Heat source, does it matter? A pork rib experiment from the lab.

The argument in regards to wood versus briquette, versus propane, versus electric heat sources in smokers has got to be way older than the one on PC versus MAC, and that’s saying something. We know that for grilling, there is an exceptional difference, but does it matter for hot smoking (approximately 200 to 250 degrees F)? It doesn’t for cold smoking (90 to 110 degrees F). I’ve always stood by the age old ways of saying, “Yes nitwit, the fire does make a difference and it’s noticeable. Real wood, charcoaled or not, does make a difference.”
Over the years I’ve had quite a few propane lovers extol the virtues of their propane powered rigs. My eyes cross, I hear buzzing in my ears and go back to my old ways of using wood to power my smokers. I never even remotely considered buying in to the procedure, especially after tasting what I pull out of my smoker. Sorry pal, you can’t reproduce this, no way, no how.
On Sunday I decided to put my cold smoker to use, finally. Instead of 100 degrees, I jacked it to 212 and hot smoked a slab of baby backs using only an electric hotplate and a smoke generator.
Please click through to read the rest of the story, “Heat source, does it matter?”

Sunday morning showed up bright and early, the slab of baby backs needed some cooking, it was time. I knew the smoker would take a few hours to come up to about 200, a good hot smoking temperature. I had most of the rig ready to go, so the prep on the smoker was next to nothing, just needed to install a drip pan (1/4 sheet sized cookie tray lined with foil). I plugged in the dual burner hot plate and left the settings where it was from last time I jacked it to an even 200. This was at 12:30pm sharp.
An hour later I was only at maybe 90 degrees, pop open the door and jack to high. This was taking too damned long!
Note: Some of you know, some of you don’t. Just because myself, Chilebrown, Salvage, Henry Joe and others are pitmasters doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t screw up, make mistakes and spend hours fixing said mistakes. You gotta know, sometimes you really got work for many hours to pull it together so the end result works and works well.
This my good people, is one of those times. It turns out that instead of jacking the heat up, I had nearly turned both burners OFF. I can’t really see the two knobs and it turns out that, for me, the high heat setting is reversed to what I’m normally used to. What that means is that an hour later, the smoker had dropped in temp. At this point I think I was 2.5 hours out and should have been putting my meat in. Nope.
Being the impatient sonofabitch that I am, I tossed in my propane fired turkey fryer stove and was able to get the heat up to 140 in about 10 minutes. Took notes and am looking for a solution to install it permanently for such future events. This time I really did turn up the heat on the electric hot plate and by 4pm I had my baby up to about 200.
Max heat, exhaust nearly closed. Intake nearly closed (tuned for cold smoking).
The smoke generator was filled with wood dust, lit with a propane torch and got underway with an aquarium pump, smoke poured in to the meat box. I thought for a moment and figured since I’m hot smoking and not cold, I needed an intake flow of cold air. So, I removed a sock from one of the holes on the bottom of the smoker, nearest the smoke generator.
See this post for setup, Operation Cold Smoke.
The ribs had come to room temperature with a salt marination of about 5 hours, should have been done overnight. I chose salt because this was and is an experiment. I wanted to know exactly what this type of hot smoking would do to the meat. In any experiment, you must absolutely know how to measure zero. If not? Your results are clouded with inaccuracy and are no good in the real world. Using salt, heat and smoke would give me some results I could measure accurately.
Smoker at 212, vents have intake with decent exhaust, smoke generator generating and the meat went on.
Since the generator can supply a large smoker for 12 hours, I walked away for 2.5 hours with no worries.
I probed the meat for the first time at 2.5 hours and it read 190. Pull and let rest for 20 minutes. Unplug hotplate & smoke generator, that’s it.
This is when the real test began, what did I have? I know it’s pork, they loin ribs, hardwood smoked and it was pulled at the right time. But what about the taste? Texture? How far did the smoke go in? Would it compare to a wood fired pit? How would it compare? Would I embarrass myself in the process or make a point that I’ve been extolling for over 20 years? It was time to find out.
Let’s start with the most important first, the smokiness. It’s got it, easy. But it’s different, and it’s tough to express to you. It’s warm, even, sweet with no real dimension. To get an idea, put the smoky flavor of bacon or ham in your mouth. Then, take the explosion of smoky flavor from a real wood fired pit flavor. It’s great, yet different. You do not have the living force of a fire to determine how the hardwood burns. It’s a perfect combust from beginning to end. Akin to a commercial smoker, no variation or creativity. Is this a bad thing? No, absolutely not. It is what it is and it’s good.
Real good. I took samples from the center of the rib meat and the perfect smoke permeated throughout the meat, entirely. The surface of the meat had a snap like the casing on a good hotdog. The ribs were so juicy that it ran down my arms as I dug in. With the even heat of the hotplate, there were no spikes or dips in temperature. Full smoky flavor, juicy meat, good pork, salt marination is perfection dialed in. As far as doneness goes, the meat came from the bone with a tug and a little chew. The interesting part was how the meat looked, it was homogeneous. When you smoke meat with a wood fired pit, the color and texture is all over the place depending on the thickness, meat and fat. This one had no variation of color, nor texture. Very interesting indeed when compared to the other. As a stand alone product it was very well done. I could sell this and make money, easy.
But to be perfectly honest, if you’re not cooking with wood as a main heat source, you are not creating an American barbecued product. The smoky flavors generated by a real fire cannot be recreated with a gas or electricity. The product I receive from my wood fired pit will never be recreated by my cold smoker at any temperature, sorry people.
To sum it all up, I say my dinner on Sunday evening at 7:20pm was most excellent. But if I’d used my other smoker? I’d totally kick your propane loving ass with a 6 foot steel crowbar. While on it’s own I found the ribs to be a 10 on juiciness, 10 on texture and high on flavor. It does not compare to a wood fired pit, it’s not the same.
And if you think you can change my point of view? You can take your tail and stick it directly up your …
xo, Biggles

