Funnily the first question that regularly comes up with an electric smoker is; can I use it indoors? No. Okay, technically yes, but really? Being electric, no open flame, this is not as big a carbon monoxide threat, but understand that the indoor area will smell of smoke probably, oh, forever! Our opinion is no, this is not an indoor activity.
However, let’s back up a couple steps. Electric smokers are a great way to get going in the world of smoking meats; here are some of our favorites. They simplify what can be a challenging part of the smoking process; a controlled burn that puts out good smoke. That is the goal after all, getting smoke well circulated around the meat, or maybe cheese, salts, or some veggies and such, to impart the most flavor.
Pick your spot
Like we said, we discourage indoors. That typically includes your garage unless you have a good exhaust fan. A safe place has exceptional ventilation (outdoors) and is basically fireproof. Yes, you can safely use these on a wooden deck, making sure the unit is far enough from walls and wood structures. For both safety and clean up, there are mats available specifically for cooking devices used on a deck.
Ideally, a flat concrete, brick or stone surface is your first choice. You obviously need a power source, preferably with a GFI. You can use an extension cord, verify that the gauge is heavy enough and rated for the power needs of your smoker.
Breaking it in
We’re going to defer to the manufacturer on this topic. But do not skimp on the break-in process. There are often oils used in manufacturing, and still coating some components, that can impart nasty flavors to your food.
Some manuals will simply say to start the smoker, and after 45 minutes of operation it is ready to go for food. Others may have a more complex seasoning process. With so many devices on the market, look at the manual with yours, and follow those steps.
Internal (Pit) Temperature
Your break in period is an excellent opportunity to see how accurately your smoker achieves and maintains temperature. The nature of an electric element is that it will turn on and off, similar to an oven, and will have some fluctuation of temperature. How well insulated the chamber is, and the outside temperature will both have an effect on the outcome. That being said, most devices have thermostats that are notoriously inaccurate. What do you do?
Ideally you will get a temperature monitoring device that has an ambient thermometer specifically for measuring air temperatures, even better if the device supports multiple probes, and even better still if you have Bluetooth, which is now common. The break in period is a great opportunity to see if the system is at all accurate, and if not where it varies. From our experience only some of the top end units seem to allow for actually calibrating the smoker itself. It is up to you to learn how your unit runs, high-low or tolerable.
Frankly, not just during break in, but throughout all our smoking we like to have an ambient thermometer tracking our chamber temperature and additional probes tracking the items we’re cooking. Knowledge is power, and we know that most of the installed ambient sensors and the bi-dial thermometers are either very inaccurate or placed poorly to be effective. You will have a much smoother smoking experience if you make the small investment to get a trustworthy sensing device.
The big question
Probably the biggest disparity of opinion with electric smokers is whether or not to use a water tray, the first step in getting ready to smoke. Using preheated water will get the vapor process jump started. However, many people do not use the water tray. We recommend it for the following reasons.
Water transfers temperature more directly and consistently. A more humid environment facilitates the process. Secondly, the additional humidity will not diminish the ability to create a nice bark on your smoked meats. We think water enhances the bark, letting the color and richness develop without becoming too crusty. You can also use this as a flavoring source by adding vinegar, cider, orange rinds or rosemary sprigs, among many flavor additives, that can be conveyed through the water vapor.
Chips chunks and soaking
Some electric smokers are designed exclusively for chips, others can accommodate both or chunks only. Chunk wood, being roughly less than 2 inch shapes, burns longer and slower. Chips will combust quicker and may require more tending for long smokes.
Unless your smoker manual says specifically not to, soaking your wood will give you longer periods and more smoke without replenishing. Soak chips for about 15 minutes, chunks for 30. Give either one a moment or two to drip off excess water, the goal being moist wood.
It’s all about the wood
In some ways that is true, and today’s marketplace has many good choices. First off, stay away from softer woods like fir, pine, etc. These burn quickly and can impart turpentine type flavors to your food. There are plenty of tasty hardwoods to choose from.
Mesquite is a great wood for smoking. Be aware that long smokes with mesquite will produce intense flavors. Hickory, pecan, birch and such will give you great smoke flavors, many of them familiar to you from commercial products like bacon and sausages.
Fruit woods are generally more delicate flavored and becoming much more available, with apple and cherry being the most common.
Another party heard from
It’s all about the rub! And that voice is not wrong. Similarly to smoking time and temp, contact with a good rub over time will enhance the flavors and tenderness in your end result. There are so many different rubs that we could go on all day about them.
We will quickly talk about the best way to use them. Generally you want to season a nice visible layer of rub all over the meat. With thinner cuts of meat, a few hours before smoking will work. For bigger cuts, we like to season up and let sit refrigerated, uncovered, for twelve hours or so. Bring these out an hour or two before smoking to start them coming up in temperature.
Fire it up
The time has come…almost. Yes, time to turn on your smoker to the desired temperature, and start heating the unit up. Be patient and watch the smoke. The purist smoking gurus will tell you that white smoke has some chemical components, whereas a thin bluer smoke is cleaner with better flavor.
Using the thermostat of your smoker is nice, and one of the traits we like in electric smokers. But, having a double check is a good idea. Whether you hang an old school oven thermometer from a rack, or a high tech Bluetooth thermometer for ambient temperature, you do want to know how your system runs. There are some great systems that will monitor both the chamber temperature and the internal temperature of your meat, by remote, giving you updates regularly.
And you’re off…
When your smoker is at temp, put your meat or other items into the chamber. Similarly to working an oven indoors, you want to be quick about this process. The goal being to lose as little heat as possible while loading up.
Again, different manufacturers have different approaches. If your racks slide in and out easily, you can pre-load everything. This makes a really quick process to get the smoker loaded up by just putting the full racks inside. Be sure to keep at least an inch or more between pieces of food to allow smoke to circulate,
Hurry up and wait
A large part of the smoking game is patience. And we do get rewarded for our patience! Even still, there are a lot of variables when it comes to the cooking process after you determine your temp and time formula. How quickly your device is burning through wood is paramount. Some will say this is the biggest drawback to electric smokers, that they don’t accommodate enough wood for 8-10-12 hour smokes.
Make sure to keep an eye on it and load as needed. Chamber temperature and environmental temperature will influence wood consumption as well. Obviously a winter smoke will require more wood loads to keep going. In rough terms, one cup of chips will burn about an hour, chunks will last longer. Like the other aspects, plan accordingly for your wood consumption.
After the smoke, be sure to disconnect the device from the power source and allow to cool completely before storing. You can also see our article on how to clean and maintain your electric smoker.