Put the charcoal in and light it, add a bowl of water, put the food in the top, close up the smoker, and wait. Isn’t that all it takes to work a smoker? No. In reality, there are a lot of little nuances, tips, tricks, and methods to using a vertical smoker if you want a healthy, hygienic, and tasty meal. Here is all you need to know about how to use a vertical smoker.
Vertical Water Smokers or Bullet Smokers
Some call them vertical water smokers, others call them bullet smokers, but the way they are used is almost universal. You add solid fuel to the bottom, and the heat passes over a bowl of fluid and up towards the food where the smoker’s drum traps the heat and moisture.
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How to Use a Vertical Smoker
Make sure the smoker is clean and disassemble it. In most cases, there are three parts. There is a lid, a middle section where you put the food, and the base section where you put the fuel.
Step One – Cleaning and Assembly
Chunks of old food and gunk can build up around the hinges, edges, and anywhere that the meat, oil, and juice may reach. You do not have to clean and scrape every last bit, but make sure no grime can come into contact with the food. Also, beware of muck and residue that may crust over and fall onto the food from the lid and metal grills.
Step Two – Add the Fuel and Light It
You can use slightly moist wood or charcoal or both for fuel. The wood needs to be somewhat moist because you want it to burn it in a slow and controlled manner rather than blaze it. Plus, the faster the wood burns, the more often you have to refuel as you are cooking.
Some people light the fuel with a blowtorch or similar tool, and some people use the chimney. The chimney is a tube with holes in which you put the fuel and light a piece of paper underneath it. After about twenty minutes, the fuel should be hot enough to transfer into the base of the smoker.
After you move the fuel to the base of the smoker, you can add any extras such as various types of wood. Make sure the fire is lit and very hot, but also not flaming too much.
Step Three – Add Fluid to the Bowl
There is a removable bowl in the middle section of the smoker. Ideally, you should place it securely into the smoker and then fill it with fluid. Most people use water, though some add spices and other things to the water to create different smells and flavors.
Fill the bowl as much as you can because water shouldn’t evaporate fully before the end of the smoking session. However, keep in mind that you will have to transfer the midsection of the smoker onto the top of the base, and you do not want to spill water onto the hot fuel.
Step Four – Add the Grills and the Food
The midsection has grills on which you should put your food. Try not to let the food touch the sides of the smoker because it will soak up any dirt that is attached to the sides. Also, you want the smoke and hot air to go around the food, so try to keep the food from touching the sides or other pieces of food.
Step Five – Add Extras if Required
Before you reassemble your smoker, you may like to add extras. Some people add wood chips on top of their hot charcoal. If you do this, soak the wood chips for about half an hour. Grab them by hand, let the water drain through your hands, and then put the chips on the hot coals. Too wet, and it will put out your coal. Too dry, and the wood chips will burn in flames, and they will burn away too quickly.
Step Six – Reassemble the Smoker
Use gloves. Plenty of people have put the top of the smoker on top of the base, and have then tried to attach the bottom and middle sections, only to discover that the clips on the base are burning hot. Be careful when reassembling because you do not want the water to splash over the sides of the bowl.
Step Seven – Monitor the Heat
Cooking time will depend upon the types of food and fuel you are using. If the smoker has an external thermostat, you can check whether the temperature is OK. Do not remove the lid of the smoker to check on the food because looking isn’t cooking!
After around 90 minutes, you may wish to add more fuel or extras. There should be no need to check on the food or the water bowl. Then, after around another 90 minutes, the food should be ready.
Charcoal and Wet Wood Chips
You can add extras to change the flavor of your meat. There is nothing wrong with using a solid fuel like charcoal as it creates a clean and tasty product. However, some people like to add wet wood chips onto the coals just before they assemble the smoker.
Adding pre-soaked chips helps create flavorful steam and can slow the burning speed of the wood chips. That, along with the aromas of the smoke and food, can create enjoyable cooking and eating experience.
Different Types of Wood
Whether you are using wood on its own, or you are adding wet wood chips to the charcoal, you should know which types of wood create which kinds of smoke and flavors. Here are a few solid fuel suggestions.
A mild and fruity flavor that works well with white meat and. People often pair it with hickory for a stronger taste.
A light and delicate smoking material that some people enjoy when cooking fish, especially oily fish.
You can get a mild, sweet flavor if you add wood that still has the bark on and if you do not mind a more prolonged and slower cooking session. Also, applewood is our favorite pairing for chicken or turkey.
Many claim it adds a rich, nutty and sweet flavor to the food it cooks, and that it’s the best solid fuel for beef.
It has a very intense flavor and probably shouldn’t be used as a solid fuel. Instead, you should use it as wood chips on top of the charcoal.
When I think of a traditional smoking flavor, the wood I think of is hickory. The strong flavor is a great addition to beef or pork and works well the burn as the main fuel when cut in small pieces.
Most people know you can add wood to your charcoal for a nice mix of flavors, but why not take it to the next level. I like to start my main fire with Pecan pieces then I add small chunks of Mesquite and charcoal to create a strong smoky flavor that won’t taste bitter.
Different Cooking Times
How long should the food stay in the smoker? It all depends on the type of food and how well done you like it. The USDA has a blog post of many types of meats with minimum temperatures, explanations of resting time, and how to use a thermometer.
