How to control your fire and how to season a brand new WSM
One of the most common questions I get asked by from folks around the world who email me is how to season a brand new pit especially the Weber Smokey Mountain. By coincidence, I happen to have the most popular Customer Review comment on Amazon.com since I posted tips on how I seasoned mine which I originally purchased in 2008.
Since one of my Giveaway winners from 2013, Jennifer G. from Oklahoma, sent me pictures of her seasoning her new WSM and she used my techniques, I thought it might be good to update and expand what I posted on Amazon so everyone could benefit from the knowledge. Consequently, this blog article adds fire control and drafting techniques as they are companion concepts to help you season your new WSM.
Please read on if you’re interested in these topics and a big thank you to Jennifer for providing her pictures of my seasoning process. The bonus is her yummy fatty creations that are a tasty by-product of the seasoning process. Here’s turtle fatty and a breakfast fatty recipe
Aug 2010 Amazon.com review – updated and expanded by Harry, March 14, 2014
My BBQ team Slap Yo Daddy BBQ from Diamond Bar, California, has been competing using these smokers which I bought off Amazon with free Prime shipping. They work flawlessly and are easy to use and clean up. My WSMs regularly win Grand Championships even when they go up against other smokers costing over $15,000.
The key step once your smoker arrives is to ensure you season it properly. New WSMs will tend to overheat until you are able to get grease and gunk on the inside and around the rim where the lid sits to ensure an air tight seal.
Before I describe how to season your new WSM, I want to explain the basics of fire control in a barbecue pit. Regardless of the pit you’re using, they all have three major components that you’ll need to learn to control to maintain proper cooking temperatures: 1) the air intake, 2) fuel you’re using, and 3) the exhaust vent/chimney. I use Kingsford Blue briquettes so my description assumes you use the same fuel. If you use something else, your mileage will vary.
I’ve used KF Blue since I started competing in 2008 and with over two dozen Grand Championships and 80+ first places including a first place USA in chicken in the Kansas City Barbecue Society Team of the Year 2012; I know KF Blue works well. Besides, I buy them on sale in the summer months for half price and stockpile them for my classes and contest year where I use over a hundred 20-lb bags annually. Yes, I do use other types of fuel like lump charcoal and pellets but I like to compete using KF Blue (no, they are not my sponsor) because I can fly into any city in America and drive my rental car to Walmart to pick up one bag of KF Blue and win a Grand Championship.
In the WSM, there are three circular intake damper vents at the bottom that can be opened or closed as needed to allow more or less air to enter the pit. More air and the temperature goes up and less air causes the pit temperature to go down. The circular fire steel fire ring holds your charcoal and you can adjust the amount of charcoal depending on how long you need to run the pit.
If you run it for chicken (2 hours), you only need to fill the ring about 1/3 way. If you want to cook ribs (6 hours), you will fill it about 2/3 way. If you’re cooking brisket and pork butt (> 12 hours), you want to fill it all the way going past the top of the charcoal ring until it is overflowing. Be sure to remove the excess briquettes that have fallen over the side of the charcoal ring. Do a bit of Jenga and create a volcano shaped crater at in the middle of the overflowing mound of charcoal by removing excess briquettes and returning them to the charcoal bag. When you’re ready to start cooking, carefully dump a half charcoal chimney of lit briquettes into the crater. Over the next 12-16 hours, the briquettes will burn gradually outwards as the temperature stays constant. I cook my long haul meats at 250F and everything else (chicken, ribs, tri tip, beef ribs, etc.) at 275F.
If you are using a full overflowing load of briquettes for a 12+ hour cook, the standard deep WSM water pan won’t work because it sits too low and will bump up against the top of your briquettes. No worries. Just remove the deep water pan and use the silver aluminum heat shield instead. You need to unsnap the heat shield and wrap it in double layer of aluminum foil and use that ultra-light pan in place of the deep water pan. If you have access to a WSM circa 2008 and earlier, those older WSMs come with a shallow water pan that does not bump into the briquettes. Alternatively, you can go to Home Depot and get yourself a terra cotta planter base that’s the same diameter as the WSM water pan. I don’t like the terra cotta approach as it’s added weight I have to carry when I transport my WSMs which have already accumulated over 100,000 miles of travel all over the US.
Of the three components I mentioned: intake, fuel choice and amount, and the exhaust, the most effective component to maintain constant temperature is not the intake nor the fuel. It’s the exhaust. Many beginners I come across are not aware of that. All seasoned pitmasters know how to intuitively draft their pit using “clean” smoke to color and flavor their barbecue meats. The draft refers to the vacuum effect when you open or close the exhaust vent of your pit.
