Dateline: April 3, 2003

Wow! The doctor's waiting room is cram-packed with patients all impatient to get the spring cooking season underway. Let's start off with good old Mike.

Mike writes: My old (but dear) friend Ranch Range is on its last legs. I'm searching for a decent replacement. Right now I'm seriously considering a 'TexasPitmasters PM100FB. I read (somewhere on your site) you were building a new "Hill Country" smoker/pit and would have pictures up soon. How is it coming along? When can we expect to see pics of your progress?

One question I have is you recommend a pit made of -inch steel. I've always felt such thick steel would take a long time and/or be a bear to get to the right temp and maintain, especially if it got too hot. Conversely, thinner steel (say, 16-18 gauge) would be easier/quicker to get to a certain temp, but would take more attention to maintain since it heats/cools quicker. I've seen pits made from propane tanks which aren't -inch thick, but heftier than the 16-18 gauge commercial ones. What say you about this most elemental issue of a good Texas style pit/smoker?

Hey Mike: We haven't hit a lick on that smoker. My welder is remodeling his house, and the weather ain't exactly been conducive to outdoor activities. I'll get the thing on Texas Cooking one of these days.

I like the heavy metal because with proper care it will last forever. Once you get it warm, it will maintain the heat and a cool breeze won't cool it off. For a new smoker, first thing you look at is the welding. A nice smooth seam indicates the people have done this before and take a little pride in their work. I've seen some that looked like they were put together by mud daubers.

You want a removable grate/grill. Got to take it out and clean it once in a while. Main thing is, it needs good airflow. Air intake has to be big enough to let in enough oxygen to make the fire burn. You need a way to adjust the airflow. An adjustable cap on the stack is nice sometimes. Also, exhaust pipe has to be big enough to let the air/smoke flow. Average size needs to be about three inches in diameter.

If you are going to move it you need wheels. Also, it needs good sturdy hinges on the doors. Hinges should be fabricated out of heavy stock. Welded-on door hinges are a huge pain when they fail.

Good smoking and thanks for writing.
Dr. John

Hazel writes: This is a strange request, but I'm thinking you might be able to help. I am director of an after-school program in Northern Iowa. We are planning a large event in October of 2003, and I'm looking for some kind of food to serve. The name of our program is STARS (Students Together After School), and I would like something to tie in with flying things, heavenly things, the sky, etc. We will have stations for guests to build and fly kites, airplanes, rockets, look through a telescope and other sky-related things. I was thinking of some kind of beef sandwich, since this is beef country.

Hi Hazel: How about some Flying Saucer Sandwiches? They could be an "alien" version of the very popular chopped beef sandwiches we have down here in Texas or the pulled pork sandwiches from East of the Mississippi.

I'd use beef brisket. Trim off the excess fat. Season it with lemon/pepper seasoning and seal it, along with a large sliced onion, in heavy-duty foil. Bake it in a slow oven, 250F degrees, six to eight hours. This should have it "falling apart" tender.

Carefully remove the juices from the foil and reserve them. Stick the juices in the icebox while you are shredding the brisket. The fat will condense on top of the juice, remove and discard it. Mix as much of the defatted juice as you think proper back into the shredded brisket. Salt to taste.

You might try mixing some barbecue sauce in with the brisket. Being you are feeding young folk, use a mild sauce. I like Heinz original recipe. Put a healthy scoop of the brisket on a big hamburger bun, dress with fresh onion rings and pickle slices. Put a stuffed olive on a toothpick on top for the "conning tower". Ought look just like a flying saucer. Thanks for writing.
Dr. John.

Ken writes: Doctor, on the question you got from a patient about sweet jalapeños, send them to pick up a jar of Original Bread "N" Butter Jalepeños. They are found in the pickles/olives section at HEB, or they can go to the website to order them or find retail points. Made in Abilene, Texas by physically challenged individuals. I lucked across these about two weeks ago and bought some cause they were big, plumpy, and canned with large onions in them. Anyway, believe me when I say they are out-of-this-world good. Suggest you even go give them a try . . . and I don't work for these guys.

