One of the best modifications you can make for your offset smoker is installing a set of tuning plates.
They can elevate your smoked food to new levels by distributing heat more efficiently, and keep the low and slow temperatures that are so important for good barbecue smoking.
In this guide I’m going to walk you through the steps you need to install offset smoker tuning plates properly and in a way to guarantee years of use.
I’ll also highlight the best tuning plates for smokers, and give you a few pointers to get the very best out of them.
Let’s get into it.
Why do some offset smokers need tuning plates?
While a good offset smoker is always my favorite cooker for cooking good traditional barbecue smoked food, their old school design does mean that they do present some obstacles to be completely fuel efficient.
The offset firebox means that air has to flow sideways as well as vertically through to the exhaust damper, also called a vent.
This is not a design flaw as such, but it can mean that in cheap offset smoker these can be misaligned due to poor craftsmanship or lazy construction.
This is a problem because misaligned vents can result in poor airflow and heat retention.
Thankfully, tuning plates can help us get around this.
What do tuning plates do?
Tuning plates are an easy and quick fix to any problems your charcoal offset smoker has with heat loss or low cooking temperatures.
They come in the form of steel plates that you can slot into the bottom of your smoker’s main chamber, usually underneath your smoking racks.
They then help to reflect heat inside your smoker, with the aim of distributing heat more evenly within the chamber.
Quite often with cheap offset smokers, heat struggles to spread from where the firebox meets the chamber to the other end of the cooking racks. Plates often help to combat this.
They can also absorb heat and slowly radiate it, helping to keep cooking temperatures even over the hours that you need.
As an added bonus, this heat retention can help minimize the effects of any disruptions like wind, rain, or even when you open the door to check on your prized brisket for the twentieth time…
With all of that out the way, let’s get into installation.
What you will need
Unlike a lot of other smoker mods, this doesn’t require a bunch of hardware tools or equipment. You can do this with just two bits of equipment and some experimental food to help monitor temperatures.
I’ll get into which plate sets I recommend below.
Dual temperature probe
To ensure that we’ve installed the plates properly, we need to be able to compare temperature readings from the firebox end of the smoker and also from the other far end of the chamber. A dual grill temperature probe is the best tool for doing this.
Smoking a batch of test food is a good way to measure the impact of the plates across the entire surface of the cooking grates. For this reason, try not to use a single cut of big meat, like a pork butt or beef brisket. Instead, choose a batch of small things that don’t cost you an arm or a leg. Mad Scientist BBQ recommends biscuits, which I think is a great inexpensive option too.
How to install smoker tuning plates
Start up your smoker without the plates installed. I like to use a charcoal chimney to light the coals before transferring them to the firebox.
Take a temperature reading with your dual probe at either end of your smoker chamber and mark the difference. The firebox end will be higher, but the discrepancy between the two ends is what we want to measure.
Note: If you exhaust vent or damper is wide open, then the temperature discrepancy between the two readings is likely to be small. However, once you start to close your vent to a half or quarter way, then that difference will start to jump up. We want to minimize that as much as possible.
Cook the biscuits on the smoker, and check them every 10-20 minutes to see how they are developing. Keep an eye out for biscuits that start to brown. If there is a pattern emerging in where the biscuits are most done, then that is a good sign that that area of the smoker is generating the highest grate surface temperatures.
Why is this important? It’s completely plausible that the center of your smoker would be the hottest zone, which is something we wouldn’t be able to pick up on with our dual probe.
So, even the opposite ends of your smoker are reporting similar temperatures, you might still need to address discrepancies across your cooker grates.
Install the plates
Your smoker might have tracks to install the plates, but most models don’t have these. Instead, the barrel shape of your smoker should allow the plates to fit in and sit a few inches above the very bottom of the chamber.
Place the plates in your smoker one-by-one, with only about half an inch (1-2 centimetres) between each one.
Pro tip: Space out the plates a little more in the areas around where you noted higher cooking temperatures. Doing so will slightly soften the impact of the plates here, helping to even the cooking temperature across the entire surface of the smoker grates.
Do a second test run
Run another test cook, again using temperature probes and biscuits.
Cook the biscuits again for another 10-20 minutes, and monitor their progress.
If the biscuits cook evenly this time, then this is a good sign that any troublesome hot spots have been eliminated.
Are there any cons to smoker tuning plates?
While tuning plates are undoubtedly a great way to even the surface temperature of your cooking racks while you smoke, they do tend to impact the maximum temperature output of your smoker.
In most cases however, this should not be a problem. Smoking by design is supposed to happen around the 225°F (107°C) mark, and you won’t need to go any higher very often.
So this could be a problem if you want to surge up the temperature to get a near-sear on your food, but beyond this using plates should not present too much of a problem.