How to use a BBQ smoker: easy guide to your first smoked meat

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  March 19, 2021

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Perhaps you’re thinking of buying a BBQ smoker to make all those delicious pitmaster recipes you keep seeing online.

Or you’ve already unpacked and set up your new BBQ smoker, but now what? Are you wondering how to start smoking ASAP?

Ok, I’ll get down to the basics and will walk you through the entire process so you can make your first smoked meat (or veggies like the best ones to smoke here!)

This is how you use your bbq smoker

Also known as an offset barrel smoker or a horizontal grill, BBQ smokers are great for getting you the smokey taste you are after.

While a charcoal grill is used for cooking meat over direct heat quickly, your BBQ smoker is used for slow cooking meat over indirect heat to infuse it with charbroiled and smokey flavors.

This allows you to dial into lower temperatures making for gentler, longer cooking.

To use a BBQ smoker, start by adding your fuel source, usually charcoal, into the chimney starter and wait until your grill reaches the desired temperature before adding your wood and meat. Put your wood next to the coal so it smokes the meat in a slow and steady way.

Of course, this is a very simplified guideline on how to use a BBQ smoker. Read on to find out a more detailed explanation of how to use this device to get exceptional tasting food.

What is a BBQ smoker used for?

A BBQ smoker can be used to prepare a wide range of foods. A smoker allows you to cook meat at a low temperature for long periods of time.

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How to buy a bbq smoker video video

It creates a smokey environment for the meat to cook in, which makes the food tastier. You add wood chunks or wood chips to the smoker to create various smoke flavors, making your meat have a distinctive taste.

Here’s what to keep in mind: you need a good fuel source like charcoal when you smoke. Then, you add wood chunks (or chips) to add flavor.

You can use either wood chunks or wood chips, but when you smoke, it takes a long time, and wood chunks are better suited because they burn slower.

There is no meat a smoker can’t grill. If you look around the internet, you will find BBQ smoke recipes for the following meats.

It also cooks up a variety of seafood to perfection, including salmon and lobster tails.

Veggies like corn on the cob and asparagus are delicious grilled choices. You can even smoke tofu!

Did you know you can even smoke macaroni and cheese on a BBQ smoker?

Just prepare the dish, put it in an aluminum pan, place it on the grill for a couple of hours, and voilà, you will end up with a cheesy smokey flavor that’s hard to beat.

Now, before we get to smoking, you need to familiarize yourself with your charcoal smoker.

Understanding your charcoal smoker

If you want to be great at smoking meats, you have to familiarize yourself with your smoker.

The first few tries are kind of experimental until you can learn the small tricks. You learn some aspects through trial and error, mainly because it’s hard to get the perfect temperature inside the smoker.

How does a charcoal smoker work?

The goal of smoking meat is to cook the meat for many hours with flavored woods. But, to get the smokiness as well as have well-cooked-thru meat, you need to use what’s known as the “low & slow” method.

The smoker works by heating and cooking your food at a consistent temperature for many hours, depending on the meat’s size and weight.

The meat’s internal temperature should be the same as the air in the cooking chamber. As the meat cooks slowly and gradually, it becomes infused with the smoke’s flavors.

This creates that brown exterior bark which is so yummy. On a regular grill, when you’re barbecuing and NOT smoking, you cook meat directly over flames which sear the meat pretty quickly.

Smoker components

First, let’s look at the 4 components of the smoker:

  1. Firebox: the firebox is where you put the charcoal to create heat. Once the coal is at the right temperature, you add in the wood chunks or wood chips (I’ll explain when to use which soon) to create a distinct smoke flavor.
  2. Water pan: having a water pan helps keep the meat moist enough during the smoking process, so it doesn’t end up too dry. The pan is positioned above the firebox. You’re supposed to fill the water pan about ¾ full of cool liquid. You can also add some herbs and spices if you want to be like a true pitmaster, but cool water will do. The water is a form of temperature control that also produces steam and aids the cooking process.
  3. The cooking chamber: this part refers to the grates on which you place the food while it smokes. Some smokers have multiple grates, so you can smoke large quantities of meat, while others have just one grate, like most standard grills.
  4. Lid: the lid covers the cooking chamber, and it’s located at the top of the smoker. The lid’s role is to keep smoke inside so it can flavor the meat. Lids contain a vent that lets the steam and smoke get out when needed.

