Any competition cook or experienced BBQ amateur can tell you that smoking meat in a traditional wood- or charcoal-burning smoker is a long process that requires a lot of sustained attention. Beyond the preparation and careful monitoring of whatever it is you’re actually smoking, the challenge of maintaining a stable cooking environment for extended periods of time can, itself, be daunting.
Monitoring air temps, stoking the coals, adjusting vents, and, if necessary, adding fuel partway through the cook can be a real headache. Add to this the challenge of increasing or decreasing the cooking temperature at various stages to achieve a certain smoke ring or bark; or opening the smoker lid to check or spritz or wrap and inadvertently letting out all the hot air; let alone the idea of cooking different kinds of BBQ meats at different temperatures all the same time. Thinking about these variables, you begin to understand why so many people can be intimidated by BBQ and also why so much BBQ is—sadly—poorly executed.
The truth is, if you have the right tools and take the proper precautions, you needn’t be intimidated by the idea of a big BBQ bash for your friends and family. Though the summer is winding down, tailgating season is just warming up! You may be entertaining the idea of putting on some kind of Meatstravaganza to celebrate your local home team, and if so, you’ll likely be facing some major BBQ issues. With (possibly) multiple smokers, each set for a different temp for a different meat, that’s a lot of fires to tend for a long time.
Just in time for football season, we cooked up our own Meatstravaganza here on the ThermoWorks BBQ patio to introduce you to our new Billows BBQ control fan. We used three smokers with Billows fans attached set at three different cooking temperatures and three different cuts of meat—ribs at 275°F (135°C), pork butt at 250°F (121°C), and brisket at 225°F (107°C). With the ThermoWorks BBQ app on my phone, I was able to monitor all three cooks taking place here at ThermoWorks HQ from home, without having to stand by the smokers and checking them all night. The results were absolutely delicious.
So let’s take a look at a big cook and how BBQ fans can make a huge pile of perfectly smoked meat appear for all their friends and family with minimal effort.
How BBQ Fans Work
Let’s start with the basics. BBQ fans feed air to your smoker fuel when temperatures are below the target cooking temp and slow or cut off the flow of air when temperatures get too high—starving the fire and cooling the pit. For you, this means greater control over your pit temperatures with less effort as well as greater predictability and reproducibility in your cooks. If you know your pit will be at 225°F (107°C) every time you cook, reproducing a successful BBQ outcome later is much easier. BBQ control fans make smoking meat with stick-burner and charcoal smokers easy. Think of it as bringing the convenience of using a pellet smoker dial control to your traditional smoker—but with all the real smoke flavor!
But the term “BBQ fan” actually implies a whole system of components that need to work together properly to give you the control you need. Let’s start with the brains of the outfit, the controller…
Controllers Make the Difference
Every BBQ fan needs an electronic controller that monitors the current temperature inside the smoker and either activates or shuts off the airflow depending on the smoker’s thermal conditions. It should be fairly obvious, but the amount of control you get with a particular BBQ fan is directly related to the precision of its controller.
That’s one reason why Billows really shines when paired with the Signals™ multi-channel thermometer as its controller.
Signals is the product of decades of ThermoWorks experimentation and development with temperature controllers. It may not be commonly known, but for many years, ThermoWorks has been a leading supplier of instruments called Dry Wells that are super accurate controllers for calibration laboratories. In essence, Dry Wells are blocks of metal that are very precisely temperature-controlled and used for calibrating other thermometers. They are mostly used in labs and reflect our company’s instrumentation background and our dedication to temperature accuracy.
The Signals/Billows duo is essentially a Dry Well right in your BBQ pit using charcoal and air instead of a block of metal.
For our Meatstravaganza, we used three Signals thermometers and three Billows fans for our cook, but with one Signals, you can actually monitor three separate meats in one pit in addition to using the air probe as the fan-control sensor. If you don’t actually need three different cooking temperatures, that’s obviously easier! (We staggered the starting times of our three meats, as well.)
Next let’s talk about BBQ algorithms…
How well a controller works is also a function of the algorithm it follows for achieving and maintaining temperatures. A fan controller’s algorithm is the set of instructions that tells it when to activate the fan and when to turn it off. The controller receives the data from the air probe—called a reference temperature—and checks it against a set of parameters (the temperature you set the on the controller), then either turns the fan on if the temperature is too low or off if the temperature is too high. It constantly cycles through this process, making micro-adjustments as needed to keep temperatures steady.
