Smoking food is an ancient method of cooking as old as time itself. Whether you’re new to smoking meat and ready to take on this new hobby, or you’ve got some experience under your belt, here are some of the ins and outs of smoking.
Using flame and smoke to cook might be considered by some to be primal, but it’s an art that takes years to perfect. Smoking involves technique, timing, and precision.
The attention to detail and the patience required to achieve an excellent smoked meal give you the opportunity to make something special for the people around you.
There’s no need to be intimidated by smoking meats. Sure it takes a little getting used to, but using a smoker will become second nature with a bit of practice. Soon you’ll be ready to show off your new skills to all your friends and family.
The secret to mastering the coveted technique of cooking with a smoker lies in understanding how a smoker works.
So, what exactly is BBQ smoking, and how is it different from other outdoor cooking methods? What should you look for in a smoker? How can you optimize the flavor of your favorite chicken, seafood, beef, or pork dishes? And what else should you know about BBQ smokers?
We’ll deep dive into all these questions plus give you some great tips so you can get cooking faster and with better results!
By the end of our Grilling Life’s guide on how does a smoker work, you will know exactly how to use an outdoor smoker and have all the tools you need to get the most out of one.
In This Article, We’ll Explore:
Click a topic below to be taken directly to that section.
What Is a BBQ Smoker?
A BBQ smoker is a cooking chamber powered by various fuels to smoke meat in a controlled, low-temperature, smoky environment. This chamber can come in multiple sizes. Put simply, the bigger the smoker, the bigger the meal!
The options to fuel your smoker could range from natural gas or propane, wood, pellets, or charcoal. Regardless of the fuel, the goal is to keep the interior temperature of your smoker close to 225 degrees F or 110 degrees C for long durations at a time.
Crucial elements to a smoker require smoke and temperature control. If you can maintain both of these elements for a long period of time, you’ve got yourself a smoker!
Check out the video below to see how a smoker works with “low and slow” cooking.
Why Smoke Your Meats?
There’s not much that can beat the flavorful, tender, aromatic results that come from smoking your meats. Smoking also tenderizes tough meats and adds unique flavors and aromas.
The amount of smoke or the type of wood you choose plays a big role in the finished product.
As with any craft, it takes patience and persistence to get the result you want. However, it will all be worth the effort when you serve ribs that are “fall off the bone” tender.
The Difference Between Smoking, Barbecuing & Grilling
Smoking | Barbecuing | Grilling
Smoking, barbecuing and grilling all share common characteristics, so it could be easy to mistake one term for the other. Even though the terms are often used interchangeably, the differences are crucial to know to get the right kind of result you’re looking for in your meats.
Are you looking for a smoky flavor? Are you short on time? Do you need that crispy caramelization on the outside of your meat?
Each cooking technique offers a different advantage. Below is a quick rundown of each.
For a more in-depth look at the differences, check out my guide Barbecuing vs Grilling vs Smoking
Meat in a smoker seldom comes in direct contact with the flame. The smoker chamber has a separate area or box where the fuel is kept. This allows the smoke to enter the chamber, surrounding the meat, and eventually leave through the pipe on the top of your smoker.
Smoking is done with the lid or door closed and can take anywhere from a couple of hours to several days depending on the method and food being smoked.
Some smokers come with two sets of racks inside the chamber. Because heat and smoke rise, the top rack would be the hottest, while the bottom would be cooler.
It’s important to consider what kind of meat you’re hoping to put in your smoker.
Some food such as chicken, salmon, steak, scallops, even cheese should be cured beforehand, and then cold smoked to an interior temperature between 68 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
In contrast, cuts such as ham, brisket, ribs, or ham hocks would be hot smoked with an interior temperature of 126 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit.
Smoking and barbecuing have a lot in common. Barbecues are fueled with either wood or charcoal coals, and the top is closed over the meat to keep in the heat.
But, like a smoker, the meat does not come in direct contact with the flame. Instead, it’s placed high above or to the side of the flame and is similar to cooking in your oven.
These conditions allow for an internal temperature of 190 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. This kind of sustained environment allows for the rub used or the smoky flavor accumulated to really absorb into your meats.
Here is where the flame comes in! Grilling your meat results in a crispy, charred exterior that keeps the juices inside the meat.
This method is best suited for thinner cuts of meat or even vegetables. Since the whole process includes high heat for a short period, cooking thick pieces of meat could lead to it being undercooked.
Constant attention is needed here to avoid an undercooked or overcooked meal. For more accurate results, an instant-read thermometer is a good investment.
