BBQ on the Smokey Joe

Do you appreciate good barbeque? Are you ready to create a slow cooked masterpiece in your own backyard, but you feel you lack the proper equipment? Before you go out and spend a lot of money on a big, expensive smoker, take a look at what you can do with a small and relatively inexpensive Smokey Joe Platinum.

Why the Smokey Joe Platinum?

Short answer? I didn't want to spend a lot of money and I didn't want to give up a lot of patio space. The Smokey Joe is a small and portable grill. It's relatively inexpensive. It's not a single-purpose device, so I can grill hotdogs and burgers on it one day and use it to slow smoke a pork shoulder the next. The Smokey Joe Platinum model is slightly larger than it's compact cousins which makes it easier to convert to indirect cooking as you'll see below.

Pimp my grill

When compared to the larger, purpose-built smokers, the Smokey Joe lacks a few features. There is no temperature gauge, no water pan, no drip pan and no charcoal basket. However, this was easy to remedy with one trip to my local Ace Hardware store. Here's what I bought:

The idea is to take these extra pieces and put them inside the Smokey Joe in a way that facilitates indirect cooking.

Thermometer mounted on the Smokey Joe Fuel holder and drip pan Water pans and meat

On the outside, my Smokey Joe looks like any other grill except for the candy thermometer sticking out of the top vent. It's what's inside that makes it different. The lower rack of my grill holds the charcoal basket and the drip pan. The charcoal is placed toward the back centered between the lower vents. The top rack holds the water pans directly above the coals and the meat sitting up front over the drip pan.

The internal arrangement of my Smokey Joe places the meat as far as possible from the heat source so that the cooking is done by convection rather than radiant heat. The water pans above the coals help regulate the temperature as well as add moisture.

To build a fire

Barbeque is slow cooked and takes a good deal more time than regular grilling. Because of this, you'll need to build a fire that can last a a few hours. An easy way to do this is by using a technique called the Minion Method. Named after Jim Minion, this technique involves placing a small number of burning coals on top of a larger quantity of unlit charcoal. The fire burns slowly downward, igniting the unlit charcoal as it goes. The result is a long lasting, low temperature fire.

Unlit charcoal and hardwood in fuel holder Lighting charcoal in
 a chimney starter Hot coals on top

When I build a fire in my Smokey Joe, I use the same design, but on a smaller scale. I start by placing a chunk of hickory in the center of the basket. I then pack the remaining space with lump charcoal until it is one inch from the top. I light up a small amount of charcoal in my chimney starter and when it's ready, layer it on top of the unburnt fuel. The trick is to get enough hot coals to fill up the basket, but not so many that the top grate won't fit over it.

Regulating the temperature

Good barbeque is cooked "low and slow" at a temperature of about 250F degrees. There are two things that help keep this optimum temperature inside my Smokey Joe. One is the water pans and the other is the lower vents.

Ideal Temperature Maintaining temperature with water pans Air flow adjustment

Adjusting the vents to regulate temperature is fairly straightforward. Fire needs both fuel and oxygen to burn. Cutting back the amount of available air will slow the fire. I always leave the top vent wide open and adjust the air flow with the lower vents. To keep a stable 250F degree temperature I usually end up with the lower vents open to about one-quarter.

The water pans help regulate the temperature by absorbing excess heat from the fire and using it to turn water into steam. While this steam is being created, the water temperature holds steady at the boiling point, or 212F degrees. This is called latent heat of vaporization if you want to get technical about it. What it means for me as a barbeque chef is that the temperature of the water pans tends to stay very close to my ideal cooking temperature of 250F degrees. If the fire burns too hot, more steam is created, but the temperature stays relatively steady.

So if I notice my thermometer is climbing too high, there are two remedies to bring it back down. One is to make the side vent opening smaller to damp the fire. The other is to check the water level in my pans to make sure they haven't dried up.

More to come...