How to Use a Charcoal Smoker

how to use a charcoal smoker

People have been grilling and smoking food since the discovery of fire thousands and thousands of years ago. Back then, people only had sticks and stones to work with to put together a smoker. Fortunately, today’s technology allows us to use far more advanced means such as charcoal and electric smokers. 

How to use a charcoal smoker doesn’t have to be difficult, but there are certain things you will need to keep in mind. For example, you need to consider the parts of a charcoal smoker, learn how to prepare your smoker, and more. Keep reading and learn more about the details of using a charcoal smoker and how you can smoke your food to perfection. 

The Main Parts of a Charcoal Smoker

If you’ve never used a charcoal smoker before, it is important that you become familiar with all the parts that are involved. First, there is the firebox. As the name suggests, the firebox is the part of the charcoal that contains the flames and gets very hot as a result. 

The firebox is also the area of the smoker that needs to be filled with charcoal. A lot will depend on how much charcoal you put in the firebox. For example, if you only put a few handfuls of charcoal in the firebox, the fire won’t last very long and the firebox won’t get very hot either. Since smoking food is an endeavor that usually lasts several hours, it is important to always put in enough charcoal. 

For example, if you put in an entire 15-pound sack of charcoal, then the smoker will likely be able to remain smoking and very hot for around 15 hours.

This is important for cuts of meat that require a lot of cooking time, like brisket or ribs. If you want to switch up the flavor that your charcoal smoker provides, you can always toss in some wood chips such as hickory or oak. 

This will not only change the flavor of the food involved, but it will also change the aroma of the smoke and food as well. The next piece of the charcoal smoker you should know about is the water pan. This pan sits above the firebox, and it needs to be filled with relatively cold liquid. 

The Details

The point of the water pan, also known as the water chamber, is to prevent the entire charcoal smoker from getting too hot. Thanks to the water chamber, it is relatively easy to find the ideal temperature for smoking your food. As the temperature of the smoker increases, the water in the water chamber will start steaming as a result. 

This will prevent the food you’re smoking from getting too dry. Next, there is, of course, the cooking chamber. As the name suggests, this is where you get to cook all of your delicious food. The cooking chamber looks more or less the same as your average grill. 

The last part of the grill is the lid. This is what will keep all the smoke inside the cooking chamber. There is a vent or a chimney on top of the lid so that excess steam and smoke can escape. 

All of the best charcoal smokers have these features. Now that you know about the basic parts of a charcoal smoker, you might be wondering how you can get started smoking some delicious food. 

What You Need To Know When Using a Charcoal Smoker

Before you even touch your smoker, you’ll first need to choose what kind of charcoal you want. Basic charcoal briquettes will do the trick. They are easy to work with since they maintain the right temperature on their own. 

You also don’t need to worry about positioning the charcoal in a particular way inside the smoker. As long as you get the right charcoal, the charcoal should stay lit and hot on its own. The charcoal alone will provide a great smoky flavor to your food, but for some, it might be too intense. 

For that reason, it is a good idea to add some wood chips to the mix. Wood chips help to ease the strength of the charcoal smoke so that your food won’t smell or taste too strongly of charcoal. Depending on what kind of wood chips you choose, your food could turn out quite different. 

For example, hickory and mesquite wood chips are quite intense and savory, while cherry and apple wood chips are smoother and lighter. For that reason, choosing wood chips is a good idea based on the kind of food you plan to smoke. That way, you can improve the quality of your food as much as possible. 

Make sure the smoker’s water chamber is full. It should only ever be three-quarters full and not brimming with water. 

The Preparation

If you forget to fill the water chamber, you will soon find that your smoker is much too hot to properly smoke anything. While it may already be obvious, be sure that you don’t use hot or warm water for the water pan. The point is to use cold water so the cold can counteract the heat of the smoker. 

Once you have all that in order, it will be time to light the charcoal. The best method for lighting charcoal is called a fast-light charcoal chimney. Try to avoid lighter fluid, and if you need to use it, only light ten briquettes, then add them on top of your main charcoal supply.

Stacking the charcoal briquettes in a pile will help all the charcoal burn evenly. It will also help the firebox maintain its heat. Once the charcoal is on fire, you should wait a few minutes before adding any food. 

After all, the smoker will need some time to heat up to your target cooking temperature. Preferably, you should wait until the charcoal starts to become a bit ashy but not too ashy. At that point, you can finally add your food to the smoker. 

Other Factors To Consider When Smoking Your Food

You might think that it’s all smooth sailing once it’s time to start smoking your food, but this is not quite true. You still need to be careful with how you control the smoker. Otherwise, you could end up ruining your food. Once you add your food to the metal grates inside the smoker, you can decide whether or not to add some spices or salt. 

This is not always necessary since the flavor of the charcoal will already make the food quite flavorful. The main thing you will need to consider is the temperature of the smoker. If you’re not careful, the smoker could easily become too hot or too cold, and this could ruin the quality of your food. 

Preferably, you should have the smoker’s internal temperature around 220 or 250 degrees. The vents on your smoker will allow you to control the heat of the smoker. The more air you allow into the smoker, the more the flames will grow and the hotter the smoker will become. 

The Temperature

On the other hand, if you block off the vents and cut off the air supply to the inside of the firebox, the fire will die down, and the smoker will cool down. Your smoker should have a thermometer somewhere on it, so you can see exactly what temperature the inside of the smoker is.

If you find that the smoker’s temperature starts to get too hot or cold, all you have to do is adjust the vents to fix the problem. Typically, more air will make your smoker hotter, and less air will result in a cooler burn.

After smoking your food for some time, it will then be time to add some of the wood chips. It is important to only add a small hand full of wood chips at a time. Otherwise, their aromas and flavors will become too strong. Also, adding a single chunk of wood is a good option. The wood chunk will smolder, releasing smoke until it lights.

After that, all you need to do is wait for your food to be done. Depending on what kind of food you’re smoking, you might need to wait only a few hours or perhaps as long as 20 hours. 

How To Use a Charcoal Smoker Like a Pro

Learning how to use a charcoal smoker is not an impossible task, but there are certain things you need to keep in mind. For example, you need to control the temperature of the smoker with the water chamber and vents to keep it stable. You also need to choose the right kind of fuel.

To learn more about smoking your food, click here.