I was ready to put my 30” analog MasterBuilt Electric Smoker (MES) on the curb for big trash day. I couldn’t get good amounts of smoke unless I was cooking over 250 degrees, and then the smoke I got was harsh and made my food taste like a fireplace. I got on the forums and read about tray type smoke generators. They allow you to remove the chips that are dependent on the element for heat and use pellets or dust that slowly smolders. This seemed like a great fix, so I picked one up. I couldn’t get it to stay lit, and the pellets would swell up from all the moisture in the MES. Not a fix after all I thought. But since it was winter I wanted to try it for cold smoking and see how that worked. I put some cheese on the top two racks of the smoker and put the generator in the bottom on top of the element. The smoker was unplugged just to make sure no accidents happened. I let the cheese smoke for one hour. Here is what greeted me when I opened the door
I took out the cheese and good grief was it disgusting! It tasted extremely bitter and made my tongue tingle. This is like sucking on a charcoal briquette...who in their right mind wanted to eat this stuff?!? I know you're supposed to let it age, but how do you age flavor this bad out of something as lightly flavored as cheese?
Back to the forums I went. The 30” analog MES very little ventilation. There is a small hole in the top right back corner of the body, and a small hole in the middle of the bottom that is designed to allow grease to flow into a catch pan. Here you can see the top hole:
The door also seals rather loosely, and provides for some airflow, but it isn’t enough. You can see the smoke seeping out and the creosote left from smoke on the door:
The higher model MES all have a chip loading tray and a real vent at the top that you can adjust to provide good airflow. This lack of airflow seemed to be a likely cause of my problems, so I cut a 3” hole into the top of the MES and a 3” hole right above the chip pan. Now I was able to keep the smoke generator lit on hot cooks and the flavor was much better than what I was getting with the MES chip pan. I added a chimney to help it draft and tried cooking some chicken and a pork loin. Both turned out pretty good! I was happy with the improvement, so I tried to cold smoke some more cheese. This time I put only a small amount of cheese in and tested it at 30 minutes instead of an hour. NOPE! That bitter taste was still there, it wasn't as bad as before, but it had only been 30 minutes. Now I was getting really frustrated! Back to the forums again.
I found the mailbox mod which was supposed to help with cold smoking and looked promising. I went and bought a mailbox, an 8 foot section of rigid aluminum flex duct, and two universal 90s. I put it all together and gave it another shot with some more cheese. This was noticeably better, but it still had that bitter taste and I thought that it might be the quality of the smoke I was generating. It looked more white to me than blue. I posted asking for help with getting thin blue smoke with my MES 30 with the mailbox mod. Lucky for me Mr T read my post and shared some of his knowledge and experience with me. He explained how cold smoking is different than hot smoking and you need to cool the smoke to get the nasty stuff like creosote out before it gets to your food. He had me get a few sections of rigid pipe to lengthen the distance from the mailbox to the smoker. Here is what it looked like:
After adding 3 sections of pipe, I noticed a huge difference in the smoke flavor on some more test cheese. Since I still had room for 2 more sections of pipe on the back of the smoker stand I added them. Now instead of 8 feet of pipe I had 21, almost 3 times the distance of the original mod. Here is the final product:
Mr T advised me to use powdered pellets for my next cheese attempt, so I blended a bunch of pellets down to a fine powder and loaded that into the smoke generator. The powder looks like this:
This takes some effort to blend up, but it burns for a long time and makes a lite smoke, which can be very handy depending on the circumstances. Another great tip from Mr T was to cut the cheese into 1 inch cubes so I could try them at different times. Smart guy! I loaded up the top rack with a bunch of 1 inch cubes and loaded the smoke generator filled with powder into the mailbox. Every 30 minutes I pulled a cube out and tried it. The difference in the smoke flavor was astounding! I smoked for 8 straight hours that day, and even though the 8 hour cubes of cheese were more smoky than I personally care for, they had NO bitterness whatsoever! I was amazed! Almost everything I had read before said that you had to age smoked cheese to make it edible, but not if you do it this way! This stuff was delicious right out of the smoker! After tasting the cheese I went cold smoking crazy and tried nuts, goldfish crackers, cheesits, boiled eggs, salt, pepper, butter, potatoes, and of course…more cheese. I cold smoked everything I could get my hands on, and it all came out stellar and was ready to eat right out of the smoker! I told Mr T how happy I was with the results and thanking him for helping me fix my smoker instead of trashing it. He suggested I pass along the information to help others, which I was more than happy to do. So I did some tests. The tests were designed to show what was happening at each stage of my build, and why the final build works so well.