12 thoughts on “Heat source, does it matter? A pork rib experiment from the lab.

  1. Interesting experiment. I’ve wondered about this topic as well, and had pretty much reasoned the outcome you got. The non-fire method just seems so… sterile I guess is the best way to describe it for me.
    Sure wood is messy takes time and babysitting. Sure you have to soak the wood to get it really smokeworthy. But I think those things serve to make a layer of complexity that you can’t duplicate in a more sterile environment. I’ve smoked ribs on my propane grill using woodchips in a foil bag over very low indirect heat. Were they good? Hell yeah, they were. Were the the same as what comes out of my smoker? Nope. Not in a million years. Did 3 slabs this weekend, and they were just frickin’ awesome.
    So, I’m right there with ya.

  2. i am sorry, but we are dizzy from all the info. How about we build a fire and throw it on.
    Hooters has good wings!
    Ps. Captcha SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Oh crap. Your entry code has issues. Those ribs look killer. I have a 12 pound turkey if you want to experiment. You may never recieve this messag because of your crappy system.

  4. This is exhausting. I am happy you had something to enjoy.
    I just have to say that the best ribs/pork I ever ate were cooked starting on Friday night over hickory wood in a pit in the ground (and probably old bedsprings for grills) until they were done on Saturday.
    It all depends on what you end up eating. That is the true test.

  5. Master Biggles,
    Admirable first run for a beta version bigbox. You didnt tell about doneness, I know they wasnt falling apart.
    I think you hit it on the head with the comparison to Bacon or Ham. Thats the tempurature of pyrolysis thing I was tellin you, the same wood creates differant chemical compounds depending on the burn temp. What you were missing (or not tasting as it were) was the varnishes from the high temp combustion of wood. And we really do miss them on Ribs and Brisket, so you picked a hard first test.
    Got any left? Try cured cold smoked ribs finished on a hot grill. Salt and smoke driven into the bones first, then cauterized til done and set the glaze hard. OOh ooh, ooh! Me calls um Hamribs.
    I’m with you guys, give me an off-set firebox and some burning log for traditional Ribs any day.
    Nice job Sir.

