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What is A Charcoal Smoker?
A charcoal smoker is unit used to cook meat over indirect heat fueled by charcoal at low temperatures (225°-275°) for extended periods of time. This low and slow method of cooking helps break down the fat and collagen in tougher pieces of meat, like brisket, leaving the juicy and tender BBQ we all desire while the charcoal and wood gives the BBQ its notable smoky flavor.
What Are The Different Types Of Charcoal Smokers?
Bullet Smokers: Bullet smokers are small, compact smokers shaped like a bullet, hence the name, that come in a variety of different sizes. These smokers are well insulated and come equipped with a water pan which allows them to maintain a steady internal temperature. One of the more popular models on the market, and one that I still use to this day, is the Weber Smokey Mountain.
Barrel/Drum Smokers: Barrel smokers are as the name suggests, are smokers made out of 55-gallon barrel/drum that stands upright. These smokers are extremely popular for their affordability and efficiency at burning coal. Drum smokers can run up to 20 hours on 12 lbs. of charcoal in good conditions! Drum smokers do not come with a heat shield or water pan to disperse the heat for a truly indirect cook, so it does take a little more learning to master.
Kamado/Ceramic Smokers: These smokers are the most versatile of the three as they triple as a grill and an oven. They make excellent pizza and you can even cook bread in them! They are incredibly well insulated which allows for steady temperature and easy operation. Many models come with an heat shield/diffusor that allows you to smoke over indirect heat.
Knowing The Parts Of A Charcoal Smoker:
Vents: Your vents are the life force of your smoker. This is how you control the temperature in your smoker and how you feed your fire with oxygen so it can burn. Each smoker will have a different style of vent and a different number of vents, but they all operate the same. You will have a vent or a series of vents at the bottom of your smoker that are used to control your fire. There is also a vent near the top of you smoker which acts as an exhaust vent. I will talk about how to use these vents to control your fire below.
Fire Box: Located at the bottom of your smoker, this is where we create our fire using charcoal and wood chunks. Bullet smokers come with a grate and a ring to hold the charcoal while drum smokers require the use of a basket to hold the charcoal.
Water Pan/ Heat Shield: Bullet smokers come standard with a water pan while Kamado smokers use a heat shield. These not only help diffuse the heat coming from the fire allowing us to smoke our meat indirectly, but they also absorb heat keeping your smoker’s temperature stable. Barrel smokers don’t come with either but you can easily put either one in to get a more indirect heat source.
Smoking Chamber: This is the very top chamber where the magic happens. Some larger charcoal smokers, like the 22” Weber Smokey Mountain, and most barrel smokers, often come with two stacked cooking racks that allow you to smoke more meat at once.
Choosing Your Charcoal
The first step in getting ready to smoke some meat is selecting your charcoal. There are two types of charcoal that we use, lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes. Lump charcoal is extremely popular for its enhanced flavors and clean burning, but it’s inconsistent burning can make it really tricky for beginners to manage a steady temperature.
For those just starting out, I recommend using charcoal briquettes specifically Kingsford Original. Charcoal briquettes give off a very steady and calm fire making it much easier to maintain temperatures. Smoking great BBQ is all about maintaining a consistent temperature and choosing the right charcoal can really help.
Best Way To Start Your Charcoal Smoker
Now that you have your charcoal picked out, it is time to get your fire going. If you do not already have one, a chimney starter is an affordable and extremely helpful tool to have for starting you fires. It also helps to have some weber lighter cubes to help light the charcoal. I have found that the minion method is the best way to get a fire going in your smoker. The minion method is great for long slow cooks and you can except to get about 8-10 hours of cook time depending on the weather conditions.
What Is The Minion Method?
The minion method is a technique used to start a charcoal fire by arranging lit charcoal briquettes in the center of our fire chamber with unlit charcoal briquettes in a ring surrounding them. This allows our fire to continuously expand at a slow and steady pace outward from the center, allowing for long and sustained cooks.
To set your smoker up using the minion method, dump your desired amount of charcoal briquettes into your fire chamber and spread them out into an even layer. How much charcoal you will use will vary depending on: how long you are smoking, weather conditions, outside temperature, type of smoker and the type of charcoal you are using.