Direct vs. Indirect Heat Smokers
These terms indicate where the heat is coming from in your smoker and its relation to your meat.
A smokebox attached to the side of your smoker is considered an indirect heat or “offset” smoker.
When the heat source is inside your smoker, below the meat, it is considered a direct heat smoker.
Caution is needed, though, that the flame of a direct heat smoker does not come in contact with your meat, causing over-charring. Most direct heat smokers use a deflector plate of some sort to disperse the flames and keep them from coming in direct contact with the meat being smoked.
A Rundown of the 7 Main Types of Smokers
Stick Burners | Charcoal Smokers | Pellet Smokers | Gas Smokers | Electric Smokers | Kettle Grills | Ceramic Smokers
Most smokers fall under the two broad categories of direct and indirect heat, but they also have other features.
Here’s a rundown of some of the main types of smokers to help you decide what smoker is right for you!
Stick Burners, Also Called Wood Smokers
This is most commonly what comes to mind when you think “BBQ smoker.” Its fuel source is wood, and just like tending a fire, this kind of smoker requires a lot of attention.
These smokers are usually found in an offset firebox style.
The offset firebox smokers are usually originally designed as a grill but have the option of adding the smokebox “offset” on the side of the grill.
These can come with the grill or can be purchased separately at an additional cost. The smoker fuel is loaded into the firebox and smoke flows from the box into the grill area where the meat is set to smoke the meat.
A stick burner gives more room for error if you’re just starting out. These smokers can be found at hardware or department stores for a reasonable price but are notorious for leaking heat or being flimsy when bought this way.
But if you’re new to smoking meats and aren’t ready to drop a lot of money, this may be a good first step. It will help you determine if you’d like to invest in a bigger or better smoker later.
Charcoal smokers are one of the most common smokers due to their history of being one of the oldest forms of smoking.
Bullet and drum smokers are included in this category, and you guessed it, they’re fueled by charcoal.
There are a few that are rising in popularity such as the egg-shaped Kamado and cabinet style, however, we are going to focus on bullet smokers in this section.
Bullet-style smokers are one of the most common charcoal smokers due to their affordability. Bullet smokers are relatively cheap and often can be used as a grill and smoker all in one.
They get their names from the shape of the smoker itself. This smoker utilizes a stacked setup featuring two grill grates, a water pan, and a fuel pan to generate smoke and moisture that circulates in the domed top.
Charcoal smokers don’t need as much attention as stick burners do. Depending on the temperature, you simply adjust the dampers that control the airflow inside the smoker, and that’s it.
You can toss in some wood chips or chunks along with the charcoal, but you won’t get as clean of a smoky flavor due to the chips smoldering instead of combusting.
You can read up on the 17 Benefits Of Charcoal And Wood Smokers for more info.
And here is a helpful guide I wrote on How to Use a Charcoal Smoker.
Pellet smokers are similar to offset firebox smokers in the fact that the fuel box is offset on the grill, however, they function much differently.
Instead of wood, wood chips, or charcoal, these smokers use wood “pellets” as their fuel source. These pellets consist of condensed-down natural wood that allows all of the air to be evacuated which creates a more intense smoke.
The smoker feeds these pellets into a pot where the fire is as needed to maintain temperature. It’s an easy “set it and forget it” option.
Pellet smokers are electrically powered which makes them a little more inconvenient when choosing a spot to place your smoker. The electrical power source is used to turn an auger and power the digital heat controller found on the smokers.
The structure of a pellet grill’s exterior is similar to an offset smoker; however, the internals is much different.
The pellets are loaded into a hopper which can hold a large number of pellets. At the bottom of the hopper is the auger which when operating, slowly pushes pellets into the firebox.
Once the pellets have been transported into the firebox, an igniter rod ignites the pellets, creating smoke. A combustion fan circulates the heat and smoke throughout the cooking chamber to cook the meat.
However, because of how technical this smoker is in itself, there’s more room for error on the part of the machine. It’s the price you pay for convenience.
For more information on how pellet smokers work, check out my guide What is a Pellet Grill? – An Introduction to Pellet Grilling, or you can read 17 Benefits Of Pellet Grills to decide for yourself if they might be a good choice for you.
Propane smokers are an easier option compared to charcoal smokers.
The structure of a propane smoker is similar to a bullet-style smoker, except they also look similar to a gym locker.
With the integrated controller, you can set the desired temperature and let the smoker do the heavy lifting. Simply refill the water pan and wood chips as needed until your food has been properly smoked.
Gas smokers maintain the temperature inside the chamber, like all other smokers. However, it doesn’t produce smoke on its own.
