Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal

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Penoose
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2004/01/29 11:38:05 (permalink)

Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal

I know purists will probably insist on the latter, but I'm financially challenged. What are the benefits of each? In terms of price, convenience, ease of temperature control, versatility, etc?

Thanks in advance.

P.j.
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    Rick F.
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/01/29 12:03:53 (permalink)
    I love barbecue, but am obviously not a purist! I've used a cheap WalMart-stocked Brinkmann electric water smoker for years. Useless for really large cuts, but simple and reliable, and cheap enouugh to replace when it rusts out due to my neglect. If I had the time I might find that charcoal was superior, but I don't, so ignorance is bliss.
    #2
    Grampy
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/01/29 12:47:33 (permalink)
    Electric? What's that?
    #3
    Sundancer7
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/01/29 13:18:07 (permalink)
    I am with RickF on the electric. I have both types and the charcoal needs too much maintenance. The electric is easy to use.

    If you use the charcoal, do not get the kind that lights instantly. It will leave a severe petroleum after taste to your product. I made that mistake early on.

    Some folks say that adding any spices to the water is a waste. I do it anyway. It may be in my head, but it taste better. I have added many different things over time. From onions, garlic, BBQ sauce, jams and jellies and tons of different spices.

    If it smells good, eat it.

    Paul E. Smith
    Knoxville, TN
    #4
    RibDog
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/01/29 13:22:35 (permalink)
    I cook on two WSMs (Weber Smokey Mountains). They use either briqettes or lump charcoal along with wood chunks for the smoke. They have a water pan also.

    I have been cooking on these for over five years now and at least once or twice a month. They are a fantastic smoker. Their cost runs about $180 and are worth every penny.

    Am I biased? Yes! As Grampy said, "what's electic?" Using a smoker means using either wood or charcoal or a combination of the two.

    Just my opinion.

    John
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    hermitt4d
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/01/29 16:34:05 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by Penoose

    I know purists will probably insist on the latter, but I'm financially challenged. What are the benefits of each? In terms of price, convenience, ease of temperature control, versatility, etc?

    Thanks in advance.

    P.j.


    A problem with electric smokers is the control of the temperature - completely lacking on the Brinkman. The Charbroil version does have a temp control. I've also seen concern expressed that those heating elements vary in how much they put out. And for someone in your location, using one in cold weather might be impractical as they might not generate enough heat to cook anything if the ambient temperature is in the 20s, etc.

    Thermometers on any expensive model are unreliable and need to be supplemented or replaced. The Brinkman doesn't even have one.

    I frequented the alt.food.barbecue group for a couple of years. Here's a link to their FAQS which will discuss different equipment and recommended modifications to improve their use. I don't think there's much here on electrics, tho.

    http://www.eaglequest.com/~bbq/faq/

    You'll probably want to access the full file, but here's a shortened version:

    http://groups.google.com/groups?q=faqs+group:alt.food.barbecue&start=40&hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&group=alt.food.barbecue&selm=33df6593.42627622%40news.odc.net&rnum=45

    You could also go to Google, click on 'Groups,' and enter 'alt.food.barbecue'; then use the 'Search alt.food.barbecue' option to look for comments on any piece of equipment you're considering.

    A guy using ECBs (their shorthand for 'El Cheapo Brinkman') has won statewide bbq competitions in Oregon and placed first in 2 categories in a KC bbq cookoff. Their position is you can produce great barbeque on any sort of equipment - the crucial factor is the pitmaster. I remember reading about a guy making great barbeque with a 'pit' he made out of an old refrigerator. (And a guy in Denver who had to build a baffle to surround his unit to use it in cold weather).

    I have an ECB electric, just as a starter unit. I've produced some good ribs and chicken, but haven't yet been satisfied with any brisket. I find you need to use wood chunks, rather than chips, as I think their booklet recommends. I do plan to upgrade to the WSM, tho.
    #6
    Willly
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/01/29 17:12:17 (permalink)
    The WSM is the best $180.00 ever spent.
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    Stogie
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/01/30 10:19:30 (permalink)
    Hi Penoose....

    I cooked for almost 15 years on a Charbroil Electric unit. It died just a couple of years ago...I still used it to make jerky. The ONLY one to consider is the Charbroil....as was mentioned, it has variable temp control. You NEED this feature...if not, don't even bother with an electric unit!

    The cheap charcoal smokers are almost completely worthless. Major design flaws cause so many problems that many get frustrated and never smoke again. So, I'm beggin' ya...save your money!

