How to Use a Vertical Smoker: The Ultimate Guide

If you can’t beat the heat, why not join it? Being a grillmaster is a richly rewarding hobby that even your wife (or husband) will appreciate. With a little know how and the right tools in hand, you can enjoy the authentic, wood fired flavor of smoked meat all year round.

Just got into the hobby and not sure where to start? Or maybe you know your way around the campfire, but haven’t used a vertical smoker before. We’ve got everything you need to know right here. We’ll cover how to use a vertical smoker, how not to use a vertical smoker, and some other tips to make the most out of your rig.

Getting Ready for Smoking

The whole point of smoking meat is to go low and slow. Even though we’ll be working with lower temperatures, you don’t want to mess with fire. Never leave your smoker unattended. By that, I mean, don’t leave your house for a three day vacation while your smoker is glowing red in your backyard.

Accidents happen, and you don’t want to return to a smoked house. For some cuts of meat, however, you’ll need to either wake up early in the morning to throw it on, or even keep it going overnight. It’s best if you have someone up and ready to check on the smoker at any time. That may mean taking turns with your buddy so one of you can sleep while the other can keep an eye out for stray embers, an unusual increase in temperature, or, the worst of all, rain!

Things You’ll Need

Your brand new vertical smoker is just one part of the equation. You’ll need a few more things before you’re ready to get started, and if you already have a grill, you should probably be set.

  • a vertical smoker and it’s fuel source
  • a wireless meat thermometer
  • tongs, carving forks, and/or spatulas
  • a quality grill brush
  • newspaper or kindling
  • wood chips or wood pellets
  • a bowl of water (if your smoke doesn’t have a water tray)

Some of these things aren’t absolutely essential, so don’t worry if you’re missing a thing or two off the list. Chances are, you’ll be able to find a way around it. Some folks don’t have a charcoal chimney, for instance, but you can easily start your coals the old fashioned way using lighter fluid or kindling.

Chimneys are great, however, because they quickly and evenly heat up your coals. This ensures that there aren’t any dead zones when it comes to the ambient temp circling in your rig.

What is a Vertical Smoker

Smokers can come in many different shapes, but most common shape is vertical.

A vertical smoker is basically a smoker that looks like a small vertical cabinet. The food is placed inside the the vertical smoker on racks, and the heat source along with the wood chips at the bottom below the racks.

There are pretty much 4 types of smokers: electric smokers, charcoal smokers, pellet smokers, and propane/gas smokers. Sometimes these types of smokers are vertical and sometimes they have the shape of a regular horizontal grill. The only real difference between “regular” smokers and vertical smokers is their shape and the fact that you can often have a lot more food inside a vertical smoker.

Below are an example of what each type of vertical smoker can look like.

Dyna-Glo DGO1176BDC-D Vertical Offset Charcoal Smoker
Charcoal SmokerElectric SmokerPellet SmokerPropane Smoker

Let’s now look at the anatomy of a vertical smoker. This will vary depending on which on of the 4 types of smokers own

Anatomy of a Vertical Smoker

Not all smokers are built the same. Let’s go over some of the basic parts to the classic backyard smoker. The largest part of your smoker is called the cabinet. The cabinet contains several racks and is sealed shut by the door. With vertical smokers, you’ll typically see the thermometer on the door of the cabinet. This thermometer is very important to controlling the quality and degree of your roast, so be sure to keep an eye on it.

If you have a charcoal smoker, depending on what brand and type of smoker you have you may see the charcoal grate at the bottom of the cabinet. In some smokers, this is the wood pellet area, and may or may not have a propane tank hook up. But for the majority of vertical smokers that uses charcoal, you won’t be putting coals in your cabinet.

Instead, they’ll be offset to your right, in the smaller cabinet known as the firebox. The firebox houses the burning coals and circulates the smoke through the cabinet chamber. Having your coals offset to the cabinet makes it far easier to maintain the temperature and get an even cook. You’ll adjust the temperature and output of the coals by using the vent located on the side of the firebox.

There’s a few more intricacies to the design of the average smoker, but we’ll cover some of those later. For now, these are the basic parts you’ll need to know before getting started.

