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Smoker Grills|How Smoker Grills Work

Updated on April 29, 2015

How smoker grills work may not be immediately apparent to the novice user. There are several different types of smokers and also different smoking techniques. There is also a vast array of different smoking woods and flavorings that can be used. It even sounds complicated! You may rightly question why anyone would even bother going to the trouble of smoking their food, when you can buy smoked food in your local grocery store.

Well, nowadays, smoking is primarily used for the unique flavor that it imparts to our food. Something that traditional means of cooking does not fulfill. However, this was not always the case. In ancient times, smoking was an essential part of survival and it was used to preserve food.

You must remember, there were no refrigerators or supermarkets in those days!

In very simple terms, a grill will cook food quickly, via direct heat, usually situated underneath the food. With a smoker grill, wood can be added to the heat source and the smoke generated adds flavor to the food.

Some smoker grills use an indirect heat source (such as a small offset firebox, as shown above) which means that there is no direct contact between the food and the flames. This results in slower cooked food and more depth of flavor.

What confuses a lot of people is how different smokersgrills can look! Below are shown several of the most popular, but different, types of smokers that are available to buy today.

Traditional Smoker Grill - BBQ

This is probably what most people would consider to be a traditional barbecue grill. The food is cooked by direct heat from hot coals in the bottom of the grilling chamber. Note that there is no offset firebox and the smoke is generated in the same compartment as the grill.

This is the simplest type of bbq smoker grill and it provides smokey, flavorsome food in a relatively short period of time.

Barbecue Pits - Smoker Grills

A good example of this type of smoker grill is the Brinkmann Smoke 'N' Pit charcoal/wood smoker grill with offset firebox.

This can be used as a traditional BBQ grill (as discussed above) or as a smoker grill with an indirect heat source.

To use as a smoker grill you have to light the fire in the offset firebox. (The selection of smoker woods used will determine the flavor of your food.) The smoke then flows into the second, grill chamber and leaves via the smokestack.

Some areas of the smoker grill will become hotter and smokier than others. Thus, particular care should be taken when cooking food near to the entrance of the firebox. This area becomes very hot and can result in badly charred food!

Smoker grills with offset fire boxes are extremely versatile smoker grill and suitable for most occasions.

Water Smokers

I didn't feel this article would be complete unless I touched upon water smokers, especially given the popularity of the Weber Smokey Mountain.

A vertical water smoker is set up in a very similar way to a grill. The smoker is an enclosed cylinder with a heat source--such as a charcoal burner or electric element--at the bottom. Above that is a water pan, and above that is the cooking grill rack and chimney.

It is important to first soak the bbq wood in water so that it doesn't burst into flames but smolders slowly whilst releasing a lot of smoke. That smoke rises up to the meat or fish, giving it a smoky flavor.

Since smoking takes many hours, it is at risk of becoming extremely dry. The water prevents this by evaporating slowly into the air and helping keep the food moist.

You should also remember that the smoking process does not mean that the food is cooked and ready to eat. Cooking and smoking are two separate processes, albeit they are often combined.

This type of smoker is for those cooks who are able to plan ahead as cold smoking in particular, can take many hours and sometimes even days.


Pressure treated woods must NEVER be used for smoking as they typically contain toxic chemicals such as arsenic. Always buy your smoker woods from a reputable source!

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    • ColibriPhoto profile image

      ColibriPhoto 5 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Before I moved into my present home I had a smoker which I made out of a 50 gallon drum. I would make pulled pork, smoked turkey legs and smoked ham. I miss that now. Not having the common woods used in the States I found local woods such as guava and cinnamon added a great flavor to the meat. Great article. Wish I could get one of those smokers here.

    • Marketing Merit profile image

      C L Grant 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Well I guess the answer ColibriPhoto is maybe to find another 50 gallon drum?!

      Thanks also for the tip about cinnamon. Haven't tried that for smoking so far. I bet it's great with ham.

      Cheers for your feedback!

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