  6. After 2 months of a mostly vegetarian diet*, I’ve been thinking, “I’m doing good. I’ve got it under control”. And the pictures here make me want good meat so very bad! I know they sell cow steak in Nepal (the water buffalo I had there was just so-so with the cooking process), so I’ll have to head back up there again for sure.
    *Meat (almost always chicken, sometimes goat) is a risky thing to eat in India and it when I get it it’s always poor quality. I paid the price for it again yesterday
    I think I’ll be back in California for Xmas demanding BBQ as presents

  7. A timely experiment indeed. I received a gift of Jamaican pimento wood, which inspired me to buy a barrel-type grill with an offset smoke box, then began experiencing a case of buyer’s remorse, thinkin’, “Well, couldn’t I just do the foil pack on my good ol’ propane grill and saved me a bit o’ money? Huh?”
    Not that I was going to return it. But nice to have some evidence to reinforce my impulse buy. Thanks, Doc. Should be interesting firing this up–my sorry urban ass has never had the space (or the fire code) to allow for anything but a gas grill. The fire starts this weekend.

  8. Hey Everbody!
    Aww, it don’t matter. I can get a nice shot from either!
    Added this to the post, “As far as doneness goes, the meat came from the bone with a tug and a little chew. The interesting part was how the meat looked, it was homogeneous. When you smoke meat with a wood fired pit, the color and texture is all over the place depending on the thickness, meat and fat. This one had no variation of color, nor texture. Very interesting indeed when compared to the other.”

  9. Hi Mr. Biggles,
    I have a question somewhat unrelated to your post, but in my haste this morning, I couldn’t quickly find a direct email link.
    I need to get a not-too -expensive smoker very soon (I’ve got 27+ pounds of pork shoulder rubbed and ready to turn into Carolina Style Pulled Pork before Sunday, and my Weber gas grill just isn’t up to a job this big. The local Home Depot has a Char-Broil charcoal offset smoker grill (the biggest smoker they stock) for $159. Do you have any opinions on this smoker? I know the local BBQ supply store has other models, but the last year when I popped in there I got the hard sell for an $800 beauty, which as great as it must be, doesn’t fit my budget now. And since I’ve been thinking about getting a smoker for more than a year, I guess it’s time.

  10. Hey Anna,
    Yeah, sorry about that. The redesign is taking a long time and it isn’t up yet. I can be found at drbiggles at cyberbilly dot com.
    I do have an opinion, but it’s really moot at this point. You need to get the job done and fast. Remember, it’s not the equipment, but the person behind the pit that makes the real difference.
    Those charbroil (and similar) rigs are horribly inefficient, it takes about 20 lbs of charcoal to cook anything, even a chicken. What you need to do is slow it down and see if you can help it out. Now, listen up close. In the cooking chamber, on the very lefthand side, see that? Where the heat & smoke come in? Find a steel loaf pan (no non-stick) and put it there on the grate, keep full of water. This will deflect some heat downwards through the cooking chamber. Line the bottom of the cooking chamber with aluminum foil, take some garden bricks and cover with foil, maybe 6 or so. Lay in the bottom of the cooking chamber, length ways so there’s a path down the center leading to the exhaust. This will take up some volume in the smoker and you won’t have to heat/smoke so much air. Next, find a tin can from veggies or canned fruit, maters or some such. Cut the bottom and top off, slit down side. Fashion it so it can be stuck IN to the bottom of the exhaust pipe and rest on the cooking grate. This will slow things down while able to keep the exhaust fully open. Adjust heat with air intakes and size of fire. Preburn your wood, so you’re never adding cold fuel to lower fire temp. Put a pot on top of firebox to keep water hot when it needs to be added to the loaf pan (or similar).
    Go now! Wash inside, dry, rub with cooking oil. Run a fire or two through it, see how it works. And by Sunday? You’ll be IN !!!