BBQ Smokers FAQ

No matter the fuel type, smokers are amazing machines that get fantastic results. While they're generally simple, your first few barbecues on them can be anything but (at least, while you get the hang of them). That's why had our call center pony up their most commonly customer questions on the wild world of smokers. Anything you want to know more about? Smoker specialists are waiting to answer your call — give them a ring at 1-877-743-2269!

How do I check for accurate temperatures during a smoke?


This is less direct than you’d think. Though the feature remains in demand, stock thermostats simply cannot offer consistent — or accurate — results, at least not until someone invents a smoker with completely uniform temperature (spoiler alert: that’s not how heat works). The only foolproof method is a BBQ temperature controller, which will generally do all the heavy lifting of oxygen intake and heat management for you. You can also stand to invest in a calibrated thermometer. In particular, wireless remote one will serve you, as opening the smoker lid can introduce a sweeping change of variables.

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How should my smoker be stored when not in use?


Covered — although, “enclosed within four walls and a ceiling” is a suitable runner-up.

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What type of wood should I use in my smoker?


Specialized smoker-friendly wood chips and chunks — Hey, we sell those too! — will give you best results. Store-bought woods are often kiln-dried, which presents a harder difficulty curve in temperature and cook-time control. Avoid softwoods, as the terpenes in their sap will spoil your meat flavor (and some people feel poorly after ingesting it). Beyond that, common sense applies here: never use wood that has grown mold or fungus, or any wood that has been exposed to paint or chemicals.

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How do wood flavors differ? Where should I start?


Grillers newer to the smoking world might want to begin with a few simple hardwoods. Your usual gang here would be oak (mild flavor, slow and even burn), hickory (stronger flavor, also good for smoking), pecan (sweeter flavor, best for shorter smokes before the flavor overwhelms), or mesquite (even stronger, burns hot and fast with lots of smoke). Definitely experiment with this. Once you’re comfortable with the basics, try out the more complicated flavors — and for some expert-level smoking, trying blending different species together to introduce a more layered taste.

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What is the average amount of wood I should use in my smoker?


In an offset smoker, wood will be the primary heat source — you can expect to use a decent amount of the stuff to get the magic started. For all other smoker types, leave the bonfires to your local summer camp. Tastes vary, but a handful or two of wood chips (or a few wood chunks) layered atop your fuel source will generally be enough to enhance your meat’s flavor palate.

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Should I use a water pan? How can I get the most out of it?


To their credit, a water pan is a surprisingly versatile tool to keep on hand. It really belongs under the meat or over the fire. Properly placing a filled water pan will cover these bases: excess heat absorption, extra smoke infusion (as water vapor under these conditions will make the meat “stickier”), fewer fluctuations in your cooking temperatures, and greater moisture for juicier results. You’ll even get a makeshift heat deflector for cooking with indirect heat out of the deal.

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Where’s the best spot to set up my smoker?


You’re looking for three big ones here: safe from the elements, plenty of airflow, and near nothing combustible. Mastering the art of delicious, wispy blue smoke (for our purposes, the best smoke there is!) will require ample access to fresh air as your grill needs it. Meanwhile, your loved ones — and you, we’d assume — may find a low, thick cloud of smoke a bothersome experience, whether it’s from constraining your smoker’s emissions or daringly incorporating your home as a fuel source.

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Can I smoke during the winter?


In short? Sure, you can. It’s just more work. If you can see your breath at high noon but nothing will come between you and that brisket, the path of least resistance is to avoid wind and rain (note: this will never mean “smoke indoors”). Insulated smoker jackets work wonders to conserve heat — speaking of heat retention, opening your lid in these conditions makes a strong dent in your temperature, though you can master the art of the rebound. Practice maintaining heat with a few bench tests without food — as they say, there’s no substitute for experience!

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How do you cold smoke?


As this high-risk, high-reward technique involves your food remaining raw during the “cook”, bacterial inhibition is 100% your biggest priority. First, cure the meat by dehydrating it (salt works wonders for this, imagine that). Next, hang the meat among good airflow for 1–12 hours, which helps develops a pellicle (the dry, sticky coat on the meat that vacuums up delicious smoke flavoring). Once the meat graduates from Pellicle Academy with full honors, it needs to be smoked — below 90 degrees Fahrenheit, in a cold smoker designed to keep the meat away from the fire (which otherwise sort of defeats the purpose). Note that anything but the smallest cuts will likely take days to cold smoke. This won’t be done in a single afternoon in a chair with a bucket of ice-cold beers, though we certainly recommend that for passing the time.

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How long will smoked food last?


