How Does A Smoker Work? – A Grillers Guide To Using An Outdoor Smoker

A Definitive Guide to Using an Outdoor Smoker – Here’s Everything You Need to Know! 

Humans have been smoking meats for centuries, and it’s a great way to get plenty of extra flavor into your food. Regardless of whether your meat is large or small, you will certainly see a benefit from smoking your meat.

Smoking is pretty versatile – it’s a way of cooking your food, adding flavor, preserving it – you name it. You’re basically just increasing the exposure to smoke from burning different kinds of fuels. You’re essentially cooking for a longer duration with the temperature lower because you’re using smoke to cook the food.

In fact, there are a variety of sources of fuel that you can use in order to add that delicious smoky flavor to your meats. You can use propane, wood, natural wood pellets and more.

If you aren’t really sure about what will be the best choice for you, you need not worry – we’ve got all of the information that you could possibly need right here.

Smoking your meat can be a pretty scary task when you first get started because there are so many different things that you need to consider. If you understand it a little better then you should be able to feel a little more comfortable when you are using your smoker. 

In this article, we’re going to cover everything that you need to know about the methods of meat smoking, how smokers operate and the best ways to ensure that your device lasts for a long time.

How a Smoker Works: The Basics

These devices essentially take the smoke generated by a source of fuel, and then cook your food using this smoke. This differs from the direct heat that you would usually find in a grill or a barbecue. 

In essence, you will use indirect heat in order to cook the meat – it isn’t directly over the flame, and you’re cooking it at significantly lower temperatures in order to bring the meat to its right temperature. This is generally a fairly slow process thanks to the reduced heat.

What’s great about this cooking method is that it puts plenty of flavor into the meat – you will get a delicious wood burned flavor but you won’t lose that all-important moisture in the meat in the process. It’s basically a low and slow cooking method because you’re cooking the meat at a low temperature and it takes a while to reach completion.

1. To Begin With, Prepare Your Meats

You’ve heard of the phrase ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’, right? Well, this is certainly true when it comes to using a smoker. If you want to have the taste and results that you are looking for at the end of the process, then it’s vital that you prepare your meat correctly.

This is usually as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. You usually make a marinade and rub it all over the meat, though it ultimately depends on the kind of meat that you intend to work with.

It’s also a really good idea to use salt on your meat too. It’s worthwhile to learn a dry brining method for the meat before you start cooking – it’ll give you stellar results that are sure to leave you and your BBQ guests in awe. Nobody will know that you’re a beginner at smoking! 

2. Prepare the Fuel

The next thing that you need to do is get the fuel ready for use when you are smoking. Unfortunately, there’s not a universal method that works for every single smoker – it ultimately is determined on the smoker that you are using alongside the fuel in question.

For instance, if you are using a charcoal smoker then it’s usually best to use a charcoal chimney starter. This will be useful as it means that you can start off the lump of charcoal efficiently so your smoking process will begin smoothly. 

The method varies for a pellet smoker. You don’t need to do a great deal in order to get these babies up and running. You also don’t need to make the extra effort to smoke the pellets, which is always a handy time saver.

The main thing that you are going to need to do is ensure that the hopper has plenty of pellets in order to maintain the cooking for the entire smoking session.

A propane smoker will require you to soak the wood chips before you intend to start smoking. Of course, you can use them dry, though this ultimately depends on your personal preferences.

Other than soaking the pellets, there really isn’t much that needs to be done in terms of preparation. Be careful to ensure that you have plenty of propane available to last until the end of the smoking session though. 

Finally, electric smokers. These can be a little bit awkward in some respects because in order to use them you must ensure that the smoker is positioned close to a power source, or else you will not be able to use it. Once you have done this, you just need to get the fuel source ready – chips or chunks of wood – and you’re good to go.

Now your fuel is all ready – awesome! The meat is marinated and just waiting to make its way onto the smoker to be cooked. The next thing that you need to do is get everything in the smoker sorted.

To begin, put the chips or chunks right onto the coal if you have a charcoal smoker. It’ll need to go into the wood pans on an electric or gas smoker. If you have a pellet smoker then you’ll just need to put the device onto the smoke setting to begin with.

