Sunday, August 14, 2005

SMOKIN’ POT ON A SUNDAY MORNING.


For the past several weeks, readers have tolerated my relentless whining about barbeque—or rather, the lack thereof here in Spain.

“Boo hoo hoo…I can’t find a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker® in Spain!”

“Boo hoo hoo…I don’t want to pay $150 to ship one from the US!”

“Boo hoo hoo…why can’t my biceps be as large and bulbous as my calves!”
Oh, wait…that was last year’s rant.

So, after spending several sleepless nights obsessing over the matter…and even considering such ludicrous options as taking welding lessons so that I could build my own “Sally Mountain Cooker” out of an oil drum (a plan that was as hilarious to my family as it was terrifying to my local Fire Department), a sensible reader named “Ironporer” stepped in with the solution that my meager brain couldn’t formulate on its own: “Hey Sal, why don’t you build a smoker out of terra cotta flower pots.” Then he pointed me to a website.

Well…it turns out that there’s a show called “Good Eats” on US television’s Food Network that recently showed how to build such a BBQ smoker. It looked idiot-proof and inexpensive. And—most importantly—it would keep dangerous tools out of my hands. I therefore rushed to my local home improvement store and returned with 75€ worth of components. Here’s how the smoker is constructed:



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COMPONENTS:

1 large terra cotta flower pot (approx. 17-20” tall with a 17” diameter).

1 rounded terra cotta flower pot with a diameter that’s a little larger or smaller than that of the other pot.

1 electric hotplate

1 metal pie plate or other shallow pan.

Hardwood chunks or chips

1 round grate with a diameter that’s a little less than that of the first flower pot.

1 thermometer

A base on which to rest the smoker (I used a wrought iron tri-pod; alternatively, you can use bricks or 2x4’s)

ASSEMBLY:

Step 1: Place the “normal” flower pot on the base so that it’s elevated off the ground.

Step 2: Plate the hotplate at the bottom of the pot, and drop its electrical cord through the pot’s bottom hole.

Step 3: Place the pie plate with wood chunks on the hotplate.

Step 4: Wedge the round grate into the pot and place the meat on top of it.

Step 5: Invert the rounded flower pot and place it over the bottom pot. This will be the smoker’s lid.

Step 6: Drop the thermometer into the top pot’s hole (Duh! Be sure that the thermometer’s diameter is greater than that of the hole).

COOKING METHOD:

Fire-up the hotplate so that the wood chunks smoke and the internal temperature hovers between 210º and 220ºF. Then twiddle your thumbs for the next 7-10 hours.


That’s the theory. Now, here’s the reality.

During the first hour, I neither saw nor smelled any bloody smoke! Worse yet, the internal temperature of this ill-conceived contraption was frozen at 150ºF. Now, 150ºF is the perfect temperature for cooking a piece of meat if, and only if, you like your BBQ with a side-order of salmonella. I found this obstacle especially irksome, given that I had paid a premium for the most powerful hotplate that Boulanger had in stock—a 1500 watt German-built model that should’ve generated enough heat to smelt pig-iron.

Immediately reverting to my natural tendency to panic when faced with adversity, my initial reaction was to launch the entire overgrown, earthenware piece of crap over the wall surrounding my house. But thanks, perhaps, to my prior three months of intensive yoga practice, I discarded violence as a cooking technique and calmly hypothesized that the source of the problem was, in fact, the wood chunks. They must be too large. So I removed those chunks from the pan and replaced them with a heaping handful of much smaller grapevine clippings. These, I was confident, would soon have the pot awash in a dense cloud of fragrant 210ºF smoke.

I returned an hour later to find that the temperature in my still-smokeless smoker had indeed risen— but only an additional 10ºF. After two frustrating hours, it was still 50ºF lower than my target. Fortunately, I faced this latest set-back with a much cooler head than I had an hour earlier. Unfortunately, however, “much cooler head” is a relative concept—as I soon found myself scouring the garage for a can of gasoline with which to inundate this maddening piece of fantasy cookery.

