A little brown egg in Maine: terra cotta smoker

Picture of a little brown egg in Maine: terra cotta smoker
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.

Step 1: Assembling the parts

Picture of 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.
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M F5 years ago
yes, it is a good idea to consider what materials give off toxic gasses. don't use glazed pots. unless you are sure they don't have lead or cadmium in the glaze. also don't use regular rubber stoppers. they give off toxic fumes. Ps: I use the heat elements out of the George Forman Grills. Lean Mean Grillin Machine. They are always available at thrift stores by the bunch. 2 to 10 dollars.
ceekay5 years ago
Brilliant idea. Pretty too.
feltonite5 years ago
All in all, a good instructible, with one exception. It's not a good idea to hold your project in your lap while using a power drill on it. One slip of the drill could be disastrous.
Sequimania5 years ago
You can buy oven seals at parts stores. Trim to fit the circumference of your pot, glue on and it should provide you with a reasonable seal. In August garden supplies go on sale and it will be cheaper to pick up a bigger pot if you wait until then. CostCo sometimes has big Italian clay planters for a very low price. With a big pot I would use a saucer for the top - less weight to pick up and hold while you're checking out dinner. Thanks for the Instructable.
Killians Red goes good with these also.
jimheinen5 years ago
Another way to control the heat is to use a dimmer control. Get a heavy duty one that can handle the current. Wire it in the cord to the hot plate and you can control the heat with a knob.
79spitfire6 years ago
Putting the rubber stopper in the freezer overnight will make it easier to drill.
Nice tip on drilling the stopper!
rickym5 years ago
So i have been wanting to make one for a while now but i just got a guestion how do you tell when the pork is done?
yoyology5 years ago
I want to congratulate you on a clear, concise Instructable, an attractive finished product, and an excellent choice of object for comparing scale. :-)
pdehay6 years ago
I really love this project and will probably try to make one when time permits, but i would personally shy away from any nonstick coatings on the bottom sauce pan as these coatings can become volatile if heated for long and high enough.
jimahs6 years ago
Rather than taking the handles off a pan and a grilling skillet, I used a heavy duty pie pan and a small grill. Both should be cheaper than your options. The grills can be found at any hardware store's BBQ dept.
tandem256 years ago
Teflon coated pans really shouldn't be used for this project or any other that is similar in nature. Before you respond... I know that it can be safe up to 600 degrees. But why take your chances? Or the people that you are feeding. Use an iron skillet or stainless steel pan. They can both last forever. Using anything galvanized, cad, or zinc plated is just as dangerous in the long run. They can be used for exterior hardware. Now that I've been critical, I'd like to say that this is a wonderful pit. very industrious.
Mandrew6 years ago
Shouldn't silicone caulking work well to seal the lip. It's good up to 675°F (357°C) and is totally safe for food. You could even eat it. If you were to lubricate the lid, and apply a seal along the inside of the pot, then apply the lid, you could allow it to set in place. You might want to lift it off and let the silicone caulk set not attached. Hope I help.
draconis936 years ago
I was wondering if polymer clay would work since the heat would harden. Therefore a seal can be made to fit. Thank you so much for your post of all the terra cotta smokers on here I really like this.
marcintosh6 years ago
You mention- "So, for functionality, the garbage can versions of this idea, ". Please do not cook in a galvanized container. The fumes are quite poisonous. Instead, just make another system so you have twice the finished product Try using a small charcoal grill insert and ditch that black punctured platter to get a better seal. You know, one of the $2.99 ones you get at the China store. I appreciate the glass bit for drilling terra cotta. Thanks M,.
It takes galvanized metal 900 F before they will off gas heavy metals. As we are smoking at about 220F, there is hardly any danger. Just be sure to use a new, clean can. The best home made smokers I have seen were made from old 120 gallon propane tanks. They require the use of welding equipment and some serious welding skills but they work the best.
trebuchet038 years ago
Hello, please add an image to the introduction step. I'm unpublishing this for now -- once you've made this correction, republish and I will delete this note.
prof_jellis (author)  trebuchet037 years ago
hm ... i don't know why it took me so long to get back to this. it stayed unpublished all summer, and someone else published something really similar in July. fooey on me! his is pretty good, and it includes recipes and food pix, so maybe I should pull this. Mine does address the issue of of how to adjust the hotplate during smoking, so maybe that's a worthwhile addition. Is there an instructables policy on close copies?
This was done on the Food Network. It's always helpful to see different versions. Everyone adds something new. Eventually we have "Perfection!" Thanks.
Is there an instructables policy on close copies?

Nope - always welcome :D
prof_jellis (author)  trebuchet037 years ago
I just found the answer in the "Life's Burning Questions" area. Cool. Thanks for the quick reply.
weconway8 years ago
Wow, I'm the guy from Atlanta, and I'm glad I was so helpful. I keep burning out my pie plates, so your idea to use a cheapo pot is brilliant. I'm going to run to get one before smoking season really picks up!
I found a small cast iron skillet that I use in place of a pie pan. It works beautifully, and is still going strong after 3 years of heavy use.
Actually, the thick pan being used is the likely culprit for the lack of smoke. Pie plates work great, because they transfer the heat to the wood more efficiently. Make sure you soak the wood chips... they should smolder, not burn. Most people soak for at least one hour prior to use, and it's not uncommon to have to restock during the smoking process. You might also find a better seal around the edge by trying some sort of round cookie-cooling rack that's a little smaller... or get your husband to use some more of his power tools, and trim the edge down on that food grill you have. And, since he's so good at drilling holes, try making an adjustable vent on the side, just slightly below the level of the wood chip holder... which will increase the oxygen flow, while not letting all the heat out the top, where the food is. Oh, and don't forget that a good marinade/brine will make or break the end flavor! (i grew up in Alaska, and we smoked a lot of fish.)
Ima_user7 years ago
re: a food-safe material for sealing - How about the silicone that is used for baking pans, etc? Perhaps you can use one of these and cut strips that will give you a better seal?
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