How to Use a Charcoal Smoker

What Makes Charcoal Smokers Special

You cannot call yourself a bona fide outdoor cook if you don’t know how to use a smoker–a charcoal smoker, to be more specific. Although they are not difficult to use, charcoal smokers require a little bit more attention and maintenance work compared to other types of outdoor cookers.

You may not have enough time to research on everything you need to know about operating a smoker, so we’ve put together a guide for you. We hope it helps!

How to Use a Charcoal Smoker

Preparing Your Smoker

For First Use

  • If your charcoal smoker is new, the first thing you need to do is remove all the labels, films, and manufacturing oil.
  • Then, wipe all parts clean and spray some vegetable oil on the grates.
  • ​Start and operate it for around two hours with the lid closed. This will condition the internal parts and remove all traces of contaminants and that annoying factory odor.

Starting Your Smoker

  • Before operating your charcoal smoker, make sure that you have a fire extinguisher nearby. A smoker, after all, runs on fire and accidents can happen even to the most careful cook.
  • Put a drip pan to catch ash and any other residue that may fall outside your smoker.
  • ​Also, make sure that your charcoal pan, as well as all the support brackets, is securely attached and upright. If you notice any missing or defective parts, call the manufacturer.
  • Fill your charcoal grid with charcoal or any other type of fuel. Insert your wood chips as well, if any.
  • ​Heat it up for around half an hour with the vents open. Make sure there is good ventilation and airflow where the coals are and close the lid when the coals are covered in gray ash.
  • Remember that the whole point of cooking with a smoker is to cook low and slow. Prepare your smoker and your coals in a way that lets them sustain a fire for many hours.
  • Adjust the temperature to a level that suits the meat you are cooking and the size of your cuts.
  • Place your water pan on its brackets and fill it with water or marinade. Open the lid to release steam in the opposite direction as you.

Cooking on a Charcoal Smoker

  • Put the grates against the supports and place your meat on the grates. Make sure the pieces of meat are positioned at more or less the same distances from one another to encourage good heat distribution.
  • If your cooker has two racks, place the piece that requires less smoking on the top rack so you can remove it more easily later on. Take note that there is a very small difference between the temperature levels on the top and bottom racks.
  • ​Close the lid again and start cooking!
  • Smoke each pound for about 1.5 hrs. This is the general rule, but you are free to make adjustments depending on what kind of meat you are smoking or how done you want it to be.
  • Experiment with flavors by adding wine, herbs, spices, or marinades to your water pan.
  • Use a meat thermometer to monitor what you are cooking. You can buy one on Amazon for a few dollars.
  • When measuring temperature, give your temperature a few minutes to show an accurate reading. Make sure that it does not come into contact with any bone.
  • Use tongs to move or turn food. Puncturing them with a fork causes precious, delicious juice to escape!
  • When cooking larger cuts, put the food on a roasting rack inside a metal pan.
  • If you are smoking vegetables or delicate meats such as fish, wrap them in aluminum foil. You can also cook them on indirect heat, placed on the upper cooking grates.
  • Resist the temptation to peek. Although it is good to check on your meat every now and then, we discourage checking too often as heat escapes each time you open the lid.
  • Speaking of peeking, when you do have to open the lid, do so with your face a safe distance away from the steam. Flare-ups can be triggered when fresh air suddenly comes into contact with the fire.

Adding Charcoal

  • Use a pair of long tongs to brush off ashes and add more charcoal to the bed. Wait until you see that the new coals are burning before closing the door and the smoker lid.
  • Avoid adding lighter fluid while cooking, as it can cause flashback and injury.
  • The best kind of coal to use in your charcoal (and any other type, actually) smoker is lump charcoal. If you do not have access to those, go for briquettes, plain charcoal, or cooking wood instead.
  • ​Avoid using self-igniting charcoal like the plague. Aside from the fact that it will later result in food that tastes like gas, using self-lighting charcoal can be dangerous and can cause you to void your smoker’s warranty.

Adding Wood Chips or Chunks

  • You may have to add wood chips mid-cook when cooking large pieces of meat. Go for hickory, mesquite, nut, fruit, and oak when you can because they have excellent burn rates.
  • Make sure that the wood you are adding is dry and seasoned.
  • Try not to use resinous wood like pine because they can taint your food.

Adding Water From the Top of the Smoker

  • Check the water level at least once every two hours or so and add more as needed. Never let your pan run out of water while you are cooking.
  • If you hear a soft, sizzling sound coming from your water pan, that is a sure sign that you need to add water.
  • Remove the upper grid and access the water pan below by moving the food on the lower grid to one side.
  • Pour water into the pan up to the indicated level and return the food and the grates to their original position. Close the lid.

Adding Water Through the Side Door

  • Use a funnel to pour water into the water pan through your smoker’s side door, if any.
  • Stand on the opposite side of the door’s opening when adding water using this method to avoid getting burned by the steam.

