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JerryT

Planning your BBQ Low and Slow

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I thought it was a good idea to touch base on a basic topic that sometimes gets buried in post about a specific cook. It's the concept of BBQ and the old saying, "It's done when it's done". After seeing a recent post about two 8 lb butts taking 17 hours to finish I thought it would be good to talk about  the basic principles of the cook itself rather than the rubs or injection you use.

 

You can never time a cook and if you think you can, you will get burned and find yourself in panic mood running around cranking up the heat trying to get your cook to finish so your hungry guest can eat. Everyone has that moment after a couple of great cooks, they figure they know how and when to cook that pork butt or brisket so everyone eats at 4:00 only to find it's 3:00 and they still have not gotten past the stall on the internal temp. Yes, your meat has been sitting at 145-150 for 2 hours and everyone is showing up :-o We have all been there, so lets talk about how to plan ahead and how to be that guy who always looks in control and everything is just running like clockwork at the BBQ. You know that guy and hate him so much and wonder how he does it? Food is done on time, cooked just right and everything flows like butter.

 

First, lets understand what BBQ is: It started as the poor mans way to take a very tough piece of meat and make it edible. The tough meats were passed down to people who could not afford the better cuts and nothing in the animal went to waist so cooking those tough pieces of meat were never a challenge to people with lesser means in life. Now BBQ has become a delicacy of sorts and not everyone is up to the challenge of making it and doing it right. Today the average backyard Joe who flips some burgers and dogs on sunday and dreams of being "That guy" who can churn out some great Q and be the envy of everyone finds its not so easy. Cooking BBQ is the easy part, low and slow but planning the BBQ is the tough part and having it all come together and tasting like the food you get at the Rib Cookoffs is an art form. 

 

I could say to cook your BBQ at 225 at 1 1/2 hours per pound and end this whole discussion and shut down the forum because we all now have the secret to cooking great BBQ and whats left to talk about! BUT, it's not so cut and dry.  Your brisket and pork butt come from and area of the animal that has a lot of connective tissue in the meat and BBQ is about breaking down that tissue so the meat is not like shoe leather to eat. You can certainly eat a brisket cooked at 145-150 internal temp but geez oh man it's going to be the toughest chew you ever had. The low temp of the cook gives the tissue a chance to melt or breakdown and also a chance for the smokey flavor to slowly soak into the meat giving these cuts a better flavor. The problem is knowing how long it will take for the tissue to break down in the meat and the simple answer is, you never will know.

 

A 5lb pork butt can take longer than a 7lb butt and I know people think well I did a 7lb butt 2 weeks ago and it took 9hrs so a 5lb will only take 7hrs. Not so and this is where the panic comes in and the guest are standing around looking at you. This breakdown of tissue will be different from one cut of meat to another and if you bought 2-7lb buts you could have one finish 2hrs before the other. Think it through and know if you add an extra butt on the cooker it will add more cook time because you added more mass to the grill. So understanding this and planning for this is your best bet.

 

You can store your cooked meat wrapped up in a cooler for 5-6 hrs and it will be just as good and hot if you just pulled it off the grill, so give yourself a big window when timing your cook. If I am serving at 3:00pm on sunday, I am putting my meat on at 12:00 midnight the night before and yes I sleep good because this has to do with me knowing my cooker and lots of practice cooks. Each cooker is different and getting to know yours is the key to success and being "That Guy"! 

 

Having the meat done early gives you an advantage in being able to focus on side dishes, drinking a few cold ones with your guest and making sure everyone is having a good time and helping the wife do her thing.... So plan your cook and know your cooker and understand that every piece of meat you plan on cooking could yield a different time will only make you "That Guy" that everyone would love to hate :-D Plan ahead!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

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Well said, indeed. One thing I might add, which I have more or less learned from this forum, and that is there is really no discernible difference between BBQ cooked at 225, vs. BBQ cooked at 275. A 15-17 hour cook at 225 more often than not turns into 9-11 hour cook at 275, and are the results as good? Well, yes, according to champion cookers such as Myron Mixon, who have won numerous titles cooking at these temperatures.

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Well said, indeed. One thing I might add, which I have more or less learned from this forum, and that is there is really no discernible difference between BBQ cooked at 225, vs. BBQ cooked at 275. A 15-17 hour cook at 225 more often than not turns into 9-11 hour cook at 275, and are the results as good? Well, yes, according to champion cookers such as Myron Mixon, who have won numerous titles cooking at these temperatures.

You are so right Ross and it does not matter what path you take to get that great Q, it is knowing your grill and thinking it through. Timing your cooks will never work and having the best sauce and rub in the world does you no good if your food is not done on time! Practice, patience and thinking ahead makes for a good day of BBQ. We seldom talk about this until we have guest arriving and our food is 3 hours from being done. 

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There is absolutely no way to estimate when food cook on a grill will be done! No one should ever plan to have dinner guests at a given time when cooking bbq because it has been proven impossible to figure out and no two pieces of meat will ever cook the same!

That being said, I am going to cook a butt tomm at 300 degrees and it will be done in 6 hours or less. Bet you couldn't pick one from the other in a blind taste test with 10 others cooked at 225.

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There is absolutely no way to estimate when food cook on a grill will be done! No one should ever plan to have dinner guests at a given time when cooking bbq because it has been proven impossible to figure out and no two pieces of meat will ever cook the same!

That being said, I am going to cook a butt tomm at 300 degrees and it will be done in 6 hours or less. Bet you couldn't pick one from the other in a blind taste test with 10 others cooked at 225.

