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A little brown egg in Maine: terra cotta smoker

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My fiance has mad cooking skills, but he doesn't have a smoker. I wanted to make him one, but I also wanted it to be good looking in my backyard. Without the funds for a Big Green Egg, I googled "terra cotta smoker", and hit a jackpot. But no instructable! I wanted to make one of those too, so I'd found a twofer.

My favorite site was created by a guy from Atlanta who documented many of his steps, and cooking on it, too. If this instructable can be as helpful to someone else as his site was to me, then I'll be pleased.

 
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Step 1: Assembling the parts

The first step (after prowling the web) was assembling the kit of parts. Here they are, arrayed on my front porch:

on the bottom step, the item I was most worried about finding, the single burner hot plate. The last time I saw something like that , it was an illegal object in my dorm room, in a time before the web. (Yes, I am OLD!) Most web authors claimed I'd need 1000 watts. I found a couple in on-line hardware stores and at Amazon, but for $20 plus shipping. (lower wattage ones were about $14) Since my target total expenditure is $60, and I found a commercial smoker for $38.40 at Home Depot, that was outta budget. But a local remainders store (Big Lots!) had one for $7.99, and another local low-rent chain (Reny's) had one for $9.99. This is a Maine adventure. I figured I needed to have the burner in hand to know the size of the base of the cooker, hoping to find a lot of variety in pots and other enclosures. So I started by spending 8 bucks at Big Lots! (yes, the ! is part of the name)

In the middle, the cookery gear. I found a small saucepan for $2.99 at Christmas Tree Shops a and a "grilling skillet" with folding handle for $3.99. Without their handles, these looked just about right for the wood chips container and the food grill. Also in the middle is a candy/frying thermometer with a range of 100°F - 450°F ($6.99 from a local hardware store), a rubber stopper to hold it ($1.50) and a rubber washer to block the bottom hole. This turned out to be unnecessary in that role but handy in another.

On the top, the pottery. an azalea pot ($9.99) will be the base, and a bulb bowl ($6.99) will be the top. Yes, I made sure the top fit inside the base at the garden store. These are standard unglazed terra cotta pots, roughly 30 cm at the top, with 2.5 cm holes in the bottoms. They might be a bit small for the kind of cooking Phil wants to do, but I'm going to start here and see how it all goes. Oh yeah, the cute little feet were $1.99 each, but who could resist them, and they make a space for the heater cord. So sweet.

Step 2: Remove the handles from the cookery

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Both the saucepan and the grilling skillet had handles that didn't fit this project. The sauce pan handle simple bolted on, so removing it was a cinch. The grilling skillet handle was attached with four rivets. I shaved off the smushed parts with a drill and then hit a punch with a hammer, and they knocked right out. The handle just fell off. That was pretty easy!

Step 3: Start stacking

The base will hold the heating element and the chip container, whence the smoke will come. At first I added a rubber washer to the power cord to block the hole, but this was unnecessary, since the hot plate sat right on the bottom of the base pot. Note that, by adding small slits on opposite sides of the inner hole, I was able to work the washer over the power cord plug to fit tightly onto the power cord.
Notice also (or just believe, because it's hard to see in the picture) that I shaved the ears from the power cord plug so that it would fit through the hole in the base pot.

First the burner goes into the base pot, then the chip container on top of that. The food grill will rest on the top of the base pot.

Step 4: Top it off

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Place the grill on top of the base, then add the top pot.
The top pot will carry the thermometer. I found a solid rubber stopper for the upper hole, but I wanted to put the thermometer through it. By drilling fairly slowly and carefully, I was able to put a hole through the stopper and insert the thermometer so that it will measure about 5 cm below the top of the smoking chamber. If you drill too fast, the rubber will soften and glom up and make a mess. Go slow and be pleased. The friction fit is tight enough so that the thermometer will stay where you put it. The thermometer came with a little strip metal clip intended to hold it on the side of the candy or frying pot, but I used it to snug the thermometer and stopper up to the top pot so that the top could be lifted by grabbing the thermometer. See it, inside the top pot? That works, but adding handles will be better.

Step 5: Just about done!

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Well, all the pieces are in place, and we're ready to plug it in. Looks pretty spiffy.

