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How to make real BBQ without harming your marriage

by Kevin Keogan

I am DIY foodie. I am not sure how else to describe it. Given the choice between sitting down at a fancy restaurant and being pampered like a king, or getting in the kitchen to see how it’s really done, I choose the latter. It is not that I am against people treating me well and filling up my empty glass, far from it. My issue us even while I am being pampered I constantly wonder how I can recreate what I am eating.

It is from this admission that I will tell you about slow cooking BBQ and how with a little know-how and an understanding wife, you too can make some of the best Q you have ever tasted.

Several years ago, when I was dating my soon to be wife, I accompanied her to Kansas City to meet her family. It was while I was on this trip that I found out about true BBQ. KC folks take BBQ very seriously.

To illustrate this point, meeting my new family for the first time only got me the 3rd best BBQ in town. I was informed that if I stuck, meaning that Kelly and I married, I would be invited to the upper echelons of Smoked beef and pork. To my untrained palate, #3 was a transcendent experience. By the time we were married, I was inducted into Arthur Bryant’s the best BBQ place on this good earth. In short, I had become a devotee of slow cooking BBQ using smoke. I learned from my Republican slanted mid western countryman that for real BBQ, true BBQ, you need a smoker not a grill. As one of my soon to be family pointed out: “You have to give the meet time to get to know the flavors.”

I was raised thinking that BBQ was grill cooking over searing hot heat. As I child I watched my father grill hamburgers serving them on a bun with a large onion slice, tomato and salt. While this method still has a firm place in back yard get-togethers, it is not true BBQ, it is grilling. I had been ruined by my KC experience and I do not accept the typical grilling method as comprehensive anymore.

My problem was proximity. I live in NY, and while we do have plenty epicurean delights to boast, we are for the most part lacking on the art of smoked meats. I lamented to my friends but most of my contemporaries had not had true Q and could not feel my pain.

This is how life progressed until a run of improbable events led me to my first stab at smoking meat at my home. One evening, I found myself with some free time to watch a show called “Good Eats”. The show did not have my full attention and I was about to leave the room for a drink when I suddenly realized that the topic that day was how to make a smoker for under 100 dollars. I had been showing my wife various smoking contraptions for months, all rather pricy. She was unimpressed and put a cap on this purchase saying that if I could procure one for fewer than 100 dollars she would consider it. This is the equivalent of trying to get a good car for a few thousand dollars. I gave up on having a serviceable smoker until I saw Alton Brown that evening. It was like he was talking to me. I watched as he turned a terracotta flower pot, a hot plate and a grill top into a beautiful smoking machine.

When the program was over, and just before my wife could turn to me and argue the merits of not making this contraption, the phone rang. “Did you see it?” (it was a friend and fellow foodie Len). I knew instantly that Len had seen what I had just watched. “Yep,” I intoned. “We are making it! I am in for half,” Len yelled excitedly. We never looked back.

Our first smoker was a 35 pound clay pot with 32 inch diameter at the top. We snaked the cord for the hot plate through the drain on the bottom and covered the pot with small domed clay lid that is usually used to catch the water draining out of a pot. As per Alton’s instructions, we used an aluminum pie pan and placed the wood chips that were soaking in water directly on the pan. We put the pie plate directly on the hot plate, we added the grill and then turned the power to medium and tested to see how hot the flower pot was going to get.

In order to successfully smoke a piece of meat, you have to make sure that your cooking temp hovers between 190º and 215º degrees Fahrenheit. If you go under, your meat dries out before you are done cooking, too high and the water in the meat boils and does not let the collagen melt out. To our utter disbelief, this little contraption worked amazing well. The dense terracotta kept the heat very stable for flowerpot and we had an average temperature oscillating between 200º and 210º degrees Fahrenheit. The hot plate did not light the wet wood and after an hour of testing, we both agreed that we had one hell of a smoker.

For our maiden voyage we used a cut of pork shoulder that we brined in orange Juice and stock and covered with a standard rub consisting mainly of paprika and brown sugar. We put the meat into the flower pot and Len and I watched as the smoke slowly engulfed the pork. In a few short hours we had the best pork sandwiches that we had made. After this first taste of success, we smoked everything from beef brisket to scallops and salmon to whole chickens and sausages. This list goes on....

That first time we used the flower pot, we had just a few people. In a few short years the word got out about real BBQ and we had outgrown our little flowerpot. We now cook about 80 pounds of meat for hungry friends and family once a year. My wife has been convinced of the value of a good smoker and I have a small flower pot to thank.

How to make your own flowerpot smoker

Equipment list

1. One flowerpot with drainage dish (or second pot turned on its rim over the first pot)
2. Inexpensive hot plate
3. Inexpensive pie pan, aluminum or steel (no nonstick)
4. Grill grate (hinged recommended)
5. One instant read thermometer
6. Chunks of hardwood such as oak or hickory (no pine or sap woods)
7. Extension cord

1. Find yourself the biggest terracotta flowerpot that you can that has a drainage plate that you can flip over and place on top of the pot as a lid. It is important that the lid fit as snugly as possible so that you don’t let a lot of smoke out. If the drainage plate is solid, you will need to drill a hole in the center using a masonry bit so that you can insert an instant read dial thermometer at the top. This will help you regulate the temperature. Equally important; make sure that you can fit a hot plate at the bottom of the pot. The diameter of the bottom must be wide enough to comfortably fit the Hotplate.

2. Put the flowerpot on a stone surface. If you are cooking on a wood deck, make sure that the pot is elevated by using a few bricks. The pot does not get that hot but it could discolor your decking.

3. Place hotplate at the bottom of the flowerpot and snake the cord out of the drainage hole at the bottom. If the plug does not fit, drill a hole in the side of the pot big enough to accommodate the cord. I would recommend that you do not invest much money on the hot plate as you do not need the flowerpot to get too hot and the hotplate will be covered by smoke and fat by the end of the cooking.

4. Place pie pan directly on the hotplate and fill with wood chunks that have been soaking in water for at least 20 minutes. Make sure that the pan is not non-stick. It will get very hot and the coating will come off.

5. Place the grate 1/3rd of the way down onto the pot. A round grill grate is preferable with a hinge so that you can add wood to the pan without disturbing the meat. I did not have this luxury and while I fared fine without it, it would have been nice.

6. Cover the first pot with the second and turn on the hot plate. Adjust the temperature so that you are just below the boiling point of water. (200º-210º F)

7. Add meat and sit tight with beer or glass of wine in hand.

Why not try your initial flower pot smoker trial with my All Purpose Pork Rub marinade?