Cross-contamination is nobody’s friend, so proper food safety is key. Assuming that you both a) chill your spoils within 2 hours and b) store it tightly-packed (or better yet, vacuum-sealed), you can expect hot-smoked food to last about 4 days in the fridge or up to 3 months in the freezer.

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Do I need to pre-season my new smoker?


Generally, not really. Many grillers swear by the practice. This ultimately depends on the smoker itself. Pre-seasoning (in this context) is simply meant to remove oils, dust, and other debris left over from the manufacturing process. Depending on who you ask, these are things that can be easily handled by hot and soapy water, a clean sponge, and a pinch of elbow grease. The included owner’s manual will lead you in the right direction either way. On occasion, a manufacturer’s recommendations buck tradition, so always read up on their maintenance suggestions before first operation.

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What is a bullet smoker?


Named for its upright bullet shape, this peculiar smoker build is known for a few distinct advantages: they’re dead simple to use, reliably manage a cooking range of 225–250 degrees Fahrenheit, built lighter and overall smaller (here’s some napkin math: lighter times smaller equals more portable), and generally much easier to clean. You can also expect them to guarantee moist results in all but the most negligent of hands. Moisture is particular important during long smokes, contributing to their recent but consistent popularity boom.

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Should I line my racks and/or grates with aluminum foil?


Bottom line? No. Aluminum foil is thin enough to shred and mangle (particularly therapeutic, especially after dropping your last clean tongs), but it is still a sheet of solid metal. Seeing how smoke circulation in the cooking chamber is king, you’ll want as few solid surfaces between smoke and your food; aluminum foil is, well, a foil to that process. Pretty much the only people we see seriously suggesting it are in the high-stakes, pedal-to-the-metal business of selling you more aluminum foil.

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What’s the best way to control air flow?


Aaron Franklin, in his Meat Smoking Manifesto (p. 48), is all about airflow — he calls it the “most important characteristic” for a smoking pit. Start with a good fire, built with air gaps to encourage a consistent influx of fresh oxygen. Minimize things that would block circulation, such as aluminum foil on your racks (water pans and drip pans are okay — they serve an indispensable function and don’t create such a physical wall). Beyond that, it takes fine-tuning your intake and chimney vents, which inevitably takes practice… Once you get it down, though? The results will speak for themselves.

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How can I tell if my smoker is outputting the right amount of smoke?


Think of smoke as a strong seasoning. Less is more! Otherwise, you might render your meat borderline inedible; it’s a common rookie mistake to aim for thick plumes of smoke, which is overdoing it (if it’s dark like a train’s chimney, it’ll probably taste like one, too). With a keen eye for lots of air, great circulation, and solid heat, the best smoke you’ll get is thin, wispy blue smoke — and you won’t need a lot of it. In fact, it should be mostly invisible!

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Why am I burning through charcoal or wood so quickly?


This could be a few things, but it’ll usually come down to an imbalance between heat and air. The first thing to check is your vents — are they too open? Is too much air getting into the chamber? If the smoker isn’t airtight, oxygen could be overwhelming your careful fire conditions. Fuel catching on fire too quickly and burning into ash might be too close to the heat source. In the case of wood, consider switching to larger wood chunks or even logs — they’ll always hold longer under fire. You might also benefit from a BBQ temperature controller, which will regulate your vents to optimum levels.

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How much charcoal or wood should I need per hour?


This depends on your temperature goals: the hotter the heat, the more you burn! For slow cooking and smoking, you shouldn’t have to go through much charcoal —especially if you’re using lump charcoal, which should reliably burn for 4–6 hours (you are using lump charcoal, right…?). As a rule of thumb, it’s easier to build heat than lose it; start off small with 15-20 lump coals, or 2-3 wood chunks, then add as needed to reach temperature. Once the fire is done, maintenance could be as easy as another 5 coals at a time when the hour’s up (or 1-2 more wood chunks). Don’t use wood chips for this. Fire will burn through two batches by the time your hour’s up.

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If I use wood chips, should they be soaked first?


It’s time we firmly put this myth to bed — if anything, soaking the wood chips will hurt, not help, your cookout every single time. Water barely penetrates wood further than a fraction of an inch (recall, for instance, every Spanish galleon or raft that has ever touched the seas). The “smoke” you might see from soaked wood is really steam; the only real reaction wet wood will provide is to simply cool down your fuel source. If you want to make it that much harder to start (or maintain) a decent fire… sure, go for it!

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What is the best way to routinely clean my smoker?