There's just one wee problem.

There's no way to easily adjust the setting on the hot plate. Unstacking everything and letting it all cool off sounds like a real pain. So, while I took all these pictures, Phil went to the hardware store and got a 3/8 inch glass drill bit to put a hole in the base pot right at the hot plate adjustment knob. Why did I take all these pictures before we put the hole in? Because my pots were still in one piece :-)

Step 6: Drill a hole for the hot plate control

As scary as it seems, drilling into terra cotta is apparently possible. So with his new bit in the chuck, Phil took his best guess at where the hot plate control would be, and he started drilling.

The poodle is NOT inside the pot, no matter what the camera says.

Just drill slowly, work the bit around a little, and it just digs through the soft terracotta. No problem!

And when it was all put back together, the hot plate control peeked through the hole just right! It looks like the smoker has a navel!

We removed the plastic knob and the metal key strip, and added "small flat screwdriver" to the essential smoking equipment list.

Eventually we learned that this seting, a few degrees before horizontal, corresponds to a steady temperature of about 230 F.

Step 7: Time to test

Before committing any meat to this device, we wanted to test it. Here's the test setup, with auxilliary "equipment". A clamp-on ammeter lets us know when current is flowing (we split an extension cord to isolate one side of the circuit.) We also needed a towel for handling the lid, the fire extinguisher, a notebook, and a big bottle of the award-winning Cadillac Mountain Stout to sustain us until supper. (He didn't only go to the hardware store!)

With the hot plate control at about 2/3, the smoker quickly heated to 350 F and stayed there.
It settled into a cycle of 10 seconds on, 30 seconds off.
With the hot plate control back to 1/3, the smoker slowly cooled and never turned on at all.
With the hot plate control at almost 1/2, the smoker heated to 230 degrees, with a cycle of about 10 seconds on and 40 seconds off. Perfect!

But when we added wood chips, we didn't get smoke. Hmph. Clearly we need to do more testing.

Turned out that we needed more heat to get the smoking started, so it's a good thing we added that hole. He cranked it up until we got good puffs of smoke, then turned it down to cook. We had to do that several times during the cooking session of several hours.

Step 8: Problems and Issues

While cooking, we lost quite a bit of smoke around the edge. Wrapping a damp towel around the rim helped some, but I think we need to seal it some way. If we could get a tighter seal, perhaps by finding a grill that sits low enough in the lower pot so that the upper pot sits more securely, the smoking would be better. Is there some heat-resistant, food safe, compliant material that could be put around the edge of the top to make a tighter seal?

Adding handles to the top would be a good modification too. Now that we know we can put holes in the terra cotta, that should be straightforward. Have to go look for some attractive knobs or handles.

The big limitation on this is size. The limit is about 3 chicken breasts. Taste is great, but that's just not enough product for a multi-hour production that needs so much attention. I found some bigger pots, but I didn't find appropriately sized tops. Large pots get expensive, too. And difficult to handle when hot.

So, for functionality, the garbage can versions of this idea, even the cardboard box version, are really better. But my little brown egg does look sweet on the porch, and it helps with portion control :-)
If I find a pair of bigger pots, I can transplant the guts and recycle these as planters.
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bitterbug19 days ago

Link to creator of the Atlanta smoker has been hijacked.

