This page is for those of you who know little to nothing about smoking meat.. a place we have all been at one time or another. If you have questions like..
- Where does the charcoal go?
- Where does the wood go?
- Do I use wood or charcoal?
- Do I build the fire in the big part or the smaller part?
- What in the heck is a water pan?
..then this page is for YOU;-)
To get started let's back up and learn some technical terms from the dictionary of Jeff.
Charcoal: chunks of fuel that normally comes in 2 different types, briquette and lump.
Lump charcoal: Real hardwood burned down to odd shaped chunks in a controlled environment. This type of charcoal burns hotter and cleaner than any other charcoal and unlike briquettes is free of additives.
Water Pan: A pan for holding water in some smokers especially the bullet smokers. It is believed by many that the water heats and releases steam which helps regulate the temperature of the smoker to normal smoking temperatures.
Firebox: A term used to describe the part of the smoker where the fire is built. This is most generally used on horizontal smokers also called Offset smokers.
Smoke chamber: The larger part of a horizontal offset smoker. This is the area where the smoke and heat does it's job of smoke cooking the meat.
Damper: A common term for vents that allow air to enter/escape and thereby affect the airflow within the smoker.
Intake: The damper on or near the firebox which allows the user to open/close thereby allowing more or less air to the fire. More air= hotter fire/Less air= cooler fire.
Chimney: The round tube like device coming out of the smoke chamber which allows the smoke to escape from the smoker. Also called “the stack”.
Rain cap: A cap on the very top of the chimney which can be opened/closed in varying degrees to allow more or less smoke to escape. Also serves to keep rain out of the smoker which is how it got its apt name.
Smoking: Cooking at temperatures less than 250 degrees with the addition of smoke from various hardwoods.
Cold smoking: Applying smoke to meat i n very low temperatures so as to smoke the meat without necessarily cooking it. Usually around 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hot smoking: Cooking foods with smoke at temperatures ranging between 190 and 250 degrees. The goal is to cook the meat while also flavoring it with smoke from various hardwoods.
Grilling: Cooking at very hot temperatures normally in excess of 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wet/Sticky: Normally applies to ribs when they are basted with some type of sauce or marinade during smoking.
Naked: A term given to ribs when they are served with no sauce on them. Normally the sauce is served on the side and can be used if desired. Most naked ribs are coated with a dry rub prior to smoking.
NOTE: The next time you are in you favorite “Q” joint, order ribs and ask to have them served “Naked”. Hopefully you will get ribs with no sauce and not wet ribs served by a naked waiter/waitress;-)
Rub: A concoction of spices made especially for meat to flavor them and/or compliment the sauce.
Creosote: A nasty chemical that forms when the natural ingredients that make fire are disrupted such as shutting a vent to choke the fire. Creosote can also form on meat that put into the smoker too cold. For this reason it is recommended that you let meat sit on the counter for about 30 minutes prior to smoking to allow them to raise in temperature a little and reduce the risk of creosote. creosote is burny tasting and can make the lips and tongue feel numb when ingested.
First things first.. I am assuming you have some type of smoker. It may be wood, pellet, electric, charcoal or gas but it has some type of fuel source and and with the addition of wood splits, pellets, chips or chunks it produces smoke and makes the neighbors drool.
Let's start with charcoal..
Many people email me to ask where everything goes inside a bullet smoker.. here is the order of components from top down:
For the bullet smoker such as the ECB (El Cheapo Brinkmann) you will want to fill the charcoal pan up with charcoal and leave the door slight ajar to let air into the fire. Allow me to recommend a charcoal chimney for best results.
For the smoke you will want to make a pouch of chipsusing aluminum foil and soaked chip of your favorite hardwood.
With the charcoal pan full of glowing coals, a smoke pouch on top, fill the water pan with about 2 inches of water and place bottom grate into position. If you are only smoking a small item then will want to go ahead and put on the top grate as well.
Once smoker reaches about 225 degrees, place meat on bottom grate (if you are using it). Then place top grate into position and place meat on top grate. Quickly place dome lid onto smoker body and let the magic begin.
The trick is to not take the lid off unless you absolutely have to. These smokers will hold heat fairly well if the lid remains intact. Open the door in varying amounts to let more or less air into the smoker. Remember.. more air = hotter fire/less air= cooler fire.
There are also some mods that will help this smoker to operate better… keep reading.
Without getting too technical, you can drill 5-7 quarter inch holes in the sides of the charcoal pan to let more air into the charcoal.
You can also drill 5-7 quarter inch holes in an area that is about 3×3 in the top of the lid to allow smoke to escape easier. Cut out a 4 inch round circle from light gauge metal and attach at one edge of the holes so you can move it back and forth to cover the holes in varying amounts depending on how much smoke flavor you want.
