Smoking meats over charcoal requires cooking "low and slow," meaning the temperature must be held steady at low heat for a long period of time. A load of charcoal sufficient to fill a home barbecue smoker will typically burn out in less than two hours if left unattended. This is only a fraction of the time necessary to smoke thick cuts of meat such as a pork picnic or brisket, so learning how to keep a smoker going for hours is one key to successful barbecue.
Things You'll Need
Load 10 pounds of charcoal in the smoker and start a fire with the lighter fluid.
Place the food to be smoked on clean cooking grates when the coals turn white.
Close the grill and adjust the side and top vents to oxygenate the fire. Opening the vents all the way will produce the maximum temperature, while gradually closing the vents will reduce air to the coals and cause the temperature to fall. Coals will burn longer when the vents are at least halfway closed.
Check the smoker once an hour and add briquettes as necessary to sustain the fire and maintain the desired temperature inside the cooking chamber. Do not add lighter fluid once the meat has been placed on the grill. Add briquettes only, a few at a time. These will burn down from the heat of the existing coals. A pound of charcoal consists of approximately 17 briquettes, according to independent measurement tests. Adding eight briquettes per hour, or approximately half a pound, should be sufficient to sustain the fire and temperature.
Plan to use about 10 pounds of charcoal for two to three hours of smoking smaller quantities of foods, such as whole fish, roasts and hams under 4 to 5 pounds. Have on hand 20 pounds of charcoal for longer smokes. About 10 pounds will burn for two to three hours. More may be necessary for long smokes involving thick cuts of meat such as beef brisket and pork shoulders, especially in cold weather and high winds.
Adjust the vents as necessary to maintain heat while prolonging the life of the coals. It may be necessary to open the vents wider when adding fresh charcoal to help get the new briquettes burning, then closing the vents about midway once the new coals are white.
Use an oven thermometer to measure the internal temperature of the smoker, which should hover between 200 and 225 degrees Fahrenheit for smoking meats.