Smoking meats are one of the oldest forms of cooking known to man and are a great way to seal in flavors in large and small cuts of meat.
Smoking is a form of cooking, flavoring, browning, or preserving food by the process of exposing it to smoke from burning different types of fuels.
The best way to describe it is by cooking meats for a longer period of time at a lower temperature using smoke from a fuel source.
There are several different fuel sources that can be used to smoke meats. These include wood, propane, and natural wood pellets. We will look at each to see which best fits your needs.
While the process of smoking may seem like an intimidating task, getting a better understanding of how it works usually makes even the most novice smokers a little more comfortable.
We will go over exactly how a smoker works, the different types of ways you can smoke your meats, and how to keep your smoker lasting for years to come.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- Cleaning The Grill Grates
- Cleaning The Interior Of Your Smoker
- Maintaining A Charcoal Smoker
- Maintaining A Pellet Smoker
- Maintaining A Electric Or Propane Smoker
How Does A Smoker Work?
A smoker works by utilizing the smoke from a fuel source to slowly cook the meat instead of using direct heat found on a standard barbeque grill or pit.
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.
1. The First Step Is Preparing Your Meats
The first step in the smoke process is to prepare your meats that are going to be smoked.
This usually involves marinating of dry rubbing the meat, depending on the type of meat you are smoking.
Pro Tip: Salt works magic on meat when used correctly. Learn how to Dry Brine your meat ahead of time to really take your smoking to the next level.
2. The Second Step Is Getting Your Fuel Ready
The second 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 – utilizing a charcoal chimney starter will allow you to quickly start your lump charcoal or briquettes for an easier start to your smoking.
Watch the following video for some great low and slow charcoal lighting techniques:
- For Pellet Smokers – pellet smokers do not require much to get started and the pellets do not need to be soaked prior. Just make sure you have filled the pellet hopper with enough pellets to last your entire smoke.
- 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.
Once your fuel is ready and the meat is prepped, it is time to move everything to the smoker.
Position your wood chips or chunks directly on the coals for a charcoal smoker. 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.
If utilizing a water pan to keep your meats moist (I recommend it), fill this now and place it above the wood section.
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.
Perfecting the Two T’s (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 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 internal temperature with a meat thermometer to ensure proper cooking. Better yet, use a wireless remote meat thermometer so you can check the temp 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 check the internal temperature to ensure that it has reached the proper internal temperature.
Types Of Smokers
There are several types of smokers you could choose from and each has their own unique characteristics.
Charcoal smokers are one of the most common smokers due to their history of being the oldest form of smoking.
These smokers are usually found in two different configurations, a bullet style smoker and an offset firebox style smoker.
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 the former in this article.
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.
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 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.
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 chips or charcoal, they use “pellets”. These pellets consist of condensed down natural wood that allows all of the air to be evacuated which creates a more intense smoke.
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 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 holds a large amount 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.
You can learn more about how a pellet smoker works by reading my article: What is a Pellet Grill? – An Introduction to Pellet Grilling
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 wood tray sits directly over the heating element and the water pans sits above that.
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.
Propane smokers are also an easier option compared to a charcoal smoker.
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.
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.
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.
Maintaining Your 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 and a long-lasting smoker.
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.
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.
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 it 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 has a tendency 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 heat distribution, 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.
Wrapping It Up
So now that we have covered how a smoker works, what the different types of smokers are, and how to maintain your smoker, you should now feel a little more comfortable grilling with any type of smoker.
Each of these options works great and can produce perfectly smoked meat. It merely comes down to your style of cooking and how much interaction you are willing to do.
For those who like to cook old school and don’t mind tending to the pit, a 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.
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?
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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