Smoker enthusiasts will always insist that nothing else comes close to a properly executed charcoal smoking process to produce absolutely tender meat that falls right off the bones. Smokers also have a reputation for a mouthwatering smoky flavor that can hardly be replicated by any type of grill.
While your standard charcoal or gas grill is still great, no other type of grill really comes close to bringing out the rich flavor of food as a smoker does. It cooks food slowly at a very low temperature. Some call it the slow-cooker of grills as it cooks meals over a longer period.
Fans of charcoal smokers will tell you that, when properly executed, the charcoal smoking process produces meat that falls off the bone and has a mouthwatering smoky flavor. But while the smoker is great for preparing highly-flavored food, the fact is that using one is a lot more complex than using your regular kettle grill. You will only get great results if you know how to use it properly.
In this article, we will go over some simple instructions on how to use a smoker grill, get the temperature right for different types of food, and calibrate your unit for perfect preparation. These strategies will help you cook great meals with smoker grills that everyone will love no matter the type of smoker you are using.
What Is a Smoker?
A smoker is a cooking device that is used to smoke foods over a long period. It cooks food with low indirect food heat typically generated by burning charcoal. But smokers can also be powered by gas or electricity.
A smoker is not the same as a charcoal grill. However, it may be possible to find products that feature both a smoker and a traditional grill component. Smokers are also commonly referred to as water smokers or smoker grills.
Smoker grills are designed to smoke food (typically meat) in its long horizontal chamber. Unlike with the traditional barbecue grill, the meat in a smoker is placed alongside the heat and not directly above it. The major advantage of this is that you get better control of the heat and you can easily replenish the fuel if there is a need for it without having to move the food out of the way. Adding wood or coal to the heat while cooking is easier too.
4 Components of a Charcoal Smoker
The components and design of your smoker may vary depending on the type or style of the smoker. A typical charcoal smoker features four main sections or components. These include the following:
- The firebox: this section of your smoker is where heat is generated. It is filled with charcoal that burns very slowly (a 10-pound charcoal bag may burn for as much as 10 hours). You will also be able to add wood chips to the charcoal to add a distinct flavor to the meat (more about his later).
- Water pan: also called the water chamber, this pan is located above the firebox and can be filled with water. The main purpose of a water pan is to regulate temperature since you want to keep your smoker at an optimal temperature for the best results. The water pan produces steam which can help complement the cooking process.
- Cooking chamber: this is the main chamber of the smoker where your food is placed. A smoker would typically feature cooking grates just like that of a standard barbecue grill in its cooking chamber.
- The lid: this sits on top of the cooking chamber and serves the purpose of locking the smoke inside. This is very important to the cooking process since smokers cook meat by permeating it with smoke. The lid will also have vents to release steam and smoke in a controlled way.
How Does a Smoker Work?
To put it simply, a smoke cooks food gradually and consistently using smoke and steam. This is what gives meals cooked this way a rich BBQ flavor. The smoker heats food at a consistent temperature for several hours. The temperature of the meat placed in the smoker will be the same as that of the air/smoke and steam locked inside the smoker. Your smoker will gradually tenderize meat for about 4 to 8 hours by delivering a consistent supply of mild to strong smoke. This is completely different from what you get with a standard BBQ grill where flames from the heat source cook and sear the meat in just minutes.
How to Use a Smoker
Although smokers can be powered by gas or electricity, for this section, we will be explaining how to use a charcoal smoker which is the commonest type of smoker around. Although a smoker operates based on very simple principles, it may take some practice to get things right. Even if this is your first time using a smoker, this guide should help you produce delicious and flavorful meat.
- Assembly and curing
If you are using a newly purchased smoker, then you need to assemble and cure it first. Assembly should be relatively easy. Just follow the instruction manual that comes with your unit. Pay attention to the positioning of the air vents and firebox as these are essential components of your smoker and the results you get depends on them.
Before you begin to use your smoker to cook, you need to cure it first. To do this, make a fire inside the firebox and get the heat up to up to 400oF. (200oC). Turn the heat down to about 225oF and leave this for several houses. The reason for doing this is to get rid of any contaminants in the unit. Curing is also known to add a distinct seasoning or flavor to your smoker.
