SMOKING BASICS + THE 9 STYLES OF SMOKERS
Everything you need to know about smoking and smokers
A shiny new smoker is glistening on your back porch and you're eager to start your first smoke job. Smoking is a delicate science that requires more finesse than grilling brats or burgers.
In this guide we'll cover the basics of how to smoke meat, breakdown the 9 most popular types of smokers, and provide a few best practice smoking tips.
Most of us already love the aroma of smoke from a campfire. Now, imagine that aroma absorbed into the softest, juiciest piece of beef you’ve ever had. Smoke a piece of meat and that’s what you get; one of the most delicious,
But have you ever wondered what exactly it means to “smoke” meat? Are there different smoking methods? How is it different from other methods of cooking? And why even go to the trouble of doing it in the first place?
By the time you complete this article you'll have a full understanding of the various types of smokers and the art of BBQ as it relates to smoking.
What is Smoking Meat?
And Why Bother With It?
If you look up “smoking” meat in the dictionary, the definition you pull up will likely be: The Cooking Method That Makes Barbecue Real Barbecue.
Okay, so it would probably be something a little more defined than that. When people say “smoking meat,” they are referring to one of two methods: preserving meat through long exposure to heat and smoke, which dehydrates it and imparts antibacterial properties; or, now more commonly, barbecuing it.
The first method is the more traditional, having been used for thousands of years for preserving meat.
Now, that's some serious meat smoking.
Wikipedia defines smoked meats as: Smoked meat is a method of preparing red meat (and fish) which originates in prehistory. Its purpose is to preserve these protein-rich foods, which would otherwise spoil quickly, for long periods.
The now-more-common use of the term is that of barbecuing: cooking meat slowly over indirect heat for extended periods (often 12 to 16 hours, sometimes even more), while the smoke flavors the meat and gives it a unique flavor and texture. This is the method we’re talking about in this comprehensive guide to smoking meat.
Now, that's smokin' I'm talking about.
Turkey, in a UDS (ugly drum smoker) by the Pit Barrel Cooker Company. The Pit Barrel Smoker has won our award for the best smoker under $500.
If you think about it, smoking meat (in the barbecue sense) derives from one of the oldest means of cooking used: cooking over an open fire, where the smoke naturally imparts flavor into the meat as the heat cooks it. And who doesn’t love a good piece of steak cooked over a fire? It’s a very primal experience.
Did You Know? A common misconception among those not in the know is that “barbecue” is any kind of meat cooked on the grill, or over open flame. You’ll often hear people invite say they are “barbecuing” this weekend, when really, they are just grilling some chicken and burgers out back. True barbecue refers only to slow-cooked meat over indirect heat, flavored by smoke, until it reaches that soft, juicy, delicate state we all know and love.
What Makes Smoked Meat So Special
Why Put In The Work?
We’ll be the first to admit that smoking isn’t exactly a quick, easy process. It can take all day (and even all night) to get a large pork shoulder or brisket done just right, and a lot of babysitting can go into it, especially when you’re just learning. If you’re more the sear-and-serve type, the process might bore you. So why even bother?
There are a few reasons to smoke a piece of meat instead of just cooking it over direct heat – even with the extended effort. One reason – and perhaps the most important – is flavor.
As the meat sits over the flame, it absorbs the thick, somewhat tangy, comforting flavor of the smoke itself, creating a unique, all-natural, and dare-we-say, smoky, flavor.
People have been doing this to cook and flavor their food for thousands of years, but thanks to science, we can (to a degree) tell you what causes smoked food to taste so good. Smoke contains over 100 different compounds and phenols. Some of these are solids, like ash. Some are gases, like carbon monoxide and dioxide. And, some are liquids, such as water vapor. The exact content of smoke depends on exactly which wood is being burned, how much moisture is contained within it and even how much oxygen is available for the fire to consume.
Much of the smell and flavor we usually associate with “smokiness” comes from the compounds syringol and guaiacol, respectively. The more of these compounds absorbed into the meat, the “smokier” it will taste. Creating maximum syringol and guiacol may be a too complicated for most of us, but we can control how much smoke we create inside our smokers. Methods include limiting the amount of oxygen and air coming into the fire and using wetter wood to create more smoke.