    Now, can you cook good BBQ on them...YES! But, you better know what you are doing.

    Here is how I learned to cook BBQ.........I used the electric so I could focus on how to cook the meat. You don't have any worries about fires and how to control them.....no worries about creosote, etc. Once I learned how to cook the meat....THEN I was ready to tackle learning fire control.

    Like John(RibDog) I too have a fleet of WSM's and cook with them in competition. The single best backyard BBQ machine on the planet..bar none! This is the unit that can be learned in very little time...so much help is available around here.

    Stogie
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    b-n-kchefservice
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/01/30 14:40:55 (permalink)
    I happen to have a lil' cheif electric, a coal/wood brinkmean pit with the offset firebox and now I have a greatoutdoors gas-op smoker all of the work great but all for different types of smoking. I like the electric for making jerky and smoked fish in the summer time, due to the low temp. I like the pit for doing briskets, ribs, butts, whole chickens and other large cuts in the summer time or when I have lots of time to tend a fire. But the new one. the gas-op is the greatest year round becuase the heat is so exact. if its cold out just turn it up to make up for it. and you can do anything in the gas-op from jerky and fish to briskets to ham. and when it comes to flavor to me wood is for smoking/barbecueing and charcoal is for grilling. Barry, MI
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    hermitt4d
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/01 05:50:14 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by Stogie

    Hi Penoose....

    The cheap charcoal smokers are almost completely worthless. Major design flaws cause so many problems that many get frustrated and never smoke again. So, I'm beggin' ya...save your money!

    Now, can you cook good BBQ on them...YES! But, you better know what you are doing.

    Here is how I learned to cook BBQ.........I used the electric so I could focus on how to cook the meat. You don't have any worries about fires and how to control them.....no worries about creosote, etc. Once I learned how to cook the meat....THEN I was ready to tackle learning fire control.

    Stogie


    Excellent advice. I had a cheap charcoal smoker - Mr. Smokey or something like that - 20 years ago. I still have it in the garage but chose to get an ECB because of the hassles of that thing.

    I did some ribs last night on the patio (closed on 3 sides and covered). Advertised as 3 and 1/2 and down, both racks were close to 4 #. I used a dry rub only, some apple and mesquite chips and chunks for smoke. It was about 55 degrees out.

    Most excellent. We ate some right off the 'fire' and were very pleased but followed the suggestion of America's Test Kitchens and wrapped the second rack in foil then put in a brown paper bag for an hour. I was amazed how hot the ribs still were an hour later and, as promised, they were much tenderer and juicier for their little rest period. I think maybe only a 30 minute wait would be sufficient though not even really necessary.

    I'm thinking I'm going to be putting off buying a WSM for a while longer and try brisket again.

    BTW, ATK says they detect no difference in the end product whether liquid is added to the pan or not. I haven't used liquid for the last couple of times. Anybody care to comment on your experiences .
    #10
    Stogie
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/01 10:55:44 (permalink)
    Yes, I will gladly comment...

    Me and several other users of the WSM tested this several years ago. We all agreed to try various ingredients in the water pan. At the end of the summer 100% of us agreed..NO noticeable taste difference. One caveat....whiskey did have an impact..though is was a horrible one and we all agreed, much too expensive to be adding whisky to your water pan!

    End of discussion for me.

    This does make sense.....just look at all the flavors we are putting on our meats......there is a rub, there is the flavor of the smoke and finaly the flavor of the sauce. The vast majority of humans would not be able to detect all of these subtle flavors.

    Stogie
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    Bushie
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/01 11:32:52 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by Stogie

    One caveat....whiskey did have an impact..though is was a horrible one...


    I tried adding whiskey once a few years ago. I was shocked at how bad it was. Ruined a whole brisket...
    #12
    Sundancer7
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/01 11:44:30 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by Bushie

    quote:
    Originally posted by Stogie

    One caveat....whiskey did have an impact..though is was a horrible one...


    I tried adding whiskey once a few years ago. I was shocked at how bad it was. Ruined a whole brisket...


    Bushie: Sounds to me like you put the booze in the wrong container.

    Come back to knoxville and I will give you some one on one training on how to properly use booze

    Paul E. Smith
    Knoxville, TN
    #13
    Bushie
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/01 12:22:50 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by Sundancer7


    Bushie: Sounds to me like you put the booze in the wrong container.

