Are Charcoal Smokers Hard To Use? A Guide For Beginners


Everybody knows the food from a charcoal smoker tastes good, but everybody also seems to know that a charcoal smoker is really difficult to use. Want to know a secret? It’s not that hard – you just need to know what you’re doing. We’ll walk you through it step-by-step so that you can get the best-smoked food without any pain.

Are charcoal smokers hard to use? A guide for beginner’s includes why you might choose a charcoal smoker, whether they’re hard to use (hint: not really), what you need to get started, how to season a charcoal smoker, how to use one (creating and maintaining the smoke environment and some basic cooking), how to choose between lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes and how to clean your charcoal smoker.

In short, we’ll teach you everything you need to know in order to master your charcoal smoker and the reward for your effort is simple – you’ll be able to make the best tasting smoked food of them all. Nothing else compares to a charcoal smoker when it comes to the taste of the end product. 

Why Choose A Charcoal Smoker?

Charcoal smokers are the BBQ professional’s first choice of smokers and that’s because you get two advantages over other types of smoker:

  1. Portability. With no fuel source apart from charcoal – you can move the smoker anywhere you can get a bag of charcoal too. This is even easier than moving propane tanks around and far better than trying to drag an electric generator around for an electric smoker.
  2. The taste of the end product. There’s no dispute that charcoal smokers provide the tastiest smoked meats. Sure, it’s a little more effort to cook the food but the taste makes it very much worthwhile. 

Are Charcoal Smokers Hard To Use?

Yes and no. Charcoal smokers are harder to use than electric smokers and propane smokers but they’re not so tricky that you can’t learn to use them fairly quickly.

We tend to recommend getting some practice on a friend’s charcoal smoker if you can before you buy a charcoal smoker – so that you can be certain that you’re happy to undertake the learning curve. 

However, if you don’t have access to a charcoal smoker – you can easily get grips with it by following our guide. Though, we do recommend taking things slowly and paying attention to each step as mistakes can substantially impact the results of cooking in a charcoal smoker. 

What You Need Before You Get Started With A Charcoal Smoker

You’re free to argue the toss on some of these items as they’re not all mandatory, however, we find that this collection of stuff makes using a charcoal smoker much easier:

  • Aluminum Foil – this serves two purposes. Firstly, you can wrap the meat in it at any point during the cooking process which is kind of handy. However, you can also ball it up and then use it to scrape down dirty grates which can really reduce the effort of cleaning the smoker.
  • Chimney Starter – you don’t want to use chemical-based firelighters if you can help it because you’re going to eat the product of the smoker and you don’t want your food covered in chemicals. So, you want a chimney starter which will help you light the charcoal without chemicals in a safe manner.
  • Chunks of Hard Wood – you don’t have to buy hardwood, but we find that it really improves the flavor of the smoke. You can experiment to your heart’s content when it comes to the types of wood to get a unique taste that suits your palate. 
  • Fire Poker – a long piece of metal that you’d normally keep by the fire in the home, it’s there so you can poke the coals to ensure they’re providing heat during the cooking process. Please don’t substitute a stick for a fire poker, it’s not a good idea to poke a fire with something flammable. 
  • Grill Tongs – we’d buy tongs that are as long as you are comfortable using to deliver the highest level of safety when you’re handling meat in the smoker (feel free to buy any other tools which help too). You can also use them to knock the edge off of smoldering coals to keep their heat up. 
  • Long-Necked Lighter – just for safety’s sake, get a long-necked lighter, the further away you are from the flame, the better, trust us on this.
  • Meat Thermometer – you can’t smoke if you don’t know that the end product is edible. We’d also recommend that you spend some time calibrating your meat thermometer before you use it. 
  • Newspaper – a cheap and cheerful substance to help get the coals lit without any real hassle in the chimney starter.
  • Paraffin Cubes – they give your burn an initial boost and they won’t add any chemicals as they burn completely cleanly. 
  • Wire Brush – brushing down the grate surfaces is much easier with a wire brush (though we’ve met a few folks who prefer to use a lava stone)

How To Season Charcoal A Smoker Before You Begin

Seasoning a smoker involves developing a layer of protective smoke on the surface of your smoking chamber that ensures the smoke stays in the chamber for long enough and which protects the smoker itself. 