Finding no arson-worthy accelerant on the premises, I had an idea that was—far and away—my most brilliant of the day. I would smoke the brisket on my trusty Weber gas grill, and use the flower-pot smoker for a task which, perhaps, it could handle (i.e., growing flowers!).

So…I fired up the Weber and placed the pan of woodchips on the burner. Within fifteen minutes, I had enough smoke to barbeque Dom DeLouise. I then turned off one burner, set the other to low, dropped the temperature down to 250ºF, and slapped the brisket onto the grill. Ninety minutes later, I wrapped the brisket tightly in heavy-duty foil and popped it into a 300ºF oven for another two hours.

And at the end of the day, I had my friggin’ barbequed brisket. Perhaps a bona-fide pit-master from the back-woods of Alabama wouldn’t be impressed, but then again…I’m a helluva long way from Alabama.

Besides, why should I care about what a pit-master thinks. As of tomorrow, I am a vegetarian.



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33 Comments:

At 7:23 PM, Blogger Franje said...

Hi Sal,
I'm sorry to read that it didn't go as planned. Is it possible that the TV show's web-site developers forgot to include some instructions? Perhaps you could email them to find out?

I have a suggestion that came out of the blue...is it possible that the metal pie plate was too thick or too UNconductive?
How about a piece of copper? Just a thought.

I hope this is resolved, I know how much you love your BBQed meat! :)

Franje

 
At 7:37 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Ah, my friend Franje. A man whose mind is as scientifically astute as mine isn't.

You know...you may be right. The plate that I used was made of a very thin, pathetic metal. It's like one of those cheap baking tins that you'd find on a supermarket shelf of $4. Hmmm...it probably WASN'T very conductive. Perhaps that was the problem.

Yeah! Maybe there's still hope. I think I'll try to find a thicker, heavier one. Copper (as you suggest) would be best; but cast iron or anondized aluminum might work, too.

I'm going to look for a new plate. And when I find it, I'll do a test run...WITHOUT the meat.

Good theory! Thanks for that.

Sal

 
At 7:44 PM, Blogger christina said...

Wow, that's a lot of work for a sandwich! :-)

Sorry it didn't work out exactly as planned. I guess the hotplate just isn't hot enough for such a big chunk of meat and you're right, you sure don't want to be messin' with salmonella.

I picked my husband's brains about the smoker he built years ago(the novelty wore off pretty quickly) and he says it was an oil drum placed on top of the regular grill. We only did trout and a turkey leg once and they turned out well.

 
At 7:48 PM, Blogger christina said...

Franje's comment must have come in while I was composing mine. Just as I clicked the submit button it also occurred to me that it may have been the pie plate that wasn't doing its job. And could the moisture content of the wood make any difference?

 
At 8:50 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Ya know...you're right, Christina. That WAS a lot of work for a sandwich. What the hell's wrong with me?!

I suspect that you and Franje are right about the pie plate. I don't think I could find a more powerful hotplate. Most of the the websites I read from the US were using 1000 watt plates, and mine was 1500 watts.

Yep. It must be the pie plate.

I'll try again in a few weeks weeks. But right know, I...I just can't be with another brisket. Snffff...!

 
At 3:19 AM, Anonymous Kick Shoe said...

I would have put another grill in the bottom and lit a fire on it, but that's just me. I also thought maybe you needed some insulation. Wrap a quilt around it to keep the heat in.

Really, you have more restaint than I, who probably would have resorted to explosives and violence before I got drunk and partied with the magpies and killdeers.

 
At 4:32 AM, Blogger Culinary Fool said...

Hmmm. Slightly different point of view - and one you probably won't like - I think it may be that the large pot is too large for the capacity of the hotplate and/or using a flat top (like the saucer for the pot) instead of a rounded pot would keep the heat inside the main pot.

You know, even Alton usually goes through a few trial runs before he comes up the with optimum solution!

~ CuFo

 
At 9:37 AM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

I should follow Cathy's lead and stick to a diet of magies and killdeers. There's is a tender meat that doesn't require long, slow smoking. I can just pan-fry them on my worthless new hotplate.

And CuFo...I have a better idea: TV dinners in a microwve oven.

Looking at the bright side, the post probably would've been dull if the BBQ turned out perfectly.

