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Culinary Arts

How to Smoke Meat With a Charcoal Smoker

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Mar 21, 2020 • 4 min read

Fans of charcoal smokers will tell you that, when properly executed, the charcoal smoking process produces meat that falls off the bone and has a mouthwateringly smoky flavor.

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What Is a Charcoal Smoker?

A charcoal smoker is a device that smokes food over a long period of time with low, indirect heat generated by burning charcoal. A charcoal smoker is not the same thing as a charcoal grill, although some grilling brands sell devices that feature both a traditional grill and a smoker component. Occasionally, you'll see a charcoal smoker referred to as a smoker grill or water smoker.

4 Components of a Charcoal Smoker

A standalone vertical charcoal smoker is an upright device that features four core sections:

  1. The firebox: This is where you generate heat. The firebox is filled with coal; a standard 15-pound bag of charcoal can burn for upwards of 15 hours—more than enough time to smoke brisket. You’ll add wood chips to the coal briquettes; these wood chunks provide a distinct flavor to each batch of meat.
  2. The water pan: Positioned above the firebox, the water pan (or water chamber) is filled roughly three-quarters full with cool liquid. This functions as a temperature control (you never want your charcoal smoker to get too hot), and it produces steam, which augments the cooking process.
  3. The cooking chamber: This is where your food sits, typically on cooking grates like you'd see in a standard-issue barbecue grill.
  4. The lid: At the top of the smoker is a lid to keep the smoke inside (and permeating the meat). The lid will have a vent to let smoke and steam escape as needed.
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How Does a Charcoal Smoker Work?

A charcoal smoker works by heating your food at a consistent temperature for many hours on end. Eventually, the internal temperature of the meat will be the same as the temperature of the surrounding air within the cooker. You can only get that distinctive BBQ smoker flavor if the meat cooks very gradually, which makes the cooking process different than that of a standard barbecue grill, where flames lap at the meat and it sears within minutes.

How to Use a Charcoal Smoker

A charcoal smoker operates on simple principles, but it can take some practice to get the cooking process right. The first time you try will be an experiment, but with a little luck, you can produce delicious tasting meat. Here's how to use a charcoal smoker:

  1. Prepare your fuel. Ordinary charcoal briquettes should be used because they burn at the proper temperature for smoking. There's no need to shell out for boutique lump charcoal; it typically burns too hot for smoking. The best charcoal is the standard-issue stuff. You'll also want to add some wood chips for a distinctive smoke flavor. Hickory, mesquite, cherry, apple, and alder wood are all popular choices. Prepare the wood chips by soaking them in water for 30 minutes prior to use.
  2. Fill your water pan with cold water. Three-quarters full should do the trick. Starting with hot water partly defeats the purpose of the water pan, which functions as a temperature control.
  3. Light the coal using a charcoal chimney. If you don't own a charcoal chimney starter, you can simulate its effect by stacking your coals in a pyramid inside the smoker. A little lighter fluid is fine as well. Let the coal burn until it's coated in a thin layer of white ash. If you're using a chimney, this is the point that you can add the lit coals to your smoker.
  4. Add your meat to the cooking area. You can place your meat directly onto the barbecue grill grates in your smoker. Some smokers only have a single grate, but others have an upper grate and a lower grate for cooking multiple meats at once. Many pitmasters will prepare a special rub out of salt and spices and apply it to the meat beforehand. That's entirely up to you.
  5. Control the temperature. The ideal cooking temperature for smoking meat is between 220 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Two simple vents (or dampers) allow you to maintain this temperature. The lower vents allow air to rush into the smoker. This brings more oxygen into the mix, and it allows the coals to burn at a hotter temperature. Conversely, the top vents let air escape the smoker. If the temperature is getting too hot, you can open the upper vent and close the bottom vent. If the temperature is too low, you can close the upper vent and open the lower one. Most smokers are equipped with a built-in thermometer, so it's easy to keep track of things.
  6. Add the wood chunks. About a quarter of the way through your smoking process, you'll want to add the chunks of wood you've selected. Place them in the firebox among the coals. If you've soaked them in water beforehand, they'll burn slowly, which is what you want.
  7. Let your food cook long and slow. Charcoal smoking takes a long time. A rack of ribs might take six to seven hours while a whole large turkey could take upwards of 18 hours. Use a meat thermometer when you think your food might be done. After going through such a meticulous process, you want to make sure that your final product is worthy of your efforts.

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