Wood chips are needed to induce the smoke and flavor. With the reliance on only wood chips and propane, these smokers are easy to take wherever you are tailgating or cooking. Due to the shape, it takes up very little room which is a plus if you have ever had to work around an offset-style smoker.
Because the smoking process takes quite a while, it would be wise to have a spare propane tank on hand before starting the process, so you don’t accidentally run out of fuel.
If interested in learning more about how easy propane smokers are to use, you can read my article on How Does a Propane Smoker Work.
Check out why a gas smoker may be a good option for you in my guide 15 Benefits Of Gas Smokers.
Electric Smokers are the easiest way to smoke meats, compared to having to manually tend to fuel and temperatures.
Many people have made electric smokers their smokers of choice for several reasons.
They are easy to clean, they have built in temperature controls and they are easy to maintain and keep in confined spaces. They are as set it and forget as it comes.
Most come with digital controls so you can easily punch in your desired temperature and be confident about leaving it unattended while your meat cooks.
They usually come in a gym locker or cabinet-looking shape with a door that opens on the front. The electric smoker uses a heating element, wood chips, and water to produce smoke instead of a flame. The unique process gives your meat a different smoky flavor than it would have had if it had been around a flame.
There are usually several levels of food trays above the water pan taking up the remainder of the space.
Because they are powered by electricity, they are not as mobile as some of the other options.
Check out my guide 19 Benefits Of Electric Smokers to see if they may be an option for you.
While a kettle grill isn’t a smoker from the get-go, it can certainly become one if you plan accordingly.
Start by placing your meat on one side of the grill, the charcoal and wood chips on the other, and close the lid. This creates that smoky environment the meat needs without cooking it over a direct flame.
Read this article to see how it is done: How to Turn Your Kettle Grill into a Smoker
These smokers, also known as Kamado grills, actually fall under the category of charcoal smokers. Shaped like an egg, ceramic smokers require more attention than your pellet smoker but less attention than the stick-burning smoker.
The fuel and regulation of ceramic smokers are similar to the charcoal smoker, using a combination of charcoal, wood chips, and internal dampers.
By reading my guide 13 Awesome Benefits of Kamado Grills, you can get an idea of why these charcoal smokers have become so popular.
How Does a BBQ Smoker Work?
Prepare Your Meats | Get Your Temperature Probes Ready | Get Your Fuel Ready | Setting Your Vents for Success | Temperature Regulation | Adding Wood Chips or Chunks for Flavor | Setting Up Your Water Pan | Be Patient
A smoker cooks your meat using a combination of smoke and heat. It requires a chamber to regulate the temperature and a tight seal, so no smoke or heat is lost except through the smokestack (an exhaust pipe on the top of your smoke chamber).
Cooking with a smoker is done by using indirect heat (not directly over the fire) at low temperatures to bring the meat up to its final temperature slowly.
Slow cooking using a smoker allows the meat to develop that signature wood-infused smoky taste while still staying moist.
You may have heard the term “low and slow” around the topic of smoking meats and that refers to the way you smoke meats at a low temperature slowly.
There are two basic categories that smokers fall under, whether they use direct or indirect heat.
Direct heat would mean having your heat source underneath the rack where your meat is sitting. Indirect heat would employ something called a firebox. This is a box on the side of your smoker where your heat source is kept.
The firebox allows for heat and smoke to travel into the chamber but does not allow the flame to get anywhere close to your meat.
Some smokers are also called “water smokers.” A pan of water is placed inside the chamber. The heat causes the water to make a humid environment for the meat to help maintain temperature.
Continue on for the basic steps to follow.
Prepare Your Meats
A crucial step to the smoking process is preparing your meats. Certain meats or items need to be cured beforehand if you choose to cold smoke them.
Using a dry rub or marinade can make all the difference when cooking certain meats. And don’t underestimate the power of salt to help brine your meat! It’s a game-changer when you do it right.
Pro Tip: Salt works magic on meat when used correctly. Learn how to dry brine your meat ahead of time by reading my guide How Does Dry Brining Work – A Grillers Guide To Dry Brining to really take your smoking to the next level.
Get Your Temperature Probes Ready
The temperature inside your smoker will either dry out your meat if it becomes too hot or leaves it undercooked if it is not hot enough. Unfortunately, if the temperature gets out of range at some point, it can be quite the endeavor to get it back to where it’s supposed to be.
That’s why we highly suggest using two digital BBQ meat probes. One probe is attached to your meat, reading the temperature from start to finish.
