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Digital Thermometers:
Stop Guessing!

thermopop bbq thermometer

Gold BBQ AwardA good digital thermometer keeps me from serving dry overcooked food or dangerously undercooked food. You can get a professional grade, fast and precise splashproof thermometer like the Thermopop (above) for about $24. The Thermapen (below), the Ferrari of instant reads, is about $96. It's the one you see all the TV chefs and all the top competition pitmasters using. Click here to read more about types of thermometer and our ratings and reviews.

bbq thermapen

GrillGrates Take You To
The Infrared Zone

BBQ_grill_grates

Gold BBQ AwardGrillGrates(TM) amplify heat, prevent flareups, make flipping foods easier, produce great grill marks, keep small foods from committing suicide, kill hotspots, are easier to clean, flip over to make a fine griddle, smolder wood right below the meat, and can be easily removed and moved from one grill to another. You can even throw wood chips or pellets or sawdust between the rails and deliver a quick burst of smoke to whatever is above. Every gas grill and pellet smoker needs them.

Click here to read more about what makes these grates so special and how they compare to other cooking surfaces.

The Smokenator:
A Necessity For All Weber Kettles

smokenator bbq system

Gold BBQ Award If you have a Weber Kettle, you need the amazing Smokenator and Hovergrill. The Smokenator turns your grill into a first class smoker, and the Hovergrill can add capacity or be used to create steakhouse steaks.

Click here to read more.

The Pit Barrel Cooker

pit barrel c ooker bbqAbsolutely positively without a doubt the best bargain on a smoker in the world.

This baby will cook circles around the cheap offset sideways barrel smokers in the hardware stores because temperature control is so much easier (and that's because smoke and heat go up, not sideways).

Gold BBQ AwardBest of all, it is only $289 delivered to your door!

Click here to read our detailed review and the raves from people who own them.

scissor tongs

Best. Tongs. Ever.

Gold BBQ AwardMade of rugged 1/8" thick aluminum, 20" long, with four serious rivets, mine show zero signs of weakness after years of abuse. I use them on meats, hot charcoal, burning logs, and with the mechanical advantage that the scissor design creates, I can easily pick up a whole packer brisket. Click here to read more.

Amp Up The Smoke

mo's smoking pouch

Gold BBQ AwardMo's Smoking Pouch is essential for gas grills. It is an envelope of mesh 304 stainless steel that holds wood chips or pellets. The airspaces in the mesh are small enough that they limit the amount of oxygen that gets in so the wood smokes and never bursts into flame. Put it on top of the cooking grate, on the burners, on the coals, or stand it on edge at the back of your grill. It holds enough wood for about 15 minutes for short cooks, so you need to refill it or buy a second pouch for long cooks like pork shoulder and brisket. Mine has survived mor than 50 cooks. Click for more info.

steak knives for bbq

The Best Steakhouse Knives

Gold BBQ AwardThe same knives used at Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky, and Morton's. Machine washable, high-carbon stainless steel, hardwood handle. And now they have the AmazingRibs.com imprimatur. Click for more info.


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How To Set Up A Charcoal Grill For Smoking Or Grilling

Weber Kettle"A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald, but if he has fire, women will like him." Mae West

By Meathead Goldwyn

The key to success in any grilling project is control over time and temp. The best way is a 2-zone setup. This gives you a hot direct heat zone when you need to brown the surface, and a cooler indirect zone where the food can cook by convection airflow when you want to gently and evenly warm the interior of the food.

Water pans are a great addition to the cooking environment. They absorb heat and radiate it back evenly mitigating temperature fluctuations, and they add humidity to the air helping to reduce evaporation from the food. The moisture also mixes with the smoke and combustion gases to create wonderful bacony flavors.

Hardwood or fruitwood adds smoky flavor and complexity. But it is easy to ruin food with too much wood. Your exact setup may be different than mine if you don't have a Weber Kettle, but if you follow the concepts, killer barbecue and grilling are in your future. Click here for more info about meat science. Click here for more about the thermodynamics of cooking.