Some people like to use a water pan in order to keep the meat nice and tender throughout the process, and this is certainly a good idea. If this is something that you intend to do, you should start filling it right away and put it on top of the wood part.

Make sure that you set your smoker to the correct temperature – this should be around 225 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Allow the smoke to start working, and then you are ready to transfer the meat onto the grill grates. You can then put the lid down.

Mastering The Correct Timing and the Right Temperature

If you want your smoke to be a good one with great results, then you need to ensure that you get the temperature right and that you’re cooking for a proper amount of time.

It’s very important that the temperature on the smoker remains consistently the same the entire time that you are cooking.

In general, this temperature should be around 225 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit. For every pound of meat that you are cooking, around 1 to 1.5 hours of cooking time is going to be needed. If you are unsure though there’s nothing wrong with asking someone or doing a little more research.

The main thing that you need in order to get meats that are perfectly cooked and tasty is the right temperature and the right timing.

You will also have a much easier time ensuring that the cooking process goes smoothly if you fill up the water pan correctly throughout the cooking process.

If you find that your meat is still lacking a little bit of flavor, it can help to add some additional wood chunks or chips in addition to your fuel source in order to add more flavor. In the event that you find that the flavor is excessively strong, you merely need to reduce the amount of wood you use on your next cooking session.

It’s not a good idea to check on your meat all of the time as it can impact the temperature of the meat, and maintaining proper control of the temperature is crucial for well cooked meats. You’re going to lose a lot of heat if you remove the lid, so keep that in mind while you are cooking.

The best thing to do is to check the meat on an hourly basis. You should use a meat thermometer in order to see whether the meat is ready for consumption.

A wireless meat thermometer would be an even more effective choice because you can look at the temperature and you won’t even need to open the lid in the first place.

As you are cooking your meat, make sure that you are monitoring the level of fuel that you have remaining, in addition to the water pan and wood chips. You don’t want to find out too late that they have run out, after all. Keep them topped up throughout the process to avoid making errors.

If you think that the meat is now ready, you can use something like an instant read meat thermometer to have a look at what the temperature is like inside of the meat. This will help you to know whether it’s ready for eating. 

Smoker Types Available

If you are yet to choose a smoker for your own use, it will help to know what different kinds of smokers there are on the market. Each of these have their own advantages and disadvantages, of course.


A lot of people tend to own charcoal smokers because they are a pretty old method of smoking. There are two main versions of these smokers – first is bullet style smokers and the second type is the firebox kind of smoker.

There are a number of new kinds of charcoal smokers making their way onto the market too, such as egg shaped Kamado smokers and there are also cabinet styles. For the most part though, we will be referring to bullet smokers going forward.

These smokers are the kind that you are most likely to see when it comes to charcoal options. This is because they don’t cost a lot of money – they are affordable and they have dual functionality. If you want to grill, then you should have no problem doing so with these smokers. 

So what’s up with the name? Well, bullet smokers get their name from their shape. They look like bullets in terms of their shape, hence why they are called bullet smokers. They have two grill grates stacked up inside of the grill, in addition to a fuel pan and a water pan. 

You will usually get offset firebox smokers too that are made to operate like a grill, but you can have an offset smokebox option on the side of it to allow you to smoke foods. They may sometimes come along with the grill or you may need to buy them on their own for more money.

Pellet Smokers

In many respects these are quite similar to offset firebox style smokers because the fuel box is off to the side, but they don’t work in the same way.

You will use pellets in these smokers rather than wood chips, as the name suggests. Pellets are basically pieces of natural wood that are condensed down with the air removed, so the smoke that you get from them is very intense. 

You will power this kind of smoker electronically and this means that it’s easier to figure out where to put the smoker. You can use a digital controller to operate it.

In terms of structure it looks similar on the exterior to an offset smoker but it works very differently on the inside.

These systems operate by loading pellets into a hopper in the device. There’s an auger right on the bottom that will start to move the pellets into the firebox as you are cooking.

The pellets will eventually get to the firebox, and then an igniter rod will set the pellets alight. This will then make the smoke for the cooking to work. The heat then mingles around the cooking chamber thanks to a combustion fan. 

Electric Smokers

If you want an easy way to smoke your meat, using an electric smoker may be the best option for you.

