Smoked Steelhead in Modified ECB Smoker

Well, my original plan was to smoke some salmon.  You can't really cold smoke anything in an ECB (or, if you can, you are a better man than I) but it sure seemed like I ought to be able to do a better job with salmon in the smoker than on the grill.  So, I headed to the grocery store.  Well, as it turned out, the local natural and organic grocery store didn't have any salmon.  Harumph.  However, they did have steelhead trout!  Huzzah!

This was my first attempt cooking steelhead and I'm definitely going back for more.  The advantage of steelhead over salmon is that it's much, much cheaper.  Or, at least it is here in Montana where you can just pull the lil' buggers out of the water if you know what you are doing (I don't).

The downside is that there are a lot more pin bones.  So, you can either spend some time with pliers and pull them all out beforehand or just warn folks when they are eating that there are going to be bones.  Other than that, though, it's all WIN with steelhead.

If I recall, I brined these fillets in a combination of salt water and dill.  Then I took them out of the brine and let them sit at room temperature for an hour or so.  Typically you do this so you get a little bit of a salty crust on the outside of the fish.  I then got my smoker maintaining around 200 degrees and smoked the trout until it hit 145F internal temperature.

I don't have any pictures of the bratwurst that I had on the top rack of the smoker, but they really helped out the trout.  Dripping fatty goodness and some of the really spicy rub that I put on the bratwurst.  Yum.  Anyway, check out the picture.

Smoked Steelhead Trout


If I can dig up the bratwurst pictures, I'll post them here at a later date.  Now, get out there and get smoking.... or, at least eating. ;)

Smoked Brisket (Round 2) – Modified ECB

This was my second attempt at brisket.  The first attempt, My First Brisket Attempt – Unmodified ECB Smoker, was decent enough but it was more like a roast than anything else.  I wanted the meat to be falling apart.  So, I gave it another go.

First though, I forgot to mention this, but somewhere before I did this brisket I did try to smoke a pork butt.  It didn't go so well.  I didn't realize how long it actually takes to smoke a big fatty piece of meat like a pork butt.  Basically, things go smoothly until your internal temperature hits somewhere around 160F.  Then as the fat starts to render, the temperature plateaus and you can sit at the 160F mark for hours.  This particular pork butt was started at 8am and it only broke out of the plateau around midnight.  But, at that point I was ready for bed and I didn't want to change the coals again.  So, we put it in the crockpot and the end result wasn't awesome.

What does that have to do with brisket, you might ask?  Well, you see, this was my first major setback with smoking meat and I was a little gunshy of doing big pieces of meat.  But, on a whim I headed into our local butcher to see if they had any brisket.  Not only did they have some, but I was amazed for two reasons:

  1. A complete brisket is a massive thing, I had only seen brisket "flats" in the past and this isn't really the whole deal
  2. Brisket is pretty freaking cheap.  I think mine as like $2.79/lb. and it was something like 20 pounds.

I got the brisket home and then realized that I was going to have a hard time fitting the whole thing in my little ECB smoker.  I mean, look at this beast.

Rubbed Brisket

The bottle of BBQ sauce in the background gives you a sense of scale.

As I said previously, often when you get Brisket at the grocery store or Costco or whathaveyou, you just get the "flat".  In the above picture.  The flat is the part of the brisket on the right hand side.  The "point" is the big hunk of meat on the left hand side.  So, how was I going to do this?  I did some reading and it seemed like I didn't want to cut the brisket before I smoked it.  Sure, it'll smoke faster, but I think you risk it drying out.  Although, I think one day I might separate the point from the flat and brine the flat for corned beef and smoke just the point.  I say that because the point is much fattier than the flat and I think it would fall apart really nicely in a smoker.

But, I didn't want to leave anything to chance and I didn't want to ruin a $45 piece of meat.  So, I just applied a dry rub the the whole brisket and then went to look at my smoker to see if I could figure out how I was going to do this.

I should mention that for this brisket I used all store-bought rubs and sauces.  In fact it was all Stubbs.  I was feeling a little lazy and overwhelmed and I also didn't want to make any mistakes with homemade sauces and whatnot.  I think that the next time I do a brisket, though, I'm making my own marinade and rub and sauce at least.

So, once I was outside with my McGuyver hat on, I figured out a way to get the whole brisket in my smoker.  Basically, my plan was to angle the second grill vertically into the bottom grill.  That is hard to explain with words but I'm hoping this picture gives you a better idea of what I'm trying to say.

