The Wood Pellet Smoker and Grill Cookbook: Recipes and Techniques for the Most Flavorful and Delicious Barbecue - Peter Jautaikis (2016)
Looking back, I can point to the day I fell in love with smoked meats over 20 years ago. A coworker shared some divine smoked beef ribs with me. The moist and tender ribs had a spicy sweet crust and that distinctive flavor that only an appropriate touch of smoke provides. The ribs melted in my mouth, and the flavor profiles from the rub and barbecue sauce oozed Texas-style spices. I swore then and there that I would master the art of smoking meats, but alas, I didn’t follow up on that pledge. That is, until a few years later when I won a smoked pork rib roast while attending an American Legion crab feed.
My journey with smoking meats took many turns with relative success until I found my wood pellet smoker-grill. First let me say that over the years I have enjoyed great-tasting grilled and smoked meat, fish, and poultry from charcoal grills, charcoal smokers, electric smokers, wood smokers (affectionately known as stick burners), and propane grills. But I struggled to achieve the high-quality results I was striving for. After buying assorted units, I found an electric smoker that allowed me to produce smoked products to my standards. I soon joined an online forum dedicated to the electric smoker and began expanding my education on the art of smoking meats. My passion for smoked meat was fully rekindled.
As my knowledge grew I began to see the limitations of my electric smoker. Like other members on the forum, I started modifying my smoker in an attempt to broaden its capabilities. I achieved limited success. I started to hear how other wood pellet smoker-grill owners were incorporating both units. Then many owners started to abandon their electric smokers and use their wood pellet smoker-grills exclusively, not only for their smoking needs but also for roasting, baking, and grilling.
In March 2011, I joined their ranks and bought my first wood pellet smoker-grill, a MAK Grills 2 Star General. I’ve never looked back and now proudly wear the “Pellethead” label. You’ll soon discover that family and friends will become spoiled and addicted to the scrumptious food coming off your wood pellet smoker-grill and will opt for staying home to eat rather than going out.
The techniques, recipes, and opinions expressed in this book are by no means authoritative. As you know, food is subjective, and we all have different tastes. Feel free to use the information in this book as is or, by all means, experiment and have fun.
I own a MAK Grills 2 Star General, Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett Portable Grill, and a Traeger PTG (Portable Tabletop Grill) wood pellet smoker-grill, so all my recipes were cooked on one or more of these units.
Note: A wood pellet smoker and grill is commonly referred by some of the following terms: pellet smoker, pellet grill, and pellet smoker-grill. For the purposes of this book, we will call it a “wood pellet smoker-grill.”
What Is Barbecue?
Barbecuing is the world’s oldest cooking method. My definition of barbecuing is “low-and-slow” smoking and cooking over indirect heat. The results achieved from barbecuing using smoke, indirect heat, spices, rubs, and the natural juices of meats are beyond dispute. There is a major difference between barbecuing and grilling, but many people are unaware, so they use both terms loosely. I say that grilling hamburgers, hot dogs, or chicken over some hot charcoals or a gas grill and calling it “barbecuing” is just plain wrong!
Don’t get me wrong, you can barbecue great food and meals over charcoal and/or propane using indirect heat. I won’t get into some of the discussions and opinions of many experts when it comes to the meaning of the term barbecue. I’ll leave that up to them. Wood pellet smoker-grills are perfect units for barbecuing.
What Is a Wood Pellet Smoker-Grill?
The clinical definition of a wood pellet smoker-grill is a barbecue pit that uses compressed hardwood sawdust like apple, cherry, hickory, maple, mesquite, oak, and other wood pellets to smoke, grill, roast, and bake. The wood pellet smoker-grill provides you with flavor profiles and moisture that only hardwood cooking can achieve. Depending on the manufacturer and model, grill temperatures range from 150°F to well over 600°F on many models. The days when people say you can’t sear and grill on a wood pellet smoker-grill are gone!
Wood pellet smoker-grills provide succulence, convenience, and safety unmatched by charcoal or gas grills. The smoke profile is milder than other smokers you might be used to. Because of their design, they produce the versatility and benefits of a convection oven. Wood pellet smoker-grills are safe and simple to operate.
The basic components of a wood pellet smoker-grill are:
HOPPER—The hopper is where the wood pellets are stored. Ensure that you maintain an ample amount of pellets depending on the length of the cook, the temperature of the cook, and the hopper capacity.
AUGER—The pellets are then fed through the auger, the feed mechanism that delivers the pellets to the firepot.
FIREPOT—This is where the wood pellets that heat the grill are ignited and burn. The large hole in the firepot is for the pellet tube, which houses the auger; the lower center hole below it is for the igniter rod, and the other holes are for the fan airflow. It’s a good practice to empty or vacuum out the ashes after every few cooks in order to allow the igniter to work more efficiently.
IGNITER ELEMENT/ROD—This rod ignites the wood pellets in the firepot. With the firepot removed you can see the igniter rod and the pellet feed tube that the auger uses to deliver pellets to the firepot.
FAN—The fan is very important as it maintains a variable and/or constant flow of air, keeping the pellets burning in the firepot and resulting in convection cooking.
