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How to Use A Charcoal Smoker: The Ultimate Foolproof Guide

by Outdoor Cooking Pros September 01, 2021

How to Use A Charcoal Smoker: The Ultimate Foolproof Guide

If you just bought a new charcoal smoker or have one stored away in the garage, it’s time to pull it out and start cooking!

We know that charcoal smoking can be quite intimidating and confusing.

Don't sweat it, with this 8-step guide, you'll be a master griller in no time!

What is a Charcoal Smoker?

For those who are unsure what a charcoal smoker is, let us clarify it for you.

In contrast to common grillers which may run on electricity or gas, charcoal smokers mainly usecharcoal. Some interchange charcoal smoker with a “smoker grill” or “water smoker.”

This is because there are 2 things crucial to any charcoal smoker:smoke and water. You'll see that these normally come with a water pan that helps in cooking the meat.

smoker grill

One thing to note, though: charcoal smokers cook meat indirectly. This means that the grilling period using a charcoal smoker has to belonger than usual.

Is that bad? Not at all. The “low and slow method” keeps the meat moist, tender, and flavorful. The best part is that the smokiness from the coals and the wood gives the food a distinct taste and smoke flavor to the meat which is hard to achieve with gas or electric grilling.

How to Use Your Smoker Charcoal

Using a charcoal smoker is not complicated. Below, you'll find everything you need and need toknow to get your grills up and running!

What You Need

Aside from the charcoal smoker, here are other things you’ll need to prepare:

  • Charcoal
  • Wood Chips or Wood Chunks
  • A long neck lighter
  • Used paper or newspaper
  • Grill tongs and brush
  • Cooking mitts
  • Meat and base sauce
  • Meat thermometer
  • Water pan
  • Aluminum Foil(optional; depends on what meal you will cook)
  • Charcoal Chimney Starter (optional)

How to Use A Charcoal Smoker in 8 Easy Steps

1. Prepare your Charcoal Smoker

You want to clean up or remove any dust or ash on the grate as well as on the base or bottom of the smoker. 

Once the base is cleaned,place it on a steady stand. Make sure it doesn’t wobble. It should be able to carry the weight of the cover and food you’ll be grilling.

Next, put the charcoal ring in the center. Fill it with coals, until just right below the edges of the ring. You can always add more later.

burned charcoals

Smoking Tip:To aid in increasing air circulation,leave the bottom vents open. You can close them once you achieve your desired temperature. 

2. Light Your Lump or Charcoal Briquettes 

If you have a charcoal chimney, you can use this to light up the coals much faster. If you don’t, no need to worry!

You can usenewspaper or wood to light them up:

  1. Surround the papers with lumps or charcoal briquettes (like an igloo), then set the papers on fire using a long neck lighter.
  2. Make sure the wind is not too strong, otherwise the paper or wood will burn faster. Repeat until half of the charcoal is lit.
  3. Spread the lit coals evenly on the charcoal pan.

3. Fill Pan With Water

Fill the pan up to ¾ with water. Place the water pan on top of the cooking grate.

Others opt to add oregano, rosemary, or beer to further enhance the smokiness and complement the BBQ taste of the meat.

Moreover, adding water aids intenderizing the food while preventing it from drying out.You can refill the water chamber once dried out which is about every 4 hours.

4. Place Meat on the Grills

Once you have placed back the center section and the pan is ready, put the cooking grates back and we can start grilling!

meat in a smoker

Be sure to check the temperature of the smoker. Once you’ve zeroed that in, you can put the meat on the cooking area or wire racks above the pan.

You can place the fooddirectly on the grill grates as you will be working with indirect heat.

5. Start Adding Wood

For those who are new or just figuring out how to use a charcoal smoker, you might be wondering “why only add the wood now?”

The reason is that meat absorbs the smokey BBQ flavor better when it’s still raw. When the wood is burnt already, it emits a smokey flavor that can make the meat bitter.

Close the lid.Let the heat and smoke work their magic in the cooking chamber.

Smoking Tips:

  • Hardwood andfruit woods are the best kinds of wood to use for smoking, such as apple, cherry, maple, and alder wood.
  • Avoid resinous or soft wood chunks as they emit black smoke which would detrimentally affect the taste of the food.

