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Smoke is in the Air

Well, this post is definitely late for the season, especially when the season up North starts in early March beginning with the Fire on Ice competition. At any rate, Minnesota in May has come and gone, and now we’ve got a lot of serious competitions heating up in June. For example, this weekend starts up the Smokin’ Hot Backyard BBQ Competition in Cottage Grove, WI, where my son and I won Grand Champion last year. Unfortunately I won’t be there to defend the title, as there’s a lot going on right now. However, the good news is that my son and I will at least be able to make one event happen later this month.

Next on the list for June is the Rotary Rock n Ribs event on June 23-24th. Hairball will be there to perform on Friday night, and there’s a huge variety of competitions going on this year including a Kid’s que, backyard and pro circuit bbq, as well as SCA Steak competition. All of these events, plus more bands equals a fun weekend in La Crosse, WI.

So after you’ve finished attending one of these events, don’t forget to stop into my blog for some recipes!

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I Grill, Do you Grill?

I recently got my hands on a new iGrill2 device from iDevices (now part of the Weber family). If you’ve read my other posts on the PartyQ and Stoker, you already know that I’m a big fan of the Stoker system because of it’s ability to expand to multiple blowers, thermometers, etc. However, if you don’t have a need for a blower system, I highly recommend checking out the iGrill2.

I put it to the test recently, by cooking four pork shoulders and having a probe in each from the Stoker, Maverick ET-732 and the iGrill2. Out of the gate, the Maverick doesn’t have a mobile device application. Instead, you use a second controller device to set alarms and get the current temperature readings for the grill and meat probes. This requires the user to be within range of the second device to keep an eye on the cook. I started out on the Maverick, long before devices like the iGrill2 came along. However, in comparing the temperature consistency between the other devices, the Maverick showed within 2 degrees of the control unit, which was a thermapen.

Next comes the Stoker. The meat temperature was within 1 degree of the control, plus I can attach multiple probes and designate which ones are meat vs. grill temp. Besides the probes, the Stoker has multiple applications available to control the device, from a built-in webpage interface, to Apple apps like StokerX. For mobile devices, there are several to choose from, including the Pit Pal BBQ app. Using these apps, you can update the progress of a cook via Facebook, Twitter and more.

Finally, we come to the iGrill2 device. Temperature difference of 1-2 degrees depending on probe attempt between the control and iGrill2. However, I find this device mixes in the best of the Stoker with the simplicity of the Maverick. Set each of the four probes type and alarm using the central unit, or download the iDevices app and configure it from there. Besides having four probes, the iGrill2 also supports Siri and Amazon Alexa commands via the iDevices application as well. In addition, at only $99, you can buy multiple devices and use the single app to control them all.

My favorite feature of the iGrill2 is the case for the probes. All other brands just include the probe that gets tangled in the bottom of your BBQ drawer like a box of holiday lights. The case easily fits both the probe end as well as locking in the connector end for easy storage. Add the color coding and you’ve got some serious organization skills going on. It’s all about the little things that often sets a product apart.

 

Winning Your First Competition

Smokin' Hot Backyard BBQ Grand ChampionI really debated on whether to write something about this, because I don’t want to appear as if I’m gloating. Then again, I thought it would be a great message to send out to other BBQ enthusiasts looking to compete and want to learn more about the experience.

If you’ve been following my site, you already know that I’m not a professional BBQ competitor. I recently stumbled into the pro circuit last month by competing in the Poor Que event located in Wisconsin. What I thought was a backyard competition by the low entry fee, quickly turned into a professional event, being surrounded by high-end smokers twice the size as mine, and extremely friendly competitors that have been cooking on the circuit for years. The Wisconsin 9:22 toast can’t be beat either!

Poor Que was the fourth competition I’ve entered, and only the second one to have a teammate on. It was the first overnight cook with four meats (chicken, ribs, brisket and pork) I’ve competed in, because backyards typically just go with ribs and chicken (should have been a red flag to me, but lesson learned).

One thing I quickly realized about an overnight cook, is that lack of sleep doesn’t work for everyone. So, unless you’re using something like a Big Green Egg, or other smoker that doesn’t require constant fire tending, you’ll need someone to stay up through the night to toss on logs and spray the meat. Given my new offset smoker needs a new log every 1-1.5 hours, (even with over 24 fire bricks inside) constant tending was a must.

