Get the answers to all your charcoal and wood smoker frequently asked questions in this charcoal and wood smoker FAQ. Learn more with the Grilling Life.
If you love barbecue, you know there’s nothing better than meat that’s been cooked low and slow until it’s pull-apart tender. Except maybe barbecue that you’ve smoked yourself in your own backyard!
If you want to get the same results you’d expect at a top barbecue restaurant in the comfort of your own yard, you’ll want to use what the pros use: a charcoal or wood smoker.
Smokers aren’t quite the backyard mainstays that gas or charcoal grills are, so while they’re gaining in popularity you’ll likely have a few questions before buying your own. That’s where our Charcoal and Wood Smoker FAQ guide comes in!
In this guide, we’ll give you a rundown of how smokers work, how to use and maintain them, how to troubleshoot any cooking issues you run into, and — perhaps most importantly — why you should add one to your own outdoor cooking arsenal.
At the end, we’ll give you a few parting thoughts and send you out into the world to snag a smoker of your own and start your low and slow cooking adventure.
Be sure to check back on this guide, as we often add questions and update the answers with new articles!
In This Article, We’ll Explore:
Click a topic below to be taken directly to that section.
Why Choose a Charcoal or Wood Smoker?
First and foremost, smokers are the best way to cook the same type of food that you’d get at a restaurant or barbecue competition at home — nothing else will come as close.
In addition to the flavorful, juicy results they produce, smokers are also easy to learn and use, fun to experiment with, and can cook up tons of food if you love barbecuing for a crowd.
Charcoal Smoker vs Gas Smoker
Charcoal and gas smokers produce fairly similar results and are nearly identical in size and cooking capacity. The primary differences are in how you use them.
Gas smokers are easy to light, maintain, and keep at a steady temperature but have more parts that could potentially fail. You will also get a Somewhat less intense smoke flavor using a gas smoker.
On the other hand, charcoal smokers have a steeper learning curve and are a bit harder to use, and require more heavy-duty cleaning but are incredibly reliable thanks to their basic construction. Why would you get a charcoal smoker? Flavor is the MAIN thing that matters to you.
What are the Main Types of Charcoal & Wood Smokers?
There are various types of smokers available including a ton of fun DYI options. Depending on what you enjoy cooking, your budget, and how much work you’re willing to put into smoking, one of these options will be right for you.
Offset smokers, also called horizontal smokers, are the original style of smoker. They feature a firebox that sits on the side of the cooking chamber to filter in that precious smoke and cook your food to perfection.
It uses indirect heat to cook low and slow barbecue. Many offset smokers can also be used as grills, and all models can use both charcoal and wood.
Vertical / Box Smokers
On vertical or box smokers, the heat source is located directly under the cooking chamber, which means your food will cook faster. They also feature a water pan above the firebox that helps keep food moist and helps regulates the temperature.
Most models of vertical smokers are built for charcoal and wood, while others can use gas and electricity — if you’re looking for authentic, smoky barbecue, opt for the charcoal and wood type.
Bullet smokers are sometimes called vertical water smokers and are basically vertical smokers in a smaller package. Bullet smokers are great if you want the experience of smoking your own meat but are constricted to a small patio, yard, or balcony.
Drum smokers are essentially steel oil drums that have been souped up to work as smokers with air vents, a chimney, racks, a charcoal basket, and meat hooks. They’re so basic you can even make one yourself if you’re not afraid of a bit of DIY!
Kamado smokers, also known as ceramic smokers, are perfectly designed for low and slow cooking. While they come in a variety of styles, they all have the benefit of being able to reach high temperatures and maintain them for long periods.
The downside? Their ceramic construction means they’re typically more expensive than other types of smokers.
Where’s the Best Spot to Use my Smoker?
You’ll want to set up your smoker where it’ll be protected from elements like rain and wind and get a good amount of airflow but not exposed to anything flammable. That means outdoors on a flat surface somewhere that’s not too windy but at least 10 feet away from your home or other structures (and the people you’re cooking for).
Do I Need to Pre-Season a New Smoker?
Not typically. Pre-seasoning is meant to remove any oil, dust, or other particles left from manufacturing. You should be able to give your smoker an initial cleaning using hot soapy water and avoid pre-seasoning entirely but check with your owner’s manual first to see what the manufacturer recommends.
How do I Burn in & Season a New Smoker for Cooking?
If you want to burn in or season your new smoker, light the fire, place any accessories or parts that would touch food inside, and bring it up to at least 250°F. Leave it to burn for a few hours to ensure any debris or impurities left inside the smoker have burned away. You’ll know it’s good to go once the interior has developed a slight black sheen.