6. Check and Adjust Cooking Temperature

The smoking process should be low and slow.

You want to keep your meat juicy and tender - and the way to do that is to not rush your meat.

lady holding the lid of a smoker grill

Patience is key. Generally, the lower the better. A low temperature will be able to give the food time to absorb the flavor.

Plus, this allows the connective tissues and muscle fibers of the meat to break down - which results in tender and juicy meat. A total win-win!

Additional Reminders:

  • Set your temperature between220ºF-250ºF – this is the sweet spot for any type of grilling.
  • Temperatures over 250ºF would be too much heat. This will burn the food or dry it out while it cooks.
  • Adjust the bottom, side, or top ventilation to control the temperature.

7. Smoke Your Meat

Now you can let the meat cook in the smoking chamber.Avoid opening the lid too much as this lets heat out. You can reapply any BBQ sauce or seasonings periodically.

8. Sit, Wait, and Savor the Meal

Now, all you have to do is wait. Depending on the meat you have, charcoal smoking can take anywhere from2 to 12 hours, some even up to 20 hours.

Take note of the correct smoking temperature for the meat you are smoking, as well as how long you should cook it.

man sitting on a log beside a smoker

To give you an idea, here is the grilling duration for different types of meat:

  • Turkey:  4 to 8 hours
  • Duck:  2 to 3 hours
  • Fish:  2.5 to 3 hours
  • Pork:  4 to 10 hours
  • Lamb:  5 to 6 hours
  • Beef:  5 to 8 hours

It might take a long time, but trust us thatit’s worth the wait. You can use your meat thermometer to check if the meat is cooked to your liking.

You may also want to consider investing in a meat probe - this means you won’t have to open the lid every time you check. Pro grillers find this extra handy!

How to Get the Best Results With a Charcoal Smoker

Grilling with your charcoal smoker isn't rocket science. Now that you know how to use a charcoal smoker, here are a few tips to make sure every meal is the best meal yet!

Best Meat Cuts to Smoke

You have a lot of meat options you can smoke - it’s really up to you and what meal you want to cook:

meat slices

  • Popular options good for smoking are pork shoulder, ribs, and brisket.
  • You can also go for light or easy grilling and start with sausages, wings, or legs.

Which Is the Best Charcoal to Use for Smokers and Smoking Meat?

The good thing about lump charcoal is they are easier to light up and can burn at higher temperatures.

But if you plan to spend hours smoking the meat, you might want to add briquette coals[1]. These burn much slower which is perfect for slow grilling and smoking.

How to Do Temperature Control?

Using a charcoal smoker needs a lot of patience coupled with little heat. Your airways are your best buddies when it comes to temperature control.

Bottom Vent

This allows air to come in the smoker. Bottom vents are responsible for the oxygen supply. Science tells us that oxygen is needed to ignite or sustain fire.

As more air comes into contact with the coals, the “hotter” the charcoal becomes. If you want to increase the temperature, open your bottom vent.

Top or Lid Vent

If the bottom vents increase heat, the lid vents can help in lowering down the temperature.

Opening a top vent will decrease the temperature as the air “escapes” from the smoker. Set it to the correct smoker temperature for an oh-so-good meal!

Frequently Asked Questions

How Often Do You Add Wood Chips to a Charcoal Smoker?

You only need to add or refill wood chips to your smoker once every5 to 6 hours.

The crucial time to add those would be when the food starts to cook because this is when the meat has the optimum capacity to absorb the distinct smoke from the wood you are using.

Can You Put Wood Chips Directly on Top of the Charcoal?

Yes, definitely! Some even add the chips or chunks when lighting up the charcoal as it can help ignite the fire.

Moreover, contrary to what other guides may tell you, you do not have to soak the wood chunks before using them. You can place them directly and instantly.

Do I Need a Charcoal Chimney Starter?

No, a chimney starter isoptional. It helps, but as long as you can get your coals to catch fire and light up, you’re good to go.

Verdict: Get Your Charcoal Grill Ready!

That ends our article on how to use a charcoal smoker! 

Remember, good things come to those who wait. Make sure yourcharcoal smoker is at the right temperature to help you achieve the perfect flavor and meat tenderness.
Outdoor Cooking Pros
Outdoor Cooking Pros


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