Smoked Thanksgiving Turkey – Modified ECB Smoker

Thanksgiving is the best holiday in the world.  I will punch anyone who disagrees.  In our house, we are always hosting and we like it that way.  Sure, we love our friends and family and love to have them in our home but, more importantly, I want the lion's share of leftover turkey and I definitely drinking enough booze that I shouldn't be driving anywhere.

For this Thanksgiving we actually made two turkeys.  I smoked a smaller turkey (12lbs. I think?) and my wife cooked the 20 pounder in the oven.  I had thought I was going to need to start smoking the turkey in the middle of the night, but that wasn't necessary.  I think I started at 8am and the bird was definitely ready by 2pm.  Heck, I think we could have served it at noon.  But, nothing else was going to be ready so I ended up closing the smoker a little bit to let the temps drop down.

To prepare the turkey I rubbed it with sea salt about 24 hours before I was going to smoke it (don't ever use iodized salt for this) and then I patted the turkey dry.  I then put it in the fridge uncovered.  This helps the skin dry out and toughen up a bit.  About 8 hours before "go time" I rubbed the turkey with some spices and a little more salt.  I'm pretty sure I made my own rub, but I'm also pretty sure I just googled up "turkey rub" and went with one that looked good.

Once I had the bird in the smoker, I left the side door all the way open for a few hours.  This got the smoker nice and hot and I was averaging about 350F.  This really helped to crisp up the skin on the bird.  I pulled the bird at 170F and proudly brought it into the house use the rib rack as a carrier.  Then I covered it up with heavy duty foil for 30 minutes or so to let it get cool enough to carve.

I've heard of folks who will actually smoke the turkey hours before dinner time and then they wrap it really good with heavy duty foil, then wrap that in a towel and put the whole thing inside of a cooler inside.  Your bird should stay above 140F for at least an hour or two if you do this.

Smoked Thanksgiving Turkey

Just watch out for the Bumpus Hounds.

Chicken Thighs – Modified ECB Smoker

Unless my memory is failing me (which, by the way, it totally is and I blame beer) then this is the first thing I smoked with my newly modified ECB.  I remember finishing up the modifications on my smoker  and then that night two things happened.  First, my sister-in-law went into labor at our house.  Second (and completely unrelated to the first) I developed a sickness that kept me throwing up for the next 3 days.  So, it wasn't until a week or so later that I actually go to use my newly modded ECB.

I must have been pressed for time, though, because it looks like I just made chicken thighs.  And, these little babies will be done in 2-3 hours tops.

Also, looking at the picture, it looks like I still hadn't solved the problem of chicken skin.  So, if I recall correctly, these were freaking delicious, but the skin was pretty much inedible.  Remember, if you want crispy skin you need smoker temps closer to 350F or you have to finish it in the grill or in the oven.

Anyway, here's the pic.

Smoked Chicken Thighs

Tasty little buggers

Time for Some Modifications – ECB Smoker Mods

So far I had moderate success with smoking meat.  But it definitely seemed like there was more chance involved than I would like.  I talked to my buddy Hank over lunch and was telling me about some BBQ TV show that he used to watch and how all the guys made various modifications to their smokers.  I liked the sound of that.  It seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring my natural nerdy talents to BBQ.  I think I started my Google hunt searching for "Brinkmann Smoke-N-Grill" or something similar.  I quickly found that these smokers are called ECB smokers (El Cheapo Brinkmann) by the serious BBQ guys.

Then all it took was searching for "ECB Mods" to find this fantastic page on ECB modifications.

I ran to the hardware store and got some 1/4" all-thread, and various bolts nuts and washers and got to work trying to fix my ECB.  The two main things you want to do are to 1) get the charcoal pan to stand on it's own so that you can easily get it in and out of the smoker and 2) get some holes in the charcoal pan and the top of the smoker so you can control airflow.  Heck, even you don't have working vents just having the holes will help because some of the ash can fall through.

Another modification that you can do, that I'm not having much luck with, is to put a smaller grill inside of the charcoal pan so that the coals are up off of the bottom of the pan a little bit.  This gives a space for the ash to fall through.  I'll be damned, though, if I can find a grill that's the correct size to fit inside my charcoal pan.

Anyway, here's a picture of what I did with my charcoal pan and if you have an ECB you should definitely do something similar.

ECB - Modified Charcoal Pan

It ain't purty, but it works.

You'll notice that I rigged up a way to open and close the holes at the bottom of the pan.  That's a cookie sheet that I cut in half.  I'm not sure I'd recommend doing it that way.  All I had was tin snips and let me tell you what, when you cut a cookie sheet with tin ships it does two terrible things.  1) Tiny razor sharp metal fragments fly everywhere and 2) The edge you are left with on the sheet is so sharp that you can cut yourself by just looking at it.  If you go this route then wear heavy duty gloves.  Also, when you are done, use a file or dremel tool or something to dull the edge.

I don't have a picture, for some reason, but the other thing I did was to drill a grouping of holes on the top of the smoker and I have a little circle of aluminium foil (from a pie sheet) that I can spin to cover the holes.  Frankly, I would skip designing a cover for the holes.  I literally never cover them.  Here is my method.