Meanwhile, the second thermometer reads the temperature inside the cooking chamber around your meat. Both are crucial to maintaining the heat for achieving that perfect smoke.
You can check out my recommendations here The 10 Best Digital Meat Thermometers.
Get Your Fuel Ready
The next step in cooking your meat is to prepare your fuel for the smoking process.
This process will vary slightly depending on which type of smoker you have and what fuel choice you use.
- For Charcoal Smokers – it might be helpful to use a charcoal chimney starter to make lighting easier. Here is a helpful guide for using one: Charcoal Chimney Starter Instructions. Here are my recommendations for the best ones to use: Best Charcoal Chimney Starters Reviews and Buyer Guides.
Watch the following video for some great low and slow charcoal lighting techniques.
- For Propane Smokers – soaking wood chips ahead of time, unless you plan on using them dry (my personal choice) will be mainly the only prep work that will be needed. Just make sure your propane supply is enough to finish the cook.
- For Electric Smokers – make sure you are close enough to a power source and get your wood chips or chunks ready. This one is pretty simple.
While charcoal may be a better fuel for the long haul of smoking your meats, it wouldn’t hurt to throw in some wood chips with them to add flavor.
Here is a guide for the best way to arrange your coals for a long cook: Build A Long-Lasting Charcoal Fire.
Once your fuel is ready and the meat is prepped, it is time to move everything to the smoker.
Setting Your Vents for Success
The vents on your smoker are essential! Just like the vent on a chimney allows you to control the flame inside your fireplace or the floor vents in your home control the temperature of the room you’re in, smoker vents hold the same power.
While lighting your fuel, keep all vents open (top and bottom) to allow maximum airflow. Remember that airflow feeds a fire.
Because heat rises, the top vent allows the heat to escape.
You can adjust the vents to find the sweet spot of an internal chamber temperature of 225 degrees Farenheight.
Here is my in-depth guide that will help you to understand the reasons for each vent and how to properly use them for setting and maintaining airflow and heat: Using Grill Vents Correctly.
Temperature Regulation: Setting & Maintaining Your Temperature
Your smoker should maintain an internal temperature of 200 to 270 degrees Fahrenheit. Using your vents or dampers appropriately helps you control the temperature.
The lower damper will allow more airflow to the fire, thus increasing the heat. The upper damper will allow heat to escape, thus bringing the temperature down.
If you find that the temperature is dropping despite adjusting the vents, it may be time to add more fuel to the fire.
See the section directly above for my guide on using vents to control the heat.
Adding Wood Chips or Chunks for Flavor
Using wood chunks or chips from fruitwoods, nut woods, or hardwoods provides a lot of flavors. You should only need a few wood chunks for the duration of your smoke cycle.
Position your wood chips or chunks directly on the coals for a charcoal smoker. Make sure not to set them directly on the hottest part of your fuel. The goal is to get the smoky flavor of the wood into the meat, not to have char and ash cover your meat.
Place the wood into the correct wood pans located above the fuel source on a gas or electric smoker or turn your pellet grill to the smoke setting to get the wood to start smoking.
Setting Up Your Water Pan
A crucial step to the process is to add moisture to the smoke by setting up your water pan.
If utilizing a water pan to keep your meats moist (I recommend it), fill this now and place it above the wood section. You can place a rack inside the firebox above the coals, then place your water pan on top of that.
This humidifies the smoke that enters the chamber and helps to lock in those smoky flavors in your meats. The humidity also helps maintain the heat by keeping the environment moist and cool.
Once you have your smoker to the desired temperature, (shoot for between 225 F and 250 F) and a steady smoke going, it’s time to get that meat onto the grate and close the lid.
As the saying goes, “Good things come to those who wait.” You may need to carve out several hours to see the whole smoke process through. Try to resist the urge to speed things up!
Give the meat time to cook through and tenderize. Collagen in meats like chicken turns to gelatin when slow cooked to 180 degrees Fahrenheit resulting in mouthwatering, juicy cuts.
The same is true for thicker meats like briskets and pork shoulder. Without the slow and low cooking process, these cuts of meat will not have the time to break down the connective tissues and make them more tender.
Learn to cook by temperature, rather than time. If someone asks you when the meat will be ready, answer by telling them it will be done when it’s done. The internal temperature of the meat will let you know when it is ready, not the clock on the wall.
Perfecting the Two T’s (Temperature & Timing)
With that patience intact, you’re equipped to balance temperature and timing.
Cooking at the correct temperature for the right amount of time are the keys to a successful smoke.
At this point, you will want to ensure that your smoker temperature stays at the correct temperature consistently for your cut of meat.