    Come back to knoxville and I will give you some one on one training on how to properly use booze

    Yeah, I guess it's time for a refresher course! And even worse than ruining the brisket was wasting a whole bottle of Maker's Mark!
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    Sundancer7
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/01 12:28:58 (permalink)
    Bushie, if you had ate the alcohol infused brisket, you would not have been able to remember where you liked it or not

    I have flamed my steaks with Brandy after grilling them. I did it on a hot plate and did not realize the results of using too much of the good stuff. I nearly torched the top of the overhand on the boat dock.

    It is about 9:30 in California. I guess the California convention will be getting together in a few minutes. Sounded like a great thing to do on a Sunday.

    Paul E. Smith
    Knoxville, TN
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    RibDog
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/01 14:10:44 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by Stogie

    Yes, I will gladly comment...

    Me and several other users of the WSM tested this several years ago. We all agreed to try various ingredients in the water pan. At the end of the summer 100% of us agreed..NO noticeable taste difference. One caveat....whiskey did have an impact..though is was a horrible one and we all agreed, much too expensive to be adding whisky to your water pan!

    End of discussion for me.

    This does make sense.....just look at all the flavors we are putting on our meats......there is a rub, there is the flavor of the smoke and finaly the flavor of the sauce. The vast majority of humans would not be able to detect all of these subtle flavors.

    Stogie



    I agree with Stogie on this. I never add anything to the water in the pan. But when I cook ribs, I do use a spray bottle with 4/5s filled with apple juice and 1/5 filled with Jack Daniels. I use this as a baste towards the end of the smoking process.

    John
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    oldfrt
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/01 14:27:41 (permalink)
    When I lived in Michigan I built my own smoker out of some old paneling and 2X2's plus some old refrigerator shelves. Fire was an old Hibachi with charcoal. Needed something big (I think mine was about 3X3X4 ft. high) as we did a lot of Salmon and Steelhead fishing back then and always had many filets to brine, and smoke. I drilled a small hole in the top for a meat thermometer to slide into for temp control. Alder wood or Hickory for wood.

    Years later we moved to Denver and I got one of those "Smokey" smokers as a gift and as someone else said, a real "pain". One big drawback was the round racks that were so small in diameter that you could not get a slab of ribs in them. I think it still is out in the shed somewhere and going to make a planter outa it in the spring.

    I agree with the survey on the water pan. Never saw any significant advantage except it did add some moisture to the smoking area which reduced the "drying out" of all the fish we made. For meats which have the fat content like ribs, I do not see any reason to have one.

    Thanks for the advice on the WSM's, will take a look at them. Boy I surely miss all that smoked Salmon in Michigan.

    Don
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    RibDog
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/01 22:23:12 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by oldfrt

    When I lived in Michigan I built my own smoker out of some old paneling and 2X2's plus some old refrigerator shelves. Fire was an old Hibachi with charcoal. Needed something big (I think mine was about 3X3X4 ft. high) as we did a lot of Salmon and Steelhead fishing back then and always had many filets to brine, and smoke. I drilled a small hole in the top for a meat thermometer to slide into for temp control. Alder wood or Hickory for wood.

    Years later we moved to Denver and I got one of those "Smokey" smokers as a gift and as someone else said, a real "pain". One big drawback was the round racks that were so small in diameter that you could not get a slab of ribs in them. I think it still is out in the shed somewhere and going to make a planter outa it in the spring.

    I agree with the survey on the water pan. Never saw any significant advantage except it did add some moisture to the smoking area which reduced the "drying out" of all the fish we made. For meats which have the fat content like ribs, I do not see any reason to have one.

    Thanks for the advice on the WSM's, will take a look at them. Boy I surely miss all that smoked Salmon in Michigan.

    Don


    If you get WSM, make sure you go over to http://www.virtualweberbullet.com It is an excellent site with how-to's and recipes to be used on the WSM. Plus they show how to modify your WSM to make it a low-temp cold smoker so you can make your own smoked salmon among other things.

    John
    #18
    Penoose
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/02 02:39:27 (permalink)
    >>And for someone in your location, using one in cold weather might be impractical as they might not generate enough heat to cook anything if the ambient temperature is in the 20s, etc. <<

    The 20s??? That would qualify as a veritable heat wave right now.

    I am both geographically and financially challenged.

    #19
    Penoose
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/02 04:16:18 (permalink)
    Thanks for all the advice, gang.

    A few more questions...

    For Sundancer and Rick: What kind of smoker do you use? Have you encountered any of the aforementioned temp control problems?

    Stogie: Is this the Charbroil unit you were talking about?