When you open the exhaust vent on the WSM, you allow hot air to leave the pit and this creates a vacuum suction to draw air in from the bottom intakes. Thus, by skillfully manipulating the top vent, you can control your WSM like a pro. Many beginners constantly fiddle with their intake dampers in hopes to maintain a constant temperature with less success than leaving the bottom vents untouched and fiddling with the top vent to control the draft within their WSM. In future articles, I’ll address the mechanics of damper control on the WSM (e.g., old school versus automated blower systems) and the science on dirty smoke, white smoke, clean smoke, blue smoke, sour smoke, etc. For now, just give my technique a try and see if it works for you.
Once you have seasoned your WSM using the steps below, follow my technique to light your pit and leave one bottom vent open and the top vent half open. Allow your pit to come slowly up to temp (it may take 30-45 minutes). If the pit starts to over temp, gradually shut down the top vent and it will calm down. New WSMs invariably overheat until after half a dozen cooks so be prepared to cook with top and bottom vents all completely closed in your first few cooks. If you have the top vent completely open and one bottom vent completely open and your pit does not come up in temp, you can open a second bottom vent, followed by a third. Usually when you open the second or third, it means you’re out of fuel. You can toss 20 briquettes through the fire door and be careful not to snuff out the fire. If your fire is already out, you have to light your briquettes before you toss them into the WSM.
Here’s are a couple of tips if you need ramp up my temps quickly. You can prop a ½ inch piece of wood to keep the WSM dome lid ajar. Alternatively, you can open the WSM fire door and let air in to crank up the temps. With both of these quick fix approaches, do not leave your WSM unattended as the temps could rise fast and you’ll burn your meats.
Seasoning a new WSM
The fastest way to season a new WSM is to do the following:
Phase One – cover the water pan completely with aluminum foil and run a full load of lit Kingsford briquettes and let it run as hot as it can with no water in the pan (over 350 degrees) to burn off any manufacturing residue. Clean out the ash and proceed to phase two.
Phase Two – fill the charcoal basket 1/2 full of unlit briquettes. Then put in a 1/2 chimney of lit Kingsford briquettes in the middle. This will allow a slow burn for 3-5 hours at 72 degrees outside temperature. Adjust the vents to get 275 degrees on the dome thermometer. Put bacon strips, chicken parts, pork fat, or any other scrap meat you don’t plan to eat. The key is to get fatty meats to generate lots of grease. Toss in a couple of tennis-sized wood chunks to generate smoke. Repeat Phase Two at least twice before you cook meat that you want to eat.
Phase Three – When you cook meat you plan to eat, take a tip from me and don’t use any water in the pan. When I cook, I just cover the water pan with foil top and bottom. I foil it twice so I can remove the second layer after the cook and re-foil it. That way, I don’t have to clean my pan. It works just as well, AFTER YOU SEASON YOUR WSM, when you cook without water in the pan. Dry heat allows the crust to form faster on the meat (called the bark). Once the crust forms on the meat, you can introduce moisture. I just spray water with a regular spray bottle to encourage bark formation after the initial crusting (Maillard reaction) has begun. To test for properly formed bark, use your finger nail and scrape the meat surface. If the crust has formed, it will not come off when you gently scrape it with your fingernail. If the crust comes off, the bark has not set (still wet) so don’t spray until it sets. Let it cook longer and check back in 15 mins. You’ll get much better results this way. We’ve won many awards with this technique.
When it comes to cleaning your WSM, never wash the insides. Get a good grill brush and scrape down the insides and dome. You need the “aroma” which takes several years to build up. I NEVER mix my meat WSMs from my seafood and hotdog WSMs. Nothing destroys the aroma faster than cooking fish/seafood/hotdogs in a WSM used to cook chicken, ribs, pork, brisket, and tri tip. That’s why you should buy a pair if you plan to cook seafood/fish/hotdogs. Better yet, get a Weber Kettle for those meats. Remember to always empty the ash from the bottom and grease on the foiled water pan to avoid fires and any rancid old oil smell before you cook. When you need to clean the grates, put the grates in a big plastic trash bag, put on gloves, and spray oven cleaner on the grates while in the bag and let sit for 1/2 hour. Hose off the grates. It’s as easy as that. To clean the outsides, I use Simple Green spray.
Enjoy your WSMs. They are awesome and built to last.