You won’t need to manually deal with the temperature and the fuel – it’s mostly all done on your behalf. A lot of people enjoy using these smokers for this particular reason and more.

For starters, cleaning them is simple. You will have the temperature controls all built into the device, ensuring that the cooking process is simple.

Maintaining them is pretty simple and you can even keep them in smaller spaces if you want. If you want to relax with your friends while you are cooking, then you can just set the meat to cook and then go back and check on it every now and again – there’s nothing more that you need to do.

Before starting, you can deal with the digital controls – simply type in a temperature that you want and you can feel comfortable in the knowledge that it’s totally fine to leave it on its own to cook until it’s done.

These smokers tend to look a little like the lockers that you would find in a gym or look like a cabinet. They have small doors on the front, and a wood tray that is positioned above the heating element.

You will find the water pan right on top of it. You will have a number of different food trays.

The only real problem is that they don’t have the same level of mobility as many of the other options on this list because they need to be close to a power source.

Propane Smokers

These are much easier to deal with than something like a propane smoker. They look a lot like bullet smokers in some respects. They include an integrated controller so you can choose the temperature and allow the device to do what it needs to do.

You’re just going to have to make sure that you set the right temperature, and then the smoker will do the cooking for you. You only need propane and wood chips to get it to work, so they work away from home too for things like camping trips. They don’t take up a great deal of space either – perfect for putting in the car! 

Taking Care of the Smoker

Look, everyone will tell you that cleaning your smoker isn’t a good idea because you will get some of the flavor from the last cooking session on your meat.

This may well be true, but it’s much better to keep cleaning your smoker instead. This ensures that you will get great tasting results after every smoker, and it also helps to make the smoker last a much longer amount of time. 

There’s nothing special left on the smoker after you use it either – it’s generally only carbon left on there. It’s more likely to ruin the flavor than to make it better.

How To Clean The Grates

The first thing that you should do is work on cleaning the grill grates. This is because things like the oils, rub, and the grease will cling to the grates – the heat makes it stick even more while you are cooking. 

For this reason, it’s important that you clean the remnants of your previous cooking session off the grates, as this helps to ensure that you don’t get any build up and nothing will be put onto your food the next time that you decide to cook.

You can usually clean the grates much more easily using a wire or grill brush. You should try to clean the smoker as it’s still fairly warm, and scrub them until the majority of the residue is gone.

Interior Cleaning

The next thing that you will need to do is clean the inside of the smoker. This is because there will be a little bit of carbon remaining on the inside of the smoker after you have been smoking in the device a couple of times.

This is a regular build up and it’s not going to cause any problems for your device in the short term. What’s more of a problem is scaling – this looks a lot like the paint is peeling in most cases.

It’s usually a combination of soot, carbon and a few other things that start to develop after combustion, and they eventually begin to peel off.

It may look harmless, but if it isn’t cleaned it can end up falling inside of your food, or it can even catch fire which can be catastrophic. That’s why cleaning it is so important.

It shouldn’t take too long to clean either. You just need to use a putty knife made out of plastic and scrape it away. Using a shop vac should help the process too.

How to Maintain Your Charcoal Device

If it is a charcoal device that you have then it’s important to keep an eye on the coal grate somewhat regularly. This is because it can have a habit of disintegrating or changing shape because it’s put under such high temperatures.

If it does end up warping then it’s usually a good idea to get a new coal grate otherwise it can crack if you make attempts to straighten it. Check to ensure that the ash hasn’t built up too since ash can hold moisture and prevent heat from distributing properly in future.

How to Maintain a Pellet Smoker

You don’t need to do much to maintain these – simply clean away any debris that’s built up on the deflector plate and get rid of the ash and you’re good to go. Make sure that you also keep it away from moisture too since it can be damaged by this.

How To Maintain an Electric Smoker

Again, this is another smoker that doesn’t require a great deal of maintenance. You just need to clean the grates, ensure there’s no scaling and get rid of any residue of fuel. Do a big check on the device once a year and you should be good to go.


Smokers can be pretty simple to use once you understand the basics. Now you know the main kinds of smokers, the best ways to maintain them and more, so dealing with your smoker should be simple for you.

We hope you enjoy creating delicious smoked meats for years to come!