Pitmasters are a passionate and quirky lot. We treat our pits like loving family members and give them pet names. Some teams like to go big with custom RVs and 5th Wheels, and some, like me, like to go as small as we can with one minivan. We proudly define ourselves by the genre of pits that we use in competition. We have the Ugly Drum Smoker folks who like to fashion their own grills out of used 55-gallon drums, the Pellet Heads who like to cook with wood pellet cookers, the Stick Burners who like the torpedo-shaped propane tank pits, the BGE’s with their Kamodo-style Eggs, the Smokey Mountain guys and gals with their WSM-22 and WSM-18, and many others.
On October 19, 2013, I fulfilled a crazy dream of mine to cook an entire KCBS-sanctioned contest, plus dessert, on a mini WSM. I got 4 out of 5 walks and finished 1st Dessert, 2nd Ribs, 8th chicken, 10th pork, 21st brisket, and 10th overall out of 41 teams. Read on if you want to find out how I pulled off this craziness!
What’s a mini-WSM? It’s a hybrid pit made by marrying a ubiquitous Weber Smokey Joe with a tamale pot as the cooking chamber. The cooking grate diameter is about 13 inches. The pot has a cutout at the bottom to allow the heat from the Smokey Joe to rise upwards. In my particular design (and there are many variations), I had a pizza pan to act as the deflector much like the water bowl in a regular WSM. The groove at the bottom of the pot served as a ledge to hold the bottom grate and 4 screws mounted on the sides of the pot about 5 inches above the bottom grate served as a ledge for the top grate. Add a little thermometer and Voila you have a little smoker for less than $60 in parts and some elbow grease.
I gave myself a 50-50 chance of making it work as it’s hard enough to cook an entire KCBS contest using one WSM-18 much less its smaller Smokey Joe cousin. The mini has a cult following on the Internet among backyard pitmasters but I’ve never heard about anyone cooking an entire sanctioned contest with one. My mini was built by Kris Almquist, an Arizona pitmaster friend who builds them for fun. When I saw Kris with his, I knew I had to have one. Kris delivered the mini to me at the October 2012 Dana Point contest and I used it to cook the required chicken breast meat entry at the 2012 Jack Invitational.
Why would anyone want to do this? I have two reasons why I wanted to do this. One, there is a bit of a “Southern engineer” in me and my natural curiosity made me do it. I love to tinker and take apart mechanical things and decades ago, I gave up an opportunity to pursue an engineering degree in the University of Manchester in the UK to become a 747 pilot for an Asian airline. I think George Mallory, the often-quoted British mountaineer who perished trying to scale Mount Everest said it best that, “Because it’s there”. Besides, I may be the only pitmaster in the world who has won 10+ Grand Championships using one WSM-18 so, in channeling Dr. Spock, it was logical that the next frontier was to step down to the mini.
In reason number two, if you have ever heard about runners who train by running with weight vests or Tour De France riders who train with heavier steel bicycles you will hear that they can run faster or cycle faster when they do the actual contest without the weight and return to their regular carbon fiber bicycle. I’m employing the same concept here to train myself to cook better on my regular WSM-18. The stress level and attention cooking on a mini-WSM is about 3 times more than a WSM-18. So when I practice on a mini, I’m able to cook better when I use the WSM-18 in a contest. Make sense? This is similar to an ice-hockey goalie who practices his reflexes using a computer simulation which has the hockey pucks coming at him at three times the normal speed. In an actual ice hockey game, he is able to better perform because the actual hockey pucks are moving slower. Did it work? I will find out at my next contest to see if my little experiment worked or not. If it did not, no worries as I had tremendous fun cooking with the mini.
How was it done? With only 13 inches diameter of cooking space and two racks in the main cooking chamber, it requires a bit of choreography to switch meats across the top and bottom racks. For example, you don’t want to have raw chicken dripping on ribs cooking below.
I have two 13-inch racks in the mini so I cooked one butt on the bottom rack and a brisket flat on the top rack. The key was to be extra careful not to damage or mess up the butt since I only have one butt. It was challenging to be able to slice six nice pieces from one money muscle. I typically cook two butts to get six nice slices so it was stressful to have to check the butt constantly to ensure I did not overcook the butt. With the brisket flat, I could not turn in any burnt ends in my brisket box so I focused on cooking the flat perfectly.
I planned it so the butt and brisket would be done by 7 am so I could put the three racks of ribs in at 7:30 on a rib rack. I had to figure a way to get 14 thighs into the bottom rack and have the 3 slabs on the top rack by 9:30 so the raw chicken did not drip on the ribs. Also, I had to solve the problem as one 13-inch grate was not enough real estate to cook 14 thighs. So I purchased a third rack and a beer-can chicken roaster to stack a third cooking rack on top of the top rack. That way, I have ribs on the top third rack and two racks of chicken with 7 thighs on the second and bottom racks. This arrangement was based on the premise that my ribs were foiled by the time the chicken had to go in else I was in trouble as the mini is not tall enough to take the rib rack once the third grate was stacked on.
If you want to try what I did I should mention some tips and important safety issues.
1) The Smokey Joe is not designed to run for 16 hours so the ash buildup will eventually choke your fire out. So my cooking plan had me emptying all the ash at the 10-hour mark and reloading with a fresh load of coals.
2) Be prepared to empty grease out of your deflector pan (I used a foil wrapped terra cotta pan) else you might accumulate enough grease from the brisket and butt to get a grease file. This is very dangerous and will ruin your entire cook
3) Use a blower system for the cook as it’s too difficult to control the temps by fooling with the Weber dampers on this small of a cooker. I used my trusty Stoker System from Rocks Barbecue
4) Be sure to fashion a fire ring to prevent ash from choking your blower system air inlet. My fire ring was created from some foil grill covers
5) Get a fire-proof blanket to cover the mini to conserve your fuel. I used plain old Kingsford Blue and got 10 hours before I had to refuel.
Did it compromise your cook? The short answer is yes but I already knew it would be going into the contest. It was a fun challenge and it made me appreciate my solo WSM-18 even more.
Will you do it again? Yes. After pulling it off and getting 4 out of 5 walks, I wrote down 10 improvements so I could do it better next time. I’ll be contacting my metal fabrication friends to build some more tools and props to make it easier and allow me to cook my regular two butts and one full brisket. Stay tuned to my work-in-progress project. I think if I can show everyone that you too can cook a contest with a $30 pit plus a $30 tamale pot, more people would not be held back by the cost of equipment to enter competitions. Now, if I can win a GC using the mini, that would be an awesome personal goal. Look out for me in 2014! I’ll be known as the mini-Man!