How to Use a Charcoal Smoker: Definitive Guide

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Charcoal smokers have a reputation, maybe unjustly, for being a difficult kind of smoker to use effectively.

While a charcoal smoker is less user-friendly than, say, an electric smoker, with a little know-how, you can make astonishingly flavorful, restaurant-quality meals with little effort.

What you’ll need

How to Use a Charcoal Smoker: Definitive Guide

Before you start smoking, be sure you have the fundamentals in place. Smoking food does not need a lot of equipment, but a few extras may make the procedure much simpler.

A smoker

The first thing you’ll need to start smoking with charcoal is, unsurprisingly, a charcoal smoker. We loved the Weber Smokey Mountain.

This R2D2-style upright pill of a smoker is adaptable, well-made, and available in a variety of sizes to accommodate varied space needs. It can also be used as a grill in a pinch by removing the middle smoking chamber and grilling food directly over the firebox at the bottom.

Charcoal briquettes 

Your major fuel source will be charcoal briquettes. Briquettes are preferred over lump charcoal because they burn more consistently. If you want a more extensive analysis of the differences between lump charcoal and briquettes, we’ve done some research.

Wood chunks

The bulk of the excellent smoky taste in your cuisine will come from the wood bits.

Use wood chunks rather than chips, which will burn too rapidly. Don’t even try washing them; that myth has been disproved.

Different woods have distinct taste characteristics, with some being more suited to smoking than others.

As a general rule, hardwood is preferable than sappy softwood, which contains unpleasant-tasting terpenes. Woods with a moderate taste, such as oak and hickory, and fruit woods, such as apple and cherry, complement most dishes. Mesquite and pecan have stronger tastes that will overshadow gentler meals.

Grillinfools provides a nice explanation of the tastes of various woods and what meals to combine them with if you want to match your wood with the food you’re smoking.

Keep in mind that not all woods are good for smoking, and some might have a bad flavor or even be deadly. So stick to wood pieces that have been specially treated for smoking.

Charcoal chimney

A charcoal chimney is a great method to get your smoker going, and as we described in our post on how much charcoal to use, a chimney starter is a great way to measure out your briquettes.

Firestarters and a lighter

While a chimney starter is an excellent method to get your charcoal going, it will not fire your coals for you. You’ll need some firestarters and a lighter for this.

We recommend a non-petroleum choice for the firestarters. Lighter fluids and petroleum firestarters may leave an unpleasant chemical flavor in your charcoal. To keep our fingertips away from the flames, we recommend investing in a long-nosed barbecue lighter.

Leave-in meat thermometer 

A leave-in meat thermometer is essential for ensuring that your meal does not overcook.

We recommend the ThermoWorks Smoke, a tough small instrument that can detect both food and ambient temperatures and communicate data to a wireless phone up to 300 feet away. The Smoke is meant to measure temperatures over time and will sound an alert if temperatures rise over or fall below certain ranges.

Nice to have

How to Use a Charcoal Smoker: Definitive Guide

While the items on the list above are non-negotiable, there are several more pieces of equipment that, while you can live without them, make life easier.

Grill tongs

Food should be moved about or turned over while smoking to guarantee maximum exposure to the smoke.

Reaching into a hot smoker with bare hands is never a smart idea, so invest in a decent set of long-nosed tongs.

BBQ Gloves

Investing in a decent pair of BBQ gloves is usually a smart idea if you want to protect your hands from being burnt. Unlike normal cooking mitts, BBQ gloves are designed to withstand tremendous heat, protecting your hands from temperatures as high as 932F (500C).

If you’re searching for a nice pair of BBQ gloves, you’ll be glad to hear that we’ve examined some of the finest options available.

Get prepared before you start smoking

Proper planning will make your first few puffs much less stressful.

Here are some prepping tips for you to consider:

Cleaning your smoker

In general, you should perform a dry burn in your smoker before cooking for the first time. Running a dry burn helps to burn off any manufacturing oil, seasons your smoker, and gives you an idea of how much charcoal you’ll need to heat up your smoker.

You may also learn temperature control without fear of burning any food.

After that, you’ll need to clean your smoker before using it for the first time. To begin, remove any ashes and clean and drain the water pan. Check for any loose debris or ash on the lid or frying grates.

If the grates are unclean, use a grill brush to clean them before washing them with soapy water.

Prepping your food

You should make sure that all of the food you want to smoke is prepared ahead of time. If you are marinating, you must prepare the dish ahead of time.

Some recipes benefit from applying the rub shortly before starting up the smoker, while others benefit from chilling in the fridge overnight.

Arranging your cooking area

Make sure your work environment is clean and organized before you start your smoker. Keep your tools, charcoal, prepared meals, wood pieces, and chimney starter nearby. Because you’re igniting a fire, it’s always a good idea to have a fire extinguisher or hose handy.

How to use a charcoal smoker (step by step guide)

Using a vertical water smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain might be perplexing at first. To help clarify things out, we’ll go through its application step by step.

1. Disassemble your smoker 

The first step is to dismantle your smoker and prepare the foundation where you will be smoking. Ascertain that the base is stable and will not rock when the rest of the smoker is installed on top.

Insert the charcoal ring into the smoker’s base. Then add the required quantity of charcoal. This quantity will vary depending on how long you want to smoke.

We recommend utilizing the Minion Method to manage temperature and achieve a consistent burn period while lighting your smoker.

To begin using the Minion Method, ignite 5-10 charcoal briquettes in your chimney starter. When all of the coals are coated with grey ash, stack them on top of the unlit coals.

As the initial set of coals burns away, the briquettes surrounding them will catch fire.

