Hey everyone!!! I finally pulled the trigger and grabbed the last available WSM 18 to be found locally...regular $299 price, with the premium cover...they never go on sale around here, so I was willing to pay that for a new rig and buy locally. I was getting itchy about wanting to smoke turkeys (yes, plural) for this Thanksgiving holiday, and I didn't want to roll out the Smoke Vault 24, as it's been residing at my son's house for him to continue learning the craft with. I guess it was enough to give me a shove off the fence and jump on the WSM wagon, which coincidentally, ends my transition into cooking with only charcoal, with the exceptions being possibly for specialty items, but then, I have cold smoked in a charcoal rig before. So, 3 Weber kettles and a WSM now reside on my covered deck (all black, of course), and I'm already smoking in the WSM today. I've been char-grilling and reverse-searing on my pSnP 40" and 18.5' OTG for years (5+) and loved every minute of it. And, yes, with the tip-up grates, I was also doing quite a bit of indirect smokes on the 18. Then, I grabbed a Smokey Joe 14" for the novelty, mainly, but wanted something portable that I could set my 15" Lodge C/I skillet onto, and it fits that purpose quite well. I ordered the last 26.75" OTG kettle available online from Wally-World about 16 months ago (with gift cards from work) for the same purpose as the 18 but with much higher capacity, better features, and last but not least, a stainless (not chrome plated) hinged cooking grate. The 26 OTG model has been renamed as the "original premium" to confuse the innocent (same for the 22.5" OTG..the 18.5" OTG are discontinued), as they've added the new and slightly improved version (for another $50), but they are available again under the different model name.
Why did I step into the WSM? I love charcoal smoking and grilling, mainly due to the added flavors and the even cooking temperatures...two things I've been noticing the lack of with gassers. I've been down the gas grill and gas smoker roads for long enough to know they aren't for me anymore...not to mention I don't feel the need to have 6 - 20lb propane tanks stashed away to keep my cookers going. The Smoke Vault 24 was my go-to for larger gatherings and such, and it does have it's place for that. I've used a less expensive bullet (Brinkmann Gourmet charcoal with added Smoke n Grill barrel/grates...the Stacker) and a pit (Brinkmann SnP 40" horizontal offset with custom tuning plate, eventually converting to LPG due to massive charcoal consumption). I made tons of mods for them, yet always was left with a gap in performance, excessive fuel consumption, and no possible way to get them to run through the night without refueling...none of which were acceptable for me. We are now a 3 person household, and soon it will be only the spouse and myself at home, so I won't miss the beast, Smoke Vault 24. I already have plans for gatherings to keep my cooking within reasonable limits and the capabilities of my kettles, WSM, and camp dutch ovens, so, no worries on that topic. I leaned away from the WSM 22 for 3 reasons: excessive capacity and more fuel consumption than I would need, and, yep, that extra $100, even though the 22 is a better price for the capacity.
Why did I tell you all of that? A likttle background on myself and the cookers I've used in case you're on the fence and want, but haven't made the decision to buy, a WSM, or something else that's been on your wish-list. My main purpose for this is to give you my experience and insight with a few years and various other cookers under my belt, from a rookie WSM user (myself), to help you decide which direction to go for a new smoker, when you are in the market for said smoker. I will be posting a multitude of smokes provided to me via the WSM 18 in the future, giving details about each smoke, and of course, not to spare any Q-View throughout my journey. That said, I'm BACK, and my future looks dark...very, very dark......and now, after finally finding it, I get to use this one, for REAL:
EDIT: at some point I will have to jack it down on the posts and just enjoy the new smoker, so don't blame me for cutting back on posts...'cuz I wanna smoke and eat, too!!! LOL!!!
