If you’re serious about your meat and are deciding to take things to the next level then you may have invested in your very own box smoker, or are considering purchasing yourself one. Here you will learn everything there is about Box Smokers.
Please note that a ‘smoker box’ and ‘box smoker’ are not the same thing:
- A smoker box is a container used on top of a grill,
- whereas a box smoker is an entire smoker unit.
This article is all about box smokers, which also go by the name of vault smokers, cabinet smokers, or block smokers. They are a LOT more expensive than a simple smoker box (here is one example from Amazon – you need to spend a couple hundred dollars to buy one).
While there are many various smokers out there on the market, the box smoker is for anyone who is serious about grilling, or if you want to grill a lot of meat in one go – it’s perfect if you have a catering company or a large family that enjoys heading over for regular barbeques… or, of course, if you have any kind of ambition to be triumphant in a barbecue competition.
What’s particularly great about the box smoker is that the vault can retain heat over a long period of time, providing a consistent temperature and output of smoke. This means you have a great deal of control over the outcome of your meat.
While the result can leave you and your guests in carnivore-heaven, you do need to know how to use the smoker. One of the main benefits of this type of smoker is the control you have. They are relatively simple to use in comparison to other types of unit, like the pellet grill, but it definitely helps to have some guidelines and background to ensure you can get the optimum use of it.
Most box smokers are extremely versatile. You can cook anything from a whole rack of ribs to a whole chicken or turkey, and perhaps even pies. Your meat should come out infused with smoke that gives it a consistently authentic smoky flavor.
Here is how to use a box smoker…
How to Use a Box smoker – What to do Before Cooking
- Inspect your smoker inside and outside
- If needed, clean and touch up with paint (heat-resistant!)
- Choose the type of wood chip you want to use for smoking
- Fill up the wood chip tray roughly a third of the way full (definitely no more than half) and slide it into place
- Set the temperature to around 200 degrees Fahrenheit
- Leave it alone and allow the box smoker to burn for around 45 – 60 minutes in total for seasoning
- You can now take out the water pan and the wood chip tray
Before you use your smoker, it’s a good idea to give it a good inspection. Have a good look, inside and outside, to make sure there are no blemishes or chips. If you find anything then it can be wise to give it a touch up with a little bit of paint.
If you’re painting anything on the inside of the vault, then it’s important to carry this out before seasoning (the seasoning of the smoke vault will actually seal the paint). Make sure you use the correct type of paint. It should be heat resistant. Check the can for details or ask for advice at the hardware store before use.
If you didn’t clean the unit, now is the time to play catch up and get rid of any greasy patches or pieces of charcoal that have been left behind. Next, it’s time to season your smoker…
There is such a wide variety of wood chips available these days and you can even make your own if you have the patience and desire to do so. The type of wood chip variety you use depends on your personal preference. If you’re unsure, then hickory, mesquite, cherry, or oak apple are all popular choices.
Also check out our ultimate wood smoking guide – you will literally everything you might ever need to know about the topic there:
Now, you want to fill up the wood chip tray roughly a third of the way full (definitely no more than half) and slide it into place. Then, fill the water pan roughly up to the marked fill line. (note that not all box smokers have water pans – so ignore this instruction if your smoker doesn’t have one).
Slide it back into place. Finally, you want to set the temperature to around 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Leave it alone and allow the box smoker to burn for around 45 – 60 minutes in total. It’s important that you don’t try and cook anything inside the box smoker during the seasoning period – of course, this can be a challenge if you have an appetite and want to get smoking. However, your patience will serve you well later on when you finally get to taste the fruits (or meat) of your labor.
Note that some manufacturers, at this point, recommend opening the door and spraying a thin coating on all the surfaces inside the vault (except for the gasket), before allowing the smoker to cook for another couple of hours. It’s always best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Leave the unit to completely cool down afterwards.
You can now take out the water pan and the wood chip tray. Congratulations, your box smoker has been seasoned, and now you’re all set to go ahead and do some smoking.
