A couple of cook-outs with the Charbroil American Gourmet Smoker

charbroilamericangourmetsmoker.jpg

Having a yard has been sweet surprise, like picking mushy cornbread out of my molars with my tongue. I mean, I’ve always liked gardening. I even like to mow the lawn. But I spent the last six years in Brooklyn, with planter boxes on concrete and gardens with more brick and glass than rocks in the soil; Saturdays the smell of grills interleaved with the winds of hot trash.

Sometimes I’d walk out into the park and pluck hookers right off the tree.

Okay, not really. Grilling and such in New York is quite a lot of fun. But I spent Saturday and the better part of Sunday at my house here in Eugene, poking around in Movable Type with Rob while tending to a pork loin that I was smoking in my new Charbroil American Gourmet Smoker, sipping a ridiculously wonderful lambic, watching Porter run around in the yard sniffing ferns, and being rejuvenated by one of the first legendarily awesome Oregon rainless spring days.

It’s the first time in my adult life that I’ve had a yard, and I’ve lucked out with this one, with its blackberry bushes, bamboo stands, and flower-happy landscaping. It even had a garden pre-cut in the yard with a sprinkler outlet underneath, although I’ll be damned if I can figure out how to actually turn the sprinkler on.

I’m just renting this place—I only plan on being in Eugene for a couple of years, and I don’t think I could afford to buy it, besides—but even after just a few weeks I think I may be spoiled already. There’s just something incredibly civilized about it all, lounging in your couple hundred square feet of nature, enjoying the grounds.

(For the record, I have no idea why the yard has a sprinkler system—in Oregon of all places—and I don’t plan on running it anyway. If I wasted all that water on the yard, what would I use to wash my car in the hot tub every day?)

In Brooklyn I used an indoor stovetop smoker for years, which wasn’t perfect for actual barbecue, but can produce surprisingly great meat, provided you can get the meat inside. They don’t even stink up the house as much as you’d think. Within a couple of hours after using the stovetop smoker, the smell would usually have dissipated, although we didn’t have carpets. I’d often smoke some pork ribs for a couple of hours on the stove, then rub them outside to grill for a few minutes and slap on some sauce. (Unlike some, I think tomato-based barbecue sauces taste best when slightly caramelized by the heat of a grill, although one should avoid any actual burning if possible.)

I lost the stovetop smoker in the break-up, though, along with the beer brewing gear*, so I needed a new grill. So on a lark we went to Jerry’s, a honkin’ home improvement store out by the airport, staffed by some really nice people and a few confused starlings.

What I saw there was a shock. Three aisles of “barbecue grills”, most of which were gas-powered, and many of which cost over a thousand dollars. As Justin said at the last Baker Boulevard Geographic Society meeting, “Grills like that are a lifestyle choice.”Besides, gas is meant for the kitchen, not the grill. I understand it’s more convenient, but it’s just not the same for me, in flavor or experience. I don’t even like using pressed charcoal briquettes, preferring chunk charcoal or even just wood chunks.

But really, grilling over gas or over charcoal is mostly affectation in the first place: heat is heat is heat. And none of it is actually barbecue.

Which is why I ended up buying the embarrassingly named American Gourmet, a little offset smoker than also works fine as a grill. The best thing about it: It was $100, very nearly the cheapest grill in the store. I was amazed that the grill closest to my ideal was so inexpensive, but it wasn’t made of burnished metal and didn’t have any infrared warming trays, either.

It’s mostly just two simple black metal tubes bolted together. (And the owner does the bolting, which took me about a can of Dale’s Pale Ale to get through.) The grill height can be adjusted in the smoker box simply by turning it ninety degrees—the bottom is curved, so the rectangular grill sits higher. Nothing fancy about it at all.

It does have a thermometer that sits on the top of the main chamber, just a few inches from the stovepipe. That’s handy, because when you’re smoking, keeping a constant temperature for a long time is important. You might only bring the smoke up to 250° (or less!), but need the internal temperature of your meat to reach, say, 180&dwg; for several hours to make sure it’s properly cooked.

It works, but it’s entry-level equipment. The smoker box is pretty small, making it difficult to get a constant smoke going without periodic noodling, which further affects the temperature in the main chamber. And because there’s just a couple-inch lip separating the smoking chamber from the main chamber, it’s easy to get ash and soot in there if you blow too hard on the coals to try to get them to hot up—which you wouldn’t have to do if not for the small smoke chamber.