If you have a very large smoker – you will find that it comes with specific instructions to season it in the manual. We’d recommend that you follow these instructions to get the best results. 

However, if you don’t have any instructions, we’ve got a basic guide for you:

How To Use A Charcoal Smoker Simple Step-By-Step Guide

How To Create The Smoke Environment In A Charcoal Smoker

The process of using a charcoal smoker requires that you prepare the smoke environment before you get down to the business of cooking. 

This is a 6-step process: 

  1. Heat the charcoal
  2. Add the charcoal
  3. Add the wood
  4. Add the water
  5. Add the food
  6. Close the smoker

Let’s take a look at each step in detail:

Heat The Charcoal In Your Starter Chimney

The first step in this process is to get the charcoal warm in that charcoal chimney we mentioned earlier. The chimney is a cylindrical metal object which you can find in any hardware store (or on Amazon for that matter). 

You put some newspaper at the bottom of the chimney, add a few paraffin cubes and then the charcoal. You light the newspaper and it should help the paraffin light the charcoal (follow the manufacturer’s instructions to make certain you get this right). 

It is technically possible to light the charcoal in the smoker, but it’s harder work and if you do this – you still need to let it get to the right temperature before you do any cooking.

Pop The Charcoal In The Smoker

OK, handling hot coals is something you need to take some care over. You start by placing a pile of unlit charcoal on one side of the smoker you then add the hot charcoal to coat the unlit layer below. 

You will place the meat on the other side of the smoker (you want it to cook through the smoke and charcoal heat rather than burning on the charcoal itself). 

Add Those Wood Chunks

It doesn’t matter what flavor of wood chunks that you opted for – now’s the time to add them. We like hickory but apple, cherry or oak will do nicely. You place the wood to the side of the charcoal so that it burns slowly. If you throw it on top, it will smoke off too quickly to make a difference during the cooking process.

Do not, under any circumstances, use softwood for wood chunks in a charcoal smoker. They don’t burn well and the soot they create will stick to the meat and completely destroy the end product. 

Tend To The Water Pan

Your water pan should be about three-quarters full of water. You place it in the center of your smoker. The idea is to create a hot steam which combines with the smoke to cook the meat thoroughly all at the same time. If you don’t put the water pan in – you may find that some parts of the end product are cooked while others are not. 

The water you put in the pan should be cold, to begin with, don’t worry it will heat up as it goes and help to regulate the temperature of the smoker itself. 

Get The Food In

Now’s the time to add the meat (and if you’re trying to smoke vegetables – them too). You place the largest items closest to the coals and in the other half of the grate. If you have a second great which goes over the top – the smallest items go on there along with the vegetables. 

Put The Lid On And Set It Right

The final job for getting started is fairly simple. You want to put the lid on your smoker so that the vents are over the meat. This ensures that smoke is drawn through the smoker and passed over the meat before it exits, put the vents elsewhere and you will lose a substantial amount of taste. 

How To Make Sure You Maintain The Smoke Environment While Cooking

Unlike with an electric smoker, you’re not done now. You have to keep an eye on a charcoal smoker throughout the cooking process or you risk losing temperature and/or smoke and getting a poor or inedible final product.

There are four parts to maintaining the smoke environment properly:

  1. Set the vents
  2. Monitor the temperature
  3. Keep the lid on the smoker
  4. Have a second set of coals ready

Setting The Vents

You’ll find that your charcoal smoker has two sets of vents – one lower and one on the lid. The one at the bottom allows air into the smoking chamber. The one on the lid lets it out again.

You can change the temperature in the chamber by opening or closing the lower vent. The top vent is usually left wide open throughout the cooking process. You should only adjust it if adjusting the lower vent isn’t promoting the right temperature in any setting. 