There are also the various vertical smokers with a door that opens in the front giving you easy access to all of the grates, charcoal, water, etc. The main one that comes to mind is the Vertical Brinkmann. These units are about 18×18 and stand about 4 feet high.
The door opens in the front giving you access to the charcoal pan, the water pan, and the food on either of it's 2 grates.
These units have a charcoal pan about the same size as the bullet smoker however, the interior of the smoker is larger than a bullet smoker which means you could have a problem getting it hot enough.
I always use a full chimney of lump charcoal in the charcoal pan to get things started which will get it up to around 225. later into the smoking event, I will add some lump charcoal to the charcoal pan a few chunks at a time with a set of tongs. I have also been known to dump some lump charcoal into the very bottom floor of the smoker for added heat.
In my opinion these smokers are not well suited to long smokes such as brisket and pork shoulder. They do quite well for things that take less than 5-6 hours such as ribs and chicken.
The vents at the top should be left about half way open and the bottom vents should be wide open unless it starts to get too hot (unlikely with this smoker) in which you can close them a little to limit the air intake to the fire and cool things down a bit.
You will need to add more charcoal about every hour and since it takes about 25 minutes or so to get more charcoal prepared in the charcoal chimney you will need to get a little rythm going. About 30 minutes into the smoke time, go ahead and prepare another batch of charcoal so that it will be ready when the temperature starts to drop.
If you have trouble keeping the temperature in tow, just add minimal water to the pan (about an inch should be enough for about 1.5 hours) and be prepared to add some charcoal to the floor of the smoker if need be.
Horizontal smokers are normally made up of a large round cylinder connected to a smaller round cylinder. The large one is the smoke chamber and the smaller one is the firebox. Most of the time the firebox is lower than the smoke chamber(offset) to allow the heat to rise naturally into the smoke chamber. These smokers are sometimes referred to as offset smokers for this reason.
I have also heard these called “stick burners” which simply means it uses real wood instead of charcoal.
In my opinion, this is possible but not the best option. You will not find too many competitors that use wood instead of charcoal. The best flavor comes from wood that has been burned down to coals so whether you have a burn barrel and do that yourself or you buy lump charcoal.. that is without a doubt your very best option for flavor and fuel.
The advantage of horizontal smokers are that you have plenty of room for cooking and more than enough room for charcoal. The disadvantage is that they are known for being uneven temperature-wise. In other words, they tend to have hot spots by design. To correct this problem you can create and install a baffle just under the grate to better distribute the heat and thereby eliminate the hot spots in your smoker.
The best design I have seen for a baffle had slots or holes cut in them of varying sizes. Less openings at the firebox end where it is the hottest and more openings as you get away from the firebox toward the cooler end.
Another thing that tends to help some is sitting a pan of water at the hole or cutout where the heat is allowed to enter the smoke chamber. This will act as a baffle as well as create steam which will naturally seek to even out and regulate the temperature in the smoker.
Every horizontal smoker is different and with all the varying sizes it would be impossible to tell you exactly how much charcoal to use.. I would start with about 6 to 8 pounds for a medium sized smoker and you can always add more if you need it. You can also dip some out into a metal container if you absolutely need to drop the temperature real quick.
If you do not have a baffle installed, it is best to do most of your cooking in the center of the grate, halfway between the firebox and the far end. Too close to the firebox and you will burn the outside of the meat, too far away and it won't get done. Somewhere in the middle for starters should work fine.
Air flow is more important in this type of smoker than any other due to the design. Set the intake damper by the firebox to about 1/2 open and set the rain cap on the chimney to about the same. This should allow plenty of air into the firebox to keep the fire good and hot and allow the smoke to enter the smoke chamber, kiss the meat gently and exit out the chimney without getting stale and causing any harsh chemicals to form on the meat or smoker walls.
You may find on future smokes that the settings need to be adjusted a little.. and that is part of getting to know your smoker in an intimate way. Take good notes and make adjustments as necessary just don't ever close the vents all the way or you will be asking for lots of trouble in a very bad way.
No airflow = formation of creosote. Never close the intake or the chimney beyond 1/4 closed at any time for any reason.
Add charcoal as needed to maintain your target temperature. For smoke you can use chunks of seasoned wood, sticks, etc.. I have had great success using a coffee can filled with chunks and covered with aluminum foil with a few holes in the top. Place the can right down in the coals for quick smoking action.
Electric smokers are a decent way to go if you are looking for cheap, easy way to smoke meat. Most of these nowadays are cabinet style smoker and consists of a heating element on the bottom of the smoker with water pan and wood chip pan above that and then 1 or more racks for holding the food.
In most of these, the wood chips have to refilled about every 20-30 minutes so it's not hands off but it is very easy since the heat is controlled with a thermostat.
