A Little Brown Egg in Maine: Terra Cotta Smoker

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Introduction: 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

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

Step 2: Remove the Handles From the Cookery

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

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!

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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    66 Comments

    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.

    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..

    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

     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.

    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.

    user

    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.

    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