Charcoal smoking is a lot different from gas or electric smoking, and if we’re going to be honest, it’s a lot more challenging. However, once you are able to get an idea of how this type of smoker works, it’s one that will give you the best flavor among the three.
So, if you’ve just bought yourself a charcoal smoker or you’re looking to buy one, here’s the guide you need on how to use a charcoal smoker.
But before we go into the details on how to use a charcoal smoker, let us first discuss what you’ll need and what to prepare before smoking.
What You Will Need
First and foremost, you’ll need a charcoal smoker (obviously), and there are many options you’ll find in the market. If you haven’t bought a charcoal smoker yet, here are some things you’d need to consider:
- Budget: How much you are willing to spend on a charcoal smoker will be the first thing you need to consider. It also makes it easier for you to narrow down your choices.If there’s one nice thing about charcoal smokers, it’s a lot cheaper than other smokers. So, even at a budget price, you’ll be able to buy a nice quality smoker. But if you want a charcoal smoke that comes with more features, then you might be looking for more expensive ones.
- Capacity: You should also consider how many people you’re cooking for. Charcoal smokers come in a wide range of sizes. So, depending on your need, you’ll be able to find the most suitable charcoal smoker for you.
- Portability: Next, you need to think about if you’d want to move your smoker around or not. Are you planning to bring it with you for camping? Do you want to be able to move around your backyard? If so, a portable charcoal smoker or one that comes with wheels would be your best choice.
- Quality and Durability: To get your money’s worth, you want to have a smoker that will last with you for years. So, think about long-lasting materials such as ones that come with rust-proofing or weatherproofing.
- Warranty: Lastly, consider product warranty. Usually, a brand with a longer warranty can guarantee quality, too. It somehow speaks to the manufacturer’s confidence in how good their product is.
Other than these factors, try to consider a charcoal smoker with an easy-to-access smoking chamber, so it’s easier for you to refill your charcoal if needed.
You can’t start charcoal smoking without charcoal. These are your fuel source, and you can’t start a fire without them.
You actually have two choices of charcoal – lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes. Between the two, we highly recommend charcoal briquettes. Lump charcoal can burn too hot, making it harder to maintain temperature. Charcoal briquettes, on the other hand, burn more efficiently.
Wood chunks are optional but really great to have. If you want a more smoky flavor to your meat, you should put this on top of your charcoals.
There are different types of wood chunks, too, depending on the smoke flavor you want. You can choose between hardwood, fruitwood, or nuts. Hardwood gives a stronger flavor, fruitwood is a mix of sweet, fruity, and smoky, and nuts provide a nutty flavor.
Wood chunks you choose should also depend on the meat you’re cooking. There are suitable flavors for a specific type of meat, and if you don’t match these two up, you might get bitter flavors.
Paraffin Cubes are cubes of clean-burning paraffin that helps your charcoals burn. It’s non-toxic; therefore, it’s really safe to use when cooking.
Instead of using lighter fluid to light up your charcoal directly on your smoker, this tool is what we highly recommend. It’s what you can use to start burning your charcoal, allowing you to burn charcoal efficiently and cleanly. On top of that, you can conveniently use it as a measuring cup for your charcoal briquettes.
Lighter or any Firestarter
Next, you need a lighter to actually start burning your charcoal in your charcoal chimney. A long-neck lighter is highly recommended that you use.
Newspaper or any paper
Aside from the light, you’ll also need some paper to light the charcoal in your chimney starter.
A leave-in meat thermometer will help you measure your meat’s temperature, ensuring that you don’t overcook or undercook your meat.
Tongs and other smoking tools are highly recommended that you prepare. There are two tongs you’d need to prepare: one to pick up food and another to pick up coals or refilling charcoals in the smoking chamber.
A fire poker is something you’d want to have so you can poke your coals when the temperature starts going down. Sometimes, when the temperature goes down, a simple adjusting of coals will help the temperature rise.
