Smoking and Grilling on a Kettle
During the Spring of 2020 (yes, right after the pandemic started), I started smoking meats on my kettle. I’ve grilled on charcoal for a very long time. I’ve had my kettle since 2016 and various other charcoal grills before that, since I was around 20 years old. Basically, you can say that I’m not new to grilling, or even grilling on charcoal.
When the pandemic started, we got sick… it ran through 3 of the 5 of us in the February and March of 2020. Summer and Kalli got real sick and I had a killer headache for 6 weeks. Well, after we got past that, we had time on our hands. I was working from home, the kids were doing school from home… and we were just at home… all the time… all of us. We went from 3 kids with separate sporting events and practices and school and me riding the bus to and from Seattle daily to no commutes, no sports, nothing.
After being bored and starting to get stir crazy, Summer suggested that I get a smoker and start trying to make some barbecue. I start searching the web for what kind of smoker I should get. I know I don’t want a pellet smoker, so I’m looking at the other options. During my search, I came across Meathead’s AmazingRibs.com. This site is a gem! More on that later. I found an article about smoking meat on a kettle grill, so I decided to buy a chunk of meat and get started… see if I really wanted to invest in a smoker.
The First Couple of Smokes
Now, the first couple of smokes, I did not keep good records or, apparently, take a lot of pictures. I did some beef ribs on 4/18/20. This is what I consider to be my first smoke. I don’t remember a lot about this smoke. I know it was beef back ribs. I think I just used the built in thermometer on my grill to track the temperature, so I’m sure it wasn’t too accurate. At the end of the day, though, I do remember the ribs were great! We were going to move forward and try something else.
For my next smoke, we picked up a pork butt (2 actually) from Costco. As with all the pork butts I’ve seen at Costco, they were boneless, so I tied it up to keep it tight. I had read that it was best to have the temp at the grate level, so I picked up a cheap oven thermometer at the grocery store. It was better than nothing, but not great. I still needed to open the lid to see the temperature, and all. I also started using a cheap digital probe thermometer that we had purchased a few years back, but never used. This one was really good… like, on a level with the best pulled pork we’ve ever had.
Hunter enjoyed the ribs from my first smoke, so much, he wanted beef ribs again on his birthday. I made a bunch of them, this time around. They were just as good as the first time. I should note that, for all of my smokes, I’ve been salting a day or so prior to getting the kettle going and rubbing with Big Bad Beef and Meathead’s World Famous Memphis Dust (for beef and pork, respectively). Granted, I’ve made some adjustments to these rubs for my more recent cooks, as noted in the sidebar.
Well, after my successes, and my intent to continue on this path of smokey, tender, meaty goodness, it was time to start thinking about how to get better, easier, more consistent results. My first consideration, of course was, a new smoker / cooker. However, I was also looking at thermometers, fans, and other kettle accessories.
When it comes to smokers, I wasn’t looking for anything fancy. I still wanted to work for this, and I wanted to continue to use charcoal. That narrowed the field, pretty well. I was down to a bullet style smoker, a kamado grill, or a pit barrel cooker.
The bullet style smoker, specifically the Weber Smokey Mountain, was my inital favorite. It’s really got a lot going for it. First of all, Weber is a great name. I’ve had my kettle since 2014, in 2020, that was already double the time I had used any other grill. It’s also pretty popular, and I’ve learned that going with the popular product means you have a lot of options. There are a lot of accessories available. You don’t have much trouble finding replacement parts. There are a lot of articles and instructional videos about using them.
The 14 inch was out of the question. I knew I was going to need something bigger than that. Also, all of the advice on reddit, said to avoid the 14 for various reasons, whether they were good reasons or not, I knew it wouldn’t be enough space for my crew. Looking back, I think the 18 inch would have been big enough, but I got kind of hung up on the face that it felt a lot smaller than my 22 inch kettle. So, I really wanted to get the 22 inch. However, it is not cheap… and, despite what everybody said about finding them for great prices on craigslist or facebook marketplace, I never came across any for much less than retail.
At the end of the day, I decided against this cooker because I couldn’t get the one I wanted for a price that I considered to be reasonable.
The ceramic kamado grill was my next choice. Now, I wasn’t nearly as picky about model / brand here, as I was with the bullet smoker. I looked at the popular options of the Big Green Egg and Kamado Joe, but the sizes I needed had the same problem as the WSM. However, I found a Louisanna Grills brand at Costco for a great price. Bonus, it came with all the accessories I wanted to get for it.
I was ready to hit Costco and pick it up, but then I remembered that one of the biggest downsides of a ceramic grill is the weight. Now, for most people, this probably isn’t a big deal, cause it’s going to sit on the ground or a concrete slab… and not move. I looked up the weight of this grill, and it was beefy. At the time, I kept my kettle on the upper level of a wooden deck. I didn’t have faith in it’s ability to keep the kettle off of the ground 12ish feet below, so that option was scrapped, as well.
Pit Barrel Cooker
This one’s pretty popular and not super expensive, but there’s really not that much to it. Honestly, I think I could buy the barrel, all of the parts, and a torch to build it myself for cheaper than I could buy it… and that was the end of that. It’s probably not a good metric, but if I can build it myself in a reasonable amount of time, and accumulate a few tools in the process, I’m usually not happy spending money on the already built product.
Masterbuilt Gravity Series
At the time I was searching, I don’t think the MasterBuilt gravity series cookers were available, yet (I didn’t see them, even if they were). Honestly, given my parameters, I think that’s where I would have landed, but I’m not sure I would have pulled the trigger.
Of course, this is what I was already cooking on, and it’s what I decided to keep cooking on for the time being. I smoked on this exclusively for over 2 years and have no regrets. I made a couple of modifications which have improved my temperature control on it for long cooks.
The first thing I did was drill a hole in the side of it. I stuffed a silicon grommet in there and use it as thermometer probe port, so I don’t have to run the probes between the lid and the grill (which let’s in way too much air).
My next modification (if you can call it that) was to some Lava Lock grill weather strip stuff along the top edge of the grill, where the lid sits on there. That seal eventually broke, due to the lid hanging on it. I’ve replaced it, but put it on the lid this time. This reduced the air leakage so much, that I’m able to get this thing cruising at a steady temperature for hours at a time. Before that, I had to keep the vents practically all closed, to make it stay under 250 degrees.
I initially intended this article to be much longer. I started writing it in January 2022, but got distracted… or bored. I’ve got more planned, including talking about thermometers (what I consider the best investment I’ve made for cooking… ever), specific cooks, and tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years. I have made a lot of posts on reddit with cook details and pictures. I also have a lot of comments with tips and tricks if you want to dig through them.
I no longer log in or post on reddit, as my primary use was through third party apps on my phone. I’ve moved to Lemmy, but haven’t posted anything interesting there, yet.