The metal of the smoker walls is also very thin. So thin, in fact, that when I put coals in the main chamber to grill some steaks, the metal had warped itself enough that I couldn’t fully insert the cooking grills. Cooking on a slope is a pain, although the steaks still came out fine—it’s hard to beat the searing heat of real hardwood briquettes. (Although lest you think I’m too far up my own ass, I think almost the best way to cook a steak is to skip the fire entirely and cook it in a cast-iron skillet.)

Worse, the thin metal means that smoke tends to leak at every loose seam, from the door to the place where the smoke chamber attaches to the main chamber. Not the end of the world, but it does make it more difficult to maintain a constant level of smoke and heat, especially since the smoke chamber is relatively small to begin with, so any wisp of smoke that isn’t going over the meat feels like a waste.

That said, I’m pleased. As a grill it allows all the finesse of a public park grill, but that’s fine—grilling isn’t a precision art. It’s a middling grill with a middling smoker attached, but until I someday muster the gumption to actually build a smoker of my own out of something sturdier, I suspect it’ll do.

* Which is another story. Ask me about my shattered carboy!

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19 Responses to A couple of cook-outs with the Charbroil American Gourmet Smoker

  1. Futurist says:

    Or you can do the even more ghetto/redneck style of smoking, where you just toss a handful of woodchips you’ve soaked (in beer) on the grill at the same time the meat goes on. You get the smokey flavour of the wood without the hours and hours of waiting. You gotta make sure the chips don’t catch on fire though.

    But I am glad to hear you’re a fan of chunk hardwood charcoal. Around these parts we call propane barbecues, “girly-man gas grills”.

  2. pork musket says:

    Joel, tell us about your shattered carboy.

    By the way, copper wort chillers are cheap and easy to make, especially if you don’t care how ass ugly your bends are like me ;)

  3. mzed says:

    I’d go home-built, and I’d go terracotta:

    http://www.instructables.com/id/a-little-brown-egg-in-Maine:-terra-cotta-smoker/

    In fact, I did, and am very happy.

  4. Patrick Austin says:

    Try to find a used Egg or any other ceramic cooker. You won’t be able to, because no one gets rid of them. When people die, their next of kin snatch them up. I can’t recommend them highly enough. I’ve bought a lot of expensive toys over the years, but the BGE is by far my most prized possession. It’s become a family member in the two years I’ve had it.

    Not only are they the best grills and smokers I’ve used, but they handle temperature extremes really well. Metal smokers don’t have the thermal properties you need to keep temperatures really stable for long periods of time without a lot of tweaking and/or electric power. Even in the winter with sub-zero temps and howling winds it’s dead simple to maintain ~225F for 24 hours for a brisket. Add a hair dryer for blowyness, and temps up around 800F are doable for pizza or steaks.

    If you’ve got the $600-$1000, there’s nothing like it. It always makes me sad when people who haven’t lived with a ceramic cooker make the mistake of assuming there’s a reasonable substitute.

    For charcoal, check out the reviews here:
    http://www.nakedwhiz.com/lump.htm

  5. J4rH34d says:

    Joel,

    Check out pluvial data for July to October in Eugene, but don’t tell anyone.

    Then you will know why irrigation is a common sight in the Willamette valley.

    Look for a small 4 inch or so diameter/wide well near the edge of your dwelling. The sprinkler system control is likely there.

  6. Anonymous says:

    For only about $150, the 18′ Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker is the way to go. I live in Brooklyn, but have a nice big deck and I’ve been smoking since February after my girl got it for me for xmas.

    It’s been hard to keep the temperature high enough during the winter (whenever I decided to smoke something, that day invariably turned out blustery and very cold), but I broke it out for Easter and smoked a duck and a brisket.

    I like to finish my meats off in the oven, as smoking something for 8 hours is not really so fun…especially after a drinking quite a few beers. (you must crack a beer after the you reach smoking temp.)

    A recent discovery with the WSMC is if you take out the middle smoker section, you can make a really great grill out of it. The lid and the bottom don’t fit perfectly, but you can get it so it’s pretty damn close. It ends up looking like a big black egg—the deep lid even leaves enough room for a beer can chicken!

    The metal is of a good width and it’s overall sturdy and good quality.