How to cook with a BBQ smoker

I’m here to share all my tips on how to cook with your smoker. Whether you have a charcoal, gas, kettle, electric smoker, you can use the steps to get your grill working.

Step 1: Prepare the fuel

For gas smoker:

Your gas smoker’s source of fuel is either propane (tank) or natural gas with a conversion unit. The smoker has a propane-fueled gas burner that produces flames. To control the burner, you turn the knob higher or lower and then add the wood chunks or chips to the smoker box which is usually on top of the burner.

For electric smoker:

Turn on the smoker via the “on/off ” button. Near the electric heater, you’ll find the wood chip box where you add chips to give the meat a smokey flavor.

Before using it for the first time, season the electric grill by lightly coating the racks with cooking oil and let the smoker run for 2 or 3 hours at medium heat.

Once it’s ready, you can select the temperature (depending on what you’re cooking) and choose from the smoker’s settings.

What all smokers have in common is that you need to replenish the wood chunks or chips during the smoking process.

Next, I’m going to explain how to use a charcoal smoker since it’s the most popular type of smoker.

For charcoal smoker:

You need to prepare the charcoal briquettes for smoking. The briquettes are much better than lump charcoal because they burn at the right temperature.

How much charcoal should I add to the smoker?

As a general reference point, keep in mind that a 15-pound bag of charcoal burns for approximately 15 hours. This is enough to smoke a large brisket (recipe over here!).

But, the amount of charcoal you add depends on what type of meat you cook and how long it’s expected to smoke for, as well as how hot the temperature is supposed to be.

Here are some basic guidelines, but they refer to grilling as well as smoking. Keep in mind that when smoking, your goal is low heat and long smoke time.

Many chimneys can hold about 100 charcoal briquettes. That means that at 100, they are at total capacity.

For grilling:

For smoking, you are also cooking on low heat 225 – 250 degrees F. But you are going to fill the chimney with unlit coals and then add only a few lit coals, so they heat up slowly and not all at once.

Step 2: Set up your temperature probes

In order to keep your grill at the desired temperature, temperature probes are recommended. These should be set up before cooking begins to monitor the temperature inside the grill.

According to this Epicurious article, expert chefs like Meathead Goldwyn recommend using two probes to ensure accuracy. They also recommend drilling a hole into the grill so you can check the temperature without opening the lid.

There are some amazing digital thermometers available, like the ThermoPro TP25.

However, many smokers are sold with a built-in thermometer, and while it’s not 100% accurate at all times, it will do the job.

Step 3: Fill the water pan

If you add moisture to the smoke and the meat, it will help the food absorb the smokey flavor.

You can add moisture in one of two ways. The first is to place a metal rack over the coals in the firebox. Then place a pan of water on the grate. This will add humidity that will make its way into the chamber.

Another option is to add moisture in the later stages of grilling by spritzing the meat and grill with a bit of water or apple juice.

If you go this route, be careful not to overdo it. Too much moisture can wash away the smoke coating.

It’s best to fill the water pan about ¾ full of some cold water. The role of this pan is to help with temperature control. You should add more water every 1 to 1.5 hours to ensure the meat retains some of its moisture.

The last thing you want is overly dry and chewy meat. Don’t use hot water as that defeats the purpose since the water will heat up anyway.

Step 4: Light the charcoal

Now it’s time to fire up the grill. The safest and easiest way to light up the charcoal is with a chimney starter. Start by filling the chimney starter with charcoal until it starts to ash over.

If you can’t find a chimney starter, stack the coals inside the smoker in a pyramid shape and use lighter fluid.

