[Food] – Smoked Turkey, Proto B

It’s been a year since I’ve owned a smoker now, and we’ve had some memorable meals, and some horrible waste of food that should never be repeated. And somewhere along the way, an off-handed comment about why a smoked turkey would be better than a deep fried turkey landed me in the position of head turkey chef for my girlfriend’s family Thanksgiving celebration, ironically in her home town of Palatine, IL – home of Weber Stephens company.

The 2011 Thanksgiving Turkey, on a Weber 22″ Genesis

So, what do you do when you are tasked with cooking for your girlfriend’s parents, both grandmothers, *and* her extended family? As an engineer, the answer is pretty simple: You test and document the crap out of things to mitigate ANY risks that can crop up.


Cooking data from the 3rd turkey of the month. Yes, our friends ate a lot of smoked turkey that month.

Rachel and I did two test runs to iron out the kinks, limiting ourselves to just the equipment that we will have access to in Palatine, namely, a single 22″ weber grill. We based our recipe off of Meathead’s Ultimate Smoked Turkey recipe from AmazingRibs.com.

This is what we did for our 2011 Thanksgiving Turkey:


Brining improves flavor by adding moisture and salt into the meat. We made one important modification to Meathead’s brine recipe; by substituting celery salt for kosher salt for part of the brine mix, we added in naturally occurring nitrates, which will then react with combustion gases to form a smoke ring. Our brine recipe, formulated to be diluted with 1 gallon of distilled water and a 7 lb bag of ice, consists of:


We brined the turkey (24 lb bird) for 12 hours, taking care to fill the inside cavity of the bird with the brine, as that is the primary means for the brine to enter the bird. Unfortunately we did not take weight measurements of the bird before and after brining – that would be a pretty interesting figure to have for next year.


Brining the turkey in a 5 gallon bucket and plastic trash bag

Bird Preparation – Facelift and Botox

After the bird had been brined for 12 hours, we removed the bird and rinsed it throughly, inside and out, with water, and patted the external part of the bird dry. We stuffed the inside cavity with paper kitchen towels, and we pulled on the skin to stretch and separate the skin from the flesh.

Turkey Facelift

Next we prepared a wet rub / herb butter, by clarifying butter and steeping herbs from Rachel’s Mom’s garden in the butter.

Clarified Herb Butter and injection syringe

We filtered the butter mix through cheesecloth to prevent any of the chunks (or milk protein solids) from clogging the injection needle. Finally with the turkey out of the brine, we injected the mix under the skin.

Botoxing the Turkey :-)

One nice thing about using clarified butter – the cold turkey causes the butter to solidify and plug the injection hole site. Just don’t think about the analogy between the turkey and your arteries…

Try not to think of your arteries…

We left the turkey out to air dry for about 4 hours. I asked about fridge space and Rachel pointed at the garage…

Finally, we brush the outside of the bird with clarified butter and herbs, foiled the wing tips and drumsticks to prevent them from burning while the breast cooks, and trussed up the bird. Yes, I know you’re not suppose to truss the bird, but in earlier tests with a 22 lb bird, the wings overhang onto the charcoal rails and would burn to a crisp if left unattended. We therefore play it safe and truss the bird until the foil comes off, then we’ll let the bird flop and the skin brown.

Rachel brushing the turkey skin with herb butter

Temperature monitoring

Temperature monitoring is done by 4 K-Type thermocouples – 1 for the exhaust vent temperature, which is fairly close to where the turkey breast is, and 3 inserted probes for the turkey. We are using 3 probes because on the first run, following Meathead’s recommendation for building an offset fire, we recorded a 10 deg F differential between the two breasts – the side closer to the fire cooked faster.

Instrumented turkey

During brine-making, we used the boiling water to verify the calibration on the thermocouple probes. As expected the smaller needles have a smaller time constant, but ultimately in boiling water all the probes agreed within 1ºC of each other.

Thermocouple Calibration

Temperature recording is handled by an arduino board, communicating over SPI with a 4 board thermocouple decoder from McLaughlin Engineering. The box also reports temperatures on the probes via a color-coded backlit display and records the cooking data onto an SD card. The last feature is actually really nice – it allows for a good “at a glance” information later to fine tune techniques and recipes.

Instrumented turkey, ready to load onto the grill

A DIY kit will be available from Tam Labs soon :-)

I’m not OCD :-)

Gravy and aromatics pan

We started by following Meathead’s recipe for the gravy, substituting chicken stock for water. In early tests testers complained that the gravy is too smoky, so we cooked the ingredients a stock pot instead.