This steady low burn maintains the smoker’s temperature and eliminates the need to refill your smoker, even if you smoke for up to 18 hours.

3. Add wood chunks

Arrange the wood pieces on top of the charcoal. It is not necessary to soak your pieces.

Pit Master Harry Soo employs a slightly different method, placing the wood pieces in the bottom before pouring the unlit charcoal on top.

Its definitely something to experiment with.

To make cleanup simpler, wrap your water pan with foil, fill it with water, and set it in your smoker.

4. Reassemble your smoker and add food

Place your grill grates in your smoker and your meal on top. This is when you utilize your built-in meat thermometer to monitor the temperature of your meal and the inside of the smoker.

Finally, reinstall the cover and utilize your vents to fine-tune the smoker’s temperature.

How to control temperature on a charcoal smoker

Temperature control is one of the most challenging aspects of utilizing a charcoal smoker, which contributes to its reputation for being tough to maintain.

What it comes down to is that you need a bit more know-how to maintain a steady temperature.

Fortunately, we have a comprehensive article that explains how to manage the temperature of your charcoal smoker. While this article will go into detail on how to fine-tune your smoker’s internal temperature, the fundamental way is to manage the airflow via the intake and exhaust vents.

The intake vent is usually located towards the bottom of your smoker, near the charcoal, and it regulates the quantity of air that the burning coals have access to. When you open the vent, the coals burn hotter; when you shut it, the fire goes out rapidly.

The exhaust vent enables smoke and fumes from your smoker to escape. If you shut your exhaust vent, CO2 will accumulate and suffocate your charcoal.

The intake vent is the primary way for adjusting the temperature of your smoker by altering the quantity of air that flows into the smoker.

Remember that while altering your temperature, it is simple to overreach. modifications in airflow take time to take effect, so make only minor adjustments and then monitor your temperature to see whether the modifications are effective.

Turn your charcoal smoker into a ‘set it and forget it’ cooker

If you follow the techniques in this article, you should be able to cook with charcoal successfully without much trial and error.

However, there are occasions when you need to leave the home for a few hours, or the weather is severe and you don’t want to walk outside to check on your smoker.

This is where an automated temperature controller comes in handy.

These goods are manufactured by a number of different firms. Essentially, you receive a fan that plugs to your smoker’s intake vent. The fan is linked to a control unit that functions as a smart thermometer, allowing you to check the temperature of your meal from the same device.

How long do you need to cook for?

Unlike a traditional recipe, smoking directions may often indicate that a certain dish must be cooked to a specific temperature rather than for a given period of time.

While there are some general smoking timings and temperatures tables available, they should only be used as a reference.

Don’t be alarmed if your temperature drops. This is quite normal.

Once again, your thermometer will be your closest friend in this situation. The meat probe should be put into your meal without touching any bones.

The exterior temperature probe should be about an inch away from the meal and resting on, but not touching, the cooking grate.

Because there are so many factors that might impact your smoker, you should cook with temperatures rather than time.

These include the ambient temperature, the design of your smoker, the quality of its construction, and even whether or not your smoker is exposed to direct sunlight.

Wrapping it all up

As you can see, smoking with charcoal isn’t a tough task. To develop a reliable food-smoking machine, it just takes a basic grasp of how a charcoal smoker works, how it begins, and how to change its temperature.

With this step-by-step instruction and the other articles we’ve linked, you should be smoking delicious food in no time, complete with that true charcoal flavor.

If you have any charcoal smoking ideas or know how to manage the temperature of a charcoal smoker, please share them in the comments area below.


How do you use a charcoal smoker for beginners?

How to Use a Charcoal Grill
Get your gasoline ready.
Fill the water pan halfway with cold water.
A charcoal chimney is used to light the coal.
Place the meat in the cooking area.
Control the temperature.
Insert the wood bits.
Allow your meal to cook slowly and for a lengthy period of time.

Should the vent be open or closed when smoking meat?

KEEP THE AIR MOVING: Keep your charcoal grill’s vents open and the vent on the lid on the side opposite the embers. The open vents will suck smoke from the charcoal and wood underneath, allowing it to properly swirl over your meal and out the top, providing the finest ventilation and cleanest smoke.

How do you use a smoker for dummies?

Configure two temperature probes. You’ll need to keep an eye on the temperature to maintain your grill constant at 225°F.
Light a Chimney Starter using Charcoal.
After opening the intake and chimney baffles, add lit coals.
Keep your body temperature stable.
To add taste, add wood bits.
Make the smoke moist.
Give it some time.

How long should charcoal burn before smoking?

But how long should the coals be left to burn? Allow the charcoal or briquettes to burn until they are coated in white-gray ash (approximately 5 to 10 minutes for high heat and 25 to 30 minutes for medium heat).

Do you add water to charcoal smoker?

If you’re using a smoker, fill the water pan with 2-3 liters of water, beer, apple juice, or wine. To catch the drippings, place a drip pan with a splash of water on the bottom frying grate.

Can you put too much charcoal in a smoker?

It is critical to understand how much charcoal to use when lighting your grill or smoker. If you use too much charcoal, you will squander important fuel. If you use too little, your grill may struggle to become hot enough or you will not be able to keep the temperature stable until you are through cooking.

Does a charcoal smoker need a water pan?

Water pans aid in the stabilization of your smoker’s cooking temperatures. This is due to the fact that water cannot be heated over its boiling point of 212°F (100°C), no matter how hot you attempt to make your smoker.

Do you let meat sit after smoking?

The suggested time for resting meat after cooking it, whether by smoking, roasting, or grilling, is five to ten minutes. Resting time may be substantially longer when roasting big portions or a whole chicken, for example. Wrap steaks loosely in foil and store in a container.

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