How to Start a Smoker

Using a smoker is the true test of an outdoor cook’s skills. You can’t call yourself a real cook if you do not even know how to start a smoker.

Operating a smoker is not as intimidating as it initially appears, though. With patience and the ability to follow instructions well, you should be able to nail it in no time.

Before you research about how to use a smoker correctly, we will tell you how to start one.

What is a smoker?

The fact that you are not so sure about how to start a smoker means that you’re probably not too familiar with the equipment itself, to begin with. What exactly is a smoker?

First of all, a smoker is not the same as a grill. While grills are often used to smoke food, they are made for a different purpose and produce subtly different results than smokers do.

A smoker is an outdoor cooking appliance that allows for low and slow cooking. By that, we mean, cooking food on indirect heat at low temperatures for extended periods of time.

The long cooking time cooks your food to juicy, smoky perfection while the low heat keeps it from drying out. If you did it well, you should be able to serve food coated with an aromatic and flavorful smoky layer that no other cooker can reproduce.

What are the types of smokers?

Get to know some of the common smoker types and how you can start them.

Vertical and Horizontal Smokers

There are two umbrella types of smokers–vertical and horizontal smokers. A vertical smoker looks like a giant bullet or a cylindrical capsule.

In a vertical smoker, there are three parts arranged on top of one another. You have your source of heat at the bottom, the water pan above it, and finally, the cooking racks–where your food goes–on the topmost level.

Horizontal smokers, often called offset barrel smokers, look like your typical barbecue but feature a separate chamber where your wood and charcoal go. That chamber is the source of the indirect heat that cooks your food.

Smokers Classified by Fuel Type

You can also group smokers by the kind of fuel they run on. Here are the most common types:

Propane Smokers

If you regularly use a gas grill, you will easily understand how propane smokers work.

Since it uses a propane tank, you run the risk of running out of fuel mid-cook if you are not vigilant enough to check your fuel levels before smoking. A simple propane meter should help you out with this.

How to Start Propane Smoker

Step 1:  Line your water pan with foil and fill it with water, beer, or cider.

Step 2:  Secure the propane tank’s hose to your smoker and open the valve. Open the door and light the smoker’s burner following the instructions on the manufacturer’s manual. If you’re unable to light the burner the first time, let the gas clear out first by turning the burner off and shutting the gas down.

Step 3: Adjust the controller to the applicable temperature. Generally, the ideal window is between 225F to 250F but it will ultimately depend on the kind of food you’re smoking. If your smoker comes with a non-numerical thermostat control panel, consult the manual to see what temperature window each setting corresponds to.

Step 4: Preheat your smoker until the temperature stabilizes. Control the temperature by moving the vents or adjusting the fireplace damper.

Step 5: When your smoker gets to the right temperature, start putting your sawdust or wood chips in. Let the smoker continue preheating until you see smoke come out of its chimney.

Step 6: Once your propane smoker is hot enough and your chips are in place, put your food on the shelves or hang them.

Important Tip: Make sure that your water, wood, and flame remain at ideal levels. If you do run out, the best case you are looking at is a ruined cook. The worst is a dangerous gas-related accident that can cause serious injury.

Electric Smokers

Needless to say, you need a power source to get an electric smoker up and running. The great thing about electric smokers, though, is that they allow for a huge flexibility in temperature control, allowing you to adjust your cooking temperature to match your food or the weather.

How to Start an Electric Smoker​

Step 1: Electric smokers can greatly vary depending on the model and the manufacturer. Read your smoker’s manual before starting to tweak your cooker’s controls.

Step 2: If your smoker comes with a water receptacle, fill it with water before turning the smoker on.

Step 3: Put the chips in the container.

Step 4: Use a gauge to monitor the internal temperature. Preheat until it stabilizes at your preferred level.

Step 5: Put your food on the smoker rack when everything is in place.

Important Tip: Have around four cups of chips for every three to five hours of smoking in an electric smoker.

Pellet Smokers

The wood pellets that fuel a pellet smoker are made of compressed sawdust and wood shavings. Through an auger system, these pellets are fed to a burn pot from a hopper.

By adjusting your pellet smoker’s thermostat, you are able to control the rate at which the pellets are moved from the hopper to the burn pot. The lower your temperature, the more smoke you have.

How to Start a Pellet Smoker

Step 1: Take out the removable interior parts of the smoker. This includes the grates, the tray, and the diffuser.

Step 2: Open the hopper and check for foreign objects that can block the auger.

Step 3: Plug the smoker in and turn the temperature dial to the correct setting (This may vary depending on the model.). Make sure that the auger is turning and there is air movement over the fire pot.

Step 4: Wait for the fire rod to turn red hot. This should take more or less a minute.

Step 5: Turn off the temperature control and start putting in your food-grade wood pellets. Then, turn the temperature dial to Smoke, causing your smoker to start moving the pellets from the hopper to the burn pot.

Step 6: Wait for white/grayish smoke to billow out of the smoker. The appearance of smoke signals that the pellets have ignited.

Step 7: Replace the lid and switch the temperature dial to the highest setting. Let it run for around 45 minutes.

Important Tip: Do not use pellets with additives other than vegetable oil.

Charcoal Smokers

Charcoal smokers are the absolute favorite among smoking purists. Charcoal gives your food a kind of flavor and texture that other smokers just can’t produce.

While you can find charcoal smokers on the cheaper end, you can’t compromise on your charcoal. Genuine, quality coals can be pretty expensive, but it’s all worth it!

How to Start a Charcoal Smoker

Step 1: Put lit charcoal in the firebox then fill the water pan with water or marinade.

Step 2: Add wood chips or chunks to the coals and wait for the temperature to stabilize at your preferred level.

Step 3: Once your smoker reaches your desired temperature, place your food on the grates. Arrange them at equal distances from one another to ensure good heat circulation inside the smoker.

Important Tip: You may directly light your coals in the smoker using lighter fluid. However, you have to make sure that you’re able to burn off all of the lighter before putting your food.

If you let your excitement get the better of you, you will end up with food that smells and tastes like gas! To be completely safe–and to have the purest charcoal smoking experience–go for lump charcoal and light it using a chimney starter.

Start Your Smoker Right!

Knowing how to start a smoker is easy. Reading your manual–no matter how much you hate doing it–is always the first step. If you are using a propane smoker, it is important that you carefully watch and measure gas, wood, flame, and other factors to avoid potential accidents. Propane smokers can produce good results but can also be hazardous if not operated correctly.

An electric smoker, on the other hand, is relatively easier to use. Take advantage of the flexible controls to adjust temperature levels for a nice, even cook.

Wood pellet smokers, although not quite as popular, do deserve some credit, too. They do the job well as long as you do your part. Lastly, you should know how to start a charcoal smoker like the back of your hand after you do it right the first couple of times. It requires just a few steps, and the measurements involved are mostly instinctive.