Angled Grills in the ECB

Not fitting the brisket in the smoker was not an option.

In a previous post, I described the Minion Method that some folks use with water smokers.  Here are pictures of the process.  Basically, fill up the charcoal pan and leave a little room in the center.

Charcoal Pan in the ECB for Minion Method

You want as many coals as possible in there, with just room enough for the hot coals to come.

Now you can add your red hot coals to the top.  I get these going in a chimney starter and I use about 15-20 coals is all.  If you have a vent on the bottom of your charcoal pan, you want it wide open.

Hot coals in the middle

Woo hoo. It's like magic!

Now I was ready to place my meat on my tilted grill arrangement.  I think I made an error here, but it didn't hurt me too much.  When I do this again, I'm definitely going to have the "point" of the brisket be on the sloped part of the grill.  But, I didn't do that.  I think this will help for a few reasons:

  1. It's hotter up at the top and the point is the biggest section of the brisket.  It also has the most fat to render down.
  2. All of that melting fat is going to roll downhill and I think that will help to keep my brisket flat nice and moist during the smoke
  3. The brisket flat will be closer to water and this should keep it juicier and keep it from getting too hot and drying out during the smoke
  4. The weight of the point should keep the brisket compressing during the smoke.  I kept reading about people saying to push the brisket together as you smoke it.  You just don't want it to stretch out because then it will get dry.

But, as you can see in the picture, I had the point resting on the bottom grill.  Don't worry, it was still freaking amazing.

Brisket on the Angled ECB Grill

It's like The Flintstones, right?

Oh yeah, I should mention that I had the fat cap of the brisket facing down.  I just read to do it that way, although I'd like to try it both ways and see how much of a difference it makes.

Anyway, I think I got the smoker all buttoned up around 8pm on Saturday night.  From this point forward it was just making sure to keep the temp as close to 225F as possible.  Also I had bowl full of the Stubbs Marinade and I was brushing it on every few hours.  As you can imagine, what followed was the worst night of "sleep" I ever had.  It was all airport sleep.  You know, when you know you have to get up at 5am to catch a plane?  Ugh.  I also had to change coals in the middle of the night and, since my deck was covered with ice and snow, I nearly slipped and dumped hot coals all over myself.  Thankfully, I lived.

So, I wanted to get the brisket to 175F internal and then my plan was to pull the brisket and wrap it up in some heavy duty foil, then a thick towel and then close it up in a cooler in my kitchen.  I read that this is a good way to get it up to 185F without drying it out.  I never did take the temperature again after I unwrapped it (and hour later) but I was happy with the results.  Here, check out the pictures.

Smoked Brisket in an ECB

Brisket sandwich anyone?

I know what you are thinking.  "Hay, how come these pictures are so amazing?"  Yeah, my wife took these and she has an actual camera, instead of a phone and she knows what she's doing.  Don't worry, I'm going to see if she won't take all the pictures from now on.

More Brisket Pr0n Pictures

Best Smoked Meat Sunday Ever!

Last picture of the BBQ Brisket

I was ready to propose to the brisket at this point.

It's funny.  We actually took these pictures before anyone had even tasted the brisket.  I was terrified of any possible result of the tasting and here is why.  If the brisket was dry and tasted terrible then I just wasted 20 hours of my life.  If the brisket was amazing then I knew what it took to get it there again and it meant many sleepless nights in my future.  They need to invent a magical pill or potion that lets you sleep like a baby for exactly 4 hours.  Then I could check the brisket regularly but still be a somewhat functioning human the next day.  Oh well, if that's the price you gotta pay, I'll gladly pay it.

After everyone ate their full of brisket, this is how much we had left.

Smoked Brisket Leftovers

And there was much rejoicing!


Chicken Semi-Disaster – Unmodified ECB Smoker

Well, a week after the first Smoked Meat Sunday, I decided that I wanted to try and smoke an entire chicken.  Unlike my earlier two smoked meat adventures, I had already let most of the day get away from me.  But, I was pretty sure that it would only take about 4 hours to smoke a chicken, so if I could get it going by noon I thought I would be aces.

We popped into the grocery store only to find that they didn't have any whole chickens.  Eh?!  So, Plan B was a few packages of chicken legs and thighs.  I guessed (correctly) that these would cook pretty fast.  However, I wanted to try and keep the temperature a little hotter because I wanted to try and get crispy skin on the chicken.  Let's take a little detour and talk about smoked chicken and chicken skin.

