How to Use a Smoker
Time Required: 2-4 hours
Standard gas or charcoal grills are great for fresh, flavorful home-cooked meals, but nothing brings out rich flavor quite like a smoker. Smokers slow-cook foods at lower temperatures over longer periods of time – think of them as the slow-cooker versions of grills. This guide will teach you how to use a smoker, whether the charcoal, propane or wood chips styles.
Tip: When learning how to use a smoker grill, it’s important to periodically check the food temperature with a meat thermometer to ensure its internal temperature is high enough.
Smokers work by circulating a low and steady stream of heat through a smoking chamber. The heat mixes with a small amount of water on the inside to create steam; this slowly cooks the meat for a tender and flavorful finish.
Setup will vary depending on the type of smoker grill you have. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for assembly and placement before the first use. It’s best to put your smoker on a flat and even surface. Make sure it’s at least 10-feet away from your home so the heat doesn’t damage your siding. Avoid windy areas so it’s easier to light the wood or charcoal.
New smokers should be seasoned or cured to remove any lingering manufacturing materials like paints and solvents. To do this, clean the interior and wipe it with a light cooking oil. Then run the smoker for a full cooking cycle.
Tip: Different styles and models will require different startup methods, so always refer to your instructions manual to understand how to start the smoker correctly.
Depending on what you’re trying to cook, meat smoker temperatures are usually set between 200- to 275-degrees Fahrenheit, with that temperature regulated using dampers found at the top and bottom of the smoker.
By regulating the airflow, you can adjust the temperature up and down. Opening the lower damper will allow more air to flow to the fire and increase the heat, while opening the upper damper will allow more heat to escape and lower the temperature.
Cooking times will vary based on the exact temperature, the type of meat and the particular smoker you’re using, but a good rule of thumb is to allow one to one and a half hours per pound of meat.
If smoking for an extended period of time (over 4 hours), it may be necessary to add more charcoal. Make sure you cook to temperature and not to time! Smoke your meals to perfection by following the guidelines below.
Most people choose a smoker for cooking large cuts of meat since they’re designed to cook at lower temperatures over longer periods of time. This infuses the food with a rich flavor and makes meats juicier and more tender. Cuts like brisket, ribs and shoulder are a great choice, but you can also use a smoker for poultry, hot dogs and sausages.
Smokers are available in electric, propane, charcoal or wood pellet varieties. While charcoal or wood pellets provide richer flavor, it’s quicker to heat and easier to control the temperatures in electric or propane smokers.
Vertical smokers are one of the most popular types of smokers. These stand straight up and make it easy to fit lots of different foods inside, depending on how many racks are included. Learning how to use a vertical smoker is relatively simple. Use them to cook for larger groups of people since they can accommodate more food.
Barrel smokers, also known as offset smokers, are a versatile and often more affordable smoker variety. They come in both vertical and horizontal orientations and a wide range of sizes depending on your barbecue needs. Use these for the versatility of using direct heat by installing a grill grate over the smoker box.
Whichever smoker you choose, only turn the food only a few times while cooking. Don’t check on it too often, of it will lose valuable heat and smoke.
See our guide on Types of Smokers for BBQ for a more detailed breakdown.
Only charcoal smokers can give you that rich chargrilled taste, and wood pellet smokers naturally infuse your food with smoky flavors. But if you find the cleanliness and ease of gas or electric smokers more appealing, there are a few steps you can take to try to match the flavors created by naturally fueled smokers:
- For added flavor, mix herbs and spices into the water pan and place the meat over the water pan so the drippings fall in.
- The more food you add to the smoker, the longer the cooking time will be.
- Always cook your food with the lid on the smoker.
- Resist the temptation to open the lid during cooking. For every time you remove the lid, add 15- to 20-minutes to your cooking time.
- External temperatures and altitude will affect the performance of your smoker. Adjust your cooking times accordingly.
- Learn how to use a smoker with wood chips by playing around with various temperatures, different chip types and new foods to find what works for you. Make a note of the ingredients, combinations and results so you can repeat try them again.
Tip: Purchase small containers of flavored wood chips that are pre-packaged and ready to be inserted into your grill or smoker.
- To get the most flavorful food from your smoker, try adding wood chips to the smoker box or in a pan of water to your cooking surface.
- Soak the chips in water for 30-minutes, strain them, then add them to the preheated coals before cooking.
- The wood chips will add a smoky taste, and the water will keep the food from drying out over the long course of cooking.
- Refill this water pan as needed when you turn the food during cooking.
Just like with regular grills, you should clean the smoker grates after each use using a wire brush and water. As for the rest of the smoker, while it’s good to retain flavors in your BBQ smoker, over time grease and debris can gather in the bottom. In order to prevent fires and protect your health, you should clean this out after every few times you use your smoker.
- Wearing gloves, scrape out the grease from the bottom of the smoker.
- Wipe down the bottom and sides with a paper towel, then apply a thin layer of vegetable oil around the bottom of the smoker to prevent rust.
- You can use the same vegetable oil trick on the outside of the smoker, as the extended cooking times of smokers may cause their external paint to flake off quicker than standard grills.
Using a smoker grill requires a bit of patience, but it's a rewarding pursuit for any barbecue enthusiast. Whether you’re just learning how to use an electric smoker or how to use a charcoal smoker, or you’re a skilled grillmaster looking to upgrade your setup, shop our wide selection and get your online orders delivered. Just say when, where and how.