THERMOCOUPLE/RESISTIVE TEMPERATURE DETECTOR (RTD)—The RTD, or thermocouple, is the thermal sensor that provides the feedback loop to the controller. The image below shows a thermocouple probe. Wipe down the thermocouple periodically for better heat measurements.
HEAT DEFLECTOR—The heat deflector is a specially designed plate that covers the firepot. Its purpose is to absorb the heat and spread it out evenly below the grease/drip pan, effectively turning your wood pellet smoker-grill into a wood-fired convection oven.
GREASE/DRIP PAN—The grease pan is used for indirect cooking, smoking, roasting, and baking. It routes the grease produced during cooking to the grease bucket. Scrape off any caked-on residue from cooks as required. If using foil (highly recommended), replace the foil every few cooks.
FLAME ZONE PAN—For direct grilling at high temperatures. Used in conjunction with searing grates and griddle accessories.
CONTROLLER—The controller, which comes in many forms, as you will see on page 11, adjusts the air and pellet flow to maintain the set-point temperature.
GREASE BUCKET—The grease bucket collects runoff grease and fat from cooking sessions. Grease accumulation depends on how much you choose to trim fat caps and excess fat from meat and poultry. Lining your grease bucket with foil helps with cleanups. I like to use an old coffee can to store my runoff grease. It’s safe to dispose full coffee cans in your garbage.
Why a Wood Pellet Smoker-Grill?
When looking for your next outdoor cooking device for your barbecue needs, your best option on the market today is a wood pellet smoker-grill. You’ve used the rest, now use the best! No more buying a new grill every few seasons or needing more than one grill. Wood pellet smoker-grills, allow you to smoke, cook low and slow, roast, bake, and grill, and like propane grills, they preheat in 10 to 15 minutes. With its indirect heat design there are no flare-ups, and you’ll never have any of the harsh smoke flavors sometimes generated by charcoal or straight wood fires.
A wood pellet smoker-grill not only produces the best moist foods you’ll ever experience, but it is by far one of the easiest to operate and maintain. Everything is automated. Merely ensure that your hopper is full of wood pellets and that your unit is plugged into a power source. The only movable parts in a wood pellet smoker-grill are the auger and fan. The tricky part to other types of smoker-grills has always been the necessary monitoring of the units to keep the temperatures steady. This is not necessary with wood pellet smoker-grills because they are designed to maintain temperatures within set guidelines.
When smoking meat, poultry, and seafood, the general consensus is that smoke is only infused into the protein when the surface temperature of the protein is below 140°F. With its extraordinary temperature control, a wood pellet smoker-grill will optimize your ability to maintain the needed lower temperatures for maximum smoke generation.
It’s all about control. To quote Ron Popeil on his Ronco rotisserie, “Set it, and forget it!” As we learned earlier, the controller adjusts the rate of pellet flow and the fan to maintain your set-point temperature. For the most part, most manufacturers choose a third-party controller or design their own. Obviously, not all controllers are created equal. Some are just better than others and should be a strong consideration when selecting your wood pellet smoker-grill. Look for a controller that provides pinpoint heat control. Basically there are three types of controllers: analog, digital, and PID.
Analog controllers are the most basic unit. They only provide three positions, known as LMH for low, medium, and high smoke. These controllers are mostly found on entry-level units. They typically do not have an RTD or thermocouple temperature probe to provide a feedback loop. This is the least desirable controller, and I would not recommend a unit with one of these. The temperature on these units wildly fluctuates and is unable to correct itself for ambient temperatures. The auger on and off durations for low, medium, and high is the only control you have and is usually set by the grill manufacturer.
Digital controllers use an RTD temperature probe to provide a feedback loop. Most digital controllers have a 25-degree Fahrenheit increment setting. With the installation of an RTD temperature probe, some digital controllers are a direct replacement for LMH controllers. Similar to the thermostat in your home, once you reach your preset temperature, the controller runs the auger for a certain number of seconds and then shuts off for a certain number of seconds and goes into an idle mode until the temperature deviates a preset amount. At that time the cycle is repeated. Some digital controllers allow you to adjust the idle mode to compensate for ambient temperatures.
Proportional, integral, derivative (PID) controllers are the most advanced controllers. They use a control loop feedback from a thermocouple temperature probe to continually compare the desired temperature with the measured temperature and adjust parameters accordingly. They allow you to set your desired cooking temperature in 5-degree increments. The PID controller adjusts the auger feed rate and, in many cases, the variable speeds of the fan to minimize temperature swings, staying within 5°F of the set temperature, and therefore, providing an extremely accurate temperature control. Most high-end wood pellet smoker-grills come with a PID-type controller, which use proprietary algorithms tuned for their units.
Many controllers, like the MAK Grills Pellet Boss digital control system, also have one or more meat temperature probe(s) and custom programming features to further enhance your cooking experience while providing total control of every aspect of your cook.
At a minimum, select a wood pellet smoker-grill that has a digital controller, and preferably, select a unit whose controller is PID-based.
