Saturday, 17 June 2017

My Cooks - Smoked Chicken Wings, May 2017

This is the first time I post about my own smoking efforts.  My current cooker is a cheap, hardware store offset smoker.  It is made of thin metal and is designed for charcoal use.  I decided a while back that I wanted to try cooking by burning just wood and not charcoal.  I was able to find a firewood supplier that sells oak, unfortunately they are located just south of Edmonton.  A few weeks back I found myself up that way on a work trip and I was able to stop in there to stock up.  Of course, the firebox on my smoker is small, so I had to cut down the wood to make it fit.

It took a bit of work to get the fire going, but I was eventually able to get the smoker up to temperature.  I had hoped to maintain a temperature of around 250 degrees.  This cook was also my first opportunity to use the iGrill temperature sensor I got for Christmas.  I picked up an ambient temperature probe for it about a month ago so mounted the probe at the far end of the cooking area and set the iGrill for a temperature range between 225 and 275 degrees.  The iGrill syncs to your smartphone with bluetooth, so you can monitor your temperatures from a distance and also receive warnings when the temperature falls outside the range you set.  You can plug in up to 4 probes at once, allowing me to monitor the temperature inside the smoker as well as up to 3 different pieces of meat.

I wanted to test things out with something fairly simple and quick, so I opted for some chicken wings.  Something else I tried out for the first time was brining.  Austin's favourite Hardcore Carnivore, Jess Pryles, has posted a recipe for some buffalo chicken tenders that she brined in a buttermilk and hot sauce mixture.  I modified the recipe a little, adding just a few dashes of the hot sauce since I'm the only one in my family that likes spicy food.  My schedule only allowed me to have the wings in the brine for a few hours, so I don't know how much it added, but they did stay moist.  An overnight brine the next time should help even more.  I pulled the wings out of the brine, added some seasoning and onto the smoker they went.

Brined, seasoned and ready for some smoke!

I put a foil pan filled with water on the grill, closest to the firebox to keep more moisture in the cooker as well.  The lid on my smoker doesn't seal very tight, but I have found that a couple of paving stones on top of the lid helps keep it closed a little better!
I mentioned that I was trying to cook with just wood for the first time and I did find it quite a challenge to keep the temperature within my desired range and I was constantly having to adjust the dampers.

I let the wings cook for about 2 hours before checking on them.  The ones closer to the firebox were certainly more cooked than the others.  I moved them around a bit and at this point I slid meat probes into a couple of the wings and closed the lid for a while longer.  After another 45 minutes or so I was comfortable that the wings were cooked.  The problem with doing chicken at a lower temperature like this is that the skin doesn't crisp up.  That may be ok on a whole chicken where you can just not eat the skin, but that doesn't really work on wings!

I pulled the wings off the smoker, tossed them in some barbecue sauce and put them in the oven at high heat to crisp them up.

Smoked BBQ Wings

The Outcome: They were tasty.  Good, but not great.  I actually found the smoke flavour to be overpowering.

Next time out I will try a couple of things differently.  As I mentioned earlier, I'll brine them overnight and the other thing I'll try is to just have them on the smoker for about an hour to get some smoke flavour on the meat, but then I will finish them either on the grill or in the oven.

My other takeaway from this cook is that I need to spend more time figuring out how to maintain a steady temperature using strictly wood for fuel as opposed to charcoal.  Hopefully I can find an afternoon soon to just fire up the smoker and play around with holding the temp.  I also have some modifications in mind for it that hopefully will help.

I'll keep you all posted and I'll have some other posts up soon on some previous cooks!

Wednesday, 7 June 2017


The famous Franklin sign

Aaron Franklin.  In just a few short years, the name has become synonymous with barbecue excellence.  His restaurant in Austin is as famous for its brisket as it is for the daily hours long lineup to get a taste of it.  They insist on using only the highest quality meats and smoke that brisket for up to 18 hours.

Reading Franklin's book, Franklin Barbecue - a meat smoking manifesto, you find out that the insistence on using only the best extends to the post oak used to slow smoke that marvellous meat.  Aaron worked tirelessly in his early days of business to find a wood supplier that could consistently provide him with the best possible product.  The attention to detail starts with the wood and the fire and extends to every process of the cook.

The day before, while in Taylor, I bought a cheap folding camp chair at Walmart.  I planned to be in line early Sunday morning and I didn't want to stand or sit on the ground.  The evening before, I had stopped by the Franklin location on my way to Stiles Switch, just to check out the spot and the parking situation.  At that point I noticed that they have a corral full of camp chairs for the guests to use while in line.  Luckily the chair only cost $10, so not a big deal!

