Quick Start Guide: How to Use A Smoker in 10 Easy Steps

Smoke from a grill

It’s easy to get started with smoking.  Here we show you how to use a smoker. Like any cooking endeavor, a little practice goes a long way. If you have never smoked before, we recommend you check out all the resources available here to get you going. Our top recommendation for beginning smoking is to start with a basic and not too pricey cut of meat just to get started. Also, use a good basic recipe and don’t try to get too fancy at first. Get the hang of using your smoker and understanding how it operates. With a little forethought, you are sure to be producing some tasty treats for family and friends for years to come. Smoking is fun and rewarding.

So get started now!


Step #1 – Season your smoker

Follow your manufacturer’s directions on how to season your brand new smoker. This is an important step and you don’t want to skip it. Your new smoker will have some leftover oils from the manufacturing process that you will want to burn off. Also, you want to coat the inside of your smoker with a nice layer of smoke that will improve the flavor of your meat.

Seasoning your smoker generally consists of heating it up to its highest temperature for a few hours to burn off any of these excess oils and dust. Wood chips are added to the smoker for a period of time to create a smoke coating on the inside of the cabinet.

Seasoning your smoker takes a few hours, so you may want to do this well in advance of when you are ready to do your first meat smoking. More information can be found here for seasoning your smoker.

Step #2 – Prepare your meat

Seasoned ribs
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As we said at the beginning, if you are just starting to learn to smoke meats, you might want to start with a less expensive cut of meat while you are getting the hang of it. Smoking a basic pork butt and making some pulled pork can be a great way to get started. And use a recipe at first. It’s not hard, you can do it!

Consult your recipe as to how far in advance you want to season your meat. Some recipes call for meat to be marinated overnight in the fridge or dry rubs to be allowed to sit on the meat for an extended period of time. Often, you can apply seasonings immediately before smoking, but proper planning will help your smoking project go smoothly and without disappointments.

Step #3 – Add wood chips

You will need a supply of high quality hardwood chips like hickory, alder, oak, mesquite, cherry or applewood. You do not want to use resinous woods like pine as they will impart strange flavors to your meat. Before you smoke, Wood chipsdecide what flavor of wood chips are good for your smoking project. Do you want the lightly sweet flavor of applewood or cherry to go with your pork roast or do you want a bold, robust flavor light oak or hickory for your beef ribs. This is a whole discussion in itself. We discuss different woods and which foods they pair best with here.

As for soaking your chips before putting them in the smoker, you really don’t need to. Some people like to do this, but many smokers call for dry chips. Wetting your chips just makes them steam first before they dry out enough to combust and begin smoking. The white “smoke” you first see will be steam from the drying chips. What you want to see is a fine, thin blue smoke circulating in the smoker cabinet. This is the smoke that will provide flavor to your chips.

Step #4 – Add liquids

Most smokers require that you add water to the smoke house to keep the meat from drying out. A notable exception is the Old Smokey Electric Smoker that is very well sealed.

However, most vented smokers will require that a pan of water be placed somewhere inside the smoker to steam and create a moister environment inside the smoking cabinet. Most commercially available smokers come with a vessel specifically for this purpose, but if not, you can place a metal bowl low in the smoking cabinet near the heat source. Water will need to be replenished during smoking. Some smokers feature and external water port that allow you to put water into the water pan without opening the smoker.

You will want to heat your liquids before you add them to the smoker water tray. Otherwise, you will put lower the temperature of the smoker until it heats the liquids back up to the desired temperature.

Adding water to your smoker not only keeps your food most, it will help regulate the temperature in the smoking cabinet. Moist meats will also take on smoke better than completely dry meats.

Additionally, you can add complementary herbs like rosemary or garlic to the water in your smoker to increase the flavor. You can also use apple cider, beer or other flavorful liquids in the water pan. These will increase clean up but you may enjoy the extra flavor.

Step #5 – Preheat smoker to desired cooking temperature

Preheating your smoker to the desired cooking temperature can be beneficial for a number of reasons. For one thing, it kills bacteria that may be on the grates. Also, for some meats, like whole chickens and pork chops, you want to cook them more quickly so it is best to have the smoker up to temperature before you add the meat.

For other meats, like ribs or pork butt, you may want to start low and bring the meats up to temperature more slowly, allowing the meat to absorb more smoke.

Keep in mind that if you put cold meats into the smoker, it will take longer to bring the internal temperature of the smoker up to your desired operating temperature, so be sure to expect this.

Meat in smoker
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Step #6 – Add meat

Before placing food on the smoker racks, you can coat them with cooking spray or a high temperature oil like grapeseed oil to make clean up easier.

You will want to put the larger cuts of meat on the bottom shelves. Things closer to the heat source will naturally cook faster, so put your smaller foods up higher.

If you have preheated your smoker, you will want to be as quick and efficient as possible when placing the meat on the racks. Get the door closed quickly and keep the smoking process going!