History of Wood Pellet Smoker-Grills
Today there is a multitude of wood pellet smoker-grill manufacturers providing a wide range of excellent barbecue pits. These units cover a broad spectrum, from entry level to sophisticated pits priced from $300 to over $2,500. Just a few decades ago, this was not the case.
Wood pellet smoker-grills were first introduced in the 1990s by a small company in Oregon called Traeger Grills. Years ago I remember watching Traeger commercials featuring Terry Bradshaw, and ogling Traeger grills at my local Ace Hardware store. Those commercials made it look so simple, and I can now attest to the fact that they were right!
The industry only grew by leaps and bounds once Traeger’s original patent expired. More and more people became exposed to the fabulous, mouth-watering food from a wood pellet smoker-grill, but as recently as 2008 only two companies manufactured wood pellet smoker-grills: Traeger and its rival MAK, also based in Oregon. Today there are more than 20 brands of excellent wood pellet smoker-grill manufacturers carried by a wide range of outlets from local barbecue stores, butcher shops, feed stores, hardware stores, big box stores, online outlets, and direct from the manufacturer.
Using Your Wood Pellet Smoker-Grill
You may need to assemble your wood pellet smoker-grill unless a local dealer assembles your unit for you or you buy your unit from a big box store. If you buy your unit direct from the manufacturer or an online dealer, the unit is often delivered via a ground carrier on a pallet. But don’t despair; assembly is not as difficult as it looks or as hard as you might think. Just lay out all the pieces, and yes, make sure you read the instructions before you begin assembly. Tech support and assistance is only a phone call away, and most manufacturers provide outstanding customer service.
You’ll find the workmanship and instructions will allow you to easily build your wood pellet smoker-grill in an hour or less. On most units you’re mostly assembling the base and legs. In no time flat you’ll have your unit full of wood pellets and ready for the initial burn-in. Make sure that if and when the instructions call for two people you have someone to help you. Don’t hurt yourself by trying to do it alone.
Wood pellet smoker-grills require standard household 120 VAC or 12 VDC outlets to power up the ignition and operation. Some units, like the Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett tailgate unit, for example, are designed to use 12 VDC from your car battery or a deep-cycle battery. They even provide an AC/DC converter to use with 120 VAC. The power requirements of wood pellet smoker-grills are actually quite small and are used for four items: auger, fan, igniter rod, and controller.
Wood pellet smoker-grills are very safe and simple to operate. The fire/flames are constrained within the firepot and fully covered by the grease pan, which provides indirect cooking and prevents flare-ups. When you turn on your unit, usually one of two things will happen depending on your manufacturer. Your pit either goes through a specific power-up sequence or it follows a common scenario.
The controller is turned on, the igniter rod is activated (it will glow red hot), a set amount of pellets are fed into the firepot by the auger, and the fan feeds air through several small holes into the firepot to start and maintain the fire. Depending on your controller, the igniter rod is either turned off after a set time (4 minutes or longer) or when your pit reaches a set temperature. PID controllers will turn the igniter rod back on when your temperature goes below a set temperature to prevent flame-outs.
The burn-in procedure is used to burn off any oils and contaminants used in the manufacturing process.
Fill the hopper with hardwood barbecue-grade wood pellets. Since it may take 10 or more minutes for the auger to deliver the first pellets to the firepot, place half a handful of pellets in the firepot. Plug your unit into a grounded 120 VAC electrical outlet. Turn your grill on. If you have a digital controller, set your temperature between 350°F and 450°F, and allow the grill to run for 30 to 60 minutes at temperature (check your owner’s manual for specific temperature setting and time). If your grill has an LMH controller, turn your temperature setting to high.
SEASONING YOUR GRILL
This initial burn-in procedure is adequate for most manufacturers, but some also recommend you season your grill. Seasoning a grill can easily be accomplished by cooking a pound of bacon at 350°F in a pan placed on the grill grates for about an hour.
Today you’ll find that many wood pellet smoker-grill chambers are stainless steel or aluminized steel with a high-temp powder coat finish. These do not have the potential to rust, and seasoning is not required.
Testing for Hot Spots on Your Wood Pellet Smoker-Grill
Not all wood pellet smoker-grills are created equal, but by learning about your grill, I guarantee that you’ll be able to smoke and cook some of the greatest meals your family and friends will ever enjoy! It only takes a few practice cooks to get a working knowledge of your grill.
You’ll want to test the grill surface temperatures for uniform heat and hotspots. One easy method to do this is the biscuit test. Pick up a package of refrigerator biscuits and space them in the corners, front, rear, and center of the grill. Cook the biscuits according to the directions on the package. With this test you will learn where the hotter and cooler spots are in your unit. Place and cook your food according to the information you’ve gained.
A more technical method requires the use of a remote temperature probe to test the temperatures in the same locations as the biscuit test. Place a remote temperature probe at each biscuit location, check the temperature, compare it to the set-point temperature on your controller, and document the temperature differences, if any. No matter how good your grill controller is, you’ll find differences due to the location of the RTD/thermocouple. Just adjust your grill’s set temperatures accordingly to achieve the temperatures you want.
