In life, there are few things that bring me as much joy as a perfectly cooked meal. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve amassed a larger grill collection than anyone I know. Women have purse collections or shoe collections. I have a grill collection.
I love cooking, and in the summer, I especially love grilling.
But there’s one area that up until a month ago, was notably absent from my quiver of cooking skills. Smoking. No, I’m not referring to smoking of the nicotine variety that ends in a bout of lung cancer, I’m talking about smoking of the hardwood variety, where you take a tough, typically undesirable piece of meat and cook it all day at extremely low temperatures. It might be a pork shoulder, it might be a beef brisket. But if you do it right, the result is always the same: an absolutely gorgeous piece of smoke infused meat so tender you can quite literally cut it with a fork.
I don’t know why I never learned to smoke. Part of it was probably because I’m from the Midwest, where smoking and barbecue are much lesser known than they are in the South. And part of it was because of the difficulty I thought was inherently built into smoking. Picking the right wood, keeping temperatures stable, etc. all seemed like an exceptionally difficult task for a home cook, not to mention the smokers themselves. I’ve been to barbecue competitions and I’ve seen the smokers – these aren’t smokers you throw on your deck or in your outdoor kitchen. These are huge smokers pulled behind pickup trucks.
Then something happened. Call it fate, call it divine intervention or call it luck. A new restaurant opened 10 minutes from my house. The owner – a Tennessee native who recently relocated to the Midwest, opened a small restaurant with a cuisine focused on one thing and one thing alone: barbecue.
Before I go any further, I should tell you that despite my lack of smoking experience, I love barbecue. I lived in the South for a little less than 10 years and ate my fair share of barbecue, so when the new restaurant with actual southern barbecue opened, I was ecstatic, to say the least.
Needless to say, I became a regular at the restaurant and became great friends with the chef/owner. One day, over a perfectly smoked brisket, I asked what his secret was for cooking the meat, and we began a long conversation on the fundamentals of smoking.
Long story short, he told me it came down to the heat. For brisket, pork shoulder, etc., he explained that you need a method to sustain an extended cooking time – anywhere from 8 to 16 hours – at temps in the 200-240 degree Fahrenheit range. He recommended lump hardwood charcoal to accomplish the aforementioned heat. The smoke, he told me, was a separate entity. Once you’ve got the temperature nailed down, which creates the tender, succulent meat, then you focus on the smoke flavor, by adding hardwood chunks that have been soaked to the already burning charcoal. Because they’re soaked they don’t burn, so they don’t affect cooking temperature. Their singular purpose is just to smoke and add flavor to the meat.
He noted there are variations to the formula, but this was one of the ways – and one of the most foolproof ways – to prepare great smoked meat.
And then, as if he was reading my mind, he told me I could do it at home. He asked if I had ever heard of the Big Green Egg, to which I responded “the Big Green what?”
We talked for another 30 minutes, and by the end of the day, I was officially a member of the Big Green Egg family.
What is the Big Green Egg
So what exactly is the Big Green Egg? From a classification standpoint, it’s what’s known as a kamado style cooker, one of the oldest cooking vessels in existence (some clay kamados dating back over 3,000 years have been discovered in Asia). But in more modern terms, the Big Green Egg and it’s kamado heritage can really be summed up as three things in one: it’s a smoker, it’s a grill, and it’s an oven.
Most importantly, however, isn’t just that it does all three – it’s that it does all three with an equal dose of perfection.
But before we get into the individual cooking elements, let’s talk briefly about it’s build. Big Green Eggs are constructed from a remarkably robust ceramic that appears, as you may have guessed from the name, egg-like in shape. The Big Green Egg’s ceramic is incredibly tough (so t0ugh, in fact, that they come with lifetime warranties), it’s impervious to weather (meaning you can use the Egg in the dead of winter without fear of cracking), and most importantly, it boasts amazing heat retention capabilities.
Fueling the Big Green Egg is accomplished with your choice of charcoal or hardwood, while precise temperature control is accomplished by adjusting either the lower flow draft door or the upper metal top control (we’ll talk more about temperature control in a second). Other features of the Big Green Egg include spring assisted lids on the two largest models to make opening and closing the Egg easy for anyone, as well as a built-in thermometer to allow you to accurately view the Egg’s cooking temps.
Smoking on the Big Green Egg
Talking about construction features is one thing, but the true test of the Big Green Egg (and any cooking device for that matter) is how well it actually cooks. I told you earlier that the Big Green Egg is a smoker, a grill and an oven all in one. And it is. But for me, the Big Green Egg is first and foremost a smoker. When I purchased the Egg I already owned other grills that I was happy with, but talking to my friend/barbecue master, it was him extolling the smoking virtues of the Big Green Egg that sold me on it. He told me it’s simply impossible to get the same results out of a standard grill. And he was right. Temperature control and ease-of-use and are absolutely impeccable.
