Seasoning and calibrating your grill or smoker with dry runs
The first thing to do after you assemble your new grill or smoker is to season it and calibrate it by doing a few dry runs without food. This will burn off any manufacturer's grease, and give you a sense for how to set it up to hit the two important target temps that almost all my recipes use: 225°F and 325°F.
Of course, in order to do this, you absolutely positively must have a good digital oven thermometer. I don't care how much you spent on your grill, the bi-metal dial thermometer that came with it is probably cheap and unreliable and likely to be off by as much as 50°F. Worse still, it is in the dome, and the temp down on the grate where the meat sits is much different. Like a musician, you must master your instrument to make great food.
Five steps to mastering the WSM
If you have a new WSM you absolutely positively must read Gary Wiviott's book Low & Slow: Mastering the Art of Barbecue in Five Easy Lessons.
Wiviott, who is extremely knowledgeable about food, gives you step by step guidance, and if you follow his procedures you will be richly rewarded. I am a bit put off by his bossiness, and his assertion that you cannot make good barbecue on a gas grill is just flat wrong, but if you have a WSM, he will hold your hand through the learning process.
The Best Setup For A Weber Smokey Mountain Barbecue Smoker And Other Bullet Shaped Charcoal Smokers
There are a number of bullet-shaped charcoal smokers out there and they are pretty easy to use. The best, by far, is the Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM). Brinkmann makes another popular unit, but it is not as good.
Click here for more about the WSM and where to buy one. Below, in brief, is all you need to get started. Use this method to get started and later you can play with more or less wood, more or less coal, vent opening, etc.
1) Dump the ash from the bottom of the smoker. It is essential that nothing blocks the air intakes and ash absorbs heat. If you can, buy another spare bottom grate and lay it on top of the one that came with your WSM with the bars perpendicular, creating a checkerboard pattern. This will prevent coals and wood from falling through.
2) Open all the vent on the top all the way, and open the bottom vents half way.
3) For the 18.5" WSM and similar bullets, I recommend the Minion Method, named after Jim Minion, a caterer who invented the technique. It is better than the method recommended by Weber because it keeps the temp in the desired 225°F range. If you light all the coals at once, as Weber recommends, they will burn hot at first and then cool off. The Minion method is much better at keeping the temp steady because it lights new coals as the old ones burn out.
Start by pouring unlit coals into the fire ring and bury about three chunks of wood in the pile. Then put 1/2 a Weber chimney (40 briquets) of hot coals on top of cold coals, and a lump of wood on top. The exact number of coals will vary depending on the brand you use and the weather. You can use chips or pellets, but I prefer chunks because they ignite and smolder slowly.
For the 22.5" WSM I recommend the fuse or snake method. Remove the charcoal ring and put a large rock in the center of the charcoal grate, about 8" in diameter. A pair of bricks topped by two more bricks will work almost as well. Pour unlit coals around the outside of the rock in a C shape leaving a gap between the ends of about 8". Fill a Weber chimney about 1/2 way and get the coals fully engaged. Pour the lit coals over one end of the C. Space about three chunks of wood in a line near the hot coals and another on top of the hot coals. The lit coals will provide you with heat and smoke and slowly ignite the rest of the coals producing a surprisingly even heat for a long time. The rock absorbs and emits heat helping hold temps steady.
Do a dry run or two without food to figure out exactly how many coals works for you. It is really important to use a good thermometer and keep a cooking log when using a WSM, at least until you understand how it works.
4) Place the cooking grates on top of the hot coals one at a time to heat the up so you can scrape them clean. Old grease and rust can taint the flavor of your food. Remove the clean grates.
5) Put together the rest of the smoker positioning the door so it is easily accessible. Line the water pan with heavy duty aluminum foil. This will make cleanup easier. Insert the water pan and fill it within 1/2" of the top with hot water. Try to use hot water since it will absorb less heat and help get the oven up to temp faster. Click here to read more about what goes in the water pan. Place the cooking grates in position.
6) Leave the top vent open all the way and resist the temptation to close it. Regulate the temperature with the bottom vents. The top vent is needed to create a draft, sucking in fresh air for combustion. Control temp with the bottom vents only. OK, if you must, you can close the top vent up to half, but no more. When the temp gets up to about 200°F, and it will get there quickly on a hot day, throttle back the lower vents to about 1/3 open and keep fiddling with them until you stabilize at about 225-250°F. Regulating temp may be a bit trickier on a new unit until it has built up a nice deposit of char on the inside. New units can run a bit hot. Once the temp has stabilized at 225 to 250°F, you can open the side door and drop another 2-4 ounce chunk of wood on top of the coals and you are ready to cook. For recipes that call for 325°F, like my Ultimate Turkey, use more lit coals, and leave the water pan dry or use sand in it. The sand helps stabilize fluctuations. Click here to learn more about controlling temp with vents.
7) Insert a meat thermometer probe into the center of large cuts (it is next to impossible to get an accurate reading on ribs so don't bother, there are other ways to tell when they are ready). Make sure the probe is not in contact with the bone. Add the meat. If you can fit it all on one grate, use the top grate and remove the lower grate so it doesn't get all gunky from drippings. If you need to use both grates, put the faster cooking food on top so it is easier to remove. Be aware that the top rack meats will drip on the lower meats, so I never put poultry or fish under pork or beef. If you are cooking both beef and pork, I put pork on top. If I want both meats to finish together, I often swap the top and bottom shelves. They will progress differently because the top grate is usually 10 to 20°F warmer than the grate above the water pan.
Place an oven thermometer probe near the meat but not touching the grate. Keep it at least 1" away from the meat because there is a cold air bubble around the meat. Do not meter the temp at the dome. It is often 10 to 15°F hotter than the top grate. Thread the cables through a top vent hole.
One of the problems with the 18.5" bullet smokers is that they have 15.5" grates and many slabs of ribs, especially St. Louis cut slabs, don't fit. You don't have to cut them in half. The picture here shows one way to get two full slabs on a single rack in a Weber Smokey Mountain: Use rib racks and bend the slabs to fit. If you do this on both the upper and lower grate on a WSM you can get four slabs on. Another technique is to roll the slab in a circle and run a long skewer through the place where then ends overlap. Works great and keeps the ends from burning.
8) Now go drink a beer. After the smoke stops, you can add more wood if you know what you are doing. There's always the risk of oversmoking, so until you really know your machine, don't add any more wood.
9) Every two hours check to make sure the water pan has not dried out. When it gets low, carefully add hot water.
10) When you are done, close all vents to smother the coals and preserve them for the next cook. Just make sure you shake off the ash before you use partially burned coals, and wipe your ash out.
11) When you store your WSM, put a good cover over it and make sure it drops low enough to keep rain out of the lower seam. Then leave the upper and at least one lower vent open. Moisture inside can rapidly turn to a nasty mold that can coat the inside of your smoker if you don't allow for some air flow. Click here to read about what to do if your WSM gets moldy.
And that's all there is to it. Go drink another beer. Just don't drink the bong water.
This page was revised 3/6/2013
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