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How to Use a Food Smoker

Updated on October 23, 2012

Smoking foods is one of the oldest, and slowest ways to cook food over an open fire. Smoking actually cooks food similar to an oven, since it uses the heat in the smoke to cook the food. This is why it takes longer than other types of grilling. There are many advantages to smoking food, the main being the wonderful flavor smoking gives food. Foods that are smoked generally cook for anywhere between 4-6 hours, but could take even longer, depending on the cut. Smoking is a low and slow process, meaning that the heat is low, and that it takes a long time to cook. There are many different types of woods out there that make for great smoking, changing the flavor of your food with each different type of wood. Check this out to find out the best type of wood to use for smoking. Most people believe that you have to go out and buy a smoker, to smoke foods. They also believe that you cant smoke on a gas grill. This is simply not true, and if you already own a grill, be it charcoal or gas fueled, you already have a smoker. Learn some of the tips and tricks to the secret art of smoking some of the best food you have ever had.

Wood Smoking

Smoking with real wood, not wood chips, is how some of the larger "smoker boys" do their smoking. This method is just like smoking with wood chips, except that the wood isn't in chip form. This method uses more wood, but is a more authentic approach, and some purists claim that its the only way to truly get the complete smoking experience. Smoking with real wood leaves out one of the steps as smoking with wood chips, and that is the soaking step. With wood chips, some people decide to soak their chips in water (or a juice) before smoking, to prevent them from burning and to increase the amount of smoke. Wood burning you don't want to soak the wood, because then you can't light it. Most of the time, when wood smoking is done, it's for large amounts of cooking. Unfortunately, wood smoking cant be done in a gas grill, and can be difficult to do in charcoal grills, due to size restrictions. Usually, this type of smoking is done in actual purpose built smokers, or in very large charcoal grills. To do some wood smoking, your going to want to set up your smoker or grill, and get the wood burning well. Your going to need to adjust the vents to get the grill set between 250-325, with the idea zone being about 275ish. The best way to do this is with a chimney starter. This will get the wood nice and hot, and get a nice fire started. Once the fire is going, adjust the temperature until it holds steady at the desired smoking temperature, and maintains that temperature for about 10 minutes. Your ready to smoke now! You will have to add more wood as it burns, and cooks, but do so only to keep the temperature constant. This is key.

Charcoal Smoking

Charcoal smoking is probably one of the most common types of smoking, and is probably the kind most people are familiar with. Charcoal smoking uses charcoal as the heat source, and heats and burns the wood chips, releasing the smoke. Charcoal smoking is a good way to smoke, and produces delicious results. Charcoal smoking is similar to real wood smoking, with the main exception being that charcoal smoking uses wood chips. To begin charcoal smoking, your going to want to get your wood chips ready first. To begin, simply soak some chips in a bucket of liquid for about an hour or so. You can use water, and this is the most common, but other types of liquids can be used, such as juices (especially with fruit wood) to create a more intense flavor. To charcoal smoke, your going to want to set up the coals on one side of your grill (or in a smoker box if attached to your grill), and light. Like wood smoking, your going to want to adjust the heat in your grill, using the vents, so that you get the inside of the grill to about 250-325, with the ideal zone being about 275. If your grill doesn't have a smoker box attached, your going to need to use less charcoal. Once the grill is ready, and is sitting at the temperature you want, drain the wood chips, and wrap in aluminum foil. Poke some holes in the foil, and place directly on the coals. Your going to need to add coals regularly during smoking, as coals die out, to keep the temperature constant. On average, I add a handful of bricks about every 30 minutes to 45 minutes. On average, it will take about a pound of charcoal to smoke for about an hour.

Gas Grill Smoking

Most people are familiar with wood smoking and charcoal smoking, but many don't realize that their gas grill can be a smoker too! How you ask? It has everything a smoker needs. A heat source, a way to make smoke, and a place to retain the heat and cook food. Smoking with a gas grill is actually pretty easy (thanks to a gas grills ability to control the heat better), and produces some pretty good results. To smoke using a gas grill, first take a check at how much fuel you have. If you are using propane, make sure you have enough propane in your tank, or extra tanks ready. Its going to take anywhere from 4-6 hours (or longer in some cases) to properly smoke food, and your going to need propane or natural gas for the entire period. Now that you have enough gas, you should look the grill over and make sure that nothing is broken, cracked, loose, worn out, or out of place. A broken grill is a dangerous grill, as these grills can explode. Remember your fixing to use the grill for at least 4 hours. Your grill should be in the best shape possible. If you do find any broken or worn out parts, make sure you replace them with good quality gas grill parts before using the grill. Once you have made sure the grill is safe to cook, the next thing is prepping the wood chips. Prep these just like you would a charcoal grill, by soaking the chips for about an hour, before putting them in the aluminum foil pouch, and poking holes in the pouch. Now start your gas grill, and turn it onto high, and let run for about 10 minutes. This will give the grill a chance to heat up, and clean the grill. Now turn the heat down to low, and allow the grill to cool with the lid off for about 3 minutes. Now close the lid, and allow the grill to come to temperature. Adjust as necessary until the grill is about 275. To smoke, take the wood chip packet, and place it on top of the grills burner shield. If there isn't enough room, try placing the wood chip packet on the cooking grate, and use bricks to hold another grate above the wood chips. You want smoke to be able to completely go around the food.

Hints and Tips

  • Try to keep the lid down as much as possible to help retain heat and smoke. The more the lid is opened, the longer it will take to smoke. On average, I check my grill when smoking about every 30-45 minutes, checking the fuel.
  • When smoking with fruit woods (such as apple), try mixing in a little juice into the wood chips before smoking (such as apple juice in apple wood chips). This will give the chips a little more flavor when smoking, and can be used to give foods different flavors.
  • If smoking with wood or charcoal, always start with less than you think you will need, and add accordingly. Its a lot easier to start a small fire, and build it to where you want it, than try to kill a large fire, or worse, wait for it to die down. Smoking takes a long time to finish, and if you spend all day trying to get the fire perfect, you wont have time to smoke.
  • You can add wood chips to any grilling session to add some extra smoke flavor to your cooking. According to research, most of the smoke flavor is added within about the first 10 minutes of smoking. This is because the smoke is able to penetrate the food while it is cooking. Once the outside of the food has been cooked, its harder for the food to absorb the smoke flavor. This is the reason why smoking is so good. The low heat means that the food is able to absorb the smoke flavor for longer.
  • There are smoker box containers that aftermarket manufactures make for gas grill smoking, that work really good. They sit on top of the burner shields and hold the wood chips for smoking. They are used the same way as a wood chip packet.

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