Now this is important: Every grill design is different. The three key temps you need to master are 225°F, 325°F, and Warp 10 (pedal to the metal). The first thing to do is to test and calibrate your grill without food so you can see how it performs. Read this article about calibration and dry runs. Once you have your grill figgered out, it will take only a few minutes to set up the next time. It is essential, required, necessary, to have a good digital thermometer since most bi-metal dial grill thermometers are next to worthless. They can be off by 50°F! You can't cook unless you know your oven's temp!

There are several ways to start a charcoal fire, but my favorite is with a chimney (click the link for more on the subject). It is a tube with an upper compartment and a lower compartment. Put newspaper in the lower compartment, charcoal in the upper compartment, light the paper, and in about 15 minutes you have a measured quantity of charcoal ready to go and if you do it the same way every time you can get pretty consistent. Consistency is important!

wrong weber indirect setupWeber and other grill manufacturers recommend a method of banking the coals on two sides with a pan of water in the center, underneath the food (shown at left). This concept is called 2-zone cooking and it is an essential concept in good outdoor cooking. But there is a better way that gives you more indirect cooking area and won't get the meat too hot on the edges.

weber 2 zone setup

Bank the coals against only one side, not two. This way you can start thick steaks at a low temp on one side, bring the inside up to close to your desired finish temp, and then quickly crisp the exterior over the high heat. This technique, called reverse sear is a great way for cooking thick steaks. For tough cuts like ribs, pork butt, or beef brisket, you also use the indirect side. For ribs, you can add the sauce at the end so it doesn't burn, and move it to the direct heat to crisp it quickly (see my article on Saucing Strategies). Fill the pan with hot water so the coals don't burn down while heating up the water. Don't bother using apple juice or other flavored liquid. It makes no difference in flavor and just wastes money.

If space allows, place another pan of hot water directly above the coals. It adds more moisture. Position the grate with a handle over the coals, as in the photo at right. This makes adding more coal and wood chips easy. Some grates have hinges to make adding coals easier. Weber sells a grate like this. With rib racks to hold the ribs on end you can get 3 to 4 slabs of baby backs on the grate. But beware of rib racks, the meat can be very close to touching and if the space is less than an inch, you should add 30 to 60 minutes to the cooking time.

And while we're at it, let's debunk a myth. The parabolic shape of the Weber Kettle is not a more efficient a heat reflector than other shapes. By far the vast majority of the heat is radiated directly from the surface of the glowing coals with some more reflected from the sides. Very little heat is being reflected off the curved bottom of the bowl. There is a solid barrier in the way: The bed of coals. Any heat that hits the bottom of the kettle just bounces back into the coal pile. So the parabolic shape of the kettles is no more efficient than a square box.

Make a burnt offering

Here's a neat trick: Set up for 2-zone cooking with meat on the indirect side. Instead of the water pan on the top grate, put a hamburger, or some meat trimmings, or even fat trimmings. Meat drippings incinerate when they fall on hot coals and create flavor molecules that land on the meat and can really add character. They will burn to a crisp, they will cause flareups, but your meat is off to the side so it won't burn. A burnt offering may also cause a rise in temp, so you may need to compensate by damping down the lower intake vent.

Controlling temperature

With charcoal cooking there are two fuels: Charcoal, and oxygen. I know you don't often think of oxygen as fuel, but it is just as important as the charcoal. Without it the fire dies. You control the heat by controlling the supply of oxygen with the intake vents and the exhaust vents with dampers.

