Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My Homemade Meat Smoker Part Deux

In response to some interest over the smoker, here's a picture of the resulting pork tenderloin (you can click on the image for a larger, more mouth-watering version - my wife took the picture). I marinated it overnight, then put a simple rub on it (black pepper, salt, cayenne pepper & onion powder) and rolled it in crushed cashews. Unfortunately there was a little too much cayenne pepper in the rub and it overpowered the marinade and the cashews too (you could still taste the cashews just a little once you got used to the spiciness). It was still delicious, just spicy and delicious. God is indeed very good.

And it's no use asking for leftovers: There aren't any.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

My Homemade Meat Smoker

This is another post in a similar vein to the one before it. That is to say that it is a post about creativity. In this case, the creativity of myself and some friends in building a meat smoker. In case you missed the previous post and are too lazy to go back and look at it, the summary is that we are creative because God is creative and we are made in his image. I thank God for his creativity not only in my own case, but especially for the creativity of the man who came up with the supremely God-like idea to smoke meat (and I think that the odds are pretty good that it was a man).

A while back (a couple of years ago now) some culinarily adept grad student friends of mine and I came up with a somewhat harebrained scheme to build our own meat smoker. The basic idea is that you take a metal trash can (new, not used), put a hot plate in the bottom with a box of hardwood chips on it (soaked in water so they last longer and steam as well as smoke), put some meat near the top, and let it cook for several hours (ideally somewhere around 215-225 degrees Fahrenheit). I think it's just about the best way to cook meat. After building it, I sort of inherited the smoker and have used it periodically to cook ribs, pork loin, and several turkeys.

Of course, the details are a little more complicated than the simple picture painted above and over the course of the years, there have been some necessary adjustments to the smoker. Here are two pictures of the smoker (top on and top off):

Some of the first things to notice are the temperature gauge on the top (you need to know how hot it is in there - there is a second thermometer on the side), the door at the bottom (for adding more wood chips without lifting the lid and losing all the heat and smoke), and the wood blocks on the side (they are attached to the screws that hold the brackets that hold the grill grate - otherwise there would be screws sticking out of the side of the can). You can also see those brackets and the hot plate in the second image. There are two levels of brackets so that you can put a pan of liquid underneath to keep the meat from drying out or to put the meat closer to the heat if need be (the temperature is usually 20-30 degrees warmer at the lower brackets).

Warning: From here on out, the post may get a little technical. If you're not interested in the details of how to make a smoker or the technical challenges involved, you can just stop reading.

Now that we've lost all those boring, non-technical people, lets get to the interesting part. All of these things were in the original smoker design. The changes have all happened to the hot plate. It turns out that hot plates are not designed to be kept on for long periods of time in enclosed spaces. In fact they are designed to shut off if the temperature gets too hot (this is also how our hot plate was designed to regulate the heat). This is, in general a good thing. For a meat smoker, it is a bad thing. There were a couple of different variations we tried on bypassing the switch before settling on the simplest solution of directly wiring the plug to the hot plate with no other internal components whatsoever. This means that to "turn on" the smoker, you plug it in and to "turn it off" you unplug it. One of these days maybe I'll put in a switch. We also took out the body of the hot plate and mounted the heating element onto one of those metal wiring boxes (the kind that light switches are mounted on) just to make sure that there was no plastic to give off strange fumes.

This was more or less the way the smoker stayed for a couple years with one small, recurring problem: The wires just underneath the hot plate would periodically get brittle and break from the heat, effectively turning off the hot plate. If you really care to know, copper wire apparently has some oxygen in it (unless you pay a lot of money for pure copper wire). This oxygen when heated, reacts with the hydrogen in the air to form water which in turn evaporates into steam, leaving behind small holes and weakening the copper wire (end science lesson). It was never a huge deal, but whatever I would be cooking at the time would have to be finished in the oven. Now that I have time on my hands, I decided it was time to solve this problem. Being unemployed and on a tight budget, I also decided to solve the problem with whatever I had on hand.

So here is the task: I need to get the electrical current from outside the can to the hotplate without using copper wire (at least inside the can). My solution: use steel bars instead of wires and connect it using the wiring used for electric fences. Of course, this creates some other complications, mainly keeping the steel rods from blowing a circuit by touching the metal trash can (or each other). The only steel rods I had were rectangular (about 1" x 1/8"), so I had to cut away some of the metal box on which the heating element is mounted to give the rods a little room. I also ran them through a couple of pieces of wood (hardwood so that any smoke won't hurt) so that they wouldn't touch the bottom of the can or each other. On top of those pieces of wood, we placed a piece of glass to shield the bars from any dripping that might cause similar problems, (my father-in-law cut the glass for me). Here you can see some of that work (the slant of the glass is intentional to keep the drippings away from the steel):

On the left you can see through the door of the smoker to the hot plate and the pieces of wood and glass behind. You can also see the bar magnet in the foreground that keeps the door shut (it's sticking out of the right side of the doorway). On the right, you can see the underside of the hot plate where most of the electrical box has been cut away to make room for the steel bars.

Now that I've got it back together and working, there's a pork tenderloin in the fridge that's just asking to be smoked. We'll see how the new wiring holds up.