A pair of BBQ gloves would help prevent your hands from getting burned. Get a pair of gloves that should be able to resist heat at high temperatures of up to 932 °F.
You’ll also need aluminum foil should you need to wrap your meat at any point when you’re smoking. You can also use it for cleaning grates when there’s residue build-up.
What To Prepare Prior To Smoking
Before you start using charcoal smoking, the preparation process before that is equally important. This makes smoking less overwhelming. Here are some preparation tips you need to keep in mind:
Cleaning Your Smoker
Before you start smoking, your smoker must be clean. And we don’t only mean cleaning your smoker after you’ve used it. If you’ve just bought a new charcoal smoker, you need to do a dry burn.
Dry burn is a process where you clean up your smoker by burning off any manufacturing grease or chemicals left. At this same process, you can also season your smoker, and you can practice temperature control, too.
After this process, you need to ensure that your charcoal smoker is clean before you actually start your first cooking process.
Although charcoal smokers can be messy to clean because of the ashes, it’s actually easier to clean because it doesn’t come with any electrical features that might get damaged with water. You can easily use soap and warm water to clean all the parts out. But before that, you need to throw out any ashes first.
After you’ve cleaned the parts with water, you’d want to make sure that your smoker is wiped dry to prevent any rusting.
To maintain your smoker, do this process after cooking, too.
Once you’ve ensured that your smoker is clean, the next thing you need to prepare would be the food.
Remember, smoking is a long process. Removing your meat in the middle of the smoking process because you’ve forgotten to put salt or dry rub will bring your back to the very start.
So, before starting your smoker, make sure that you’ve prepared your food beforehand. Unlike grilling, you can’t brush marinade while smoking. So, you might need to dry rub, or marinate your meat overnight before the smoking process.
Arrange Your Cooking Area
Next, make sure that your cooking area is clean and organized. Gather your tools, charcoal, meat, and other things you’d need and keep them close to you. This way, when you need to use them, you won’t need to run or walk far to get them.
It’s also essential that you keep a fire extinguisher close to you as much as possible. This way, when fire gets out of hand, you’re ready to put it out.
How To Use A Charcoal Smoker
Now that we’re all prepped and ready, it’s time to start smoking. If this is your first time smoking, here’s a step-by-step process you can follow:
1. Disassemble Your Smoker
When it comes to charcoal smokers, you actually need to disassemble your smoker and expose the charcoal grate or the charcoal chamber. This way, you can start your fire.
2. Start Your Fire
Now, lighting a charcoal smoker is not the same as lighting up a charcoal grill. You need to ensure that your charcoal lasts for long hours. For this, you need to use the minion or snake method.
- The minion method: is best used for any standard charcoal smoker.You start by placing a hollow can at the center of the charcoal chamber. After that, you want to surround the can with charcoal briquettes.Place a couple of briquettes inside the can, about 2-5 pieces.After that, grab your charcoal chimney and fill it up to 25%. This is the best measurement for achieving a 250 °F temperature.Fire your coals up, and when the top layer of coals becomes ashy, you can dump that into the can at the center of your coals.Grab your tongs, remove the can, and you’re all set for smoking!
- The snake method: is an alternative you can use if you’re using a chimney-type charcoal smoker. It’s when you position your charcoal in a semicircle, about two layers deep and two briquettes wide.Then, using your chimney starter, start a fire, and pour your burned charcoals on one end of your semi-circle.You’ll observe how the coals are burned following that line, allowing for slow cooking.
3. Add The Hardwood
If you want to add hardwood or wood chunks, place them on top of your charcoal, preferably near the grates. Again, it’s important that you don’t oversmoke your food, so only add about 3-4 chunks of wood. You also need to consider what wood would suit best for your meat’s taste.
For example, oak would best suit lamb, beef, brisket, and sausages, while hickory is more suited for larger cuts of ribs and pork shoulders, red meat, and poultry.
For fruitwoods, applewood would be most suited for chicken, wildfowl, and pork, while cherry wood is best for chicken, turkey, and ham.
