How to Smoke & More: A Guide to Smokers & Smoker Grills
Smoking is the unsung hero of summer meals. Sure, it takes longer to cook your food (an excuse to relax with a drink, in our opinion), but the flavor and tenderness you get is next level. Find out what type of smoker is best for you, the best wood types and how to choose the right meats.
All About Smoking
Smoking meat is an art and a science, but with a little patience and the right techniques, you’ll enjoy delicious results. A smoker cooks meat “low and slow,” typically at a temperature between 225-275°F (it’s good to keep control of the temperature), inside a smoky chamber for hours (how many depends on what meat you’re smoking). Using indirect heat, along with a water basin and wood chip basin, the wood chips produce the smoky flavor and smoke (which should always be surrounding the meat in a thick, moving stream). And the water helps keep the internal temperature stable, so make sure the pan is always full.
It's a good idea to have two thermometers, one inside to measure the smoker temperature and one for the temperature of the meat.
Which Smoker is Right for You?
Simple and precise, high-tech pellet smokers combine the convenience of an electric smoker with authentic, real smoke flavor. Requiring electricity to run, a digital thermostatic controller regulates the delivery of wood pellets to the firebox, while a fan circulates the air and smoke inside the grill, keeping everything at a designated and controlled temperature. Many pellet smokers even include probes to check the internal temperature of your meat. In addition to being great smokers, they can also be used as an oven or grill, making them a handy, multi-use appliance.
Tips on How to Use a Pellet Smoker
- Season your new pellet smoker to remove residual oils from the manufacturing process.
- Get your feet wet with smaller cuts and fillets, like chicken or salmon that only need to be smoked for about 2 hours.
- Try the reverse sear method for chicken and thicker steaks. You smoke the meat at a lower temperature, then switch to a higher temperature once it’s almost cooked.
- It’s important to keep the pellet hopper full. If it runs out of pellets, check the manual before relighting.
- Place meats that can be prone to drying out, like fish or chicken breasts, in the upper rack of the grill. This protects them from the intense heat coming from the bottom. No upper rack? No problem. Use a wire rack and balance it on fire bricks. And be sure to place a water pan on the grate for added moisture.
This one’s for the traditionalists. Charcoal smokers use charcoal and wood to create deep, authentic smoky flavor. Most charcoal smokers suspend the food over the coals, drawing the heat and smoke up and around the meat as it ventilates through the top. Though heating coals and tending to the fire may be fun at cookouts, the potentially time-consuming process makes this style better suited for those looking for a hands-on cooking experience every time.
Tips on How to Use a Charcoal Smoker
- Prepare your fuel (standard charcoal works best). Soak wood chips for 30 minutes.
- Fill the water pan ¾ full with cold water.
- Light the coal using a charcoal chimney, or create a coal pyramid inside the smoker. The coal should burn until it has a thin layer of white ash. If you're using a chimney, you can now add the lit coals to your smoker.
- Add your meat to the grill grates.
- Control the temperature with the 2 vents - the lower vent allows air into the smoker for hotter temperatures, and the top vent allows air to exit.
- Add the wood chips among the coals, about ¼ of the way through your cooking time.
- Relax and let your food cook.
Propane & Gas Smokers
This type of smoker is easier to use than the others, with the exception of the electric smoker. Using natural gas or propane plus wood chips produces great-tasting results. Using a vertical model, these smokers have a burner at the bottom and shelving for the wood, water and food, and they’re topped with a chimney for venting. When using a propane smoker, keep an extra propane tank on hand to avoid running out of gas in the middle of your all-day cooking session.
Tips on How to Use Propane & Gas Smokers
- A big pro of propane is that it burns cleanly, so be sure to clean your smoker after each use to keep it this way.
- To achieve tenderness and smoky flavor, be ready for a lengthy cooking session.
- Give yourself space with a tall vertical smoker, or add bigger pieces of meat to wide smokers with a 2-door design.
Electric smokers are very easy to use compared to other smokers. They use a heating element, rather than burning wood or charcoal which keeps cooking and cleanup simple. Since they provide hands-off temperature control, you can set dinner up in the morning and let your electric smoker slowcook the meat to perfection. To give the food a more traditional smoky flavor, add wood chips.
Tips on How to Use Electric Smokers
- Season your grill before its first use to remove residue from the manufacturing process. Lightly coat the interior with cooking oil, and heat the smoker to approximately 275°F for 3 hours. Add wood chips to the chip tray during the last hour to create smoke that will prime it for future use.
- Use your own temperature probe, even if it has a built-in thermostat.
- Keep your smoker clean. Using a drip pan while cooking will help (clean the pan as well when cleaning your smoker).
Choosing the Right Wood for Your Smoker
Chips are coarsely chopped and ideal for smoking over shorter intervals. Chunks, which are larger pieces of wood, are better for smoking over longer periods. Though matching wood with meat isn’t mandatory, the right combo can enhance the overall flavor. Here are a few pairings to get you started:
- Beef: Cherry, hickory, mesquite, oak, pecan or walnut
- Chicken: Alder, apple, cherry, hickory, lilac, maple, mesquite, mulberry, oak, orange, peach, pear, pecan or plum
- Pork: Alder, apple, cherry, hickory, lilac, maple, mulberry, oak, orange, peach, pear, pecan or plum
- Lamb: Apple, cherry, mulberry or oak
- Seafood: Alder, apple, lilac, maple, mulberry, oak or plum
Meats Meant for the Smoker
Even with the most expensive smoker on the market, you still need the right meat to take your food to the next level. Though you may be tempted to add your best cut to the smoker, the better option would be a fattier meat with lots of connective tissue. The classic go-to options of beef brisket, pork shoulder and ribs are all tough, chewy meats that turn out amazingly delicious and flavorful in the smoker, but don’t do as well when cooked other ways.
And how long should the meat stay in the smoker? This depends on the type of meat you’re smoking, its thickness and the smoker temperature.
Here’s a list of popular meats and approximate smoking times:
- Chicken Wings: 2 hours
- Brisket: 1 hour per 1 lb. of meat
- Pork Shoulder: 2 hours per 1 lb. of meat
- Pork Ribs: 6 hours for 1 full rack
- Turkey Breast: 35 minutes per 1 lb.
When smoking salmon or other seafood, try cooking it on a cedar plank. Not only does the wood board keep the fish from sticking to or falling through the grates, but it also infuses the seafood with a rich, smoky taste that complements its natural flavor.
Stoked to smoke meats yet? We have smokers, fresh ingredients and outdoor cooking accessories to create flavor you thought only chefs could achieve. And for more inspiration, be sure to visit our Summer Shop.