Bad weather doesn't mean that a good barbecue is off the table. You can pull a 20-hour smoke in sub-zero temperatures with great success. The secret to operating a charcoal or wood-burning smoker is vigilance, and when the weather is less than ideal, you have to be extra attentive.
The weather is always an important factor when operating a backyard smoker, and smoking in cold temperatures presents several challenges. As temperatures drop, you need to be diligent to ensure your smoker maintains the proper temperature. Wind, rain, and other precipitation add further obstacles, but you can smoke during almost any weather with some prep and patience.
Control the Temperature
The first thing to consider is the difference between the smoker's internal temperature and the outdoor temp. Warm weather improves temperature control and results in a hotter fire inside your smoker. If your smoker doesn't have a very accurate built-in thermometer, place a grill thermometer next to the meat.
On a warm summer day, you might find that your smoker has an internal temperature of around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, even before lighting the fire. If your target temperature is 225 degrees, the fire needs to increase the smoker's temperature by 125 degrees. However, if it is a cold and overcast day, the smoker's internal temperature could be 35 degrees or even less. You'll need to increase the temperature quite a bit more, which will require more fuel, especially if the smoker is made with a lighter material. Plan ahead and make sure you have enough on hand.
You'll also want to keep the lid shut as much as possible. Each time you open the smoker to check your food, the temperature drops, and it can take 20 minutes or so before it gets back to the desired temperature.
Mitigate the Wind
The wind is another critical factor for temperature control. You'll need to keep a closer eye on the smoker's internal temperature on a windy day.
When attempting to mitigate the effects of wind, consider the wind direction. Some smokers, like the large offset smokers, have a definite airflow path. Air enters the smoker through the firebox and moves across the cooking chamber and out the stack. If the wind is blowing in this direction, the increased airflow will burn your fuel faster. Closing the vents more than usual can prevent temperature spikes.
If the wind is going in the other direction, it can stop the airflow entirely and keep the heat out of your cooking chamber. It is best to let the wind add to the airflow rather than stop it. If possible, position your smoker so the wind blows in the same direction as the smoker's natural airflow.
Of course, it's very difficult to smoke in heavy rain regardless of the temperature, but cold weather can also bring light rain or snow. When water hits your smoker, it evaporates, and evaporation pulls heat from the smoker. If it begins to rain or snow while smoking, open up the vents and bring up the temperature to offset this heat loss. Keep a close eye on it to make sure you're hitting your optimal temperature.
Strategies for Counteracting Weather
The ideal smoking environment is a warm and calm one. Anything you can do to create this environment will help you maintain suitable temperatures and have a successful barbecue.
By positioning your smoker in a sheltered (but not enclosed) space, you can reduce the effects of wind and rain. Some people have gone so far as to build windbreaks to set around their smokers to keep the wind away. It can be a good strategy, as long as you are not putting flammable material close to your smoker because the wind can carry sparks a good distance.
Some home cooks use insulation materials to hold the heat in their smokers. This strategy can be safe and effective if you're using flame-resistant materials. You can typically find fire-resistant insulation or water heater blankets at your local hardware store, or look for a smoker jacket that fits your smoker. When cut to fit around your smoker, these materials can hold in a great deal of heat. Just make sure you don't cover up the vents and keep insulation away from the firebox as it may melt from the heat.