like that so I figured it was something along those lines that was sucking up all of the energy. After a long internet search I verified that this was the case… still I was sh!tt!ng bricks because people were coming at 3pm. Long story short… the chickens, which I “rested” in a cooler for a couple hours since they were done early, absolutely killed at our party as did the brisket. The brisket arrived about 30 minutes late to the party, but it was like the pretty girl who makes an entrance and everyone is glad to see her. So in the end it all worked out.
Based on my minimal experience with smoking and greater experience with eating, I’d give the chickens a 9 out of 10 and the brisket an 8 out of 10. All in all I was very satisfied with my smoker’s maiden voyage.
For any fellow nerds I’ve attached a plot of my brisket internal temperature. Most of the day the smoker was at 200 but I bumped it to 250 once I knew I was in the “plateau”. The plateau exists because when collagen denatures (at about 150 degrees) it absorbs a tremendous amount of energy as it changes from essentially solid to gelatin. So as the smoker adds heat energy to the brisket the brisket absorbs the energy and uses it to turn collagen to gelatin instead of using the heat to raise the temperature of the meat as it does above and below the denaturation point. Don't get me wrong the conversion of collagen to gelatin is a VERY good thing. It's what makes brisket so tender. Without going through this phase it'd probably be like trying to eat a shoe.
The plateau is kind of like when you boil a pot of water... no mater how much energy you put into boiling water it won't go about 212 degrees because the excess energy goes to converting the water to steam (like solid to gelatin for collagen). Once the water is gone (all converted to steam) the contents of the pot (air and pot itself) will go above 212 (and probably very quickly).
I would use a 50/50 ratio on the apple and mesquite. I will start earlier to allow me to cook through 185 degrees and rest (me and the brisket) for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 or more. My brisket rested for only 30 minutes because it was behind schedule.