A critical step when you want to learn to smoke meat is to understand the way a smoker works. There are several designs on the market with similarities and differences in the way they make smoke. Today, we're sharing how the different types of smokers work so you can decide which would be the best for you. Once you know how your smoker works, you'll be able to control the temperature and the amount of smoke to perfect your grilling skills.
Common Types of Smokers
There are two essential types of smokers. There are pellet smokers and charcoal smokers. As the names imply, the difference is the type of fuel they consume. Examples of pellet smokers include the Traeger Ironwood 885, a personal favorite of ours. Charcoal smokers come in different shapes and sizes. One of our all-time favorite charcoal smokers is the XL Big Green Egg. We use both of these tools for smoking because they each create a unique smoke profile.
How a Pellet Smoker Works
Pellet smokers use hardwood pellets to produce smoke and heat. Pellets are fed into a burn box that smolders the hardwoods, producing the smoke. An electric auger draws pellets into the burn box from the hopper. Inside the burn box is an electric heating element that generates the ignition to smolder the pellets. The temperature of the cooking chamber determines how fast or slow pellets are fed to the burn box. The common pro/con is that these are electric smokers. Electric smokers require a place outdoors to plug in that is also not exposed to the weather.
How a Charcoal Smoker Works
The difference between an electric smoker and one that uses charcoal is pretty obvious. Rather than plugging in, you need to feed charcoal into the burn pan to generate smoke and heat. The basic design uses a pan that contains the coals, a plate or water pan to prevent direct heat from hitting the cooking chamber, and a grill for the meat to cook on. This is called a vertical smoker. There are also smoker designs that supply smoke and heat indirectly. These are called offset smokers. An offset smoker has a burn box separate from the cooking area. Ventilation draws the heat and smoke from the burn box into the cooking area.
The Difference Between Smoking, Barbecuing, and Grilling
The way you cook your meat impacts the texture, flavor, and appearance of the finished product. The main difference between barbecuing and grilling is that barbecue uses charcoal to cook, while grilling is done on a gas range. Barbecue is done with the lid closed to capture the hot air and smoke, while grilling is done over direct flame with the lid up.
Gas grills are not appropriate for smoking meat and tend to give little to no flavor. However, a gas grill will give you excellent appearance and temperature easily. You can usually cook at low temperatures all the way to 700 degrees with a gas grill.
Barbecues can function as a smoker if you set them up correctly. A barbecue provides lots of flavor from the type of charcoal you use. They also will provide an appealing-looking meat that is the correct temperature. Maintaining temperature is significantly more challenging on a barbecue than it is on a gas grill. An experienced barbecuer can maintain very low temperatures all the way up to searing temps on a charcoal grill.
Smokers are intended to cook low and slow. That means hitting and keeping low temps for many, many hours. Some types of smokers like the Big Green Egg and other kamado-style charcoal smokers also work very well as barbecues. When you smoke, you want to slowly increase the temperature of the meat up to a designated temperature.
Our Guide to Using an Outdoor Smoker
Now that you know the different types of smokers, let's discuss the basics of how to operate one. There are certain aspects of the process that all types of smokers have in common. The first thing you will want to do is invest in good-quality fuel. We like pellets from Traeger and lump charcoal from Rockwood. There are tons of brands on the market, but both of these have delivered consistently high quality products that we can count on.
Before you begin to use your smoker, you'll want to figure out where the dampers are. The dampers are methods of adding or reducing airflow through the burn box and smoker. This is your primary method of controlling temperature, and you'll want to know exactly how to set the dampers when smoking.
Most smokers will have a bottom damper and a top damper. The bottom damper is typically a door that opens into the fire box. More air means a hotter fire, so opening this door will increase the temperature. When you are smoking, you'll want to have the bottom damper as close to closed as you can get it without smothering the coals.