 
At 3:53 PM, Blogger Angie said...

Sal,
I have no scientific hypothesis as to why the experiment didn't go as planned. But in true Pollyanna style, I'd like to point out -- at least you had some Cruzcampo to wash it all down! :)

 
At 3:55 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Tienes razón, Angelina. Next weekend, I'll just fill the flower pot with Cruzcampo and have that for lunch.

 
At 4:44 PM, Blogger ironporer said...

Sorry to hear about the lack of sucess of the ceramic smoker Sal. I doubt it had much at all to do with the pie pan's thermal conductivity though. Whether the pan conducted heat or not, it is simply an equation of thermal input into the cooker- and heat loss of the cooker. Either you need more btu input or you need less loss (by insulation of the pot).
I must say I was always worried about placing such a hot plate in a 200-300 degree environment- as plastics melt and then thermocouples run amok and houses burn down and such.

Maybe it's time to think like Hank Hill...propane. Perhaps a big propane fed paella cooker stuffed inside the flower pot? Or Tim "the tool man" Taylor...More Power- a 3000 watt, thermocouple controlled electric resistance heating element (sans the plastic encasing)

 
At 5:04 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Iron Man!

My God! You're such an...engineer.

I like your idea about the paella burner. They sell those in every hardware store in Spain. If I can find one that is of sufficiently small diameter, I'll pick it up. My Weber grill runs on butane, so I always have a full tank laying around.

Let's see...then I'd need to cut the bottom from the flower pot. I think that's within my meager skill-set. Yeah...a paella burner. That's good. Very good! Thanks for that, Iron dude.

Sal

 
At 2:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually the failure was one of the heat source, the hot plate was probably cycling off and on due to its location in a cramped space, some have protection that shuts them off if the heat is too much, thus the low heat and yes you must get over 200 degrees to get smoke out of the wood.

Get another hot plate and try again.

Richard

 
At 2:16 AM, Anonymous Ron and Yasemin said...

Hi Sal,

Yasemin and I have upgraded from the Flower Pot idea to the Big Green Egg, a ceramic cooker. You'd love it. We are definately Eggheads. To avoid proselytizing, here is the website www.biggreenegg.com. Unfortunately for you, shipping alone to sunny Spain would probably equal the cost of shipping good brisket everyday from the Carolinas for years.

 
At 8:26 AM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Hey Ron:

I'm a believer in the BGE. Since your last visit, I looked into getting one. They are supposed to be great for smoking, because they retain heat very well and allow you to maintain a low, controlled temperature forever.

But the problem isn't just shipping. It's the initial cost, also. Those BGE's are damn expensive! Although they are probably worth it...I fear what the outta-US mark-up would be. Weber, for example, marks-up the price of its grills 100% outside the US.

Another thing I loke about BGE is its cult following. Owners are fanatical. It's very similar to the fanaticism you find with Mac users.

I'd love to join the cult, but unfortunately...it will have to wait until I move back to the US (if/when that day should come).

Sal

 
At 8:54 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Hi Everyone:

I see that a man named "Eleusis" linked this post to a BBQ board called The Wolf Web. Assuming that some Wolf Web readers may be checking in, let me elaborate on how I intend to resolve this hotplate problem.

First, I'm shit-canning the hotplate. I am going the gas route. I was in the US last week, bought a turkey deep-fryer and brought it back on the airplane. My plan was to cut the bottom out of the lower flower pot, place a cast-iron box of wood chips on the fryer's pedastal, place the bottomless pot over the iron box, then fiddle with the burner (and its oxygen intake) until I found the correct flame intensity.

Seemed like a plan and I assume that it will work, but I had one major obstacle. We don't use propane in Spain. We use butane, and butane tanks have a different valve than propane's(and thus require a different connector). I thought this would be a simple matter of swapping connectors (i.e., the gadget on the end of the hose that attaches to the tank's valve), but it wasn't because the butane connector's diameter was too large to fit into the fryer's hose. AHH!!!

However, I found another solution. I located a store nearby that sells paella burners in various diameters. These are ring-shaped burners that attach to butane tanks and upon which Spaniards place paella pans to cook. This store sells a paella burner that is only 20 cm in diameter and will fit into the bottom of my pot (which is a roomy 25 cm diameter at the bottom).

