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How Does a Smoker Work?

Underneath all of the modern tech you’ll find in today’s best smoker grills, there’s a device that humans have been building for literally thousands of years. That gives you an idea of just how effective and enduring smoking is, and why so many pitmasters are so devoted to this generations-old art. It also tells you that, ultimately, the ideas behind smoking food aren’t too hard to understand! So, how does a smoker work and how can you get started using one? We’ll give you the five-minute primer ahead.

a grilla grills silverbac on a wood deck

How Smoking Works

Smoking is cooking food at a low temperature using indirect heat, specifically wood smoke. It’s most common with meat and seafood, but you can also smoke cheese, veggies and all kinds of other foods. The fuel can be any solid fuel made from wood products, with wood pellets and charcoal being today’s most popular options.

To smoke your food, a smoker needs three basic parts: an air intake, a fuel burner and a cooking chamber. Smoking begins with starting a low temperature wood fire in the fuel burner. The air intake brings air into the grill to feed the fire oxygen, sometimes through damper vents like a charcoal grill and sometimes with the aid of a blower fan. The result is the foundation of all good BBQ: smoke!

The airflow pushes the smoke and heated air into the cooking chamber where it meets the food. The heat breaks down the fat and connective tissues in food, and the resulting liquefied goodness permeates throughout the food and gives it the world-class flavor that smoked BBQ is famous for!

Getting Great Results from Your Smoker

Time and temperature are the keys to creating great BBQ. First, the low and slow nature of smoking means patience is a virtue for pitmasters. Cooking times can range from under an hour for fish to 12 hours or more for a brisket. For longer cooks, it’s important to regularly check your food’s internal temperature, preferably using a meat probe so you don’t have to open the grill. 

Speaking of temperature, it’s the other big factor for successful smoking. Keeping a consistent smoker temperature will make your cook times more predictable and ensure that your food cooks evenly. On charcoal smokers, you’ll need to learn to control the temperature by opening and closing the grill’s damper vents. 

Electronically controlled pellet smokers, on the other hand, allow any pitmaster to simply set their preferred temperature. The smoker will maintain the temperature automatically. If it’s equipped with WiFi software like Grilla Grills Alpha Connect, the pitmaster can even check and control it remotely!

Explore WiFi Pellet Grills and Smokers

a few racks of ribs on a grill

The Different Types of Smoker

Smokers are popular around the world, and people use a huge variety of smoker designs to cook their food. However, these are the most common types the average American pitmaster will see at cookouts, tailgates and BBQ competitions: 

  • Pellet Smokers: These smokers burn wood pellets using an automated auger that feeds the fuel into the burn pot at a consistent rate. Their consistent temperatures and ability to function as both grills and smokers make pellet grills a popular choice for today’s pitmasters. 
  • Kamado Grills: A kamado is an ancient East Asian design similar to a standard charcoal grill, but with a ceramic lining on the interior of its cooking chamber. The ceramic lining helps retain heat and makes these grills excellent for both grilling and smoking. 
  • Offset Smokers: These big-bodied, two-chambered smokers can burn charcoal, wood chips or wood chunks. They can produce great results, but they’re more challenging to control and often aren’t the best choice for beginners.

Standard charcoal grills can also function as smokers, although it takes a tad more know-how and setup than using a dedicated smoker. Other types of smokers, such as electric smokers, don’t use wood as their primary fuel source, which puts them in a different category from a true wood-burning smoker. 

How to Get Started Smoking

By far the best way to learn how a smoker works is to use one yourself! These are the basic steps to get started: 

  1. Get Prepared: Read our ultimate guide to using a smoker to understand fundamentals like temperature control, and keep it handy while you’re cooking. Make sure you’re equipped with essential grilling accessories like a grill thermometer and BBQ tools
  2. Get a Smoker: Either purchase a smoker, or ask a friend or family member if you can try it out on theirs. They might want to stick around, and that’s a good thing: Cooking with a more experienced pitmaster is a great way to master the fundamentals.
  3. Get a Recipe: Check out our guide to the best meats to smoke for beginners. You’ll find all kinds of tasty BBQ classics that anybody can pull off, from ribs to wings to pulled pork.
  4. Get Smoking: Time to make the magic happen! Take your time, crack open a cold beverage and relax — you’ve got this. 

Find Your New Favorite Grill Recipe

a rack of ribs on a grill with a few steaks and sausages

When you’re ready to bring a taste of the jungle to your patio, be sure to check out our whole lineup of pellet smoker grills! Every model is designed to provide a competition-quality smoker at a reasonable price, for novice pitmasters and experts alike.

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Holland, Michigan 49423