Spring is here and the aroma of smoking wood and grilling meats is wafting through neighborhoods as families and friends are hosting gatherings. For many of us, it's time to uncover the smoker and brush up on our smoking skills.
Let's go back to basics with tips on managing a fire in an offset smoker so you can dial in your temperatures to give you the skills and confidence to take your meals to the next level.
Does Smoker Construction Factor Into Steady Temperatures?
Consistent temperatures and clean smoke are the keys to a great cook on the offset smoker. Smokers with thinner gauge steel can't retain heat as well as those with thicker steel. Thicker steel holds heat better, removing heat loss as a factor that has to be managed. We cook on Yoder Smokers offset smokers because the thick steel makes it easier to produce high-quality meals by maintaining temperatures better.
What Species and Size of Wood Should You Burn?
When it comes to smoking woods, we're not going to debate whether oak, hickory, or mesquite have better flavors since everyone has their own preference. Taste is personal. We will highly recommend smoking woods that provide a clean burn, which produces excellent flavor. You have several choices of fruitwoods such as apple, cherry or peach, or a hardwood such as oak, pecan, hickory, or mesquite.
PRO TIP: Stay away from woods with sap such as pine.
When choosing wood for your smoker, always use logs that are uniform in size and fit the size of your smoker. Large logs on smaller smokers will provide too much heat, upsetting the temperature balance of your cooker. Small logs on larger smokers may not provide enough heat and will burn too quickly. For the Yoder Smokers Loaded Wichita Offset Smoker, we work with splits that are about 3 inches in diameter and 12 inches in length. The uniformity and size help keep the temperature consistent.
Pro Tip: Using quality kiln-dried split wood will provide more consistent results and cleaner burning due to lower moisture content.
Starting the Fire
A great cook starts with a hot and clean-burning fire. The ATBBQ Team always starts our fire by lighting a chimney starter filled with quality lump charcoal. Starting with charcoal allows us to get to our target temperature faster and provides a solid coal base for our fire. Starting with two chimneys of coals instead of one also allows us to maintain longer cooks without having to add more charcoal in the middle of the cook.
Once the charcoal chimneys are ready, dump the coals into the back of the firebox. Having the fire in the back helps retain heat in the firebox when the door opens. We place our charcoal in the back so that we have room in front to preheat logs. We always have logs preheating next to the fire because preheating helps logs to ignite quickly and provides a more efficient burn and reduces temperature swings. A properly sized, preheated log also minimizes the heavy white smoke that produces unfavorable flavors.
Bringing the Offset Smoker to Temperature
Once your coals are nice and hot, move the preheated logs from the front of the firebox to the coalbed and let the fire continue to burn. Make sure to place a new log back in the front of the fire any time a warm log is moved onto the fire.
As the smoker is heating, leave the side door to the firebox cracked a bit to allow extra air into the firebox. Once the smoker begins to come to the target temperature, close the side door, open the door vent about one-third, and open the chimney cap halfway. This provides you with the best place to start dialing in the temperature for the duration of your cook.
The key to fire management is managing airflow. If you want more heat, introduce more oxygen to your fuel; if you want less heat, restrict the oxygen. Keep in mind that restricting the oxygen too far will snuff out your fire and will create the harsh, acrid smoke you don't want. Try to maintain a light blue or clear smoke coming out of the chimney.
Always make small adjustments. If you open up the smoker too much, you're going to shoot the temperature sky-high and you'll be scrambling to get your fire back under control.
Pro Tip: Look at your door vent as you would look at the gas pedal in a car. Opening the vent will give it more gas but if you open it too far, you'll have less control. The chimney vent is your brake. When closing the chimney vent, do not restrict the air past the halfway point as this will choke your fire and create more of the harsh, white smoke you are trying to avoid.
When to Add Fuel
Once the smoker is settled into the desired temperature, check your fire to see if a log is still burning. If it’s down to the coal base and no parts of the log are visible, move a preheated log onto the fire and then replace it with another log at the front of the firebox to preheat. Do this every time your log is completely burned. On a thicker steel smoker such as the Yoder Smokers Loaded Wichita, you should be adding a new log every 45 minutes to an hour.