There’s no better testament to this fact than in describing my first time smoking with the Big Green Egg (it’s a little long, but bear with me).
I’m always up for a challenge, so in setting out to smoke for the first time, I wanted to try something difficult. My cut of choice: beef brisket. Widely regarded as one of the most difficult cuts of meat to get right, it was brisket that would be my first forray into the world of smoking.
Step one was prepping the meat. The day prior to cooking, the brisket was given a spice rub, wrapped in plastic and placed in the fridge. Total time: 10 minutes, at most.
Step two, the next morning, was filling the Big Green Egg with charcoal. To do so, I used Big Green Egg’s own brand of hardwood lump charcoal, dumped straight from the bag into the Egg’s fire pit. Unsure of how much to use, I completely filled the fire pit, and against the online advice of other Egg owners, I didn’t take the time to sort any of the charcoal by size. Total time: 15 seconds.
Step three was lighting the fire. I used a single Big Green Egg fire starter, placed in the center of the charcoal, slightly buried. Total time: 10 seconds.
Step four was getting the temperature to optimal smoking range (remember, you want a temp consistently in the 200-240 degree Fahrenheit range). To do so, I let the fire burn for roughly 10 minutes with the Egg’s lid open, then closed the lid to get a temperature reading from the thermometer. As the needle rose at a relatively slow pace, I started closing the upper and lower draft doors. Rather than letting it heat up too much, I let the temperature slowly creep up, closing the vents more and more as the the temp increased. By the time the temperature reached 200 degrees, the lower vent was open about 1/8″, and the top vent was closed with the micro adjustment open a little less than half way. The temperature rose to about 220 degrees and stopped. Total time: about 5 minutes.
Step five was adding the hardwood chunks and grate. I had taken the brisket out about an hour prior to let it warm to room temperature, at which time I also began soaking two fist size chunks of hardwood for smoking. Once I had the temperature stabilized on the Big Green Egg, I took the brisket, hardwood chunks, and an aluminum drip pan out to the Egg, along with what’s called a plate setter. The plate setter is also sold by Big Green Egg, and it’s very similar to a pizza stone, except it has legs. I placed the hardwood chunks on the burning charcoal, set the plate setter over the fire with legs facing up, and set the drip pan on the plate setter to catch grease from the brisket. Lastly, the Egg’s grate was put in place, resting on the plate setter’s legs. Total time: 1 minute.
Step 6 was adding the brisket. Proper brisket includes a thick layer of fat on one side. Some say cook with it down, some say cook with it up. I recommend the latter. With the fat up, as the brisket cooks, the juices flow into the meat, in essence basting the meat the entire time it’s cooking. I placed my brisket fat side up, directly over the drip pan, and closed the lid. Total time: 10 seconds.
Step 7 is waiting. If you’ve been keeping track, actual time prepping and getting your meat smoking has taken less than 15 minutes. And here’s where the true beauty of the Big Green Egg comes into play: you’re virtually finished. Once you have your temperature controlled and everything in place, the Big Green Egg goes into autopilot. For the next 4 hours, I didn’t touch it. The temperature sat between 210 and 230 degrees. It was simply amazing. At four hours, I opened the Egg, flipped the brisket, closed it and cooked it for another hour.
Step 8 (optional) is wrapping the brisket in foil. At the recommendation of my friend, after a little more than five hours, I took the brisket (which was a gorgeous brown at this point) and wrapped it in aluminum foil. I then placed it back in the Big Green Egg and cooked it for another 7 hours, which is the time it took for the brisket’s internal temp to hit 190 degrees. And did I mention I never touched the fire? For twelve hours straight, the Big Green Egg held its temperature steady at the perfect smoking range.
Step 9 is the joy of perfection. Once the brisket hit 190 degrees, I took it out of the Egg and let it rest for an hour in a cooler (which in this case, the cooler helped keep the brisket warm). After the rest period, I took the brisket out, unwrapped it, and the result was absolutely incredible. A mouth-watering piece of brisket so perfectly tender I could cut it with a fork. And this from someone who had never smoked anything in his life.
You may be wondering why I went into such detail about how I smoked my brisket, and the answer is simple. I wanted to demonstrate how easy smoking with the Big Green Egg really is. Prior to the Big Green Egg, I thought smoking was a craft that would take years to perfect, but in truth, the Big Green Egg makes it possible to get incredible results from day one. No experience needed. The way that it manages to maintain a stable temperature for such an extended period of time without the need to refuel can only be described as magic. You can literally take 15 minutes to prep a piece of meat and fire up the Big Green Egg, and with a couple checks throughout the day, have an absolutely mouth watering piece of meat as the end result.
