When do you open vents on a BBQ smoker? Full guide for all smoker types

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  July 25, 2021

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So, you start smoking or grilling, but then you’re not sure what to do with the vents.

When do you open vents on a smoker? How do vents work?

They are an essential part of your cooker, so you have to learn to use them. Plus, for the tastiest food, you need to know how to use the vents properly, or else you risk creosote buildup.

In this guide, I will tell you when to open the vents and how that works.

When do you open vents on a BBQ smoker? Full guide for all smoker types

The vents help control the temperature and airflow in your smoker. Basically, you can regulate the airflow using a vent.

Open the vents when you want more air to go inside the smoker and raise the temperature. An open-intake vent is will heat up the smoker and improve ventilation. Alternatively, you close the vents when you want to trap smoke to make the meat more flavorful.

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Pitmasters recommend that you leave the exhaust vent only partially open, but you occasionally adjust the bottom vent while smoking.

Recommended vent setting: 

Smoking temperature Top vent (exhaust) Bottom Vent (intake)
Preheat 68-225 F Partially open or fully closed Open fully 
Mid-smoke 145-250 F + Partially open or half-open Closed partially
Nearly finished 155 – 300 F + Half-open Closed fully 

Also, it depends on how much smokiness you like on the meat. Thus, you can adjust the dampers accordingly.

I will go through each type of smoker and talk about opening and closing the vents and dampers.

What does opening the vents on a smoker do?

Opening and closing the vents on a smoker or grill is a normal part of cooking. You don’t open the grill lid unless you are adding or removing meat and other foods. Most of the temperature control is done through vents.

When you open the intake vent, the air flows inside, and when you open the exhaust vent, you let air and smoke flow out. Thus, opening the bottom vent raises the temperature, and closing it lowers it.

Here’s a basic rule to follow:

Use the intake vent to regulate the temperature because it’s easy to control.

When the temperature in the smoker is too low, open the intake vent. If, however, the temperature is becoming too high (which is usually the case), slightly close the bottom vent but not in totality.

Make sure your exhaust vent at the top is always open when the smoker is in use. A small exception is when you want to trap smoke to make the food tastier.

Basically, there are two reasons why smokers have vents:

Reason 1: to control the temperature

To start smoking, your smoker needs oxygen. The intake damper at the bottom lets air inside so it can start heating up.

After the smoker reaches the desired cooking temperature, you can close the vent about halfway or more. Then, once it gets really hot, you must open the top vent to let the air flow out.

Reason 2: to infuse the food with smokiness

To make the meat smoky and delicious when you want that Southern-BBQ flavor, you have to trap smoke. You can do this by controlling the smoke.

With electric or gas smokers, you need to turn up the heat from the controls, but for charcoal smokers, it’s harder.

Most smokers have two vents

When do you open the vent on a smoker?

Okay, it depends on the model and type of smoker, but I am describing the two most important vents for the sake of a simple explanation.

Charcoal smokers have these:

The airflow cycle is quite simple: the air comes in through the bottom vent, heats up the firebox as it rises, and then it leaves the smoker through the top vent.

But, pellet smokers can have 2-5 vents on the back of the unit and a chimney (exhaust pipe) at the top of the smoker.

Does the smoker get hotter with the vents open?

Yes, the smoker gets hotter when vents are open because there is increased airflow, and when hot air rises in the grill, it gets hot.

So, if the exhaust damper is fully open, it draws in lots more air, and the internal temperature rises.

Can you cool it down?

Sure, if you close the intake damper, then you starve the fire of oxygen, and it stops burning, so by doing this for a short while, you can really calm down the intensity of the fire or lower the heat in the smoker or grill. Work with the vents, not the grill lid.

Never close the intake and exhaust vents at the same time for longer than a maximum of 30 minutes.

Smoking vents guidance chart

Here are some recommendations on when to open the intake and exhaust vents.

This is a general guide for smoker and grill vents. But, it all depends on the type of smoker. Electrics, gas, pellet, and charcoal smokers all work a bit differently, so keep that in mind.

Smoking temperature Top vent (exhaust) Bottom Vent (intake)
Preheat 68-225 F Partially open or fully closed Open fully 
Mid-smoke 145-250 F + Partially open or half-open Closed partially
Nearly finished 155 – 300 F + Half-open Closed fully 

Before I talk about each type of smoker or grill, I just want to mention that dampers and vents refer to the same thing in this case.

Note: the intake vent is also called an intake damper, and the exhaust vent is also called the exhaust damper.

How do I know when to open the vent?

First, you need to check the temperature gauge or your meat probe thermometer.

If the temp is higher than the recommended 224-300 F, then you should close the vent a bit to stop air from going in. But, keep the vents wide open if the temp is too low.

If there’s tons of smoke billowing, then the temp is too high, and you should close the vents partly for a bit.