Detour: In a charcoal water smoker like the ECB it can be pretty hard to maintain high temps.  That's the whole purpose of the water pan is to keep your temperature closer to 250F.  That's a great place to be if you are smoking brisket or pork but chicken is a little different.  Don't get me wrong.  You can slow smoke a chicken at 225F and when you pull it (at around 170 or 180F internal temp) the meat is going to be amazing.  The skin, however, will be less so.  It basically turns into chewy rubber.  Now, if you don't eat chicken skin anyway, then you probably don't care.  Heck, you could just treat the skin like the "magical bag" that holds in all of the delicious smoky flavor.  But, if you want the skin to be crispier like rotisserie chicken then you really need temps closer to 350F inside your smoker.  You have a few options with an ECB Smoker.

  1. Don't put water in the water pan.  Instead, many people fill it with play sand and then cover it with foil.  The sand acts as a heat sink but the lack of steam allows the smoker to get a little hotter inside.  I've never actually done this, but I'm thinking I will try it soon.
  2. Smoke the chicken at 225 or 250F, using the water pan, but pull it closer to 150F internal temp and then finish it in the oven or on a grill just to crisp up the skin.  I've done this several times and with good results.
  3. Smoke the chicken with the water pan, but leave the door to the smoker open.  The increased airflow should let you get closer to 350F.  I did this once with a turkey (and I used those Kingsford coals that have mesquite chips inside the briquette) and I was able to keep temps closer to 350F.  The skin was almost as crispy as I wanted it.

All of that information would have been good to know when I was doing these thighs and legs.  All I knew was that I wanted to keep the temps up and all I had to work with was the wonky built-in thermostat in the ECB.  So, I had the door to the smoker propped open about half way for much of the smoke and I kept adding wood to try and keep it hot in there.  Sure, it was hot, but the downside was that I was making TONS of smoke.  The smoker was like a freaking smokestack.

Eventually the chicken got to about 170F and I decided to pull it.  I opened the lid of the smoker and was a little bummed to see how black the chicken was.  However, when I grabbed one of the legs with my tongs and pulled up, the bone came right out of the chicken.  The meat was so tender and juicy that we just treated the skin as a magical, burnt cooking bag that somehow gave us delicious chicken inside.  Here's a picture.

Chicken Semi-Disaster

It looks burnt, but the meat inside was amazing.

Beef Roast and Rack of Ribs – Unmodified ECB Smoker

So, flush with perceived victory from the brisket flat and bratwurst that I smoked on my birthday, I established a new tradition in our family.  And so began Smoked Meat Sunday!  And there was much rejoicing!

You see, both of my brothers (and their wives and children) all live in town.  In fact, my youngest brother lives about 3 blocks away.  So, it isn't unusual for us all to meet up on Sunday anyway (while we are playing hookey from church).  Why not add smoked meat to the mix, eh?  So, on Saturday I stopped by the grocery story and got a full rack of ribs and some sort of beef roast.  I'm not sure what cut of beef it was, it just said something like "Ideal for slow cooking" on the package.

From what I've learned so far on my journey to smoked meat enlightenment, you have at least two options with beef.  If the cut has a fair amount of fat on it (and, hopefully, marbled throughout) then you might try and smoke it until it starts to fall apart.  However, on leaner cuts you should probably just smoke it until it's medium.  Maybe 145F or so?

Actually, more recently, when I'm doing roasts, I will smoke until the meat hits 110F internal and then I'll pop it in the oven at 450F or 475F for 10 or 15 minutes just to get some nice color and texture on the outside.  That usually gets me somewhere around 145F internal but you get the benefit of the crispy and sexy-looking exterior.

For this first attempt, though, here's what I did.  Somewhere around 8-9am I loaded up the ECB with coals and topped it off with a full chimney-full of red hot coals.  I dropped the full water pan in place and set the roast on the bottom grill and the ribs on the top grill.  I don't believe I had a digital thermometer yet, so I probably just checked the roast every few hours and hoped that it hit somewhere close to 140F.  I'm not sure what I was thinking with the ribs.  I know now that they'll never get to the desired 180F (where the meat is falling off of the bone) in that time frame.  They were still good, it was just "toothsome".  Heh.

Again, in this case, I was working with an unmodified ECB, which isn't a good place to be in.  After about 4-5 hours, the ash builds up in the charcoal pan and the coals start to go out.  You can add more coals, but it's a total nightmare to add them a brick at a time through that tiny door.  Also, as I mentioned before, the built-in thermostat on the ECB isn't super helpful.  Do yourself a favor and get one of these.