Of course, you don’t want to create too much smoke. That results in a very bitter, acidic flavor that can make your barbecue unpleasant to eat.
Absorbing smoke into the meat also helps create the bark, the dark, chewy, spicy and tangy, crust-like texture that forms on the outside of the meat during the smoking process. The bark is considered one of the tastiest parts of the meat and is an important part of judging smoked meats in competition; it’s formed by the smoke reacting with the meat, moisture and spice rub in what is called the Maillard Reaction more on that later.
What Are Some Other Benefits of Smoking Meat?
Flavor and Bark Are Great, But What Else?
The second advantage to smoking meat is that that it creates a softer and much more tender piece of meat, by virtue of its low-and-slow cooking process.
Melt In Your Mouth...
Cooking over high heat tends to dry the meat out very quickly. Any moisture within the meat is essentially blasted out, leaving it tough, dry and difficult to chew. For delicate meats, cooking over high heat also means that you have less control over the final product, as the internal temperature can quickly rise beyond your desired temperature before you realize it.
Smoking meat low-and-slow, on the other hand, keeps the moisture from evaporating too quickly, allowing you to achieve the perfect combination of tenderness and juiciness.
I've got 99 problems, but findin' friends ain't one.
More importantly, low-and-slow cooking allows the fats and connective tissue – collagens - in the meat to slowly break down (render) into something soft. Collagen has a very high melting point, and when cooked too quickly, dries out and toughens up into something that feels and tastes like rubber, and is just as hard to chew.
Slow cooking, on the other hand, gives collagen time to soften and melt, rendering into a soft, gelatin-like texture. The result? A super-soft, juicy, and tender cut that can be pulled apart and enjoyed. It’ll also be packed full of the meat’s natural flavor. It’s a delectable, melt-in-your-mouth, culinary experience.
That’s why barbecue was invented, actually. Tradition says that Caribbean islanders who could not afford the more expensive, tenderer cuts of meat simply devised a way to render the tougher, chewier pieces (like pork butt or flank steak) softer and actually edible: cooking them over lower heat for hours on end, till all the collagen had rendered.
What Makes Smoking Different From...
Grilling is the process of cooking food by exposing it high, direct heat from an open flame. Grills can use gas, charcoal or wood to create this flame. Each of these fuels has its own cooking properties and creating its own unique flavor; cooking over wood and charcoal creates stronger smoke flavor than cooking over gas.
Grilling is meant to trap the moisture and juices in the meat while creating a crust of sorts on the outside (usually called the sear). Done right, the sear is like a lesser version of the bark formed by smoking. Hopefully, the inside is juicy and tender, too.
Grilling uses hotter, more direct cooking than smoking – often temperatures up to 500 or 600 degrees. If you’re not careful, it can quickly dry out or overdo meats if the right technique isn’t used.
Grill-roasting is the act of roasting your meat on the grill, using said device like an oven to create indirect, convection-heat; you crank up the heat on the sides (either by piling charcoal or using the burners) to heat the grill up to 300 or 400 degrees, while leaving the middle cooler so you can place the meat on it. The lid is left down, to trap the heat in like in an oven.
This method is close to that of smoking meat. The difference is the lack of smoke, which doesn’t impart its flavor into the meat. The roast will incidentally pick up some of the flavor from the charcoal or gas flame, but only a tiny amount – not the strong, bark-forming smoke used in barbecuing meats.
Braising is when a piece of meat is browned in fat or oil, and then simmered over low heat in a liquid (maybe that same fat or oil, maybe in wine) for a slightly-more extended time. This creates a softer, juicer, more tender piece of meat – similar to the soft, succulent meat that barbecue creates – and helps it gain a lot of flavor. It’s frequently used on tougher cuts of meat but works great for virtually anything if tenderness and flavor matter.
Hot Smoking & Cold Smoking
What's the Difference?
As you can probably guess from the name, hot smoking and cold smoking are differentiated by the temperatures at which the food is smoked. Hot smoking is our usual barbecue method, usually somewhere between 225°F and 300°F (or at least 165°F) where the food is cooked while also being flavored by the smoke.
Cold smoking, on the other hand, uses lower temperatures; you’re flavoring the meat with the smoke till it’s delicious, but you’re not cooking it. This is like the traditional definition of smoking that has been used for millennia; drying out and preserving meat with smoke. This would be achieved by placing the meat further away from the flame or in another chamber, where the smoke could reach it.