Cleaning Your Wood Pellet Smoker-Grill
I recommend you keep your wood pellet smoker-grill as clean as possible. It only takes a few minutes before cooks to keep your pit clean. Cleanliness ensures your cooks are permeated with fresh and clean smoke every time. For best results, replace the foil on the grease drip pan after every long cook or after every two to four short cooks. If you choose not to use foil, then make sure to scrape off the caked residue from your drip pan often. There is nothing worse than the fumes from rancid old grease burning off at higher temperatures. After each cook, while the grill grates are still hot, use a barbecue wire brush to scrape and keep them clean. Use paper towels to wipe down both sides of the grates. I highly recommend you wear disposable rubber gloves when handling the grates and cleaning your pit.
Once your pit is fully cooled, remove the drip pan and use a shop vacuum cleaner to remove any ash from the firepot and body of the pit on a regular basis. Even though wood pellet smoker-grills are extremely efficient, you will still accumulate some ash. Large amounts of ash in the firepot can reduce the efficiency of your unit and may not allow the igniter rod to properly ignite pellets at start up. An ash buildup in the body of the pit has a chance of being blown about and deposited on your meat during a cook.
TO FOIL OR NOT TO FOIL?
There are two camps when it comes to whether or not you should foil your drip pan. One group prefers to scrape off the burnt-on residue of cooks from the drip pan, while the other prefers to replace the dirty foil. I have always subscribed to the foil-using method. Not only does foil make it easier to clean, but I do not care to subject my meat to the fumes emitted from the burn-off of caked-on residue from previous cooks and/or old grease. When I start I prefer to have a nice, clean drip pan like the one pictured.
Here’s an example showing caked on residue from smoking/cooking four pork butts. I removed one of the flame zone foiled covers from my drip pan to illustrate how much can be caked on from one or more cooks. For me it’s easier to replace the heavy-duty aluminum foil than to continually scrape off my drip pan. I use an 18-inch-wide heavy-duty food service aluminum foil roll that can be found at most big box stores.
top: clean foil. bottom: foil after several uses.
Wood Pellet Smoker-Grill Manufacturers
Just a few years ago there were only a small handful of wood pellet smoker-grill manufacturers. Today there are over 20 and I would categorize them into three groups: entry-level, mid-level, and high-end units. I believe I would not do these manufacturers and their wood pellet smoker-grills justice were I to attempt to review their pits, because I have not had a chance to see and/or use most of the multitude of pits. I do, however, own a MAK Grills 2 Star General, a Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett, and a Traeger PTG. I could talk extensively on the pros and cons of each unit, but that is not the intent of this cookbook.
There are excellent reviews, videos, articles, and manufacturer websites on the Internet that will better serve you in helping decide which wood pellet smoker-grill would best fit your needs. There are also forums and blogs dedicated to wood pellet smoker-grills. One excellent forum is pelletheads.com. They do not accept any advertising in order to stay neutral. One of their best features is the performance testing of pits. Manufacturers send a unit to the forum management, and usually one of two pitmasters conducts the same series of tests on every unit and posts the results from those tests for everyone to see and evaluate. Here’s an alphabetical list of the wood pellet smoker-grill manufacturers that have been tested by pelletheads.com to date:
✵Blaz’n Grill Works
✵Camp Chef Pellet Grills
✵England’s Stove Works
✵Green Mountain Grills
✵Fahrenheit Technologies Inc. (Grilla)
✵IPT Pellet Grill
✵Kuma Pellet Grills
✵Ozark Mountain Pellet Grills
✵Rec Tec Grills
✵Royall Wood Pellet Grills
✵Traeger Wood Fired Grills
Not every wood pellet smoker-grill manufacturer chooses to have their units tested by the forum. This is not to disparage those manufacturers, as their units stand on their own merits.
What Are Food-Grade Barbecue Wood Pellets?
Food-grade barbecue wood pellets are cylindrical wood pellets about a quarter-inch wide and an inch long composed of compressed hardwood sawdust. Raw materials are sourced from whole-log saw mills or directly from orchards where fruit trees are decked up and chipped in the field. Reputable wood suppliers control the product from start to finish and guarantee there are no harmful chemicals or foreign contaminates. With the exception of vegetable oils to aid the extrusion process, the pellets contain no additives. They burn cleanly, leaving remarkably little ash.
In most cases, barbecue wood pellets are a combination of flavor and either oak or alder base wood. The percentage of each is determined by the manufacturer. Some manufacturers use a 25 percent flavor hardwood and a 75 percent base wood. Others use a 30 percent and higher flavor hardwood percentage. Certain flavors like apple, hickory, maple, and oak can be 100 percent with no base wood. Alder and oak are the most common woods used for the base wood. Today there are numerous manufacturers providing special blends, such as a base wood combined with two or more flavor woods. Due to local availability of each wood type, as a general rule, manufacturers east of the Mississippi River use oak for base wood, and Alder is used west of the Mississippi.
Wood Pellet Storage
For best results, store your barbecue wood pellets in a dry storage area like a garage or shed, on a wooden pallet if possible. If your pellets get wet or absorb moisture from being outside in the elements for a long period of time, they will eventually break down, won’t perform as well, and there’s a good chance they could jam your auger.