You can supplement the charcoal with wood. However, many chefs recommend against using wood only because wood fires are difficult to manage in a smoker grill, and if they get out of control, they can spoil the meat.

Only a professional pitmaster can manage smoking with wood only.

Step 5: Add lit coals to the intake and chimney baffles & add meat

Now you can add the lit-up charcoal to the smoker. Your BBQ smoker is likely to have an intake baffle located near the firebox and a chimney baffle located at the chimney.

Open both baffles fully. Then add the coals to the firebox and wait until it reaches the desired temperature.

In doing so, make sure to keep the doors of the firebox and smoker closed as much as possible. Opening them will cause heat to escape.

When the temperature is where you need it to be, add the meat.

Learn more: How Does a BBQ Smoker Work? 7 types of smokers explained

You can add the meat as is or marinate it beforehand with some dry rub.

Step 6: Maintain the temperature

The intake baffle controls the flow of oxygen to the coals, and the more oxygen in the fire, the hotter the grill will get.

When you’re smoking meat, the cooking chamber’s ideal temperature is between 220-250 degrees F.

The two baffles, also called vents or dampeners, help you control the temperature. The vents that are located lower on your smoker let more air inside and RAISE the temperature.

Vents higher up on your smoker allow you to COOL DOWN the temperature by allowing hot air to escape.

Therefore, you will want to adjust the intake baffle accordingly.

Usually, it’s best to keep it closed halfway, adjusting it gradually until your temperature stabilizes to where it should be.

The chimney baffle controls the smoke as well as the fluctuations of the temperature inside the grill. It is best to keep the chimney baffle wide open when you start cooking and adjust as needed.

In time the coals will start to fade out, causing the temperatures to drop. If this happens, add more coals.

Step 7: Add wood chips or wood chunks

There’s a debate about whether using is wood chips or wood chunks is better for smoking. Both are fine, but wood chunks burn at a slower rate, so you don’t have to keep adding more as often as you do with chips.

How much wood should you add?

I recommend about 3-4 chunks to start off then keep adding more throughout the cooking process.

The truth is there is no perfect wood to coal ratio or equation. It’s all about trial and error but start off with 3 or 4 and then add every hour or so.

If you use chips, you’ll need several pounds of wood chips to last you throughout the long smoking process.

Wood chips vs. wood chunks

Chunks are much larger than wood chips. It takes longer for the chunks to fully ignite, but once they do, you’ll get them smoking and burning for much longer than wood chips.

The chips are small pieces of wood, and you can buy them in all kinds of “flavors” in bags at stores or online.

The truth is if you’re smoking for longer than an hour, which you probably are, then it’s not worth using the chips.

You’ll have to keep adding more every hour. With wood chunks, they might last you a couple of hours before you have to add more.

If you want to add wood to enhance the flavor, add chunks instead of chips to get a slower, more consistent burn.

Allow them to burn next to the fire and not on top of it, so they don’t burn too hot.

Replenish the wood after every cooking cycle

The wood chunks and chips must be replenished at every cooking cycle, which is between 1 – 4 hours, depending on what you’re smoking and the type of smoker you use. It’s best to check the first few times you smoke until you see how fast your wood combusts.

A chunk or two every cooking cycle (1.5 – 4 hours) should work to infuse the smokey taste into the food without overdoing it. If you’re using wood chips, you should change them every 2-4 hours.

Hardwoods, fruitwoods, and nut woods will work best with a BBQ smoker in getting a good burn and a great taste.

After smoking for a quarter of the total time, add in the wood chips or wood chunks. Here’s what to keep in mind. You should only add in the wood after the food has been smoking for a while.

