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Fire Building and Heat Management

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Note: If you're looking for a digital meat thermometer, my guide called “6 best digital meat thermometers” will help you decide which one is best for you.

One of the most important aspects of smoking meat is in maintaining the heat at a low range for multiple hours at a time.

This can be challenging for the seasoned expert and just downright frustrating for the beginner.

In this article, I am going to give you some tips that will help you with maintaining a fire that is perfect for cooking the meat very slowly.

We will also go over some basic smokeology.

Building and Maintaining the Fire

A large portion of this chapter is geared toward those who use wood and/or charcoal for fuel and will not apply quite as much to electric or propane smokers.

If you happen to have a pellet smoker, that's technically a combination of electric and wood and you can find some of my best tips at this page.

Unless you have a large smoker such as a Meadow Creek, Lang or similar horizontal offset smoker, you will probably not be using wood as a fuel source. It is more likely that you would use charcoal for heat and add wood sticks, chunks or chips for smoke flavoring.

Even in larger “stick burner” smokers, I have found that lump charcoal is still the best method for maintaining the heat and you only use wood sticks and splits for smoke.

Even if I start with a large load of wood in the firebox, I don't add the food and start cooking until it burns down to a good bed of coals. By adding lump charcoal from the git-go, you skip that step and get to cooking a whole lot faster.

Now let's talk about actual fire building–

The Way Boy Scouts Do It

In the event that you do have a really large stick burner then you may want to build a fire using the boy scout method which starts by building a small loose pile of kindling, paper, twigs and even dry leaves making sure that air can easily flow through.

Build a pyramid of twigs and small sticks around and over the top of this small loose pile of kindling. Once the fire is started and begins to burn pretty well, start adding larger and larger sticks and logs until you have the size of fire that you want.

Modified Boy Scout Method

Lay two or three medium size sticks parallel with a few inches of space between them. Place another layer the same way on top of them but perpendicular. Two or three layers is probably enough to start with.

Place old newspaper *sprayed with vegetable oil (*optional) with some kindling down under/inside the stack and light it. Be sure to add small twigs and sticks to keep the fire burning until the larger pieces catch on.

Once the smoker is up to temperature, continue adding wood as needed to keep the fire going and the heat at the level that you want.

Upside Down Fire Building Method

If you're not familiar with the “upside down” method, then let me tell you about it.

In essence, it is completely backwards from the boy scout method in that three large splits or logs of about four inches in diameter are placed side by side, butted together on the floor of the firebox. Three more slightly smaller logs of about two to three inches in diameter are placed perpendicular on top of the larger ones and butted together.

Another layer of even smaller sticks are placed on top of the second layer perpendicular and butted together.. about one inch diameter sticks are perfect.

Lay a section of newspaper folded in half across the third layer of wood then pile kindling on top of the paper. Light the paper which in turn lights the kindling. The kindling burns and slowly starts the smaller sticks below it.

The fire will continue to burn and as the coals from the upper layers fall to the layers below, they will catch on fire as well.

Pretty cool if you ask me.

Using a Charcoal Chimney

My favorite way to start charcoal is in a charcoal chimney. I have one made by Weber which will hold at least six pounds of charcoal. It looks like a large metal cylinder with a handle.

A closer look will reveal that the the charcoal sits on a wire cage and there is room at the bottom of the chimney to stuff some newspaper. Once the chimney has been stuffed with paper on the bottom and charcoal on the top it should be placed on a hard surface such as sidewalk, dry dirt or a paver stone.

The paper is lit from the bottom side and as the paper burns it catches the coals on fire and within ten minutes or so, all of the coal will be bright orange and is ready to be poured into the firebox of your smoker.

If the paper does not want to stay lit, spray it with a little vegetable oil and it will work much better.

Better yet, soak a paper towel in cooking oil (almost any kind) and light that. With the paper towel acting as a wick, the oil will burn for 10 to 15 minutes before burning up the paper towel. Plenty of time to get your charcoal going!

Tip: Alternatively, instead of using any kind of paper in the bottom, you can set the filled chimney on the side burner of your grill for a few minutes to light the charcoal. This works like a charm and is the way I do it most often.

Here's an article I wrote about using a charcoal chimney

Weed Burner Method

This is a real treat for some of you pyromaniacs out there.. get yourself a weed burner which is basically a special wand at the end of a three to four foot hose attached to a small propane tank. This unit was designed to kill weeds along fence lines and such but works really well at starting charcoal or even wood.

Place the charcoal or wood as you want it in the smoker and let this flame thrower light it up in a matter of minutes.

You may also be able to find one of these really cheap at Harbor Freight or Northern Tools.

Maintaining the Right Temperature

Building the fire is the first step but keeping the fire going to maintain a specific temperature is the second half of the equation and this is further complicated by the fact that every smoker is different. The metal thickness, size of the firebox and smoke chamber, location of the chimney, size and number of dampers, etc. all play a part in maintaining the temperature of your smoker.

Unfortunately, a large bit of this must be learned by experience.

I recommend practicing to find out what works best for your smoker and don't leave your smoker alone for very long while you are learning what is required to keep it going. My smoker does great as long as I throw a stick in it about every thirty to forty-five minutes. I have other smokers that are a little more hungry and need to be fed more often.

