How Does a BBQ Smoker Work, what is a smoker & what does it do?

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  June 27, 2021

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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.

Trust me when I say that there are only a few life experiences that leave a lasting impression on your mind, and eating smoked or grilled meat is definitely one of them.

So what is it about the barbecue that makes it stand out among the most delicious foods in the world?

Let’s find out together!

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)
How to buy a bbq smoker video x
How to buy a bbq smoker video

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.

What is a BBQ Smoker?

bbq smoker

A smoker is an outdoor cooking appliance that can maintain low cooking temperatures for extended periods of time while producing smoke and holding it around the meat for absorption.

Typically a good smoker should be able to do all this efficiently and has the necessary volume of space within it to yield the amount of smoked food that you need.

Smoking meat and food can be done in various ways and this is evidenced by the different types of smokers and smokers/grills that you can find on the market.

Among them include:

Each of the smokers listed here has its pros and cons which is why it’s important that you select the right kind of smoker that suits your needs and budget.

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. 

The Mechanics of Smoking Meat Inside a BBQ Smoker

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.

Types of Smokers

  1. Vertical Water Smokers – these are the most popular type of smokers around. Vertical smokers have 3 main parts and those are the heat source which is located at the bottom, the water pan which is just above the firebox (the water keeps the meat from drying out if otherwise exposed to direct heat), and the smoking chamber where the meat is placed.
  2. Offset Smokers – an offset smoker has 2 parts and those are the main cooking chamber where you place the slabs of meat on the top of the grates, and the second part is the firebox (heat source). Offset smokers use metal plates with small, medium and large holes across the surface to “offset” the direct heat from the heat source and evenly distributes that heat inside the cooking chamber.
  3. Box Smokers – also known as vault smokers, cabinet smokers, block smokers are designed like a vertical smoker, except that they’re in a rectangular form and are like ovens with a heat source from underneath.
  4. Drum Smokers – the good thing about drum smokers is that you can buy them fully assembled or you can do it yourself. They’re essentially an oversized open vertical smoker.
  5. Smoker Ovens – smoker ovens works like your household oven, except that they have intelligent controls that allow you to smoke a brisket while you go to work.
  6. Kamado Grills – this type of grill is perfect for low and slow cooking (smoking) and has since become a very popular grill in the United States since WWII.
  7. Pellet Grills – Pellet grills use wood pellets as fuel, which is all-natural hardwood sawdust compacted and extruded into small 1/4-inch round pieces. They look very similar to offset grills with one exception and that is they use wood pellets as opposed to charcoal briquettes or chopped wood.

We’ve got this great post about the difference between vertical and horizontal smokers if you want to read on about this topic.

The Difference Between Smoking, Barbecuing, and Grilling

While the general term for grilling meat and food is called “barbecue” or “barbecuing” there are actually 3 distinct types of cooking meat and those are smoking, barbecuing and grilling.

These different methods of cooking meat determine their flavor, taste, and texture.

Here’s a brief explanation on how each cooking method works:


Unless you have that level of patience that only old and tenured people have, then I highly recommend that you do not try this method of cooking food.

This is because it can take days and even weeks to smoke and cure food as already stated earlier.

Unlike grilling and barbecuing meat, smoking them requires you to be finesse especially in determining when the meat is ready for consumption, because even just a small miscalculation in the timing, you can ruin the meat altogether.

The problem with prematurely smoking the meat is that while the surface layer may look cooked, the inner parts of the meat may not cook well due to the surface layer which had been dried out and hardened and it prevents heat from penetrating the meat.

This is the reason why smoking should not be rushed.

There are two ways to smoke meat and those are cold smoking and hot smoking.

For cold smoking, the temperature inside the smoker grill needs to be precisely between 68° to 86° Fahrenheit and is smoked until the meat has a smoky flavor but remains moist.

The goal of cold smoking is to accentuate the meat’s flavor and to make it very soft to the bite.

Cold smoking is good for:

Note: Meats that undergo a cold-smoking process should be cured prior to consumption.

Hot smoking cooks the meat thoroughly and does not need to be cured before consumption. The required temperatures for hot smoking is between 126° to 176° Fahrenheit (do not exceed temperature above 185° Fahrenheit).

Even when hot smoking it is still desired for the meat to remain moist and soft.

Hot smoking is good for:

Read more: rotisserie chicken, delicious but is it good for you?


Barbecuing is a method of cooking where you roast any meat and some vegetables (these are best) over an open grill on an open flame, oven, or other heat sources.

This style of cooking uses dry heat where hot air envelops the food, cooking it thoroughly inside and out with temperatures of at least 150° Celsius or higher.

It was the Spanish and British sailors who brought barbecue to American which they borrowed from the natives of the Caribbean islands.

The southern United States is where the American tradition of grilling originated and it goes way back prior to the 1776 Civil War.


Over the centuries people have adapted this cooking method all across the United States and their uniqueness was identified by the taste of the sauce for the grilled meat that they made.

This came the various styles of BBQ and even in other parts of the world countries and regions have also come up with their own version of barbecue.

Barbecuing is vastly different from smoking as it takes only some 30 minutes to a few hours to cook the meat. Add the sauce and you’re good to go!


Grilling is also very unique compared to the other 2 kinds of cooking meat and its purpose is to char the surface of the meat and seal in the juices by creating a smoky caramelized crust.

Grilling is the second most popular way of cooking food over high heat (barbecuing is the most popular) and while it has been copied by almost everyone in the world, no one has deviated from the standard cooking method yet.

Grilling meat in some other way than searing the meat surface and making it extra juicy would probably be inconceivable, although a true cooking genius might find a way.

For now, though, it shall be done the way it has always been done for over 200 years.

Grilling is good for:

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.