The Alton Brown Flower Pot Smoker

Personal by on July 5, 2008 at 11:50 pm

Alton Brown Flower Pot Smoker

Friends built the Alton Brown flower pot smoker a few months back and then visited this weekend and convinced me to build one for the Fourth.


Getting the parts

While the actual construction of the smoker is trivial, I found that gathering all of the needed items was challenging. Many of the items were hard to source. If you live in Seattle, the guide below should help tremendously. Generally speaking, I would recommend that you try ordering everything but the Pot, Bowl and bricks online.

Pot size selection

The two hardest to source parts drive pot size selection. The terra cotta bowl is hard to find. The 17” bowl is the largest I was able to find anywhere. It is also really heavy so it is impractical to order online.

However, if you can find an 18” bowl, I would be pretty tempted to get an 18” pot. You can definitely fit the Weber 22.5” replacement charcoal grate in the pot (it is actually about 17”) or possibly even the 18.5” grill grate (it is slightly less than 18” in actual diameter). Not only would you get more cooking surface, but you’d also have a much easier to source grate.

 

Parts List

ItemPriceSourceComments
17” Terra Cotta Pot$19Home DepotThey had these at City Peoples, but I didn’t stop there until later.
17” Terra Cotta Bowl$22City Peoples Garden StoreHard to find. Try garden / nursery stores. I think it is also called an azalea bowl. Some people use saucers that they drill into.
Heat Element$10Walgreens AmazonThere are reports of insufficiently sized heat elements. This is a 1000W element that others have had success with. The Maxi-Matic ESB 300X is nearly identical to the Walgreens element I originally used. The interior wires are a little shorter (and thinner), but otherwise the construction is nearly identical.
16” Grill grate$20Sutter Hearth & Home in BallardThe standard Weber sizes 14”, 18” and 22” are available everywhere. Unfortunately, they don’t fit. Order a 16” grate online well in advance. I ended up using a more expensive ‘grill topper’
Grill Thermometer$14Sutter Home & HearthShockingly hard to find. Try ordering online.
Pan (for wood chips)unkour kitchenShould be easy to find. Get as heavy a pan as possible.
Ceramic Pot feet$6Stoneway HardwareThese are pretty easy to find elsewhere.
3 Bricks$1.50Home DepotCould be 2×4s or anything else to get the smoker above the base.
5 lb Pecan Wood Chunks$15Sutter Hearth & HomePlan ahead and consider ordering online. I later found Apple and Cherry chunks at Stoneway hardware for much less. We used about 2/3 of the wood.

Getting the Heat Element controls out of the smoker

I wanted to get the controls for the heat element outside of the smoker so that I could adjust the heat without opening the smoker. This approach had the added advantage of getting the plastic base (and overheat sensor) out of the hot pot. This was shockingly easy to do. These instructions are for the Walgreens hot plate which seems to be pretty commonly used (I’m assuming that you’re smart enough not to plug in the hot plate):

  1. Remove the screw that connects the burner to the plastic base. There is just one screw and its in the middle of the burner at the top.
  2. Disconnect the wires from the heat element. They are meant to be easily disconnected and reconnected. All you need to do is press the tab and pull the wire and connector off of the pin.
  3. Place some foil (or preferably a non-conductor) over the exposed base to catch any drippings that may fall out of the pot (we had none escape). Keep the foil clear of the control element.
  4. Center the hot plate base amongst the bricks (see photo) and run the wires up the hole in the bottom. Reconnect them to the heat element. I don’t think it matters, but the fat wire was originally connected to the prong that runs to the center of the heat element.

I used both bricks and the pot holder feet so that I could raise the smoker up off the base plate and allow air to flow up through the hole in the pot. I then placed a brick in bottom of the smoker to support the heat element and keep the electrical prongs off the base of the pot. I had to chip the corners of the brick so that it could sit to the side of the hole for air flow.

Obviously, the wiring is much more exposed than it was in the sealed hot plate. It is actually very hard to touch the wires during operation, but be careful. Also, I’d highly recommend you ensure that you’re plugged into a GFCI protected outlet (all outdoor outlets in buildings built after the mid-eighties are required to be GFCI protected).

Temperature management and monitoring

The temp at the top of the grill does a good job telling the temp inside the smoker. We kept wireless temp probes in the meat throughout the process.

Metal smokers vs. the Flower Pot vs. the Big Green Egg

You can buy a metal smoker from Wal-mart or other sources for less than you’ll spend assembling the flower pot smoker. I’ve never cooked with a metallic smoker, but based on other comments I’ve read the inexpensive ones are thin and shed heat tremendously quickly.

When we were finished smoking the internal temp was about 210. Two hours later it was 140. Four hours later it was still warm to the touch. The Terra Cotta simply holds the heat really well. The ambient air was in the sixties with a strong wind on our roof deck.

However, the flower pot is no match for the Big Green Eggs. These ceramic smokers are massive. The equivalent size to the flower pot is probably the Large Egg, which has an 18” diameter cooking area, weighs 140 lbs and retails for $700. Plus I can’t imagine I’d have had as much fun as I did figuring the flower pot smoker out.

Recipe

We cooked two 4.5lb Boston Butts on the 4th using Alton Brown’s recipe for the brine and rub. It turned out fantastically well.

Enjoy!