The beginnings of a gravy

We simmered to reduce the gravy a little bit, and separated the gravy into two batches. One batch will be loaded up with the ingredients into the water pan for aromatic steam in the grill, while the other batch will be combined with the bird’s drippings in the cavity and thickened with a blonde roux.

Grill Setup

We made one modification to the grill – using high temperature aluminum thermal tape, We sealed off 2 of the 3 vents underneath the grill to allow for better air flow control. The thermal tape used may be purchased from McMaster-Carr.

Foil tape over 2/3 vents

Doing this slight modification allows for a higher precision in the controls: with 2/3s of the vents sealed off, opening the vents all the way still take a while for the temperature to creep upwards towards 325 deg F.

We set up the fire for indirect heat – with Weber charcoal rails on each side to hold the charcoal in place. We further took a disposable foil pan and cold forged it (har har) into position to hold the armoatic gravy / broth that will add moisture to the cooking setup. Finally, we clip the air temp thermocouple to the lid to prepare for the bird’s arrival.

Adding water to the pan, coals already fired up

Cooking the turkey

We dumped one chimney’s worth of charcoal evenly across the two rails. Initial temperature was in the 400 Deg F range, which we then cool down by closing all the vents and keeping the lid on. When the temperature drops below 300 deg F we loaded the turkey, and tossed on the wood chunks. We tossed in 2 chunks of apricot and 6 chunks of apple for the smoking wood.

About 4 hours to go…

One thing to note: Temperature outside in Chicago, IL is enough to kill a brand new alkaline 9V battery. We ended up running a USB cable to an iPad charger to provide juice to the monitoring box so that the display is readable.

About 90 minutes into the cooking, we opened the lid to remove the foil and the twine. We also added about 12 prelit charcoal briquettes at this time, removed the wood chunks and dunked them into a bucket of water – because of the length of time the grill lid stays open, the wood chunks tend to catch fire and burn the bird. Once the fire had stabilized, we add the wood chunks back in again.


Resting, Carving, Eating…

We pulled the bird when the thermometer in the breast registered 160ºF. We let the bird rest for about 10 minutes, after which we took a few random readings with a thermopen. During resting, it was a good time to go brush up on turkey carving skills; in this case, with an Alton Brown video.

Turkey resting

We did deconstruct the turkey by removing the legs first, to give us easier access to the turkey breasts.

Leg removed
Turkey breast, sliced
Carved turkey, plated

And this is what we all looked like after having our turkey:


[Food] – Proto A cold smoker, DIY bacon

Apparently, Weber-Stephen Products LLC does a really, REALLY good job with their enamel coating. My buddy Jared called and reported that even after half hour of attacking the metal with an agressive angle grinder, the coating held on tight.


So he ended up riveting a section of the exhaust pipe in place.

I then attach a 25ft x 3″ dryer hose to the exhaust pipe, using hose clamps. On the “protein box” side, since it doesn’t get hot, the quickest way to prototype up a door was to cup apart a shipping carton for corrugated cardboard, and duct-tape it in place. To draw the smoke in , I gimped up a computer case fan and some D sized batteries for a 12V power supply:


(Even with sealing the battery holders in a bag, the smoke still got through and scented the batteries. Nothing a good scrub can’t handle, but I am glad I didn’t put my 7Ah NiMH cells in there!)


Computer fan after a 12 hour smoke. Still runs, no binding on the bearings, but I won’t be using this for mission critical cooling for sure…

With the outside temperature below freezing, food spoilage and temperature control in the protein box wasn’t much of a problem. I fired up the hot side of the smoker with half a chimney’s worth of lit mesquite charcoal, piled on the wood chips and closed the vents.

Immediately, thick, white smoke started pouring into the protein chamber. w00t!

Now, the pork belly had been pre-cut into roughly 1.5lb slabs, and these are loaded onto the rib rack for a nice long 8 hour soak in the applewood smoke:

Cold smoker closeup

In my haste gimping this together I forgot to check the grain of the corrugated cardboard. If you look closely you can see the scoring I did with a box cutter to allow the cardboard to bend.

Note that there’s almost no leak from the smoke generator side:

Proto-A Cold smoker

For just 3 rivets and angle brackets, Jared did a really good job attaching that pipe. (Since this is the hot side, and since we are essentially vapor-treating the food in the protein box, I’ve decided not to try for a perfect seal with JB-Weld or Silicone. I don’t want degassing JB Weld in my bacon).

