One of my more pleasurable pursuits during the last three years has been a quest for good pulled pork and spare ribs made at home. I mentioned toying with buying a cheap water smoker in an entry in August of 2008. I somehow neglected to mention that I did indeed purchase such a thing later that month.
The quest began in a rather geeky way. I was looking for a fun project to do on a warm Saturday afternoon that preferably did not involve yard work. Being a big fan of Good Eats, I’d seen Alton Brown construct his own cooking apparatus over the years — including salmon smoked in a cardboard box and bacon smoked in a junked industrial locker. For some reason I asked myself “could I make a smoker out of a galvanized steel garbage can?” That sounded like a very fun project indeed, at least to research.
Figuring that I was not the first person to ever consider such a thing, I turned to the Internet. The ever lovin’ Internet told me that no, I wasn’t the first person to have this idea and that it’s probably not the best one to try. Why? Galvanized garbage cans are coated with zinc. Using them as smokers could heat up some of the zinc and get it into the food. Too much zinc in your food can lead to zinc poisoning, which is bad.
Someone on one of the discussion forums did mention another option: why not buy an El Cheapo Brinkmann (ECB) and modify that? Further research showed that an ECB is one of a line of cheap ($99 or less) column water smokers made by the Brinkmann company. They aren’t great smokers from the factory, but they are hundreds of dollars cheaper than their competition (the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker), and there is a whole community dedicated to modifying them. This sounded like a fun project!
Little did I know that it was a project that would take about three years to fully complete. I spent a couple weeks doing research to figure out which Brinkmann smoker to buy. I settled on the Brinkmann Gourmet Charcoal Smoker because it was new and supposedly fixed a number of problems present in previous Brinkmann smokers.
This turned out to be a decision with mixed consequences. On the one hand, yes, some previous problems were fixed. On the other, there was far less material at the time about what to modify on the smoker because it was so new. Still, I soldiered on. I made some mods. I experimented. This included a couple temperature tests where Mrs. Geek got home, saw me sitting with the smoker, and asked “so, what are you making?” She found it amusing when I replied “nothing.” There were some notable successes, including a smoked Turkey for Thanksgiving that a friend said looked like it should be in the pages of Gourmet magazine. The charcoal in the smoker needed to be changed about every two hours, and the pulled pork it made never seemed quite right… even if it had a nice smoke ring.
All that changed about three months ago. Two things happened that advanced my knowledge about my smoker. First, Alton Brown re-visited the preparation of pulled pork in an hour-long episode of Good Eats that, alas, will be among the last ever made. This taught me a few new tricks about how to make good pulled pork. That, in turn, prompted me to see if there was any additional information about how to modify the Brinkmann Gourmet that developed in the three years that elapsed.
More information was found. A guy wrote the Brinkmann Gourmet modification Bible. His findings confirmed a bunch of ideas I had about how the smoker worked, and offered a couple additional modifications that I thought would fix some of my problems. I did a little more research to answer some questions about the cooking of pulled pork and made my plans: I would make modifications, do one “dress rehearsal” pork roast to check everything, and then prepare to make pulled pork for Baby Geek’s first birthday party on Labor Day weekend.
The plan went off with only a couple hiccups. I didn’t prep the surface of the smoker well enough for one step, and so some fiberglass rope didn’t stick too the unit too well. That didn’t really cause a problem until late September, however — when I reattached it much more firmly. Both the 3-4 lb half boneless pork shoulder “dress rehearsal” roast and the 8-9 lb boneless pork shoulder “birthday” roast came out delicious. I remember telling various friends at Baby Geek’s party that “this is the pulled pork I’ve been looking for for three years.” It was true, and they must have agreed; there was barely enough of a 8-9 lb raw roast leftover to make one pulled pork sandwich.
Here is a picture of the fully modified smoker:
The neighborhood supermarket had pork butt on “manager’s special” over the weekend, and here’s the latest pulled pork product:
Yes, it is good to have finally “cracked the code” of pulled pork.