Autumn Barbecue on Big Black

It's time for another barbecue story on Big Black, my Meadow Creek TS250 Tank Smoker!

On the menu we have a whole brisket, several Boston butts, 3 racks of loin back pork ribs, a pack of bone-in chicken breasts, and 24 pounds of John F Martin rope sausage. I also used live smoke in the warming box to smoke a duck and chicken leg quarters.

This post is a photo journal of my cook, plus a few of my thoughts on fire management and hot spots in a Meadow Creek reverse flow smoker.

Here's a sneak peak of what we were cooking.

The butts and brisket got a head start because they take longer than the 3–6 hours required for the ribs and sausage. I sprayed them with apple juice several times throughout the cook to help build a nicer bark.

In case you're new to this blog, "Big Black" is my Meadow Creek TS250 tank smoker with a few nice upgrades—insulated firebox, charcoal basket, mounted BBQ42 (with rotating grate), trim package, and stainless steel shelves. It's the ideal setup for caterers who want to cook with charcoal and wood. It comes ready for the highway with flush-mount LED lights.

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Fire Management and Charcoal

Cooking on an offset smoker is about skillfully maintaining the fire to make it do what you want it to do. Maybe throw it a log every hour or so. I enjoy this style of cooking, but some days I prefer having a little bit of "auto-pilot" on my side.

Because Big Black has an insulated firebox and a charcoal basket, I've been experimenting with firing it with 40 pounds of charcoal and a couple of log splits, and then let it burn for about 5 or 6 hours before adding more fuel. It's pretty sweet not having to add more fuel during those shorter cooks of ribs, chicken, and sausage. This works okay if you're using mostly charcoal briquettes (a good kind of charcoal) and a little wood for flavor.

Two theories on fire management: 
  • Minion: What I do is essentially the Minion Method, which involves lighting a portion of the briquettes and pouring them on top of the unlit ones for a longer and more consistent burn. The difference in my method is that I light a portion of the fuel with my propane torch after loading it all into the basket. Using this much charcoal requires an insulated firebox and a charcoal basket. It also requires you to give the fire very little air to keep the temperature down, which can produce creosote if you're not careful.
  • Small Hot Fire: The concept is very simple. Just build a small fire, get it burning so that there is hardly any visible smoke, then feed the fire on a schedule to keep it producing the right amount of heat and smoke. With this method, you'll give the fire a little more air and you'll have less chance of a creosote problem, but it will take a lot more maintenance.

The minion method is controversial. Some say the entire surface of your briquettes must be lit and gray before you put the meat on your smoker because charcoal puts off a chemical taste when it's first being lit. In that case, the Minion method is dead, but I'm curious why you don't get a chemical taste while burning the entire briquette if it's made of the same material throughout. It's hard to tell what is subjective or what comes from the additives in a certain brand of briquettes.

This brings up the questions of lump vs. briquette and 100% hardwood charcoal vs charcoal with additives. In my opinion, it's not practical to burn lump in Big Black because it will burn too quickly. If you're brave, use log splits with a base of charcoal, but using only lump in this smoker could be pretty challenging. When it comes to briquettes, I like to use 100% hardwood charcoal briquettes. My go to is Royal Oak's Chef Select charcoal. It comes in 40 pound bags and the briquettes are larger than the typical briquettes, which means they burn longer.

The Minion method works fine for me and I haven't had any trouble with it that I know of. Even in my Meadow Creek SQ36 offset smoker, I will add unlit charcoal to the firebox as I'm cooking. If you're using an offset smoker with an insulated firebox and a charcoal basket, I would highly recommend the Minion method.

Hot Spots in a Reverse Flow Meadow Creek

While trying to optimize the operation of the insulated firebox and charcoal basket in my TS250, I've noticed that the bottom cooking grate on the end toward the firebox likes to run hotter than the rest of the smoker. This made me curious to know if there's a way to diminish the hot spot, or if I'm amplifying it by using more charcoal.

The hottest spot is the bottom grate at the end nearest the firebox. Next is the area above it. The middle and opposite end of the smoker are more in sync with each other. It's pretty typical for the hot spot to be 50–75 degrees F hotter than the opposite end of the top grate. From my observation, it gets cooler the further you get from the firebox and bottom plate.

Why does a reverse flow Meadow Creek smoker have a hot spot?

These smokers are built of heavy steel components and the air is forced below the sealed drip pan to the far end of the smoker before it can enter the tank. The most likely explanation is heat transferring from the firebox through the steel.

Is a hot spot good or bad?

