Sunday, March 30, 2014

The First Pulled Pork on the GMG

Yesterday was pulled pork day on the new smoker.  I'm gonna be honest, pulled pork is probably my least favorite traditional BBQ food.  I really like pulled pork, but when I go to BBQ restaurants, I rarely order pulled pork because I'd rather have brisket, ribs, chicken, sausage or turkey.  But, making pulled pork at home is great because we can feed a lot of people and we usually have leftovers to enjoy for the next several days.

I started out this pulled pork on Friday night with a Pork Butt (or Shoulder, but it's more fun to say Pork Butt).  This particular piece of meat was about 8 lbs and looked pretty good.  I decided to trim off quite a bit of the exterior fat so that I could get more bark with the rub.  What I was left with is pictured to the right.

The next step was to rub it down.  I used my homemade rub, which I will share at some point.  First off I applied a thin coat of olive oil so the rub would have something to adhere to, and then I liberally applied my rub to all the surfaces of the meat.  This is critical because the rub is going to create the bark, which is the best part of pulled pork, in my opinion.  I put the rubbed pork butt into the fridge to rest over night.

Bright and early the next morning (it was still dark), I preheated the smoker to 225 degrees using my Green Mountain Gold Blend pellets (oak, hickory and maple).  Before I put the pork butt on the smoker, I snapped a quick pic.  The rub had become part of the meat, which is what I was looking for with resting over night.  

I decided to try putting the fat cap, or what was left of it, down on the smoker rather than up.  This worked so well for brisket I thought I'd experiment.  Also, because of activities yesterday morning, I was forced to experiment with leaving the meat alone for a long time (7 hours).  Usually after 3 or 4 hours on a pork butt, I start mopping with a cider vinegar/water mix to keep it moist.  But from what I'd read online, leaving it alone for 7 hours really shouldn't affect things too much.

After 7 hours, I started mopping.  The picture to the right is what it looked like when I opened the smoker for the first time.  I love the color that developed.  I then started mopping every hour.

This is where I really deviated from my normal approach.  Normally I foil when the pork reaches about 160 degrees internal temperature to preserve moisture and speed up the cooking process. Since I had the time and I really wanted a good bark, I didn't foil, I just stuck the pork butt in a foil pan to capture it's juices.  I like to have the juices so I can pull the pork in them for more flavor.

After 10 and a half hours, the internal temperature was 187.  The pork butt had achieved the color I wanted, so I covered the foil pan and let it finish on the smoker.  The picture to the left is what it looked like when it was time to foil.

At the twelve hour mark, the internal temperature had risen to 197 degrees, which is in that sweet spot of 195-205 degrees, so I took the meat off the smoker and let it rest for 45 minutes before pulling.  I was pretty happy with the look of the meat, but I was concerned that I hadn't captured much of the juices.

When I started pulling, I was happy with how easy the meat pulled and how tender it was.  There was a great smoke ring and the bark was amazingly crisp and tasty.  I was also surprised by how little fat was left. Usually when I pull the pork, there is quite a bit of fat to still remove.  I'm left to think that by letting it go longer before pulling, more of the fat melted into the meat.  I'm not sure if that's right or not, but it's the best I got.

I thought this pork butt turned out pretty good.  As I said above, I was thrilled with the bark and the overall tenderness of the meat.  But the lack of juices to pull the pork in was a bit of a downer.  I don't think the internal meat was as flavorful as I've managed to get on past pork butts with the old smoker.  Don't get me wrong, I got rave reviews, but I'm thinking next time I may have to try injecting or brining just to see if I can kick it up a notch (to quote Emeril).

So, overall it was a great cook.  I turned out a really good meal, and I learned some new things that I liked and have some things I want to try next time.  That's what I love about BBQ, you can always tweak things and play around to make it taste just how you want.  There are hundreds of ways to turn out great food, it's just a matter of finding the method you like best.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

It's the Little Things...

One of the biggest things I've discovered as I've learned more and more about cooking's the little things.  What do I mean by this?  Well, it's pretty simple...little things that you do will make your food taste better!

A couple of quick examples come to mind.  Whenever I do sandwiches like French Dips or Philly Cheesesteaks, I always butter and toast the buns.  It's not much of an extra step, but it certainly makes those sandwiches taste even better.

Another little thing I do has to do with chicken.  I often precook chicken that I'm then going to dice up to use in a wrap, on a pizza or in a soup or chili.  When I do this, it's usually just a little salt and pepper and then into the oven at 375 for 35 minutes or so.  It's always been pretty good, so I've not worried too much about it.

