Those who know how to use a smoker will tell you that the key to cook the best meat is to know just how prepare the wood, and how much wood should be added to the smoker once started. You want the wood to burn slowly at a nice even temperature. Practice makes perfect, so you may have to experiment a bit.
The wood needs to be heated thoroughly before you add the meat and you will need to watch the temperature while you are smoking the food. It takes practice to know when to adjust the dampers and the flues to keep the temperature at the right level, but this is the key to succulent smoked food!
The smoking process takes a few hours and the idea is to create a smoke flavor to the food. You want to place the food in the smoker chamber with the heat temperature between 180 and 200 degrees F. If you are using a gas grill, you may need to place the food as far away from the heat source as possible. If using wood or charcoal, you must tend to the heat constantly during the smoking.
Use a meat thermometer to make sure smoke-cooked foods are done but not overcooked.
Smoke-cooked foods look differently than other grilled or oven-prepared foods. They may be pink or red when completely cooked depending on the type of wood that is used. For example, smoking with apple wood will make chicken look a slightly red. Experiment with different woods and meats until you find the right combination for your taste.
Use tongs and barbecue mitts to add charcoal, turn meats, refill the water pan, or adjust vents.
Start with a small amount of wood to see how you like the flavor and then add more for a more intense smoky taste. Too much wood smoke over long periods can make food taste bitter.
Reference the following cooking charts found in the Recipes section for cooking times:
Charcoal Smoker Cooking Tips
Never use a self-starting charcoal that contains starting agents impregnated in the charcoal. This type of charcoal will burn too quickly to fully cook your food and may impart an undesirable flavor. Instead, use a high quality standard charcoal, or even better, an all hardwood charcoal.
Because a pan full of charcoal produces a limited supply of heat, you will need to preserve as much heat inside the cooker as possible. Heat will be lost by removing the lid to check your food, so resist this temptation as much as possible.
Excessive wind will also make the charcoal burn faster, so try to place your smoker where wind is minimized.
Remember, never use a smoker indoors; fumes from the charcoal and wood are toxic. Always follow smoker operating instructions and safety warnings found in the owner’s manual.
Electric Smoker Cooking Tips
If you are accustomed to cooking with a charcoal smoker, you may be surprised how much faster an electric smoker cooks. It is recommended that you check the doneness of your food a little earlier in the cooking process than you might expect to avoid overcooking. It is always better to undercook and overcook. With a constant heat source, food can always be returned to the smoker for additional cooking, but overcooking cannot be undone.
A quality heat thermometer is the best way to test the doneness of your meats. Of course, another method of testing the doneness of meat is to cut into the thickest portion, but when this is done will release juices trapped inside the meat.
Remember, a large cut of meat will continue to cook a little after it has been removed from the smoker due to the heat contained inside the meat itself.
On especially cold or windy days, you may have to allow extra cooking time. Longer cooking times may require adding more liquid to the water pan.
Gas Smoker Cooking Tips
Like the electric, the gas smoker cooks faster than charcoal and you must be careful not to overcook your foods. Also like the electric, you may need to add more liquid to the water pan when smoke cooking over long periods of time. Because a gas smoker cooks a little hotter, the wood chunks may burn too fast. The solution is simple: after soaking the wood chunks in water, wrap them in aluminum foil and punch holes in the foil to allow smoke to be released. The aluminum foil slows the burning process and the wood chunks smoke over a longer period of time.
Horizontal Smoker Cooking Tips
When smoke cooking large quantities of food, be careful to adjust the airflow vents so that the fire will not cook too hot and burn out too soon. Never close the airflow vents completely unless you want to extinguish your fire. You can monitor your cooking temperature with a temperature gauge inserted in the lid of the smoker. If a temperature gauge is not included with the model you purchase, buy one where you bought your smoker or order one. When cooking large cuts of meats such as turkeys, hams and large roasts, place the food at the far end of the cooking chamber away from the fire. This will allow the food to smoke cook more slowly over a longer period of time. If the temperature begins to decline before you have finished the smoke cooking process, add more fuel until the temperature rises to the desired level.