This is usually going to be in the range of 225-275 degrees Fahrenheit. The general rule of thumb for cooking time is 1 to 1 ½ hours per pound of meat, but it is always a good idea to double check.
Again, the keys to perfectly cooked meats that are full of flavor and still juicy are cooking at the right temperature for the right amount of time. Keeping your water pan properly filled will also help with this.
For more flavoring, add more wood chips or chunks on top of your fuel source to create a flavorful smoke. If the smoke overwhelms the flavor of the food, use less next time.
You will want to resist checking on your meat as temperature control is vital and opening the lid of a smoker can let out a tremendous amount of heat.
Try to check the meat only once an hour and check the food’s internal temperature with a meat thermometer to ensure proper cooking. Better yet, use a wireless remote meat thermometer so you can check the temp of the meat without opening the lid.
You will also need to keep an eye on your fuel, wood chips, and water pan to see if they need to be replenished.
Once you believe that your meat has finished, use an instant read meat thermometer to double check the internal temperature to ensure that it has reached the desired results.
Why “Smoke Flow” Is Important
To understand why proper ventilation or “smoke flow”, as it is often called is essential, let’s talk about what would happen if too much or too little smoke is flowing into the cooking chamber.
When using a smoker to smoke meat, it is not only essential for the smoke to be allowed to circulate the food but to also have a means for escape. Without the ability to escape, smoke will start to stagnate inside the cooking chamber and create unwanted results.
If you allow the smoke to loiter or become stagnant in the chamber, your meat will be getting too hot and will begin to dry out. Too much heat and smoke can also leave your meat with an ashy, charred taste.
Proper ventilation will help prevent this. Just remember to always leave an opening for the heat and smoke to escape, even if it is a small one. Experimentation over time will help you perfect the desired smoke flow for optimal performance.
For the best results, keep the smoke flow steady and consistent.
What Is the Smoking Temperature Sweet Spot?
Beef & Pork | Poultry & Sides | Wild Game
Knowing the sweet spots of both your particular meat, as well as the chamber itself, can mean the difference between an overcooked, undercooked, or perfectly cooked meal.
While it’s always a good idea to double-check these temperatures before you start, here are some suggestions that may help you get started!
Keep in mind that about an hour to an hour and a half of smoke time is required for every pound of meat that you’re cooking.
Beef & Pork
Beef such as brisket or prime rib do best with a chamber temperature of 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
Meatloaf is best a little hotter with a chamber temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hamburger needs to be the hottest, with a chamber temperature of 275 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pork meats such as baby back ribs, pulled pork butt, sliced pork butt, hot dogs, and whole pre-cooked ham do well with a chamber temperature of 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
Smoking times and temperatures can differ depending on the protein being cooked. Use our chart below to ensure you cook your beef and pork thoroughly.
Beef & Pork | Smoking Times & Temps
Baby Back Ribs
Whole Ham (pre-cooked)
Poultry & Sides
Poultry needs a chamber temperature of 225 degrees Fahrenheit to cook thoroughly.
This can include whole turkey or just the legs and wings, whole chicken, thighs, or quarters.
Popular smoked sides include Mac-n-cheese, corn on the cob, potatoes, and stuffed jalapeno poppers to name a few, and should be cooked at temperatures of 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
It is imperative that you get the smoking times and temperatures correct for poultry. Use our chart below to ensure you cook your sides and poultry thoroughly.
Beef & Pork | Smoking Times & Temps
Corn On The Cob
Corn On The COb
Wild game like venison tenderloin or venison roast needs a chamber temperature of 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you want to dry out the meat, such as when making jerky, the temperature is brought low to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Smoking times and temperatures are much easier to navigate when it comes to wild game like venison. Use our chart below to ensure you cook your wild game correctly.
Smoking Times & Temps
What Are the Best Woods for Smoking Beef, Pork Chicken & Seafood?
Best Woods for Smoking Beef | Best Woods for Smoking Pork | Best Woods for Smoking Chicken | Best Woods for Smoking Seafood
Different woods can give your meats different flavors and aromas. But how do you know which wood to choose for the kind of meat you’re cooking?
For example, lighter and sweeter woods pair best with seafood and chicken while stronger flavored woods like hickory and mesquite pair best with beef and pork. Once you know the basics, it’s fun to experiment or even combine different woods to see which flavors work best for you.
It’s important to know that not all meats absorb flavors the same way. But don’t worry, we’ve got what you need to know right here!
Best Woods for Smoking Beef
Beef is more challenging for the smoke to penetrate than chicken or seafood.
So, it would be best if you had a bolder, stronger-smelling wood.
