A Faux Cambro Can Save Your (Pork) Butt, Turkey, And Save Face
"Common sense is not so common." Voltaire, Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1764
There is no bigger blow to one's manhood than standing in the dining room and announcing that the pork butt is still not ready while the wife's potatoes and beans give out their last gasp of steam.
The problem is that it's a lot harder to control the temperature of most outdoor cookers than your kitchen oven (although you need to know that most indoor ovens thermostats are waaaaay off and should be calibrated every year). Only a few electric and gas grills or smokers have thermostats, and then there's that pesky wind, rain, and snow outdoors making it awfully hard to manage temp accurately. And the bi-metal thermometers on grills, even expensive grills, are notoriously bad, and often off by as buch as 50°F. As a result, it is really really tricky to have the meat ready when your guests start pounding the table. But try to explain that to their growling stomachs.
Almost as bad is the inverst, pulling meat out of your smoker an hour before dinner because it is ready and nobody else is.
Here's a trick that will save your butt as well as your ribs, brisket, and turkey: The Faux Cambro.
A Cambro (TM) is an indispensable tool to caterers. Made by Cambro Manufacturing, it is an insulated box in which caterers carry hot foods to weddings on the beach and keep them in the food safety zone, above 140°F. But you don't need to buy a restaurant grade Cambro, you probably have one in the garage: A plastic beer cooler. If you don't have one, now's the time to get one.
Buy a plastic beer cooler large enough to hold a big turkey or packer brisket. Make sure it is well insulated, make sure it seals tightly, make sure it is easy to drain because you may want to use it for brining things, and make sure it is easy to clean. Wheels are a nice accessory. Buy an aluminum pan that fits inside to make cleanup easier, and keep a roll of heavy duty aluminum foil and an two clean old towels in it when it is not in use.
The idea is that, for foods that will take several hours to cook, like turkeys, briskets roasts, shoulder clods, hams, ribs, start an hour or more earelier than you think necessary. This gives you plenty of time to adjust for unforssen circumstances, like rain, which can lower a grill's temp drastically, or wind that blows out your flame, or just a cranky old cut that doesn't want to get cooked. If all goes well, and your food is done early, you can put it in the indoor oven at a low temp, or into the faux Cambro.
Here's how to use it: If you think it will take three hours to smoke your turkey, then put it on about four hours before you plan to serve it. Use a good meat thermometer and keep an eye on the temperature in the thickest part of the meat. If it finishes an hour or so before dinner time, no prob.
Pour about three gallons of hot tap water into your faux Cambro and close the lid. Let it heat up for about 30 minutes. Dump out the water. Put one towel in the bottom, and put the disposable aluminum pan on top of the towel to catch leaks. Wrap the turkey in foil, leave the meat thermometer probe in, place the meat in the pan, and lay the second towel on top. Close the lid but allow the thermometer cable to hang out under the lid if possible, and you're all set. I've kept meats in a faux Cambro for three hours and they were well above 150°F. If you don't have a good digital meat thermometer, get one. Here's a buying guide to thermometers. I use a Maverick Thermometer with a cable so I can check the temp periodically.
Another reason to have one is for beef brisket. The best briskets need to rest an hour or so after cooking, but they need to be kept warm. The faux Cambro does that just fine. The only problem with the concept is that the skin on your turkey and the bark on your brisket will soften. If you use a cambro to go over the river and through the woods to grandma's house, you can roll it around on a hot grill for a few minutes to firm up the exterior.
A faux Cambro is not only handy for making sure your meat is ready when the side dishes are done, thereby insuring you do not have to sleep on the couch, this is a great way to get that extra turkey to your sister's house on Thanksgiving or the ribs to the game. I also use it for brining my turkeys. Just make sure you clean it thoroughly after brining or storing soft drinks. Use soaps with bleach such as Comet or a dilute chlorine solution of one gallon of water with 1-2 ounces of bleach.
If you don't have a faux Cambro, permit me to recommend the Coleman 40 Quart Cooler (shown above). Capacious (it holds 67 beer cans), with can holders in the lid, large wheels, a long tow handle, and a drain plug. The manufacturer says it is sturdy enough to sit on, and keeps ice for 6-7 days at ambient temperatures up to 90°F. For discount pricing on the 40 quart and direct ordering from Amazon.com, click here. For the 50 quart unit, click here. Buy two coolers, while you're at it. Can't forget the beer.
This page was revised 3/25/2011
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