Make the Most Out of Your Smoker with Tips from the Pros

Grab your crew. Get outside. Cook outdoors to your heart’s content.

Revival Smoked Meats
Revival Smoked Meats | Photo courtesy of The Restaurant Project
Revival Smoked Meats | Photo courtesy of The Restaurant Project

Modern barbecue joints have catapulted smoked meats to the top of best-of lists and travel itineraries, spawned television shows, and normalized waiting three hours to eat lunch. But smoke has been harnessed for thousands of years to cook and preserve food, imbuing flavor as it envelops ingredients. And the first smokers were likely caves, whose thick stone walls captured the fumes of open fires.

Today, we’re blessed with an embarrassment of smoky riches—meats and veg alike can get the low-and-slow treatment with the right tools and food hacks, that is. Common smokers range from tiny kettle-style contraptions to massive offset smokers that require a trailer to move and years of experience to operate. Like with anything else, mastering this style of cooking requires practice and patience.

“You need to look at cookers like individual tools,” says Aaron Franklin, the name and chef behind celebrated Austin restaurant Franklin Barbecue. “They all burn differently and react differently to woods, moisture, and airflow, so brisket cooked on a Big Green Egg will taste much different than brisket cooked on an offset smoker.” He stresses that it takes a lot of hours and dozens of attempts to master the craft, not just in general, but even from smoker to smoker.

Below, four of the country’s top meat wizards share their best tips for getting the most mileage out of your smoker.

Photo courtesy of PK Grills

Start with high-quality ingredients

Source good meat and produce, and you won’t need to alter them much. A little dry rub or salt and pepper goes a long way when combined with smoke and time. So, don’t sabotage your efforts by starting with low-grade ingredients.

“When grilling or smoking, stay away from the grocery store,” advises chef Thomas Boemer of Twin Cities fried chicken concept, Revival, and the recently debuted Carolina-style barbecue spot, Revival Smoked Meats. Instead, head for your local butcher shop or other specialty meat store for high-quality meat that was properly raised. He suggests buying a large hunk of meat that’s at least two-to-three inches thick. “You want something that’s large enough, so when you put it on the smoker, you have time to develop the flavors before the meat overcooks.”

Go beyond meat (but, obviously, think meat)

“Throughout the summer season, especially in Texas, there is such an amazing growing season,” says Steve McHugh, the chef behind Cured and Landrace in San Antonio. “This produces an incredible variety of smoking selections during this time of year.” Some of his favorites include summer fruits and vegetables, like watermelon, corn, broccoli, and wild onions. He also likes to smoke eggplant rubbed with olive oil and herbs, as it soaks up all those flavors for a robust taste.

Likewise, Franklin, who’s surrounded by brisket, pork ribs, turkey, pulled pork, and other standard barbecue cuts, branches out on occasion. “Beef ribs and briskets are my favorite, but lately I’ve really been enjoying poultry like smoked ducks and chickens.” You can go even further outside the traditional box of what can and should be smoked. Paula Disbrowe, Chief of Flavor at Fire & Smoke Society and the author of multiple books, including Thank You for Smoking, says that anything you love to eat is a candidate for the smoker. “The trick is infusing just enough smoke to enhance the food, without overpowering it.”

Aaron Franklin and Paula Disbrowe
Aaron Franklin and Paula Disbrowe | Photo courtesy of PK Grills

Choose the right smoker for the job

Smokers vary in size, style, fuel source, and operation. Casual backyard cooks can reliably feed a few house guests with a kettle grill, charcoal smoker, pellet smoker, or even gas and electric smokers. The latter don’t naturally produce smoke, so they require wood chips. If you’re feeding a crowd, you might opt for a larger offset smoker, in which the firebox is separate from the cooking chamber. All of these options can produce good food, but the pros lean toward wood and stay away from gas and electric styles.

Boemer likes pellet grills for the average backyard cook. “They have a lot of control and impart a lot of flavor,” he says. “You’re able to set a temperature that’s pretty dialed in without wild fluctuations, and that consistent temp will get you really good results.”

When he’s not cooking 100-plus briskets per day at his Austin barbecue joint, Franklin likes to fire up his PK grill and smoker, which allows for quick temperature control via top and bottom vents. He even worked with the company recently to customize one to his own specifications, adding a few extras like cast-aluminum shelves, speed racks that fit sheet pans, and a “belly bar” for holding towels or tongs.

McHugh is also a fan of PK grills and smokers, calling them straightforward and user-friendly. He likes to use his PK for low-and-slow smoking, but he enlists his Kudu Grill for searing and high-heat preparations.

Photo courtesy of PK Grills

Pick your fuel source

Wood logs, wood pellets, and charcoal can all produce smoke, but multiple chefs advised staying away from commercial charcoal, which can be infused with unpleasant chemicals. Natural charcoal briquets work well, but when in doubt, stick to real wood.

McHugh likes mesquite or pecan woods, calling mesquite his personal favorite due to an intense, earthy flavor that is bold and distinctive. Boemer likes oak and hickory woods, noting that he prefers oak for longer smokes. He doesn’t use cherry or pecan woods, but he will use applewood for ham and bacon.

“I’m lucky enough to live in the middle of Texas where we have a lot of post oak,” says Franklin. “That’s my favorite, but if you don't live around post oak, use whatever wood is indigenous to where you live.” If you have the space and aren’t in a hurry, he suggests buying wood well in advance, stacking it in your backyard, and letting it air-dry for up to a year.

Photo courtesy of PK Grills

Go your own way: low and slow or hot and “fast”

In barbecue parlance, “low and slow” refers to a cooking method that lasts 12 to 16 hours and, with some variance depending on who you ask, falls in the temperature range of 175 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. “Hot and fast” typically refers to foods cooked at 275 to 350 degrees for roughly six to eight hours. So, the term “fast” is relative.

“Low and slow is the way to go when you want to transform a dense, well-muscled cut like brisket or pork shoulder into something you can shred with two forks,” says Disbrowe. The longer cook time allows tough connective tissues to render, resulting in tender meat. When faced with fish, poultry, or leaner cuts of meat, she prefers to crank up the temperature. Besides determining the texture and flavor of your food, this temperature decision also determines when you’re going to eat.

“If you’re making a brisket, pork butt, or a whole turkey, you need a whole day,” says Franklin, who suggests making a plan for when you want to eat and backtracking from there. “It’s a lot better to eat perfectly cooked room temp food than to pull it off the cooker before it’s ready because everyone’s hungry.” If you’re pressed for time, Franklin says that a chicken can be cooked in a couple hours, duck takes five to six hours, and you can smoke a rack of baby back ribs in about six hours.

Take it easy on the smoke, actually

Cooking, whether it’s indoors on the stove or outside with an offset smoker, is equal parts science and art. Newbies are bound to make a few mistakes as they learn to cook different dishes and use different equipment. One common mistake that Franklin sees people make with smokers is thinking that more smoke is better. In reality, choking off the air supply to increase smoke or turning the damper down so the fire can’t burn as efficiently gives you “dirty smoke” and ruins the flavor, he says. “Really smoky isn’t better, it just yields more creosote and off flavors.”

Disbrowe considers smoke in the same way as salt—you can always add more, but you can’t take it away. “It’s easy to overpower the flavor of anything, from a rack of ribs to oysters on the half shell, with too much smoke.” She recommends adding a couple chunks of hardwood to red, glowing coals. Add additional wood only when you need it, every 30 minutes or so, when the stream of smoke grows faint or disappears.

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Kevin Gray is a freelance writer and editor covering all things food, drinks, and travel.