Earlier this week, we were having chicken wraps, and I decided to put a little more effort into the chicken.  So rather than just baking, I seasoned the chicken breasts with salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder.  While I was seasoning the chicken, I had about 2 tablespoons of olive oil heating in my cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.  I tossed the chicken in and let it cook for 5 minutes per side.  What I ended up with was juicy, flavorful chicken that resulted in the best wraps I've ever made.

So slow down next time you cook something that you make all the time.  Think about something different you can try to make it even better!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Jethro's BBQ

Ever since I saw Man vs. Food at Jethro's BBQ in Des Moines, Iowa, I've wanted to go.  There just aren't that many good BBQ restaurants around the Midwest, outside of Kansas City.  Well, today was the day.  The kids are on spring break, and I took the day off from work.  We set out for Des Moines, and after spending a couple of hours at the Science Museum of Iowa, we went to Jethro's for a light lunch. :-)

The original Jethro's is located in the Drake College neighborhood of Des Moines.  They have since opened multiple additional locations around the Des Moines metro, but I wanted to visit the original.  It was not hard to find at all.

Once inside, you immediately see the picture of Man vs. Food star Adam Richman on the wall.  Adam visited Des Moines specifically to take on the Adam Emmenecker Challenge at Jethro's.  It's a 4 lb sandwich featuring pretty much every meat they have at Jethro's, drenched in a cheese sauce and accompanied by 1 lb of Waffle Fries.  On that day, food won as Adam was not able to finish the entire Adam Emmenecker (named for a former Drake University Basketball player).  The rules of the challenge are pretty simple, finish the entire sandwich and all the waffle fries in 15 minutes.  There were probably 10 pictures on the wall of people who have succeeded and about 200 of people who have not.

On to our meal.  We got to sit right down since we missed the lunch rush.  The menu has all the traditional BBQ fare, plus other items like Wings, Pork Tenderloin, a Catfish Po Boy and even some salads.  According to some information I saw online, Jethro's was voted as having the best wings in Des Moines.  The atmosphere is very BBQ sports bar.  There were about a dozen TV's showing sports, and the entire restaurant smelled like hickory and BBQ sauce.

I ordered a 2 meat plate, with brisket and sausage.  I got fried pickles and waffle fries as my sides.  My oldest son went with a half rack of baby back ribs and 5 buffalo wings.  My wife ordered the Catfish Po Boy with Cole Slaw and my youngest son ordered the kids chicken strips meal.

It didn't take long for our food to come out, and as you can see, the portions were huge.  The plate to the right is my meal.  It was all I could handle, but I still managed to save room to eat one Buffalo Wing that my son couldn't finish.  I almost cleaned my plate.

The Brisket was cooked perfectly, but not overly flavorful.  Once I started using Jethro's house BBQ sauce, I really liked the Brisket, though I've had better.  The smoked sausage was really good.  At some point in the cooking process, they split it down the middle for more smoke penetration and deeper flavor.  The sausage was spicy and delicious.  One of the better smoked sausages I've had.  I'm going to totally rip off the splitting of the sausage next time I do smoked sausages.

David really liked the ribs with the spicy BBQ sauce and he loved the wings.  My wife liked her Po Boy a lot too. So, everybody else liked their meal, with the exception of our youngest son.  The chicken strips were mostly breading, and that was quite disappointing.  When I make chicken strips at home, I do a really light breading, so that is what we're used to.  We'll get him something different next time.

I should mention the BBQ sauces.  Jethro's has 5 choices.  Their house sauce is really quite good.  It's sweet with some tang and just a small amount of bite.  They also have a spicy BBQ sauce, a Carolina Sauce, a Georgia Mustard Sauce and an Alabama White (Mayo) Sauce.

My favorite bite of the day was the wing that I ate.  Jethro's smokes and then fries their wings and tosses them in one of their signature sauces.  My son picked Buffalo Sauce.  On it's own, it would have been a great wing with great sauce, but adding in the hint of smokiness put it over the top.  Next time I go I may just order a platter of wings.  I'm also going to try to duplicate that flavor at home.
Overall, it was a really fun trip and a great meal.  I highly recommend Jethro's if you're in the Des Moines area.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Brisket Basics

To me, Brisket is the ultimate BBQ food.  I didn't always feel this way though.  In fact, I never liked brisket until I had the opportunity to try brisket cooked correctly.  It was amazing!  Ever since that day, Brisket is the first thing I look for on BBQ restaurant menus, and my favorite meat to smoke.