As with many things barbecue-related, there’s some debate over the exact temperature where these two are differentiated, but generally, a cold smoke is done between 90°F and 120°F, sometimes up to 140°F.
A Word Of Warning: Bacteria breeds rapidly at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F. If you leave food out for too long while being cold-smoked, you could be venturing into dangerous territory. Cold smoking is thus best done with caution and with foods that don’t need to be cooked. Doing it properly and safely requires expertise and the right tools.
How to Smoke Meat: The Basics
Direct and Indirect Heat
There are two ways to cook meat; using direct heat and indirect heat. Direct heat is how you grill those tasty burgers. But to smoke, you need to use indirect heat.
Grilling meat is all about using direct hot heat for short periods of time, while the key to smoking is to use indirect heat to cook meat at a low temperature over a long period of time. Basically, a smoker and a grill are polar opposites.
Grills use direct heat, this heat is right under your meat and is usually very hot. This intense heat is best suited for thin cuts of meat such as steaks, burgers and chicken breast. Smoking requires the use indirect heat over a long period of time. The meat is placed at a distance from the heat source keeping the cooking temperature of the meat lower. Smoking is ideal for thick or tough cuts, like roast, whole chicken and ribs.
First, you should understand how smoking works. It is the opposite of grilling, which requires intense direct heat and cooks quickly. Smoking is a long slow process, meat is cooked at low temperatures over a long period of time. Grills usually operate around 400 degrees while a smoker is best around 250. And when we say a long period of time we mean typically 1.5 hours for every pound of meat. Each smoker is different (we'll review all the top styles of smokers in a second), the temperature and time will vary depending on the cut and the smoker. You’ll have to work with your smoker until you find what best for you. You will want to own a good instant read or bluetooth thermometer – for those a bit more serious, check out our review of the best Wi-Fi thermometers.
You’ll want to add a rub to your meat just before smoking it. Rubs are usually made with just a few ingredients; you want to add flavor without overpowering the meat. The base of a good rub is usually salt, sugar, pepper, garlic, and onion. From here you can add any spices or herbs you like to make your very own unique flavor.
If you really want your meat to melt in your mouth, try adding the salt separate from the rest of the rub. Salt is the ingredient that penetrates deep into the meat, helping to make it tender. So adding it a 8 - 12 hours before smoking can have a huge effect on the tenderness of the meat. Then just before smoking add the rest of the rub.
It's not necessary to add the rub hours before cooking to let it soak in because the other spices and herbs don’t penetrate like salt does. So putting it on while your smoker is getting ready will be enough to do the trick.
Rub Recipes To Try
When brining, the meat is soaked in salt water for several hours, allowing the salt to penetrate deep into the meat. The salt forces the molecules in the protein to spread throughout the meat. Simply put, soaking in a salt bath makes meat softer.
Dry brining is also a very effective method for roasts or chicken. As a matter of fact, it is more efficient than a wet brine. For a dry brine add 1/2 tsp of kosher salt per pound (of trimmed meat), 10 - 12 hours in advance.
Brine is really salty, but don’t worry, if done correctly the meat will not taste over salted.
Science of Smoke
You need to have a basic understanding of how smoke works. Smoke is created by the process of combustion. When you light a grill you are creating combustion, which is just the reaction of oxygen when it hits fuel, but combustion is what creates smoke.
Depending on the heat source, coal, wood, gas or pellet, the flavor of the smoke changes because each fuel source produces its own unique combination.
Let’s try layman's terms... when wood burns it creates chemicals, some of those chemicals dissolve, what's left attaches itself to new chemicals found in the meat. The correct combination of chemicals in the smoke and in the meat are essential, too much nitrogen dioxide or smoke, and you will end up with a culinary Hindenburg.
With that being said, the best smoke is almost almost invisible. A common rookie mistake is to create billowing white clouds of smoke. You're after a light blue smoke.
Burning the right type of wood will make or break your meal. You need to use hardwoods for the best smoking flavor, like fruit and nut trees. Softwoods usually contain more air and sap and cause a mixture of garbage that makes your food taste like, well, garbage.