Well, it depends. If you demand an environment that's the same anywhere on the cooking rack, you might not want to mess around with an outdoor wood cooker. I really doubt that any offset smoker on the market can produce heat with that kind of precision. Kitchen ovens and even computer-controlled pellet grills have hot spots. I'm not comparing a reverse flow smoker with a kitchen stove, but just saying that hot spots are pretty common in cooking devices.

If you're always filling up the smoker with one cut of meat and you want them all to cook evenly, a hot spot can be problem. If you're like me and you like to cook a variety of meats at once, then you can turn the hot spot into an advantage. For example, you might be running at 300 degrees F in the hot spot, but only at 225–275 in the rest of the smoker. You can put your chicken in the hot spot, and the ribs and butts in the cooler zone.

Does using more charcoal amplify the hotspot?

According to my findings so far, the difference, in regards to the hot spot, between firing it with 40 pounds of charcoal and 20 pounds is minimal. Either way, you can get the hot spot up to 300 degrees. The key is to keep the fire under control.

If you aim for 225 degrees on the factory thermometer (you might need to calibrate because some of them read 20 degrees low), the rest should fall in place. The main thing is to have fun and not overthink it!

quote-left

Through wind, heavy snow, and ice, the old girl just kept on going.

 Johnny Van, owner of TS250 Tank Smoker 

 Chicago, IL 

Gearing up for Amazing Barbecue!

Step 1: Light the Charcoal and Wood

For this cook, I fired Big Black with only 20 pounds of charcoal and 2 splits of pecan wood. First I put my propane torch on the coals for about 15 minutes.

Step 2: Heat up the Tank

Then I set the torch on the top edge of the charcoal basket, aimed into the opening of the tank. If you don't have a charcoal basket, you can light the charcoal and wood while you heat up the tank, but it's hard to get it into a proper angle with the basket.

Step 3: Maintain the Fuel

I fired the smoker at 5:45 am with 20 pounds of charcoal and 2 pecan log splits. 3 hours later, around 8:45, I put in the rest of a 40 pound bag (20 pounds more).

At 9:15 I added 2 more pecan splits. It was well lit and putting out plenty of heat. I added another pecan log and stoked the fire at 11:45, then again at 1:30 and 2:30. At 3:15 I added another log and 10 pounds of charcoal. At 5:00 I added another 10 pounds of charcoal to finish the butts and brisket.

So a total of 60 pounds of charcoal and 8 pieces of wood for an all-day cook.

Remember I was using live smoke in the warming box, and since this was my first time doing it, I was still trying to get the hang of it. I had the stack on the warming box about halfway open, but eventually realized I was loosing a lot of heat because of it. At this time, I closed it partway to hold more heat in the warming box.

Tip: If you pull the charcoal basket out to add more fuel, chances are, it's going to shake loose a bunch of ashes that will drift over the smoker, dusting your smoker, work shelf, and utensils. Besides, it will dribble ashes outside the firebox onto the gravel or whatever the smoker is sitting on. This has happened to me a couple of times, and it's very annoying!

If you want to shake down the ashes, reach into the basket with a digging shovel or slide the basket out about 2 inches and then shove it back in to unsettle the ashes.

Getting the Meat Ready

I went really simple with the brisket. Trimmed and seasoned it with Meadow Creek Brisket Seasoning.

Chicken leg quarters seasoned with Meadow Creek Gourmet Seasoning.

Pork loin seasoned with an unknown concoction of spices.

Rolling Smoke!

Duck and chicken in the warming box with live smoke.

Butts and brisket getting some nice color in the smoke.

The ribs and sausage went on around 11:00.

Ain't it a pretty sight?

A nice place to be right now!

At 4:30, I separated the brisket flat from the point and wrapped the butts and brisket. The flat and one of the butts were done, so I put them into an empty ice chest to rest. The rest went back on the smoker until they reached 200 degrees F.


Would you like to cook on your very own Big Black?

Brisket

Pork loin

Ready to Eat!

Ribs!

The chicken turned out great.

Smoked duck is amazing!

Rope sausage and pork loin

We pulled nearly 5 gallons of pulled pork and vacuum sealed it for the freezer. By 11:00 pm I had the pork pulled and all the meat put away. It was a long, but tasty day!


Would you like to cook on your very own Big Black?

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With very little experience in smoking, I have been able to turn out good volumes of really delicious food."

Blake Anderson, Tank Smoker owner 

Olds, AB, Canada

About the Author

Lavern is the online brand ambassador for Meadow Creek Welding and founder of StoryQue magazine.

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