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The Ultimate Guide to Using a Smoker: Cooking Tips, Cleaning and More

The Ultimate Guide to Using a Smoker Cooking Tips Cleaning and More

The basics of grilling are pretty straightforward, and most people have at least flipped a few burgers in their life. BBQ smoking, on the other hand, is grilling’s alluring and mysterious cousin. Smoking has a reputation that’s closer to magic — a mystical art with so many subtleties that people who do it receive the intimidating-sounding title of “pitmaster.”

Relax! If you’re a newcomer to smoking, it’s nothing to be scared of. In fact, the basics are simple to get down, so long as you’re working with the right tools! In this guide, we’ll talk about how to use a smoker and give you some tips for your first time smoking on a Grilla Grill. With a solid understanding of the fundamentals, you can smoke tender and flavorful food every time!

How Does a Smoker Work?

All smokers have the same basic principle: They cook food via a constant indirect heat, usually by burning wood or charcoal at a relatively low temperature. The fuel burns in one part of the smoker, called the fire box. The smoke and hot air flow into another chamber, where you’ve placed whatever you want to cook on a grate. Smoke and hot air circulate in this chamber and cook the food over a long period — anywhere from 30 minutes to half a day. At the right temperature, this “low and slow” cooking style gives smoked food its juicy texture and delectable flavor. 

Meat cooked low and slow on a smoker is often known as BBQ or barbecue. The classic BBQ meats are thick, tough, fatty cuts like brisket and pork shoulder. By breaking down the fat and connective tissue inside these cuts, slow smoking transforms them into the tender treats that BBQ fans know and love. That said, smokers do a great job with leaner meats like chicken and fish, too.

the mighty Grilla Grills Kong

Types of Smokers

This guide will focus on pellet smokers, one of the most popular options for BBQ smoking right now. Pellet smokers burn compressed wood pellets at an automated rate that helps keep the temperature just right. They’re quickly gaining popularity with pitmasters who demand real wood smoke but also want simpler, more convenient operation.

However, smokers that burn charcoal and wood are also common. These include the classic offset barrel smokers, as well as charcoal grills being used as smokers. One of the most popular types of charcoal grill for smoking is called a kamado grill, a Japanese-style grill with a ceramic lining. Because we love the versatility and performance of kamado grills, Grilla Grills even created our take on the style — the mighty Grilla Grills Kong

Other options exist, too, such as propane- and electric-powered smokers that only burn wood for flavor’s sake. While these have some perks like convenience and speed, many BBQ lovers still insist that a true wood-burning smoker is the only way to get the taste right. The tips in this guide will assume you’re using a wood or charcoal grill for your BBQ.

smoker safety tips

Safe Smoking 101

Before you get your smoker fired up, make sure you know a few things about how to use it safely:

  • Your smoker needs to be in an outdoor area with good ventilation, such as a deck, patio or pergola. Like grills, smokers produce carbon monoxide, which can be deadly when it builds up in a confined space. 
  • Since smokers often take hours to cook, you probably won’t sit with your smoker for the entire time it’s cooking. However, it’s important to regularly check on your smoker during the cooking process. The Alpha Connect technology built into all Grilla Grills pellet smokers makes this amazingly easy, since you can check your temps from anywhere with WiFi access!
  • Place your smoker on a flat surface, and don’t put it too close to any structures or vegetation. If you’re using a charcoal smoker, watch for hot ashes or embers flying and remember to let your ashes cool before disposing of them. 
  • Check the minimum safe internal temperature for the food you’re cooking, and avoid common hazards like allowing raw food to sit out for too long.

Lighting the Smoker

Lighting a pellet smoker is pretty simple. You’ll start by filling the hopper with quality pellets, like Grilla Grills’ all-natural wood pellets, and priming the fuel system if necessary. From there, the process is as easy as turning on the grill and entering your preferred temperature! Your pellet smoker will produce a lot of smoke before it starts up and then transition to a wispier smoke with a slight blue color. This is the famous “thin blue smoke” that pitmasters know creates the best BBQ!

Lighting charcoal for smoking can be a little trickier. For one thing, make sure you’re using lump charcoal, rather than briquettes. It’s easier to light, free of the nasty chemicals that are often in briquettes and burns cleaner with less ash. Avoid lighter fluid, too, especially if you’re using a ceramic grill. Instead, use the tips and tricks in our guide to lighting lump charcoal to light your charcoal smoker quickly and safely!

Meet the WiFi Pellet Grills Pro Pitmasters Love

a person taking temperature of meats on a grill

Meat probes are crucial for tracking your meat’s internal temperature.

Controlling the Temperature in Your Smoker

Once your meat is on the smoker and the flames are lit, temperature control will become a top priority. For most recipes, the ideal smoker temperature will be somewhere between 225º and 275º F, depending on what you’re smoking. See our time and temperature guide to get an idea of the temperatures you’ll be working with.

Keeping a consistent low temperature in your smoker is a fundamental element of smoking great BBQ, but it can also be one of the more challenging parts of the process. Fortunately for pellet grill users, temperature control is an area where pellet grills shine! That’s because pellet grills are designed to keep a constant, even heat. The grill automatically feeds fuel into the pot at a rate calculated to maintain its current temperature. 

In fact, with the new Grilla Grills Alpha Connect technology, controlling your smoker temperatures is simpler than ever. The Alpha Connect control board that comes standard in all of our WiFi pellet grills tracks your grill’s temperature in real time — and with the Alpha Connect app, you can even adjust the temperature from your phone! 

