Regardless of what type of meat you intend to smoke, you need to control the temperature. If it's too hot, your meat may dry out. If the temperature is too low, your meat may fail to reach a safe temperature. While you can always learn through trial and error, the following tips will allow you to better control the temperature of your smoker.
#1) Don't Rely Strictly on Charcoal
You can use charcoal inside your smoker, but you should combine it with cooking wood or smoking chunks to control the temperature. Charcoal burns at hot temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. In comparison, combustion occurs with most types of wood at a temperature of about 1,110 degrees Fahrenheit.
#2) Place a Bowl of Water Inside Your Smoker
Contrary to popular belief, placing a bowl of water inside a smoker won't lower the smoker's internal temperature. It will, however, create a more even and stable internal temperature. Just fill a bowl or aluminum pan with water, at which point you can place it next to your charcoal and wood. As the charcoal and wood heats up, water will evaporate to create a humid environment inside your smoker.
#3) Place Meat Away From Charcoal and Wood
If you place your meat directly over your charcoal and wood, it may cook too fast. A simple solution is to place your meat away from the charcoal and wood. On the bottom of your smoker, arrange all your charcoal and wood to one side and then place your meat on the grate above the opposite side. If you place your charcoal and wood on the left side of your smoker, for example, place your meat on the right side so that it cooks more slowly at a lower temperature.
#4) Don't Use Lighter Fluid
Avoid using lighter fluid when smoking meat. When added to either charcoal or wood, it will increase the temperature at which your smoker's fuel burns. Furthermore, lighter fluid often leaves behind a harsh, bitter flavor, which you probably want to avoid when smoking meat. If you're having trouble lighting your charcoal or wood, consider investing in a fire starters rather than using lighter fluid.
#5) Leave the Lid Closed
When smoking meat, try to leave your smoker's lid closed as much as possible. Whenever you open it, some of the smoke -- along with the hot air -- will escape, thereby creating a cooler internal temperature. While opening the lid may sound like an effective way to control the temperature of your smoker by releasing hot air, though, it isn't recommended. If you continuously open and close the lid, your meat won't have the same rich flavor because it will be exposed to less smoke. There are other ways to lower the temperature of your smoker, so leave the lid closed as much as possible. You can still open it to add more charcoal or wood, but keep it closed all other times.
#6) Adjust Air Vents
Your smoker should have at least two air vents or "dampers," which you can adjust the control its internal temperature. You'll find one air vent at the top of your smoker and another on the bottom. The bottom air vent, known as the intake damper, pulls in fresh air to keep the fire going. The top air vent, known as the exhaust damper, allows combustion gases to escape so that they don't smother the fire. Ideally, both of these air vents should be partially open at all times. If the top air vent is fully closed, combustion gases will smother your fire. If the bottom is fully closed, your fire won't receive fresh oxygen, causing it to die out.
You can close the air vents the just partially, however, to prevent your smoker from getting too hot. If you leave the bottom and top air vents 75% closed, for example, your smoker should create a stable, relatively low temperature that's perfect for smoking meat. And if your smoker still isn't hot enough, you can open the air vents a little more.
#7) Add More Charcoal or Wood for Additional Heat
Most meat should be smoked at a temperature of about 220 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. If you discover that your smoker's internal temperature isn't reaching 220 degrees Fahrenheit, you can turn it up a notch by adding more charcoal or wood. Charcoal, of course, burns hotter than wood, so it can quickly and easily increase your smoker's temperature. If you only need a small amount of additional heat, though, wood is recommended. Adding a few cooking wood logs or a handful of high-quality smoking chunks can offer the right amount of heat for delicious, slow-cooked meat.
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