I set my alarm for early Sunday morning and grabbed a couple of pastries, a yogurt and an apple from the hotel continental breakfast on my way out the door.  Franklin talks about the daily line up in his book and I had been reading about it on Twitter for months.  The line up has its own Twitter feed and I had heard stories of people paying others to stand in line for them.  It was also a weekend, so the line up would be longer than on a weekday.  From what I had heard and read, I expected the line up to start 4 or 5 hours before the 11:00 am opening.  I pulled into the parking lot about 6:30 am...crickets.  Nobody in sight.  Not another car in the parking lot.  My immediate thought was that I could have slept more.  I stayed in the car and ate my breakfast.  Within 10 or 15 minutes, two other cars pulled, much to my relief!  I finished my yogurt, grabbed a chair from the corral and got into the lineup.  6:45 am and I was the third chair in line!

6:45 a.m. The view of the door from my spot in line

The folks ahead of me were a husband and wife from Connecticut.  She had been to Franklin before but this was his first time.  The other car was a younger couple from a little ways outside Austin.  He was headed off to Arizona for school and wanted to hit Franklin one more time before going away, so he and his girlfriend had made a weekend trip.  You see, the Franklin lineup has kind of become a thing of its own.  I mentioned the Twitter feed.  They have a sign on the wall letting guests know that the line is BYOB friendly.  As the line grew longer and longer that morning, people were making a social event out of it.  A young couple a little ways back from my spot in line were drinking bloody mary's.  They had recently moved to Austin from Florida and spent a good amount of time talking with two guys ahead of them in line about the local bbq scene.  Groups were using their coolers for card games.  It was a really neat scene.  Around 8 o'clock the staff turned on some music and shortly after someone came out to let us know that a door was unlocked and we could go in to use the washroom if needed.  The cash was also open for those wanting to buy souvenirs prior to opening (hat and t-shirt added to the collection!).

Pictures of the growing line up

The great thing that they do is around 9:00 or 9:30, a staff member comes out and starts going person by person through the lineup, taking an inventory of what everyone figures they will be ordering, and how much.  Using this info, they will cut off the line at some point, letting anyone beyond that point know that they will likely not get any food that day.  The downside of low and slow cooked barbecue is that when it is all gone, it is all gone.  There is no throwing a few more steaks on the grill.  Since opening the restaurant around 2010, Franklin Barbecue has sold out of barbecue every day.  The previous day's sold out sign was still up on the door when I got there.  Closer to opening time, someone else came out selling beer and a few times during the line up staff came out, greeting the guests, answering questions and making sure everyone was doing ok.  From a business model standpoint, I would say they have about mastered the whole guest experience thing.  The lineup creates a buzz of its own and their actions help make it a fun, friendly and social experience.

With all of that said however, the lineup and the buzz would not exist without the food.  If the barbecue wasn't any good, none of it would happen.  The lineups started before Franklin had moved into the current building.  The restaurant started out as a trailer that Aaron and his wife Stacy had built into a food truck.  Shortly after opening, Daniel Vaughn gave them a glowing review and the rest is history!

A few minutes before 11:00, the chairs made their way back into the corral and we stood, eagerly awaiting the main door being unlocked.  Finally, it was time.  After almost 4.5 hours in line, I will admit that I was a little bit giddy with anticipation!

Just moments before opening!

The door opened and in we went, along the back wall and past the souvenir display and then down the side wall up to the counter to order.  I placed my order, watching the cutter expertly slice the brisket and pork ribs that I ordered.  A side of baked beans, white bread and pickles on the side along with a mini pecan pie for dessert.

My Franklin spread.

I joined the Connecticut couple at a table and it was time to eat.  The previous day, I had eaten brisket at two of the finest BBQ joints in Texas and it was outstanding.  Somehow, this was just a little bit better.  It is tough to explain just how, but it was.  It is also difficult to explain how a simple piece of bbq meat is worth waiting 4.5 hours in line for, but it was.  The pork ribs were outstanding in their own right, but the brisket was the star of the show.  Franklin uses a 50/50 salt and pepper rub on the brisket and it is elegant in its simplicity.  The beans were good, the pie was excellent (not house made, they bring it in from a local bakery), but the rest of the meal was overshadowed by the fabulousness of the brisket.

I'm happy to say that I have experienced the Franklin line, and I would absolutely eat there again...just not sure I'll wait 4.5 hours in line again. The food was outstanding and the whole experience was first rate.  In 2013, Texas Monthly named them the top BBQ joint in Texas and the new rankings released just a couple of weeks ago have them at number 2.  In my mind, they are undeniably deserving of such lofty status and braving the Franklin line up is a BBQ bucket list item I'm happy to cross off my list!