Monday, July 3, 2017

Pellet Smokers Updated

After many years of grilling and smoking meats on a Landmann sheet iron smoker, I have finally invested in a pellet stove.  My choice was a Green Mountain Daniel Boone. Here are some reflections.

The pellet smoker is a great example of American ingenuity.  Wood pellets as fuel was a solution to the problem of getting rid of sawdust and actually turning it into value.  That lead to pellet stoves for heating homes.  Then it occurred to someone that a pellet grill could keep the market for pellets from collapsing during the summer.  Hence the pellet grill.

The smoker looks a lot like my old smoker, but that is very deceiving.  What looks like an offset firebox is really a hopper for holding the wood pellets.  An augur feeds the pellets into a firebox (or burn pot) under the center of the main chamber.  An igniter extends into the firebox and produces the heat that ignites the pellets.  Under the firebox is a fan that blows air into the firebox.

In the face of the hopper is a computer that control the operation of the smoker.  It allows you to set the target temperature and to monitor both the temperature of the cooking chamber and the internal temperature of the meat by means of a wired probe.

The basic operation then seems quite simple.  Whenever the chamber temperature falls below what you have set, the augur goes into action delivering pellets to the firebox and the fan blows air to create a rush of heat.

Now for the pros and cons.

The single biggest advantage of the pellet smoker is that (so far) it seems to be able to hold a temperature very reliably for as long as you have pellets in the hopper.  That makes it much more precise and therefore more convenient than any charcoal grill or gas grill.  It is as good or better than a good kitchen stove.

It heats up quite fast, about as fast as you can count 150, 151...  The internal temperature of the beer can chicken I cooked last night rose rather faster than I counted on.  I barely had time to finish my martini.  Also, the internal probe seems to be quite accurate, measured against my Thermapen.  I could sit on my deck and watch the temp rise toward the 165+ that I was aiming for.  You can get a model that has wifi capability and monitor it from your phone.  I was too cheap to shell out the extra hundred and fifty.

That degree of temperature control is so valuable that I doubt I will ever go back to anything else except... note below.  Combined with the virtues of smoke and fire, it is a winning combination for the backyard chef.  I can easily imagine doing all of my baking out back, including bread and cakes.

In addition, the pellets burn much more completely than wood or charcoal.  My first two attempts (baby back ribs and veggie pizza) produced about a half a cup of ash in the firebox.  The rest of the unit is easy to disassemble and clean.

I am not sure yet whether running this thing is cheaper than my old smoker.  The hickory logs  and charcoal for the latter were usually more expensive than the meat I was cooking.  The pellets are much cheaper, especially if you get a forty pound bag at WalMart.  On the other hand, the mechanics run on electricity.  I am guessing this will be cheaper, but that will require more data.

Now for the caveats...

You may notice that I have been calling the unit a pellet smoker and not a pellet grill.  That is because it isn't a grill, it's a smoker.  The Daniel Boone has two plates just under the grates with holes in them.  In theory (read: advertising) you can align the holes so that heat rises directly up from the burn pot to the meat.  Voila!  Grilling.  Okay, but the burn pot is only about the size of the cup on a golf green.  Don't count on grilling with this thing.

That, so far as I can tell, is the only serious drawback to a pellet grill.  On my old smoker, I could move the meat from the smoking chamber directly onto the firebox.  I m currently scheming to get a Lodge Iron grill for the occasional searing and bbq cooking.  An alternative would be to cook on the pellet stove and then sear on a hot skillet or grill in the kitchen.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the pellets produce a lot of smoke at low temperatures (150-250) but little or none at tempertures above 300.  This seems to require both a smoking phase and a cooking phase.  Last night I smoked the chicken at 190 for a hour and then set the temp for 350 for an hour and a half.  The result was a smoky bird that was perfectly cooked.

Bottom line: I am looking at the moon as I type these words.  I am really glad we put foot on her.  I am more impressed by well done brisket.  I am very optimistic that the pellet stove will turn out to be the turn of a great chapter in the history of man and fire.

Update: I have cooked a rack of ribs, a pork shoulder, beer can chicken, hamburgers, and tonight a spatchcock chicken.  The ribs were a failure, though I think that the ribs were at fault.  The hamburgers were so so.  Everything else was wonderful.  

Tonight I cooked the spatchcock chicken under an iron skillet.  I put two ears of corn on either side and just before the chicken was ready I put asparagus into the iron skillet over the chicken.  Everything turned out perfect all together.  Lots of smoky flavor.  Technology good.  Fire good.  

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