I bet 5 hours and 45 minutes :-D

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Good advice and definitely a lot of truth here. I am "That Guy" and I pride myself on it, as a matter of fact, I've had quite a few comments on how I always seem to be able to have things coming off the smoker/grill as people are arriving or when I say it's gonna happen. Before every cook I do this mental visualization of how things need to happen and what I want to accomplish. Planning is a big part of that but another thing that I think helps and is overlooked is the source of my meat. I always buy my meat for BBQ from Kroger, I know some folks said they don't like the Silver Platter stuff they sell but I see no difference in it from the stuff I've bought at Sam's or anywhere else. The meat is consistent from cook to cook and I've never had any wild temp variables that I had to deal with using that meat. I can't say the same for stuff that was bought at a smaller retailer where the meat may have been bought from different suppliers from one time to the next though.

 

 I also have forgotten the golden rule of 225°F Low n Slow, anyone who says there isn't any other way don't know their elbow from their you know what and that particularly goes towards my BIL's dad... the man argued with me for 20 minutes saying he cooks his pulled pork to 300°!! I quit listening after the first 5 minutes but he insists that is how he cooks his pork at 225, if he only would stop and listen to himself... breaking the laws of physics by cooking the meat almost a hundred degrees hotter than his cooking temp.... he must have discovered cold fusion or something... I believe he does cook the life out of it though because he has to douse it with his doctored store bought BBQ sauce before he'll let anyone eat it, he is one of those that thinks sauce makes the 'cue... It's all about developing a technique that is successful, repeat, repeat, repeat. In the manufacturing world they say once you've done a task so many times it just becomes "muscle memory" and you become a master after so many repetitions; I think BBQ is the same.

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We have lots of "That Guys" on the forum like Mr Cue and for all the new guys who come to the forum and spend tons of time asking about rubs, sauces, temps, diffuser and injections I see very little questions about preparation and ultimately you see the "HELP" post when its really to late. It's food for thought and learning your cooker is such a big part of the cooking process and getting yourself prepared makes you "That Guy". I think this forum owes members a conversation about preparation as much as we talk about what temp to cook our food at and what sauce to slather our food in :-D There is more to great BBQ than just temp and different smoking woods. I think the hardest part of BBQ is mastering the timing of the cook B)

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Well said Jerry. You make an excellent point about learning your cooker, I am a firm believer in that as well. Often when noobies come onboard and start asking about mods and fixes for their Akorns I am right there every time saying "DON'T FIX WHAT AIN'T BROKE!!!". Very few people are going to have great success just starting out unless they learn about their equipment and develop a method for success.

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Think it through and know if you add an extra butt on the cooker it will add more cook time because you added more mass to the grill. So understanding this and planning for this is your best bet.

 

This is the only part of the original post that I would question at all.  In most circumstances, I'd say yes... this is true.  I have experienced it with my Weber Kettle and my homemade Mini WSM smokers.  If you load too much meat in them at one time, the air space that is displaced significantly decreases the efficiency of the grill.  

 

I don't know how the Akorn or the Big Steel Keg behaves in this situation, but in my experience with ceramic kamados (Kamado Joe), this doesn't hold true.  I have cooked 'excessive' amounts of meat in my Classic and Big Joe on a couple occasions.  The first time I did this, I put 8 boston butts  that averaged 8 pounds each on my Big Joe.  With this efficiency loss in mind, I gave myself a lot of extra time.  To my surprise, these 8 butts all finished within an expected cooking time of a single but for the given weight.  That made me scratch my head a bit.  I believe that the ceramic shell is the reason this happened.  The ceramic shell saturates with heat and radiates that heat back into the grill around the meat.  Steel configurations are not as effective at this because of the small amount of thermal mass they have.  Steel is good at containing heat, but not as effective at radiating absorbed heat.  

 

Anyway...

 

This philosophy on cooking time is a good one.  Mine is rather simple.  For instance... I'm having a dinner with guests and I want to serve pulled pork at 6pm.  Here's my strategy:

 

I have a 10 pound Boston Butt.

 

I want to eat at 6pm.

 

I know that cooking at 250 degrees will, on average, cook this butt in 15 hours.  I know that cooking this butt at 300 degrees will, on average, get it done in 8-9 hours.  So I just have to choose what temp I want to cook at.  Let's say I'm going to go at 250 for an expected cook time of 15 hours...

 

Dinner is at 6pm.  I want to give myself a minimum of a 3 hour buffer zone with the time.  So I want my butts to come off the grill at 3pm so I can foil and rest in my cooler (I have successfully rested butts for up to 5 hours with no problems.)  So I need to have those butts on the grill 15 hours shy of 3pm, which would be midnight the night before.  This has always worked out for me.  I have never had a failure with this plan.

 

I read a lot of posts where people are showing butts taking 2 hours per pound to cook.  I have ONLY run into that situation with small butts (weighing less than 6 pounds.)  For some reason, those smaller ones seem to take longer per pound to cook.  The larger butts that I prefer to cook (8 to 11 pounds) have never taken over 1.5 hours per pound at 250 degrees (or 225 degrees for that matter.)  They always cook in less than 1 hour per pound when I cook them at 300 degrees, which is my preferred cooking temp.  

 

It's all about experience.  With bbq, it's always better to finish the meat early and let it rest unless you are cooking ribs.  Ribs need to be served shortly after they are finished :)  

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I guess my point was to air on the side of caution and give yourself some extra time. I have no scientific stats about cooking 1 or 2 butts but I always give myself extra time so I don't guess wrong. I always cook by internal temp so I never really put a stop watch on it. My point is to be safe than sorry. I'm mostly focused on pork butt and brisket. You are correct on the ribs!

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