Charcoal vs Wood Smoking
Using charcoal in your smoker is affordable and easy to manipulate – you can pretty much move it anywhere you want to work with both direct and indirect cooking. Unfortunately, it’s also the messier of the two fuels.
Wood, on the other hand, is cleaner to handle, contains no additives like some types of charcoal do, and lets you get creative by flavoring your food with different kinds of wood. The primary downsides to wood are that it can require more precision and monitoring than charcoal, and it takes longer to reach your goal temperature.
How do Wood Flavors Differ? What do I Need to Know to Get Started?
If you haven’t played around with different wood flavors before, start with some hardwoods like oak, mesquite, pecan, or hickory. Once you have those down, you can move on to types of wood that require more finessing and even blending different kinds of wood chips together to reach your ideal flavor.
What Type of Wood should I use in my Smoker?
You should opt for specialized, kiln-dried hardwood chips (best for short cook times) and chunks (ideal for longer cooks) for the best results. Stay away from softwoods since their sap can ruin your food as it cooks.
What’s the Difference between Lump Charcoal & Charcoal Briquettes?
Lump charcoal has no additives, lights quickly, and offers more effortless temperature adjustment than briquettes. It is, however, more expensive, less consistent in size, and requires more since it burns fast.
Briquettes offer a more convenient option since they’re cheaper, burn longer, and are easier to maintain a consistent temperature with. But those perks come at the cost of taking longer to light, creating more ash after burning, and leaving behind an initial chemical smell.
Are Lump Charcoal or Briquettes more Natural?
Lump charcoal is simply made by burning wood — there are no fillers or additives like briquettes have, so it’s charcoal in its purest and most natural form.
Does Lump Charcoal Burn Hotter than Briquettes?
Yes, it burns faster and hotter than briquettes which means you’ll want to monitor your temperature levels closely.
How do I Start a Charcoal Smoker?
To light your charcoal smoker, fill your smoker’s charcoal basket with about one chimney’s worth of charcoal. Fill your chimney again, add a fire starter underneath, and light it — it should take around 10-15 minutes for the chimney to fully light, and be ready to add on top of the unlit coals in your basket.
How do I Start a Wood Smoker?
The easiest way to light your wood is actually with charcoal! Light your smoker using the instructions above, but place a few pieces of wood into the basket around your coals (but not on top of them) to heat up.
Once your wood is heated, you can place them on top of the coals and wait for the smoker to reach your desired temperature. If you plan on a long cook, you can heat more wood by placing it next to the fire while waiting for the smoker to heat up and adding them to the fire as needed.
Do I Need to Preheat a Charcoal/Wood Smoker?
Whether you need to preheat your smoker or not depends on what temperature you’re aiming for.
If you’re going for high temps, preheating will take up quite a bit of fuel but help stave off temperature loss when you open the smoker to add fuel or food. Start small and keep adding charcoal to your fire until you reach the temperature you’re looking for.
Low and slow cooking won’t need much preheating.
How Much Wood should I use in my Smoker?
If your main fuel source is going to be wood, once your smoker is lit (use charcoal instead of wood chips for this step, to avoid burning through a ton of fuel), start with adding two to three logs of wood, then slowly add more until you reach your desired temperature.
If you are mainly using charcoal as your heat source and are only using wood chunks for smoky flavoring, add one to three fist sized wood chunks (depending on your preference) to your coals once your fire is established.
How Should I Store my Charcoal?
Store your charcoal sealed up somewhere that’s dry, away from fire, and where moisture can’t get to it. If your lump charcoal gets wet, it becomes harder to burn, while charcoal briquettes will turn into straight-up sludge.
How Much Charcoal or Wood should I Need Per Hour?
On average, you should add around five lit coals or one to two chunks of wood per hour to maintain your fire. This may differ depending on the circumstances.
How do I Arrange Charcoal for Smoking?
If you are using a charcoal grill like a Weber to smoke, there are a few different ways to arrange charcoal, but an excellent method for smoking meats like ribs or brisket is to pile the charcoal against one side of your grill. This will allow you to use indirect heat to cook your food low and slow, without being directly over the flame.
How can I tell when my Coals are Ready for Cooking?
The easiest and more sure-fire way to gauge that your coals are ready for cooking is by using a Wireless Probe Thermometer that lets you monitor the temperature inside of your smoker close to the cooking grate.
If you don’t have a wireless thermometer or like a bit of a challenge, you can also use your hand.