Cooking time & temperature for popular meat cuts

Here is a chart of recommended cooking times:

Meat cut Smoking time Smoker temperature

(degrees Fahrenheit)

Finished temp

(what the temp of the meat should be in degrees Fahrenheit)

Beef brisket 12 – 20 hours 225 – 250 190 -200
Beef back ribs 3 – 4 hours 225 – 250 185
Beef short ribs 6 – 8 hours 225 – 250 190 – 200
Beef spareribs 5 – 6 hours 225 – 250 190 – 200
Beef chuck roast 12 – 20 hours 225 – 250 190 – 200
Beef ribeye 25 minutes / pound 225 – 250 135 – 140
Beef tri-tip 2- 3 hours 225 – 250 140
Beef prime rib 15 minutes / pound 225 – 250 135
Pork butt 1.5 hours / pound 225 – 250 205
Pork baby back ribs 5 hours 225 – 250 180
Pork spareribs 5 – 7 hours 225 – 250 180 – 185
Pork loin 4 – 5 hours 225 – 250 145
Pork tenderloin 2.5 – 3 hours 225 – 250 160
Pork belly 6 hours 100 or less 140
Pork sausage 1 – 3 hours 225 – 250 165
Whole chicken 2 – 3 hours 275 – 350 170
Chicken quarters 1 – 2 hours 275 – 350 170
Chicken wings 70 minutes 275 – 350 170
Whole turkey 4 -5 hours 275 – 350 170
Turkey breast 4 hours 275 – 350 165
Tukey wings 2 – 2.5 hours 275 – 350 170
Turkey legs 2 – 3 hours 275 – 350 170
Quail /Pheasant 60 minutes 225 165
Whole duck (use these woods when smoking it!) 4 hours 225 – 250 165
Cornish hens 2 hours 240 165
Lamb leg 4 – 8 hours 225 – 250 150
Lamb shoulder 5 hours 225 – 250 170
Lamb shank 4 – 5 hours 225 – 250 190
Lamb rack 60 – 90 minutes 220 – 225 140
Whole salmon 60 + minutes until it starts to flake 200 145
Salmon filet 60 minutes 220 145
Whole trout 60 minutes 225 145
Lobster tails 45 minutes 225 140
Oysters 30 – 40 minutes 225 Not available
Shrimp 20 – 25 minutes 225 Not available
Scallops 50 – 60 minutes 225 145

Do I have to soak the wood for smoking?

Many pitmasters actually soak the wood chunks in water before smoking because, supposedly, this causes the wood to smoke more which may increase the flavor. But, there is no real evidence to support this.

From my research, I’ve come to this conclusion:

There is no need to wet the wood before smoking. Although this is thought to encourage slower smoking, the truth is that wood is not porous enough to fully absorb the moisture in less than 24 hours.

Therefore, rather than slowing the smoke process, it will just end up lowering the temperature in the smoker.

If you want to make the wood chunks burn slower and last longer, choose high-density hardwood. Also, choose kiln-dried wood over the classic seasoned outdoor type of wood. Kiln-dried wood maintains more of its initial density, so it lasts longer.

Step 8: Cook low and slow (& be patient)

Remember, using a BBQ smoker is all about slow, low grilling. In fact, it can take as long as 24 hours to smoke a larger cut of meat.

Think about that delicious rack of ribs – well, it takes at least six hours to get them ready to eat.

Also read: Best smoker for ribs with a full buyers guide for slow ‘n low smoking

And with some cuts, allowing it to reach a slightly higher temperature can make all the difference in providing that fall off the bone tenderness.

For example, when you cook beef brisket, you can let the temperature reach 275 degrees F for a bit because it causes the meat to become extremely tender and it will easily slip off the bone.

You also may run into a situation where your meat’s internal temperature plateaus for a bit due to evaporative cooling (more on that right below here). If this occurs, give it a bit of time.

Your meat will eventually get past the stall and end up providing a terrific taste. But, before you take the meat out of the smoker, use a meat thermometer to check the meat’s interior temperature.

How long do you have to smoke meat?

This depends on the cut of meat and its size. Whole pigs, turkey, or other animals require anywhere from 16-24 hours to smoke.

A general guideline is to smoke 1 – 1.5 hours per pound of meat. So, weigh your meat, then allocate about an hour for each pound and maybe some extra time in case your temperature fluctuates.

How do you know the meat is ready?

