So I got some help from you guys in building it and in how to cook the pork, so I finally took the plunge and fired up my smoker.
I had some issues which I will outline below, but it was mostly a success. I identified 2-3 discrete mistakes that I can correct for next time. Some questions I have are in bold/italics.
Went to a local hardware store to have a family friend help me drill the lid. We drilled 4 circumferential holes in the middle and one radial hole off to one end to hold the thermometer and found airflow.
My brother and I assembled the smoker and did a test burn of some soaked wood. We used a pyrex baking dish on the hot plate to hold the wood.
Here is where the first problem was identified: we could not measure internal temperature. The grill thermometer that we bought was seemingly not reading the temp- it was telling me the thing was around 100 when it felt like about 100 degrees ON THE OUTSIDE, let alone the inside. My theory is that the probe on the grill thermometer wasn't long enough so it was reading the cooler terra cotta that it passed through as much as the inside. So we were, for the weekend, shooting blind. Still, the wood burned great and we considered the test successful.
We had 2 7 lb butts.
-We coated one in honey mustard (per a suggestion on here) and stuck the rub (great recipe from a local pittmaster's home bbq class). -We coated the other one in a mixture of beer and cider vinegar (friend's suggestion), and stuck the rub to that (same rub as above).
Woke up at 8am, preheated the smoker.
For the smoker, I read that it was better to add a restrictor plate surface for the pork, to insulate the pork from the heat of the fire. To do that, I rested a pizza stone on top of the grill grate holding the meat. So the meat sat on top of the pizza stone in the hot oven.
I am not sure if that is the right thing because wouldn't the stone cook it directly rather than by convection? But I guess regardless the metal grill grate would also cook it directly. Regardless, it didn't seem to be a huge issue- I had the low and slow cooking regardless.
So I loaded the meat onto the pizza stone, and DISASTER STRUCK!
As I grabbed the meat, I stepped on the lid a tiny bit, which was resting on the ground. The lid lifted a half inch off the ground and came back down onto the concrete. That small amount of force was enough to BREAK THE LID! It split right down the middle. I almost panicked. But I realized that I could fit the 2 hemispheres together like a puzzle piece and proceed with it as the lid. Not exactly as I planned, but it was functional.
Meat went on at 9:30.
Internal temperature climbed steadily all day via my analog and digital thermometers. I couldn't read the inside temperature, but it felt hot so I think I was keeping it in the right range.
I used a mix of hickory and apple woods. I originally used soaked wood chunks, and was getting a lot of white smoke. I read that that can be from the internal cooling of the water. So about halfway through I switched to mostly dry wood and the smoke was "bluer." I took a video of the smoker running with the blue smoke in the afternoon. You can see the broken lid.
It seemed like we had a stall at around 145-150 IT, but then I started adding the dry wood only, got the blue smoke (higher temps) and then we were rolling. I think this wasn't a true stall, but a temperature issue on the fire that we fixed.
I decided NOT to wrap at ~150, because we love hard bark and I was told on here that unwrapped smoking would give that hard bark.
But then, we hit the REAL stall, around 175. I heard online that that stall is the water release from the collagen breaking down and the evaporative cooling. So we kept it at 175 for about a half hour or an hour before deciding to wrap it at that point (there already was a nice, hard bark).
At this point it was ~6pm and our guests were due to arrive in about an hour. We busted through the stall about a half hour after the wrap. Inched up to 180, and 185. Guests were arriving.
My brother (incorrectly) said it was drying out in there. I know that it gets more moist as the collagen dissolves around 195-205.
But, against my better judgment, I pulled the pork at around 185. I knew it wasn't done because the probe didn't feel like butter. Some thinner parts did, but not the thicker parts.
So we pulled it, the guests arrived.
I kept them waiting- I re-wrapped it in foil put it in the (unheated) oven for an hour to rest.
Then we pulled it out of the oven and pulled the meat around 7pm.
Unfortunately, probably because the low internal temp when we pulled it, the pork didn't pull very well. The outside did with the bark, but the core of the piece of meat was tough and did not shred. WOULD YOU GUYS AGREE THIS IS THE PROBLEM?
Still, the bark came out AWESOME (I would not wrap lower next time as the bark aspect was perfect).
And underneath the bark I got a beautiful smoke ring throughout the meat under the bark.
My brother, mom and I made it an all-day family project. We made the following (all homemade from scratch): pork and beans (with the smoked pork in it), carolina slaw, carolina style BBQ. Mac and cheese southern style, cornbread.
As for taste: it tasted pretty awesome. I will say, I think hickory may just be a bit too strong for me. The taste in the bark was a bit too "campfire-ey" for my taste. I am not 100% sure if it was because I was puffing white smoke for a bit, or because I used 50-60% hickory over apple wood. My friend who also smokes said he uses an apple/cherry mix because hickory is too strong for him as well. DO YOU THINK IT IS THE WHITE SMOKE OR THE HICKORY THAT CAUSED THIS?
So, all things considered, given the setbacks (the lack of reading the running temperature, the shattered lid, etc), the trial run was a success. I have some things to work on for next time (allowing enough time for it to get to 195-205, changing my wood composition, getting a better temperature gauge for the smoker, etc). I can't wait to try again over the 4th of july weekend!