After 8 hours, the bacon was removed, slightly frozen, then taken to my local artisian butcher’s for slicing on their meat slicer. It pays to have good relationship with your suppliers.


This package is headed for Hong Kong via my Mom to my Uncle’s family.

From my buddy MikeZ’s report that his fridge smells like it had barely survived a house fire, it would appear that the bacon “degasses” after it’s been smoked. We are still evaluating whether the smoke and brine flavor mellows out over time – if the remaining bacon lasts that long in his fridge.

I guess we’ll have to make more to try… stay tuned for more experimentation to come. :-)

[Food] – The mysterious 10 deg F rise – In this house, my roasts obey the laws of thermodynamics!

One thing about being an engineer, is that unless I’m jetlagged or drunk (very rare), there’s always a part of my brain questioning how something works. And when we decided to make prime rib for our circle of friend’s New Year Eve party, I was pretty baffled at some of the recipes that I’ve dug up during my course of research. Inevitably, there would be a blurb along the lines of:

“the roast will continue to cook from its own heat during this time. This will give you about 10 more degrees F.”

And the little voice in my head says,

“Well, where is that heat coming from?”

Since a 4-rib prime rib roast is a serious chunk of beef, commanding a equally serious price, an experiment and a test run was in order. I procured a smaller cut of chuck roast to cook in the smoker before committing the resource and my reputation as a BBQ guy to supply the finished roast. And, following the instructions online to the letter, I targeted 140 deg F for medium rare, and pulled the chuck roast sample at 130 deg F and let it rest for 20 minutes.

The beef might as well be mooing as we cut into it. So much for “the roast will continue cooking…”

IMHO – the “10 deg gain” is one of those tidbits that’s blindly parroted around. In a conventional oven cooking of a roast, the oven is set to ungodly high heat (500 deg F on some recipes) to sear a crust onto the roast. The heat is then dialed down over the course of time. Due to the thermal mass of the roast and the fact that the thermometer is being poked into the center of the meat, there exists a temperature gradient between the outside surface and the inner core. Of course, during the “resting” stage this thermal energy redistributes itself throughout the roast, resulting in a temperature rise. Naturally, this would be dependent on variables such as the temperature used to cook the meat, and the mass and diameter of the meat itself. Bigger distance, higher temperature, more temperature rise. Another way to think of it is that the thermometer reading *lags* behind the actual temperature of the roast. This is what my engineering Dad calls, “a rubber screwdriver”.

My theory is to “reverse sear” the meat. This is what I did:

King of roasts

Here’s my roast from QFC – USDA Choice prime rib. The bones had already been sliced off and the excess fat trimmed off when I acquired it. All I have to do is to season the roast. Unpacking the meat I rinsed any blood or meat juices that had gathered on the meat and patted everything dry with kitchen towels. I then made a paste out of crushed garlic, cracked black pepper, sea salt, thyme and rosemary. Terence’s rule of fat applies here: I used half a stick of butter along with some olive oil for the fat to make my spice paste. (In general, I found that you really can’t go wrong with fat rendered from the same animal in a roast – so a bit of bacon fat for pork dishes, or a bit of butter for a beef dish, goes a long way).

The spice paste is massaged into the meat, and into the seam between the rib bones and the prime rib portion, then the roast is tied back together using kitchen twine. This then goes uncovered into my refrigerator on a rack, on a baking pan with some kitchen towels underneath, to dry the exterior surfaces of the meat off a bit. (If I left it there long enough, it would technically be dry-aging, but I am concerned about my ability to pull of dry aging properly, and didn’t really want to experiment *that* much with my friends. Next time…)

The next day, I set up the smoker. Here, I’m loading mesquite charcoal into the bottom for fuel. I’ve learned that larger chunks tends to burn more slow and uniform and is much less prone to thermal runaway. On another cooking run I had loaded the smoker up once with small briquette-sized chunks and a thermal-runaway killed two strips of my famous BBQ pork. *sob*.

Onto the charcoal goes about 4-5 mesquite chunks and a handful of mesquite chips. I then dump a lit half-chimney full of briquette sized charcoal chunks to get everything going.

Wire her up!

Here’s a recycled picture from me smoking the thanksgiving turkey. For this smoke, the temperature never exceeded 210 deg F. Which meant that the roast temperature crept up *slowly*

After the roast hits 148 degrees – we had ladies at the dinner table that don’t care for medium rare beef – I removed the roast from the smoker and wrapped it up in foil to drive it to my buddy’s house. There, we seared the crust on as part of the serving routine. (We seared it in a 500 deg F oven, but in hindsight, I would have used a hot cast iron skillet next time).