Once a bag is opened, store the remaining pellets in a wood pellet or charcoal dispenser, clean new trash can, large pet food container, plastic 5-gallon buckets with lids, or any container that is relatively air tight that will keep your pellets dry. Store the containers in your garage or a dry shed.
Wood Pellet Food Pairings
Historically, protein-rich foods like meats and fish were smoked as a means of preservation. Today foods are smoked low and slow with indirect heat to impart meats and fish with rich natural flavors and produce outright delicious results. Each type of wood has its own unique flavor that suits specific types of meat. Wood pellet and food pairings are based on the smoke output on a spectrum from mild to strong. Here are the most common barbecue wood pellet flavors and their pairings:
Why Are Barbecue Food-Grade Wood Pellets More Expensive?
Whether you’re buying a 20-pound bag or a ton of pellets, the biggest expense is the shipping cost. Another large factor is the use of highest-grade wood components. If possible, find yourself a local dealer who stocks your preferred brand of pellets or a good variety of pellets. Spend some time trying out different brands and flavors before buying pellets in bulk. If kept cool and dry, pellets have a long shelf life. A few years ago in some areas of the country, it was extremely difficult to locally source barbecue pellets, but today, as the popularity of wood pellet smoker-grills is increasing by leaps and bounds, pellets are more readily available.
Barbecue Wood Pellet Manufacturers
Today there are a multitude of barbecue wood pellet brands to choose from, but it’s difficult to know who actually manufactures those pellets. Here is a short list—that is by no means comprehensive—of barbecue wood pellet manufacturers: CookinPellets, BBQr’s Delight, Bear Mountain, Cookshack, Branch Creek Pellets, Lumber Jack, Fast Eddy’s, Great Lakes Renewable Energy, and Pacific Pellet. As I said, this is not a comprehensive list and my apologies to those I have omitted.
Nowadays most wood pellet smoker-grill manufacturers carry their own pellet brand(s), but they are in the business of manufacturing grills and usually do not manufacture their pellets. The actual pellets are outsourced and manufactured to their specifications.
HOW ARE PELLETS MANUFACTURED?
Pellet production starts with raw, clean premium wood feedstock in the form of sawdust, shavings, and chips. These materials are then pulverized into a uniform-size material, introduced into a large dryer drum, and dried to a desired consistent moisture level. Once dried, the materials are then transported to a hammer mill, where it is broken down to sawdust of an even smaller diameter. This fine material is then forced through a die, a metal piece with holes, with hundreds of holes 6 millimeters in diameter. The high-pressure created by the mills extruding the wood into the dies causes the temperature of the wood to increase greatly and forces the natural lignins in the wood to liquefy. When cooled, the natural lignins serve as the binding agent that holds the compressed sawdust together. Once pelletized, the pellets travel through a cooler, which substantially reduces the temperature and hardens the pellets. The cooled pellets are introduced to a shaker system, which separates any small particles and fines from the whole pellets. Fines are pieces of broken pellets and sawdust from pellet disintegration at the mill. These fines are recycled back. Finally, the pellets are introduced to an automated bagging system, where they are carefully weighed, and bagged.
Here are some accessories that I own and use to make my cooking experiences easier and more enjoyable.
DIGITAL MEAT THERMOMETER—I cannot stress the importance of a good digital thermometer. I cook everything to internal temperature. Even if your wood pellet smoker-grill has one or more meat probes, get yourself a good digital meat thermometer to verify the placement of your probe(s). I use a ThermoWorks Thermapen, which reads food temperatures in 3 seconds or less.
If your wood pellet smoker-grill does not have a meat probe, I suggest using a wireless remote barbecue thermometer like a Maverick ET-730 series. When you’re smoking eight pork butts, it really helps to have extra probes. Care must be taken when inserting a digital instant-read thermometer or a remote barbecue thermometer to ensure you’re probing the thickest parts of the meat and not touching a bone.
SET OF KNIVES AND SCISSORS—Make sure you have a great set of sharp knives to use on raw and cooked meats. You’ll be needing your knives and scissors for trimming cuts of meat and other prep work. I recommend a 14-inch hollow-edge slicing knife for use with large cuts of cooked meat like briskets, roasts, and poultry.
SMOKER BOX—A smoker box allows you to cold-smoke cheese (see page 49), jerky, salmon (see page 140), meats, and nuts. It also doubles as a warming chamber to hold foods at serving temperatures. Impress your friends with some smoked Gouda and salmon. Check with your manufacturer to see if they can provide you with this capability. You won’t be sorry.
FLAME ZONE, OPEN FLAME TECHNOLOGY, DIRECT FLAME—Many wood pellet smoker-grill manufacturers now provide the technology for direct-flame grilling. Manufacturers use different names for this technology, but the results they provide are the same. Gone are the days when you could only use your grill for indirect cooking. Now you can grill steaks (see page 83), pork chops (see page 120), meat, etc., with the best of them at temperatures exceeding 500°F.