After a few smokes, you will start to get a feel for how fast you are going through charcoal. For some reference, in my Weber Smokey Mountain, I will use and entire 18 lbs. bag of Kingsford Original on longer cooks (8+ hours) and about half that for cooks ranging from (4-6) hours, adding more charcoal as needed.
Now that we have an even layer of charcoal in your fire chamber, remove about 20 charcoal briquettes from the very center of the ring creating a little divot in the middle. Make sure you leave some charcoal on the very bottom so that you are not exposing the rack that holds the charcoal. We will light the briquettes you removed and replace them into the divot we just created. Using the minion method allows the lit charcoals to slowly spread outwards.
How To Light Your Charcoal For Smoking Meat?
Step 1: Fill up your chimney starter about halfway with charcoal (approximately 20 briquettes). If you are using lump charcoal, fill up the entire chimney.
Step 2: Take two lighter cubes or charcoal fire starters (make sure they are non toxic and odorless) and place them on a rack or hard surface. You can buy these cheaply at your local store or online but if you are in a pinch, newspaper or paper towels will work. Light the cubes on fire and place the filled chimney starter over top of the burning cubes.
Step 3: After about 15 minutes, your charcoal should be ember over and exhibit a white coating. This indicates that they are ready to be thrown into the fire chamber.
Step 4: Take your lit coals and place them in the center divot we created. You will have a center of hot coals surrounded by unlit charcoal briquettes. This will allow the fire to slowly spread, giving us hours of consistent heat.
How to start a fire without a chimney starter.
While a chimney starter will make getting your fire going much easier and much faster, you can still light your charcoal without it. You can use paper towels, small twigs, newspaper, the bag the charcoal came in, egg cartons, or anything that will ignite easily, to get your charcoal lit. Take your paper and soak it in some cooking oil before placing it in between the charcoal and light it on fire. Once the fire gets hot enough, your charcoal should start to catch. Starting your fire this way will add a lot more time to you cook. Chimney starters are inexpensive and are worth every penny, so if you are looking to save some time, stop by your local Walmart and grab one.
Controlling Your Temperatures Using Your Vents
Now that we have our charcoal fire going, the next step is learning to adjust your vents to control your smoker’s temperature. As mentioned above, there are two different types of vents on your smoker.
Exhaust vents allow the smoke to exit the smoking chamber while the vents leading to your firebox allow oxygen in to keep your fire going. Because we want good circulation throughout our smoke, you should leave the exhaust vent all the way open. The only time you should close the exhaust vent is if you need to bring down your smoker’s temperature and the firebox vents are already completely closed.
The vents leading to your fire box work very simply, open them to increase your smoker’s temperature and close them decrease your smoker’s temperature. So if your smoker is at 275° but you want it to be at 250°, closing them will bring down the temperature. When adjusting your vents, make minor adjustments and give your smoker time before making more adjustments.
When bringing your smoker up to temperature, leave all your firebox vents open halfway. As your smoker is coming up to temperature, you need to pay close attention to it. It can be really easy, especially for beginners, to let their smoker get too hot. Most low and slow smoking happens between 225° F and 275° F.
It is very hard and incredibly frustrating trying to tame a runaway fire so it is important to stay ahead of the fire. As your smoker starts to close in on your desired temperature (about 50° before), close down your fire box vents to the width of a pencil. This restricts the amount of oxygen to your fire slowing the rising heat. Continue making minor adjustments until your temperature has steadied.
How Often Do You Have To Add Charcoal To Your Smoker?
There are so many variables that determine how much charcoal you need and how fast your charcoal will burn, so in short, you only add charcoal when you are running out of fire fuel and you need more time to cook. Your fire should have a nice thick layer of burning charcoal.
As your fire starts continues to burn, you will slowly see a loss of charcoal. Once you start to see the grate that holds the charcoal showing through our pile of charcoal, then we know our fire is on its last leg. If your meat still needs more than an hour to cook, then you should add more charcoal. It is especially important to stay ahead of the fire and add more fuel before it goes out and you start to lose temperature.
It will take some time and practice to get the right amount of charcoal down. If you are running out of fuel or have ran out of fuel, you can finish cooking it in the oven. You will lose some smoke flavor by finishing in the oven, so this is generally reserved for those who have either wrapped their meat or are almost done cooking their meat.