Carving the prime rib roast

There you have it. It’s a perfect medium all the way out to the crust. Low and slow cooking is the way to go.

The only negative was that the mesquite smoke was too strong in some spots. Fortunately, the smoke didn’t penetrate too deeply into the meat.

Plated Dinner

Next time, we’ll use old oak wine barrel slats for the smoke source to get some of that wine-infused smoke, and use a cast iron skillet to sear the crust. :-)

[Photography] – Jellyfish in a tank

Rachel and I went to the aquarium on New Year’s day. I’ve never been there, and they had one of those donut-shaped jelly fish tanks, so I decided to try taking some jelly fish shots.

Turns out that the place is pretty poorly lit. Even at ISO3200, F/1.4, I’m not getting enough shutter speed to get good details.

I did have my 580EXii on me, but no pocket wizards to trigger them. So, what to do?

Turns out the ambient is low enough that at ISO100 f/8 a 1/2 second exposure doesn’t get me much. So I set the exposures manually, dial the strobe to M1/4, and put my finger on the “TEST” button. Then I held the strobe and side-lit the jelly fish with my left hand.


And, a bit of cleanup, some selective darkening, vignetting, cropping and color adjustments in Lightroom, we have:


(The original is pretty white, just like the jellyfish in real life. I tweaked the white balance extensively to give it an out-of-this-world bluish glow…)

[Food] – DIY Bacon

Last week, Rachel and I decided to smoke up some bacon. This was actually a week long project in the making. (It shouldn’t actually take that long, but I got shipped down to Beaverton for a better part of the week).

After reading about all the people raving about how much better home-made bacon taste, we knew we had to try it. We started by sourcing a piece of belly pork from a Chinese supermarket:


At $3.69 per pound, this is pretty reasonable size for lots of fatty porcine goodness.

Here’s a closeup of the cut. This cut is called in Chinese 五花腩 – literally “Five flower belly” or “five layer belly”. Cooks, when selecting this from the meat market, will be looking for 5 (or more) stripes o meat and fat in uniform bands. In Chinese cooking, this is often made into 燒肉 (roast pork) – a unique delight in its own right with a crispy skin and succulent pork under self-basting fat caps. This particular sample was probably a bit too fatty for our taste, but it worked well for our first experiment.

Cooking together :-)

Here’s Rachel stirring up the brine. (BTW, it’s AWESOME to have someone to cook with. :-) ). We are using Alton Brown’s “Scrap Iron Chef” brine recipe, consisting of:

Since this is a pilot run, we’ve scaled everything down by a factor of 4.

Since the brining operation takes about 4 days, and there is a very high salt content, it’s important to use non-reactive cooking vessels. Stainless steel works quite well; we’re using an 18-10 stainless pot here. We brine in plastic zip-lock bags, but for larger batches we’ll need to visit the local cash and carry for a food grade HDPE plastic bucket.

Temp control

[Fridge shot]

THe brine needs to be between 36 deg F and 40 deg F for brining. Here, we stuck one of our thermometer probes into the brine and put the brine in the freezer to drop the temperature.

Too low a temp will stop the chemical reaction. Too high a temp is probably bad for other reasons. (and we definitely don’t want to melt out any of the fat now …)

Rubbing in the cracked pepper

I like the taste of peppercorn, so I decided to rub in some peppercorn. To be honest, I don’t think this does much, the brine pretty much overpowers any of the black pepper. Maybe if I rub this in *after* brining…


So, typically, the meat should brine for 3-4 days. Unfortunately, work had me in Beaverton for a few days during the window at the end of the brining process. So this brined for a whole week. The use of molasses probably didn’t help either. On the next revision, I am going to substitute in apple syrup for molasses.

The pork belly is patted dry throughly with kitchen towels, then set onto a cooling rack in front of a fan for a final blow dry for about an hour. This forms a pellicle, or a sticky gooey coating, from the dissolved proteins reflowing inside the meat.

In the instructions I’ve read, the pellicle helps with smoke adhesion. Since smoke is just a colloid suspension of ultrafine combustion byproducts, I guess it makes sense that it’ll get deposited onto the meat and stuck on by the liquified protein…

Boy with toy

[Smoker picture]

The next step is smoking the bacon. This is much harder than one would think. Bacon is meant to be cold smoked. There are two reasons for this. First of all, we don’t want to render out any of the bacon fats, but most importantly, meats are more porous raw than cooked. By keeping the temperature low, the bacon soaks up that smokey goodness.

