For many reasons, charcoal smokers can be a good way to go. For a novice wanting to give meat smoking a try, buying one of these smokers is the least expensive way to join the ranks of the pitmaster. And for excellent flavor, many believe that cooking over charcoal is unbeatable.
The Charcoal Pan
Vertical charcoal smokers are designed with a charcoal pan or charcoal ring in the bottom. This container is vented to allow the burning charcoal to "breathe". The larger the capacity of the charcoal ring or pan, the better. A ten pound capacity will provide many hours of uninterrupted smoking time.
The Water Pan
Above the charcoal container is a water pan. Filling the pan with water will prevent the charcoal smoker from overheating, plus it will help to keep the meat from drying. The pan can be filled with sand if a dry smoke is desired, or left empty for a hotter smoke. Ceramic smokers don't usually include a water pan.
There are normally two racks, or grates, in the vertical style charcoal smokers. One is directly over the water pan, and the other is positioned near the top of the smoker.
The temperature at the lower rack is usually lower that the temperature up above. In a vertical smoker, the heat rises, and the hottest temperature will be at the top.
If using both racks, place the smaller cuts down below, and the larger cuts above. This way, they should end up done at about the same time.
Intake and Exhaust Vents
There will be intake vents at the bottom of the smoker that are adjusted to maintain a desired temperature. Small adjustments in the intake flow can make a large change in temperature. The change is not immediate, either. It may take from one half to one full hour to see the temperature change from an intake vent adjustment.
The exhaust vent can be adjusted as well to help in temperature control. It also allows smoke to pass easily through the smoker, which prevents the food from becoming bitter from the formation of creosote.
Charcoal Burning Methods
This is where experimentation and practice are required. Each type of charcoal smoker is designed differently. You will have to adjust the basic method for your specific smoker. There are a few different ways to go about burning the charcoal.
The entire batch can be lit at once and placed in the charcoal pan. You may get a couple of hours of smoking time without adding more charcoal.
You can add charcoal, either unlit or pre-lit, to the top of the charcoal in the smoker at intervals as needed. Many people don't cook over charcoal that hasn't completely ashed over, thinking it will add off-flavors to the food. I don't think it matters if good quality charcoal briquettes are used. If you are using lump charcoal, it's not a problem at all.
A progressive burn method can be used when a long smoking time is desired. This method starts with a pan of unlit charcoal in the smoker. Several lit briquettes are then added to the top. The charcoal slowly burns down. With this method it's possible to get a ten hour burn out of a full pan or ring of charcoal. This will vary depending on the smoker capacity and design. Visit my page
Charcoal Tips for more information about burning charcoal and maintaining temperature.
Ceramic Charcoal Smokers
Ceramic and earthenware smokers are considered by many to be the ultimate in charcoal smoking. The mass of the earthenware retains heat well and helps in maintaining a stable temperature while cooking. The Imperial Kamado grill/smoker and the Big Green Egg are examples of this type of cooker.
Smoking With Charcoal
Smoking over charcoal is a great way produce smoked foods. There is a learning curve involved while getting familiar with the characteristics of the different smokers. Once all the fine tuning and adjustments are figured out, cooking in charcoal smokers is easy.