Maverick Et-732 Remote Bbq Smoker Thermometer Maverick Et-732 Remote Bbq Smoker Thermometer
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NOTE: If you do buy this particular unit, make sure to take care to keep the braided wire relatively dry.  I know, I know, that's almost impossible inside of a water smoker, but at least don't soak the probe and braided cable in water.  You WILL short it out.  Then, what will happen is your temps will randomly spike up by 100 degrees or more.  It's a nightmare.  You might want to buy yourself another probe right away, just to cover your bases.  I managed to mess mine up, but I was still within the warranty period and they sent me a new one.  But, because of this known defect, they are almost always back-ordered.  If you know of a better unit, please tell me because looking at Amazon reviews, I still think this is the best bang for the buck.

Anyway, the whole family ended up at the house around 5pm or so and I think I pulled the ribs and the roast at the same time but I ended up putting the ribs back in because they weren't really tender.  They never really got there, but they got close enough for us to make a mess of eating them.  The roast vanished pretty much instantly.

Oh yeah, if you do smoke a roast (a leaner roast that you can't take to 180 or 190F) then when you cut it, you want to cut it as thin as possible.  Otherwise it will probably be too tough.

I think that's it.  Here's pictures of the fruits of the first Smoked Meat Sunday.

Smoked Beef Roast - Unmodified ECB

Not falling apart, but cut thin and it was delicious.

Smoked Ribs - Unmodified ECB

Well, at least they looked pretty

My First Brisket Attempt – Unmodified ECB Smoker

I decided that I should probably post articles in the order that I cooked them.  That is proving to be difficult for me because a) I want to talk about the stuff I've been doing recently and b) I didn't document it all as well as I should have.

Ah well, at least I can try to tell you what might have gone wrong on these attempts.

This was actually the first thing I cooked in my smoker so I guess I should talk about what kind of smoker I have.  Officially, it's called a Brinkmann Smoke-N-Grill, and it looks like this:

But, people who are into BBQ call it an ECB.  That stands for El Cheapo Brinkmann.  I know what you are thinking.  "El Cheapo Brinkmann, that makes it sound like this thing is a hunk of junk."  Well, it turns out that you get quite a bit more than your $45 worth.  You can often find these on sale (heck, even at Ace Hardware in my town) near the end of the season.

Anyway, to really make decent BBQ on an ECB, you need to do some modifications.  But, we will get to that later because, when I attempted my first brisket, I didn't know anything about mods.  So, I was having to deal with the following shortcomings of the ECB.

  1. It's insanely hard to manage your temperature because this baby has no vents
  2. It's insanely hard to manage your temperature because the thermostat sucks eggs
  3. If you need to smoke something for more than 4-5 hours, you are in trouble.  Adding charcoal through the tiny door is a mess

But, I didn't know what to expect so I started my brisket around 9am or so and crossed my fingers.

You know, we should probably talk about brisket at this point.  The briskets (yes, plural) that I was attempting to smoke were actually partial briskets.  We got them at Costco and they were just the flat.  On a complete brisket, there is a flat and a point  I've come to learn that you really want to do the whole thing together.

Anyway, people were coming over to the party around 6pm so I was hoping to be done by then.  NOTE: If you are wanting to smoke a complete brisket in an ECB, I would start smoking about 24 hours before you want to serve.  Yup.  A full freaking day.  About an hour before folks arrived I put some bratwurst on the top rack of my ECB and those turned out really great.  Smoked bratwurst sounded a little weird to me, but the end result is a nice snap on the casing and tons of juicy meat on the inside.  I think I smoked them until 180F internal temp.

The brisket, however, was nowhere near done.  To really do a brisket correctly (so that it's falling apart) you want it to hit 180F or 190F internal.  I was starting to realize that I was never going to be able to get to that temp with my ECB (mainly because I was going to have to start fresh with charcoal and getting to that charcoal bowl once you have the smoker loaded is a nightmare (that's actually addressed in one of the mods).

So, we smoked the briskets until they got to about 140-145F and then we just sliced them very thin, like you would a roast.  Think smoky tasting slices of beef about the size and thickness of bacon and you aren't far off.  We ate it all that night and, even though it didn't go exactly according to plan, it is still fondly remembered.  Sadly, no pictures were taken (at least, I don't think so).  So, you'll have to use your imagination.

Now, if you want to see some pictures of brisket done right (or, at least, better) then check out my follow-up post Smoked Brisket (Round 2) – Modified ECB.