Once the smoker fully cools down, gently sweep out the ash; it’s a magnet for humidity and will promote rust over time. Racks and drip pans can be scrubbed down with soap and water. Wipe off any spilled sauces or marinades with a damp, warm cloth; tougher spots might require a 4–5” putty knife or steel wool (high temperature cooking oil can re-season these areas). Keep in mind that if you’re working near electric parts, such as within a pellet smoker, you’ll have to take care to keep moisture away from the electronics or the fuel intake. For example, dampness can effectively transform wood pellets in the auger into cement.

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How often should I clean my smoker?


Everything that touches food should be taken care of after cook. Beyond routine maintenance, consult your operation manual. If you’re reading this guide and firmly in the “Well, I don’t have a manual yet” camp, this often varies from “twice a year with a really good scrub-down”, to “not until necessary”, when the cooking chamber has started hoarding a creosote buildup or accumulating grease splatters like a treasured binder of baseball cards.

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Can I use an extension cord with my electric smoker?


Yes and no. Factors at play here include the wire gauge of your cord, the amps of your smoker, and the cord length. Beyond a point, longer extension cords enforce a voltage drop — consider that wire works like a water hose or a valve, lessening water pressure (or in this case, power) over a longer reach. You’ll rapidly see the ugly effects of this in everything from serious temperature control problems to outright fire risk. If you absolutely must use one? The shorter the cord and the greater the gauge, the better.

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What is the difference between cold and hot smoke?


Hot smoking is pretty much everything that comes to mind when you envision a smoke session, whether it’s low-and-slow or a more rapid cookout. The idea is to infuse all that delicious barbecue might into your meat through a flavorful frenzy of fuel and fire. Cold smoking is a significantly longer process — it involves curing and specially preparing your meat, then managing it below a typically safe cooking range. With ideal conditions and a strict awareness of risk, the taste can be quite extraordinary.

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How can I control moisture in my smoker?


There are three things you can do here: first, spritz the meat with liquid about once an hour — water or juice will not only raise humidity and moisten the meat, but smoke is drawn to damp surfaces like moths to a flame. Ideally, a water pan is right at home in these conditions. Lastly, keep the smoker lid closed as often as possible.

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What temperature range should my smoker target?


You’re probably just as tired of hearing “It depends!” as much as we are about saying it. Beef or pork cuts (brisket, shoulder, butt, ribs, etc.) come held together with plenty of connective tissue. The longer you subject these to lower temperatures of 180–225 degrees Fahrenheit, the more those tissues will melt down into juicy, incredible treats. Lean muscle cuts (such as fish or chicken), on the other hand, always dry out with longer exposure to heat. You’ll want to cook these at 300 degrees Fahrenheit or higher; at these lower temperatures, chicken in particular is a magnet for bacteria.

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What voltage does an electric smoker require?


Electric smokers almost always draw 10–20 amps (we see 15 amps as a common sweet spot) and want 120-volt circuits. Depending on your setup, an outlet already carrying a load might pop the circuit breaker; it might serve you to ring an electrician, especially if a GFCI outlet is in the picture. If you have the means, and don’t mind sacrificing a great deal of flavor, electric smokers turn out to be quite inexpensive to run — compared to charcoal, it’s downright robbery.

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Can I mix wood pellet flavors?


Absolutely! This kind of experimentation is heavily encouraged. We asked around the office — a favorite that stuck out was a blend of hickory and cherry, which comes highly recommended for smoking pork. That one comes courtesy from one of our longest-tenured online sales trainers and smoker experts, who we all know is secretly a grilling supercomputer wedged into a human body.

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How should I store wood pellets?


Moisture is your arch nemesis. Your wood pellets want the driest place available. Pour them out of their original packaging into an airtight, sealable bucket — nowhere near a heat source of any kind. Note that storing unburnt fuel in your hopper exposes it to the elements, and is generally considered a reliable fast-track towards pellet rot.

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How do I know if my wood pellets are still “fresh?”


A simple test can be done in as little as ten seconds. Examine a handful of them for a sheen. Break a few of them in half — you’re looking for a satisfying snap. If these two factors are present, you’re good to go! Otherwise, it’s probably time to replace them.

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Should I preheat my smoker?


This depends on your temperature goals: the hotter the heat, the more you burn! For slow cooking and smoking, you shouldn’t have to go through much charcoal —especially if you’re using lump charcoal, which should reliably burn for 4–6 hours (you are using lump charcoal, right…?). As a rule of thumb, it’s easier to build heat than lose it; start off small with 15-20 lump coals, or 2-3 wood chunks, then add as needed to reach temperature. Once the fire is done, maintenance could be as easy as another 5 coals at a time when the hour’s up (or 1-2 more wood chunks). Don’t use wood chips for this. Fire will burn through two batches by the time your hour’s up.

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