Inaugural smoke: Chicken Drums and Pork Shoulder Chops
Today's journey consisted of building a seasoning fire with KBB, a medium chunk each of hickory, cherry and apple, in preparation for a chicken drum and shoulder pork chop smoke. I filled the ring about 1/2 full, heaped it towards the center, but kept it a couple inches above the grate in contact with the ring. For starting the fire left the barrel off and inserted a lit propane torch on med/low flame into the the center at approximately a 45* angle from vertical, and about 1 briquette above the grate. I also added a extra charcoal grate from my OTG 18 (upside-down inside the ring), placed perpendicular to the original to hold more of the smaller pieces for longer burn before they drop through into the ash pan (before loading fuel, of course). I let the torch ignite the coals until there were ashen coals showing above the torch and about 4-5" in diameter...then I placed the barrel with foil-lined dry water pan and oil-sprayed cooking grates. I attached my Maverick Pit Probe thermometer to gauge accuracy of the lid thermometer. The lid thermometer was approx. 5-6* higher than grate temp for the duration of seasoning and her maiden smoke today...pretty close, IMHO. I did notice the pit probe reading dropped when I added meat while the lid therm read 75-90* higher, until the temps stabilized again (after replacing the lid)...to be expected.
I initially ran with the lid and intake vents fully opened until temps rose above 225*, then I dialed all three intakes back to about 40% open and monitored temps. It settled in at about 270* with very light breeze and ambient temps in the mid 40's. I let it ride there for about 30 minutes before opening the intakes again to about 60%...this yielded temps in the 310-320* range. Note: this is with a dry, foil-lined water pan...probably not possible to achieve these temps with water, even if you burned hardwood lump, unless you planned on going through tons of fuel. I dropped in 10 seasoned (not brined, marinated or anything fancy) chicken drums after a 2hr burn, with smoke still coming on nice and strong. The drums were still partially frozen...not my ideal way to start, but I like COLD meat when smoking for short periods such as smaller pieces, especially when smoking hot & fast...smoke sticks to cold meat faster than warm meat. I gave the thighs about 60 minutes, then dropped in the chops on the top grate. I checked the leg's I/Ts at just a bit under 90 minutes and they spurted clear juices with a ~180* reading......WOW, that was fast!!! The chops were coming out about 10 minutes later in the 160* range...could've yanked em out a bit earlier in the 150-155* range and still been safe, but they weren't dried out, either. And here are the results:
I had an initial upset when I went to dump pics to the computer for editing...my camera memory card was corrupted and all my start pics were lost to the virtual black hole......technology is great...when it works. I guess that's what I get for not taking/posting pics for so long, huh? So, grab another card, dump photos to a thumb-drive to free-up space, and everything is good, except for those grate pics of the chicken drums...but I kinda-sorta made up for it.
My latest addition to the Weber Family...nearing the end of today's smoke:
Lower grate with residue of chicken drums...just for the only proof I have that, yes, they were on that grate today...LOL!!!:
And, no, that butane lighter on the table was not used to ignite the briquettes...that would; have been a disaster...LOL!!!
Drums in a S/S steam table pan, ready for enjoyment...seasoning was Alpine Touch (Montana's Special Spice)...just 'cuz I wanted simple and to the point. It's a nicely balanced mix of finely ground (to nearly powder form for easy, uniform application) SPOG, and maybe a couple other spices I haven't yet identified by taste:
Shoulder Pork Chops just probed, with a 155* I/T...BTW, these were seasoned with a steak & chop seasoning similar to the drum seasoning, with a bit larger particle size and a few variations in the ingredients...again, simple and to the point:
The chops were moist and delicious, and the drums were a knock-out!!! I hadn't smoked legs for so long I forgot how good they are. I invited my son and his other half for dinner not long after I got this round rolling. We all enjoyed our dinner, however, my youngest son grabbed 5 (yes, I said five) drums for himself...the last 5 out of 10, that is...he likes chicken...but he LOVES smoked, char-grilled, reverse seared...basically, if it's cooked outdoors, we have zero problems getting him to eat it...LOL!!! OK, enough said about the legs and chops...we're here to talk about what the WSM can (or if it actually happens, cannot) do for me...uh, wait, so I guess the meat IS important......moving forward...so, let's face facts here, I love to smoke taters, veggies, and...well, as my avatar line implies.
