What is the point of a propane smoker? Isn’t it just an outside oven? Wouldn’t you be better off cooking your food in a regular oven with some smoky sauce? Despite a propane smoker’s similarities with a gas-powered oven, a propane smoker allows you to impart your meals with a genuine smoky flavor.
A propane smoke achieves it through the use of smoke-infused steam, which is something a traditional household oven cannot do. Plus, a smoker’s high capacity and low running cost also make it more economical than an internal household oven.
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Before You Use Your Propane Smoker
If this is the first time you are using your smoker, then you need to season your new smoker. Light your new smoker, put in the wood chips, and let it burn away for about 30 to 45 minutes. Then, open up the lid and air out the smoker. That will remove any lingering particulates that might still linger inside.
If you are using a second-hand smoker, then you must clean it out thoroughly. Do not believe the notion that old food grime will somehow add to the flavor because it does not. What happens is that the moisture accumulates in the smoker, absorbs the grime, and it drips down onto your food. Plus, congealed carbon will flake off and fall onto your meat or veggies if you do not keep your propane smoker clean.
As you learn how to use a propane smoker, you will discover that a fair amount of buildup will accumulate over time on the grills, interior walls, lid, etc. You do not have to keep it sparkling clean, but basic cleaning and hygiene will ensure the buildup does not affect the food.
How to Use a Propane Smoker
Should you “season” your smoker? Some people suggest that you should burn wood chips on their own the first time you ever use your smoker. That is known as seasoning the smoker. Take the advice in the previous paragraph and light your smoker and then air it out after a while.
It is merely a case of lighting the smoker, letting it get hot and smoky for around 30 minutes, and then opening the lid to let the smoke and particulates out. You do not need to “cure” or “season” your smoker for hours on end before using it, but if you go a little longer, it won’t hurt your smoker or food.
Step One – Preparation of Your Smoker and Your Food
If you are going to marinate food, then do it overnight in the fridge. Once you light your smoker, bring out your food and let it sit for around 30 minutes before putting it into the smoker. Slightly cooled meat will cook better in the smoker because it allows for better juice retention. Do not leave your food out of the fridge any longer than 30 minutes for food safety.
Prepare your wood chips by soaking them in water. You do not need to do this overnight, but at least give them 30 minutes in water before you put them in the smoker. Drain them by hand, and do not worry too much if they are dripping wet. Soak them in clean water or rainwater.
Besides airing out or cleaning your smoker, you will only need to check its connections and connectors. Check the connections to make sure that propane gas is not leaking and check the connectors to be sure no grime, grease, or dirt is causing an obstruction.
Tip: make a disposable try out of tin foil and place it on the bottom food rack of your smoker to catch food drippings. Your cleanup will be a breeze as you will be able to toss the tray in the garbage when you are done.
Step Two – The Water Bath
If your smoker is brand new, or if your water bath is second-hand but very clean, then strongly consider lining it with tinfoil (aluminum foil) before filling it with water. A smoker’s water bath is notorious for picking up all sorts of grease and grime, and it can be a devil to clean.
Lining the bowl or tray with foil makes the cleaning process a little easier. It doesn’t matter too much if your second-hand smoker has hardened grease inside the water bath, but if your smoker is new, then lining with foil is a fair way to keep things nice and clean.
You can add various fluids, but fresh, clean, and warm water is often the best choice. Fill the bowl up so that the liquid doesn’t all evaporate away. However, keep in mind that if you overfill it, then you may spill it when you return the bath to the smoker.
If you are going to be smoking your food for a long time, like in the case of brisket, you may want to add a few cups of hot water to the water bath. During long cooks, the water may all evaporate, resulting in dry meat.
Step Three – Add Wood Chips
There should be a tray, drawer, or compartment in which you should place your wood chips. Place the dripping-wet wood chips into the chamber before you light your smoker.
At this point, you will probably need to open up some vents in your smoker. Your smoker will come with instructions for you to follow, but in general, there is a small vent around the bottom near the back for feeding air to the flames. There is also a vent near the chimney at the top where hot air is allowed to escape.
These vents need to be open or partially open during the cooking process. We recommend when in doubt, opening the vent completely for good airflow, which will yield the best flavor.
Step Four – Lighting Your Smoker
Turn on the gas, and take one of two steps. If your smoker is manually lit, then you will need to hold an open flame over the area where the gas is released. Some people do this with a cigarette lighter, but most do it with a long match to avoid accidental burning. A Brulee torch is a great option for lighting your propane smoker; it is small and has fine adjustments.
Many modern propane smokers will have a gas control knob and an ignition button. Follow the instructions that came with your smoker. Most models require that you turn the gas control knob into the high position, and then press the ignition button for as long as it takes for the gas to light.
Once the smoker lights up, close the door and wait a little while. After a few minutes, you should see smoke coming from the chimney or upper exhaust vent. That means your wood chips are smoking, and you may now add the food.
Step Five – Add the Food
Larger items should sit on the top shelf. Remember to use tongs and gloves because the interior of the smoker will be hot. Add the food while making sure they do not touch each other or the sides of the smoker.
If you are cooking things like pork joints, then put the fatty side up. Smaller items should go closer to the bottom of the smoker. That is because the bottom is a little cooler, which helps ensure the smaller items do not overcook. Keep in mind the steam will rise to the top of your smoker helping to prevent your meat from drying out too quickly.
After adding the food, you need to try to keep the temperature at a consistent rate. That’s usually between 225 and 350 degrees Fahrenheit. If you aim for the same temperature every time, like 275 degrees, you will learn your smoker’s cook times.