If you google for "Minion Method" you will learn about a great way to use use water smokers.  Here's the gist of how I do it with my smoker.  First, I fill the charcoal pan just about as full as I can get it.  I open the vent on the bottom of my pan to be wide open.  Then make a little valley in the middle of the coals.  You are going to fill this with about 15-20 red hot coals that you will want to start in a chimney starter.  I then take my wood chips and place them about as close to the edge of the pan as I can.  Then I put really hot water (boiling would be ideal, but I don't really want to navigate my toy-strewn floor with a big bowl of scalding water) in the water pan and set it in place in the smoker.  While I'm doing this the smoker "shell", if you will (basically everything except for the stand-alone charcoal pan), is not yet on top of the hot coals.  This way I can get everything prepped without a face-full of hot smoky air.  After I get the water pan in place, I get my meat where I want it and the probes for my grill thermometer in place.  Then I put the shell of the smoker on top of the charcoal pan and I cover the smoker with the lid.  I have the holes I drilled in the lid uncovered but I do try and use aluminium foil to cover the gap between the lid and the smoker body.  Then, I leave it alone.

Once the grill temperature gets to about 225F I will lift the shell of the smoker off of the charcoal pan and I will slide the vent to cover about 1/4 of the holes.  Then I put the shell back over the coals and I shouldn't have to do much else for about 4-5 hours.  I keep an eye on the temp, though, and if I notice that it's starting to drop to 200 or below I will take action.  Since I don't have the coals up off the bottom of the charcoal pan, the ash from the burned coals starts to smother the fire after about 4-5 hours.  But, I don't replace the coals yet, I can still usually get a few more hours out of them.  Here's what I do.  First, I get some serious freaking gloves on.  I think they are welder's gloves, maybe?  Anyway, then I remove the shell of the smoker to get access to the charcoal pan.  Now, I open the vent on the charcoal pan all the way.  Next I grab the sides of the charcoal pan and I literally shake it up and down.  I'm trying to get all of the ash to fall through the holes so that the remaining charcoal can get more air and not be smothered.

Obviously, you'll want to be careful about where the hot sparks and ash are falling.  I actually place my smoker inside of one of those metal fire pits.  So all the ash and whatnot just falls into the firepit and I don't have to worry about setting my yard alight.

Anyway, once I have shaken enough ash out, I'll put the smoker shell back over the coals and I should be good to go for another 3 hours or so.  If I'm smoking something like a brisket or pork butt then I will have to change out the coals.  Here is what I do there.  Using my chimney charcoal starter, I'll scoop out a bunch of the remaining hot coals and shake it a little bit so that the ash falls out.  Then I set the chimney starter on my concrete deck and I dump the remaining ash (and random few coals) into another fire pit or chimenea or something.  Then I basically start the whole process over again.  That is to say, I full up the charcoal pan with new charcoal and I put the red hot coals back over the top and I'll put the smoker shell back on.  I repeat this until my meat is done.

In the case of a brisket or pork butt, this can take 20+ hours.  Be careful if you need to change out the charcoal in the wee hours.  I once slipped on a patch of ice as I was holding a charcoal pan that still had a few hot coals in there.  If I had fallen backwards then I could have really uglied up my face.  Jeez... I think I'll stop here.  This has turned into a novel.

Pork Chops and Chicken – Unmodified ECB Smoker

Going back through old pictures and I'm remembering that I actually bought my digital grill thermometer before I modified the smoker.  Or, maybe it was partially modified?  Anyway, I definitely got some good results.  Once again, it was Smoked Meat Sunday at our house.  I actually went to the local Good Food Store (think Whole Foods) and got some natural and organic pork chops and a whole chicken.  I did a dry rub on both the bird and the chops and I topped the chops with apple slices.

The chicken I put on the bottom grill but I put it inside of one of these jobbies.

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I like this thing for a few reasons.  First off, you can flip it over and have your ribs standing up (so you can get more of 'em inside the grill and, therefore, inside your belly).  Second, it provides a little support for the chicken while you smoke it.  But, more importantly, if you want to transfer the chicken to your grill (to crisp up the skin) you can just grab the whole thing and set it on the grill.  That also keeps the chicken a little further away from the fire in your grill, so you are less likely to burn it.

Anyway, I put the pork chops on the top grill because I expected them to cook faster than the chicken and I wanted to easily be able to pull them off.  Another thing to consider is that the top of the ECB is definitely hotter than the grill right above the water pan.  Hotter and dryer.  So, keep that in mind when you are smoking stuff.

I pulled the pork chops at 170F and I now think that is too long for chops.  Maybe closer to 150F would be better.  Don't get me wrong, they were delicious, but I think they could have been juicier.  The chicken I pulled at 170F also.  Actually, it might have been 160F.  I'm fine with that, but I think other folks freak out, so 170 or 180F is safer.  It's a littler different in a smoker because it takes so long for poultry to get out of the "Danger Zone" of 40-140F.  So, it seems like folks lean towards letting poultry go a little bit longer just to be on the safe side.

Here's a picture of my thermometer in action.  200F grill temp is a little low, so something tells me that I was about to head outside and either shake out the ash or start a fresh batch of coals.  It looks like my chicken was close to being done, though, so I bet I opted for shaking out the ash so I didn't waste any charcoal.

Digital Thermometer

Time to shake the ash out of the charcoal pan.

Here's a picture of the finished pork chops.  I feel like the apples helped keep the chops moist and they definitely added a nice flavor.

Smoked Pork Chops

Apples count as vegetables, right?

Here is a picture of the chicken right before I pulled it out of the smoker.  You can get a good look at the rib rack in action here.

Smoked Chicken in the ECB

Jeez.. just posting this picture makes me hungry.

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.

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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:

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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.