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Culinary Arts

A Guide to Propane Smokers: 4 Tips for Using a Gas Smoker

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Mar 22, 2020 • 5 min read

One of the beautiful things about outdoor cooking is that barbecue chefs have a wide array of options for preparing meats and vegetables. While grilling and roasting are tried and true methods, many top BBQ pitmasters swear by smoking meat, which is a relatively low-heat form of convection cooking.

The most traditional form of outdoor smoking is done with a charcoal smoker, where burning coals provide the heat and wood chips or wood pellets are added to the cooking chamber. For a simpler method that still incorporates wood smoking, many BBQ chefs now embrace gas smoking, which generates heat by burning propane.



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What Is a Gas Smoker?

A gas smoker is an outdoor cooking device that smokes food and uses propane as its heating source. Also known as vertical propane smokers, these devices incorporate wood just like their charcoal counterparts. The difference between gas smokers and charcoal smokers is the source of heat. Instead of charcoal briquettes, gas smokers derive their heat from propane or (with a conversion unit) natural gas. This makes these devices quite easy to use compared to a charcoal cooker, although neither is particularly difficult.

Gas smokers are relatively clean to operate and accommodate a wide variety of designs. Nearly all have either a cast iron or stainless steel construction. The best gas smokers vary in terms of features, cooking area, temperature control options, warming racks, double doors, multiple cooking racks and smoking racks, and accouterments such as push-button ignition and WiFi-enabled digital thermometers. With so many models on the market, it's wise to consult the latest smoker reviews before making a purchase.

How Does a Gas Smoker Work?

A vertical gas smoker works by heating a cooking chamber where air circulates, heating food via convection. Smoking surrounds a piece of meat with hot smoky air, which both heats its internal temperature and adds a rich, smoky flavor.

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5 Components of a Gas Smoker

Like charcoal smokers and electric smokers, gas smokers are vertically aligned, with the cooking space at the top of the device and a heating source at the bottom. Gas smokers feature the following components:

  1. Grill racks: Most offer stainless steel grill racks, and you can either place meat directly on these racks or you can use them to hold cast iron skillets in which your food can roast. Much like gas grills, vertical gas smokers all have attachments for a propane tank, which is the source of cooking fuel. A gas smoker's heating capacity is measured in British Thermal Units (BTU). As a general rule, pricier models offer greater BTU.
  2. Gas burner: At the bottom of every gas smoker is a propane-fueled gas burner (though some propane smokers can run off a natural gas tank with a conversion accessory). This stainless steel burner produces a live flame, which is the heat source in this type of smoker.
  3. Wood chip tray: The burner is surrounded by a wood chip tray, where wood chunks from selected hardwood varieties slowly burn and produce smoke.
  4. Water pan: Above the wood chip tray is a water pan, which is initially filled with cold water to prevent the device's internal temperature from rising too quickly. As the water heats, it emits steam, which in turn aids in convection cooking.
  5. Dampers and vents: Because flames are fed by oxygen, the temperature settings on a gas smoker can be controlled by airflow. Heavy-duty dampers at the bottom of the unit can be opened, which allows more air to enter the device. The oxygen feeds the flames, and the temperature increases. Meanwhile vents or dampers at the top of the smoker can be opened to allow heat to escape. Heat also rushes out when the front door of the unit is opened.


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4 Tips for Using a Gas Smoker

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Aaron Franklin teaches you how to fire up flavor-packed Central Texas barbecue, including his famous brisket and more mouth-watering smoked meat.

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Compared to other types of smokers, using a gas smoker is quite easy—perhaps not quite as simple as an electric smoker but simpler than a charcoal-based model. Whether it's your first time smoking or your fiftieth, here are a few simple tips any aspiring pit boss should regularly apply:

  1. Keep your smoker clean. A big appeal of cooking with propane is that it burns cleanly. Don't cancel out this asset by letting charred food waste build up in your grill. After each cooking session, take some time to clean up your cooking surfaces, from cast iron pans to cooking grates.
  2. Smoke meat at the proper temperature. Gas smokers are designed to cook meat at a far lower temperature than a standard charcoal grill or a gas grill. To get meat with a tender texture and smoke flavor, you must prepare for a long cook—from several hours for a rib rack to a full day for a whole turkey or ham. For brisket, perhaps the most popular of all smoked meats, cooking times average about 75 minutes per pound of meat, assuming an optimal smoking temperature of 225°F. A lot of today's vertical propane gas smokers come with built-in temperature gauges or WiFi digital thermostats, but for the sake of precision, you should still invest in a digital meat thermometer to ensure that you're cooking at your desired temperature.
  3. Experiment with hardwoods. Not every new electric smoker will come with a wood-burning option, but the best smokers almost always do. In addition to a custom dry rub, marinade, or wet brine (which all the best outdoor chefs have), you can create your own custom wood blend. Perhaps you're a meat smoking purist and would never blend one type of wood with another, but you might also find success by blending hickory, alder, or mesquite with a fruitwood like apple or cherry. As a general rule, beef smokes well with all woods except for apple. Chicken tastes great smoked with anything other than oak and maple. Fish is particularly tasty when smoked with alder, oak, or mesquite. Veggies taste great when smoked with hickory, pecan, and maple. And pork shoulder and pork butt work with nearly everything other than mesquite and oak.
  4. Give yourself plenty of cooking space. While you don't want your smoker to overwhelm your patio, make sure you find one with a large enough cooking area that you can prepare your meats with precision. A tall vertical smoker can double or triple your cooking area (as measured in square inches) while a wide smoker with a dual door design allows you to smoke bigger pieces of meat without having to cut them up. At the end of the day, it's better to have a grill that's a little too large rather than a little too small, but some situations (such as tailgating) are going to mandate a smaller cooker.

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