With hunting season nearing an end in many areas, it's time to get those grills and smokers ready for some fresh game meat. If you haven’t used a charcoal smoker before, getting started can be a little overwhelming. There are four main types of smokers in popular use: charcoal, propane, electricity, and off-set.
For the purposes of this article, we'll review how to use a charcoal smoker to get that perfect smoky taste.
Getting Your Smoker and Charcoal Ready
When using a charcoal smoker, you need a constant supply of hot charcoal ready to use to regulate the temperature easily in the smoker. To create a stockpile of hot charcoal, use a chimney starter.
The chimney starter lets you get charcoal lit before adding it to the smoker. Do not use lighter fluid-soaked charcoal, as it will add a bad taste to your meat.
I suggest using lighter cubes or newspaper to get the charcoal going on your charcoal smoker. Once the charcoal is all lit, transfer it from the chimney into the bottom of your smoker.
How to Use a Charcoal Smoker: Placing The Coals
When placing the coals in your smoker, there are a few different ways to position them.
Remember, when smoking something, you want to avoid cooking with direct heat. Instead, pile the coals under one side of your cooking grate, opposite the side with your meat.
You can also create a ring of charcoal around the bottom, placing the meat inside. Whatever your preference, try not to have the meat directly above the coals.
If you have multiple grates or levels on your smoker, placing the charcoal in strategic areas will allow you to have slightly different cooking zones.
For example, you may want your thinner cuts of meats or vegetables on a higher grate, farther from the coals but on the same side. This allows you to place bigger cuts of meat on the lower grates closer to the smoke and heat source.
Adding Wood Chips to Your Smoker
Adding wood chips to the charcoal will help add some smoky flavor to your meal.
Select your type of wood depending on what flavor profile you want to add to the dish.
Common types of smoking woods include Hickory, Pecan, Maple, Cherry, and Mesquite. Do some research before selecting your wood, as certain flavors pair better with different meats.
Best Types of Wood Chips for Smokers
Keep in mind that not all woods are ideal for smoking. For example, softwoods with a high sap content like Pine will ruin your food.
You can buy different-sized wood chunks, depending on what your smoker will accommodate.
The larger chunks will burn and create smoke longer, reducing how often you need to replenish them. This will also minimize the number of times you open the smoker, helping you keep consistent heat on the meat.
You can soak the wood chips for 30 minutes before smoking, but you don’t have to. Some people believe doing so adds extra smoke when the chips burn, but this has been debunked as a myth.
Soaking the chips merely adds a “delay” before they start to smoke since they now have to dry out before they ignite. Regardless, soaking the chips will help add a little moisture to the process, so it can’t hurt.
Once you have the wood chips ready, place them inside the smoker next to the charcoal.
Be careful not to place the wood directly on the charcoal, as this will cause the wood to burn and smoke too quickly. Just nudge them against the charcoal so they will slowly heat and give you a more even-smoking effect.
Managing The Temperature in Your Smoker
The ideal smoking temperature ranges between 220F and 250F. For the most part, you never want your temperature to surpass 250F.
Temperatures above 250F risk drying out your meat and overcooking it too quickly. If you don’t have a built-in thermometer, get a wireless thermometer to monitor the internal temperature.
To regulate your temperature, use the dampeners on the smoker. Most models have a dampener at the top and bottom. Opening the top dampener allows air to escape, and this can be left a bit open through most of the smoking process.
The bottom or side dampeners allow more oxygen to feed the charcoal, increasing the temperature. Use these to keep the temperature as consistent as possible -- between 220F and 250F.
Depending on the size and model of your smoker, you will need to add more charcoal and wood chunks throughout the process. This is why you have extra charcoal ready to go in your chimney. As needed, add more lit charcoal and soaked wood chunks into the smoker.
Related: How to Smoke Fish
How Do I Know When My Smoked Meat is Done?
Smoking isn’t an exact science, and cooking times vary depending on the type of meat, size, cut, temperature, etc.
The easiest way to know when it’s done is to have a meat thermometer in the center of your cut of meat as you smoke. This will let you know when you have reached the ideal internal temperature as desired (or required) for that cut of meat.
Smoking meat is one of the most flavorful and easiest ways to prepare your meat. The process has a bit of cooking forgiveness, so learning how to use a charcoal smoker is relatively easy for beginners.
As long as you keep an eye on your temperature, both inside the meat and the smoker, you will be fine.
Don’t get overwhelmed by all the variables; just find a recipe you like and get started. If you're looking for more recipes and inspiration, check out Project Smoke.