  7. w000t says:

    I highly recommend kamado style smokers/grills for multi-purpose outdoor cookery. They are pricey and heavy thanks to the cast ceramics, but the results are great. They make good results easy to achieve and bad ones easy to avoid.

    I’ve got a Big Green Egg and also really like their natural lump charcoal, but there several companies that seem to make kamados. There doesn’t seem to be much difference in quality–just finish, design, and accessories–so any brand should be pretty good.

    p.s. I also recommend buying carboys mail-order even if you could buy them locally. Then, you’ll have a shipping container you can keep it in. I’ve got carboys that have survived several moves thanks to storing them taped up in a 3-inch-thick shell of styrofoam.

  8. ZoopyFunk says:

    “I only plan on being in Eugene for a couple of years…”

    That’s they all say. Its harder to escape the vortex than you could ever imagine.

  9. Blind Zen Archer says:

    Welcome to the party, Joel! :)

    I respectfully disagree with W000T. I know the BGE and the Kamado’s are neat, but god DAMN they are expensive.

    As an occasional maker and quite frequent ‘Quer, I highly recommend building your own. Look at the Big Baby or ‘Big Smokey’ style – very easy to put together with a few trips to the hardware store. Hell, with a little help from my friends, I got mine done very easily.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bzarcher/sets/72157605563260046/

  10. strider_mt2k says:

    I love grilling.
    I haven’t tried smoking anything yet, but the very act of making fire and cooking on it is very satisfying, not to mention delicious.

    A great summer’s day off is working in the gardens and then kicking back and enjoying the view from grillside as the solar lights start to glow in the evening.

    Enjoy, Joel. Enjoy.

  11. josephlrc says:

    Your daily reports about Oregon keep reminding me… why again did I ever move east?

  12. Chad says:

    You are not kidding about that being an excellent lambic. What badass weather we’ve been having in Oregon. I only wish I could afford to buy beer like that more often to drink prone on my freshly mowed lawn.

  13. wiskinator says:

    I must second the recommendation for Kamado (Komodo?) style grills. I think they combine the best benefits of both smoker and griller, and they look great doing it.

    As to moving carboys either save an old CRT box, or just ask for the box at the local brew shop where you buy it!

  14. Anonymous says:

    These messages from your backyard certainly make me want to go outside more, Joel. I’m just up the road in Corvallis, and the weather we’ve had for the last few days has been amazing. It’s definately the start of grilling season around here.
    Like someone said earlier, the sprinkler system is because we don’t get rain from early June to late September/early October, pretty much at all. Everything dries out and dies without irrigation.

  15. Raketemensch says:

    One of the things to learn about Oregon — it rains incessantly, then one day it just stops. Dead.

    And then it doesn’t rain again for like 6 months, and things start drying out, and catching fire, and you get out of work every day hoping your house hasn’t burned down.

    That’s a slight exaggeration, but there were days when I left my job at the Grants Pass Daily Courier and hoped and prayed the house would still be there….

  16. Freddie Freelance says:

    I’d like a review of that Gambrinus by Friday, Joel.

  17. alastor says:

    I use a Ghar Griller Outlaw:

    http://www.chargriller.com/store/product_info.php?cPath=21&products_id=30&osCsid=a3a61930fb99a73e794a7532395a945f

    With an attached smoker. Basically look just like this piece of crap Joel bought, but is pretty much bomb-proof, completely solid and works wonders. I’ve smoked butts and peppers. I made some smoked salt too which has lasted all winter. I’ve got this thing on my roof, and I guess the only drawback I found is how god damn heavy the thing is. You have to put it together, but that’s pretty straight forward. Comes with a temp gauge in the top half, but you should definitely invest in a thermometer with a probe. I agree that gas is for the kitchen, wood is for the grill.

  18. cubby96 says:

    Nice grill, I had a similar one when I lived in Houston. Absolutely agree re: hardwood charcoal or just hardwood chunks (mine were sometimes woodworking scraps).

    And glad to hear you liked the Rose de Gambrinus. I wonder if my recommendation (as a response to your tweet about the Cantillon framboise) had anything to do with your trying it. I have a couple bottles socked away, aging until they get really sour and yummy.

  19. aileinduinn says:

    I too have a Char Griller with a fabbed-up side box smoker. LOVE IT. My only complaint with either of the Char brands is that the wheels were way too flimsy. Mine now need to be replaced.

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