Place it five inches over the coals and see how long you can hold it there before it starts to hurt — more than 11 seconds means your smoker is at low heat, eight to ten seconds means medium-low, six to seven seconds indicates medium heat, four to five seconds is medium-high, and three seconds or less means the charcoal is at high heat.
What Temperatures should my Smoker Target?
That all depends on what you plan on cooking! For pork or beef cuts like brisket, shoulder, and ribs, aim for low temperatures between 180°-225° F that allow you to cook them slowly until the connective tissue breaks down. Leaner cuts like chicken and fish call for temperatures around 300°F or higher to cook them thoroughly and quickly without drying out.
Should I Use a Water Pan in my Smoker?
Water pans offer great benefits when they’re used properly! You can use a water pan to help absorb excess heat, give food an extra boost of smoky flavor, keep cooking temperatures steady, and keep the meat moist. If you’re cooking with indirect heat, a water pan can also serve as a heat deflector.
How can I Control the Moisture in a Smoker?
To control the amount of moisture in your smoker, it’s recommended that you spritz the meat with water or juice once an hour to keep it juicy but also help lock in the smoky flavors.
You can also use a water pan to create a humid environment inside the smoker that will add moisture to your food and keep it juicy. Just make sure to keep the lid of your smoker closed as much as possible.
Should I Use Wood Chunks or Chips for Smoking?
Both wood chips and chunks will get the job done for smoking; it just depends on what you plan on cooking. If you’re going for a short cook time, a handful of chips will work great. But for longer cooks (an hour or more), opt for chunks since they’ll burn slower and have to be replenished less often.
If I Use Wood Chips, should they be Soaked First?
Soaking wood chips doesn’t do much since water can’t soak that far into the chips. In fact, soaking your chips can even be detrimental to smoking since it can cause the temperature of your fuel to drop and make it harder to light or maintain your fire.
What is the Best Way to Use Wood Chips when Smoking?
The two main methods are:
- After your coals have burned down to where they are ashy white, sprinkle several handfuls directly to the coals. Allow the wood chips to start smoldering and then add your meat. Repeat this every forty-five minutes or so.
- Using the next method, you’ll want to place your chips in something that can hold them and regulate the airflow, like a smoker box, mesh smoking bag, or a DIY pouch made from tinfoil with holes poked in it. Next, place your container on the hot coals and wait for the chips to start smoking. Once they do, you’re ready to cook! If you’re cooking with indirect heat, be sure to monitor your chips and add another handful or two every 45 minutes or so to keep the smoke coming.
What is the Best Way to Use Wood Chunks for Smoking?
To smoke foods with wood chunks, you don’t need a container as you do with chips. Instead, simply place two to three wood chunks on top of your ready-to-cook on coals. You can add more if the smoke dies down.
What’s the Best Way to Control Air Flow on a Smoker?
To control airflow in your smoker, avoid using things like tin foil over your racks that could block air. You should also be sure you’re using your air vents correctly.
You can learn how in our guide here: Using Grill Vents Correctly – Controlling Temperature With Vents
How can I Check for Accurate Temperatures while Smoking?
The best way to check the smoker temperature is to invest in a wireless thermometer that allows you to check the temperature without lifting the lid — you can check out our recommendations for the Best Wireless Probe Thermometer.
It’s also wise to get a barbecue temperature controller, which allows you to set a temperature and forget about it as the controller automates airflow regulation. Our favorite controllers can be found in my article Best Barbecue Temperature Controllers.
How can I Tell if my Smoker is Producing the Right Amount of Smoke?
Smoke imparts a strong flavor to your food, so if you see super thick dark smoke, you may overwhelm the taste of the meat. It is best to wait until the smoke settles after a while. The ideal smoke should be wispy, thin, almost blue, and hard to see — a little goes a long way!
Why am I Burning Through Wood or Charcoal so Quickly?
If your fuel is burning too quickly, it’s most likely because there’s too much air getting into your smoker. Make sure your vents aren’t open too much or that there’s another way for too much air to get inside the smoker.
Another reason fuel burns too quickly is that it’s too close to the heat source. If you’re using wood, try larger chunks or logs. The bigger the piece, the longer it will burn.
If I am Cooking Slow & Low, how do I Add Charcoal?
Adding more charcoal once your fire is already going can be tricky, especially if your smoker doesn’t have a door or hinged grates. If you have neither of those things, invest in long-handled tongs and a pair of Heat-Resistant Gloves to help you lift the grate and add more coals quickly.
What is the Difference between Hot & Cold Smoke?
The difference between hot smoking and cold smoking all depends on the temperature you use to impart the smoke.
Hot smoke is what most people typically think of when they think of smoking foods, including low-and-slow cooking. This method is used to cook the food while adding smoke flavor at the same time.