It’s simply astonishing.
Of course, smoking on the Big Green Egg isn’t relegated to brisket. Since my brisket adventure, I’ve smoked salmon, pork butt and ribs, all have turned out beautifully. In a word, the Big Green Egg is amazing. From a recommendation standpoint, the smoking element in and of itself makes the Big Green Egg worth the price of admission, even if you already own another grill.
Grilling on the Big Green Egg
Speaking of grilling, if you’re familiar with grilling on other charcoal grills then you’re familiar with grilling on the Big Green Egg. Fill with hardwood lump charcoal, light with either a fire starter or chimney, give the coals 10-15 minutes to get hot, and you’re good to go.
Grilling with charcoal is my preferred way of grilling, so it’s no surprise I love grilling on the Big Green Egg. Lump hardwood charcoal burns incredibly hot if you allow it to, so for steaks or other foods that you want to sear, you can easily reach temperatures of 750 degrees with the Egg. Best of all is that due to the Egg’s ceramic construction and its fantastic heat retention, you can sear your food, then dial down the temperature to finish off your meats at lower temperatures. The Egg acts like a convection oven, so your meat stays juicier, more tender and more flavorful.
For more delicate foods, such as many seafood options, the temperature control is equally as superb for grilling as it is for smoking. Adjust the upper and lower dampers and you have precise temperature control for any type of food you can grill, from supremely low to supremely high (and everything in between).
How good is the Big Green Egg as a grill? It’s absolutely superb. I could easily replace my other grills with the Big Green Egg and be perfectly content. Coming from someone that loves grills and has amassed an impressive assortment of them, this is really one of the highest compliments I can give.
Baking with the Big Green Egg
Just when you thought the Big Green Egg couldn’t get any better, it does. Yes it can smoke, yes it can grill, but if you (like me) share an unhealthy affection for pizza, there’s a third element of the Big Green Egg you’re going to absolutely love: it can bake.
If you’ve been to Italy, you’ve no doubt tasted the joy that is pizza cooked from a wood-fired brick oven. And that’s precisely what you can get from the Big Green Egg. With the simple addition of a pizza stone (in addition to the plate setter), the Big Green Egg transforms into an oven capable of producing results virtually indistinguishable from those produced by an authentic Italian brick oven.
At high temperatures, pizzas are cooked in mere minutes, perfectly blackened with gorgeously puffy crusts. Turn the temperature down, and anything you bake in a traditional oven (breads, cookies, etc.) can be baked with the Big Green Egg. The versatility of the Egg is simply phenomenal.
While I wouldn’t forgo a traditional oven in favor of the Big Green Egg for everyday baking, I will say that for anyone wanting the results of a brick oven in a smaller package, the Big Green Egg is as close as you’re going to get. Pizza lovers, rejoice. Add in its smoking and grilling capabilities, and the Big Green Egg is easily one of the most versatile outdoor cooking devices on the planet.
Selecting a Big Green Egg Size
It’s only taken a month for me to fall in love with the Big Green Egg, and in retrospect, I’ve been ecstatic with how it performs. Looking back, however, the one thing I’d change about my purchase is the size.
In picking an Egg, your options are the mini (10″ cooking diameter), the small (13″ cooking diameter), the medium (15″ cooking diameter), the large (18.25″ cooking diameter) and the x-large (24″ cooking diameter).
I opted for the large, but the more I’ve gotten to know the Big Green Egg, the more I’ve found myself using it not just for meats but for entire family meals (meats, veggies, sides, everything). As a result, my Egg can get pretty crowded at times cooking for four people. Add in the fact I entertain on a regular basis, and the x-large probably would have been a better fit.
My advice: buy a size bigger than you think you need. The beauty of the Big Green Egg is that it burns fuel extremely efficiently, so by moving up a size, charcoal consumption is only minimally increased. Once you start using the Egg and see how versatile it is, you’ll find yourself cooking more and more on it, and the extra space will come in handy.
Big Green Egg Conclusion
The Big Green Egg is one of those rare things that makes a wealth of promises as to how it performs, then actually delivers on the promises. I bought the Big Green Egg to use as a smoker, and if that’s all it did, I’d still be ecstatic with my purchase. But seeing how well the Big Green Egg can grill and replicate the results offered by a brick oven, you have an outdoor cooking device that is without equal. It’s three incredibly great things in one, and in my opinion, it’s an absolute must for anyone that wants to take their outdoor cooking to the next level.
Pricing for the Big Green Egg ranges from a little under $400 for the mini up to about $1,200 for the x-large. I’d also recommend a nest for the larger models, which is basically a table with a space that the Big Green Egg rests in. For the full details of the Big Green Egg family as well as the lengthy list of additions you can add to fine-tune your cooking experience, head over to the official Big Green Egg website.