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What Is an Electric Smoker?
An electric smoker is an outdoor cooking device that smokes food and uses hot electric rods as its heating source. Compared to their charcoal burning counterparts, these smokers are cleaner to operate and accommodate a wider variety of designs. Nearly all have either a cast iron or stainless steel construction.
Electric smokers vary in terms of features, cooking area, temperature control options, warming racks, double doors, cooking racks, smoking racks, and accoutrements such as one-touch power buttons, automated preheating and cool down cycles, remote controls, and digital control panels (as are found on digital electric smokers).
How Does an Electric Smoker Work?
An electric smoker is capable of smoking meat with remarkably few components. It works by heating a cooking chamber in which air circulates, heating food via convection. A unit consists of a cooking chamber, an electric heating element, grill racks, a water pan, and the option for wood to burn alongside the electric heaters and give the meat its smoky flavor.
5 Components of an Electric Smoker
Like charcoal smokers and propane gas smokers, his type of smoker is vertically aligned, with the cooking space at the top of the device and a heating source at the bottom. Electric smokers feature the following components:
- Heating rods: At the bottom of the smoker is a one or more electric heating rods that heat the space and slowly cook the meat.
- Wood chip tray: In most models, the electric heater is surrounded by a wood chip tray, where wood chunks from selected hardwood varieties slowly burn and produce smoke. About a quarter of the way into the smoking process, an electric smoker chef can add cups of wood chips, chunks, or pellets to the heating zone (sometimes called a firebox). Chefs can use a wide variety of woods including hickory, mesquite, oak, maple, cherry, and alder.
- 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.
- Grill racks: Most electric smokers 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.
- Dampers and vents: Because flames are fed by oxygen, the temperature settings on an electric smoker can be controlled by airflow. Heavy-duty dampers at the bottom of the unit open to allow 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.
7 Tips for Smoking Meat With an Electric Smoker
Compared to other types of smokers, electric smokers are remarkably easy to use. When it comes to temperature regulation, your electric smoker can do most of the work for you. By following a few simple tips, you can elevate your electric smoking game to the next level.
- Season your grill. Before you use an electric smoker for the first time, you should season it. The objective is to burn off any residue on the cooking racks, chip tray, or stainless steel housing that may have accumulated during the manufacturing process. To do this, simply cover the various interior surfaces of your electric smoker with a light coat of cooking oil, and then run the device at approximately 275°F for three hours. During the final hour of seasoning, add some wood chips to the chip tray. These will produce smoke that will prime the device for future use.
- Use your own temperature probe. Many electric smokers come with a built-in thermostat, but this can be one of the lowest-quality components of the whole device. While a top brand may have a better thermometer than your standard gas grill, the top BBQ chefs still invest in a digital meat thermometer.
- Cook at the proper temperature. Not every type of meat smokes best at exactly the same temperature range. Brisket, pork butt, pork shoulder, and ribs smoke well at about 225°F. Chicken and turkey can sustain higher temperatures—often around 275°F throughout a multi-hour smoke.
- 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.
- Make sure you have plenty of time. Electric smokers are designed to cook meat at a far lower temperature than a standard charcoal grill or gas grill. To get tender textures and smoke flavor, you must prepare for a long cook—from several hours of smoking for a rack of ribs 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.
- Give yourself enough 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.
- Keep your smoker clean. Part of the appeal of electric smokers is that they burn 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 your cooking surfaces, from cast iron pans to cooking grates. Using a drip pan during your cooking session will help keep your smoker clean. Just be sure to clean this drip tray whenever you clean the rest of the unit.
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