SEARING GRATES—There are different types of searing grates available depending on your unit. Searing grates are designed to be used with direct flame or indirect flame technology. Check with your grill manufacturer for the type that works best with your grill. Searing grates allow you to grill your favorite cuts of meats and achieve quality that was once only found at steakhouses.
CHICKEN LEG/WING HANGER—Simply the best way to smoke/cook chicken legs and/or wings to perfection is with these hangers. These low-cost hangers can be found at most barbecue outlets and on the Internet. They provide increased smoke penetration by allowing the smoke and heat to circulate evenly around the chicken. As the fat drips away, it self-bastes for healthier eating.
RIB RACK—A rib rack allows you to cook four to eight slabs of St. Louis-style, baby back, or spare ribs at one time depending on your grill’s surface area.
TEFLON-COATED FIBERGLASS MATS—These indirect cooking mats keep food from sticking to grill grates and allow for easy cleanup. They are FDA approved and dishwasher safe, as well. Two common brand-name products are Frogmats and Q-MATZ.
BARBECUE INSULATED GLOVES—I use light, flexible insulated rubber gloves to protect my hands while handling and removing food directly from the grill, and pulling hot pork butts. Simply hand-wash the gloves with mild soaps, rinse, and hang dry when you’re finished using them.
MEAT SLICER—For precise meat slicing I use a 7-inch-blade meat slicer to eliminate the time-consuming process of slicing food by hand. For example, it works great to thinly slice tri-tip roasts for exquisite tri-tip sandwiches, or to slice smoked cheese and other meats.
NONSTICK GRILLING TRAY—Great for grilling, roasting, or baking items like vegetables, fish, and small or delicate foods. Cleans easily with soap and water.
PIZZA PADDLE—Your wood pellet smoker-grill cooks crispy, hot, delicious take-and-bake pizzas or made-from-scratch pies. To facilitate placing and removing large and small pizzas from my grill, I use a large pizza paddle rather than the provided cardboard tray. The paddles are not very expensive and they sure do work well.
PIG TAIL FOOD FLIPPER—This tapered shaft has a sharp, spiral snare at the tip designed to lightly pierce the edge of any food to flip or move without trouble. Use it for steaks, chops, ribs, chicken, etc.
SILICONE COOKING BANDS—These 2-inch bands are food- and dishwasher-safe, and heat-resistant to 600°F. You can use them to replace butcher’s twine or toothpicks, and they are reusable.
LIQUID FLAVOR INJECTOR— This device is perfect for enhancing meat by deeply injecting marinades, flavors, brines, spices, herbs, and other products. Take care not to overshadow the natural taste of the meat.
WI-FI CONTROLLER—If you’re a tech junkie like me, you’ll want to look into Wi-Fi controllers for your unit. More manufacturers are incorporating optional Wi-Fi modules for their grills to give you full operational control of your grill remotely. I have a Wi-Fi module on my MAK Grills 2 Star General and my Green Mountain Grill, Davy Crockett. You can access your controller from your desktop, laptop, smartphone, iPad, Kindle, and/or other tablet. As long as you have an Internet connection, you can control your pit.
Some Wi-Fi controllers like a MAK Grills Pellet Boss also have graphing capabilities to document each cook. Here is a sample of such a graph for a brisket. The green line represents the temperature that the meat probe reads, while the orange line is the temperature that the grill is set to. Note where the brisket was removed from the grill to double wrap it in foil before being returned to the grill.
BLUETOOTH REMOTE CONTROL—Before the advent of Wi-Fi controllers, there were and are Bluetooth remote controllers that allow you to monitor and mimic the settings on your wood pellet smoker-grill controller. Personally, I prefer using a remote control/monitoring device than constantly going outside to check on the status of the grill or change settings.
GRILL COVER—Protect your wood pellet smoker-grill investment from the harshest of elements by helping to keep your grill clean and dry. I always keep my grills under a cover and covered patio when not in use.
GRIDDLE—Great for all facets of a scrumptious breakfast feast. Hash browns, eggs, pancakes, French toast, sausages, bacon (on the griddle or on the grates) … you name it. Everything is always better cooked on your grill. Don’t forget about vegetables and other small items.
NOTEBOOK—For years I have documented every cook in notebooks. It’s a great planning tool for cook times, temperatures, shopping lists, sides, etc. At first glance it looks like a duplication of work, but I tweak the prep process, spices, smoke/cook temperatures, and menu items. When I get a request to cook something specific again, I don’t worry because it’s almost always in one of my notebooks in some form or another. Believe me when I say that at my age, I need all the help I can get with remembering.
Cooking Tips and Techniques
Quality Meat and Seasonings
Don’t overlook your friendly neighborhood butcher shop for great and custom cuts of meats, poultry, and sausages, as well as wonderful rubs, seasonings, and barbecue sauces.
My local butcher shop, Fagundes Meat & Catering, blended their famous seasoning in 1980. Unwilling to divulge the seasoning recipe, Fagundes Meats for years chose to season their customers’ meats and poultry for free. Even today, they’ll still season meats and poultry for you if you ask. In 1990, butcher Frank Teixeira, the grandson of Americo Fagundes, developed Fagundes Famous Seasoning for commercial outlets after years of in-house sales and shipping the seasoning to loyal customers who left the area.