The crazy part about today? The smoker assembly, meat prep, initial seasoning of the WSM (no, I'm not done seasoning, yet) and today's smoke was stupid-easy...and you know what? I liked it that way!!! The WSM intake adjustments were nearly exactly what I expected. When I let it ramp up after starting and assembling for seasoning, it built up nice and slow over about 30-40 minutes from cold to the 225* range, just like I wanted (the fire was still pretty small). Once the fire spread to the point where it would have ran away, I backed-off the intakes and it climb right into my target range of 310-320*...and it stayed there!!! Monday's smoke will tell me more, as will each consecutive smoke for the next several weeks. Right now, I'm convinced that I should have just dropped the coin on a WSM back in 2008 or 2009 (whenever it was), instead of messing around with the Brinkmann SnP 40, or the Brinkamnn Gourmet "Stacker"...but, they were good stepping-stones, to learn with and experience what it's like to run, mod, test, run, mod, test, run, mod, test...if you're into that sort of thing, which I was at that point in time, it's great. Now, I'm older, wiser, more seasoned, and less apt to fall into a rut...if only I knew then what I know now, I could have saved myself a lot of what I went through and I'd have been just enjoying life in the smoke. And, I'd have purchased 3, possibly even 4 less smokers than I did...and I'd have been that much LESS money invested in smokers and all those 5, 10, 20 dollar mods, for my smoking passion. OTOH, I wouldn't have had the exposure to such challenges, nor would I have gained all the knowledge and skills that came with it, now would I? I also would not have been involved in any secret, prototype projects which I was requested to join along the way. Such as it is, I will end that topic by just saying this: if you readily have the coin or can make compromises/sacrifices in other areas to get a smoker that will not drive you partially (or completely) insane attempting to get it to perform to your liking, I suggest you take those steps to make it happen. Set your priorities, pay your debts, bills, etc, and buy what you can afford, but don't scrimp...put a little away for the right smoker for you when the time is right to grab one.
Speaking of scrimping on gear/cookers, been there, done that, with regrets nearly every time. Am I biased towards Weber or the WSM? Well, I have no serious complaints about any of their charcoal cookers I've owned and cooked with (all received brand-new), thus far, so, maybe that's a trend in their favor, and could sway my opinion, sure. Every manufacturer will experience a certain level of QC issues from time to time, or some design flaws, even if relatively benign...(1) some more than others...(2) some so often you don't even want to walk away from their products, you'll want to RUN. I don't feel that Weber is either (1) or (2), as I've never had to contact their customer support. Most any issues I've had were at least somewhat operator error, and an occasional design flaw, but never a serious one. Most things I've encountered can be corrected with a little common sense and a dash or two of careful consideration for what caused the problem to begin with...then come up with a simple work-around or just be a bit more careful in the future (example: the wobbly 3-legged kettles). So, no I can't couch for their support...but their charcoal-fired products, sure, I'd say give 'em a go. I'm happy with what I have from Weber, and that's not an easy thing to accomplish, as I'm pretty critical about my gear, and look for flaws and ways to avoid possible problems. I have less to worry over since I've gone "dark".
For me, right out of the box, with only minor adjustments (carefully placed and executed hand-bending) to the fuel-door for a better eye-ball fit, this smoker performed very nicely. Sure, there were smoke leaks around the lid/barrel joint...to be expected. Also, a small amount of smoke leaked from the fuel door...again, to be expected. The lid fit rather loosely side-to-side, but level with the flange in the barrel groove, until after this first smoke. I had to grab a good hold on the barrel when I first attempted to remove the lid for I/T check on the drums, because it was stuck from smoke residue, already. That said, I believe within the next several weeks that with regular use, it will seal itself up more and more, with food and smoke residue. So, after it's first smoke, no I don't plan on the use of nomex gasket material, yet. I may decide to go ahead and add it later, but I want to see how much it will seal on it's own first. Past experience has taught me that a well-used smoker leaks far less than a new one. It's also been my experience that with careful inspection before and during assembly, some flaws can be partially, if not fully corrected before you finish assembly, as was the case here. I'm also convinced that not every smoker has poor fit qualities...some may be better or worse than others. I'm going to give her a chance to prove herself to me before I go completely mod-crazy.
Do I feel this smoker is suitable for hot & fast turkey smokes? Absolutely. If I have to run intakes @ 60% to hold it down in the 310-320* range, it can run far hotter, especially with lighting a bigger fire from the start. I want to push 325-350* on the 24th for her first (of 2, that I know of so far) turkey smokes for the 2015 Thanksgiving holiday...I have no reservations about 14lb birds...I'm wishing I would have chosen closer to 18lb birds, now, just to show what the WSM 18 is capable of. It would handle them, space-wise, and temp-wise, to get through the danger-zone in comfort...that much I'm sure of. Of course, ambient temps, precipitation, etc, will play a role in a downward spiraling chamber temp gauge, if you're not prepared for the weather...that's not a WSM thing...that's a smoker thing, and a grill thing, and a dutch oven thing, and...you get the point.
