How Does a BBQ Smoker Work?


Smoking is a patient man’s game. You can’t hurry through the process of charring and browning the meat at a low temperature.

Think of the result – a hunk of meat with layers of smoky flavor. But how do you get started?

The first step is to get the perfect smoker and figure out how a meat smoker works. Once you recognize the ideal smoker for your patio and understand how to work the beast, smoking will become much more exciting. 

BBQ Smoker

What is a smoker?

First, let’s answer the simple question – what exactly is smoking?

It is the process of cooking meat on low, indirect heat for long hours. It not only adds an exquisite flavor to meat but also gives it a phenomenal color and tenderness. 

A smoker is a device that helps you to do exactly that. It is an apparatus that provides the meat with an indirect source of heat and a smoky environment.

It’s a lengthy process that can take anything between 5 and 10 hours, depending on the size and type of meat. So the question is, why invest so much time into smoking?

Smoking meat has several benefits, the primary one being the richness of flavor. Broken down collagen, melted fat, rich smokiness, the aroma of burnt wood – smoking is all about that.

Smoking also provides a small preservative effect on the meat. Besides, with the process of hot smoking, the meat can hit the cooking temperature of 145-165 F that makes it safe to consume.

Smoking is also the best way to tenderize lean meat and make it delicious. To be honest, once you eat lean meat, you won’t cook it in any other way. 

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Types of smoker devices – How a meat smoker works, based on the fuel source

Clearly, you’re convinced that smoker grills are indispensable for cooking amazing smoked meat. But which smoker grill should you buy?

The primary basis of the categorization of smokers is the fuel source. But how does a smoker grill work?

It depends on the source of fuel. Let’s take a look at the different smoker grills and how a smoker works.

a) Charcoal and Wood Smoker

Ask a purist, and he’ll tell you that nothing can beat the depth of smokiness that a charcoal and wood smoker can bring to your meat.

At 1000 F, the superheated charcoal gives off nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Add some wood to it, and you’ll have a thicker cloud of smoke.

The result? Your meat gets to sit for hours in a sauna filled with flavors, gradually absorbing all the smoky goodness and developing a smoke ring and a crusty bark.

So shouldn’t it be the best option for smokers? That depends on the smoker, to be honest.

Charcoal and wood smokers are heavier on the pockets than the rest, and their maintenance is more demanding. Plus, cooking on charcoal grills takes more time and care.

b) Electric Smoker

Electric smokers are as quick and easy as an oven at home and are perfect for beginners. If you get yourself the latest ones, you can even operate it using an app on the smartphone!

With electric smokers, you don’t have to deal with the hassle of added fuel or tending wood or coal for hours. You might as well forget all about it – and the temperature will still be consistent.

It uses wood chips and water vapor for smokiness. All you have to do is to refill the water plate to keep the process going, and the water will create the perfect “low and slow” cooking environment.

But the flavor is quite different from charcoal-smoked meat or fish. After all, there’s no gas or combustion to develop the smoke ring or the charred flavor.

Besides, the smoky crust is going to be hard because of the moist environment. You’ll also need to place the smoker close to a power source.

c) Pellet Smoker

Here’s something that combines the good things about an electric smoker and a charcoal smoker. It’s powered by electricity, and the smoky flavor comes from hardwood pellets.    

The biggest advantage of a pellet smoker is that it can work as a gill and an oven, besides a smoker. You can cook anything you want on a pellet smoker – and infuse the lovely smokiness in every food. 

This smoker is equipped with a metal rod that heats up and leads to the pellets’ combustion. The heat and the smoke thus created makes the meat taste great!

You also don’t need to worry about the consistency of the heat inside this smoker. It has an in-built thermometer that helps to maintain the temperature and change the airflow as required.

Since it runs on electricity, you’ll need a power source nearby, which can be a problem if you want to cook outdoors. It isn’t exactly light on the pockets, either.

d) Gas Smoker

Many smokers will tell you that the flavor generated by a gas smoker is the closest to that of a charcoal smoker. That’s because this smoker uses combustion to cook.

It is powered by propane gas, which is why this smoker is also called the propane smoker. You’ll either need a refillable gas bottle or have to fix it with the gas source at home.

With gas smokers, the temperature is much easier to control. So you can start the smoker quite quickly, and this smoker can also reach a higher temperature than others. 

You’ll need separate wood chips to add the smoky flavor to the meat or fish. That’s because propane gas can’t do it on its own.

Since smoking meat is a long process, you might need to have two cylinders of gas ready. You’ll need to check repeatedly, too, or the smoker will die without you noticing.

Vertical smoker vs. horizontal smoker

So now you know of the different types of smokers and how a meat smoker works. But irrespective of the fuel source, smokers may also be segregated by their orientation as vertical smokers and horizontal smokers.

Barbecue Smoker

But how does a smoker work in your favor, based on its orientation?

It’s easier to learn how to use vertical smokers. The heat source is farther away from the meat to enhance the ‘low and slow’ cooking method.

However, the problem lies with the retention of heat, as vertical smokers lose heat much faster. Vertical smokers also cannot grill. 

On the other hand, horizontal or offset smokers retain heat better and lead to even heating. You will not need to worry about checking the temperature frequently.

Horizontal smokers also have a more direct source of heat. They also offer superior quality of cooking using all techniques: baking, grilling, or smoking!

Final Words

Now you know how a meat smoker works. So, you can understand that a modern smoker has all the cooking tricks up its sleeve.

You can use its direct heat to barbecue on an open but low flame, or crank up the heat for some grilling. Or, you can smoke the meat for the juiciest, most tender meat.

If you live to eat, a smoker can change your life completely. Warning: all Sundays will have to be spent with fellow carnivores!

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Tyler Lachance is a cookout professional. His expertise on cooking grilled food, creating marinades, formulating sauces and matching his food with the perfect drink is unrivaled.

Born and raised in a family that has a long history of cookout, he has treated this activity as a part of his culture and who he is.