How To Use a Smoker

Pork Picnic In a Charcoal Water Smoker

Don't know how to use a smoker? When you buy a used meat smoker at a garage sale, the instruction manual is usually missing. And even if it's not, many smoker manuals contain at best, sketchy instructions.

So to fill in the missing information, this page provides the basic nuts-and-bolts information for using the two most common types of water smokers - vertical charcoal smokers and vertical electric smokers.

The Vertical Electric Water Smoker

Vertical electric smokers, also known as electric water smokers, are simple and straightforward. The electric element lies in the base of the smoker, usually on a bed of lava rock. The center section, which comprises most of the smoke chamber, sits on the base. The lid fits on top of the center section.

With the less expensive models, there's typically no temperature control. I have a Brinkmann Gourmet electric smoker, and found that when the weather is pleasant, the smoke chamber temperature runs in the 210-240 degree range. Actual smoker temperature is affected by wind and the outdoor temperature.

How To Use a Smoker -The Electric Water Smoker

Electric Water Smoker Graphic

Step by step instructions for using a vertical electric smoker.

  1. Place the smoker outdoors on a non-flammable surface, away from flammable objects (buildings, etc)

  2. Fill the water pan 2/3 to 3/4 full of hot water. Using hot water helps the smoker come up to the desired temperature more quickly.

  3. Plug in the smoker cord, directly into an electrical outlet. If you must use an extension cord, use as short an extension as possible of adequate capacity - at minimum 12 gauge, 10 gauge preferred.

  4. Monitor the temperature gauge on the lid. 220-240 degrees is the ideal range for ribs and brisket. Chicken and turkey can be smoked at that temperature range too, but are best smoked in the 275-300 degree range. With some of the electric smokers, it's impossible to reach those higher temperatures.

  5. Prepare the smoker wood by wrapping chunks or chips in heavy duty aluminum foil. Make packets that will fit between the loops of the heating element without touching. Laying the foil packets directly on the element can create hot spots, causing premature failure of the element. Form the packets into a long, narrow shape for best fit.

  6. Position one or two smoker wood packets in the smoker. When those have finished smoking, add one more. Continue adding new packets until approximately half the total smoking time has passed. For instance, a chicken, estimated to take three hours, needs about 1-1/2 hours of smoke for flavoring. This is only a guideline, and you may prefer to apply smoker longer, or for less time. Experience will tell what's right for you.

  7. Wipe a light coat of oil on the food grates to prevent sticking. Place food on the racks. The upper rack is more convenient to use, plus foods cook just a bit quicker there than on the lower rack.

  8. Use a good meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat so you know when it's done cooking. Undercooked meats can be unsafe, and overcooking can render meats dry and lacking flavor.

  9. When done, remove meats to rest and unplug the smoker.

Using Vertical Charcoal Water Smokers

  Using a Charcoal Water Smoker

Using a charcoal water smoker is more involved, since you'll be working with burning charcoal briquettes, but much is the same as when using an electric smoker.

Less expensive vertical charcoal smokers have no vent adjustment for temperature control, so use less or more charcoal for lower or higher cooking temperatures. It's an imperfect system, but with careful attention, these smokers do a pretty good job.

My charcoal smoker of choice is the Weber Smoky Mountain Cooker. Even though more it's expensive, it's well made and provides precise temperature control. A single filling of charcoal can last for 10 or more hours.

How To Use a Smoker -The Vertical Charcoal Smoker

Using charcoal water smokers:

  1. Position Smoker Outdoors see #1 above.

  2. Fill Water Pan see #2 above.

  3. Light Charcoal - Use a charcoal chimney to start briquettes before pouring into the charcoal pan. General guideline - one chimney full for foods taking up to 4 hours, two chimneys full for foods taking longer.

  4. Monitor Temperature see #4 above.

  5. Prepare the Smoker Wood see #5 above. Foil packs are placed directly on top of the burning charcoal briquettes.

  6. Place Smoker Wood in Smoker - see #6 above.

  7. Oil Food Grates see #7 above.

  8. Use a Food Thermometer see #8 above.

  9. Remove Meats to Rest

Experiment with different types of smoker wood for different flavors. Hickory, apple, cherry and mesquite are easily found, but don't be afraid to try other woods. Oak, both white and red are great for smoking beef. Pear is mild and well suited for poultry and fish. And even well cured black walnut (one of my favorites) has it's place as a smoker wood.

Learning how to use a smoker isn't that difficult. As long as you pay attention and use common sense safety practices, you'll be enjoying smoked foods for a long time!

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