Some smokers will require you to constantly adjust the damper settings while others just seem to know what they are supposed to do and just do it.

I recommend not getting too worked up over temperature fluctuations. Your ideal temperature for most hot smoking is around 225°F (107°C) but when you are learning I would give yourself some slack and shoot for somewhere between 210°F (99°C) and 250°F (121°C)

If you are not having fun then it is work and that's not a good thing.

Instead of getting frustrated over it, if you are halfway through a cook and the temperatures just start going haywire, no one will fault you for putting it in a 225°F (107°C) oven.

At that point, you will probably have some good smoke flavor and it can finish with just heat. You can try to do it full time in the smoker next time.

Tip: When using charcoal, I recommend the 100% lump charcoal if possible. It burns hotter and cleaner than most briquettes. It is more expensive in most cases so that's a call your billfold will have to make.

Minion Method

This is a method of setting up charcoal so that it will continue to burn for many long hours unattended. In short, it is a pan full of unlit charcoal with a few lit coals placed on top of it.

The lit coals maintain the temperature of the smoker and slowly light the remaining charcoal in succession over the course of six or more hours allowing you to sleep or do other things while the smoker cooks your food at the correct temperatures.

Wood chips/chunks are dispersed throughout the charcoal to give off smoke as the charcoal burns.

This system seems to work best in charcoal smokers such as the Weber Smoky Mountain (WSM) with specialized baskets that allow a precise amount of coals to be poured in with plenty of airflow through the sides and bottom of the basket.

This type of basket can be used in different types of smokers but the size and amount needed to maintain heat will need to be adjusted for your particular unit.

The baskets I have seen are usually made from something like expanded metal and can be eight to twenty-four inches square and twelve inches or so deep.

The Water Pan

Ever wonder what the water pan is really for? It serves 3 main purposes:

  • To help control the temp inside the smoker. Water boils at 212°F (100 °C).. as the water gets hot it starts putting off lots of steam which mixes with the air in the smoker.
    This steamy sauna strives to regulate the ambient temperature in the smoker to its own temperature just as ice in a warm glass of tea affects its surroundings and brings the temperature of the liquid down to a much colder state like itself.
  • To keep the meat more moist in the smoker. The moist air produced by the steaming liquid from the water pan reduces the natural drying effect of heated air and causes the meat to end up less dry than it would otherwise.
  • To create an indirect cooking environment inside the smoker. The water pan sits between the fire/heat and the food in most smokers and forces the heat up and around the food rather than allowing it to hit the food directly.

Some pitmasters like to put various liquids in the water pan such as apple juice, wine, seasonings, etc. which they believe influences the taste of the meat. I have no solid proof that it really works but you can try it for yourself and make your own decision on that.

How Often and How Long to Add Smoke

The whole purpose of cooking meat outdoors in a smoker is to add smoke flavor..otherwise you could just cook it in the oven and be done with it. For those of you using wood for heat, the smoke flavor is there by default.

For those who are using charcoal smokers or even gas and electric, you will want to know not only how often to add wood but how long to add wood.

My general rule is to keep a light wood smoke flowing for at least half of the estimated cook time.

For spare ribs this would be about three hours since they generally take about 6 hours to finish cooking at normal smoking temperatures, for chicken you are talking about two hours or so since a whole chicken generally requires about 4 hours.

Here's a table of times and temperatures that will give you the expected cook times of various cuts of meat.

If you are using a strong wood like hickory or mesquite then this will give you good smoke flavoring, If you are using a milder wood such as apple or pecan then you may want to continue to add smoke throughout the entire process.

Watch the smoke and once it begins to dissipate, you will want to throw in more wood chunks or chips to keep the smoke going. This can be anywhere between every twenty minutes to every hour depending on your smoker and what type of wood you are using.

It also matter whether you just place the wood on the coals or if you place the wood in a smoking box and set the box on top of the coals or heat source.

Once again, these guidelines will get you started but practice will be your best teacher.

My favorite smoking wood is pecan.. it tends to give me such a wonderful flavor on almost everything that I cook. I also love mesquite and oak which gives great flavor to almost any type of meat.

What Kind of Wood to Use

I am not going to list every single type of wood that works well for smoking but as a general rule, anything that bears a nut or a fruit and is a hardwood can be used for smoking meat.

You should never use woods that are from a coniferous plant, evergreens, pine, spruce, cedar, etc.

I know what you're thinking.. many folks grill food on a cedar plank and yes that is true but, in my opinion placing a soaked cedar plank on a grill is just not going to produce the same type of reaction as actually burning the cedar and allowing the smoke to flavor the meat.

From my research, it is not recommended to burn cedar for smoking meat and I personally choose to not use it.

I received an email years ago from someone who claimed that he uses cedar all the time in his smoker. I am not the judge on this and obviously you can do what you want to do but just be careful as many of these types of woods can produce harmful fumes and chemicals when they are burned in the fire and it is likely that sickness could result from these practices.

Soaked Chips Vs. Dry Chips

Many people soak the wood chips before using them and while this can help them to last a little longer if you are throwing the chips directly on the hot coals, in my opinion, it is best to use the chips dry in most cases.