Smoking still remains one of my favorite of outdoor cooking. It’s a surefire way of creating delicious meat recipes, with a lot of room for experimentation and improvisation.
Using a charcoal or wood pellet smoker isn’t always easy though, and mastering the use of wood pellets or coals for BBQing can have a difficult learning curve.
Need an electric smoker? Check out my guide to the best electric smokers
Luckily, electric smokers have given newcomers to BBQ a cheaper introduction to smoking. They’re relatively inexpensive and safer than their wood or charcoal counterparts, but still offer fantastic quality and performance.
Their real appeal lies in how hands-off you can be with them. In contrast to charcoal or wood pellet-based smokers, their internal temperature is regulated digitally, meaning that once you have reached your desired temperature and set your meat, you can more or less leave it to do its business.
Using an electric smoker is reasonably straightforward, but the key difference between it and other smokers is the use of water. You place a receptacle of water in its base, which will create steam, tenderizing and moisturizing your meat.
Using an electric smoker can be broken down into a few simple steps: Seasoning your smoker, warming up the wood chips, adding a water bowl, preheating to your ideal temperature, and then smoking your meat
What is BBQ smoking?
Smoking is a process of cooking food (usually meat) at a low temperature over a long period of time. This often leads to far more delicious results than grilling or regular oven cooking because the sustained lower temperatures allow the meat’s fats and connective tissue to break down and melt, allowing the meat to stew in its own juices.
It usually takes 4-6 hours and requires a brining or marinating period beforehand, so it is very demanding on time. However, its results speak for themselves and remains a favorite means of barbecuing for BBQ enthusiasts all over the world.
How does an electric smoker work?
The heat in more traditional kinds of grills or smokers comes from combustion, and when this is mixed with wood, gases are emitted to infuse the meat with flavor. In the case of electric smokers, the unit’s metal rod helps the wood smolder, which in turn cooks the food.
There’s a misconception that electric smokers don’t compare to the quality of charcoal, gas or wood pellet cookers, but this just isn’t the case.
What meat works best in an electric smoker?
Here there isn’t a big difference between this kind of smoker and traditional cookers. Pork and beef roasts till hold up fantastically well, as do ribs, brisket and sausages.
The trick is to go for slightly cheaper cuts of meat with higher fat content, as this will infuse them with more flavor. For an in-depth guide, check out my guide to the best meats for smoking.
Here are 7 steps to using an electric smoker.
#1. Choose Your Smoker
The most important (and fun!) step: Choosing your smoker.
Broadly speaking, electric smokers fall into two categories: Vertical water and electric cabinet. Vertical water electric smokers work brilliantly in warm weather but so much in cold weather.
Electric cabinet smokers however have much better core temperature controls, which make them more effective during the colder months.
When choosing between the two, the key question to ask yourself is therefore: “When I going to be using this?”. If you’re likely to be using it year-round then opt for cabinet smokers. However, if you’ll only be using it during the summer then I suggest going for a vertical water smoker.
Also, a key consideration is how much the digital controller offers you. The numeric pad is the brains behind the operation when compared to the body’s brawn.
An excellent digital control panel will help you manage timers, set temperatures and control cooking times.
Also important is the smoker’s drip pan. This component is put in place to catch all the juices that drip from the meat during cooking. While this also has the obvious benefit of keeping the interior of the unit clean, it also helps regulate its internal temperature.
A final thing to consider is the placement of the smoker’s wood chip bowl. During smoking, you will need to replenish your smoker’s chips regularly, so it’s vital that the container is within easy reach with no obstructions between it and yourself.
If you have to open the main chamber of your smoker too much, then you will interfere with the temperature levels and airflow within the smoker, jeopardizing the quality of your cooked meat.
Take a look at my full guide to electric smokers here.
#2. Season Your Smoker
This is a crucial step and unfortunately one that is often overlooked by people. Seasoning your smoker before using it is essential because it helps to remove any dust or odors from its interior and grates.
Start by using cooking oil to coat its racks and any other interior surfaces. Then, turn it on for 1-2 hours at a moderate heat. Turn it off and leave the door open to let it cool. Once cool, use salt to season the racks and interior surfaces.
#3. Stock up on wood chips
Wood chips aren’t too difficult to get a hold of. You can easily buy them online, as well as many grocery or hardware stores. However, it’s imperative that you get the right wood chips. Some smokers only work with particular kinds, and some smoking recipes pair far better with certain types than they do with others.
Types of wood chip include cedar, maple, and hickory. This can vary brand-to-brand, but in general you’ll need about 4 cups of chips for every 4 hours of smoking.
It’s worth mentioning that not all electric smokers are necessarily designed to hold wood chips, but they can be adapted to use them. If yours doesn’t have a rack for them, you can easily fill a tin pot or can with them and place them at the foot of your grill.
When adapting your tin pot or can for them, only fill your it three-quarters of the way full. Then fold the upper section of the pot over to almost cover the chips. This will help prevent the chips from being exposed to too much air, and instead just let them smolder.
When you’re ready to place them in the smoker, use a pair of tongs and place the can or pot upright at the foot of the grill on the lava plate. Once the smoker has reached its target temperature, the internal heat will be enough to let the chips smolder.
#4. Prepare the meat
How you do this step will largely depend on what meat you’re working with, but many cuts will require brining or marinating before being BBQ-ed.
Brining in particular can demand several hours (sometimes even a day), so make sure you plan ahead properly and take into account the preparation time that you’ll need.
Alternatively, if you are just seasoning the meat then use a dry rub or herbs and salt, before then storing overnight in your refrigerator.
#5. Turn on your smoker and add water
If you have an electric water smoker, then it will have a water receptacle in it. Fill this up.
The purpose of adding water to your smoker is to create steam as it warms up. This steam will then help to tenderize and moisturize your meats, preventing them from drying out.
An adding benefit of the water receptacle is also that you can add ingredients to it, infusing the meat with aromas and flavors. Firm smoking favorites are apple cider, orange and citrus peels, beer and wine.
Be aware that your water vessel is likely to run out during the smoking process, so keep an eye over it as you cook and fill it up whenever it’s looking close to running out.
Tip: Replenish your water vessel with hot water rather than cold. Doing this will help keep temperatures consistent and reduce the risk of interrupting your steam flow.
#6. Check your smoker’s temperature
Different electric smokers will take different amounts of time to warm up, so to get an accurate sense of how long it’ll take for your meat to smoke it’s important to bring them to the right temperature first.
A lot of electric smokers come with an internal temperature gauge as well as controls to help you know when they’re ready for your meat, however not all do. If you need a thermometer then I recommend getting an air probe to help you. A lot of grilling thermometers are designed to read meat internal temperature, but what you’ll need is an air probe to gauge the internal temperature of the smoker.
Make sure you wait until the smoker has fully reached your target temperature and not before then. On average, it takes roughly 30-45 minutes for an electric smoker to heat up.
#7. Start smoking!
Once you’ve hit that target temperature, you can get going. Place your meat on the racks inside the grill, making sure to close the lid or door of the smoker firmly.
Depending on your choice of meat, smoking could take anywhere between 2 and 8 hours. Be sure to monitor your food regularly using a meat thermometer to check the internal heat of your grub. If you don’t have one yet, then check out my guides to the best meat thermometers here.