The target temperature for cold smoking is about 80 deg F. Note that a hot summer day, even in Seattle, can exceed that. In my case, since I’m crazy enough to man a BBQ while there’s snow on the ground, the ambient temperature isn’t too much a problem. However, getting a sustained burn and keeping the temp that low *is*.

I solved the issue here by fuel-limiting the reaction. I lit half a chimney’s worth of mesquite charcoal and carefully spread out the lit coals. Then I dumped a bubba keg’s worth of apple chips on the charcoal and close all the vents – enough leaks exists in the system to keep the combustion going, but at least the fuel can’t runaway on me.

I was able to hold about 90 deg F for an hour – then I went to bed and retrieved the bacon in the morning for slicing:

Bacon ready to slice

And of course …

Home made bacon...

Goes well with a couple of eggs over easy.

Home made bacon, compared to the store bought variety, is completely different. Store bought stuff to me is just usually salty fatty meat. Here, I can taste the apple comiing through in the fat rendering out, and the pork has a flavor and texture that just can’t be compared to the store bought stuff.

We will be making some modifications to the smoker and running another batch. Strictly for engineering testing, of course… :-)

[Food] – Smoking a thanksgiving turkey

I’ve always loved smoked foods; smoked goulda, smoked eggs, tea-smoked chicken, smoked brisket, smoked sausages… the list goes on and on. However, the high cost of a Weber smokey mountain smoker had stopped me from taking the plunge.

I already own a Weber 22″ kettle grill, and thought to myself: surely, there must be some retrofit kit out there? I’d hate to spend $400 on a WSM when I already have a 22″ kettle; all I needed to add to the kettle was an extension body ring and a water pan.

Turns out, the guys at Cajun Bandit makes just that, a retrofit kit to turn a 22″ Weber kettle grill into a charcoal and water smoker. After saving for it for a bit, I decided to pull the trigger.

A week or so, and $65.00 in UPS shipping fees later, the box arrives:

Big box

Note to self: 24″ x 24″ is way bigger than what can fit into the back seats of a normal sedan. Fortunately I rarely design anything that big.

The unit is pretty well built. The boys at work had fun looking at the welds. The sheet metal guys that built this did a fantastic job:

Oh HAI smoker

I elected not to put the lowering brackets on, mostly because I wanted to start cooking ASAP. (Yes, Jared, they make lowering brackets for BBQs too, not just car seats):

Boy with toy

Next, I filled the “high Airflow Coal Ring” with cooking fuel. I stock up on Lazzari mesquite charcoal in the form of 40lb food service bags whenever the local cash and carry carries them. That stuff is awesome – and can burn much hotter for searing steaks as well.

Here’s about 2 chimney’s worth of cooking fuel. I’ll toss in another pound of apple wood chips. The smoke flavor isn’t that heavy (apple is a really light smoke flavor) so I think I’ll try and source some apple chunks from local orchids for my next turkey smoke.

For lighting the fuel, I use the “Minion method” which is to dump about half a chimneys’ worth of lit charcoal onto the unlit fuel and start cooking right away. This goes against all conventional wisdom of waiting for the charcoal to ash over white before cooking on the fire, but the advantage is that it’s less likely to overheat the smoker, and it makes for a nice long stable burn. Most people cannot taste the difference between food cooked on charcoal lit by the Minion method, or by food cooked on charcoal lit the traditional way.

Lighting the fire, Minion Method

And, of course, we need to monitor our progress. One therometer is stuck in the turkey breast, while the other is left to dangle inside the smoker chamber. (Ironically, the more expensive and fancy Williams Sonoma thermometer has trouble registering above 220 deg F, so the cheaper Lowes special had to be used to monitor the smoker temp.)

Wire her up!

6 hours later, the turkey breast approaches 160 deg F:

6 hours later...

And we have a turkey!

We. Have. Turkey!

(Note the RTD sensor wires going through the vent on the lid)

We made more than turkey too – here’s the rest of the Thanksgiving dinner:

The rest of dinner

Dad is more skilled with a knife, so we had him carve the turkey:

Dad carving the turkey.

It’s a team work event. Here, Mom’s trying to put an apron on Dad, while Rachel’s doggie sits by supervising and wishing for scraps:


A closeup on the turkey breast:

Carving the turkey breast

This was probably one of the moistest turkey that I’ve carved into in recent memory.

Turkey, carved and plated

Note the nice faint pink smoke ring. For a first time at smoking a turkey, we did really, really well.

(Photo credit: Ms. Rachel Flamm)