In this type of smoker, the element cycles on and off to control the temperature. This element is also what causes the wood to smoke so if you have issues getting the wood to smoke, simply hold the door open for a few moments to dissipate some of the heat and cause the element to come on.
I have written a good tutorial on using the GOSM or Great Outdoors Smoky Mountain smoker so I don't want to reinvent the wheel here but I will delve into the very basics.
I recommend opening the propane tank to full open and using the knob on the smoker to control the temperature if possible. Set the smoker to a good medium setting and try to get it maintaining about 225 degree for most items.
Fill the water pan with about an inch or so of water which should last about 1.5 hours in normal conditions.
Place a coffee can of wood chunks directly over the flame or use the metal box that most likely came with the unit. The difference is in the fact that the coffee can will begin to smoke within a minute while the metal box will take a while. I use a coffee can in mine that has been cut down a little to make it fit properly.
Once the smoker is maintaining about 225 degrees, place the meat on the grates and shut the door. You can expect to get about 30 hours per 5 gallon tank of propane in a unit similar to the GOSM.
You know those round chubs of Jimmy Deans sausage that is so good in the morning sliced, fried and put on a fresh buttermilk biscuit? Well, remove the plastic and metal rings on the ends and place it on the smoker grate for about 3 hours.
This can be sliced and used on biscuits, crumbled up in sausage gravy for an amazing dish or you can just slice it and eat it with breakfast eggs. Regardless, no matter how you do it, it is one of the best things you can do in your smoker.
TIP: you can baste with a little apple juice every hour or so to keep the outside from drying out too much.
Update: Try them stuffed then wrapped in a weave of bacon for something out of this world. Complete instructions HERE.
- Fill the chimney with lump charcoal.
- Stuff a sheet of newspaper in the very bottom.
- Set chimney on hard, fireproof surface such as concrete or your charcoal pan.
- Light paper in bottom with a butane lighter, torch, etc.
- Wait about 10-15 minutes for coals to start glowing.
- Pour charcoal into charcoal pan.
Tear off an 18×18 square of foil and place on flat surface. Put 2 handfuls of chips in center of foil and fold each of the 4 sides over so as to form a pouch. Poke a few holes in the top using a fork or other sharp object. Place on top of glowing charcoal for great smoking action.
I like to make up several smoke pouches and have them ready so that I can keep the smoke going with no lag time while I make another pouch.
Here's a tutorial with pictures on how to make these smoke pouches.
There is no accurate way to check the temperature of the meat aside from using a thermometer. Many chefs can get somewhat close by touch but a lot can change within just a few degrees so I prefer to use technology to nail it and get it perfect every time.
My favorite thermometers come from Thermoworks and they have some of the best handheld instant-read thermometers as well as ones that remain in the meat while it cooks. Many of these nowadays are bluetooth and/or wi-fi enabled and allow you to monitor them on your smartphone even when you are not home.
I use the Thermapen most often which reads in 2 seconds.. I can check a whole rack of chicken wings so quick it'll make your head spin.
I also like the Smoke and the Signals which both have probes that stay in the meat while it cooks. Peace of mind and a lot less running out to the smoker and opening the lid to check if they are done.
With things like chicken, it's even more important to accurately make sure the food is cooked to it's safe temperature before serving it to your family and friends.
Meat will continue to accept smoke flavor for as long as it is exposed. for this reason it is sometimes ok to smoke the entire time and other times you will want to stop prior to the meat being fully cooked.
Certain woods are stronger flavored than others. Mesquite is one of my favorites but I would never use it throughout an entire session. Apple on the other hand, I would happily use it from start to finish.
I have a rule that I follow and it usually lends great results. If I am using a medium to strong wood, I stop smoking when the meat reaches about 140°F and only apply heat from that point forward until the meat is done cooking. Of course this only applies to certain smokers.
Pellet smokers use wood pellets for both heat and smoke so you get smoke the entire time by default. Fortunately this is never a problem since pellet smokers burn wood very efficiently and the smoke flavor is on the milder side even if you apply mesquite smoke for the entire time.
These medium to strong woods include:
- walnut (very strong, not recommended)
Some woods that I have found to be lighter in flavor are:
The strength of the flavor is somewhat subjective in that it is relative to its seasoning process. Wood that has been dried for 6 months to a year will be stronger in flavor than wood that has been in the dry for 2 years or more. sometimes this history is not known making it hard to gauge the result and this is why I do not recommend applying smoke past 140 degrees most of the time.
All smokers are different and add in the other variables like weather conditions, wind, ambient temperature, etc. and things can vary by as much as an hour or more.
Learn to tell doneness visually as well as with temperature and time and you will be a much better chef at the smoker.
Note: Be sure to use temperature to tell you when the meat is done.. time is just an estimate and is NOT an indicator of doneness.
See my time and temperature charts: