Third time’s a charm, right? At least that’s what I hear. Apparently this saying applies to smoking pork shoulders, because this third attempt turned out phenomenal.Yesterday I attempted my third pork shoulder on the DIY Reverse Flow Cinder Block Smoker. A personal best.
Weather was pretty decent, but it started raining around 3 or 4 in the morning. I’m not exactly sure what the time actually was, as I was half asleep and checking on the smoker in my pajamas. You know, because I’m a professional. ha
Anyway, here’s a look at the delicious results.
Oh, and I finally got around to naming it! From here on out, it will be known formally as John E. Smoke(s). It’s a nice little tribute to one of my favorite Butthole Surfers tracks.
My second cook started much later in the day than I would have liked, but I work a lot and sometimes I just have to make due. Owning a coffee shop is no easy task and since I typically do most of my administrative work in the early morning, there isn’t much room in my schedule for late nights. For convenience reasons, I have been trying to schedule cooks on Saturday nights because the shop is closed on Sundays and I don’t have to start my day as early.
These long cooks which can run between 8-15 hours, require me to get up and stoke the fire every hour through the night. If I’m lucky, I might be able to buy myself two hours if I utilize a clever wood stacking technique, but I have to be careful. If the wood is stacked improperly, the fire will catch everything and the fire will burn too hot. Ideally, if stacked right, the logs will fall and replace the wood below without everything burning up at once. At least, that’s what my sleep deprived brain has come up with.
As I was saying earlier before I went off on a tangent… This cook started late. When I got home from work, it was raining and for a split second, I thought about cancelling the cook. The weather was absolutely terrible for smoking, but I was determined to make it happen. I waited until there was a break in the rain and I went out and got a fire started. The rain held off just long enough that I was able to build up a coal bed and load it into the burn chamber. I already knew this cook would be challenging because of all the excess moisture in the air, not to mention the majority of my wood was damp. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches and make the most out of what you’ve got. I had a 2″ coal bed, a pile of soggy ash, and a 11-pound pork shoulder. Game on. Oh, and I also want to note that I opted to use a water pan this time around. You know… because I obviously need more moisture </sarcasm>.
Despite the fact that the weather was terrible and that I had to slosh in it every hour through the night, the pork shoulder came out pretty decent. This was a complete uphill battle from beginning to end. Most fare-weather BBQ enthusiasts would have made other plans. Not me. I’m a glutton for punishment. That, and I have a bunch of other cooks planned. Either way, it was pretty obvious from the start that this cook wasn’t going to be about attaining a personal best. No. This cook was about overcoming obstacles. I’m not always going to have the perfect conditions to turn out amazing BBQ, but I want to be able to deliver above average eats even in less than ideal scenarios. Determined, I stoked the fire one last time around 6AM and decided that I was going to let shoulder rest in the cooker for an hour after the fire died out. I set my alarm for 9AM and crawled into bed to catch some shuteye.
When my alarm went off, I expected to walk out to more rain and a questionable pork shoulder, but to my surprise, the sun was out. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and squished my way through the back yard to check on the smoker. I knew I had done my best to keep the fire steady through an entire night of rain, but I was still worried that when I opened up the lid, I would find a sad and pathetic looking pork shoulder with little-to-no development. I wonder if experienced pit masters have that little bit of fear each time they do their final inspection (especially if there’s some sort of deadline)? I mean, there’s no turning back at this point. What’s done is done.
Once I popped the lid, I was shocked to see how well the shoulder had turned out. There was decent bark development, and excellent fat rendering. All-in-all this was still one of the better pork shoulders I’ve had. Overall I was fairly pleased with this cook. As much as I’d love to make a list of things I could improve for the next shoulder, this cook was just about overcoming obstacles. There were plenty of things I would have liked to have done differently, but I didn’t have the options. Put simply, I kept a fire going all night in the rain and turned out a delicious pork shoulder. Mission accomplished… Oh, and just for fun, check out the bbq food porn below!
I decided to mix things up this week and try my hands at a pork loin. I don’t typically plan to do cooks on weekdays because of my work schedule, but I guess I was feeling particularly ballsy this week. That, and I knew the pork loin wasn’t going to be as big of a commitment in terms of cook time. This cook went extremely smooth. It was a relatively cool and clear night with minimal wind. I put this 8 pound pork loin on the cooker for roughly 8 hours before pulling it off. The loin was incredibly lean, so the next time I opt to smoke one, I will definitely brine it ahead of time. Either way, I managed to get great bark development with a decent smoke ring. That being said, the more research I’m doing on smoke rings, the more I’m starting to realize that it’s not the tell-tale sign of good BBQ. It’s kind of how people judge the quality of an espresso shot by looking at the crema only. Let’s just say that I’ve had a lot of subpar espresso with beautiful crema.
Let’s mix things up with a detailed list of parameters…
Meat: Pork Loin
Time: 8 Hours
Overall, I was pretty pleased with how this came out. Would definitely opt to smoke another pork loin in the future… I’d just brine it first.