9 MOST POPULAR
TYPE OF SMOKERS
Smokers are not created equally. Each as their unique strengths and weaknesses. A gas grill can be used as a smoker, but it is entirely different from a pellet smoker, upright smoker, off-set smoker, etc. Understanding the characteristics of each type of smoker is important in yielding the best final product with any given grill/smoker.
Smoking on a gas grill is a little tricky and requires some hand-holding, but don’t be discouraged it can be done. Just keep in mind, most gas grills are not structurally designed properly for smoking food. One of the signs of a good gas grill is they are versatile enough cook fast and hot, as well as low and slow.
Since smoking is a long process, make sure you have enough gas on hand for the whole cooking period.
To prepare your grill, you’ll need to create two zones inside your grill, a direct heat zone, and an indirect heat zone. The direct zone is where the fire will be burning the indirect zone is where the meat will be.
Smoking is all about a steady low temperature, you might need to experiment with your burner until you find the right mix. If you have a four-burner grill, turning one burner on high should give you close to 225 degrees, two burners, hopefully, will bring you up to 250 degrees. Make sure you use the burners furthest away from the meat. Later when you start smoking, you will need to check the temperature and make adjustments as necessary.
Next set up a drip pan. If you're lucky you can fit it under the grate where you placed the meat, but most likely the burners will be in the way. It is not a good idea to set the pan on top of the burners; your grill was not designed to hold weight on those parts.
The way to fix this is to place the drip pan on top of the grate and then add another grate across the top of the drip pan. For extra moisture add some water to the drip pan too. Continue to add water to this pan throughout the smoking process.
Now you need to make a smoke box. Use a big sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil, place your wood chunks inside and poke a bunch of holes in it. Then set it over the flames and wait to make sure it starts smoking.
Now place the meat in the indirect zone, above the drip pan and you're good to go.
This is not the type of smoking set up you can just start and then leave. You'll need to pay attention to the grill throughout the whole smoking period or else you'll end up with a smokey mess.
Kettle Grills / Webers
To prepare your Weber grill for smoking first, remove the cooking grate from your grill. On one side of your grill place an aluminum drip pan. To add some moisture to your smoker fill thepan approximately halfway with water. On the opposite side of the grill, pile up your coals..
Get your coals nice and hot, when they are white you are ready to add the wood.
You don’t need much wood to get a good flavor but choosing the right wood is important. Wood chunks work best, but if you have to use chips make sure they have been soak for at least an hour.
Place a chunk of wood or a hand full of chips on top of your hot coals and replace the cooking grate.
Now, you're ready to cook. Place the meat over the drip pan, away from the fire, and cover your grill making sure the vents are over your meat, not your coals. Check your vents; they should be set about aquarter of the way open. Now, you wait. Since you are using a grill you will need to occasionally add more coal or wood, but it's important to keep the lid closed as much as possible. There is no need to flip the meat, just let the smoke do its job. Remember smoking meat takes time, therefore, be patient with the process.
Ugly Drum Smokers (UDS)
This is a great project for meat geeks with an insatiable drive for DIY tasks. You’ll need some specific tools, but if you're a hardcore DIY-er then you probably already have all the tools you need.
Constructing a UDS
Although it might sound complicated, building one of these beasts is actually pretty easy for the average do it yourselfer. In a nutshell, it goes like this… get a 55-gallon drum, then strategically drill a bunch of holes into it. Build a charcoal basket and find a 22-inch grilling grate to place inside. Finally, attach some plumbing valves to work as the air inlets. And voilà you’ve got yourself a one of a kind ugly drum smoker.
Lay down a layer of charcoal, UDS experts advise adding more charcoal to the basket than you think you might need because trying to add more charcoal once the smoker is going is pretty tricky. On the same note, try starting fewer briquettes than you think you might need. If the smoker gets overheated it can be difficult to cool it back off.
Once you have your charcoals ready, lay the heat shield down and put the grates back in and place your meat on the rack. Try to keep the lid down, if you need to check the meat, take it out and close the lid while you check it. It might help to close the intake valve before you take the lid off, just remember to open them back up when you close the lid.
What makes a pellet smoker so popular isn’t just the taste it creates but its ease of use. You can easily set it up and leave it until it's done. This is the reason for the huge craze which Traeger has done well to capitalize on. There is no babysitting, hovering or double-checking required. The reason for this, internal temperature control.
