Better Barbecue through Data Analysis

Ever wondered what the temperature data progression looks like for a 17-hour pork shoulder or a 15-hour brisket? As a backyard barbecue nerd, I know I have, so I captured the data and visualized the results. Background and process writeup below.

Tableau Dashboard of Brisket and Pork Shoulder Smoking Session

When I was in Austin last fall for the Tableau Conference, I grabbed lunch at Franklin’s Barbecue. Franklin’s opened in 2009, and in that time it’s gained a reputation for some of the best barbecue in the country, earning pitmaster Aaron Franklin a James Beard Award in 2015. While competitive barbecue is known for secret recipes to sauces and rubs, Franklin is transparent about his approach. His 10-episode PBS series goes into detail on everything from smoking brisket and whole hog to welding together your own custom smoker out of an old propane tank.

Franklin's Barbecue

The lunch line on weekends can be 3 or 4 hours, but on a drizzly Wednesday I only had to wait about 90 minutes. The time passed quickly as, beer in hand, I chatted with other hungry patrons. I got the brisket sandwich, which came with pickles and onions, sauce added at the table.

It was worth the wait.

Franklin's Brisket Sandwich

This got me thinking about how I could collect and analyze data to improve my own barbecuing skills. That’s where a gadget called the Tappecue came in. I’ve gone through a couple of bluetooth-enabled probe thermometers, but I wanted something that would give me fairly continuous raw data readings for a long barbecue session like brisket or pork shoulder, which can take upwards of 16 hours. I’ve seen DIY devices built using RaspberryPi controllers, but the Tappecue had all the capabilities I wanted out of the box. It hooks into WiFi and has wired power and four temperature probes. These provide readings every thirty seconds and can be monitored from a mobile app. The device then emails the raw data after a session as a csv file.

For longer cooks, I start the night before and aim to have the meat ready by lunch. I used a simple salt-and-pepper rub for the brisket, central Texas style. The pork shoulder was brined overnight and then rubbed with a custom blend that’s closer to Memphis style barbecue (paprika, sugar, salt, and a few other ingredients). I placed a probe in each piece of meat, and then I used the other two probes to monitor the chamber temperate at the cooking surface level. My smoker has thermometers built into the top of it, but as I would learn, they tend to show a warmer temperature than what’s really happening at the surface level.

Brisket and Pork Shoulder on Smoker with Tappecue

I used cherry wood for the fire, which I buy from a tree service company nearby. My smoker has a plate on top of the firebox where I can dry logs in preparation for feeding the fire.

Firebox from Smoker

Even when cooking a brisket entirely in the smoker, many pitmasters will wrap it in foil or butcher paper after the first six hours because the smoke flavor can become too strong if it’s getting direct smoke the whole cook. By wrapping the meat, the smoker is working more like an oven, so there’s nothing wrong with using an actual oven instead that’s set to a low temp like 200 or 225. The upshot there is I don’t have to tend the fire every half hour and can sleep a few hours while the meat continues to cook.

Here’s my finished brisket – and if you compare the pink smoke ring to the picture near the top of the Franklin’s brisket sandwich, it looks about the same! Here’s a link to the Tableau Public visualization for those interested in seeing the data structure. I forgot to take a picture of the pork shoulder, but it turned out well.

Jay's Brisket, sliced

So that’s brisket. What about smoked duck? I find duck works well for barbecue due to the higher fat content relative to other birds like turkey or chicken. I smoke duck at a higher temperature than brisket, around 300 degrees. I brined the duck the day before, rubbed it with salt and pepper, and applied a glaze of maple syrup and hot sauce.

Smoked Duck

At the higher temperature, it reached medium rare in just under two hours.

Duck Graph

The result plated with a side of potatoes.

Smoked Duck with Potatoes

And here’s a comparison of the Tappecue surface-level temperatures (probes 3 and 4) relative to the built-in smoker thermometer. In this case they were a full hundred degrees apart. This knowledge has completely changed by approach to building and regulating the fire.

Temperature Comparison



Better Barbecue through Data Analysis