But, Brisket can be daunting.  In fact, a friend of mine doesn't make brisket because he's worried he'll screw it up.  I understand this line of thinking.  When compared to a pork shoulder or chicken, brisket is quite expensive.  And, based on what you get at some BBQ places, brisket is easy to mess up.

Here is my brisket method.  I think this is pretty fool proof if you monitor temperature and foil at the right time.  This will deliver a brisket that is moist and delicious with just the right amount of smoke.

Start off by getting the meat.  Unless you are cooking for a horde of people, I recommend getting a brisket flat.  You want to find one that is in the 4-8 lb. range.  Here's the before picture of the one I cooked yesterday (it's 5 lbs).

The next step is to start trimming.  You want the fat cap to be there, but it should be fairly thin.  At most, about a quarter inch.  You also want to trim off any "hard fat" as this won't cook down like you want it too.  As you can see from the brisket I cooked, there's a big piece of hard fat on the bottom left.  So I removed that, along with a few other sections of fat. Then next pic shows the brisket after I finished trimming.

The next step is to rub the brisket with your favorite rub.  My favorite rub is Oklahoma Joe's.  I'm not sure if it's commercially available, but you can easily mix your own.

Back to the rub process.  I usually do this the day before, but you don't have to do that.  I think you can apply the rub just a couple of hours before cooking and it will be okay.  The first step is to rub down your brisket with a binder, such as mustard or some type of cooking oil.  For my most recent cook, I used olive oil.  I think it's important to have a binder so the rub has something to stick to.  I've used mustard before and it works well without leaving a mustardy taste.  But I really like the results yesterday using olive oil, so I'll probably go with that for a while.  Once you got the binder applied, liberally apply your rub to the brisket, covering all surfaces.  The picture to the left is the finished rubbed brisket.  I then wrapped it and put in in the fridge for the night.

Now it's time to smoke your brisket. If you've had it in the fridge, take it out about 30 minutes before you cook it to allow the temperature to rise a bit.  This will shorten the cooking process.

Next, preheat your smoker to 225 degrees.  I like to run everything at 225.  You can go lower if you want.  I've also done hotter and if you do this, just really watch your meat temperature to ensure you don't get it overdone.  Once your smoker reaches 225 (or whatever temperature you picked), place the brisket on the smoker, fat cap down.  You'll read other sources that suggest fat cap up.  I think either is probably fine, but I've had more success with fat cap down.  It seems to provide a little shielding from any direct heat.  Insert a meat probe and close the lid.

I baste my brisket every hour during the cooking process to keep it moist, and to add more moisture to the smoker.  I use either apple juice, or a 50-50 mix of apple cider vinegar and water.  I'm just looking for moisture here.  You want to let the brisket cook until the internal temperature of the brisket reaches about 160 degrees.  Yesterday I pulled my brisket at 162 degrees.  This took 4 hours and 45 minutes at 225.

When your brisket reaches 160ish degrees, it's time to wrap it in aluminum foil, or place it in an aluminum pan then cover with foil.  At this point, there is plenty of smoke in the brisket and we need to make sure it stays moist.  I always add some type of liquid to the foil to help with moistness.  Yesterday I used beef broth, but I've also used apple juice in the past.  Both seem to work really well.

Now, we wait.  Continue to cook the brisket until it reaches an internal temperature of 190 to 200 degrees.  At this point, it's not necessary to keep it in a smoker.  This part can be done in your oven.  It was only 35 degrees yesterday, so once I wrapped, I moved the smoker into my oven to finish so that I could save on pellets for the smoker.

Once the brisket reaches 190-200 degrees, pull it and let it rest for 45 minutes before slicing.  This is critical to let the juices redistribute throughout the meat.  I know it's hard to wait, but you have to!

When it's time to slice, cut the meat across the grain in thin slides (no thicker than  1/4 of an inch).  It should look something like the pictures to the right.  There will be a nice smoke ring and plenty of moisture left in the brisket.  If you want extra moisture, drizzle with the juices from the foil.  Serve as soon as you are done slicing with your favorite BBQ sauce.  I know you will love this!

Yesterday's brisket was hands down, the best I've ever made.  The temperature control that I have with the new pellet smoker makes all the difference.  The flavor was smokey, beefy, salty and spicy.

I really hope this clears up any concerns you have about brisket.  Please let me know how your next brisket cook turns out.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Meatless Meal for a Meatless Friday

Here we are, another Friday in Lent.  This means another meatless meal for our family.  Oh how I wish I could have used the smoker on this warm Iowa day, but I couldn't.  But that's okay, I can make a small sacrifice for God.