Once I finished building the smoker, I couldn’t wait to use it. I was like a little kid trying to go to sleep early on Christmas Eve to pass the time quicker. I finished assembling the smoker on Friday after work and was pleased with how all of my materials came together and called it a night. Saturday’s are long days for my wife and I at the coffee shop, so I don’t usually have an abundance of energy after work. Alas, my excitement to get this new smoker operational made up for my lack of energy.
I spent my Saturday evening building a roaring fire to season and burn out the smoker of all the impurities and bullshit that may or may not have any negative impact on my first cook.
While tending to the fire, I spent a lot of time contemplating what would be the first cook in this new smoker. After much deliberation, I opted to go with something familiar and purchased a 12 pound pork shoulder from my local butcher shop.
For this cook I opted to keep things extremely simple to get an idea as to how the cooker behaved. I didn’t brine, I didn’t use a water pan, I didn’t do much of anything in advance. I used a basic dry rub consisting of salt, pepper, and a bit of Louisiana Creole seasoning. I built up a 2″ coal bed and then I loaded the shoulder onto my freshly burned out grate, placed a new log onto the coals, and got to smoking. I opted to use Ash for this cook. I’ve been using ash a lot lately and although it’s not the wood of choice for most BBQ enthusiasts, it’s abundant in Indiana and I have enjoyed the mild and sweet smoke that it produces. The only drawback to Ash is that it burns with the quickness, so it takes a lot of wood to get through a long cook.
Anyway, that’s enough talk about the prep and setup, let’s focus on the results and what lessons can be taken away. I pulled this pork shoulder off after 10 uninterrupted hours on the cooker.
I was pretty pleased at the bark development and smoke permeation. This thing had supreme smoke flavor and was pretty tender, however, I think it would have come out better if I had incorporated a water pan and/or gave it a thorough spritzing of apple cider vinegar around the 8 hour mark. There’s definitely room for improvement, and I am looking forward to smoking another shoulder next Sunday. My plan is to continue cooking the same thing until I feel I’ve hit my peak before moving on to something else. I’m already psyched for Pork Shoulder Number 2!
So when I mentioned that I that I tend to go a bit off of the deep end on my projects, I wasn’t kidding. After making the initial decision to attempt to master BBQ, I realized that I would need the proper tools to accomplish my lofty goals. I spent a decent number of hours pouring over BBQ books and internet forums trying to see what all of the pros were using. I quickly realized that if I was going to proceed with any measure of success, using any sort of equipment that I could purchase outright, I would be spending thousands of dollars. Since I don’t have thousands of dollars sitting around, I did what I always do in these situations, I started trying to figure out how I could build a smoker that would perform at the same level for a fraction of the cost.
As it turns out, there are hundreds of videos, tutorials, forums, and blogs dedicated to DIY cinder block smokers and designs. These communities are all centered around cost and performance and proved to be a valuable resource for my initial design research. There were a number of different initial designs to choose from, each design comes with it’s own pros and cons. For the most part, all of these designs seem to stem from a traditional rectangular Texas style BBQ pit in which the fire, cooking, and smoking are all done in the same chamber. However, that initial design has been
meticulously improved upon over the years in a number of ways and I made sure to take note of each modification and the pros and cons associated. Eventually I decided that I wanted to build a Reverse-Flow Cinder Block Smoker with separated firebox. I wanted something that would allow me to have a steady temperature and a constant natural draw for good airflow.
While the majority of my design utilizes standard cinderblocks available at any hardware store, I also had a couple of stainless steel pieces custom made from a local shop. I opted for stainless because this thing is going to be out in the elements and I didn’t want it to instantly rust. I opted not to pour a concrete slab for my build. I thought that leveling the ground would be easier/cheaper. While it proved to be way cheaper, it was not easier. If you have the option, pour a slab. When I do this again, that’s what I’m going to do. If you look below, you will see a few pictures of my build without the lid. I will be using cement board as a lid to buy me time until I have a steel lid manufactured. So yeah, here’s my prototype, I’m looking forward to putting it to use!
Below you can check out some pictures of my build. Pay no attention to all of the crab grass. I know it’s there and will be addressing it after the smoker is up and running. Priorities.
So, it’s been a while since I’ve made an effort to actively blog on a regular basis. What can I say… I’ve been a little pre-occupied as of late. The coffee shop tends to take up a lot of my time these days and at times it can be a little difficult to squeeze in any sort of auxiliary activity. Lately I’ve been spending what little spare time I have making music and mastering the craft of traditional BBQ. Weird, right? I guess… But this whole venture seems to fall in line with my whole philosophy that if I don’t have something readily available in my geographic vicinity, I will just figure out how to do it myself. And that’s exactly what I plan to do. If I can’t make a trip to Texas to enjoy a world-class brisket, than I’m going to figure out how to make it in Muncie.
As with most things that I get into, I tend to go a bit off of the deep end in terms of research, experimentation, and execution. I figure that documenting this journey via my blog would be a good way to share my delicious progress with the masses. I’m bound to make some mistakes, and I’ll be sure to write about those as well. After all, I’m only human and am just as prone to distraction as the next.
This initial blog post is nothing more than a heads up that you will probably be seeing a number of BBQ related posts in the future. Don’t be alarmed. I will keep most of these blogs labeled as “Operation BBQ,” so that if you’re looking to avoid the delicious temptation, you can do so.