How to use a Charcoal Smoker? A Beginner’s Guide

Nothing beats properly smoked meat on a charcoal smoker. When done rightly, the flavor and the taste are unmatched to any other smoker. However, using a charcoal smoker is a bit technical. In other words, …

How to use a Charcoal Smoker? A Beginner's Guide

Nothing beats properly smoked meat on a charcoal smoker. When done rightly, the flavor and the taste are unmatched to any other smoker. However, using a charcoal smoker is a bit technical. In other words, it isn’t a simple plug-and-play electric grill or a pellet smoker.

Working with a charcoal smoker requires preparation and effort; it demands continuous attention when you are smoking the meat. If you are a beginner and want to know how a charcoal smoker works, you are at the right place. By the end of this article, you will be able to decide whether a charcoal smoker is a right equipment for you or not.

Let’s get to know it better!

What is a Charcoal Smoker?

A charcoal smoker is also known as a smoker grill or a water smoker. It is different from a charcoal grill and uses indirect heat to smoke the food over a long period of time. It uses coals as fuel, and you can add wood chips to give flavor and smoky touch to the meat. Some brands also sell a combo machine featuring a grill and a smoker component. However, the best results come with a charcoal smoker.

The Components of a Charcoal Smoker

A charcoal smoker has 4 components. It is an upright device. A less number of components mean fewer moving parts; thus, it keeps your machine going for a long time. Let’s look at the 4 main parts of a charcoal smoker.

Firebox: Firebox is the main component of a charcoal grill. It is the area where the coals burn and provide heat to the meat being cooked. The choice of briskets or lumps depends on your preferences. Wood chips or chunks are also added over the burning coals in the firebox.  A 15-pound bag of charcoal can burn up to 15 hours. The time may change depending on some external factors and vent settings. 15 hours is more than enough time to smoke brisket, ribs, turkey, pork, and chicken.

Water Chamber: Right above the firebox is a water chamber, also known as a water pan. As the name implies, it is used to keep water in the smoker. The purpose of water is to control the coals’ heat and add moisture to the meat being smoked. If water is not added, the smoker’s temperature can get excessively hot, and you may end up burning the meat. When water is heated, it turns into steam. Steam cooks the internal parts of the meat and helps retain the juices and keep them soft.

Cooking Chamber: It is the area where you place your meat. The cooking chamber is just like a grilling grate on a standard BBQ grill. The size may vary from one model to another, but it is big enough to adjust a 12-14 pounds turkey on it.

Lid: The top portion of the smoker is called a lid. A standard lid on a charcoal smoker comes with an air vent and thermometer. The vents help control the temperature of the smoker, and the thermometer indicates the internal temperature. A lid is also located at the bottom of the smoker. Its purpose is also the same; control the temperature.

Charcoal Smoker – Usage Instructions

Step 1: Preparing your Smoker

The first step is to prepare your smoker. Make sure that the grill is clean and there is no grease on it. It is also best to take out all the ash from the last smoking session. Once the smoker is all cleaned up, proceed to the next step.

Step 2: Preparing the Coals

Now you need to heat the coals. You can use a chimney to burn the coals or burn them in the firebox. It is easier to heat coals in the chimney and take 15-20 minutes to start burning. If you are heating them directly in the firebox, you will need to add lighter fluid to get the fire going. It is best to go with ordinary charcoal briquettes. They burn at the optimum temperature needed for smoking the meat. If you go with some fancy charcoal, it will be consumed quickly.

Step 3: Add Coals and Wood Chips

prepare coals

If you are using a chimney starter, you will need to add coals to the smoker. Arrange the lit coals at one side of the smoker or arrange them at both edges and leave space in between to place the meat on the cooking grill. It will help cook the meat through indirect cooking and ensure that it is properly cooked within. Once the coals have been added, it is now time to throw in some wood chips. Wood chips impart flavor to your meat. It is better to go with wood chunks as they smoke for a longer time. You can use hickory, mesquite, oak, apple, alder, and cherry. Each wood has its distinct taste and flavor strength. Make sure you do some research for appropriate wood before adding it to the smoker. If you want the wood chips to last for more time, place them at the sides of the burning coals.

Step 4: Fill the Water Pan

It is now time to fill the water pan with around ¾ of its size. Use cold water. If you pour hot water, it will not be able to control the temperature. Hot water will boil quickly and vaporize sooner than expected.

Step 5: Once the water has been added and the required temperature achieved, it is now time to add the meat. Some smokers come with one grill, and some have 2 for cooking more meat at one time. You can dry rub the meat, or brine it. It is entirely up to you and your taste preferences. Preparing the meat according to your favorite recipe is the best way to smoke it.

Step 6: Maintain the Temperature

maintenance of temperature

First of all, don’t leave the lid open for more than 1-2 minutes during smoking. Opening the smoker lid forces the smoke and heat to escape and disturbs the cooking temperature. You will need to maintain an optimum smoking temperature throughout the smoking process.