If you’re cooking on a barrel smoker or charcoal grill, your main method for controlling temperature will be opening and closing the smoker’s dampers. Because fuels like charcoal and wood chips burn at a less predictable rate than pellets, they require more attention during the cooking process. Eventually, however, your temperatures should settle down once you’ve got the smoker lit and the dampers mostly closed. (See our vent control guide for the whole story.)

Understanding Internal Temperatures

The temperature inside your meat is the other half of the BBQ temperature equation. Ultimately, you want to get the center of the meat to the internal temperature specified in the recipe. Classic BBQ dishes like ribs and pulled pork tend to hit the sweet spot around 180-200º F — the zone where connective tissue and fat begin to break down and liquefy. For fish, poultry and leaner cuts of beef and pork, 140º to 165º F is usually the ideal range. 

internal temperatures ideal ranges

The internal temp tells a pitmaster whether their food is safe to eat, and whether it’s gotten hot enough to create tender textures of smoked BBQ. A thick piece of meat will have a lower temperature in the center than on the outside. That’s actually a good thing because as the heat moves inward, it helps carry flavorful fat and seasonings throughout the meat. However, it does mean you need to determine the doneness of your meat primarily by testing the center temperature.

So, how do you find out the internal temperature of your meat in the first place? When you’ve got the grill open, you’ll want a high quality instant read meat thermometer. During the cook itself, however, pitmasters use meat probes. These small thermal probes are similar to meat thermometers, but they’re made to be left in the thickest part of the meat as it cooks. The probe measures the meat’s internal temperature and displays it on the connected reader — or on your phone, if you’re using the built-in smart meat probes that come standard with every WiFi pellet grill from Grilla Grills!

You’ll also need to be familiar with a phenomenon called “the stall” when smoking thick pieces of meat. Basically, this happens when the meat’s internal temperature stops rising around 150º – 170º F because of the cooling that happens as its moisture evaporates. The stall isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it can make the cooking process take much longer than it would otherwise. The most common way to deal with a stall is to wrap the meat in aluminum foil to help it hit the right temperature. Alternatively, if you’re not in a hurry, crack open a cold one and ride it out!

What Should I Cook on My Smoker?

smoked roast on cutting board

The short answer is: It’s up to you! You can actually cook just about anything on a smoker, from a pork butt to a head of cabbage to a wheel of cheese. In fact, we’ve got a whole guide to the best BBQ meats for beginners! These are some basics that many pitmasters use to get started building up their repertoire of delicious pellet grill recipes:

Chicken: Smoking a whole or spatchcocked chicken is a great way to start. Chicken is forgiving to newbies and takes less time to smoke than many other foods — and there are so many ways to do it!

Pork Butt: This flavor-packed cut of pork is another good choice for beginners. When it’s done, grab some meat shredding claws and shred it up for crazy-good pulled pork!

Ribs: If there’s one thing guaranteed to send cookout guests into a feeding frenzy, it’s ribs. They’re not as hard as some people say, either — especially when you’ve got a Grilla on your side.

Brisket: If you’re up for a little challenge, try taking on the monster slab of beef known as a brisket. The thickness of brisket can make it a challenge to get to the right temperature, so make sure you’re familiar with the “Texas crutch” method.

Fish: Smoking also brings a mouth-watering taste to all kinds of fish, including grill favorites like salmon, tilapia and trout.

Part of the fun of smoking is trying out new things and discovering your favorites, so give yourself some room to experiment. In time, you’ll find your signature BBQ dishes that will make you a neighborhood legend!

how to clean a smoker

How Do I Clean My Smoker? 

Dealing with the by-products of smoking, like ash and grease, is part of life for any BBQ aficionado. Fortunately, it’s not too hard, and the more regularly you do it, the easier it will be. 

  • Grates: When you start to see your grates are getting grimey,after a cook as your grill is cooling down, scrub your smoker’s grates with a heavy duty grill brush. If it’s been a while (don’t worry we understand) and you’ve got really caked-on gunk, remove the grates when they’re cold and throw them in the dishwasher.
  • Body: To remove grease and gunk from the body of the smoker itself, use a gentle sponge with soap and water or vinegar while the grill is cold. If you have a kamado grill, don’t use any kind of cleaner on the ceramic liner, not even water! For the Kong, simply heating the grill to 600º F will scorch off any debris.
  • Ash: Approximately every five to eight smoking sessions, use a wet/dry vacuum to remove ash from the smokers’s fire box. Never do this with warm ash. Make absolutely sure it’s cold first!
  • Grease: Empty your smoker’s grease pan into the trash and thoroughly clean it with soap and water. Get a putty knife for scraping off tenacious grease.

Our Grilla Grills Virtual Toolboxes have complete care and cleaning instructions for every Grilla smoker! Before you start cleaning, make sure you’ve read the manual for your model thoroughly.

a  person using meat claws to shred chicken

Shop Heavy Duty Grilling Accessories for Your Smoker!

New to BBQ smoking? A Grilla Grills smoker is a great place to start! Our smokers are designed to be user-friendly enough for beginners, but powerful and versatile enough for seasoned pitmasters. Check out the whole family of Grilla Grills pellet smokers, and don’t forget about all of our awesome grill accessories that will get you equipped to head into the BBQ jungle!

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