Update
Hamilton posted a series of really good questions alongside one of the photos, and I wanted to include the questions and my responses here as I think they’ll help other people:

I was wondering if you think it would be feasible to run a second Walgreen’s burner through that bottom hole and into the pot. This may give me the potential for more heat and heat control in the winter months when the weather is a little cooler here in South Carolina. Maybe stagger them in the pot (one above the other.) Or even side by side standing up.

I don’t think you’ll need to do this. We had trouble keeping the heat down in the target 220 range and never had the dial anywhere near the halfway point. By the end of the session, I don’t think the dial would go any lower.

Also, these are 1000W burners (9 Amps). Many household circuits are 15 Amps (some are 20), so you’d run the risk of blowing a fuse if you plugged them into the same circuit.

However, if you did do it, I don’t think you’d want to stagger them as the heat from the lower one may melt the solder on the higher one. Side by side would work, but you’d need something else to set the grate on.

Also, when you disconnect the burner from the base, do you have enough length in the wire to connect the burner back to the burner once you’ve run it through the hole with the original connections or do I need to buy some extension wires?

It is tight, but there is enough wire. If you do need to get wire, make sure it is thermally insulated.

What was the highest temp you were able to see in your cooker?

We accidentally let it rise to around 240 (220 is the target). At some point I’ll do a controlled test, but it could definitely go much higher.

Do you soak your wood chips as well as leave water in the bottom of the pan? When do you like to put the chips in the cooker - When the cooker comes up to temp?

We used chunks instead of chips as they are less likely to actually catch fire. I’ve read that you don’t need to soak them, but a friend advised to soak half. This way, the dry ones start smoking early and the wet ones start smoking later. So, you don’t need to lift the top until later in the cooking process (lifting the top lets out the smoke and cools everything slightly).

Do you end up adding more chips to the pan throughout the cooking process? If so, what is your advice for removing the grill surface and the meat?

We added wood once (and only opened the top twice). The second time we lifted the top was to rotate the butts. The meat can be easily removed using foil and oven mitts. We had a plate with foil on the side to set them on.

If you look carefully at the picture of the butts you’ll see two screws sticking up through the cooking surface. We gripped the screws with oven mitts and lifted it directly out (it did take a bit of effort as it was kind of jammed down there).

To remove the upper pot/lid, have you come up with a good “handle” or do you have an alternative method? As your graph shows, I guess it’s a little hot and awkward to fooling around with when it’s that hot.

It shockingly isn’t too hot to touch. The lid measurements are from the interior. The exterior of the terra cotta is definitely cooler. Some people claim that they can use their bare hands, I just used oven mitts, but used my hands to make minor adjustments.

Would it be beneficial to drill more holes in the bottom of the pot to let in more fresh air or do you think that would let too much heat out?

I don’t think you want to do this. You don’t want the wood to burn (heavy air flow), you want it to combust enough to smoke. We had absolutely no problems with air flow.

  • Anonymous

    Great write-up it was really helpful for me when making my own, but I found the hot plate just wasn’t reliable in the long term. I ended up replacing it with a weber smokey joe and now have a charcoal powered smoker. Works really great.

    I did a write-up of my changes to create a charcoal version here: http://makingitprimal.com/terracotta-joe/

  • Jeremy

    Cool contraption! I have a Stok Tower Grill with thermometer built into the lid (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0073YNQ6G) and was wondering if this lid would fit over the terracotta pot as opposed to buying a terracotta bowl for the top. I picked up a 22.5″ Weber hinged grill for the Stok so I’m assuming the lid is about 22.5″ in diameter – I guess it would probably end up being too big? Would a 22″ Terracotta pot be hard to come by?

  • Hostage

    Big problem! I ran into a problem with the Sylvania burner. I moved the control to the bottom like the OP suggested. At around 180* I heard an explosion and saw flames shoot out where the pots met and the top hole. The meat thermometer went off the scale. The smoke then stopped and the burner light was out. I took it apart and saw the explosion came form inside the burner. Duno what exactly happen though it won’t work. I think I might try a different burner. Luckily I had no meat in there, I was doing a dry run to test to see if I could get it up to temp. I will see if I can get a burner in time, though I have the meat already in the brine, so I might be forced to use my gas as a smoker. Wally world had only a propane single burner and I will not buy another Sylvania. I am going to call some other places as well.

    I spent a total of ~$110: $30 top full size pot (couldn’t find bowl)
    18″, $42 20″ base pot, $5 pan for wood, $10 weber grate, $8 replacement
    thermometer, $15 Sylvania POS 1100W burner from Walgreens.

    • Hostage

      I looked into a bit more and I blew the fuse. When I bypass the fuse it works. I think I might know what happen. The 4 pieces chunks of wood I put in there caused a flare up/explosion, when the flame hit the fuse it popped. This is just a theory.

  • dirk

    shocking!

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  • Ben

    Sorry if this is a stupid question but I got the maxi-magic burner today, took it apart, and can’t figure out for the life of me how to din connect the wires. I don’t know where it should be done or where the tab is to press. I am planning on using this Sunday so any advice or suggestions would really be appreciated.

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  • Matt

    For those looking for a little smaller grill grate, I’ve heard of this 12.75″ “steamer grate” working for other people before: http://www.foodservicewarehouse.com/thunder-group/slrack1234/p366849.aspx

    I am building mine up now, so I will let you know how it worked out

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