How To Add Charcoal To A Smoker During A Cook?
When adding charcoal to a smoker during the cook, it is important to add lit charcoal. In most cases we are adding charcoal because we are running out of fuel and our temperatures are starting to drop. We want to add charcoal that is ready to go so we can keep our temperatures up.
Using your chimney starter, light the charcoal you are going to add. Once it is ready to go, transfer it over to the fire box. In charcoal smokers, the fire box is at the bottom restricting access making it difficult to transfer over the coals easily. Using heat resistant gloves and tongs, you can individually place each briquette into the fire; however, this will be tedious and take some time.
The video below shows a faster way to transfer over the hot coals using a DIY trough. If your smoker does not have access to the fire box, you may have to remove the lid and put your charcoal in from the top.
When adding lit charcoal to your fire box, you may see an increase in your smoke’s internal temperature. Watch your smoker’s temperature closely shortly after adding more charcoal adjusting the vents as necessary to maintain your desired temperature.
Choosing Your Wood
Now that we have our fire set to cook low and slow, we want to add some flavor to our meat by using wood. When smoking meat with a charcoal grill, we want to use wood chunks as they will give us a long and slow burn allowing for a consistent smoke flavor. There are many types of woods and combinations of woods that you can use to create a unique smoky flavor. That topic is out of the scope of this article, but If you are interested in which wood is best for you, be sure to check out my complete guide to picking the best wood for smoking meat.
Can You Put Wood Directly On Charcoal?
When smoking meat, wood should be directly placed on the charcoal. This will allow the wood to catch fire and burn, producing the smoke flavor we are after. Wood should be placed on the charcoal once you have reached your desired internal temperature and given time to burn off any impurities.
When you first place your wood on the smoker, you will notice a heavy white smoke. While this might look like the right type of smoke, this is actually not the type of smoke we are after. The heavy white smoke you see is the impurities in the wood being burned off. Smoking meat in heavy white smoke can give your meat a bitter and unpleasant taste. Instead, we allow the wood to burn until the white smoke turns to a thin blue smoke that is almost invisible. Once you get that thin blue smoke, your smoker is ready for your meat!
What Should A Beginner Smoke?
Pork butts are inexpensive, very forgiving, and easy to cook making them the best meat for beginner smokers to start with. I would recommend looking for a pork butt in the 3-6 lbs. Any bigger and you will start getting into longer cooks which can become overwhelming for beginners. Pork butts also contain a lot of fat making them hard to overcook.
5 Tips To Make Smoking On A Charcoal Smoker Easier
If You Are Looking You Ain’t Cooking: It can be really tempting to keep checking in on your meat, but you are actually doing more harm than good. Anytime you open your smoker lid, you are losing valuable heat and prolonging your cook. It is best to just let the smoker do its thing. And when you do have to open your smoker’s lid, do so quickly to preserve as much heat as possible.
Invest In A Meat Thermometer: This is the most crucial tip I could possibly give you. Each piece of meat is going to take different amounts of time, so cooking based on time is a recipe for an over or undercooked piece of meat. The absolute best meat is always cooked to temperature NOT time. A meat thermometer is worth its weight in gold and will allow to create perfect BBQ.
Don’t Trust The Built In Thermometer: A little deceiving, but if you have a thermometer on top of your smoker, it is most likely telling you the wrong temperature. The thermometer on top of your smoker is measuring the temperature at the top of the smoking chamber not at the cooking level. For a more accurate reading, it is best to get a temperature probe to measure the temperature at cooking level.
Do Not Forget To Season Your Smoker: An often overlooked step, seasoning your smoker helps preserve the lifetime of your smoker and will burn off any impurities in your smoker. If you’re not sure how to season a smoker, be sure to check out my step-by-step guide to seasoning a smoker.
Rest Your Meat Before Digging In: As tempting as it may be to dig right in after your meat comes off the smoker, resting your meat is an important part of the BBQ process. To rest your meat, simply wrap it in tin foil and place it in a cooler for 1-3 hours. This will allow the meat to relax and the juices to redistribute throughout the meat.