I intend to buy the paella burner tomorrow and insert it at the bottom of the pot. Thus, there will be no need to cut out the bottom of the pot, but I will need to cut a small opening on the pot's vertical wall near the bottom for the butane hose. Otherwise, follow all procedures as with the hotplate.

I think this will work. I'll post my results within the next few weeks.

Sal

 
At 9:19 AM, Blogger hippo_pepperpot said...

http://www.cruftbox.com/cruft/docs/elecsmoker.html I think if you look at his warmer it is a basic model with an electric ring. Probably has no cut out point for overheating. Obviously not the pot size! I may just have to make one now!

 
At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've setup a flower-pot smoker similiar to what you're trying using the same source. It works great.

In the US, hotplates and single-element portable stoves are very different appliances. A hotplate is something you might find on a buffet on a holiday to keep a cassarole from getting too cold to enjoy. A single-element portable stove, in contrast, could (at it's highest setting) bring a couple liters of water to boil in about two minutes - to boil pasta for example.

I think your hotplate is limiting you.

I'd also be concerned that a gas burner would, over time, impart a flavor of hydrocarbons to your BBQ.

 
At 7:08 PM, Blogger William Conway said...

Whoa, I love your wrought iron stand. I need to pick one up.

The first time I fired up my "little brown egg", the chunks caught fire, overheated the hotplate and blew it out. Under further investigation, the hotplate had a hidden fuse that blows when the enclosure gets too hot. Rather than chuck it out, I relocated the controls outside of the smoker into their own control box.

I also stopped using chunks. Using smaller chips increased smoke production and reduced the potential for fire.

You can read about the construction of my smoker here, and some success stories here.

Good Luck!

 
At 8:58 PM, Anonymous jiarby said...

I understand that you can soon get a REAL ceramic smoker in the EU pretty soon...

The Kamado Company is importing their famous Kamado's (see www.kamado.com/europe) to Germany, so you may be able to get a big cooker and have REAL BBQ! They are scheduled to arrive in Bremerhaven June 17th.

Regarding the electric plate... dump that and put in a charcoal pan. That would address your temp problems

 
At 9:24 PM, Blogger hemi71cuda said...

I had same problem getting my burner to maintain a high enough temp. My solution however, was much cheaper, easier and less invasive than your gas burner idea. Involes putting a small coffee can of charcoal in the bottom for the heat and adding soaked woodchips on top for the smoke. I've detailed it in a forum post and thers also a link to pictures there:

http://www.bbqsource-forums.com/invboard/index.php?showtopic=114

I just added the post today 9/9/06 so its probably the last post

Hope you haven't given up, or are willing to make another try, b/c this works. Mine is going as i type this.

 
At 6:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that Alton Brown (host of the show Good Eats) went to a local woodshop and procured a good bit of hardwood sawdust to put in his pan. That may have been for his other homemade smoker made of a cardboard box (for cold smoking salmon), but it seems like it would create a lot more smoke than chips.

 
At 3:57 AM, Anonymous gnovembe@hotmail said...

I just finished building and using the AB flower pot smoker. After initial failure, I removed the thermostat from the Rival 750 watt hotplate and mounted it on the flower pot wall 2 inches below the food grate.Wow!! Perfection!! The thermostate maintains a +-8 deg temp after warmup. I used an old cookie tin for the wood chips. I set temps of 160 deg, 190 and 225deg.with great control. I add wood chips every hour or two.

 
At 6:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to know how to build a small or large smoker for very cheap with very limited funds just email me taylorgeorge00@yahoo.com (subject- smoking in spain). I build smokers and grills as a hobby and side job. I live in alabama and no I'm not impressed with your bbq but I'm willing to help.

 
At 10:14 PM, Blogger James said...

One other spot that could be steeling your heat. The stand your using is very conductive and right next to your heat source. You may have just attached cast iron heat fins to your smoker. Try simply putting it on wooden blocks or bricks.

 
At 6:02 AM, Blogger Gustavo said...