The first thing I noticed was that Fagundes Seasoning does not overpower the natural flavors of meats and poultry. The seasoning’s interaction with beef, chicken, fish, pork, turkey, salads, eggs, etc., is uncanny. Originally the seasoning was only used on beef, but it quickly became apparent that it is an amazing all-purpose seasoning. The wow factor is off the charts! Knowing firsthand the combination of spices and flavors, I continue to be impressed.
The seasoning really lends itself to low-and-slow cooking, smoking, grilling, roasting, frying, etc. You can purchase Fagundes Seasoning online or at some Northern California supermarkets.
I recommend you go out and explore your local butcher shops and meat markets to see if you too can find that diamond in the rough that will make your next cook an exquisite crowd-pleaser.
A number of my recipes call for FTC resting the meat. This important acronym stands for “Foil-Towel-Cooler” and is a common method used for holding and/or resting cooked meats, such as pork butts, brisket, and turkey, in order to redistribute the juices into the meat. It produces a moist and tender finished product. Pitmasters, professionals, caterers, and restaurants use industrial units like a Cambro, for example, to achieve these results. FTC is lovingly referred to as the poor man’s Cambro.
Double-wrap the cooked meat in heavy-duty aluminum foil to keep the juices contained. Wrap the foiled meat in a large towel before placing it into a cooler. If desired, minimize air space by filling the rest of the cooler with towels to help keep the heat from dissipating. FTC pork butts and briskets in a sealed cooler for a minimum of 2 hours and up to 4 to 6 hours, depending on the meat and/or time available before serving. Take precautions when handling meat, as it will still be too hot to handle even after hours of resting.
USDA Minimum Internal Temperatures
Cook all food to these minimum internal temperatures as measured with a digital food thermometer before removing from the heat source. You may choose to cook to higher temperatures for reasons of personal preference.
Indirect and Direct Grill Setup
All wood pellet smoker-grills are designed primarily for indirect cooking. Indirect cooking uses deflected heat to cook more slowly and evenly. As mentioned before, the heat deflector is a stainless-steel plate that sits above the firepot. It absorbs the heat from the fire and radiates it out like a convection oven would, meaning the heat is circulated around, which gives a more even cook. Direct cooking, just as the name implies, uses direct high heat to cook. It is a faster cook time, which doesn’t allow for much smoke infusion, but it can give you those classic grill marks. Today more manufacturers are beginning to provide the flexibility of a direct cooking configuration, and a small number have a built-in hybrid design providing indirect and direct cooking capability simultaneously without having to change any configuration.
INDIRECT SETUP—For most wood pellet smoker-grill recipes, you’ll be using an indirect setup. Install your grease pan per your manufacturer’s user manual. The grease pan is designed to slant in the direction of the grease bucket in order for the grease/fat to roll off. Otherwise the grease would pool on the pan and could become a flare-up safety issue at higher temperatures.
DIRECT SETUP—Unless your unit has built-in direct cooking capability, you may need to replace your indirect pan with a direct pan. In some units you may need to remove one or more cover plates or slide the upper portion of a combination pan to configure it for direct cooking. You slide the cover one way or the other to close or open the holes. Closed holes are for indirect cooking, while open holes are for direct cooking. Searing grates are not mandatory, but I highly recommend them. When grilling and cooking directly, they will provide greater results because they are engineered to better sear and sizzle foods by concentrating the heat.
The recipes in this cookbook contain ingredient lists, prep instructions, and directions, accompanied by step-by-step photographs and notes, if applicable. A summary of servings, prep time, marinating time (if needed), cook time, rest time (if needed), and recommended wood pellets precedes each recipe.
RECOMMENDED WOOD PELLET FLAVORS—The wood pellets I recommend are just that, a recommendation. When you see multiple pellet recommendations my preferred pellet flavor for that recipe is always listed first. If you have another flavor profile you would like to accomplish, feel free to substitute it. For the most part, you can’t really go wrong with anything you choose. When recipes call for “any” pellets, it just means that the dish does not get cooked for long enough at a low enough temperature to really allow for the smoked flavor to penetrate the protein, so any pellet sill suffice.
INGREDIENTS—Depending on how comfortable you are in the kitchen, or with the grill, feel free to substitute, remove, and/or add any ingredients based on your preferences, taste buds, and ingredients on hand. Strict adherence to the ingredients list will produce outstanding results, but don’t be afraid to tweak something here and there. For the most part I have always viewed recipes as suggestions and not absolute guides. Remember that cooking should be fun.
PREPPING FOR THE GRILL—The prep section is all the work you do before bringing the food to the grill. The number one priority in the prep cycle is planning ahead. Give yourself plenty of time, read the recipe, and research any step or procedure you might have questions about. Recipes may call for refrigeration overnight or for hours after prepping to allow the rubs, seasonings, brines, and marinades to do their magic. Gather all necessary ingredients and cooking equipment prior to starting your prep. If not using fresh meat, poultry, or seafood, make sure that proteins are safely thawed in the refrigerator before starting. Above all, be careful to provide proper sanitary conditions.