For the first test I wanted to show how the analog MES30 performed with a smoke generator and no modifications. In order to do this I simply put tape over the holes I had cut into the MES, removed the tape from the factory holes, loaded a lit tray full of pellets on the element, and put a ziplock baggie half filled with water on the middle rack. This test proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the stock analog 30” MES does not have enough airflow. The pellets burned for 19 hours and 23 minutes! The extra time is because they didn't get enough airflow. Here is what the tray looked like:
you can see the black pellet remains. They didn't burn completely. And notice that even the ash is covered with creosote? Here is what the ziplock baggie looked like:
Absolutely disgusting! No wonder I didn’t like my first attempt at cheese! The bag is extremely sticky, like sticking your finger in molasses. This nasty stuff covered everything in my smoker, so I turned it to high and burned it off for an hour. I have never smelt anything so foul as the junk coming out of the smoker on this burn off! It was absolutely foul! After it stopped burning off I let it cool down and moved to the next test.
For the second test I loaded a full tray of pellets into the generator and placed it on the element of the MES, un-taped the ventilation holes I had cut into the MES body, taped up the stock hole, and put a fresh ziplock of water on a clean middle rack. This time the pellets burned for 12 hours 9 minutes. That's more like it!
This was a marked improvement over the first test, and should be extremely similar to what any of the higher end model MES users out there should expect. Actually, this might be a little better, because I had nothing covering the holes at all, just two wide open 3"' holes. Here is the ziplock it produced:
This is still very tacky, but not as bad as the 'molasses' like substance that covered the first baggie. This was more like paint that is only a few minutes old and isn’t dry yet. As soon as your finger touches it you are stuck. It also smells horrible and acrid, like a camp fire. Once again I needed to burn off all the junk from the smoker. Another hour on high did the trick. It was really gross this time, but not as bad as the first test. I let it cool down and proceeded to the next test.
For the third test I put a full tray of pellets in the smoke generator and loaded it in the mailbox. So this time it starting in the mailbox and going through 21 feet of 3” pipe. This time the generator burned for 9 hours 58 minutes. Here is the ziplock:
Now we are getting somewhere! As you can see, the smoke has been cleaned a lot by the long run of piping. This bag is only very slightly tacky, like paint that is almost completely dry. If you touch it and immediately move your finger it doesn’t feel tacky at all, but leave your finger there a moment and it tries to stick to you a little bit. The bag smells like smoke, but it is like the smell of smoke on your clothes after a hot smoke, not acrid like a camp fire . I turned on the burner for an hour after this test just like I did after previous tests, but almost nothing came out this time. Clean smoke leaves a clean smoker!
For the fourth and fifth tests I used powdered pellets and two ziplock baggies. Both baggies go in at the beginning of the test, but one gets removed at 9 hours and 58 minutes, the same amount of time that the pellets burned for in the third test. This shows us the difference in smoke produced by powder vs pellets. The other baggie goes the distance. The tray smoke generator is fully loaded with powder and loaded into the mailbox. The powder burned for 15 hours 36 minutes. That's 56% longer than the pellets, but at a lower smoke density. Here is the baggie that went the distance:
And here is the baggie that got pulled at 9 hours 58 minutes, the same time as the pellets lasted:
The baggies confirm that powder gives you a lighter smoke than pellets do for the same amount of time, but it burns longer so you can play with those variables.
Here are the baggies all together, starting with the bottom left and going counter clockwise you have 1st test- no mods, 2nd test – ventilation, 3rd test – mailbox with pellets, 4th test powder – full 15 hours 36 minutes, 4th test powder – 9 hours 58 minutes.
Here is another pic that shows the drastic difference between a tray type smoke generator loaded with pellets inside the stock MES vs inside the mailbox mod with 21 feet of pipe:
So, what can we gather from these tests? The primary result is that, for cold smoking at least, you need to clean your smoke! Not only do creosote and tar taste and smell bad, they probably aren’t very good for you either. I know I don’t want to put that stuff in my mouth, much less feed it to my family! A secondary result is that powder burns slower than pellets, providing less smoke for a longer period of time. So the decision to use pellets or powder depends on how much smoke you want, and how quickly you want it to be applied. It also stands to reason that the smaller the volume of smoke, the more it will be cleaned by the system. Another arrow for your quiver.
I haven’t tested the system on hot smokes yet, but that is something I plan to do as soon as the weather warms up and my window for cold smoking has closed on me. For now I’m socking up the larder with delicious cold smoked foods!
I hope this helps save someone the trouble and frustration I went through. I went from being extremely frustrated and ready to toss my MES to turning out AMAZING cold smoked food. A huge THANK YOU goes out to Mr T for taking the time to walk me through the piping mod. I'm sure there is more modding in my future, and I'll update you guys with the results of those mods too. This is a great community here that is happy to share information and I am proud to be a part of it. The willingness to share experiences and keep an open mind are HUGE advantages of this group, and something you don't find often. You also went out of your way to make me feel welcome and I really appreciate that. Good luck to you all, and happy smoking!!!
Edit #1. I calculated the cost for the mailbox mod as shown above = $54. The company I work for has an account with a heating and air supply company, so that may be a bit cheaper than a hardware store would be.
Edit #2. Here is a link to my first thread where I asked for help and began modding my MES:
Edited by Setesh - 3/20/16 at 10:02pm