Charcoal Smokers are an excellent way to smoke meat. It takes a little practice but it’s still the preferred method of many novice and expert smoker chefs. Traditionalists insist that charcoal smoking is the only way to achieve the best flavor in smoked meats.
It’s not just the appeal of tradition that makes charcoal smokers popular. They are least expensive way to get into smoking. You can start for under $75.00! These types of smokers are the ultimate in portability. And the flavor is second to none.
Temperature control is the most important skill you develop. It’s not hard, it just takes a little time. There are lots of different charcoal smokers out there. Take a little time to see which style is right for you.
Dedicated charcoal smokers should not be confused with wood fired Pit Smokers that often combine charcoal and wood in the firebox That’s a whole different animal. This page will cover everything about “Vertical style Smokers”
Components of the Vertical Smoker
The smoking chamber is where the work gets done. Some people call it the cook chamber. Either way it’s where the smoke, heat, and moisture combine to create that great smoked flavor. That smokiness slowly penetrates the meat. The smoking chamber has a series of grates or racks to hold the meat, it also has venting. Some models have a built in thermometer.
Charcoal smokers feature a charcoal pan in the lower chamber. This is where the charcoal burns. It should be made of cast iron or very heavy gauge metal. It also has a series of vents to allow for air mixture suitable for long sustained burns. The bigger the charcoal pan the better. Ten pounds of charcoal offers many hours of burning without the need to stoke.
The Water Pan:
Directly above the charcoal pan is a water or liquid pan. The water in the pan will prevent overheating. It also keeps the humidity in the smoker chamber high, preventing the meat from drying. You can experiment with different liquids, such as beer or juice, or no liquid at all to achieve different flavors.
The smoke chamber has intake vents at the bottom that are adjusted to maintain a proper temperature. This is where practice makes perfect, it will take a while to see just how different intake settings affect your smoker. Until you get confident in playing with vent position follow the recommendations of the manufacturer.
The top exhaust vent allows smoke and air to properly pass through the smoke chamber. It to can be adjusted to help in temperature control. Again, follow the manual at first. If you improperly set your exhaust vent your food can become to “smoky” and bitter. It also makes a mess in the chamber.
These may also be called grates or tiers. Most charcoal smokers have two racks stacked over the water pan. The lower rack tends to stay a little cooler than the top rack. So put your bigger pieces of meat on the top rack and the smaller ones below. When cooking the same size pieces of meat I swap the meat from top to bottom periodically. Just do that quickly because heat loss is quick.
Ceramic Charcoal Smokers The Big Green Egg … Grill and Ceramic Cooker Ceramic and earthenware smokers are considered by many to be the ultimate in charcoal smoking. The mass of the earthenware retains heat well and helps in maintaining a stable temperature while cooking. The Imperial Kamado grill/smoker and the Big Green Egg are examples of this type of cooker.
Burning Tips and Tricks
When you first buy your charcoal smoker it’s highly recommended you follow the manufactures directions for starting and burning your charcoal. After you master that you can experiment a little.
Starting the Charcoal- You can light an entire batch of charcoal and place it in the charcoal pan. This method allows for a lot of heat quickly and provides you with approximately two hours of smoking time using 10 pounds of charcoal. The big draw back is having to deal with many hot coals. Another method is to lite a small amount of coals, get them in the pan, and add unlit charcoal as needed.
If you need to smoke for a long time use a top down or “progressive burn” method. Place a pan of unlit charcoal in your smoker. Then add enough lit briquettes on top of the unlit ones. The charcoal slowly burns down. It’s not uncommon to get an 8 or 9 hour burn using this method. It works great if you are entertaining and want to start smoking the night before.
The design of your smoker will determine which method will work best for you. Most importantly always use common sense and exercise safety.
Charcoal smokers are a great way to prepare smoked foods. So if you don’t mind the little bit of up front learning go for it.
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