OK, moving on for some final shots, post smoke...guess what I failed to do away with before I lit the fire in her...knowing upon completion of assembly that I would want it taken care of before her first fire (hint: in regards to extinguishing the fire)? I'll give that away below...
I have a few tablespoons of render chicken fat and caramelized drippings in the water pan foil-liner (for vaporization in the morning to aid in further seasoning of the WSM) when I fire up for another smoke ( a sticky, messy smoker is a happy smoker)...chicken wings, and a couple boneless, skinless thighs for dinner on Monday (thawing it all right now)...maybe I'll figure out something for brunch, as well. That would give me some longer burn time with some meat for seasoning the smoker...:
Just going back together to rest for the evening...lower grate installed...and, no, I'm not cleaning off the residue just yet, as it will be below freezing temps tonight...no worries:
Upper grate installed, with probe wires still dangling...I left them laying on the top grate to prep for the next smoke:
The moment of truth...remember that question I asked earlier? Got a nice, even burn of the coals with that central torch fire-starting method. Oh, forgot to mention, I did add about a dozen cold briquettes right towards the end...turns out I didn't need them...not even close to low fuel...just couldn't see into the fire ring that well and jumped the gun...BTW, I have a brand-new Brinkmann water pan that should fit for a shallower pan, and give more fuel capacity and the ability to view it a little better. Anyway, that's why you're looking at that appears to be fresh coals on top...'cuz they ARE fresh...classic mistake of adding fuel before checking I/Ts...see, even an old hand at this can get rusty when out of practice for too long:
Looks pretty good...choked all the vents about 90 minutes ago, immediately after the meat was off the grates. Quite a bit of coals left from maybe 6lbs, after that hot & fast smoke, preceded by a relatively hot initial burn for about 90 minutes:
And..., but, wait............... (no flash pic) OK, I had foreseen this coming before I finished assembly 2 nights ago, BUT, I failed to schedule the necessary out-patient surgery......and didn't write any notes along the way, sooooooo...you know when you say: if memory serves me correctly? Well, it probably won't...:
I shook it down gently a couple times to drop the ash through the grates, but it was settled a little already...now it's time to grab my Leatherman and do a quick bend of those pesky vent damper tabs...NOW the dampers actually close fully...probably not an actual air-tight seal, but hopefully enough to knock those hot coals into submission before they burn much longer...that should fix it...I'll know more in the morning:
I didn't raise the coal grate/ring to check on ash deposited in the pan, but I'll do that in the morning...after it's completely cooled down, as I didn't look far enough ahead to have any hooks ready to grab and lift without having an upset and setting something on fire, or, burning the daylights out of myself (I use welding gloves, but hey, trust me, it ain't worth it...it can wait).
Thanks for reading...and most of all, for any of you out there that are prospective buyers of the WSM or whatever your favorite is, if you stay on the fence a while longer...I'll give you more insight as time allows. I work full-time, but it's a little slower right now (well, slow for me is less than 55hrs/week...LOL!!!), so I'll be pounding the coals and wood through this WSM every chance I get.
More to come...stay tuned!!! Got a couple turkeys to smoke in the coming days...one on the 24th, and one on the 26th.
Comments are welcome, and additional insight from seasoned WSM users is welcome, as well. Let me know if I'm totally off the mark (I know, opinions vary, but healthy discussion is how we learn on a forum). I think I've got a good handle on it for now, with hot & fast poultry smokes, anyway. Low & slow will come in due time, but right now I need to get this thing looking (and smelling) not-so-new inside (messy) before turkey-day, hence my choices to smoke poultry and run hotter. I'll figure out a minion firing method that I think will suit me best for low & slow, if the central fire doesn't pan out to my liking. I just don't see it being a problem at this point in time, but, I've been wrong before. A pork shoulder smoke will show me the way down the right path.
See you again, soon!!!
Great smokes to all, and to all a good night!!!