P.S. Solved the smoker issue (Remember? Couldn't get the heat up past 250F on my OK Joe?) Anyway, I reduced the size of the fire chamber and at the same time, created a heat shield with a piece of steel to direct heat into the cooking chamber. Works pretty good. However, yesterday I smoked pork spare ribs for about five hours and they weren't what I would call spectacular. They just weren't very juicy or tender. The flavor was good, but I thought they could have been better. I didn't do any basting or turning. Do you reckon this would have helped?

Hey Ken: Mopping the ribs will help a lot. Use a fairly high acid mop. Hit 'em about every 30 minutes. Thanks for the information on the jalapeños. I can always use all the help I can get. Keep 'em smoking.
Dr. John

Gary writes: I love Beer Can Chicken, but the skin is like rubber. I smoke it around 185 degrees for 5 to 6 hours. I'm using charcoal and cherry wood. How can I keep the skin from turning into Goodyear rubber? Any help, please.

Hey Gary: You got to get some heat on that chicken. Try about 300 for about an hour or an hour and a half. Chicken does not require the long, slow smoking that tough old bull meat needs. Baste the bird with a little Italian dressing. This should do it. Thanks for writing.
Dr. John

Here's an example of some of the exchanges that go on in and out of the Doctor's office:

From Janet: Hi. A friend asked me for a recipe called pan bread. I haven't heard of it, have you? I lived in Plano for 14 years, but never heard of pan bread. It is supposedly a Texas recipe. Help if you can, please.

Hey, J.: I found dozens of recipes for "Pan" bread. The one thing all the recipes seem to have in common is that they are cooked in a skillet. Your friend is going to have to narrow it down a little more to find that recipe.
Dr. John

Dr.John: Thanks for your quick reply on the pan bread. Yes, I think it is nothing more than a thinner corn bread. She said it isn't very thick. But, it is a corn bread. It is supposed to be very "Texas". Good with ranch beans. If you can point me toward a recipe like that, I would appreciate it. I have not found a thing.

Hey Janet: Here's one that sounds good to me.

Texas Pan Bread

Preheat oven to 350F.

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1-5 cloves of garlic (depending in what regard you hold those around you), minced
  • 1 can kidney beans (or mexi-beans, black beans, whatever your fancy)
  • 1 cup corn meal
  • 1 egg replacer (or 2 egg whites)
  • 1-2 jalapeños, diced (stems and seeds removed)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
Spray an iron skillet with cooking spray, and heat over medium heat.

While the skillet is heating, mix the beans, egg replacer, jalapeños, cumin and cornmeal in a bowl. Mash until the beans are desired consistency. (This is a matter of personal preference -- some like them whole, some like them as smooth as baby food).

When the skillet is hot, add about 2 tablespoons of water to it and sautee the onion for just a few minutes until it begins to soften. Add the garlic and sautee briefly. (There should be no excess water at this point.)

Add the onions and garlic to the bean/cornmeal mixture and stir to combine. Then pour the mixture into the skillet, smooth the top, and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes. Top this with shredded cheddar, sliced olives and maybe some thinly sliced red pepper rounds. It's great without any garnishes at all, though.

Colby writes: I cook competition cook-offs and am having trouble getting a smoke ring on my brisket. I cook it at 225F for about an hour per pound, and wrap it in foil for about 3 hours of the cooking time. What else can I do?

Hey, Colby: As a barbecue judge, I never placed a lot of importance on the thickness of the smoke ring though, to my way of thinking, some misinformed souls do. There is a chemical method of making a smoke ring, but it's easy to spot, and I really grade down for that. Only thing I can think of is to try raising the heat about 25 degrees and see if that helps. I'll check around and see if I can find anything else on the subject. Thanks for writing.
Dr. John

If you would like to direct a question to Ask Doctor John, e-mail it to John Raven, Ph.B.