Opening the vents when preheating the smoker

Some of the confusion about opening vents lies in the fact that people have a hard time preheating and getting the smoker up to the desired temperatures.

The basic principle is that you need some extra airflow when you’re setting up the smoker.

So, it’s best to keep the top and bottom vents open when you light or turn on the smoker and as it preheats. The same thing goes for smoker and grill combos too.

Vents on a charcoal smoker

Running a charcoal grill and smoker for long hours is challenging. You have to maintain the temperature between 225-250 F for between 4 to 18 hours, and so it must remain steady.

This style of smoking is called low and slow.

The secret to successful smoking is to control temperature and keep the temperature of the grill steady. With the charcoal grill, it’s done via air vents.

When do you open the vent?

So, you’re probably wondering if you should open the vents. Well, you open the bottom vent (intake) when you want to raise the internal temperature in the smoker. By opening the vent, you’re letting more air go in.

Once you let the air in, watch out for how quickly the temperature rises. If the temperature rises too much, you need to use the top vents to let some out. So, open the exhaust vent.

But then, it’s all about controlling the temperature through the whole cooking process. Since you use charcoal and wood, you will have to adjust the vents.

If you want a slow temperature rise, adjust your bottom vents so it is nearly closed but not quite. If the vent is only open slightly, only a small amount of oxygen flows, and the temps won’t rise too fast.

Using vents to make the meat smokier

Surely you’ve added charcoal and wood for flavor, but if you’re still not 100% satisfied with the smokiness, you can boost it with the vents.

During the cooking process, it’s best to use the intake damper on your charcoal grill to help draw the smoke from the burning coals and the wood towards the food.

As your meat cooks on the grates, the smoke will swirl around and infuse it with an additional smoky aroma. The exhaust damper must be open too so there’s no stale smoke and it can go out properly at the top.

In case the temperature gets a bit too hot, close the exhaust damper 3/4 of the way. It should almost be closed but not quite.

Keep this in mind: good ventilation provides clean smoke.

How to trap smoke with vents

When you want very smoky food, you need to trap the smoke. Close both the top and bottom vent completely or leave them 1/2 inch open.

Do this for a short while because the smoke will get trapped and cover and infuse the meat.

But, be careful there’s a catch. When the intake damper and the exhaust damper are completely closed, the temps decrease gradually until the meat stops cooking properly.

So, you need to observe the temperatures closely, and once the temp drops too much, open the top vent partially, then close the bottom one slightly.

What happens when you forget to open or close vents?

This is a common issue, especially for beginners. When you operate your charcoal grills and smokers, you must be careful not to forget.

One thing that can happen is that the charcoal burns too fast and can completely burn before the meat is done cooking. Another problem is that the heat can become too high; thus, your food will be burned.

Vents on an electric smoker

Running your electric smoker requires a bit of know-how because you have to keep track of the vents. You’re probably wondering: should the vent be open or closed?

The electric smoker is not like a charcoal or gas unit, especially when it comes to preheating and heating up the smoker. So, to run the unit optimally, you need to know when to leave the vent open and when to close it.

The top vent is essential. Keep it open when smoking and keep it closed when the smoker is not running. The best thing is to leave the vent open as you apply smoke to your meats or cheese.

When only one vent is open, you can’t have proper airflow. So, you need to have an exhaust where the stale smoke can escape and then another vent where fresh air can create the airflow required for smoking meat.

One rule of thumb to follow is that it’s best to leave the vent completely open while you apply the smoke to the meat. The open vent prevents creosote from building up on the food.

Tips for using electric smoker vents

There’s not as much adjusting involved with electric smokers since there are pretty much no heat leaks.

Here are some tips for adjustments when you cook barbecue meat and poultry.

Propane & gas smoker vents

The propane smoker usually has a top and bottom vent, too, like the charcoal unit.

The principles are the same: when you want to heat up the smoker to 225 F, keep the top and bottom vents wide open so the air can flow in.

Once the temp reaches 225F, you can close both the intake vent and exhaust vent about halfway. This position prevents the smoker from heating up more but doesn’t extinguish the flame.

Tips for opening and closing vents

It all depends on the type and model of the smoker, but I’m sharing a basic guideline on when to open vents for pork, beef, and poultry.

Takeaway

The bottom line is that when you want the best smoky meat without creosote buildup and funky taste, you must keep the exhaust vent at the top partially open.

Of course, when you want to trap smoke to add more flavor, then you can close it for a short while.

But generally, you open the vents when you want the smoker to heat up. Opening the intake vent lets more oxygen flow in and raises the temperature.

The exhaust vent should be open to let heat and smoke escape. If you close all dampers, the smoker loses heat and won’t cook the food properly.

The good news is that most smokers have two vents or dampers, and they follow the same principle should using them shouldn’t give you any major headaches.

Now, it’s time to start smoking some tasty ribs or brisket!

Read next: Will adding fire bricks to my smoker help it to maintain a consistent temperature?

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.