Such wood options could be cherry, hickory, mesquite, oak, walnut, or pecan.
You can try out other kinds of woods, but the bolder the wood aroma, the more flavorful the meat will be.
Best Woods for Smoking Pork
Pork falls into a similar category as beef. It’s a bit harder for smoke and aromas to get into the meat itself, so a strong wood is needed.
However, sweet flavors also pair very nicely with pork, so it varies a bit from beef as it gives you a few more options.
Some of those would be apple, cherry, hickory, mesquite, mulberry, oak, pear, peach, walnut, and pecan.
Best Woods for Smoking Chicken
In contrast to beef and pork, chicken absorbs flavors better. This means that a milder wood is needed for your chicken to become flavorful.
Some examples of wood that would pair well with your chicken dishes would be alder, apple, cherry, maple, oak, mulberry, pecan, peach, and pear.
Best Woods for Smoking Seafood
Seafood is similar to chicken in that it does not need those hard-hitting aromas to make an impact. Just be careful not to use too sweet of flavors as they don’t pair well with seafood.
Here are a few wood options that could make your seafood dishes stand out: Alder, apple, cherry, oak, and mulberry.
Below is a handy chart that shows the best woods for smoking Beef, Pork, Chicken & Seafood.
Best Woods for Smoking Beef, Pork, Chicken & Seafood
Using Wood Chips vs. Chunks vs. Pellets
Using Wood Chips | Using Wood Chunks | Using Wood Pellets
Not only do you have a plethora of options when it comes to choosing what kind of wood you’d like to use, but the size and style of that wood are up to you too.
In all honesty, there isn’t one right way and one wrong way when it comes to choosing chunks, chips, or pellets but comes options perform better than others in different situations. Here is the run-down so you can find what will work best for you and your meat.
Using Wood Chips for Smoking Meat
Chips are a good choice if you aren’t smoking something for very long. The thinner the chip, the quicker it will burn.
If you’d like your chips to last a bit longer, you can try soaking them in water for at least 30 minutes beforehand, BUT this is not something that I would recommend. Soaking your wood, whether chips or chunks will only end up producing more steam than smoke and can play havoc with your heat control.
Using Wood Chunks for Smoking Meat
As we said, the thinner the wood, the less time it will take to burn. So if you’re planning to smoke something all day, wood chunks would be a better choice.
Their thickness will provide a longer burn time and provide more smoke over the duration of the cook.
Using Wood Pellets for Smoking Meat
Pellets are the smallest of them all. Since they burn quickly, it would be the best and safest choice only to use them in a pellet smoker.
Smoking Tips & Techniques
Whether you’re thinking of smoking meat for the first time, or you’ve done it before, we could all use some tips, reminders, and helpful techniques.
Here are a few things to keep in mind to ensure your meat is the best it can be.
1. Loading your wood: Make sure not to be heavy-handed when adding your smoking wood. You only need a little at a time to get that authentic smoky flavor. If you overdo it, your food can turn out very bitter. It’s always better to underdo it than overdo it. If you prefer a little more smoke, you can add a little more wood the next time until you get it right.
2. Seasoning your meat: Your guests should walk away having tasted the best-smoked meat, not just the best seasoning. So be careful with how much you season your meat and with what. Remember to highlight the flavor of your meat and not overwhelm it.
3. Preparing your water pan: This water pan not only helps regulate the heat but can also moisten your meats. Try adding a few spices to your water pan or experimenting with different liquids for an added kick.
You can also place it under your meat to catch the drops of fat and reinfuse the flavors back into your meal.
4. Watching your watch: It is super easy to be tempted to check on your meat repeatedly but resist this urge! Once an hour is more than enough. Let it do its thing. Each time you open the smoker to check the temperature, it adds 10 to 15 minutes to your cooking time.
5. Seeing your smoke: The smoke that comes out of the vents can tell you a lot about what’s going on inside. Bluish or thin white smoke indicates aromas and flavors are doing what they’re supposed to. Black smoke indicates there’s too much wood, and it can leave your meat with a charred bitter taste.
Before it’s all said and done, make sure your meat has a nice bark on the outside (the spices, smoke, and fat that caramelize on the outside of your meat). When this happens, you’re on the right track.
Care & Maintenance for Your Smoker
Cleaning the Grill Grates | Cleaning the Interior of Your Smoker | Maintaining a Charcoal Smoker | Maintaining a Pellet Smoker | Maintaining a Propane or Electric Smoker
No matter what your neighbor says about your previous smoked baked-on food adding flavor to your meat, cleaning your smoker is essential for a great tasting outcome, not to mention a long-lasting smoker.