Tonight I made Black Bean and Corn Quesadillas, based on a recipe I found at  I am a huge fan of allrecipes because I can usually find anything I want to make on there and sometimes I stumble across recipes I would not normally even try.  Tonight's meal was one of the times where I found something that I would never try under normal circumstances, but I decided to give it a go to solve a Friday in lent meal conundrum.

I pretty much followed the recipe at the link above as written.  The one change I made is that I added 1 teaspoon (approximately 2 cloves) of garlic.  I am a firm believer in the liberal use of garlic!

After I mixed all the ingredients to make the Quesadilla filling, I had what is pictured to the right.

I know I have to get better at taking food pictures and I really need a better camera.  I will get one at some point, so please bear with me until then.  I then just used a griddle to cook the quesadillas.  Only Amanda and I had Black Bean and Corn Quesadillas.  The kids just had cheese...and they missed out.  The picture below is the finished product.  

I really enjoyed these quesadillas.  I served them with salsa for dipping, which added quite a bit to the flavor.  The Black Bean and Corn mixture is sweet and filling, and the salsa adds a little heat and a little zip.  This will definitely be a regular in the meatless meal rotation.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Choosing the Right Smoker

Okay, so you're asking yourself, how do I get started making good backyard BBQ?  Maybe you aren't asking yourself that yet, but you will be soon me.

The first step is to purchase a smoker, or make your own.  I am not handy, so I purchased a smoker, but if you are a handy person, search Do It Yourself Smoker and you'll find numerous different options to build your own.  One of the most interesting to me is the Ugly Drum Smoker.  Essentially, this is just a 55 gallon drum with a heat source at the bottom, maybe a water pan above, and then cooking grates above that.  You can get fancy and install a thermometer and damping valves and a chimney, but as long as you have an indirect heat source that produces smoke and a place to set meat, you have the basis for a smoker.

Further, I believe you can cook good food on anything.  So you have to ask yourself a few questions:

1)  What do I want to do with this smoker?

If you're looking to just cook for your family, something small will do the trick.  If you want to cook bigger backyard events, or branch out to cook for larger gatherings, then you're gonna need something bigger.

2)  How much work do I want smoking to be?

This is a critical question, because you can get a great little smoker for $60 at Lowe's if you are willing to babysit it, stoke the fire and basically have your whole day occupied by cooking some Q.  If you want more hands-off then you're looking at electric, gas, pellet or a higher end wood or charcoal smoker.

3)  How much do I want to spend?

This is probably the most critical question.  You can spend anywhere from $60 up to several thousand on a smoker.  You may want to set  your budget before you look at the first two questions.

Now that you have your questions answered, I recommend going to the Internet.  You can do some really good smoked food on a Weber kettle, or the big green egg (or on of its generic versions).  Those are versatile too because you can grill on them.  Also, there is some great information out there if you google "best smokers under $400" or "best smokers under $1000."  You will see several different types.  Most people start with a vertical water smoker, at least most people I've known.  They are cheap and pretty reliable.  My first smoker was the Master Forge smoker from Lowe's.  I've got a picture below:

Master Forge 36-in H x 20.25-in W 376-sq in Baked Enamel Green Charcoal Vertical Smoker
This charcoal smoker goes for $60, and with a few modifications does a great job.  I installed a rack for the charcoal to sit on, and bought a better thermometer for it.  It doesn't have great temperature control, but if you go by meat temperature, you can turn out some pretty good food.

If you like this model, but are willing to spend a little more, there are whole BBQ forums dedicated to the Weber Smokey Mountain.  This is the probably the most popular starter smoker.  There are 3 different models, ranging in price from $200-$400 dollars.  There are several competition cooks using these as their primary smoker.  From everything I've read, you load up the charcoal and wood chunks, start the fire and let it go.  Most users say temperature control is not a problem and you can turn out great food with relative ease.

In that same price range, there are a number of electric and propane smokers.  I am not a fan of these, as I like to cook with real fire, but I know a few guys that have electric or propane, and they seem to make really good food as well.  Shop around and see what you can find.

If you're willing to pay a little more, I'd recommend a pellet grill.  When I was looking for a new smoker, I was almost sure I was going to go with the Weber Smokey Mountain 18.5 inch.  Then a guy at work told me about his Pellet Cooker.  I had seen pellet cookers on the many BBQ TV shows I watch, but I always thought they were out of my price range.  This guy told me about Green Mountain Grills, which is a relative new comer to the BBQ industry.  He said they had pellet smokers starting in the mid $700s, and that they usually had $100 off in the spring.