- Get your fuel
Wood chips or good old charcoal briquettes are the fuel types commonly used for a charcoal smoker. Ordinary charcoal briquettes will burn at the right temperature and produce sufficient smoke for cooking. You don’t need a boutique or exotic lump of charcoal (it burns too hot anyway).
The wood chips help to add a distinct flavor to your meal. Cherry, apple, mesquite, hickory, oak, and alder are some of the popular wood chips that help to produce a rich flavor for your meal. Ensure that the wood chips and charcoal you use are chemical-free. This is important since it is the smoke produced from the chips and coal that cooks the meal and chemical fumes released as they burn can get directly into your meat which can be dangerous and unhealthy. You should also pre-soak the wood chips for about 30 minutes before their use.
- Fill the water pan with water
The next step is to fill up the water chamber with water. Coldwater should be used for this. The water serves the purpose of temperature control so using hot water may be counter-intuitive You don’t need to fill up the pan to the brim. Three-quarters of its capacity should be good enough to do the trick.
- Lighting the coal
Your smoker should be placed in a safe space outdoors where it will not constitute a health or fire risk. However, even though a smoker is built for outdoor use, you want it placed in a place that is away from strong winds.
You can light the charcoal using a charcoal chimney starter. But if you don’t have one, you can simply stack up the coals to form a pyramidal shape and light it up. You can use lighter fluid to make this easier. You will need to get sufficient air around the charcoal so you should leave the smoker air vents wide open and let it heat up for at least 20 minutes.
Initially, the smoker may reach a temperature of 400 degrees. However, after a while, close the air vents to reduce the fire and reduce the coal to a smoldering state. Let the coal burn this way until it is coated with white ash.
- Meat Preparation
Meat preparation depends largely on the type of meat you are cooking and the specific recipe. But generally, you need to prepare your meat by marinating or dry rubbing it based on the recipe you are doing. It is recommended that you prepare the meat up to a day before you plan to cook it. You can store it up in a refrigerator overnight or even up to 1 day for great results. The specific steps to follow depends largely on what you are cooking.
- Adding meat to your smoking chamber
The cooking area should have barbecue-style grill grates in it. You can place your meat directly on top of these grates. The type of grates depends on the type of smoker you buy. Some units only have a single grate while others have up to 2 grates which allow you to cook multiple meals at the same time.
- Controlling the smoker temperature
This is perhaps the most important step in using a smoker. Ideally, your smoker should be at a temperature between 220 to 250oF. The exact temperature depends on what you are cooking with it. The smoker temperature can be adjusted and maintained using two vents (or dampers) on the smoker.
There is a lower vent for letting in air into the smoker. This allows you to add more oxygen to the fuel to make the coal burn hotter. The vents at the top are for releasing air from the vents. You can open this up (and close the lower vents) when you notice the temperature in the vent getting too high. Doing the opposite (closing the upper vents and opening the lower one) will increase the temperature in the smoker.
Most units feature their inbuilt thermometer designed to make it easier for you to monitor the temperature. However, most in-built thermometers have a notorious reputation for being inaccurate. Also, they only measure the temperature at the upper part of the grill and not where the food itself is. This is why experts recommended that you buy digital air temperature probes to serve as oven thermometers for your units. For even greater accuracy you can buy two to track the temperature fluctuations at the upper and lower parts of your smoker.
Note that the temperature within the smoker may vary from one end of the unit to the other. it is normal for the side closer to the firebox to be hotter than the other end. You can drill a hole on both ends of the cooking chambers and insert the probes. This will make it possible to monitor the temperature without a need to lift the lid.
The temperature of your smoker should be adjusted based on the type of smoker you are using (electric and gas unit burn hotter), the type of meat, and the size of each of the meat pieces. For instance, you will need to set the smoker to a lower temperature for fish compared to if you are cooking beef. Conversely, a higher temperature will be required for a large pork shoulder compared to small beef pieces.
- Add wood chunks for flavor
To add the signature BBQ flavor to your meat, you will need to add chips or chunks of wood to the flame and allow it to smolder consistently releasing smoke into the smoker. A chunk or two of wood per cooking cycle should be sufficient to infuse the smoke you need. Fruitwoods, hardwoods, and nut woods for cooking are known to deliver the best flavor.