Over time, pieces of char, soot, or cooked on grease can build up to get on your fresh food. Not to mention that leaving these things behind can pose a fire hazard and result in carcinogenic material.
The residue left behind on your smoker is usually just carbon and can really ruin your next meal and degrade your smoker if not cleaned off.
Maintenance varies depending on what kind of smoker you have. But using a quality wireless brush or wooden scraper to get off grease from the grates is ideal.
You should also check your firebox for ash cleanup after every smoke.
If you see what looks to be peeling paint, this is a culmination of carbon, combustion by-products, and soot and can be cleaned with a putty knife. Otherwise, these flakes may end up in your food, ruining all the work you put in to ensure a crisp, smoky flavor.
Cleaning the Grill Grates
When smoking meats, the grease, rub, and oils tend to stick to the grates and get cooked onto them.
After smoking your meats, it is essential to clean this residue off of the grates to prevent it from building up and being transferred to future food that is cooked.
A wire brush or grill brush can make quick work of this right after you are done cooking while the smoker is still warm.
Simply scrub the grates and ensure you get most of the residue cleaned off.
For a more in-depth guide check out How To Clean Grill Grates – The Ultimate Guide On Grill Grate Cleaning And Care
To see my recommended grill brushes for cleaning grates, check out this guide Best Bristle Free Grill Brushes
Cleaning the Interior of Your Smoker
If you take a look at the inside of your smoker, you will most likely notice a thin coat of carbon after a few smoking sessions.
This is totally normal and does not pose any short-term potential problems. What you are looking for is scaling, which looks like peeling paint.
This is a buildup of the carbon, soot, and by-products of combustion that have started to break down and peel off.
This scale has the potential to fall onto unsuspecting food or actually igniting and causing a fire so keeping it cleaned is vital.
To clean scale, simply scrape it off with a plastic putty knife and use a shop vac to get it all out.
Maintaining a Charcoal Smoker
If you have a charcoal grill, you are going to want to periodically check the coal grate.
This grate tends to corrode or warp due to the high temperatures it endures. If you find out yours is warped, it is best to order a replacement as trying to straighten them can cause them to crack.
It is also a good idea to check for ash buildup where the charcoal sits after every smoke.
Not only does the ash buildup prevent good airflow and heat distribution, but it can also hold moisture and hold chemicals that can do a number on steel parts and the flavor of your food.
Pro Tip – use a plastic water jug with the bottom cut out to help scoop the ash out.
Maintaining a Pellet Smoker
Pellet smokers generally do not need much maintaining outside of cleaning some build-up around the deflector plate and cleaning out the ash from the firebox.
Maintain and clean the grates and interior just like you would any other grill.
One of the most important things to remember when owning a pellet smoker is to keep water and moisture away from the smoker.
A pellet smoker has many digital parts that can be damaged by water.
Maintaining a Propane or Electric Smoker
The convenience of a propane and electric smoker doesn’t stop at its operation, the maintenance is just as easy.
The main focus points are cleaning the grates, watching for scaling, and cleaning up any fuel residue which is usually kept to a minimum with propane smokers.
On a propane smoker, you should check the hose and valves for leaks at least once a year.
The Best Types of Smokers for Beginners
What if you’re just getting started in the world of smokers? It can be daunting to know what kind of smoker to get. And who isn’t intimidated by the possibility of messing up a smoke only to waste a good piece of meat?
Here are a few types of smokers that are beginner-friendly!
Electric, gas, pellet, portable, and gravity-fed smokers are all great for beginners. These give you the option to set your temperature and walk away.
Just make sure to look for a steel smoker with a tight-fitting lid or door that encapsulates the heat and smoke. Ideally, it would also include a temperature gauge, easy lower access for fuel and water refill, top and bottom vents, and trays for taking care of ashes.
BBQ Smoker Frequently Asked Questions
Do I Need to Flip the Meat When Using a Smoker? | Do I Have to Soak My Wood When Smoking Meat? | Can I Marinate Meats Before Smoking Them? | Why Do You Add Liquid to the Drip Pan in a Smoker? | What Is the Hardest Meat to Smoke?
If you still have questions, we’re here to help. Our goal is to provide you with everything you need to know to be successful in using and maintaining your smoker for years to come.
If you don’t know much about the different types of smokers but are considering adding one to your outdoor kitchen, we’ve got you covered!
Below we provide answers to a few frequently asked smoker questions to get you started.
