"A hundred inches of snow that winter, it was really quite terrible."
There are several factors to overcome when trying to cook a 14-pound slab of brisket during the winter. Not only do you have to contend with freezing temperatures but you also have to keep your grill or smoker from getting too wet with moisture from the snow. On top of that, you have to keep the fire going for several hours, or you've just wasted a pricey cut of beef.
Desora co-founder and CTO, Yinka Ogunbiyi, knows first-hand the challenges of "low-and-slow" barbecue in the dead of winter. Along with CEO, Michel Maalouly, Ogunbiyi spent hours in the cold every weekend attempting to perfect a grill design as part of an engineering course at Harvard in 2015. The goal was to outperform what many consider to be the pinnacle of backyard grilling and smoking machinery: The Big Green Egg.
"We were amateurs, smoking a brisket every week in the cold Boston snow," Ogunbiyi said.
There was another wrinkle to the assignment, though. Professor Kevin "Kit" Parker had arranged for the class to have a real client, and it was a legit one: popular kitchen retailer Williams-Sonoma. This meant there was potential for the final designs to become an actual product if they could offer something better than the grills available at the time could muster.
"Boston's worst winter on record made quick work of showing the faults and shortcomings of existing products," Maalouly explained. "We had been using the industry-leading smokers at the time and found the cooking experience to be severely lacking." The pair needed a way to maximize heat coverage, accelerate the process and enhance flavor if they were going to beat the Egg.
In addition to the overall cooking process, a lot of grills -- even in 2019 -- don't have a way for you to remotely monitor your meat unless you splurge for a more expensive model. Companies like Traeger, Rec-Tec, Green Mountain Grills and others allow you to keep tabs on things from your phone, but those are wood-pellet grills, and they aren't exactly cheap. Plus, they're electric, so it's not a huge leap to add WiFi connectivity when you already have a power source that regulates temperature. Ceramic grills, like the Big Green Egg, use charcoal or wood chunks to cook and flavor food, so remote control and monitoring is a little trickier, unless you have an additional device.
For Maalouly and Ogunbiyi, the ability to watch their long smoke sessions from indoors became a must. To ensure they were getting accurate data without having to venture into the Boston white-out, the pair created a mobile app that allowed them to monitor temperatures from the classroom. But the goal of the project was to enhance the overall process, which included making the cooking vessel itself as efficient as possible. Remote control was certainly part of that, but changes to the design of the grill itself would also achieve that goal.
They also realized they had another tool that would make their lives easier: computer models. A piece of software called ComFLOW helped them to simulate cooks without firing up a grill, buying pricey meat or, perhaps most importantly, venturing out into the deep freeze. Ogunbiyi explained that while ComFLOW is typically used for things like rockets, cars and chemical plants, you can also use it to analyze a grill.
"It's just basically figuring out where the heat is in your barbecue and where the smoke's going," she said. "You ended up studying all the physics and chemistry with barbecue and putting in these computer models."
The other benefit was speed. To cook a brisket on a grill or smoker, you typically need around 12 to 16 hours. When you employ computer models, Ogunbiyi explained, you can get a result in about an hour. The team eventually discovered that a hyperbolic or hour-glass shaped chamber, or an insert that altered a grill's shape, not only makes the Green Egg-style grills' heat distribution more efficient but it made the food taste better, too.