Step #7 – Set temperature

If you are using an electric or gas smoker, now is the time to set your temperature to the desired smoking temperature. Set it and forget it! Well, not quite. Read on. Smoking is typically done at temperatures much lower than grilling or roasting. Smoking is a low and slow proposition, much like using your slow cooker. Smoking times will be much longer and depending on the cut of meat, you may need 1 or 1.5 hours of smoking time per pound of meat.

If your smoker has an observable temperature gauge on it, you might want to test the accuracy of this by using a calibrated oven thermometer inside the cabinet every now and then to make sure the gauge is reading accurately, because this is important. There are several good gauges available on the market if the installed one is not accurate.

Step #8 – Monitor your smoker

If your recipe calls for it, you will want to baste your meat every few hours. You will also need to check your wood chips and your water supply. Some smokers come with external chip loaders, like the Masterbuilt Electric Smokers.

If you smoker comes with a meat thermometer, you are a step ahead here. If your smoker does not come with a meat thermometer, you will need to purchase one separately as this is a critical implement for smoking. There are quite a variety of options for thermometers available: from the old standby mercury thermometer to the digital with wireless remote monitoring and models in between. We cover more about thermometers for smoking here.

Observe the smoke. The idea is that you want the chips to smolder, not burn. The smoke should be a thin, bluish white smoke. If thick, white smoke is billowing out, you should adjust the air flow. You should adjust the damper on the top or back of your smoker but don’t close it completely and starve the chips of oxygen. You also do not need smoke to be generated for the entire smoking process. You will learn what you like best, but part of the time you are actually smoking the meat and part of the time you are cooking the meat, so you don’t need smoke the whole time.

While there some things that need to be monitored during the smoking process, you must keep in mind that the more you open the smoker, the more heat will be lost and the more time the smoker will spend getting back up to temperatures. Maintaining a good, consistent temperature during smoking is a bonus. There are a number of smoker models that feature external access for most things like adding wood chips, draining grease and adding water. To see some of these features, see our overview articles for Masterbuilt Electric Smokers and Smoke Hollow Electric Smokers.

As you become more adept at smoking, you will feel more comfortable leaving things alone, but trust us, you don’t want to do too much opening of the cabinet and checking things. Slow and steady wins the race and you don’t need to do too much to help things along once it gets going.

If you do barbeque sauce or other finishing sauces, you should apply them in the last 45 minutes or so. Make sure to set a timer to remind yourself when this step needs to be done

Step #9 – Rest your meatRibs with sides

If you’ve done a large cut of meat like a pork butt, whole chicken, or even ribs, you’ll want to rest the meat before cutting and serving it. Once your meat has reached the appropriate internal temperature, you’ll want to remove it from the smoker and let it rest. The internal meat temperature will actually continue to rise for a short period of time when removed from the heat.

To rest the meat, wrap it loosely in aluminum foil and place it into a cooler (no ice!) lined with towels to rest for 15 minutes up to 4 hours. This process allows the juices to be distributed through the meat for the best flavor. A brisket or pork butt will be much better when left to rest for 2 to 4 hours. For the sake of food safety, you will want the meat to stay above 140°F during rest.

Step #10 – Clean your smoker and store it properly

Once your smoker has cooled, you will want to clean your smoker before storing it away. Mostly, you will need to clean the grates and pans. To minimize the work here, you should coat the racks with cooking spray or high temperature oil. We recommend the high temperature oil over the cooking spray as cooking sprays often have lecithin in them to help with the spray delivery, but this can leave a sticky residue.

In addition to coating the racks with oil, you can line the water, grease and chip trays with aluminum foil, as well as the bottom of the smoker, if it is accessible. Some people recommend lining the racks with foil, and you could do this, but ideally, you want the smoke to be able to fully circulate around the meats, so we do not recommend this.

Between smoking, if you have a gasket seal on your smoker, you will want to wipe this down to make sure you get a good seal.

Cleaning the racks can be done in a sink of hot soapy water with a good stiff brush. You will want to get excess creosote off the racks so they do not impart any bad flavors to your smoked meats.

You do not have to clean the inside of the smoking chamber much. This seasoning is part of what you want to add flavor to your meats. If your smoker has a window, you will want to wipe down the window with a vinegar and water solution or use a piece of newspaper.

When you are not smoking, you should put a cover on your smoker and put it in a relatively dry place like a garage or covered shed. If it has any electrical parts or gas valves, this is especially important if you want your smoker to last a long time. Electronics and moisture don’t get along. When you get it out of storage, you should also check to make sure critters haven’t lodged in the vents or anywhere else as this could cause a fire.

You are done! Go enjoy some great barbecue, pulled pork, ribs, bacon, smoked turkey or whatever else your creative cooking mind has come up with.

We hope this has given you what you need to get started. Tell us about your experiences below!

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