Pitmaster and BBQ restaurant owner Pat Martin recommends opening the lid and then checking the meat’s texture.

The meat should be falling off of the bone a bit but not completely falling or breaking off – then it may be overcooked.

You can always use your mitts to touch the meat and if it’s bouncy, it’s not quite done yet.

What is evaporative cooling?

When the meat’s interior temperature plateaus, it’s because of this interesting effect called evaporative cooling. It just basically means that the meat is sweating. Crazy, right?

After the meat cooks for at least 3 hours, the moisture begins to evaporate (or sweat).

What this means is that it balances the amount of heat inside the smoker, and the overall temperature is lowered or stays consistently at about 150 degrees F.

Once much of the moisture has evaporated, then the temperature will start to rise again.

Also, read Best BBQ Smoker for Meat | These 5 brands are perfect for it

How to use a BBQ smoker box

A smoker box is a removable square or rectangular box in which you place smoking chips or wood chunks. The bottom of the box is solid, while the top has vents.

The idea is for the smoke to rise outside of the box’s holes into the main part of the grill and infuse into the food.

The box works to protect the wood so it’s not exposed to too much heat.

The box will work best when the wood burns at 550 to 750 degrees Fahrenheit. This refers to the temperature of the wood, not the temperature of the grill.

Smoker boxes work well with a variety of grilling devices, including gas grills, charcoal grills, smokers, and offset smokers.

They give your food a pleasant smokey taste even if your grill isn’t equipped to smoke wood. Think of it as a way to “cheat” your way to professional smoking.

Smoker boxes can be bought at a variety of BBQ supply stores, or you can go the DIY route and make your own.

A small aluminum pan with a foil lid will do the trick, or you can even mold aluminum foil into a covered cup shape and put the wood inside. Just be sure to poke some holes in to allow the smoke to escape.

To use the smoker box, you will want to follow these steps.

  1. Preheat the grill with all burners set to high for 10-15 minutes.
  2. Load the smoker box with the wood chips you prefer. Note, try to pack the chips in as tightly as possible. This will deprive them of oxygen, decreasing the chance that they may catch on fire.
  3. Place the box over a burner. This is the burner that will be left on for indirect cooking.
  4. Once the box starts producing smoke, set up the grill for indirect cooking. Do this by turning off all burners that food will be placed on top of.
  5. Adjust the one-lit burner until it reaches your desired temperature.
  6. Add meat to the grill and smoke until done. (Note, you may have to add more wood as you go to keep the temperature stable).

BBQ smoke formula

To get a BBQ smoker well suited to your needs, one option is to design your own.

There are several online calculators that will help you determine how big your firebox should be based on the size of your cooking chamber, but Fedon Central is a recommended go-to source.

The tool will prompt you for information including the following:

Then it will make recommendations on measurements based on the information you provide.

Cooking with a BBQ smoker is not necessarily the easy way to go, but it’s a great way to get a deep smokey flavor.

The tips in this article will give you a leg up when it comes time to try your hand at BBQ smoking, but it may take some amount of trial and error before you achieve perfection.

Good luck getting your food to taste delicious!

Learn more: BBQ Smoker Horizontal vs. Vertical vs. Offset | an in-depth Guide

What to look for in a BBQ smoker

When you choose a specialized smoker, you should look out for several things. I’m listing them here, so you don’t forget:

Price: cheap smokers aren’t worth the hassle. A good smoker costs between $200-800. Then best smoker and grill combos can cost upwards of $1000, but it’s up to you how much you’re willing to invest. A charcoal smoker is a great beginner-friendly option that usually costs between $200-500.

Temperature control: most charcoal and other basic smokers lack good thermostats and built-in thermometers. Without them, it’s hard to control the temperature inside the smoker, which is essential for smoking. Thus, you can still buy these models and buy your own add-on thermometer. Bluetooth-operated thermostats are great options, and you can control them from a distance via smartphone.

The temperature should be similar at the top and the bottom of the bullet or cabinet. Offsets can be much hotter near the firebox than on the opposite side, which makes it harder to control the temperature.

