Despite the less than favourable conditions for the competition, and the lonely nature of the experience, it was good fun! It was the first chance since buying the smoker that I had to really spend some time working with it, watching how it behaved to different circumstances and getting a feel for it. I'm also an introvert who likes to be alone, so sitting in a field with just some music and a BBQ was really quite peaceful.
As well as generally enjoying it, I also learnt a whole tonne of stuff. Both from the practical experience and just generally going through it and advice from fellow competitors (surprisingly, I went into both competitions expecting everyone to be highly secretive about technique and recipes - although I was planning on publishing my recipe and scorecard whatever happened - but found the opposite, everyone I spoke to offered tips and lots of competitors had their ingredients listed on their stalls).
The competition involved three rounds: 1) a rack of pork ribs 2) a half chicken 3) Chef's choice (I went short ribs again)
Given all my practice up until this weekend had been for the chili, and I had used my new smoker a total of three times up until this weekend I had reached the point where I figured there was not too much point going all bells-and-whistles for the competition, so I used supermarket meat rather than better quality meat from a butchers and re-used the same rub and sauce on both the pork and chicken.
The resultsI came a more impressive sounding 3rd (so took home a prize!), but with the caveat that there were only three of us competing on the day, so depending on how you look at it, its taking home the bronze, or coming last. (I did however get some pretty positive feedback on the chicken and the beef ribs)
I didn't taste or see the second place entry, but I can say that the winning BBQ was wayyyy ahead of the level I was at! (They also were the most helpful in giving advice and talking through what they did).
I didn't take home the feedback notes, but generally the chicken and beef were well cooked (although in reality the beef was over-cooked, and had more shrinkage than I would have liked, but beef ribs need to be cooked well beyond well-done for the connective tissue to melt, so even though they were cooked to fast, the end result was positive). The pork ribs were overdone (I knew this at time of submission) and everything was a bit too smoked.
An aside: Reasons against chickenI really don't like slow cooking chicken. Although the judges were very positive about it, I just don't think it makes sense as low'n'slow bbq food, and given the option I wouldn't include it on my menu. My original plan for the competition was to take two BBQs: my smoker and my Barbeskew (basically a charcoal BBQ with a rotisserie), however, the day before due to travel I failed in my attempts to dismantle it so it would fit into my car.
So for the competition, I had to suck it up and just cook the thing in the smoker. There are two main reasons I much prefer cooking the chicken on the rotisserie than the smoker:
- Chicken, especially the breast meat, is not well suited to slow cooking and gets dried out very easily. It has very little connective tissue in the breast meat as it is a fast twitch muscle (also not helped by the physical properties of a whole chicken, with the breasts the most exposed parts of the meat, and higher up - problems that can be helped by spatchcocking). Just like cooking a traditional roast chicken in an oven, I would cook hot and fast (220 degrees centigrade on a fan oven), to quickly cook without drying out - where as a smoker (especially one that is also cooking other meats) is better at cooking slowly at much lower temperatures.
- The lower temperature doesn't crisp up the skin as well as a direct, radiant heat source. The rotisserie lets us cook the chicken over a high radiant heat from the direct coals (whilst of course rotating, to avoid overcooking a single part of the chicken) which very effectively browns the skin. Again, this problem can be alleviated a little by rolling the bird around on a direct heat above the coals for a short time, but still not as effective. Just look at the skin of the bird below compared to the one I submitted for the competition (the competition chicken also has my BBQ sauce on it, which is contributing to the brown colour, where as the bird below is just a dry rub before cooking and then just beautifully golden skin):
So, what did I learn?
Much like the previous day, I learnt a lot. Some basic things about the smoker, and some about general technique, so in no particular order:
- The Weber Smokey Mountain is incredibly effective at holding its temperature - As mentioned, this was the first time I had a chance to just sit and watch it, and I did fiddle with the air vents an awful lot, but the take away was that it was pretty simple to get it sitting at a fixed temperature for several hours. With the vents fully open, and using about 1 1/2 chimney-starters worth of coal, the smoker will happily go to 125 degrees centigrade - if you need to ramp it up even higher (for example you want to really blast a chicken), then you need more oxygen. I noticed the previous day that when I opened the lid for more than 30 seconds or so, the coals got flooded with the additional oxygen and usually re-ignited - this is useful to help restore the temperature in the smoker once the lid is back on (as with the lid off for a minute or two you will easily see a drop to something like 70 degrees) - but also highlights the importance of air-supply. If you want to keep the temperature high for a short time, you can open the lid for a few minutes to get that initial flood of oxygen and then leave the coal door open to keep a steady supply of air coming in. Whilst not that useful in smoking food normally, its interesting to experiment to really get a feel for the kit, and understand the controls.
- I decided to cook without water in the water pan - having heard that several competitors don't use water, or instead replace it with sand or terracotta (to act much like a pizza stone, to retain heat). It might normally have been a gamble to just change up my setup on the day, but given the minimal experience I had, I figured it didn't matter too much.
One side affect of not adding the water was it seemed to change the temperature dynamic in the smoker. Normal advice is that (on a hot day) the temperature shown at the top thermometer in the lid can be 10-15 degrees hotter than the bottom grid in the smoker (due to heat rising, and potential effects of sunlight direct on the lid). However, after a few hours I measured the temperature lower down in the smoker (I inserted an instant read thermometer in the side just above the lower grid) and it was running around 30 degrees hotter than the thermometer at the top (also worth noting that it was a fairly grey and miserable day, so possibly that was cooling the top thermometer).
I will try this approach again to check the same behaviour, but my theory is this: with the water in, the water pan blocks the direct heat from the coal, so the smoker operates like a normal convection oven, regulating the heat throughout, however, without water (or in theory, sand etc) the metal pan just absorbs and radiates the heat from the coal, so providing a more direct heat source - providing radiant heat from the pan from the bottom as well as the convective heat. If this is the case, then it possibly provides an interesting approach for two zone cooking - the bottom grill running higher with more direct heat, and the top grill operating more like the conventional smoker.
- One of the pieces of feedback from the judges was that the meat was all too smoked. I knew I shouldn't add too much wood. I had read, start with less. Err on the side of caution. But despite all this, I kept doubting that the wood was smoking enough, so kept adjusting. Something that comes with experience and confidence is the self assurance to not second guess yourself, and not to second guess what you know is right.
- As I mentioned, the ribs were overdone. Especially the pork ribs. When I went to take them off the BBQ, they were looking a gorgeous colour, and I had a decision to make - do I wrap them in foil and put them back on the BBQ (a la Texas Crutch) or do I foil them and put them in the cooler (a la faux cambro). I opted for back on the BBQ, but as I hadn't really planned this part, I didn't add any liquid to the foil - and disappointingly, when I unwrapped them from the foil, they didn't look as good as when I had wrapped them. Changes I will make for next time: try out the Texas Crutch approach earlier on in cooking to finish off, or once done just put them in the cooler. I will also be switching from baby back ribs to spare ribs. I might also try the texas crutch approach for the beef ribs next time.
Now all I need to do is get in some more practice before next year..