How Does a BBQ Smoker Work [explained with diagram & video]

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  June 27, 2021

Always the latest smoking tips & tricks?

Subscribe to THE ESSENTIAL newsletter for aspiring pitmasters

We'll only use your email address for our newsletter and respect your privacy

I love creating free content full of tips for my readers, you. I don't accept paid sponsorships, my opinion is my own, but if you find my recommendations helpful and you end up buying something you like through one of my links, I could earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more

It’s common knowledge that barbecue tastes great, but have you ever wondered how a bbq smoker worked?

Exploring the science of it could almost be as fun and exciting as slicing a roast rump served hot off the grill and inching that meat on a fork ever closer to your mouth.

Let’s find out using a diagram and a video to explain!

How does a smoker work in a diagram

Offset BBQ smoker Diagram

Above is an offset smoker diagram that shows exactly how a smoker works and air flows through it. 

  • It’s the hottest in the offset smoker box which is where your heat source is
  • Smoke flows through the smoker and as heat always rises to the top, it’s hottest at the top of the smoker nearest to the box
  • Most vertical offset smokers only have one chimney so the smoke and heat will travel along the top of the smoker to the far end
  • The coolest place in the smoker is at the bottom, and even cooler at the far end of the smoker

The Mechanics of Smoking Meat Inside a BBQ Smoker in a video

This YouTube video explains how a smoker grill works, but I will just elaborate it here a bit further for reference.

The popular term for smoking meat among pitmasters is known as “low and slow”.

This means that when you smoke meat you set the temperature to low and you smoke the meat for days or sometimes it may even take weeks to cook it.

Essentially what happens inside the smoker grill is that it all begins in the firebox where the wood or charcoal fuel is located and ignited, then allowed to burn continuously.

The heat and smoke then go into the smoking chamber (where you put the slabs of meat on the grates), heats up the small water tray just below the grates and the steam cooks the meat.

An air vent is provided for this type of grill and it allows you to control the temperature inside the smoker.

It takes a long process to smoke meat, but the tradeoff is that the barbecue will taste great and they’re very soft to chew compared to other methods of grilling meat.

How does a bbq smoker work

Different Types of Meat and How They React to Heat

There are four main types of meat that are edible on this planet and those are:

  1. red meat (beef, goat, and lamb)
  2. poultry (chicken and turkey)
  3. pork (pig)
  4. seafood (fish, crab, and lobster)

Each of the meat types mentioned here reacts differently when they are exposed to high temperatures like a gas burner or charcoal or even wood fuel or pellets grills like these.

For red meat, it is the myoglobin that gives the delicious taste to beef or lamb steak.

Myoglobin is a protein that’s only found in muscle tissue. It also carries oxygen to the muscle tissues and has a red pigment that is why human and animal muscle tissues are red.

Poultry meat, particularly chickens, also have myoglobin albeit in lesser amounts than red meat.

In reality, chefs consider chicken meat as “boring” and is merely a blank canvas, a protein, on to which you can paint a masterpiece of flavor.

Unlike beef which only needs salt and pepper, chicken meat requires a lot of marinades to enhance its flavor, which is why it seemingly tastes really good in any recipe, especially when barbecued.

Pork meat is called “the other white meat” but it also has intermediate amounts of myoglobin and this is why it tastes a little different from red meat when smoked or grilled.

Now if you’re just as enthusiastic about smoking as me, then read up on how to build your very own smoker, or check out these top smoker brands.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.