First of all, The reason for using the pot is because of its high conductive qualities. So it is definitely your "hot plate" you need to get a portable electric burner. A hot plate is a warming device. I can get my $8.00 burner to heat up to 220 in my little brown smoker, the pots are by the way bigger than yours in around 20 minutes, without turning it to full power.

 
At 8:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah for whatever reason every cast iron hotplate i've used or seen reviews of do not heat up enough. I finally purchased the cheapest electric range style element and it's more than hot enough at 750W. i'd avoid propane, its not dry enough of a heat.

 
At 4:24 AM, Anonymous -Matt said...

Hey All, I realize you're probably not working on this anymore, but I made this same attempt myself and may have solved the problems you're having.

Note: I have a background in electrical engineering and thermodynamics, these were surprisingly important.

There are 2 main problems which I'll address in order.

1) Heat: Modern hot plates have a temperature cutoff switch below the heating element. In other words, if the temperature under the plate gets too high, the plate shuts off. This is an important safety feature in most cases, not so for our purposes here. This can usually be easily disabled as it's just an automatic fuse/switch in the circuit. Just disconnect at both ends and reconnect around the fuse/switch. This will void your warranty.

2) The smoking: If you're like me and weren't really thinking, you probably bought a 3 or 4 dollar heavy duty pie/cake tin at the store. This is a mistake for 1 simple reason, these tins are designed to slow the rate at which heat enters the bottom of a pie/cake. This prevents the bottom from burning before the middle is done, good for a cake, bad for smoke. Buy a cheapo tinfoil/aluminum foil plate instead, worked just fine for me.

I hope this helps everyone who's attempting to use this great cooking technique (assuming you're on a budget like me). Otherwise go buy a gas smoking cabinet, way easier.

 
At 6:07 PM, Anonymous Mat said...

I had the very same problem getting up to temp with a 1000w burner. The problem was not with the reostat (sp?), but with the heating element style. It appears that a solid heating element does not heat up as hot has a coiled element regardless of the wattage of the hot plate. I switched from a 1000w solid heating element to a 750w coiled heating element, and my max temp went from 150 degrees on Hi to 275 degrees on Hi.

 
At 10:39 PM, Blogger Leviticus said...

FYI, I'm guessing the 'hot plate' you used is actually an INDUCTIVE heating unit - meaning it only heats certain types of pans, otherwise they're cool to the touch. (It's an electromagnetic heating element that ONLY heats iron pans.)

Alton would say 'overpaying for your gear has gotten you in trouble'.

Use a resistive heating element (like the kind on cheap electric stoves) and you'll be in good shape - this smoker works, I promise! (So does the BGE, which I'd love to afford, but...)

 
At 12:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there Sal... Dont know if this blog is still in use, but I though I would post something over this.

First off, there is a lot of good ideas here from other posters, esp over the heating plate.

However you will be happy to know that you dont have to go buy (unless you REALLY want to!) another type or change to gas. Your problem can be taken care of very simply.

You see, heat is a wonderful thing because it thermally "stacks", in other words even a small heat source can produce much higher temperatures if you can retain it better. For example, a single candle which at its tip produced a direct heat of 1000 to 1500c only gives off a very small temperature change to its surroundings when burning normally. But it you enclose it and have the flame tip under a steel rod, over 10 minuets it will produce up to 250c of radiating heat.

What YOU need to do it to retain the heat better. Go get some ceramic fibre and some Ceramic glue... OR if you cannot get that, then use the old fashioned heat cement or paste (they use in in fireplaces, or for some kilns etc). Simply line your plant pot with it. (about 2 mm for the cement or paste if used).

Job done.

You will find that you will be able to turn down the heat source, which will avoid it tripping out, and the insulation will build up the internal temperature over the space of about 1 hour to the required amount.

Good luck with it.

 
At 12:07 PM, Anonymous singapore florist said...

the finishing/ result looks so scrumptious.

 
At 5:30 PM, Anonymous Josh King said...

Hi,

I work for the Food Network on a show called The Kitchen and we are interested in potentially showing a photo of your smoker. You can email me at josh@bstventertainment.com for more information and I hope to hear from you soon!

Best,
Josh King

 

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