So I started researching, and I found a lot of good information about Pellet Grills on the Internet.  Green Mountain and Traeger are the two manufacturers that have Pellet Cookers for under $1000.  They both make the grills in China to help keep the costs down.  Most of the Pellet reviews said that the cookers produced a nice even, light smoke flavor, and consistently moist and delicious meat with very little work.  These cookers use wood pellets, which are compressed sawdust.  The compression process holds the sawdust together using the natural lignin in the tree.  You simply load the pellet hopper, turn the grill on, and set the desired temperature.  The auger feeds the pellets into the firebox which produces the heat.  You are cooking with real wood in a very easy manner. 

So I was sold.  And, my wonderful wife purchased it for me as a surprise.  We have a local dealer that sells Green Mountain, so we bought it from them.  I chose the Daniel Boone Model, pictured below:

Daniel Boone
So far, I've done 4 cooks on the new grill, and I really like it.  It can run from 150 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can smoke, bake and grill.  I highly recommend this cooker.

Regardless of what you choose, I hope you choose to start making your own BBQ at home.  I think you'll find that you are able to turn out restaurant quality BBQ and a fraction of the cost, and you'll really enjoy yourself in the process.  If you have any questions about which smoker might be right for you, please feel free to leave me a comment and I'll respond.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Food History

Before I get into sharing recipes and posting about my awesome new smoker, I thought I should start this blog out by talking about my food history.  So here goes.

My mom loves to say to me, "I can't believe you eat that."  When I was a kid, I was super picky.  I liked what I liked and I refused to try anything else.  I still remember the battle I had with my parents the first time we went for Chinese food.  I was convinced that I would hate it.  Luckily for me, I tried it, and I have loved Chinese food ever since.

The first time I remember really going out of my comfort zone on food was when I finished my first Co-op term as an engineer at Northwest Airlines.  My boss took us all out for appetizers and drinks after work.  One of the items my boss ordered was Buffalo Wings.  He insisted I try one, despite my protests that I would not like it.  Thank God he made me try it.  I swear I could hear Angels singing when I had that first bite.  I could not wait to have Buffalo Wings again.

Over the next decade, I started to try a few more things, mostly whatever Amanda cooked.  Then my father-in-law got cancer.  It was a bad cancer, and we lost him in 2010.  When we'd visit, he and I would watch "Iron Chef America", among other things, on Food Network.  They were cooking some weird stuff, but I found that I really wanted to try this delicious looking food, and I wanted to try cooking some of these dishes I was seeing on the Food Network cooking shows.  So I started cooking a little bit, usually about one day a week.  (As an aside, I still watch Food Network, Cooking Channel, and Food shows when they show up on any other channel)

Over the next year or two, more and more of the household cooking transitioned to me.  I found that it was a nice way to destress after work, and Amanda really liked not having to cook.  We have a great arrangement where I cook the meal and she does clean up.  

During this time, I also ended up travelling more for work.  What do you do on travel?  Well, you work your tail off, and you eat good meals.  I started trying more and more different things.  Some of them I liked, and some of them not so much.  But I found that food, both cooking and eating, was becoming a passion of mine, second only to my golf game.  (Note:  I considered writing a golf blog, but frankly, it would read more like dark humor than anything helpful.  We golfers are a tortured lot, yet for some reason we keep coming back.  But I digress).

So here we are, about 5 years later from my first real inkling of wanting to cook.  I do 90% of the dinner meals in our house, and most of the grocery shopping.  I also love to cook for other people.  My favorite things to make are BBQ, American Comfort Food, Italian Food, Soups and Chilies, the occasional Mexican Dish, and every once in a while, something Asian.  These also happen to be my favorite foods to eat.  I've still got a lot to learn and a lot of new recipes to try, but I feel like I make some pretty good stuff.  I get most of my recipes off the Internet, or by watching food shows on TV.  I'm so passionate about good food that I've started this blog.  I bet when my mom read this, she'll be just as shocked as she was when she learned that I tried Foi Gras on my last trip to France.  I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoy writing about this stuff.

Welcome to my New Blog!

This is my first post of my new blog.  My friend, Bill, inspired me to start blogging again.  This blog will be largely focused on food, especially my experiences in the kitchen and at the smoker.  I hope you will enjoy what you read here, and will try some of these recipes/restaurants that I post about.  Also, I hope you will leave comments about your experiences as well.