How I got started with a BBQ Smoker - And Lessons Learned

Article By Shorty
It was thanksgiving. I had seen an episode of "good eats" where Alton Brown described how to cook a turkey in an oil fryer. He also described how dangerous it was, if you spill the oil over the edge, it catches the whole pot on fire and makes a huge fire ball. Mythbusters did a episode on that, very impressive fire balls. So I tried cooking some turkey with my big spaghetti pot and a camp propane stove. The turkey turned out perfect on the outside, but still uncooked on the inside. My wife thought it was because I didn't have a real turky frying setup - as in the huge pot and big burner.

The next thanksgiving came up and we decide to cook everything inside, in our oven or on the stove. Felt like "regular" food, and thanksgiving (at our house) is about cooking something special. So the next year my wife started nudging me about getting a real turkey frying setup, and giving it another try. I looked around, and found that the frying pot and burner was about $150, and enough oil to cook the bird was another $25.

With my last turkey failure clearly in my mind, I was reluctant to spend that kind of money on something I'd only use once a year. While arguing this point with my wife, I rememberd years and years ago, when we lived in Texas, a friend had a party which he served some brisket that he cooked in a smoker. He had started it the day before in his big expensive smoker. I didn't know anything about the process, other than I had previously tried using a charcoal and gas grill, and failed miserably at it. But I remebered that my friend with the smoker said you cook it at a really low temperature, for a long time. Instead of doing a fried turkey, I wanted to try to do some kind of smoking meat thing. Figured the turkey would be a once a year thing, where if I invested in a smoker, I would probably use that every month or so.

The first few things that came out of my smoker were rather like hockey pucks and we just gave them to the dogs. After that, I started being able to eat the insides of the meat, and finally figured out how it works so we use the smoker weekly.

Lessons Learned
There is a lot of contradictory information on the internet. Here are some of the lessons I have learned, and what works for me.

light charcoal with propane torch Everyone knows not to use lighter fluid, it stays in there and puts a nasty taste on the meat. A lot of people use chimney starters or a paint can with the bottom cut out. I saw one guy that uses a propane weed torch to start his, so I tried using a small propane torch on a camp size bottle, and it works great! Takes about 60 seconds of flame on a piece of charcoal to get it lit.

control the air flow, and you control the temperature The first big thing I wondered about was how in the world do you control the temperature inside a smoker when it is fueled by a charcoal fire ! Well, turns out that it is pretty easy, the smoker is a fairly air tight chamber with 2 vents, the intake and exhaust. If you control the air that flows through, you can control the rate at which the fuel burns, which controls the temperature inside.

keep exhaust vent open, control heat with intake vent Many people say to leave the exhaust vent open all the time, and some say you need to adjust the exhaust vent to control the air flow. I think there is more to it because everyone seems to have different vents and air flow paths, but for the most part I am sold on the idea of leaving the exhaust open all the time. If you close it, it backs up the flow and creates stale smoke, and allows creosote to condensate on the inside of the smoker and on your meat.

what is creosote If the fire is not hot enough, it has incomplete combustion which makes thick white smoke. That white smoke will condensate when it touches the meat or walls of your smoker, and deposit thick gooey tar like substance which tastes bitter, and will numb your tongue. If your fire is hot enough, then it fully burns the wood creating a thin blue smoke which is the type of smoke we want seasoning our meat. So the rule of thumb is thick white smoke is bad, thin blue smoke is good.

start with coals first, then add wood Because of the creosote problem, I fire up my charcoal first and when the air temp inside the smoker is above 200, I add in the wood. I get a little white smoke, then it quickly turns into thin blue smoke.

don't soak wood chips Wood does not soak up water very well. I have built a lot of wooden boats, and wood is great at keeping the water out. It takes months to get water to soak into wood, so if you only do it for a half hour, then all you are doing is getting the surface damp, which will make steam, cooling your fire, and create creosote.

location of air temp probe The temperature probe for measuring your air temp should be near the cooking grate, like within 2". The roof of your smoker is a lot hotter because heat rises, and it is the area around the meat that you want to read.

knock the ash off the coals After you have been burning for a while, ash acumulates on the outsides of the charcoal and piles up underneath the fire box. This chokes off the air to the fuel, so if the temp drops you can stir the coals to knock the ash off.

temp of meat tells when is done I have seen many recipes that prescribe a certain amount of time to cook, and it never works for me. So I use a temperature probe to test the meat temp to see if it is done.

foil the meat in the smoker I saw a discovery channel show about BBQ competition, and one guy said that meat can only absorb about 3 hours worth of smoke. After that amount of time, he wraps his meat in foil and finishes cooking with just charcoal. The foil preserves the mosture in the meat, and it works for me.

water pan I saw all sorts of people pushing to use a water pan in the smoker, and some people use a pan filled with sand. I have seen many explanations of how it increases the moisture, acts like a heat sink to stabalize the internal temperature and other voodoo magic. Some people that have vertical smokers need a water pan to keep the heat from going directly up to the food, so it works like a heat shield. Some people put a coffee can filled with water in the middle of their firebox. The jury is still out for me, I tried using it, and other times not, and can't really tell the difference.

calibrate thermometer The first mechanical thermometer I bought failed on me, it would read up to 215, but then stop reading any higher, even when the temperature went higher. It LOOKED like it worked, but it didn't !! So I switched to a digital thermometer which works great for me. There are a couple of ways to calibrate your thermometer, one way is to boil water and the thermometer should read 212. You can also fill a glass with crushed ice and a little water to make a 32 degree slurry. Other than using multiple thermometers, I still haven't figured a way to calibrate at a higher temperature to catch the broken thermometer that won't read accurately above 212.

how to clean the smoker Some people say they never clean their smoker, and others say that creosote build up on the lid will taint the meat. I guess how much creosote you have, would depend on how often you smoke, and how careful you are at getting the charcoal burning hot before adding wood. Regardless, the easiest way to clean that works for me is to use a propane weed torch. Point and flame, the creosote quickly catches fire and does a neat shrinking thing as it burns off.

season inside of smoker You should never use any kind of paint inside the smoker, the paint will melt or gas off comounds that end up in your food. To keep the steel from rusting, after cleaning with the torch, you can scrub the metal and wipe cooking oil over the surface to seal the metal sort of like how people season an iron skillet.

reverse flow Here is the problem, heat and smoke rises - so from the fire box it goes goes straight up to the top of the chamber, across to the vent and out. The meat that is close to the fire will get more heat and smoke than what is on the far side near the vent. To fix this, the exhaust pipe is extended down to the cooking grate so the heat and smoke has to travel back down from the lid, down to the cooking grate before it can leave the smoker. Baffels, plates and other air flow devices can be added in to control the air flow, but basically it is all trying to get heat and smoke more evenly flowing through the entire chamber, so there are less cool spots.