Every type of charcoal smoker and charcoal is different. With these charcoal tips and some practice, you'll be able to maintain the ideal smoker temperature.
Controlling the charcoal burn is where you will need to do some experimentation and fine tuning. There are a couple of ways to go about burning the charcoal in a smoker.
One of the most important things is to stay away from lighting the charcoal with lighter fluid. The petroleum flavor will get onto your food. If you must use lighter fluid, don't start the charcoal inside the smoker, or the smoker interior will get contaminated with the aroma of petroleum.
The best way to start charcoal is with a charcoal chimney. Newspaper is placed in the bottom with the charcoal up above. The newspaper is lit, and the flame starts the charcoal from the bottom.
Charcoal can also be started with an electric charcoal lighter, or with a propane torch. If you go to an industrial supply store, you may be able to get a bottle of MAPP gas. This burns hotter than propane and will get the charcoal burning more quickly.
For faster smoking foods, the entire batch of charcoal can be lit at one time, then dumped into the charcoal pan. With this method, you'll only get two or three hours of smoking time. Additional charcoal briquettes or lumps can be added at intervals to extend the smoking session.
For extended smoking times, a progressive burn method is ideal. To do this, fill the pan or ring with unburned briquettes or lump charcoal. Light twenty to forty briquettes and let them become ashed over. Add these burning briquettes to the top of the charcoal in the charcoal pan or ring.
The charcoal will gradually burn from top to bottom, providing steady, easily controllable heat to the smoker. A few wood chunks can be added to the charcoal in the pan, so that as the charcoal burns down, a bit of wood will burn along with it, adding smoke flavor to the food.
This method is known as the
Minion Method in the smoking and barbecue world. It works very well for low and slow smoking, but it won't work for high temperature smoking. And if you prefer all of your briquettes to be ashed over before cooking, this method is not for you.
There are a few types of charcoal to choose from. Lump charcoal and compressed briquettes are the two basic forms you will find. There are different types within these categories.
Lump charcoal is wood that's been heated to a high temperature in the absence of oxygen to drive off all the volatile compounds. The best is made from trimmings of desirable hardwood trees of known species.
Some brands use wood scraps from wood product manufacturers, so from time to time, you'll find lump charcoal looking like blackened window trim and such. Hopefully, these are not softwoods like pine, fir or spruce.
It can be difficult to control the temperature of burning lump charcoal. It usually burns hotter and faster than formed briquettes. There are differences in heat output and burn time from brand to brand and batch to batch.
There is usually very little ash produced when using lump charcoal. This is because there are no fillers included as there are in manufactured briquettes.
Good quality lump charcoal produces a very clean heat. Unburned pieces can be added to the charcoal pan throughout smoking with no worry of adding off-flavors to the food.
Charcoal briquettes are made of wood charcoal combined with fillers and ingredients. They are designed to provide very consistent temperature and burning times.
Binders are added to hold the bits of wood charcoal together. Other ingredients are added as well to give the briquettes even burning characteristics.
There are some charcoal briquettes that are treated with a lighting compound that makes them ignitable straight from the bag. I don't recommend these, since there is too much of a risk of affecting the flavor of the smoking food.