After little sleep that night, the quality of the turn-in boxes suffered, and the anxiety of the competition was definitely raised. All-in-all, we still got a call for the Pork Shoulder by placing 9th in a very tough competition. However, I was happy when the overall ranking landed in the middle of the pack, given the fact it was the pro circuit and my first four meat competition. Would I do it again? I’m not so sure yet, as the dishes suffered, and so did the team.

The latest competition landed me in Cottage Grove, WI for another backyard event that also included raising money for the local firemen. Per the KCBS rules, slipping into only one pro circuit event still allows me to go back to a backyard event, so challenge accepted. Since my new teammate couldn’t make it due to other commitments, I decided to welcome my oldest son on-board, as he had been asking me all year to attend one.

As a backyard event, you generally only cook Ribs and Chicken, which means firing up the smoker the day of the event. However, since Smokin’ Hot Backyard was 3.5 hours from me, I opted to drive over the night before. This event turned out to be the most relaxing of all the previous 4. The jitters of being something new had passed, and having just my son with me meant that the only stress that could be created would be my own.

My son was a great help with prepping the meat, getting the firewood, and helping out any other way he could for a 7 year old. Having Father’s Day that weekend made the experience all the better. Turn-ins were on time, and he helped me walk the meat box up each time. Every technique I planned to use was executed, instead of in the past where I remember forgetting at least 1-2 steps along the way. I also opted for different cuts of meat and a new BBQ sauce creation I call the “Darkside of the Midwest”.

When the award ceremony kicked off that afternoon, I wasn’t nervous initially, because I had just spent the day doing what I love with one of my kids, and couldn’t care less if I placed at all. My son, on the other hand, insisted we had to win the whole thing! First announcement comes chicken and we place 6th. After a quick glance at my boy, I notice his head is hung low and he’s got the saddest pair of eyes on him. Ribs are up next and we got 4th place, while the first place chicken team had slipped to 10th on ribs. Now, if you’ve ever been to a KCBS competition, you know that obtaining a Grand Champion or Reserve Champion doesn’t matter as much for placing first in the categories. It boils down to the tallied points for all the meats, and sometimes placing 1st versus 4th could be the difference of only a half point.

I quickly did some math in my head based on other team placements, and assumed I had to have gotten third place. 3rd overall was announced no call. That’s when the nerves kicked in. Could it be? Did I just place the top two with my son’s first time out? Better yet, we got Grand Champion!! First thing out of my boy’s mouth was that since he helped on the cooking he deserved the money from the GC award and that I could keep the money from the Ribs award, which was less by the way. I spent the drive back explaining the costs to competing at each of the events and that the money wasn’t as important as being able to talk to other BBQ enthusiasts and to learn newer and better ways to cook the meats you love.

Of course, I slipped him some cash and a trip to the toy store the next day, as he was still on cloud nine and needed to be rewarded for all the hard work, and not just with that awesome hand-painted trophy.

Best advice I can give to anyone new to competing on the BBQ circuit is take your time, and go with the ones you love. The experience is far more rewarding if you can sit back and realize that you’re there to share your passion, your recipes, and not trying to go for the Gold. Second, don’t over-complicate the recipe. As soon as you realize that you’re turning a cooked poultry dish into something entirely different (like scraping fat from the skin), you’re doing it wrong. I though it was the way to go, but who needs to waste hours for so little difference in quality. In fact, doing the opposite raised my scores!

Thanks to everyone at Poor Que and Smokin’ Hot Backyard BBQ who coordinated the events. Thanks to those teams I got to compete alongside, and all the volunteers and judges who turn out to make everything successful. We really couldn’t do it without you!

Competition BBQ Chicken
Turn-In Box for the competition, placing 6th.

Trusting Your Gut in a Competition

Well the third competition has come and gone. This was the first KCBS sanctioned event I’ve done, so it was just the Backyard for now until I can get into the swing of things. We didn’t do as well as I hoped, but 10th place overall is nothing to be disappointed with. Now its just trying to figure out what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again.

First, it’s about trusting your gut. Just before wrapping the ribs I noticed that some of the racks were quite floppy, which got me in a panic that they would overcook and fall apart. So, I opted to keep them off the smoke chamber for 30 minutes, which turned into the same effect when someone panics during the plateau of a brisket cook. End result: we averaged 8 on the appearance and taste, but only 6.5 on the texture because some bones were still not at that fine line where a judge expects the meat to cleanly pull away, but only in the spot where they bite. Lesson learned, trust your gut telling you to leave them in the cooker and hope some of the racks turn out spot on.