Step Six – Open the Smoker
When using charcoal or solid fuel burners, it is not a great idea to open the smoker until the food is done. However, things are a little different when it comes to propane smokers. After around 90 minutes, it may be a good idea to check your food or move some food around. If you plan to add food with a shorter cook time, this can be a good time to add them to your smoker.
For example, if you are cooking a joint of meat, then it may be a good idea to open the smoker and turn it over. After 90 minutes, or halfway through cooking your meat, you may want to add a tray of dressed vegetables, or maybe some smaller food items like kebabs on skewers.
Since the smoker is open, you may like to check on your water bath and wood chips and maybe even add more of each. Opening the door once or twice per cook is ok when using a propane smoker because it can regain heat, smoke, and moisture levels reasonably quickly. However, do not leave the door open for too long because many foods, especially meat, will start to lose juices as they cool. And if you continue to cook the meat after it has lost its juices, then it will taste slightly dry and less pleasant when you finally serve it.
Do I Need to Soak the Wood Chips?
Soaking wood chips remains a debate that we have even in our office. Most people will say that dealing with propane smokers you can use your wood chips wet or dry but have a logical reason why they choose one way other the other.
If you watch people using propane smokers on YouTube, you will see numerous comments underneath, claiming you do not have to soak the wood chips. The debate stems from the differences between using charcoal burners and propane burners.
A charcoal burner often cooks at a slower rate than a propane burner. That means the wood chips need to be soaked so they may slowly release the smoke, and so they will not burn away too quickly.
Wood chips do not need to live that long in a propane smoker. In a propane smoker, you want as much smoke as possible in the most consistent manner. So what should you do? As a rule of thumb, if your wood chips are small, then soak them for at least 30 minutes and drain them just before putting them into the smoker. If you have larger wood chips, and plenty of them, then you can throw them in without soaking them.
Just make sure they are not too dry because you do not want them to flame up and burn away. If the chips incinerate too quickly, then it will raise the temperature of your smoker to an undesirable level, and you will have to keep refilling your wood chips to maintain a consistent level of smoke.
Editors note: I only use wet chips in my offset charcoal smoker to slow down the burn rate. By keeping my chips dry in propane smokers, I can get more smoke at lower temperatures. As far as electric smokers, I never use wet chips because they rarely will smoke or burn at all. My 2 cents and the debate lives on, LOL.
Wood Chips – What Not to Use
Part of learning how to use a propane smoker is learning from your mistakes, but here are some tips. You never use treated lumber. When things like varnish and creosote burn, they release polycarbonate smoke, which is toxic if inhaled, and if ingested. Plus, if you are looking for a smooth and subtle smoked flavor from your food, chemicals from treated wood can’t provide it.
Even though the wood will not touch your food, try to think in terms of hygiene and taste. Your wet leaves may create lots of smoke, but it is not the same as BBQ smoke. It is not enticing, nor will it add a pleasant flavor.
Stick with untreated wood, and preferably with wood that is naturally sourced. Feel free to leave the bark on the wood, especially if you are using fruit tree wood, but be wary of contaminants, especially if the wood has been sat for months and exposed to the elements.
Also, when sourcing your wood, never use softwoods like pine because the pitch is toxic. We have a shortlist of our top picks, pecan, mesquite, hickory, apple, and cherry. Pecan is our favorite all-around, but it is hard to buy ready to use, so mixing hickory and apple is a great option for propane smokers.
Do not put coal or charcoal into your propane smoker. The misunderstanding stems from people thinking they can put charcoal into the smoker so that the charcoal smoke creates a BBQ flavor. But, in reality, charcoal is very clean burning and offers very little in the way of smoky flavor. You are better off using solid organic fuel like wood.
We recommend buying your wood for propane smokers in bags of ready-to-use chunks.
Fluids – What Not to Use
While you are learning how to use a propane smoker, be careful whose advice you take. Some might suggest you add e-cigarette fluid to your water bath, but that’s not a good idea. The idea that something like a cherry-flavored e-cigarette formula would make your food taste like cherries is misguided at best. Over 95% of e-cigarette formula is propylene glycol (a chief component of antifreeze) and glycerin (the stuff they make TNT out of), and this is not a chemical formula you want to ingest.
Some people claim that using beer or stout is a good idea, but only water will evaporate since the heat will break down the alcohol. Your food may take a slightly bitter tinge, but it is not worth the expense of filling the water bath with beer. The same applies to spirits except that spirits may cause a very nasty fire or explosion when you open the lid.
Some people claim that wine generates a pleasant taste, which is not entirely untrue, but you can get a far better effect by merely marinating the food in the wine before putting it into the smoker. Putting liquids cannabis in the water bath makes the food taste very acrid.
Propane smoker as an oven
Using your propane smoker as an oven can be a great idea, especially during hot summer days. Your smoker can bake a chicken, potatoes, or even a pizza, while your house stays cool with the A/C running. A propane smoker makes a nice addition to an outdoor kitchen to use as an oven and you can share a propane tank with a traditional gas grill.
Finally, if you have a well seasoned and clean smoker, you can add just a little of that wonderful smokey flavor to any food, like pizza, for that high-end restaurant taste.
As you have learned from this article, part of the learning process is learning what “Not” to do. One of the greatest things about having a smoker is being able to experiment. You shouldn’t add illicit elements to your smoker, but you also shouldn’t shy away from playing with your smoker.
Try a smoke-baked pizza, a char-cooked aubergine, or even a smoked duck a l’orange. Propane smokers are great fun if you take the time to learn how to use them properly.