Monitor The Temperature

It is important to keep a close eye on the temperature inside of your smoker. Except is some very specific cases you want to ensure:

  1. The smoker is never at a lower temperature than 220 degrees Fahrenheit 
  2. The smoker never exceeds 250 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature

If your smoker is too cool, the food won’t cook properly and you’re going to get smoky but rare/raw meat. If it’s too hot, on the other hand, the meat will dry out too quickly and while it will still be smoky – it will have a final consistency approaching leather, which is no fun at all.

To drop the temperature – close the lower vent a bit. To increase it – open the lower vent a bit. The lower vent controls the flow of oxygen to the coals and thus, the amount of fire you have.

If your smoker doesn’t have a built-in temperature gauge, that’s OK – you can use the probe from a standard oven thermometer, instead. Just drop it through the top vent holes and don’t let it touch anything inside the smoker. 

Keep The Lid On

It’s not possible to have the lid permanently in place but, as a general rule, every single time you remove the lid – you are letting out the smoke and dropping the temperature. That means you’re increasing the cooking time and increasing the chances of unevenly smoked meat. 

You take the lid off in only three circumstances:

  1. To add more coals to your smoker because the temperature is no longer responding to vent changes
  2. To add more water to the water pan because it is running dry
  3. To check on the cooking progress (we’d only do this when we think the meat was almost ready or at most once an hour, if uncertain on the cooking time)

Prepare A Second Set Of Coals

Coal burns and once it burns enough – it runs out. You’ll know if your charcoal smoker is running out of coals because the temperature is going to stop responding to you manipulating the vents. 

We recommend that you prepare a second set of coals (ideally an hour or two into smoking) and then keep them ready in the chimney starter so that you can top up the smoker when you need to. 

You can keep some extra coals hot in a foil baking pan if you’re not in possession of a chimney starter. 

The Basic Cooking Guide For Your Charcoal Smoker

Once you’ve got the basics mastered, we’d recommend experimenting with your charcoal and getting different recipes and trying new things. However, for the first few runs – you’re probably going to end up smoking some meat in a simple fashion.

Now, obviously, the cooking times are going to vary depending on the size and type of meat and the temperature of the smoker (rule of thumb: lower temperatures require longer cooking times but result in more tender meat).

However, you will find that at 220 degrees Fahrenheit most meats will require about 4 hours to be fully cooked. 

Don’t be scared to monitor the progress because if your meat is smoked for too long – it will become too tough to eat. 

How To Choose Between Lump Charcoal And Charcoal Briquettes

Possibly, the biggest debate in the world of charcoal smokers is what kind of charcoal to use and we’re not joking when we say this is really contentious – we’ve seen grown men fall out for life over the issue of lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes.

So, here’s what you need to know:

About Lump Charcoal

You make lump charcoal by using real wood and burning it with no oxygen present to drive out the moisture from the wood. This produces a dry and easy burning end product.

In theory, lump charcoal is a fully natural product with a lot of positive qualities and people like it for the lack of ash that it produces as well as the facts it’s easy to light and burns hot

It’s really easy to adjust the heat of a lump charcoal smoker with the vents and because you’ve got no chemical additives – it’s a very clean way to cook meat. 

However, it’s also easier to let the temperature get out of control with lump charcoal and because it burns quickly, you can get through a lot of it in one smoking session. 

Pros:

  • There are no additives in lump charcoal – a “natural” product
  • It’s easier to get the temperature to change with lump charcoal
  • You get less ash production with lump charcoal
  • Lump charcoal burns hotter than charcoal briquettes
  • Much easier to light than charcoal briquettes

Cons:

  • You get very uneven pieces of charcoal which can make certain forms of cooking harder
  • It costs quite a bit more than charcoal briquettes
  • It burns much faster than charcoal briquettes (which means you need more lump charcoal)

About Charcoal Briquettes

Charcoal briquettes use waste wood products including sawdust plus chemicals that are then burned without oxygen (in the same fashion as lump charcoal is burned) to form little briquettes.

