From central Texas to the mountains of western North Carolina, barbeque has distinct styles.
You’ll see unique sauces, spices, and cooking methods across the United States, depending on regional traditions, available ingredients, and innovations made by generations of great chefs.
One common theme unites BBQ from coast to coast: true, authentic smoky flavor infused into meat that can’t be replicated in any other way. The most important part of achieving masterful smoky cuisine is understanding the technique and finesse required to smoke food properly.
Here, you’ll find a beginner’s guide to using a smoker, our top smoker unit recommendations, and more.
What Is a Smoker?
A smoker is a piece of cooking equipment used for cooking at low temperatures with smoke in a controlled environment. Cooking with smoke enhances the flavors and textures of food. Smoke is loaded with strong organic compounds that add deep, complex flavor to meat.
How Does a Smoker Work?
Smokers work through a process of indirect heat cooking, in which your food is placed adjacent to the heat source rather than directly over it. Instead, the smoke slowly cooks your protein at a lower temperature for fork-tender meat.
What Tools Do You Need for Smoking?
When you hear someone talking about smoking food, what are the tools and tech they use?
First, you need a smoker. There are several kinds of smokers and you can purchase models for all levels of expertise. These are some of our favorites.
For a beginner or someone who wants an easier-to-control unit at a less expensive price point, try the Weber Smokey Mountain.
If you’re really looking to get into BBQ and progress your skill, we recommend the Mill Scale 94 Gallon Offset Smoker.
If you want to build a luxury outdoor kitchen and you’re willing to spend a bit more, go for the Kalamazoo Smoker Cabinet for a unit that’s easy to run while still smoking food at a high level.
Before using your smoker for the first time, run it at least once without cooking anything inside. This will help you get an idea of how it cooks and where the hot and cool spots are before you attempt an expensive cut of meat that may not turn out how you’d like.
You need to really know the piece of equipment you are smoking on and how it cooks, where the hot and cold spots are, and how it gets affected by the weather. It’s vital that you be able to control the heat source, whether that is wood, charcoal, or gas, and be able to keep your smoker at a constant temperature for a long time. One way to get an idea of the temperature zones of your smoker is to try the biscuit test, which we explain on our YouTube channel.
We don’t recommend that you “season” your smoker before you start cooking. A clean machine is going to get you the best results.
Wood or Charcoal
Next comes the material you’ll be burning. If you’re using charcoal or pellets, get high-quality materials from a good source. You can also use wood chips, but wood chunks are our preference.
Maple, mesquite, hickory, cherry, cedar—there’s an endless list of options, and what you choose will largely depend on what meat you’re smoking. Here’s a quick list of the woods that we generally prefer:
- Brisket on oak.
- Pork on a mix of oak and fruit or nut wood, with a preference in this order: peach, apple, cherry, or pecan.
- Chicken on fruit or nut wood, with a preference in this order: peach, apple, cherry, or pecan.
Keep a thermometer handy to ensure your food is at the right temperature before taking it out to rest, carve, and serve. We recommend the Thermapen from Thermoworks.
We recommend keeping a journal of your cooks, so you can keep track of any observations about what worked or didn’t work, how conditions like weather affected your cook, and anything else you learn.
If you’re going to be outside for a long time, an insulated coffee mug like a YETI is also a worthwhile investment. It can go from holding a warming brew to serving as a cocktail glass during a long day of smoking.
You may also want tongs, gloves, and other protective gear to avoid getting burned.
Not sure what food is best for smoking? Here’s what you need to know.
Beef, pork, and chicken all work well in the smoker, but beginners should choose carefully to avoid wasting an expensive cut of meat.
The most forgiving pieces of meat are pork, especially pork butt. Start here, making sure to garner as much information as possible on smoking any piece of meat. A fantastic way to do so is by checking out our recipes and our YouTube channel for smoking tips.
Sauces and Rubs
Smoke adds flavor to your food, but seasonings and sauces are still vital. Check out our collection of sauces, rubs, and more to take your smoking game to the next level.
How To Use a Smoker
While the steps you’ll take will vary depending on what you’re making, these are the basic steps of using a smoker, based on how you’d smoke a pork shoulder.
1. Start Your Fire
Whatever fuel you’re using, now is the time to light it up. Following our example, if you’re making pulled pork, you’ll want to start at a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Trim and Season Your Meat
Ensure all fat is removed from your pork shoulder, and then season. If you’re making Carolina Pulled Pork, for example, you may go in with layers of Q-Rub, Lillie’s Q Gold Sauce, and Carolina Dirt.
3. Maintain the Smoker Temperature
Depending on your smoker, you’ll likely have vents that you can manipulate to ensure your smoker stays at the correct temperature.
4. Watch the Internal Temp
Depending on what you’re making, you may need to pull your meat out to tent foil on top (or remove it), lower the temperature, or place the meat on a wire rack. This is true of making pulled pork.
The internal temperature will also tell you that your meat is ready to come off the smoker.
Develop Your Own Smoker Style
Smoking is an art with a dash of science mixed in. You can read all the books and guides you want, but experience is always the best teacher. Get out there and start creating something delicious.
Kitchen Thermometers | Food Safety and Inspection Service
Smokers for Beginners | Cookout Expert