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You might think that cleaning your smoker is something that is just common sense but this question gets asked a lot and I figured now is a great time to go over my process for cleaning the ash, grease and other gunk out of the smoker.
I also have a video below where you can see me cleaning a pellet smoker.
This will be particularly important for those who use pellet smokers/grill but the same concepts will apply to most other smokers and grills including gas, electric, charcoal and wood smokers.
How Often to Clean Your Smoker
There is no hard and fast rules about cleaning but like most other things, this is determined by how often you cook, what you cook, and whether you use methods that help to keep your smoker or grill clean such as pans, foil, etc.
I do basic cleaning on my smoker or grill after every cook such as removing any food from the cooking grates and removing the (cooled down) ash from the firebox since that is corrosive, especially if it gets wet or damp.
I also do a couple of things right before I cook such as oiling the grates which is not really cleaning per se but I think it's relevant.
Here's my basic cleaning schedule:
Before every use:
- Clean outside of lid or door to make sure dirt/debris does not fall on food during cooking.
- Oil grates to prevent food from sticking.
- If pellet smoker, make sure burn pot is free of ashes.
After every use:
- Clean cooking grates with grill scraper or ball of foil to knock off large food.
- Wipe rubber gasket/seal around door with damp cloth to remove smoke residue and/or food. Universal cleaner can be used if necessary.
- Dishwash cooking grates if they are stainless steel or dishwasher safe. Otherwise hand wash them.
- Remove ash from firebox to prevent corrosion*. When ashes get wet or damp, it is corrosive to metal and will cause your firebox to deteriorate faster than it would otherwise.
*The ashes are very hot so it is best to wait until the next day after use to remove them from the smoker. The only safe option for removing them right when you get done cooking, while they are still hot, is to move them to a metal container with a tight fitting lid.
I often use a small dedicated shop vac to remove ash and other debris once it is completely cool.
After every 25 hours of cooking:
- Scrape lid with plastic putty knife to knock off creosote and burnt buildup to prevent it falling on food during cooking.
- If pellet grill, this is a good time to clean ash from body of the smoke chamber.*
*Note: ash can be allowed to build up in the body of the smoke chamber to help insulate the smoker and hold in more heat during the cold season.
Before storing your smoker or grill (those of you who don't cook outdoors all year):
- Remove all ash from the firebox and/or body of the smoker
- Make sure cooking grates are clean.
- Scrape walls of smoker with plastic putty knife to knock off any creosote, food or burnt on debris. (I prefer a plastic putty knife so as to not scratch the metal.)
- Clean inside light/lens (if any).
- Clean glass windows (if any)
- Clean chimney with bottle brush, plastic putty knife or other long-handled device to remove loose debris and creosote.
- Wipe down outside of smoker with all purpose cleaner.
- Remove all pellets from hopper (pellet smokers)
- Cover smoker or grill with grill/smoker cover or an appropriately sized tarp and bungee cords.
After getting your smoker or grill out of storage (those of you who don't cook outdoors all year):
- Remove cover
- Wipe down outside of smoker with all purpose cleaner.
- It's a great idea to wash the grates with soap but if they look okay and the smoker was stored in a clean environment, you can also just wipe the grates with a damp cloth to remove any dust that may have settled during storage.
- Look for and remove any spider eggs, dirt dauber nests, wasp nests, etc. that may have showed up during the long storage.
- Look for any rust spots and buff those out with a stainless steel pad. If the rust was on the outside, spot-coat with high temperature pain. If the rust was on the inside, the re-seasoning process will take care of it.
- Re-season the smoker (instructions below)
Methods to Keep Your Smoker or Grill Cleaner
- Use foil on the drip pans, heat deflectors, etc. to help aid in cleanup.
- Use foil liners in drip buckets (pellet smokers)
- Smoke on pans with a rack to contain food and grease and keep the smoker clean during the cooking process.
- You can also smoke food down in foil pans. I often cook pork butts and briskets in foil pans and not only do they end up perfectly smoky, the fat renders in the pan and helps to keep the meat juicy during the cook.
How to Season or Re-Season a Smoker
When you purchase a new smoker, you will want to do a burn in to remove any oils that may still be present from the manufacturing process. At the same time, the metal walls, lid, etc. is coated with cooking oil and with the high heat, seals the metal inside the smoker to prevent it from rusting.
After a long storage or deep cleaning of the smoker or grill, this process will need to repeated.
Follow these instructions or the instructions in your smoker manual:
- Make sure the inside walls and cooking grates of the smoker are clean.
- Spray a light coat of cooking oil onto the walls, lid, floor, etc. of the smoker. I use the cheapest spray oil I can find but some folks use lard, tallow or other oils.
- Light or start up the smoker and set the heat to about 350°F (177°C). If your smoker only goes up to 275°F (135°C), then that will also work.
- Let the smoker run for a couple of hours with smoke to burn off any manufacturing oils and allow the cooking oil to seal the metal on the inside of the smoker.
- Once the seasoning process is finished, you are free to cook in the smoker as you see fit.
⚠️Wire Brush Warning
Do not use a wire brush on or anywhere near the cooking grates!
It is possible for a small piece of wire to break off and stick to the grate where it later becomes attached to the food. This can cause severe issues in the gastrointestinal system and is extremely dangerous.
Use a balled up piece of foil or grill scraper to remove stuck on material from the cooking grates.
Do you have cleaning products that you like to use, special methods for cleaning your smoker, etc.? Post those in the comments area below!
Here's the video that I created a while back showing how I clean my pellet smoker