Handling Grease Fires

  • Put out a grease fire by closing the lid instead of pouring water on it. This way, the grease will burn out on its own.
  • Be careful when opening the lid again, as there may be a flare-up.
  • Minimize the possibility of flare-ups by removing excess fat from your meat before cooking. Also, place your smoker on a level surface and make sure that it is free from residue before you start cooking.

Cleaning a Charcoal Smoker

  • Empty your smoker of all fuel supply before starting to clean it. Clear the charcoal bed as well.
  • After your smoker has fully cooled down, clean out the ashes and wipe the cooker’s parts clean. Make sure to completely get rid of all the ash stuck to the bottom of the lid because they can drip on your food the next time you cook.
  • Do not remove any remaining water from the pan. Instead, let it evaporate. Otherwise, the grease left in the smoker can catch on fire.
  • Use a smoker brush to clean the cooking grates and the racks, making sure to remove any residue buildup, while the grids are still hot. Contrary to popular belief, buildup does not add flavor to your food or novelty to the smoking process!
  • Wet the surface under and around your charcoal smoker. You can use even a garden hose to extinguish any remaining ashes or embers that have fallen around.

Tips for Deep Cleaning

  • Your smoker needs spring cleaning too! Once a year, you need to deep clean your cooker to help prolong its life and prevent it from giving your food a nasty taste or smell.
  • Check your charcoal smoker’s manual to see what kind of cleaners are recommended by your manufacturer. Using the wrong type or formula can damage your cooker.
  • Generally, warm water, mild detergents, and baking soda are acceptable cleaning agents. Avoid using abrasive cleaners and oven cleaners.
  • If you encounter stubborn spots, use a nylon brush and a degreaser with citrus-based ingredients.
  • If there is rust on the external parts, use steel wool to buff the area. Then, apply paint that’s specially formulated to withstand high temperatures.
  • If the rust is on the internal parts, buff and clean it before applying vegetable oil on the affected area. Never apply paint on the inside of the smoker.

Charcoal Smoker Storage and Maintenance

  • Get rid of ash and all other kinds of residue on the charcoal pan and the smoker after cooking. They can create a fire hazard the next time you start your cooker.
  • Do not use or keep flammable liquids and other materials close to your smoker when you are not using it.
  • Prevent rust by keeping your cooker covered while in storage.
  • Another great way to avoid rusting is to spray or paint a nice, even coating of vegetable oil on your smoker after cleaning. Apply it on the inside of the dome lid, the smoker’s body, the grills, and the water pan, but NOT on the charcoal pan.
  • Check the coal grate for signs of warping and corrosion caused by its constant exposure to heat. If the damage has gotten to the point that it obstructs airflow, it is time to get a replacement; otherwise, you can still use it.
  • You also want to make sure that the vents are free from debris, insects, and other potential blockages.

Important Safety Reminders

  • Remember that a smoker is designed strictly for outdoor use. It produces a tremendous amount of smoke (It is a smoker, after all!) and you run the risk of at least making your house look and smell like the aftermath of a fire if you use it in an enclosed area.At worst, you can suffocate from the thick smoke or asphyxiate from the toxic amounts of carbon monoxide.
  • At worst, you can suffocate from the thick smoke or asphyxiate from the toxic amounts of carbon monoxide.
  • Place your smoker on a hard, level, and non-combustible surface.
  • Do not move the smoker while the water pan still contains hot liquids.
  • Try to stay away from using lighter fluid to light your coals. If you really have to use them, make sure that the variant you’re using is specifically formulated for lighting charcoal.
  • Do not use alcohol, gasoline, or kerosene to light your charcoal.
  • Do not let clothing or your hair get in your way when smoking.
  • Wear protective gloves when you have to hold any part of your smoker while cooking–turning food, adjusting vents, adding charcoal, etc.
  • If your charcoal smoker needs major maintenance or repair work, consult the manufacturer to get the best advice.

We’ll See You at Your Next Barbecue!

Delicious food comes at a great price, including knowing how to operate formidable cooking equipment such as the charcoal smoker. Once you get the hang of it, though, everything should be instinctive and you can focus more on your food.

​We hate to say this, but it all starts with reading your smoker’s manual. If you are working with a brand new cooker, resist the temptation to rely purely on Internet word-of-mouth or, god forbid, gut feel! We hate to say this, but it all starts with reading your smoker’s manual. If you are working with a brand new cooker, resist the temptation to rely purely on Internet word-of-mouth or, god forbid, gut feel!

​Next, mind the most important thing when working with smokers–safety. Always take the necessary precautions before, while, and after cooking.

​Adjust your setup, temperature, and cooking style to the type of food you are smoking and to your desired result. Finally, make your expensive charcoal smoker last by cleaning and storing it properly.