The chemicals that they add are designed to help bring the materials together to form the bricks and that makes the charcoal very easy to stack to a uniform height.

They burn for longer than lump charcoal but won’t produce as much heat. 

You can smell the chemicals sometimes when burning briquettes, but you simply cannot taste this on the end product. 

Pros:

  • Stay at a constant temperature for a much longer period of time
  • Cost-effective they last longer and are cheaper in the first place

Cons:

  • You get a lot more ash than with lump charcoal increasing the efforts of cleaning up after smoking
  • You get a noticeably chemical smell – we don’t find it translates to the food though
  • You’re going to spend more effort trying to get charcoal briquettes to light in the first instance

How We See The Difference Between The Two

Sshh… don’t tell anyone but we don’t think there’s as much in this as some people make out. We buy lump charcoal most of the time because it’s easier to control the temperature with but occasionally, we’ve had to fall back on charcoal briquettes and… nobody noticed!

If you do buy briquettes, we’d recommend buying from a reputable manufacturer rather than cheap Chinese imports of unknown quality because they do contain chemicals but those chemicals are considered harmless to human beings and they don’t change the taste of the food at all. 

We’d say the biggest factor in food taste is the wood you choose to add to your charcoal. We’d suggest avoiding the topic of lump charcoal vs briquettes in polite conversation though, it really can stir up some strong emotions in some smokers. 

How To Clean A Charcoal Smoker

The final thing that we turn to is the cleaning process because you have to keep any food preparation device clean. We’ll touch on the basics of regularly cleaning your charcoal smoker as well as the deep clean when you need to put a bit more effort in. 

The Basic Cleaning Process

The basics of cleaning a charcoal smoker are very simple:

  1. Always get rid of the ash. Ash will trap water vapor and that can help promote rusting of your smoker’s body. Best to get rid of it. Make sure the smoker is cool, then sweep out the ashes and get rid of them. 
  2. Use a warm, damp cloth to remove any spilled sauce or marinade.
  3. Scrub the grates with a wire brush or some aluminum foil to clean them up
  4. Get a 4” putty knife and you can scrape out any bits of food or grease that are left in the cooking chamber
  5. If anything is looking rusty, rub it down with steel wool and then re-season the smoker before its next use

The Deep Cleaning Process (What To Do When You’ve Neglected Your Charcoal Smoker For A While)

If the smoker has a large build-up of waste or has been out of use for a long period, it’s time to give it a thorough clean and this is our process:

  1. If the cooking chamber appears clean and rust-free – don’t clean it. If you do, you’ll need to re-season it. 
  2. Carry out a “clean burn”. That is, burn some coal and don’t add any meat. Open the vents wide open. Then let it cool fully before the next bit.
  3. Wash the smoker thoroughly with warm soapy water. Rinse it well and then let it air dry.
  4. Tackle any rust. You use a wire brush to tackle large lumps and then steel wool for smaller lumps. 
  5. Re-calibrate the thermometer. Use boiling water and check the right temperature for your elevation. Then adjust the thermometer accordingly.
  6. Re-season the smoker (see above for how to season a smoker). 

And that’s it! Your smoker is now ready to use all over again. This makes it much easier to clean a charcoal smoker than an electric smoker too. 

Conclusion

We hope that now you’ve finished our “Are charcoal smokers hard to use? A guide for beginners” that you’re excited about the thought of buying a charcoal smoker. 

Sure, electric and propane smokers are easier to use but learning to use a charcoal smoker is not the end of the world, either. The rewards are amazing too – you cannot beat the taste of charcoal smoked food and there’s something very satisfying about knowing you’ve mastered the pinnacle achievement of the food smoking world. 

Charcoal smokers last forever too. Once you’ve bought one, you can look forward to many years of amazing meals without worrying about replacing it, as long as you clean it properly and store it carefully. 

William Johnson

Will has loved smoking food in his free time for the last few years. Each major holiday or off-weekend, Will spends days testing and prepping new recipes for perfection.

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