If you are serious about true, low-and-slow barbecue prepared in a smoker, then taking good care of your equipment is mandatory. Smokers cook food at relatively low temperatures of about 225 F., compared to grill barbecues, which cook at 300 F. or even higher. This lower cooking temperature requires some preparation of the metal, and it creates some unique cleaning issues. For example, the fierce heat of a grill barbecue can incinerate most cooking greases inside the fire chamber, while smokers tend to leave these greases untouched.
Getting the most out of your smoker begins from the first time you set it up. Many smokers need to be seasoned, most will need periodic repair and repainting, and all need to be cleaned regularly—after each and every use.
Seasoning a Smoker
Vertical water smokers, propane smokers, electric smokers and the like typically can be used without a lot of preparation, but it is still a good idea to fire it up at least once without food to get the hang of using it and to help burn off any residue left on the metal from the manufacturing process. Larger smokers usually need to be seasoned more completely. Your instruction manual will explain the precise details, but the basic procedure is the same for all smokers.
Seasoning a metal smoker is like seasoning a cast iron pan.
- Coat the entire inside surface with oil. You can use practically any kind of cooking oil, from Pam to peanut oil or even bacon grease. The kind of oil isn't going to make a big difference, so don't waste a lot of money on it. It should be an oil with a high burning point, however. Some manufacturers recommend canola or grapeseed oil.
- Once you have a good coating of oil, you need to heat that oil to a temperature that will allow it to seep into every imperfection in the metal surface of the smoker. This creates a barrier that will repel water and keep your smoker from rusting. Use a standard charcoal fire to heat the smoker to a temperature of around 250 to 275 F. Any temperature higher than this may damage the paint on your smoker. Many models, particularly the cheaper vertical water smokers, can shed their paint at temperatures as low as 300 F.
- Make sure the chimney is wide open to create a good airflow. If you are adding wood to the firebox during seasoning to create additional smoke, make sure to use the same type of wood that you plan to use when smoking meat.
- Let the smoker remain at the elevated temperature for 2 to 3 hours. If you will be immediately cooking, allow the temperature to drop to 225 F or so before adding meat.
If the manufacturer of your smoker doesn't recommend this kind of seasoning, it is still a good idea to fire it up once to a temperature above 250 F. before your first cooking session. This helps eliminate any contamination from the smoker and helps you get the hang of using it. Whether or not you are seasoning your smoker or just making a test run, it's important that you generate smoke during heating. The oily smoke residue leaves a protective surface over the smoker that prevents rust by repelling water. Allow enough ventilation to keep the fire going and to make sure that you don't create a layer of creosote. Creosote is a tar-like substance that is a by-product of incomplete burning of wood. This is nasty stuff that is both toxic and a fire hazard—you never want creosote in your smoker.
The Importance of Cleaning a Smoker
Once your smoker has been properly seasoned, it's critical that you keep your smoker clean and properly maintain its protective coating. This is done by removing the ashes and food build-up from the smoker, but taking care not to scrub the smoker down to the bare metal. You may need to clean out the smoker completely from time to time and re-season it, but it is critical for you to maintain the oily, smoky surface over the metal to prevent rusting.
This is can be a tricky balance to achieve. The protective oily coating needs to be maintained, but the ash and grease need to be regularly removed. Ash allowed to sit for long periods can absorb water and oil and cause the firebox to rust. Because grease can also trap water against the metal, large deposits need to be scraped away gently.
Though many users neglect this duty, a smoker should be cleaned free of ashes and grease deposits after every use. The long life of your smoker depends on it, not to mention the taste of your smoked foods.
Repairing a Smoker
When you clean your smoker, always keep a close eye out for rust. Give your smoker an extra-thorough inspection from time to time to make sure that you don't have any rust forming, and remove it completely as soon as you spot it. Scrub the smoker out with a good wire brush and some sandpaper. Clean the area and immediately repaint it with a heat resistant "barbecue" paint. Try to use a good quality paint, which will pay off in the long run. Remember, when it comes to painting metal, you need to get down to the bare metal before you paint, or it won't properly adhere to the metal.
There really isn't any reason that your smoker cannot last for many years, particularly if you invest in a good-quality appliance. And remember that the better you care for your smoker, the better the food will taste. The key to great barbecue is knowing your equipment, so your investment in a smoker involves not only a financial expense, but also the time you spend using it, caring for it, and learning the nuances of your particular smoker.