Traeger's, unlike other models, have a temperature probe, these sensors tell it if the temperature is too low and automatically feeds more pellets to the fire. You can set up the temperature in 5-degree increments. Other brands and cheaper versions only offer three settings low, medium and high. There is no sensor to monitor the temperature.
Many pellet smokers have automatic starts and large drip pans making prep and clean up easy. Also, you can load up the chamber and not worry about uneven cooking.
Finally, pellet smokers are versatile. They can smoke, roast, barbecue, and bake.
Access to electricity has its downfalls, however. First, if the cord isn’t long enough you will need to make sure you have a proper extension cord. Using the wrong cord is a fire hazard. Do the math (watts/volts = amps) and make sure you have the right extension cord. The smoker is also less mobile, and if it's stored outside it absolutely must have a cover. Electrical components and weather don’t mix.
Propane vertical smokers usually have a very simple design.
Like a standard gas grill, burners are located at the bottom of the smoker and connect to propane tanks. Above the burner lies the wood pan, then a water pan. Above all of that is the smoking chamber.
There is usually a thermometer mounted somewhere on the dome. However, you should seriously consider investing in a grate thermometer as the dome mounted ones can be shockingly inaccurate.
Using a gas smoker is pretty simple. First, fill the water pan and place it in the smoker. Then, with the lid open, light the burner. Once the smoker is warmed up to the right temperature, about 10 to 15 minutes, add the wood chunks.
Once a white billowy smoke begins to escape the chimney you are ready to add the meat.
Check the smoker periodically, you may need to add more water or wood. Otherwise, you can just sit back and let the smoker do its job.
Electric Vertical Smokers
Electric smokers are all about achieving a user friendly smoke. What they lack in flavor they somewhat make up in simplicity.
Electric smokers are some of the easiest to use because the temperature is much easier to control than with other types of smokers. Unlike working with different sources of heat like gas, wood, and charcoal, an electric smoker will regulate the temperature all on its own. Although it is an easier machine, it takes some of the fun out of smoking.
To use an electric vertical smoker, simply add water to the water pan, then add wood chips or chunks to the wood tray. Then turn on the smoker to the desired temperature. Once the smoker has reached the right temperature then you are ready to add the meat. Try to do this step as quickly as possible, while the doors are open you’re losing heat and smoke.
Your work here is pretty much done, you may need to add more water and wood to the tray during the smoking process, but mostly you can just let your smoker do the work while you enjoy a good night's rest.
Bullets / Water Smokers
A bullet or water smoker looks a lot like a knock-off R2D2. But it has the same components of any smoker such as charcoal and water pans and a couple of racks. Luckily, it's not as difficult to understand as R2D2.
As the name suggests water is the key to a bullet smoker. These smokers rely on moisture, unlike other models where the water pan is optional. In the bullet, the water is necessary for maintaining the temperature inside the smoker because it provides a barrier between the heat source and the meat.
Before you start smoking make sure to fill the water pan, then keep a close eye on it through cooking. Refill the water pan as needed, there should never be less than 2 inches of water in the pan. If you let the pan go dry the temperature will shoot up. Make sure to use warm water when you refill the pan or the temperature will fall.
To start the smoker, just fill the fire box with hot coals and add wood chip or chunks; your water pan should already be full.
Set up the grate for your meat but wait until the smoker has reached the right temperature before you put it in. When you add the meat, do it quickly or else you will lose too much heat from the smoker.
Green Egg / Ceramic Smokers
The Big Green Egg is a ceramic smoker that can do anything from oven baked pizza to juicy tender briskets.
The Egg has great insulation, which makes temperature regulation much easier than with some other types of smokers. Like other smokers, the temperature is simply regulated by the vents..
The Egg comes with some special features like a Plate Setter, which is a stoneware part that turns your smoker into a brick oven. You can also turn the Egg into a convection oven. So the Egg can be a versatile tool. Keep in mind, however, that the Egg is really heavy; it's not the kind of smoker you will be able to move around.
To set your Egg up for smoking add the charcoal and the wood chips first. Spread the chips out so they are not placed in just one heap. Then light a few briquettes near the center. These will gradually light the briquettes around it and keep the heat and the smoke going for as much as 16 hours.