Cold smoking, on the other hand is when you add smoked flavor to your food without fully cooking it. This method takes more time and involves more preparation and curing of your meat, then cooking it at a temperature range that’s well below what’s typically regarded as safe.
As a result, it’s riskier than hot smoking, but the payoff is great if you take the proper precautions!
How do you Cold Smoke Foods?
To cold smoke, you need to dehydrate the meat, then hang it somewhere with good airflow anywhere up to 12 hours.
Once the outside of the meat has a dry, sticky coating around it, it’s smoked at a temperature below 90°F in a special smoker that’s designed to hold the meat away from the fire.
This process can often take days, depending on the size of the cut you’re cold smoking.
Should I Line my Grates or Racks with Aluminum Foil?
Nope! Despite how thin aluminum foil is, it can still block airflow and result in your food not smoking correctly.
How Often should I Clean my Smoker?
Clean any surface that food touches after every time you cook. Other than that, your smoker’s user manual should give you instructions about how often to clean the entire smoker, but expect to give it a thorough scrubbing once or twice a year or whenever the interior has too much creosote or grease buildup.
What is the Best Way to Clean my Smoker?
Wait until your smoker is cool, and then sweep out any leftover ash. Scrub the racks and drip pans with soap and water, and use a warm, damp cloth to clean off any sauce or marinade residue.
If your smoker has tougher, cooked-on spills, you might need to break out the steel wool or a putty knife, then re-season the spot with high-temperature cooking oil. If your smoker has any electric parts, be careful to keep water away from there.
Can I Use my Smoker During the Winter?
While you can smoke when it’s cold out, it will be trickier. Keep your smoker away from wind and rain, open the lid as little as possible, and consider investing in an Insulated Smoker Jacket to help with heat retention.
How Long will Smoked Food Last?
As long as you store your food properly in an air-tight container within 2 hours of cooking, it should last up to four days in your fridge or three months in a freezer.
How should I Store my Smoker when not in Use?
You should be covering your smoker when not in use. If you don’t have a cover, you can bring it inside a garage, shed, or another enclosed area — just make sure it’s completely cool when you do this and never smoke inside.
Charcoal & Wood Smoking Tools and Accessory must Haves
While choosing your smoker is arguably the most crucial step of your smoking journey, there are a few essential accessories you’ll want to invest in before cooking.
A Charcoal Chimney Starter
A chimney starter is a must to get your coals lit easily and quickly.
You check out my recommended Charcoal Chimney Starters here: 10 Best Charcoal Chimney Starters
You can also read my charcoal chimney user guide here: Charcoal Chimney Starter Instructions, The Best Way To Light Your Grill
There’s a good chance that you’ll need to handle a hot surface, like your chimney starter or grates, while smoking, so get yourself a good pair of heat-resistance gloves. We cover our favorites in the below article.
You check out my recommended Heat-Resistant Glove here: Best Heat Resistant Gloves For Grilling
You have your smoker and the food you’re going to smoke, but now you need a way to get that food into the smoker and move it around. That’s where grilling tools will come in handy — we recommend the below site for some great options.
Here are some great Grilling Toolset options: Grilling Toolsets
If the hand test we described earlier doesn’t sound fun to you, or if you want to be able to safely tell the temperature of your food (which we highly recommend if you want delicious, safe results), a thermometer is a must. Check out our favorite instant-read thermometers and digital meat thermometers below for recommendations!
Check out my recommended Instant Read Thermometers here: 10 Best Instant Read Thermometers
Check out my recommended Digital, Dual-Probe Smoker And Grill Thermometers here: 10 Best Digital Meat Thermometers
A Good Grill Brush
Cleaning your smoker’s grill grate is essential to cooking great food — nothing spoils a barbecue like meat that’s been tainted with leftovers from the last time you used your smoker. Get yourself a solid grill brush, like the ones we cover in the below article, to make sure that doesn’t happen.
You can see my recommended Grill Brush’s here:10 Best Bristle Free Grill Brushes
A Guide to Smoking Meats
Smoking meats is an adventure, and it’s always a good idea to have a guide before you embark on a journey. We recommend This Guide to get you started!
Charcoal and Wood Smoker FAQ Final Thoughts
Smoking is one of our favorite ways to cook meat and enjoy time outdoors. If you’re ready to jump on the smoking wagon, we hope this Charcoal And Wood Smoker FAQ guide was helpful!
If you have any lingering questions about charcoal and wood smokers or want more information on choosing the best smoker for you, drop a comment below or send us an email. We’ll do our best to get you an answer and may even add your question to this guide!
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