    [url][/url]http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005MF8U/ref=pd_sxp_elt_l1/104-4100997-5771137

    The WSM looks fantastic, but I want to start cheaper. What meats have you all done on electric smokers? I am most interested in pork butt/shoulder. I've cooked butts before, for 7-8 hours in a crock pot with coffee, liquid smoke, and beef broth. While this is actually quite good, I want that real smoky bbq flavor.

    How have you all fared with pork butts on electric smokers? What about fish or beef brisket?

    I will probably wait for warmer temperatures to do this. Subzero windchills are simply not conducive to good bbq. I haven't even grilled since mid-December...pfft...stupid climate...
    #20
    Sundancer7
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/02 05:16:37 (permalink)
    Penoose: I bought a Brinkman electric on sale at Walmart for about $50.00. I also have a brinkman that uses charcoal. The reason I bought an electric was the difficulty using the charcoal. When you do a long smoke and have to add charcoal, I found it difficult.

    The purist indicated that the electric was not very good and I agree that it definately ain't the best but I have never had any problems.

    I have done brisket, sausages, turkey, ham and other cuts of pork and I have never had any complaints from those who consume.

    People of skill who are really good at BBQ would never use one but this back yard amateur BBQ'er limps along pretty good.

    Paul E. Smith
    Knoxville, TN
    #21
    Stogie
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/02 09:27:55 (permalink)
    Penoose....

    Yes, that is the one. They are carried by several of the large box stores...Lowe's, HD, etc. You should be able to get one at those stores....this will save you some shipping.

    I have cooked every BBQ meat on the electric. It will work just as well as a charcoal fired pit or a stick burner.

    When it comes to smoke, lay your chunks of wood directly on the element...even though the book will tell you not to do this...I did it for years. I used small chunks...about half the size of your fist. No need to soak in water. The chips will disappear in mere moments so don't waste your time with them.

    I STRONGLY suggest getting a probe thermometer to measure the temps inside the smoker. They look like this.......

    http://www.polder.com/pictures/M_307.jpg

    IMO, it is the single most important tool for the newbie. You can get them for under $20 at many kitchen sections in the large dept. stores. The cord can be placed underneath the lid...this way, you can keep an eye on the temp without opening the lid. Opening that lid will add about 10-15 mins. to your cooking for every instance of lifting it.

    I used mine throughout the winter months. Simply get a water heater blanket/insulation and cut it to size. This will mar the finish slightly, but I didn't care...I wasn't looking for a "pretty" cooker...I wanted something that could cook in the winter! You will also need to shelter the unit from the wind.

    Finally, if it is chiully out or the temp doesn't climb enough, use it WITHOUT water in the pan. Just put some foil on the bottom of the water pan...this makes clean-up very easy. Many of us who have the WSM have gone to using sand in place of the water. But, in cooler temps or windy conditions or when you want to cook some poultry at higher temps, keep the pan empty.

    These electric units work, but I would NOT buy one without variable temp control. It'll cost a little more, but if you really want to use the cooker in a wide variety of cooking, you need to be able to control the heat.
    #22
    Penoose
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/02 13:51:12 (permalink)
    >>STRONGLY suggest getting a probe thermometer to measure the temps inside the smoker. They look like this...<<

    That looks like a meat thermometer. Are you saying that I would stick this apparatus in the smoker, not push it into the meat itself?

    Is it more important to know the internal temp of the meat or the temp inside the smoker? Or will I need to know both?

    Thanks...you all have helped me immensely.
    #23
    Stogie
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/02 15:02:22 (permalink)
    Penoose....

    Yes, stick the probe thru a potato so the tip is protruding. Then place it on the grate close to the meat.

    You will be measuring BOTH the cooker temp and the meat temp. Measure the cooker temp until your meat is nearly done. Once you are close to finishing, then you can measure the meat temp using the same probe. You need to know what your cooker is measuring if you want to gauge your timing. For instance, at 225º cooker temp, most pork butts will take about 2 hr./lb. Once the 2 hr/lb. is met, then you can check the meats temp.

    By doing this, there is no need to buy 2 probes. I do have to admit I have 6 of those things but I am anal! LOL Also, sounds like you are on a tight budget, so, you can get by very easily with 1.

    After a period of time, you will no longer need to measure the meat temps. Temps of the meat can be misleading. You really need to depend on "feel". Easiest way is to take a fork and stick it in the meat and twist. If it twists easily, then it is done.

    Hope this helps!

    Stogie
    #24
    Bushie
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/02 17:45:00 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by Stogie

    Yes, stick the probe thru a potato so the tip is protruding. Then place it on the grate close to the meat.