For the algorithm to work properly, it needs accurate information from the smoker. More accurate reference temperatures mean better real-time responses to temperature changes. ThermoWorks’ Pro-Series® probes (accurate to 1.8°F [1°C]) that come with the Signals are the best in the business at this. Some smoker controllers rely on probes that can be off by as much as 25°F (14°C). That can make a huge difference over the course of a 10-hour cook. If you know about that variance, you can, of course, compensate by adding or subtracting degrees from your target temperature. But it’s easier to just use an accurate probe to begin with.
With a good algorithm adjusting for—and even predicting— temperature swings, your BBQ fan should be able to hold a steady temperature in your smoker. The accuracy of the Pro-series probes and the algorithm used in the Signals thermometer/controller help Billows fans maintain a range that is typically well within ±10°F (±6°C) of your set temperature.
Below you can see the chart for the smoker temperature over the full 16 hours of our Meatstravaganza brisket cook, as captured in the ThermoWorks BBQ app.
Note the slight rising and falling of the line—that’s the fan cycling on and off like your oven does at home. At some points, those swings may look wide and frenetic, but in reality they are less than 10°F (6°C) and each peak is about 30 minutes apart. That’s great, but what’s even better is when the algorithm settles in and the variance drops to just a degree or two for hours at a time. You can see a big dip when I opened the smoker to test the bark, etc. Towards the end, when I was opening it often and letting lots of oxygen in, the temperature swung more widely.
Which leads us to one more way in which not all BBQ fans are made equal…
Airflow and BBQ fans
There is more to BBQ than just fire, of course. In our case, we spritzed the ribs, butt, and brisket from time to time for added flavor. You may also choose to wrap your meat in foil or paper, depending on your preference. When you open the smoker to do work on the meat, you lose heat and the time it takes to recover that heat adds to the length of your cook. Rewarming the smoking chamber is not a good use of cooking time! That’s another place where a fan can help. In the graph above, you can see how quickly the internal smoking temperature recovers each time we opened the smoker. The reason for such fast recovery is the ThermoWorks Billows fan’s whopping 46 cubic-feet per minute [CFM] of airflow capacity.
A critical measure of a fan’s power to maintain steady temperatures is its maximum output airflow, which is measured in CFM. A fan that can put more air to the fuel in the smoker can get the smoker up to the target temperature faster. That’s important if you’ve ever opened the smoker to spritz, wrap, or just poke your pork shoulder. The Billows fan can move 46 CFM of air into a smoker, more than twice the volume of the nearest competitor, which means that the Signals/Billows combo can help your smoker recover cooking temps faster than others. And with the larger air capacity, it can also run a much larger smoker.
Before we move on from airflow, it is important to note that airflow also needs to be controlled on the way out of the smoker. On most smoker models, we recommend closing the vents until about 1/8 open, but that is a guideline only. Close the vents until your Billows is able to achieve a steady temperature. You can see in this image that our Kamado-style cooker needed the vents to be fully closed to prevent air circulation that was driving the temperatures up.
One of the smokers we used for this cook was a barrel-style cooker (great for ribs!) which has an air intake opening that is far too large for the Billows fan to attach to natively, but we still wanted to temperature control so that I wouldn’t have to sit by the smoker all night opening and closing vents. To this end, we employed a simple mounting plate for the Billows fan. That meant that the only things we needed to worry about on the pork butt were spritzing and temping—no problem! We also used a mounting plate to cook our shoulder on a Kamado-style cooker, and they both worked wonderfully!
(Be sure to take a look at our Billows set-up video for more on setting your Billows up correctly.)
Or course, if you’ve built a smoker from scratch or if your smoker’s vents won’t work well, individual adaptation and ingenuity may be necessary to make a fan fit, but isn’t DIY part of what makes BBQ fun?
Throwing a big BBQ Bash for all the ThermoWorkers with brisket, pulled pork, and ribs was a manageable task with the help of Signals and Billows. The fans did most of the fire-tending work letting us tend to the bark and finish temps. Of course, we checked everything with our Thermapen® and took each piece off to rest when it hit 200–203°F (93–95°C). Everything was just scrumptious.
Though it doesn’t shave off any time from a BBQ cook, a good fire-control fan like the Billows fan can certainly shave off effort while delivering reproducible results. If you want your barbecue to be as easy as a pellet smoker but with the real charcoal taste you love, the Signals/Billows combination delivers. With best-in-class airflow, the best controller and BBQ algorithms, plus the best probes around, you can’t beat that combo for taking the troublesome parts out of BBQ.
Celebrate summer this week (or any other time) with a mountain of meat, made easy with a little help from ThermoWorks.
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