Monday, March 29, 2010

Total Failure

This weekend I ruined a perfectly good batch of sausage by trying to be clever. Call it the just reward for the sin of Pride. I had nailed this batch. My test patty tasted exactly like I wanted and was flat out delicious. I had formed the sausages into extremely nice individual sized ropes that were going to make a beautiful presentation. I was going to be bragging about this sausage; “Look at me, look at what I can do!” And so the Lord says, “Well clever little man, let’s make you a little too clever.”

I smoke my sausage on an 18 inch Weber Smokey Mountain bullet. The WSM is awesome by every single measure except for surface area. You can only fit so much meat on an 18 inch grate and sometimes that just isn’t enough. When I am working with ropes of sausage they typically weigh about a pound and I can only fit two at a time on the grate. This means I have to do multiple batches which takes a 2-3 hour process and stretches it out to 6-8 hours. I decided to eliminate this headache by not using the grate. I bought an 18 inch length of a 3/16” stainless steel rod and hung all of my ropes from the rod. I rested the rod on the tabs that the top grate rests on so that all of the sausage was hanging just below the top grate. I had made my ropes much smaller than usual so their bottoms would hang several inches above the bottom grate and water pan. I then placed a thermometer into a sausage link and placed the single link on the top grate. I fired up the smoker and let it run gentle for a few hours until the sausage on the top grate read 168F (yep, I overcooked it…got distracted with other stuff).

I brought my rod of sausage into the kitchen to cool while I munched on the link that I had used to monitor temperature. I took a few pictures and was quite smug with my cleverness. It wasn’t until a few hours later when I went to slice some up for my neighbor that I realized just how bad I had screwed up.

There is a temperature gradient in the WSM and the magnitude and DIRECTION of the gradient are dictated by how you use the water pan. Some people run the water pan empty, some fill it with water, some fill it with sand and cover with foil….there are ~20 different variations and each gives a different operating characteristic. There are no right or wrong answers to the water pan question, just different approaches. My approach is to place a 16 inch heavy ceramic saucer in the pan. One result of this approach, which I had forgotten, is that the resulting temperature gradient is inverted. The temperature a few inches away from my water pan is actually lower than the temperature at my top grate. Significantly lower. The end result is that my hanging sausages were overcooked at the top (farthest from the fire) and were still raw at the bottom of the rope (closest to the water pan). Judging on the different degrees of doneness in my sausage I am going to estimate that they were exposed to a 30-50 degree temperature gradient while being smoked.

Time to be humble again. I obviously still have much to learn.


  1. The first time I tried to cure something, I made peperone out the the Charcuterie book. It was a lot of effort to grow some fuzzy mold. I feel your pain.

    Maybe you could finish them off in water, kind of homemade sous vide. Put them in a ziploc and then in a water bath that is 155 to 160 degrees. The cooked part won't over cook and the raw part will come up to temp.

  2. Jon,

    That sounds like an excellent idea, thanks for suggesting! I have to admit though, at this point I am so disgusted with myself that I have this marked down as 5 lbs of Golden Retriever treats!

  3. Nice looking links! I thought the idea sounded great, until you mentioned the gradient. So I can't blame ya!

  4. Sorry to hear that you lost a batch. I had similar problems with old log burner. Here's how I solved it:

    I bought a remote "probe"-style thermometer and stuck the probe though a potato so that the end stuck out the other side. Then I placed it at various locations in my pit while holding a steady temp of 250 degrees on the main gauge to "map" the temperature zones on my cooking surface.

    I found that when the main gauge in the lid read 250, that I was running 325 at the inlet nest to the fire box and 215-225 at the far end. Once you know your zones, you can compensate for them and occasionally use them to your advantage.

    Hope that helps,