I think a nice flexible silicon sheet would work to cut and make a seal for this great project.
NoVAN8iv2 years ago
To seal the lid better, tear off a length of heavy-duty aluminum foil about equal to the circumference of your cooker, wad up into a "sausage" about 2 inches wide, mold it around the edge of the cooker, then squish the lid down, compressing the aluminum foil "gasket" so it fits snugly between the lid and cooker..
pcorbett3 years ago
I laughed hard when I saw you drilling that pot in your lap. Please don't take this the wrong way, it was funny to me at that moment but wouldn't be funny to you if you slip..........Dig? I'm sorry but it's still funny so please be carefull. pcorbett
Berkana4 years ago
 I recommend that you don't use non-stick or teflon coated pans; when they hit 460 degrees, they start breaking down and giving off toxic smoke. If you're smoking your food, the wood smoke may be obscuring any flavors from the breakdown of the teflon.
datgnat Berkana4 years ago
This is true, & important to know about teflon, real barbequeing (as opposed to grilling) takes place attemps around 220-250 F...
My understanding is that a small cast-iron skillet dedicated for the smoker is the way to go. Garage sales are a great place to find them.
Also suitable are disposable aluminum pie-pans which come in stacks of zillions and are cheap enough that I only re-use them about 4 times before i crumple them up and toss them in with the aluminum cans.
zoof Spokehedz4 years ago
I'm not so sure about disposable aluminum pans -- sandwiched between the heating element and the hardwood, the temperature can get pretty hot at the point of contact. My smoker burned through one of them before my brisket was done. I had to quickly find another solution.
Spokehedz zoof4 years ago
That is strange... I have never had one come close to melting on me before. Then again, I use sawdust from a local furniture shop where they only use hardwoods, and not chunks of hard wood. You can get a cast iron skillet that will never melt, warp, chip, or crack from a local kitchen-supply store... Or that new-fangled world-wide-internets. Guaranteed to last more than your lifetime. http://www.google.com/products?q=cast%20iron%20skillet
You can also use those durable aluminum cake pans which have much thicker metal. They last longer, and the thick metal heats more evenly so all the wood in contact will smoke. With thin metal disposable aluminum pans, you get hot spots.
I made one of these with some minor changes, as I could not find the bowl or grill thermo. I used a smaller pot for the top which sealed it very nicely and i used a temp probe with a brick to limit the amount of smoke that it let out. I have the 1000w hot plate from Wall-greens but my problem is that the thing got WAY TOO HOT. on the lowest setting the temperature kept increasing, so I'd have to unplug/ remove the top. Which of course released all the delicious smoke. and then wait for the temp to fall and then replug the hot plate in. I measured the temp with to different thermometers and they both gave the same reading. What can I do to keep it from getting to hot without creating a thermostat switch? do they sell wimpier hot plates? (<1000w)
Haha, pots still in one piece :D. I guess if they weren't, then you'd have to buy another bottom pot, and then go over budget.
akshay_chak4 years ago
Thanks for a wonderful idea This kinda stuff is getting popular in India now...i mean the bar-be-que and stuff but the traditional earthen oven called the " TANDOOR" had always been a hot favourite . kinda reminds ne of that
jkayner4 years ago
why not just buy an "old smokey" charcoal grill (~$40) and the hotplate and put the hotplate inside the grill? Than you have the best of both worlds.
joelshults4 years ago
We've been using one of these for years after we saw one on Good Eats. We've gone through a couple of hot plates but those are cheap to replace. This thing is great for chicken, ribs, a boston butt, or just about anything else that can handle a nice, slow smoking. We use a cheap hotplate from Walmart or someplace like that, and take the element out (it has a wire that unplugs inside there). Then run that wire through the hole that is already in the bottom of the pot and plug it back into the hotplate. Then you have all of the controls and parts that could be damaged by the heat, smoke, and meat juices safely outside of the smoker. We also use a little, rectangular cast iron pan set directly on top of the element to put the wood chips in.
kmpres4 years ago
I really like this instructable. I used to smoke beer-can chickens in an "all-in-one" smoker before we moved into a new house, but now I don't have space to store it so out it went with the trash on moving day. Pity, as my chickens were soooooo juicy and delicious! This idea could solve that problem as the "egg" could stay in our tiny yard and need not be stored at all. Your smoke generation might work a bit better if you use a cast iron smoke box designed for a kettle BBQ. They're about 4"x6"x1" and might just fit in the saucepan over your heating element. The cast iron will contain and retain the heat for quite a while giving you a more complete burn on the wood. You can even sprinkle a bit of beer in the saucepan from time to time for a lovely beer-steam effect. Love the dog! We have a white miniature poodle just like him. Best pet we've ever had.
mrdiablo94 years ago
Make a basic flour and water dough to make your seal.
quiviran4 years ago
Maybe you could make a gasket out of this stuff? http://sugru.com/
Sugru is not food safe--yet. They are working on it though.

Your best bet would be to get a smaller 'ash grate' from the hardware store which looks like a wee-little version of the grill grates that is intended for people who use chunk charcoal.