After you light the briquettes put the plate setter in, legs side up, to hold the meat. Close the lid and adjust your vent until you have the right temperature.
An offset smoker may be the most difficult to figure out, but once you have it down it's a great all-around smoker. Most smokers feel the offset is what sets real aficionados apart from the rest of the crowd. However, most of the cheap ones are built for people who like the idea of owning an offset smoker, more than they care about how well it smokes. As a result, most offset smokers are better as stand alone grills than smokers.
An offset usually has two chambers, there is a large smoking chamber, then attached to the side of it is a separate chamber for the firebox. The charcoal and wood chunks are set in the firebox, then the smoke rises up and travels through the smoking chamber and out the chimney which is placed on the opposite side of the smoker.
Since the firebox is at one end of the smoke chamber the temperature inside varies. It is higher at the end closest to the box and lower at the opposite side. To make sure you have an even cook you will have to rotate your meats throughout the smoking processes.
Start a fire in the firebox or prepare the charcoal in a chimney starter, open the intake vent and the chimney vent completely.
Close the firebox lid and the lid to the smoking chamber. Adjust the vents until you get the right temperature.
When you've preheated the smoker put the meat on the smoking grate and add wood chips or chunks to the firebox. As you cook you can add more wood to the smoker without opening the smoking chamber.
Final Best Practice Tips
If your lookin' you ain't cookin': Keep the lid closed as much as possible when smoking. When you're grilling the temperature is high enough and reheats quickly enough that the inside of the meat continues to cook even with the lid open. However, smoking meat is all about low and steady temperatures. Opening the lid lets: cold air in, moisture escape and it allows oxygen to feed the fuel; all this leads to major changes within your smoker's environment which can effect your meat negatively. These negative effects vary based on several factors such as the outdoor environment: temperature, humidity, wind, etc. Nonetheless, if you're only opening the lid for a minute or two it shouldn't be a big deal and likely won't affect your final product. Luckily, you don’t need to turn the meat often when smoking, only once or twice.
Rubs are key to a delicious outer crust, make sure to season your meat. Keep in mind, a rub (minus the salt) will not penetrate very far into the meat. This is why rubs are applied just prior to cooking. Salt is really the only thing that penetrates the meat, and to do so it takes hours. Therefore, don't add salt into your rubs as it will only cause the outer crust of the meat to become salty. This means you should be dry/wet brining the meat in salt 10 - 12 hours prior to smoking the meat.
Make sure your smoker is at the right temperature, somewhere between 225 and 275 degrees. Do yourself a favor and purchase a good thermometer to monitor the internal temperature of your grill – those dial thermometers are garbage and are usually off by 25+ degrees.
A water pan is not necessary when using a smoker but there are several benefits. Since water boils at 212 degrees the steam fills the smoker and helps regulate the temperature so you are more likely to stay in that sweet spot of 225°F. Another good thing about water is it helps the heat transfer evenly all around the meat additionally, as moisture adheres to the meat it creates the ideal "glue" for smoke to stick to. One thing to remember when adding water to the pan ensure it is boiling – never add cold water.
Choose the right wood. Mesquite is a famous wood, you hear it being used all the time at great barbecue restaurants. But don’t be fooled. It is strong and overpowering. It is not always the type of wood you want to use, instead, consider a great nut wood like hickory or even fruit woods such as cherry.
As the wood smokes keep in mind the smoke should be almost invisible or at most a light white, if it turns into thick white or black clouds you're doing it wrong. Most likely there is not enough ventilation; check the air flow. Remember, smoking is kinda like wearing makeup...it should look like you're wearing none at all – same thing goes for smoke – less is more. The best tasting smoke is the kind you can barely see, don't feel you need thick clouds of smoke for the entire 7 hour cook time. Most all meat will only absorb smoke for about 3 hours, after that, it's....all smoke and mirrors...
If you must add a serving sauce, such as BBQ, don't add it till the last 30 minutes.
Always use an good internal meat thermometer you can trust to make sure your meat is done properly – never trust suspect "hacks" that claim you can know when meat is done with methods that don't involve a meat thermometer.
Invest in a good pair of grilling gloves. You'll find that you will use them for everything when it comes to smoking and grilling.
Comment with tips that have improved your smoking game.