When smoking, it’s important to consider these factors. Because if your wood doesn’t suit the type of meat you’re cooking, you might end up with bitter-tasting meat.
4. Fill Up Your Water Pan
Because smoking is a long process, meat tends to become dry. This is why most smokers are equipped with a water pan, as it helps keep your food moist. This is usually placed at the center of your smoker, below the charcoal chamber.
It’s important that you always check the water pan, too, and don’t let it run dry.
5. Reassemble Your Smoker
Once you’re all set, you can now reassemble your smoker and close the lid. After that, sit back and wait for the temperature to reach 225 – 250 °F, which usually takes 30-45 minutes. Once you’ve reached the desired temperature, it’s time you move to the next step…
6. Maintain The Temperature
The secret to smoking is low and slow cooking. So, you need to maintain a temperature of 250 °F at all times. For this, you need to utilize your intake and exhaust vents. So you can better understand how to do this, here’s a detailed guide on how to control the heat:
How To Control Heat
Most smokers come with a temperature reader on the lid. This will tell you what temperature your charcoal smoker is at and if you’ve achieved a steady phase.
Every smoker comes with exhaust and intake vents, and these two will help you control and maintain your temperature. Exhaust vents generally remain the same throughout the whole smoking process. The intake vent, on the other hand, is what you need to control.
For this, you only need to remember one rule: If more air comes in, charcoal burns more. The lesser air, the lower the temperature.
If it’s too low
If you find that the temperature of your charcoal smoker is too low, you might need to open your vents more to allow some air to come in.
If you’ve been smoking for too long, then it’s possible that you need to add more coals. Or, you can also try using your fire poker, and poke your coals in a position where they can create hotter fire.
If it’s too high
If the temperature is too high, close your lower or intake vent to prevent more air from going in. It’s up to you if you wish to close it completely for a short while or just a little bit.
Once you’ve reached your desired temperature, this should stay the same for long hours, depending on the weather. And if it does, you’re ready to proceed to the final step…
7. Adding The Meat To The Smoker
Well, the best time would always be when the temperature is steady. This would also allow you to cook perfectly smoked meats. If you put in meat too early, the fluctuating temperatures would affect the quality of your cooking.
This is actually why you must prepare your meat beforehand. You see, to put your meat, you would have to open the lid. And when you open the lid, the temperature will change again. So, you need to do this fast.
If you’re using a smoker with lower and upper cooking grates, place food on the lower cooking grate first. Once the food is placed, grab your meat thermometer and put that on your meat so you can monitor the inside temperature thoroughly.
After that, close the lid and recheck the temperature. You might need to make some adjustments to get your smoker to a steady optimal temperature again, but because you’ve achieved this beforehand, this will be easier.
8. Check Your Chimney
Once you’ve reached your desired temperature, it’s highly recommended to check your chimney and study the type of smoke that’s coming out of your smoker.
You want to get a thin, blue smoke to ensure that your charcoal is burning cleanly. If it’s thick, white smoke, then there’s a big chance that you’re producing creosote that will affect the quality and taste of your meat.
And that’s it!
You now know the basics of smoking using a charcoal smoker.
Charcoal smoking may be complicated, but with the guide above, you’ll surely do fine. Again, before you start smoking, make sure you’ve got everything you need, including:
- Charcoal briquettes
- Wood Chunks
- Charcoal Chimney and other tools
You also need to make sure that your food is prepped before starting the smoking process. You should also clean up your space, keep your tools within reach, and make sure that your smoker is clean and has undergone the dry burning process.
To start cooking, we highly recommend using the minion or snake method to arrange your charcoal briquettes on your smoker. You should also use your chimney starter to create fire instead of using lighter fluid. It’s more efficient and ensures that your charcoal will burn cleanly.
Don’t forget your water pan to keep your food moist. And practice using your air vents to better control and maintain your smoker’s temperature.
And that’s it!
You’re all set to charcoal smoking! Have fun!