There will be times when the prep and directions cycles can occur simultaneously. Depending on the amount of time your wood pellet smoker-grill takes to preheat, just as with a traditional indoor oven, you may choose to preheat while completing the prep.
ON THE WOOD PELLET SMOKER-GRILL—I recommend starting with a full pellet hopper and a clean wood pellet smoker-grill configured for indirect heat unless otherwise specified. When appropriate, insert grill meat probe(s) or remote meat probe(s) in the thickest part of the protein prior to placing the meat on the grill. Keep in mind that every wood pellet smoker-grill is different, and therefore, I provide cooking times for planning purposes only. Always rely on internal temperatures. You won’t believe how scrumptious a piece of meat might look, only to find out that it’s undercooked.
As you become confident with your wood pellet smoker-grill, you’ll quickly learn that cooking instructions can be flexible as long as your finished product reaches the desired internal temperature. For example, you may choose to smoke a chicken for 1½ hours rather than 1 hour to provide a little extra smoke flavor before bumping the pit temperature to 375°F instead of 350°F. Overall it doesn’t make any difference other than the length of the cook as long as the breast reaches an internal temperature of 165°F to 170°F.
NOTES—The notes at the end of the recipes contain any extra information or tips specific to that recipe. Some more general tips and techniques can be found below.
General Information and Tips
COOKING TIMES—Cooking times in this book are given for planning purposes and can vary depending on what type of grill you have or what temperature your meat started at. Always determine the cooking time by the internal temperature reading of your food and not the cook time I have provided.
PREHEATING—Times for preheating your wood pellet smoker-grill may vary due to manufacturer-dependent startup procedures. The key is to run a few tests and know your grill.
THAWING FOOD—In order to be safe and prevent illness, always thaw food in the refrigerator; submerge it in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes making sure the food stays submerged; or use the defrost setting in a microwave. Do not thaw your frozen food on the countertop.
INTERNAL TEMPERATURE—Always cook to internal temperatures preferably using a digital instant-read thermometer like a Thermapen or equivalent unit. Probe thermometers should be inserted before placing the protein on the grill and should be placed in the thickest part of the meat, not touching the bone.
TENTING—Most recipes call for resting the protein under a foil tent before carving or serving. Tenting is an easy technique. Fold a sheet of aluminum foil in the center, fan it open into a tent shape and loosely place it over the food. Tenting helps to retain heat while the food is redistributing its natural juices rather than releasing them on the serving plate. Skin crispness on poultry and crust on meats can be affected by tenting.
SILVER SKIN—Silver skin is a thin membrane with a silvery sheen that encases certain cuts of meat. If possible, it should always be removed prior to cooking. Silver skin does not break down when cooked and becomes extremely tough. To remove silver skin, slide a sharp knife, such as a boning knife, under the silver skin approximately ½ inch from the end. Then use a cutting motion, angling the blade upward as the blade moves along the base of the meat.
THE STALL—“The stall,” also known as the “plateau” or “zone,” is a natural part of the cooking process. When cooked at low temperatures, large cuts of meat reach a point where the internal temperature stops rising for a period of time. Most cuts of meat tenderize after the collagen melts and the fibers begin to separate. Every large chunk of meat like a pork butt (shoulder) or beef brisket will experience the stall. It can last minutes or as long as 4 hours, and normally occurs at internal meat temperatures from 155°F to 170°F. It’s not a question of if the stall will occur, but when. You may be tempted to turn the heat up in your wood pellet smoker-grill, but exercise patience—just ride it out so as to not affect the meat being cooked.
THE TEXAS CRUTCH—For those who cannot wait out the stall, a technique commonly known as the “Texas crutch” will reduce your cooking time and bypass the stall. My version of the Texas crutch is to remove the meat before it reaches the full measure of the stall. I remove the meat when the internal temperature reaches 160°F and double wrap it in heavy-duty aluminum foil, making sure to leave any meat probes inserted in the meat. Wrap the foil around the probe and return the meat to the grill until it reaches your desired internal temperature.
CARVING MEAT—To get the most tender results, always carve meats across the grain, not with it. Identify the direction the grain is running by looking for the parallel lines running down the meat. Slice perpendicular to the lines of muscle fiber.
PROTECT YOUR SKIN—Wear food-grade latex-free nitrile gloves when handling raw meat and spicy peppers like jalapeños.
KEEPING YOUR PREP SPACE CLEAN—I prefer to line my prep area with plastic food wrap and/or heavy-duty aluminum foil. This simplifies cleanup and is also more sanitary when dealing with raw meat.
CURING SALT—Curing salt, which is used in some low-and-slow recipes, contains salt and nitrite and should never be used to season food at the table or in the cooking process. Large amounts can be lethal, but it’s harmless in small quantities when curing meats.
A NOTE ABOUT SMOKE—The higher the temperature, the less smoke a wood pellet smoker-grill produces. Most units will not produce any noticeable smoke above 300°F. Therefore, use any pellets of your choice when a recipe initially calls for higher temperatures, as the pellets will not affect the flavor.