    Stogie, I haven't been sticking the probe through a potato, as this is the first time I heard of this. I've just been laying the probe on the grill beside the meat. My results have been great, but am I getting a false reading by laying the probe directly on the grill

    As always, thanks for your great advice.
    #25
    oldfrt
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/02 20:26:08 (permalink)
    I alway measured the temp in the smoker and tried to keep it around 170 - 180 for the Salmon and Steelhead. Charcoal demanded checking every half hour + check the smoking wood. A meat thermometer works well and, as I said before, you can drill a hole into the top of the smoker (1/4 inch) and the problem is solved.

    HERE WE GO - My priority was keeping the smoker temerature as the constant and the variable was the TIME. Rationale was if you kicked up the temp, the meat, or whatever, would be cooked faster but you sacrefice the imbedding of the smoke flavor into the meat. If you smoke slower, at lower temps, you get the flavor. As to the meat or fish, you can check that every hour or so with a instant thermometer or by cutting it open, or by touch. My Salmon took about 3-4 hours (checked hourly) but I concentrated on keeping the smoker at 170-180 degrees.

    I think there is a balance here and you need to make sure whatever you are making is "done" (Agree). This can be done with a meat thermometer periodically but the PRIME concentration should be on the smoker temp IMHO. Smoking takes time, not heat!

    Your comments?

    Don
    #26
    Stogie
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    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/02 21:32:03 (permalink)
    Bushie......

    You may indeed be getting false readings. The grates will be hotter than the ambient air, so if the sensing part of the probe is touching the metal, your readings will be off. Have you noticed anything strange when cooking or is everything turning out OK? If it is all OK, then I wouldn't worry. You can also stick the thermo through a corner of your meat. This eliminates any need for 'taters or other devices. Just make sure the tip of the probe is pointing UP....that way no juices can seep down the probe and cool it giving a flase reading. Can you tell I been there and done that?? LOL

    Don......

    No doubt about it.....low temp is the way to go! If you research the science of rendering fat, collagen breakdown, etc., you will find all this stuff happens somewhere around 160-170º. So, the secret to tender BBQ is keeping your meat in that temp range for as long as you can. The longer the better. There may even be something to the technique of lowering your pit temp once the meat reaches 160º. Once it surpasses the 170º you can then crank it up. This would allow the meat to stay in that rendering zone for an extended time.

    However, at some point you need to get the meat temp over 185-190º...at least for butts, ribs and brisket. Most of the pros cook their meats at a cooker temp of 225º. This seems to be the ideal level..low enough to keep the meat rendering, yet high enough to get it up around 190º-200º. That is why cooking everything at 170-180º will not always work. But, for fish that is perfect! That is also the temp I use to dry jerky.

    The "accepted" range for true BBQ is between 200º- 275º. But, if you want to get your timing down....like serving meals on time......then you should try to keep your temps at a steady level.

    So, I guess we agree.....watch that pit temp!

    Stogie
    #27
    Bushie
    Filet Mignon
    • Total Posts : 2902
    • Joined: 2001/04/21 19:15:00
    • Location: Round Rock, TX
    • Status: offline
    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/03 08:39:50 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by Stogie

    Bushie......

    You may indeed be getting false readings. The grates will be hotter than the ambient air, so if the sensing part of the probe is touching the metal, your readings will be off. Have you noticed anything strange when cooking or is everything turning out OK? If it is all OK, then I wouldn't worry. You can also stick the thermo through a corner of your meat. This eliminates any need for 'taters or other devices. Just make sure the tip of the probe is pointing UP....that way no juices can seep down the probe and cool it giving a flase reading. Can you tell I been there and done that?? LOL


    Stogie, although everything so far has been good, I'll try it with a small tater when I cook this weekend. THANKS!!
    #28
    Willly
    Cheeseburger
    • Total Posts : 396
    • Joined: 2002/07/26 15:34:00
    • Location: Westport, CT
    • Status: offline
    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/13 09:16:51 (permalink)
    Just as an FYI, Amazon is currently holding a leap year sale (use promotion code LEAP29REBATE). A Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker can be purchased for $150 net, including shipping. I just ordered another...

    #29
    oldfrt
    Cheeseburger
    • Total Posts : 269
    • Joined: 2003/10/23 17:03:00
    • Location: Castle Rock, CO
    • Status: offline
    RE: Smokers: Electric vs. Charcoal 2004/02/13 20:37:57 (permalink)
    Hmmmm. Will check this out! Thanks Willy!

    Don
    #30
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