If you are using your smoker correctly, then you shouldn’t fear food poisoning. While it is true that spoiled meat may make you sick, the smoker will kill off any bacteria through the extended exposure to heat. The key thing to keep in mind, you will be fine as long as you get the meat out of the danger zone in under four hours (danger zone is 40 -140 degrees). Be careful not to take the food out too early, and you should be safe.
As for cooking vegetables and fruit, you will have to experiment a little. Things like baked potatoes may take quite a while, whereas buttered sweetcorn on the cob may take significantly less time.
Make sure the water you add to the bowl is clean. Re-using old water is a huge mistake. Juices from previous meals within the water will not enhance the flavors of the next meal.
Adding fruit juice, like apple or pineapple, can a very mild sweet fruity taste to your food, but never add e-cigarette fluid into the water because it might make you violently ill. Also, adding things like cannabis products will have zero effect on the taste of the meat and no effect on your mood.
Some people claim using cheap wine will improve the flavor of food, but the effect is very underwhelming. Others argue that adding beer and cider enhances the taste, but it is a matter of personal preference.
Food Marination, Wrappings, and Misunderstandings
Why marinate meat or vegetable if you’ll smoke it? The flavor is supposed to come from the smoke, not from the marinade, right?
That’s right, but marinade or some coating can often enhance the flavor. For example, adding extra oil to fish can prevent it from drying out. Plus, sometimes, the smoke tastes better when paired with the right marinade.
Also, you do not want your meat to dry out. If you soak it in water, then counter-intuitively, it will dry out even quicker in a smoker. Soak it in a thicker marinade, and the oils and juices are lost at a slower rate, leaving behind a stronger taste.
Why wrap something like a baked potato or fish in tin foil? What is the point of smoking if the smoke can’t reach the food?
A smoker is not just about smoke. It is a dry and slow cooker. The cooking process is slow, which means the texture of the food is very different compared to oven cooking, BBQ-ing, etc. When you wrap food in tin foil, you do lose out on the smoked flavor, but you still gain the impressive range of textures, and you seal in all the moisture, juices, and oils.
If you would like a compromise, try wrapping your food in butcher paper. By wrapping your meat in butcher paper after the first hour of smoking, you will get the smoke flavor and slow the loss of those coveted juices. You can buy a 150-foot roll of butcher paper that will work great, click here to see the price on Amazon.com.
Plus, baking some food in a smoker is often far cheaper than cooking it in an oven and can keep your house cooler in summer. So it is not always about the smoke, sometimes it is about the texture and the economy of cooking.
How to Use a Vertical Smoker – Additional Tips
As you spend time with your vertical smoker, you’ll start discovering new things, and your horizons will widen. Here are just a few things you should know before you start.
Running out of Fluid Is Not Great
Do not be stingy with the water or fluid, and refill the bowl as necessary. The effect of smoke on your food will not be as pronounced if you run out of liquid while cooking.
Maintaining the Heat
If you are not using coal and charcoal, you will have to manage the heat with a little more care. Drier wood will flare up and give you extra heat. However, it will burn faster than coal. Learning how to maintain the right temperature is a big part of the learning process.
Cooking for Longer
A smoker is not a quick-cooking item. Barbecues are slow, but smokers are even slower. If you can’t wait at least three hours for your food, you won’t like smoking.
Marinate Your Food
Marinated food is fantastic. Try a pot of red peppers marinated in balsamic vinegar, or try your hand at jerked meats. Slice some thick pieces of zucchini and yellow squash, coat them in oil and add chili sauce on top.
Vegans and Vegetarians Are Welcome
Baked potatoes are a fan favorite, but there are also vegetarian kebabs, corn on the cob, summer squash, zucchini, onion dishes, and tomato dishes. Even marinated faux meat can taste great when smoked.
Cleaning and Maintainance
Make sure you clean the smoker after every use because trying to remove years of hardened grease is no fun. Some people enjoy a beer cooler with their smoker, and after the party, they put the grill into the (now iceless and beer-can-less) water to soak overnight.
Most of our tips on cleaning electric smokers will transfer over well for cleaning Vertical Fuel Smokers, click here for our article How to Clean Electric Smokers.
You may think that wearing gloves is for snowflakes, but many people have eagerly sauntered over to their smoker to open it up, only to burn their fingers. From the outside, a smoker looks quite cool, when in-fact several parts of the device are hot enough to take off the top layer of your skin.
Also, don’t forget that when you are prepping your food disposable gloves are great for food safety.
Don’t Check on the Food
Every time you open the lid, you let out some of the smoke and the awesome smells, “if you are lookin, you ain’t cookin.” If you have to refill the fuel from the top of your smoker, remember to lift it straight and level because you do not want to spill. Refilling the fuel in the base does not affect the cooking process as long as you have a smoker with an access door.
Experiment With Your Smoker
A weird old guy used to add wet leaves on top of his charcoal when smoking pork ribs soaked in navy Rum. He claimed the taste gave him a “Sailor’s High.”
The legend goes that a rabbit food manufacturer tried smoking a range of fruits and vegetables to find a cheap additive for rabbit food. They discovered that past-best-before date slices of banana would dry up very nicely in a smoker and add a nice touch to the rabbit food.
Learning how to use a vertical smoker takes time. Burning your old leaves in the smoker may not be the best idea, but you will be surprised at what you can cook and how versatile your smoker is.