If your unit is a gas smoker, then the wood chips should be placed inside a foil packet with about 6 holes pocked into it. Then place the packet close to the heat source to produce smoke. But for a water smoker, fresh herbs should be placed inside the water for the desired flavor.
- Add Moisture to the Smoke
You can add some moisture to the smoker or to the meat itself. This will help your meat to absorb the delicious smoky flavor a lot better. To do this, you can place a metal rack over the charcoals inside the firebox and add a water pan to the grate. This method humidifies the smoke directly as it goes into the grilling chamber. The other alternative is to spritz the meat with a little bit of water during the later stages of cooking. You may also apply a little apple juice to the meat for great results.
Cooking different types of foods of food with your smoker
No matter the type of food you are cooking, you will need several hours to smoke your food properly. For instance, whole pigs or a large cut of pork can take up to a whole day to cook to the right tenderness.
When it comes to smoking barbecue the goal is not medium-rare beef, but tender and moist cooked through texture. For chicken, it should be done theoretically at 165°F.
Collagen turns to gelatin inside the meat at around 180°F. This is what you need to target if you want a perfect soft texture. Briskets can go as high as 200OF or anywhere near that.
It is normal to experience what is called a stall about mid-way through cooking. This is when the internal temperature of your meat reaches and maintains a plateau for a while. You need as much patience as possible here to ensure the best results.
Most people use smokers for cooking large cuts of meat. They are designed to cook at a lower temperature for a long period and are great for these types of meat for juicier and more tender results. Meat cuts such as briskets, shoulder, or ribs are the most commonly cooked with smokers. However, you may also use a smoker to prepare hot dogs or sausages.
Generally, no matter what you are cooking, it is recommended that you only turn the food a few times during cooking. Opening the smoker lid too often to check the food will only lead to a loss of heat and smoke.
Cooking based on different Smoker Styles
Smokers can be powered by electricity, propane gas, charcoal, or wood pellet. Charcoal or wood pellets are known for their rich flavor. However, electric and gas-powered smokers are easier to use. They heat up faster and offer a much better temperature control,
Smokers can be vertical or barrel types. Vertical smokers are more popular. As the name implies, they stand straight up and this means they have a larger capacity for different types of food depending on the size and the number of racks. They are best suited for cooking for a larger group of people and are relatively simple to use.
Barrel smokers (or offset smokers) are the more versatile variety. They can be modified for direct heating when you install a grill grate over the regular smoker box. There are both vertical and horizontal configurations for this type of smoker. No matter the type of smoker you use, the steps to follow are similar to what has been described so far.
Additional Smoking Techniques and Tips
Generally, charcoal grills are known for their unparalleled taste and smoky flavor. However, gas and electric smokers offer the advantage of being easier to use and they are cleaner as well. To improve the flavor with this type of smoker, you can add herbs and spices to the water pan placed over the meat. Pay attention to the following tips for great results
The food will require a longer cooking time if you add more food to the smoker
Always have the lid of the smoker closed as the smoke is what it uses to cook food. You add about 15 to 20 minutes to your cooking time each time you open the lid.
Cook time may also be affected by altitude, external temperature, and other similar factors
Feel free to experiment with different temperature, wood chip types (for flavors) and find what works best for you. Specific instructions may also vary based on the ingredients or recipe you are working with.
Cleaning your smoker
Like your regular grills, cleaning your smoker grates after use is very important. To do this, you can make use of a wire brush and water. Although many people recommend not cleaning the rest of the smoker to retain flavor. But for health and fire safety reasons, you should get rid of grease and debris build-up in your smoker after using it a few times.
To clean your smoker, scrape out grease from the bottom of the smoker using the wire brush. You should also wipe down the sides and bottom of the smoker using a paper towel. Using a thin layer of vegetable oil around the smoker’s bottom can prevent rust. The vegetable oil can be applied to the exterior parts of the smoker as well to prevent the external paint from flaking off too quickly.
It takes a lot of patience and a little bit of skill to get the best results from a smoker. But it is a totally rewarding experience being able to produce tender and rich smoky flavored barbecue with a smoker. Whether you are using a charcoal, electric, or gas-powered unit, you can follow the instructions in the guide for great results with your smoker.