A lesson from my first and favorite BBQ book that I need to remind myself (see attachment below).
I've lost my BBQ mojo. My pork butt this past weekend sucked. It was dry, a little charred, the flavor was lacking, and just plain wasn't that good without a helping of sauce. I was glad I wasn't serving this one to guests.
4 years ago, I embarked on my BBQ adventure with a el cheapo Brinkman smoker (ECB) and Gary Wivott's book Low and Slow. I bought into what Gary was selling and enjoyed his humor along the way. I faithfully did all 5 lessons, even repeating a few along the way to gain better mastery. As far as I could tell, each cook was a success. The food was great. My friends thought I was a BBQ god! I built my first UDS. Again, I did the 5 lessons (or most of them) to get the feel for my new smoker and how it operated. Things were going well.
Then something happened. ...
I got addicted to trying BBQ rubs. Every time a new rub was mentioned on the Brethren, I had to try it. I found myself ordering rubs every few months. And, since I was paying shipping, well it is better to order 3 or 4 at a time. A couple of the rubs were pretty good. A couple of rubs were blah, but if you combined them in the right way and let them sweat on the meat for just the right time, cook at the right temperature, and add a little seasoning salt were pretty good. Others I just didn't like and had bad thoughts about the Brother who recommended it. Never finding that perfect flavor profile of my own, but overall still turning out above average Q. But that was probably the least of my problems...
When I started out, I used Royal Oak Lump - because that is what Gary demands. It was working for me. I knew how much to to put in the basket, how much to light at the start and my valve settings. But, after finishing my lessons, I felt comfortable experimenting a little. I started using Royal Oak briquettes, since Menards sold them cheap. I found the right valve settings, and those were working for me. But then Lowes/Home Depot had Kingsford on sale dirt cheap. Lots of people on the Brethren love Kingsford, why not. I even did burn tests to determine the difference between RO and KBB. My opinion, all charcoal produce the same results, but just need a little different care in amount lit to start and valve settings and how much you're going to need. Just one little thing to keep straight.
I then started experimenting with diffusors. Some on the Brethren said that diffusors were a sin, other that they are necessary to get rid of the taste of fat burning on the coals. I did experiments with a ECB bowel, a pizza stone, a bunt pan, and ended up with a 16" terra cotta pot base. I thought it helped even out the temperature differences across the drum. Where it used to be 50* hotter at the center than the edge, it was now ~25* cooler at the center than the edge. Oh, and a lot more fuel usage.
Then when it was -5* outside and I found myself in the middle of a 12 hour cook and running out of fuel, I realized the difference the cold weather can make and started experimenting with blankets on my smoker. It made a big difference in the valve setting, run times, fuel usage, etc. Then I experimenting with leaving the blanket on during the summer, which again affected the valve settings. I liked the results with the blanket on, just had to remember the valve setting was different. Then I took the blanket off in the, because it was summer and it was getting wet and dirty. More change.
Then, that new shiny toy appeared. I typically didn't have problems controlling the temp in my UDS. But, I normally cook overnight and serve at noon. For who knows what reason, every so often my Maverick would go off and alert that the smoker temp had dropped. Usually it just needed a good kick. And, even when the UDS did run perfectly throughout the night, I was so worried it wouldn't I didn't' sleep well. And then I found the solution to all my problems. "Temperature Fan Controller" Ah yes. Plug in a temp probe and set the dial and all my problems are solved! And it is a shiny toy. I would be as cool as that Pitmaster on TV. I had to try one. My first cook with the new toy went perfectly. And so did most of them. But, there was that one that when I loaded the drum up with 4 butts, the temp dropped so low because of the cold meat the fan blew non-stop to bring it back up then it way overshot and was so hot there was some charring. There were a couple other where the fan just seemed to blow and blow kicking up ash. And as I used it more, it seemed just as picky about getting my fire started the right amount of lit charcoal and getting the temp probe just that far from the meat to work right. Then they came out with a new improved version to address some of the issues people were having (partly because it wasn't designed for a UDS) and in my mind proved I was right in judging it finicky. I was starting to think that I was no more successful at controlling the temps as I was without it. Same, but different.
And, to top it off, somewhere in my fan controller experimentation phase, I made the top vent holes bigger to accommodate some better sealing plugs I saw someone post a picture of and I built a second UDS. Being ever so smart, I built the second one slightly different. Instead of the 3/4" ball, I used a 1" ball so the fan controller could just attach to that. Yeah! And instead of using 2 3/4" nipples, I used one 1". And, my old was a flat top with 6 holes in top, this one had a 2" diameter cap that I figured I could use because others use it that way. And one had a 16" terra cotta pot diffusor and the other one because I wanted to save $4 has a 14" t.c. diffusor. And I saved another $5 by getting the 2" thermo instead of the 3" thermo like my first one. Finally, I didn't do the 5 steps on this one - after all I was a BBQ god.
Constantly experimenting. I love to experiment. Rubs, Cookers, 220* vs 275*, whatever.
And that's the short version.
So here I am 4 years with three different smokers (did I mention that to see what all the hoopla was about, I bought a Pit Barrel) and a head full of BBQ knowledge. Problem is that I'm having trouble keeping it all straight. I can't remember which rub I liked and which one my wife liked but I didn't. I cant' remember where the valve setting is supposed to be on this smoker verses that one, whether that is for Kingsford charcoal or Royal Oak, whether that was warm weather or cold weather. My success rate for getting the smoker to run all night without adjustment has plummeted and I'm at a complete loss of where my valves should be set. I've lost confidence in my ability to get the valve just right and can't help myself from monitoring the temps on my Maverick like a hawk and freaking out if it shifts 5* and running outside to adjust my ball valve. (Though I once preached to just let the smoker settle in and adjust your cooking times rather than adjusting the smoker temp.
Bottom line is my BBQ is _in my opinion_ a hot mess. It is in a downward spiral and getting worse, not better. I realized that I've become John D. in Oklahoma.
Now that the weather is cooling down outside and I'm going to be home more, I'm recommitting myself to BBQ. I'm going to get my Low & Slow book back from my buddy who stole it from me and work my way back through the 5 lessons. I'm going to use the same smoker for each. I'm going to use the same charcoal. I'm going to get back to the basics and do it the same each time until I get my mojo back.
I know others preach the KISS method and I'm not saying anything new or revolutionary. Maybe I'm more posting this to myself to hold myself accountable. Either way, I hope the story helps someone...
(and for those wondering the 5 steps are: Chicken, Chicken, BB, Spares, Butt. Each step trying to teach you a new basic skill.)