Drumming Up Some BBQ
Traditional BBQ is low and slow cooking, using low heat over a long time to turn tough cuts of meat into culinary gold. Staying up all night tending a fire was right of passage for many BBQ cooks, and a staple of BBQ competitions.
Today the notion that you have to cook BBQ under 250 degrees to produce tender and tasty Q is being challenged. As it turns out, cooking low just … makes things take longer.
Hot and fast techniques will let you cook a full packer brisket in 4-5 hours, or a pork butt in 4 hours.
Traditional cookers are often large enough to cook multiple contest categories on a single cooker. These cookers often have insulation to help keep heat in over a long cook cycle, and heat diverters than separate the heat source from the cooking area. The large size, insulation, and materials means these cookers can be expensive, heavy, and difficult to move around.
The move to hot and fast saw the introduction of cookers that are less complex, smaller, and lighter in the form of the drum cooker. Drum cookers are direct cookers, running at 275-450 degrees for a shorter period of time. Drums don’t need heat diverters, and given the shorter cooking cycle, they don’t really need insulation to be efficient. This means drums are smaller, lighter, and less expensive than their low and slow counterparts. Competition teams often take advantage of the smaller size and cost to specialize and use one cooker per contest category. Even though you may have to buy more cookers, the total cost and weight still tends to be advantageous vs. the traditional large low and slow cooker.
Drums, as direct cookers, also behave a little more like a grill. Hot fat drips directly on the fire. Drum aficionados will tell you this imparts a grill-like aroma and flavor to BBQ.
Like all cookers, knowing the cooker and how it behaves is the key to success. Drums do have a learning curve. If you want to take the plunge and experiment with hot and fast, these tips will help you get started.
- Drums don’t need a lot of wood.Fill your drum basket with charcoal, and 2-3 chunks of wood.That is all you need.
- Light your drum right in the middle with a Firestarter cube or a small torch.Once the fire gets to about the size of a softball, put on the lid and bring the drum up to temp.Many hot and fast cooks aim for 300 degrees in the drum.
- Drums can generate a lot of heat quickly. That's why hot and fast cooks love them but it can be too much of a good thing. If too much charcoal gets lit, it can be hard to control the drum.You want enough charcoal lit to hold the temp steady.If too much gets lit, you will find yourself adjusting the vents constantly and chasing the target temp.Once the drum is lit, giving it only a little air and allowing the drum at least 5 minutes to respond to a vent change will give you more control.If your temp is bouncing up and down, try starting out with less air going into the cooker and coming up to temp slowly.A drum should be at cooking temp at about an hour.While you can come up to temp faster than that, you may have control issues.
- The lid is a giant air vent.Plan your cook to minimize the amount of time the lid stays open. Keeping the lid open more than ten seconds will make it hard to control your drum.When you open the lid…the temp drops because you opened the lid.Then the temp spikes up, due to the air you let in while the lid was open.Resist the temptation to adjust your vents in response to either of these.Just let the drum settle back to where it was.
- Hinges are overrated. Many drums don’t attach the lid to the drum.A few brands do, and there are lots of aftermarket hinge kits to add a hinge to your lid. Resist the temptation. The exhaust vent is an airflow control mechanism, you want to be able to move it around.On drums with dual inputs, closing one input and positioning the lid so the exhaust is opposite the open input will give you more control in a high wind situation.
- The exhaust vent on a drum creates a hot spot underneath it. Take care not to position delicate things like a pork "money muscle" directly under the exhaust. Move the lid or the grate to prevent this from happening.
- The air input is the only control you need – draft controllers aren’t needed with a drum.
- Drums have different levels for grates but given the issues with leaving the lid open a long time, many drum cooks opt to buy enough drums to cook what they need on the top grate only.
Practice! There is a learning curve with the drum but learn to use it properly and you will be rewarded with delicious BBQ in a shorter time.
Keep it clean. There is no grease tray on a drum. Grease will end up at the bottom. Cleaning the drum out every 3 cookers or so and re-seasoning with cooking spray will help keep your drum in great shape. Unlike traditional cookers, there is really no need to have a break-in cook. Clean, spray, and cook.