How to Set Up a Smoker Grill

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Real barbecued ribs cook slowly in a smoker.
Real barbecued ribs cook slowly in a smoker. (Image: spare ribs image by Alison Bowden from Fotolia.com)

Smoker grills come in many shapes and sizes, but the setup is essentially the same on all models. A load of fuel, such as charcoal or hardwood chunks, goes into one side of the smoker or a connected fire box with a vent that allows the hot smoke to circulate around food cooking on the other side. Smoking meats, such as ribs, pork shoulders and beef brisket, are typically placed on a cooking grate above a shallow pan of water, which keeps the meat moist. Soaked wood chips from different tree species can be added to impart different flavors.

Things You'll Need

  • Charcoal or hardwood chunks for smoking
  • Wood chips
  • Metal bowl
  • Shallow metal pin small enough to fit inside the smoker
  • Hot mitts
  • Meat thermometer

Load the fire box or fuel chamber in the smoker with charcoal or hardwood chunks. Reserve about two cups of charcoal or wood chunks for every two hours of smoking. For example, a 10-pound beef brisket might require 10 to 12 hours of smoking, so an extra five to six cups of fuel should be available to keep the fire going beyond the initial fuel load in the smoker.

Soak two cups of wood chips in water for at least an hour before starting the smoker. Different woods add different flavors. Hickory is favored for pork and beef, although apple wood can also be used to infuse the food with a more delicate flavor. Mesquite is popular with poultry. Cedar and dried grapevine are favorites for smoking fish. These are suggestions; it's really a matter of personal taste and preference.

Fill the shallow metal pan with water and place in the smoker below the cooking grate for the food.

Light the fire and wait for the coals or hardwood to burn white.

Drain the wood chips and place a few handfuls on the fire, then set the food on the cooking grate when the chips begin to smoke.

Close the smoker lid and adjust the top and bottom vents to circulate the smoke and hold in the heat. Open the vents fully for maximum smoke circulation, although the fire burns faster and requires fuel more often. Partially closing the vents will raise the internal temperature, but the fire must be monitored more closely to ensure it does not burn out due to lack of oxygen.

Tips & Warnings

  • Resist the urge to peek inside the smoker. Heat dissipates rapidly every time the cover comes off the smoker, adding as much as 15 minutes of cooking time, so four sneak peeks at the food will make the job last an hour longer. When it's time to add more charcoal or hardwood to the fire, use that as an opportunity to inspect or baste the food.
  • Wear hot mitts when opening or closing an active smoker.
  • Smoke meats to an internal temperature of 160 F. Smoke poultry to an internal temperature of at least 165 F for safety, according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

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