Calculating Your Cook Time

It may not sound like much, but calculating your cook time is quite possibly the most important step in the smoking process. When working with such low temps, it’s all too easy to serve undercooked meat (and salmonella to your guests). Here’s the thing: taking the temp of your meat right before serving is not enough to prevent food borne illness. 165 degrees is not the finish line. It’s the pace for the race. Dancing around at extremely high and low temperatures can lead to rapid bacteria growth, even in meat that appears fully cooked. Cooking at a consistent temperature is the only way to ensure that your meat is cooked properly. Therefore, it’s important to check on your grill often and not leave it unattended for long periods of time.

Depending on what type and cut of meat you are cooking, your final internal temperature may be higher or lower than the 165 degree standard. Beef, for instance, only needs to be cooked to 145 degrees, as does fish. Poultry needs to be cooked to at least 165 degrees to be on the safe side.

Always go with manufacturer recommendations and directions on packaging. Most cooking temps, however, lie within the range of 200-250 degrees, so you can use that as a starting point.

Step 1: Before You Begin

When using a vertical smoker, your first step and last step are always the same: clean your grill. That’s in case you didn’t clean it after your last use, and also for the rare case that critter snuck its way in between uses. A high quality metal bristle brush is great for cleaning your racks and getting rid of leftover residue.

Step 2: Rev Those Engines!

If you have a charcoal chimney, you can go ahead and light it. Dump any previous ashes out of the firebox and wait until your coals are glowing before placing them in the smoker. If you’d like to add wood chips to the mix, be sure to soak them in water for about 30 minutes before use. This will create more smoke and release the flavor notes of the wood.

Step 3: Filling the Racks

Once your cabinet has reached the appropriate temperature, you’ll want to adjust the vent of the firebox and allow some air in. Wait for the temperature to steady, and then add your meat in. In the first few minutes, you’ll want to keep an eye on the temperature gauge to make sure it’s stable.

Step 4: Checking the Meat

Some cuts, like roasts or loins may need to be tied before placing them directly on the rack. If your coals are directly beneath the cabinet, consider wrapping your meat in foil or placing them on a tray to avoid dripping oils over the hot coals. Before you leave your smoker, now is the time to put in a wireless thermometer. This will help you keep track of the internal temperature without having to keep opening the cabinet door and burning your hand.

Tip: Use a thermal resistant glove to pick up your meat and operate the smoker without burning yourself.

Step 5: Resting the Meat

Don’t be the novice grillmaster that makes the rookie mistake of not letting the meat rest. Remember how we talked about rapid heating and cooling can cause food borne illness? The same applies after you pull the meat off the racks. But resting will also go miles in the way of making it juicy, flavorful, and much more tender. So how do you make sure the meat rests without dropping too much in temp? Try this: wrap the meat (like a pork butt, for example) in aluminum foil, then wrap it with an old beach towel. Put the bundle into your yeti or old fishing cooler, and let it rest for about 10-20 minutes, depending on what it is.

Tip: You know what else needs to rest? You. Smoking takes a lot of time and dedication. Good job, you!

Step 6: Cleaning Your Rig

After a big meal, the last thing you want to do is clean. Ideally, you should clean your smoker right after use. If you don’t, the caramelization from the meat gets glued onto the racks and is ten times harder to scrape off the next day. Cleaning it ASAP also helps release some of those lingering flavors so that your next grilling session isn’t affected by them. If you don’t feel like cleaning, the least you can do is to clean up any grease or oil splatter.

Step 7: Prep Your Smoker for Storage

This last step is optional, but very important for the longevity of your smoker. When winter rolls around and you feel that you’re not going to be using your vertical smoker any time soon (and winter is a fantastic time to use it, by the way), be sure to prep it for storage. A quality weatherproof cover will prevent rust and other damage to metal. Plus, there’s something about vertical smokers that critters just love to nest in. You wouldn’t want that when you go to fire up!

Beware of Jealous Neighbors

When that heavenly smoke starts to roll around, you may have some neighbors knocking at your door! There’s nothing better than slow roasted meat over open flame. One cool thing about vert rigs? Stuff on the top rack can drip down onto the lower ones.

How about putting a prime rib on your upper racks and some tasty vegetable skewers beneath it to get every drop of that delicious flavor. While you’re at it, why not throw in a small, heat safe bowl of horseradish? Sauces are fantastic for absorbing notes of hickory, apple wood, and more. One more unique combination for your next grill? Try smoking a block of cream cheese. It sounds weird, but the smokey, sweet flavor goes great with crackers as an appetizer for your next backyard get together.

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