For a much more comprehensive smoker FAQ guide, check out these articles below:
The Ultimate Charcoal and Wood Smoker FAQ
The Ultimate Electric Smoker FAQ
Do I Need to Flip the Meat When Using a Smoker?
No, you do not need to flip the meat when using a smoker. It’s hard to break the habit of wanting to flip the meat, but there is no need! In contrast to grilling, smoking cooks your meat indirectly, not against an open flame. The ventilation and smoke flow allow for your meat to cook perfectly without you touching it.
The only time the meat would be disturbed is with a temperature check or when you add more fuel.
Do I Have to Soak My Wood When Smoking Meat?
No, soaking your wood chips and chunks isn’t necessary and I’ll tell you why. Soaking your chips or chunks can actually keep your smoker from working properly and lead to longer cooking times. It can also lessen the smoke flavor and will produce steam which will cause fluctuations in the temperature.
Can I Marinate Meats Before Smoking Them?
Yes, you can marinate meats before smoking them, and I actually highly recommend that you do! Marinating poultry for about a day before smoking can infuse more complementary flavors into the chicken and dry rubs work wonders for pork and beef. Marinades and rubs add layers of excellent flavors to your meat.
Why Do You Add Liquid to the Drip Pan in a Smoker?
Adding liquid to the drip pan can help regulate the temperature inside your smoke chamber. It can also help keep your meat moist and even infuse flavor into your meat if you choose to use apple juice or beer. However, no more than half an inch is needed. Otherwise, the smoke time may be extended.
What Is the Hardest Meat to Smoke?
Brisket is widely considered the hardest meat to smoke properly. It is known for being quite the crowd-pleaser and quite the challenge when it comes to smoking it. Because of its low-fat content, its leanness makes it challenging to get it really tender while still leaving it juicy without overcooking it.
Some inject a marinade into the brisket the day before to help with the tenderness.
Final Thoughts on Our How Does a Smoker Work Guide
The world of smoking meats is broad and endless. Therefore, it can be challenging to narrow down what you need to know, what you want to know, and what additional tips and tricks are worth learning.
We want you to have all the information you need. Starting from the ground up, we discussed what BBQ smokers are, how they work, and how they differ from other similar cooking methods like grilling and barbecuing.
Taking a deep dive, we looked at various meats, the kinds of wood that would pair best with each, and how to maintain their temperature for that perfectly balanced smoke.
You wanted the ins and outs of smoking to make the best-smoked meal, and we’ve given you a solid foundation. Now you’ll be well on your way to cooking up an exciting and tasteful experience for your guests.
For those who like to cook old school and don’t mind tending to the pit, a stick burner or charcoal smoker is perfect, and it is one of the most popular ways to smoke meats.
If you either don’t have as much time to tend to smoking or would rather let the smoker do more of the work, a pellet, electric, or propane smoker is going to be the way to go.
Food brings people together, and it’s something that will be remembered for years to come. With all the information you have under your belt, you can get started on harnessing your craft and taking smoking to the next level.
You’re ready to try out new technical skills and maybe even share what you’ve learned with others.
Now all that’s left to do is get out there and get cooking.
Now It’s Your Turn
Now I want to hear from you:
Which outdoor smoker have you used before?
Have you used a propane smoker and have any tips to share?
What features do you typically like to see in a smoker?
Are you going to be purchasing a smoker in the future? Or do you plan on looking at a pellet grill, built-in or standalone gas grill, or charcoal model?
Let me know by leaving a quick comment below.
If you still have questions, please feel free to send me a message.
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A backyard warrior, certified carnivore, lover of good whiskey, self-proclaimed grill master and I’m Living The Grilling Life!
I have a passion for cooking with live fire and smoke, no matter the weather. I’m a real person just like you, who loves outdoor cooking and BBQ. Food, fun, and time spent with family and friends are what it’s all about! It is my mission to take my passion and knowledge for outdoor cooking and all things BBQ and share this expertise in techniques and grilling equipment with you. In other words, Living The Grilling Life!
First of that was a heck of a read. Lots of great information packed into this one. I have had an offset smoker for about 6 years or so and love it. Once you get used to how each smoker cooks and when it needs more fuel it’s really simple to smoke meat, and enjoyable. I have been thinking about getting something new and am not sure which way I want to go. I like the convenience of the pellet grills and ease of use with all the blue tooth and electronics etc. So I may do something like that for when I don’t have as much time to watch a fire, but the price is up there a bit., also thought about a propane smoker. Just so many different options. There is just something about stoking a fire and keeping it going for hours on end. Thanks for the great read and all the information on this page. Soooo much information, tips and tricks on the site!