The top damper provides circulation. The more open it is, the faster air and heat will leave. You will use the top damper for fine-tuning temperatures and containing the smoke at the correct levels. Many vertical smokers do not have a top damper. Instead, you'll need to offset the lid slightly at times to maintain the correct temperature.
How Do You Control a Smoker?
It's time to get to smoking. The key to smoking anything is to keep your temperatures low. You are aiming for a temperature between 225 and 250 degrees. At this temperature, the meat is going to cook slowly. You'll want to use a wireless meat thermometer to gauge the constant temperature while smoking. The advantage to this tool is that you don't have to open the lid to check the internal temperature of your meat. Every time you open the lid, the smoke escapes and the temperature inside the smoker drops. It takes time and fuel to get the temperature back up. With experience, you'll learn to gauge how long the smoker will take based on the size of the meat you are smoking.
Pellet grills and smokers often have a thermometer that you set to the desired grill temperature. Once the smoker is plugged in and turned on, the electric heating element will ignite the pellets and the auger will draw pellets into the burn box to maintain the temperature. The pellets will flavor your meat as they smolder.
Offset charcoal smokers require you to feed fuel into the fire to maintain a stable temperature. The best way to do this is to start your smoker with both vents wide open. Ignite charcoal in a charcoal chimney and add it to the fire box. This will help get the temperatures up quickly. Once the temperature is approaching the desired range, start to close the fire box door. You will want the door almost closed when smoking. The top vent should always be partially open. Your particular smoker and the type of fuel you are using will determine the amount that the top vent must be open to maintain the temperature.
Using Wood Chips on a Charcoal Smoker
Once your charcoal is burning and has a light grey ash coating, you can add two or three handfuls of aromatic wood chips directly to the coals. This is an area that involves creativity and experimentation, so don't be shy. There are lots of excellent combinations of hardwoods and fruit or nut woods that will add to the flavor of your meat. Add wood chips to the burn box every thirty minutes or so while smoking.
It used to be common to soak wood chips for several hours prior to smoking with them. The idea was to prevent the wood chips from burning. Science tells us that this is not the case. Water evaporates at 212 degrees so the wood won't start smoking until the water has evaporated. You get better results not soaking wood chips when smoking.
When and How to Use a Water Pan
Vertical smokers usually have some sort of a tray or pan that separates the direct heat of the coals from the cooking area. The Big Green Egg and many kamado-style grills uses a convection tray but smokers like the Weber Smokey Mountain use a water pan. The theory behind a water pan is to provide a heating zone that helps stabilize the temperature while providing moisture and preventing drippings from falling into the coals.
Some people are concerned that the evaporating water will steam the meat rather than smoke it. Instead, the moisture prevents the meat from drying out and helps the smoke stick to the meat. A water tray helps to produce the beautiful smoke ring you see on perfectly smoked meat.
What You Need to Know About How a Smoker Works Before Your Next Barbecue
The main thing to do is spend time with your smoker. It can be a little expensive, but it's a good idea to simply practice hitting and maintaining specific temperatures. You should use a variety of thermometers to ensure that your temperatures are accurate. Some built-in thermometers and temperature probes can be a little off, so you should never assume they are correct. A great tool for quickly gauging temperatures and getting to know your smoker is the Bearded Butchers Instant Read Thermometer.
You will want to experiment with the amount of charcoal and wood you use to determine how long the coals can go unattended. You'll learn through experience how much to start with, how often you need to add more, and what the best way to add more coals is for your meal. Some people prefer to add wood and charcoal directly into the fire box while others ignite it in a chimney first.
The more practice you get at maintaining temps, the better your next barbecue smoke out will be. Smoking meats is a fun and delicious way to get that smoky flavor that you crave.
Knowing How Does a Smoker Work
It doesn't matter what type of smoker you have or what brand it is or how much it cost. The main thing is that you learn to use your smoker properly and take advantage of the way it functions to smoke delicious meals. Knowing the way that a smoker works in addition to the smoking process, will help you smoke like a pro.
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