Crack the bottom vents so they are open half way. Place the lid on so the vent holes are positioned over the meat and leave them open at least half way. That way the smoke must travel across the food to escape. Put a thermometer probe on a cable under the lid or into a vent hole on the lid to read your temp. Place the probe next to the meat, not in the dome. The temp is different there. Leave the top vents open at least half way at all times or you risk a sooty buildup on the meat, or worse, bitter creosote. Control the temp by controlling oxygen to the charcoal with the bottom vents not the top. Click here to read more about Controlling Temperature With Vents.

rib racks on a grillDon't lift the lid unless the temp soars or dips. If it goes up, then just add cold water to the top pan to lower the oven temp. You can also close the bottom vents a bit, but don't shut them off or the coals may die and the wood will smolder and generate bitter tasting smoke. If the temp drops too low, open the vents wider. You may need to knock ash off the coals with a stick, or remove ash if it blocks airflow.

After an hour or two you may need to add more coals. On a kettle, you will probably need to add six coals every 30 to 60 minutes depending on the ambient temperature and wind. If possible ad hot coals, but cold coals will catch pretty quickly. Again, do some dry runs to see how your system responds.

You may find that you need to slide the lid off partially in order to hit your target as in the picture below. Here I have the hot coals pushed all the way to the left and the meat is pushed all the way to the right. The lid off partially off, slid to the left, so hot air from the coals flow over the meat, but it is mixed with cooler air. The top vents can be open or closed as needed.

grilling with lid partially off

I have even been known to remove the lid altogether and put an aluminum pan over the food as a makeshift lid on a hot day and if the fire is running hot. You need to experiment to master your instrument.

fuse charcoalFor long cooks

If you have a long cook you can sometimes us the fuse method. Make a C with the coals around the outer rim of the lower grate but leave a gap. Put some wood chunks on the starting end of the fuse. Pour half a chimney of coals into the gap touching only one side of the fuse. The meat then goes on a grate on top of the largest water pan you can find. I use a disposable aluminum pan. The water pan will protect the meat from direct heat, stabilize temps, and add humidity. You will need to experiment with how many coals to use and the vent settings. Start by building the fuse two briquets wide and two high with the vents wide open. Then throttle back the bottom vent if it is running hot.

Another great option: The Smokenator

If you have a Weber Kettle grill, you need a Smokenator. With it you can easily convert a standard Weber Kettle into a smoker capable of making restaurant quality smoked ribs, pork shoulder, brisket, turkey, or salmon. If you have a limited budget or limited deck space, there is no need to buy a standalone smoker.

SmokenatorHere's how it works: The Smokenator is a simple piece of bent 18 gauge stainless steel that inserts into the lower half of the kettle. You can place meat on the lower and the upper rack so it is possible you can get 8-10 slabs on at once. Then you put some unlit coals in the Smokenator, some wood chunks on top of them, some lit coals on top of the wood, and some water in the water cup. Put the lid on, adjust the dampers, and go get a beer.

gold medalIt will pump out aromatic smoke and just the right low and slow temp for hours. I had no trouble keeping the temp under 250°F on a 100°F day. The thick steel plate blocks your meat from direct exposure to the flames becoming a large flat radiator providing indirect heat. The water bowl keeps moisture in the oven which helps develop the smoke ring. Click here for more about the Smokenator and tips on using it.

bricks in weber kettle grillWhen you really need high heat

For getting a really dark sear on a wet surface like a steak or burger, you need really high heat to first evaporate the moisture, and then darken the surface via the Maillard effect, a chemical reaction that browns the amino acids and sugars and amps up the flavor. On my Weber Kettle, I put bricks under the bottom grate so that it sits higher than normal, about 2" below the food grate (at right). When hot coals are added, they are just 1" below the meat. Ouch! That's hot!

This page was revised 3/6/2013

 


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About this website. AmazingRibs.com is all about the science of barbecue, grilling, and outdoor cooking, with great BBQ recipes, tips on technique, and unbiased equipment reviews. Learn how to set up your grills and smokers properly, the thermodynamics of what happens when heat hits meat, as well as hundreds of excellent tested recipes including all the classics: Baby back ribs, spareribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burgers, chicken, smoked turkey, lamb, steaks, barbecue sauces, spice rubs, and side dishes, with the world's best buying guide to barbecue smokers, grills, accessories, and thermometers, edited by Meathead.

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