Also, you can scale up the pot and everything to quite large sizes and keep the same sized burner. I have quite a large pot where I can fit nearly 4 pork tenderloins with the same size hotplate and pan working just fine. I did have to add a small fan to make the smoke circulate a bit.
jamina4 years ago
Silicon is your food safe, heat resistant material.
What if you got a LARGER pot for the lid? This would make it easier to grab using pot holders, so no handles needed...
Actually, a larger pot for the lid could also rest on the lip of the lower one, so that there is a better seal as well. The problem with this setup is that any condensate that forms on the lid will run down and to the outer lip on the top pot lip. But yes, I agree, this could be a better setup. Maybe construct some kind of clothes hanger hook system, mounted in the lip of the top pot lip for lifting. That way no mess from inside of lid, and a cool way to remove instantly.
BeeRich4 years ago
Try stuffing aluminum foil around the sides. In the commercially available smoking world (Weber Smokey Mountain, etc.), the forum guys use foil to seal up holes, lids, etc.
rhbama134 years ago
Thank you Alton Brown.
I was thinking the exact same thing. This instructable is great, but Brown detailed everything a person would need on the show, and it can be found in "I'm Just Here For The Food" as well his website. And this isn't to take away from prof_jellis, excellent documentation and wonderful pics. This is something simple that just about anybody can pull off and when a person is done with smoking that meat, just repurpose the pots!
This is Alton Brown's smoker. He created it a few years ago in his show "Good Eats" Alton is a Culinary God.
w0x0f4 years ago
You can buy rubber stoppers with holes at places that sell wine-making supplies.
speedysk14 years ago
I'm not certain, but do you like Guinness? ;) Great Instructable!
gaffertape4 years ago
To seal between the two pots, try rolling up a bunch of aluminium foil. It compresses under the weight of the top pot to make a reasonable seal. Its food safe, and it will handle the heat well. Thanks for the instructable.
Ericc8154 years ago
I will relate an extremely effective smoker built by a friend more than 30 years ago... take a tall school locker, line it with foil covered fiberglass HVAC insulation duct material, mount window screen over all the louvers, and install toaster oven in bottom... set bake thermostat and put small pan of wet wood chips into toaster oven, and thermometer thru wall near the top will give you accurate reading on your progress.
dacker Ericc8154 years ago
Alton Brown did this in a junkyard episode sometime in the last 5-8 years. Maybe he stole the idea from your friend?! I'd probably sandblast the interior to remove the paint before heating it with my food inside.
sounds tasty
srharvey4 years ago
You typically find pots with matching drip trays that go under them, why not use a large trap as a lid on a larger/deeper pot to keep the weight of the lid down to a minimum. Make 2 or 3 more and then you can experiment with doing small batches of different woods / spices to make a whole feast at once. Loved the instructions.
lej6194 years ago
interesting I wonder how well it would work with say.. charcoal? line the bottom with tin foil. put the charcoal on top of the tin foil you could still use the "grilling skillet ". as for the pan on the bottom you would not need it. just put the wood chips right in with the charcoal. Yes?? nice idea might just have to try it, maybe with the charcoal in stead tho.
srharvey lej6194 years ago
With charcoal you need to be able to regulate the air flow into the coals to regulate the heat. So drill some more holes and make some sort of damper.
srharvey4 years ago
Why not push the rubber stopper through from the inside (like / \ vs \ / from the outside) that way it can't be pulled up out of the lid when lifting it? I think the risks of smashing your pot out weight the risk of loosing your stopper into the smoker.
skidoggeruk4 years ago
How about getting a bung from a local homebrew shop? Bungs for use with airstops already have a hole in them. Would that do?
I think I know why you'renot getting smoke. Unlike the hotplates we used "back in the day" these have a safety chip in therm to keep them from overheating and catching fire.... However! you can just hack the case of the hotplate (some more) and extend that sensor out through that bottom hole. I saw it done either on here or another hack site, but I can't find it right now. Thanks for the inspiration! I'm thinking of making one this weekend, now to replace my old one.
The smoker looks like a fun project....but the main props goto sticking a Guinness bottle in just about every shot. Loves me the Guinness a PROUD member of the 1759 society....lol. Thanks for sharing your project.
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