Smoking meat requires strict regulation of core smoking chamber temperatures to produce the desired tenderness and flavor. A variety of methods can be used to raise or lower temperatures as needed, or to sustain constant temperatures over time in charcoal smokers.
Temperature Control Through Vents and Chimneys
Nearly all charcoal smokers and grill-smoker combinations have sliding vents on sides, tops, or bottoms and often have smoke stacks with adjustable chimney openings. Adjusting the width of these openings is the easiest and most efficient way to increase or decrease temperatures within smokers. The wider the vents, the more oxygen that reaches the heat source and the hotter the burn. Narrower vent openings inhibit oxygen entering the grill and create cooler burns. Adjust vents and chimney openings based on wind speed, with wider openings when less wind is present and vice versa.
Choosing and Using Charcoal
Charcoal type also impacts the heat of the burn in smokers. Natural lump charcoal catches faster and burns hotter, adding to the internal temperature of the smoker. A few handfuls of lump charcoal can quickly boost temperatures and impart better, more natural flavorings in meat. Briquettes, which are made from charcoal wood fragments bound with petroleum and other additives, take longer to catch and burn slower and more evenly, sustaining constant temperatures over time. A combination of the charcoal types can lead to optimum temperature control.
Effects of Wood Chips
Adding wood chips to charcoal smokers also plays a role in boosting or lowering internal temperatures. Dry hardwood chips catch fire quickly and create higher flames, increasing the core temperature of smokers, even if for a short while until reduced to ash. Wet wood chips create more smoke, burn slow and keep flames low, all factors that reduce core temperatures for slower cooking methods.
The Happy Medium
The name of the game with all smokers is slow, sustained cooking at constant, relatively low temperatures with smoke-producing fires. This usually means keeping the heat source offset from the meat at about 200 degrees for several hours, regularly feeding in fresh coals and wet wood chips to the fire. If temperatures are too low or too high, meat fails to cook properly. Experience over time breeds accuracy in properly adjusting vents and replenishing charcoal and chips to sustain constant low heat and smoke.