The second meat in the backyard was chicken. That dreadful chicken. I just haven’t found the magic in cooking it just right yet. However, I have the long drawn-out prep process down that I can turn out consistent rectangular chicken. The brining, basting and rub process is there too. It just all goes South once the smoker puts too much smoke on it and turns the skin black.

I think the technique for the next event in June will have to be skin side down for the first hour and then flip it for the last hour, while being careful to not add too many sticks while they are cooking.

That’s the best part about cooking in competitions. Your recipes keep changing and the technique keeps improving!

 

Offset Smoker Modifications

If you’ve been following this blog, or Twitter, you may have noticed that I’m expanding beyond running a Big Green Egg family for the last 10 years. I finally invested in a full smoker trailer for competition cooking, catering and more but that new smoker still requires some modifications. When and if you decide to buy an offset, you might want to consider making these changes to ensure a more consistent temperature and smoking experience.

There are many types of offsets out there. From a Cheap Offset Smoker (COS) commonly found at a big box store, to the high-end models that could empty $15k or more from your Whiskey fund. Okay, I might have a problem if my whiskey fund is that big, but a guy can dream can’t he?

At any rate, the mods listed here should work for a variety of different offset smokers on the market. As always, you’re modifying your equipment at your own risk, as these are just my personal observations on how to improve airflow, temperature, and maintaining smoke. This article will cover temp gauges, sealing the smoke chamber, seasoning, and temp control.

Temperature Gauges (Thermometers)

The temp gauges provided by my smoker manufacturer were small (1 5/8″) and were not adjustable. Using a gauge that cannot be configured, could mean the temp is off by up to 20° F or more. Do you really want to risk cooking at a temp that is above or below the target temperature for the meat being prepared?

So, after some research and  a lot of reviews, I picked up four of BBQ Factory’s 3″ adjustable temperature gauges that will monitor temps up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit. Given that even the grill box on the smoker won’t be heating up like a Big Green Egg preparing for a steak cookout at 750°, I had no concerns whether these gauges would work.

Smoker Temperature Gauges

First, I needed to check the gauges and adjust them to where they were within 3-5° F of the actual temp. To do this, submerge the tip of the gauge in boiling water and adjust until the temp reads 212°F.

Adjusting Temperature Gauges

The 3″ gauge has a 3/4″ NPT, or National Pipe Thread. That means the hole for the gauge must be 3/4″ at minimum, plus you will need a 3/4″ pipe tap to thread the hole before using it. Since my hardware store didn’t carry a pipe tap for that size, I opted to cut the hole slightly bigger so that the gauges slide right in. If you attempt this method instead of threading it, a 7/8″ hole is more than big enough, but add a washer so the gauge will sit flush against the metal and not sink in.

After cutting the hole, grab some NSF certified hi-temp RTV sealant and coat both sides of the hole. This will stop any smoke from leaking through the holes during cooking. Place the gauge in the hole, and tighten it down using the supplied nut. Be careful to not over-tighten it, otherwise the adjustments you made earlier to the gauge will be off. That’s it, four new gauges installed and ready for use.

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Installing Nomex Gaskets

Whether you are modifying a new offset smoker, or replacing a gasket on an existing one, it’s important to have gaskets around the smoke chamber doors to keep the temperature consistent and inside. Without a gasket, you’ll burn more wood trying to keep the temperature up, because the heat is busy escaping through the crack in the door!

Typically, there are two types of high-temp Nomex gaskets on the market. There is the self-adhesive kind and then one that requires the NSF hi-temp sealant to apply it. I opted for the sealant version, as the self-stick ones work great for a Big Green Egg, but in the dead of winter on cold steel, trying that style would have been a lost cause.

Simply create a small bead of sealant around the opening of the door and press the Nomex gasket into it. Follow the curves of the door, but do not cut the gasket. The more cuts you have, the more potential for leaks. Let the sealant rest for at least 24 hours before lighting the smoker.

Nomex Gasket with NSF RTV

Seal the Smoke Chamber

If you have unwanted smoke coming from parts of the chamber, seal them with the NSF hi-temp sealant. If you bought a reverse flow smoker, there will be a metal divider under the grill grates, which is designed to carry the smoke and heat from the firebox side to the other end, before crossing over the meat on the grates. If you’re smoke was spot welded on this plate and not sealed completely on the sides, consider applying the sealant along the edge so smoke isn’t leaking up from the sides, and will carry to the end of the chamber.