The ideal temperature ranges between 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit. You must try to keep the temperature constant during the entire smoking process. Sharp changes in the temperature can cause the meat to burn or get too brown during smoking. The vents in your smoker will help you achieve the perfect smoking temperature.

How to Adjust the Temperature on a Charcoal Smoker?

A standard charcoal smoker comes with 2 vents. The one located at the bottom of the smoker controls the oxygen inlet, and the top one allows the air to escape. To increase the temperature, open the bottom vent, and to reduce the cooking temperature, open the top one. If the temperature falls too much, close the upper vent and open the lower. It will allow more oxygen in the smoker and reduce the heat leaving the device. A lot of smokers come with a built-in thermometer. It allows you to monitor the internal temperature. One of the flaws of using a built-in thermometer is that it may not work accurately all the time. You can buy a high-quality thermometer for an accurate reading.

Step 7: Checking the Coals and Wood Chunks

You may need to add more coals or wood chunks during the smoking process. You can also use paraffin wax cubes to keep the coals burning. If the surrounding temperature is too cold, the coals may not last for the entire smoking session. Just open the firebox and add some coals. It is better to add already lit coals. Unlit coals will reduce the temperature instantly, and when they start burning at full flow, they will give a sharp rise to the temperature. You don’t want that to happen. Add some wood chips as well. Don’t soak them like water in the wood chips will delay the smoking process and interfere with the grill’s internal temperature. You can check the progress during the smoking session but don’t do it very often. Once in an hour or so is recommended by pitmasters.

Step 8: Wait and be Patient

Smoking meat takes time. You must be near your smoker and keep a lookout for the internal temperature. Don’t open the lid time and again to check on the meat. You want everything to be perfect after giving so much of your time and efforts. Hence, be patient and trust the process. If you notice that the meat is getting too much brown, you can use aluminum foil to cover such parts. Generally, the legs and bones get extra brown during smoking. Wrapping them loosely in aluminum foil can avoid extra browning. Just a pro tip: Use a 12-inch long tong to adjust food on the cooking grill. It will also come in handy to freshen up the coals and getting rid of ash on them.

Step 9: Carve and Serve

Once the meat is ready, give it some time (10-20) minutes to let the juices settle in. Now, carve and serve with favorite sides. You can go with coleslaw, potato wedges, baked or mashed potato, or your favorite salad.

Which Meats are ideal for Smoking?

Tough cuts of meat are best to be cooked on smokers, such as brisket. If you want, you can smoke any meat such as pork, whole chicken, chicken wings, legs, or chest pieces. Ribs, pork shoulder, turkey, fish are also ideal for smoking. A very low temperature can also be used to smoke nuts and olives.

Cooking times for Commonly Smoked Meats

Please note that the cooking times given below are just an estimate. These times may vary from one situation to another and depend on factors like the starting temperature, cooking temperature, temperature in the surrounding, size, and thickness of the meat.

  • Whole Chicken: 2-3 hours with an average size of 4-5 pounds, internal temperature: 165F.  [See Complete Guide]
  • Turkey: 5-8 hours, 12-14 pounds, internal temperature: 165F. [See Complete Guide]
  • Pork Roast: 4-6 hours, 4-6 pounds, internal temperature: 180.
  • Pork Ribs: 4-6 hours, until meat starts to pull from the bones.
  • Pork Shoulder: 8-12 hours, 6-8 pounds, internal temperature: 190-200F.
  • Beef Brisket: 4-5 pounds, 6-7 hours, internal temperature: 190-200F
  • Lamb: 5-8 pounds, 4-6 hours, internal temperature: 150-160F.
  • Whole Fish: 8-12 pounds, 3-5 hours, internal temperature: 140-150F.

How to Clean and Maintain a Charcoal Smoker?

Charcoal smokers may look like rugged equipment, but they do need some care and love. Isn’t it fair to keep them neat and clean after using them for smoking delicious and juicy food? A clean smoker means tasty meat.

Cleaning and maintenance involve 3-4 tasks. You have to clean the cooking grates, remove the grease and carbon buildup, and getting rid of the ashes once the smoker cools down to room temperature.

Cooking Grates: Begin with removing the grease and carbon on the surface of the grills. You can use a wire brush or a ball of aluminum foil for this.

Cleaning the Interior: The inner sides of the smoker attract carbon, grease, and smoke. Over time, it develops into a scale and forms hard layers. It is very vital to remove these layers as this scale can make your food unhealthy. You can remove these deposits using a putty knife or wire brush. Use a vacuum to suck the scrapped pieces. If your smoker has a digital control or fans, don’t use water while cleaning it.

Thermometer Cleanup: If your grill has a built-in thermometer, it is crucial to wipe off its probe. A dirty or greasy probe will give wrong readings and impact the smoking process.

The points mentioned above are just basic guidelines for cleaning your grill. For a more detailed cleaning and maintenance schedule, refer to the usage instruction.

Final Words

Meat smoked on a charcoal smoker will be the center of attraction in any gathering. Every meat lover will love it. We suggest you follow all the above directions and adhere to the safety precautions while using a charcoal smoker.

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