Clay Pot Smoker – wrap-up

I tried out the smoker a week ago with a slab of baby-back ribs. They came out OK, but were not the fabulous experience I was hoping it would be. Here are some of my thoughts on this project:

Loose Ends

  • I wish I could find a way to put handles on the lid. It’s heavy and when it’s hot it’s kinda scary to handle. I used a pair of oven mitts and that worked OK.
  • I kept trying to think of some way to raise the smoker up to where I didn’t have to bend over so much to work with it. I thought about buying a cheap expanded metal side table to put it on. I’ve seen them at big-box stores in the past. The problem is that the smoker is pretty heavy and I was concerned about it tipping over. I solved the problem with some tumbled landscape blocks from Lowes. They are made of concrete, but look like old stone blocks. I stacked them in a hollow square three courses high. I also bought a cover made for a smaller Weber grill that fit over the smoker pretty well.
  • There isn’t much information on cooking with this thing – times, temperatures and the like. I started by reading Joshua Bousel’s MeatWave blog and taking notes on times and temperatures for smoking (see below). Joshua is also a regular contributor to my favorite food blog Serious Eats. Later, I came across the website Virtual Weber Bullet. (The Weber Smokey Mountain smoker, a.k.a. the Weber Bullet, is a charcoal-based smoker. Costs about $300.) This site has a lot of advice and recipes for smoking. I figure I could take most of these and adapt them to use with a clay pot smoker.
  • I have a Weber rib rack that stands the ribs up on edge. Fortunately, it fit perfectly inside my smoker. Despite being on a rib rack, the ribs still touched the grill. I didn’t oil the grill before I started and I had to scrub the crud off afterwards. This may be a problem. The cooking grate on a grill is usually shiny metal – either stainless or nickel-plated steel. The charcoal grate – which is the one I used for the smoker – is just heavy-gage steel with no plating.  I’m not sure how much trouble it would be to clean the grate, even if I oiled it before starting.

Water/drip pan hack – A couple of things worried me: First, the original design for the clay pot smoker would allow the fat from the ribs to drip down onto the pan holding the wood chunks. Fat dripping onto smoldering wood is a really bad idea.

Second, rigs like the Weber Smokey Mountain have a water pan that sits below the grill. The pan catches drips and the water adds moisture which helps the meat cook. I wasn’t sure how to add a water pan. I imagined suspending a pan from the grill with wire – but that seemed like a poor solution.

What I finally did was to take two of the paver halves that I had originally used to raise the smoker above the ground and stand them on edge in the pan that contained the wood chunks. I put a cheap metal pan I got at a dollar store on top of them and added water. This solved both problems.

Even after 4 hours, the ribs weren’t very tender. Possibly the heat was too low?

Since this is all uncharted territory for me, I was curious about using chunks of wood (hickory, apple, mesquite) as flavoring since I would not have the charcoal smoke that I was used to. Without smoke, I might as well cook them in the oven! I used 4 large chunks of wood – unsoaked. (Apparently, the barbecuing community has reached a consensus that you don’t need to soak the wood chunks.)


Preliminary Notes on Cooking:

There are many sites that talk about smoking with the Weber Smokey Mountain or the Big Green Egg. There are many that talk about grilling and barbecuing, But I haven’t found any that talk about cooking with an electric smoker. For the time being, I’m going to assume that I can follow the same advice as for charcoal fired grills.

From my initial research of grilling/smoking web sites, I gathered the following cooking advice:

  • Try to maintain the smoker heat at 225 to 250
  • Wait at least two hours before opening the smoker the first time
  • Then, for the rest of the cooking time, baste the ribs with your marinade (if using one) every 45 min.
  • Total cooking time for spareribs should be 6-7 hours. Only 2.5-3 hr for babyback ribs.*
  • Finish the ribs under your oven’s broiler, if you’re using a marinade, brush it on and let it caramelize
  • I used 4 chunks of mesquite wood and did not replace it when it burned out
  • Let the ribs rest 5-10 minutes before eating

*Note: I let the babyback ribs go for 4+ hours. They were just OK – nothing special. Did I overcook?

 

Links:

Clay Pot Smoker – part 1

Clay Pot Smoker – part 2

Clay Pot Smoker – part 3

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