Seasoning the Smoker

If your grill or smoker is brand new, before you throw $50 worth of food on that new unit to make a big meal, you will need to first season it. Seasoning is the process of cleaning out all the chemicals that were used to make the smoker by burning it off. Plus, when you wipe down all the metal with cooking oil, you’ll create an outer protection layer that will help prevent rust.

Using a paper towel, take some vegetable or canola oil and wipe every part of the inside. For the grill grates, I recommend using cooking spray so it gets into all the nooks and crannies. Once its wiped down, fire up the smoker and get the smoke chamber around 300°F. Maintain the cook temp for at least two hours. This is the same process you use to treat a cast-iron pot or pan.

Additional Modifications

Besides the major recommendations listed above, there are some minor modifications you might also want to consider.

  • Add NSF Food Machinery Grease to the grill grates so they slide on the railings easier. Most grease that is safe for food can support temperatures up to 400°F.
  • Add a marine swivel jack to the front of the smoker trailer if the current trailer jack doesn’t have a wheel already. This will provide an easier method to moving your trailer into place without breaking your back.
  • I also needed to drill out the hole on the latch for the firebox, as it was just a little too snug for my liking.

 

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A New Smoker!

Well 2016 is already well underway, and the BBQ season in the North is about ready to start up again in a few weeks. First up is the Fire on Ice KCBS competition, which also doubles as a World Food Championship qualifier. The winner of this event get an invite to this year’s WFC held in Alabama.

So, with that said, it’s time that Big Geek BBQ get more serious on competing. First up, comes with the addition of a new smoker to the Big Green Egg family, but it’s not an egg this time! After much long debate and over a decade of passion with the BGE family, I realized that in order to do what I want to do with BBQ ,both on and off the competition circuit, the Egg wasn’t going to provide everything I needed. I just needed something bigger.

After some long research into the most popular brands, as well as up and coming brands, I found a commonality between several manufacturers in Texas, Georgia, and Alabama. They all seemed to be making the same reverse flow system at varying prices. Texas has a lot of direct flow systems too, but a reverse flow has less of a delta between the left and right smoke chamber temperature vs. a direct flow option. We are only talking about a 10 degree difference, and I aim to improve that with some modifications.

I debated with what features were necessary, could I mount a BGE on the trailer, do I really need a warming box, and what size chamber do I really need. I also considered used vs. new, but most used prices were the same as buying new, and the used ones needed some repair. Lastly, I landed on this 30×60 reverse flow smoker trailer with an insulated firebox, warming box, grill box, and wood storage. With two main slide out shelves in the smoke chamber, I can pull the top one out and roast a pig!

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Well buying something that could handle 20 pork shoulders, 15 slabs of ribs, etc. is necessary to compete in some events that have people’s choice awards requiring 25lbs of meat to be cooked. How many eggs does it take to cook 20 8lb pork shoulders? Let’s just say a lot.

This doesn’t mean my BGEs will collect dust. In fact, the BGE is still critical to cooking at home, as it will handle all the grilling and pizza making. It will also be the smoker of choice during those cold North Winter months when I just need some BBQ, no matter what time of the year it is.

Stay tuned for the next article, where I’ll cover how to season the offset smoker, and also make modifications to the smoke chamber for a more even cooking temperature and to avoid having leaks.

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Sauced! Kentucky Twist

This new sauce takes on whiskey and coffee lovers who need to combine those flavors with BBQ. So, basically I needed something new and wacky to try. From a flavor pallet perspective, I would say this one goes great on burgers and chicken. If you want it a bit thicker, just add a little more sugar, or toss a couple teaspoons of cornstarch in the mix.

Ingredients

1/3 Cup Bourbon Whiskey
1/4 Cup Shoyu Sauce
1/2 Cup of Coffee (darker the better)
1/2 Small Onion, Chopped
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
3/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
2 Tablespoons Honey
2 Tablespoons Molasses
1 Cup Ketchup
1/4 C Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Teaspoon Cumin
1 Teaspoon Smoked Sweet Paprika
1/2 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
2 Teaspoons Dry Mustard
1 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 Teaspoon Chili Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Celery Seed

Combine all ingredients in a small pot and simmer for 15-20 minutes.