Material: look for smokers made from thick steel. This material absorbs the heat, distributes it, and also radiates it evenly. The dampers must also be sturdy and thick, so you can maneuver them easily. Look for sturdy wheels and legs too. Check to see if it’s rust-proof which means the smoker will fare well in all kinds of weather and last you longer.

FAQs

I know that smoking is a complex topic, and it’s not as easy as many people like to assume, so I’m sharing the most frequently asked questions and concise answers.

What is the advantage of BBQ smokers?

With a BBQ smoker, you can smoke all kinds of meats. Unlike a regular grill where you cook over direct flames and heat, you cook over indirect heat in a smoky environment that flavors the food. Thus, the main advantage is the delicious flavor and taste of the meat. When you smoke, the meat becomes tender with a crispy bark on the outside. As you take a bite of the meat, you quickly feel the smokey taste.

Another advantage of using your charcoal BBQ smoke is that the food is located beside not ON the heat source. Thus, it’s much easier to adjust the heat and add more fuel because you don’t have to keep moving the meat out of the way.

Is there a disadvantage to using the smoker?

Unless you don’t like smoked foods, there is no disadvantage to using a smoker. The one complaint amateur smokers have is that it takes practice to smoke the meat perfectly every time. This is partly due to the fact that different meats have different cooking times, and different woods have various flavors, so you need to know which wood to use with which meat to get delicious results.

Can I smoke with just charcoal?

No, if you don’t use wood, you’re not getting any of that smokey flavor on your meat. As it burns, charcoal emits many chemical impurities but not smokey flavor. It just burns but doesn’t produce smoke or flames.

The whole point of smoking is to add that wood flavor to your meat. Without it, you’re not technically “smoking.”

Are wood chips only good for short smoking sessions?

Yes, wood chips are most suitable for short smoking sessions because they burn at a much faster rate than larger chunks. In a short period of time, the wood chips create lots of smoke and add tons of flavor to your meat or veggies.

What are the different types of smokers?

There are different types of BBQ smokers you can buy. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, but here’s what you should know.

  1. Stick burners: these rely only on wood to smoke, so you don’t need to use charcoal. These are for pros because they require constant attention throughout the whole cooking process, which is quite tiring for the pitmaster.
  2. Charcoal smokers: these are the ones I’m talking about in this article. They are easy to use for smoking because you cook over indirect heat, and the built-in dampers do the work and control the temperature.
  3. Pellet smokers: these use pellets as the fuel source, and you can smoke boxes to create wood smoke. These smokers are thermostatically controlled, so you don’t need to do much work.
  4. Gas smokers: these run on gas, so you must add wood chips and chunks separately to add the smoky flavor. Since smoking is a long process, you end up using lots of propane.
  5. Electric smokers: this uses wood chips and chunks and water to create smoke. However, the flavor is not the same as cooking with live fire. It’s still smoke, but it’s subtler and somehow tastes different.
  6. Kettle grills: these aren’t ideal for smoking because they’re designed for quick cooking over open flames. You’ll have to tweak the kettle grill to allow for indirect cooking by moving the charcoal to one side of the grill only.

What is the easiest meat to smoke?

 If you’re a complete beginner, it’s best to start easy. The easiest food to smoke is something like sausage and pork chops. Fish is also easy because it smokes quickly, so you can test out the charcoal to wood ratio. Chicken and turkey breast are other good options and when you want to test out the first big cut, I recommend something like beef brisket.

Bottom Line

You’re hours away from a delicious, tender smoked BBQ. Once you start smoking, you just can’t stop. Brisket, ribs, chicken wings just don’t taste the same on a regular electric or gas grill. They lack that smokiness Texas BBQ is famous for.

When you’ve figured out how to smoke the meat perfectly, you can start entertaining and serving tasty foods everyone will love. And what I like about smoker grills is that clean-up is so easy. All you have to do is clean the cooking grate with a brush while the smoker is still hot, and you’re ready for round two!

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.