How to Use a Box Smoker for Cooking
- The first thing you need to do for successful smoking is to choose what wood chips to use
- Fill up the charcoal tray with charcoal (only with a charcoal box smoker) – only insert wood chips on the tray with a gas smoker
- Fill up the water pan with water
- Light up and start generating heat
- Get your food ready and then place it on each of the cooking racks
- It’s recommended that fish and chicken reach an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit while pork, beef, and hamhas reached a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit
If you’re new to the game, then the first thing you need to do for successful smoking is to choose what wood chips to use. This will depend on what you’re cooking and your taste preferences.
For example, Applewood chips give a sweet and fruity smoky flavor and work particularly well if you’re smoking poultry, game, pork, or beef. Interestingly, if you’re smoking chicken, it will give a slightly darkened look to the skin. Hickory, another popular option, leads to an intense smoky flavor and is particularly effective if you’re doing ribs.
Of course, you don’t have to use wood chips. Feel free to experiment to test what your taste buds prefer.
If you have a charcoal box smoker (as opposed to a gas model), fill up the charcoal tray with charcoal. Mix this with wood chips if this is your preference. If you have a gas version, then just insert wood chips on the tray.
Next, fill up the water pan with water, taking care not to overstep the filling line. Just before you light up, do a quick check to make sure everything looks safe and set for some heat. Ensure there are no obstructions and no debris lying around inside the vault.
Then, light up and start generating heat. If you’re using a gas model, turn the tank on and spark the igniter. If you’re using a charcoal model then use a match. Once you’re satisfied that you have a healthy dose of flames, close the door and let things heat up until it reaches your desired temperature.
Get your food ready and then place it on each of the cooking racks. Try and layer each piece neatly and ensure there is a little gap between each of them. This will ensure the entire surface area is completely exposed and will maximize results.
Use the racks with wider space for the bigger hunks of meat, such as brisket, ham, or ribs. The finer-mesh racks can be used for items like jerky or fish. Also, ensure that no racks are touching the food below.
Keep an eye on the water levels. If you notice them getting too low, then you can top up the water pan during the cooking process. Use oven mitts and tongs to do so.
The length of cooking time depends on the temperature and the type of cut or meat that you’re cooking. Refer to relevant recipes and cooking guides to ensure that any meat is sufficiently cooked. To ensure your food is cooked, insert a cooking thermometer into the center of each type of cut. As a guide:
- It’s recommended that fish and chicken reach an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit (that is 63 degrees Celsius) to ensure that it’s safe to eat.
- For pork, beef, and ham, it’s recommended that the internal temperature has reached a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (or 74 degrees Celsius) to ensure that it’s safe to eat.
When things have finally been cooked to your liking, put on a pair of oven mitts to take out the racks. Take off the food and prepare yourself for the ultimate feast. Before attempting to clean the unit, allow it to cool down completely.
It’s important to thoroughly clean the box smoker after every time you use it. The buildup of carbon, grease, oil, and other remains can have a very negative effect on the flavor of meat that you produce in any subsequent smoking sessions. If allowed to remain, grease can become rancid.
Lack of cleaning can damage the unit and drastically reduce the life expectancy. Can you afford to buy yourself a replacement any time soon? That’s why it’s important to stay on top of things and get your unit cleaned.
Check the manufacturer’s instructions before cleaning. It’s usually best to use soapy water and a cloth or wire brush when dry. Avoid using any abrasive chemicals that could cause damage to the smoker.
Some hints and tips to make your life easier and optimize your smoking
Here are a few things to bear in mind if you’re a relative newbie when it comes to using a box smoker:
- Always check that the food you’re about to cook actually fits inside the vault of your smoker. If you have a lot of various pieces and are trying to cram things in, then this can reduce the effectiveness of the smoking process.
- Remember that you ideally want to leave a gap in between each piece of food when you’re placing it on the racks. Also, check to see if the larger items themselves will fit inside the vault. For example, if you have a huge rack of ribs and a box with limited capacity, you may have to split the rack in two.
- As previously mentioned, you can even use a box smoker for cooking pies. If you wish to bake pies inside your box smoker then it’s recommended that you don’t use any wood chips, or water while cooking. Rather than placing a pie directly onto one of the racks, it’s recommended to utilize a cast iron plate.
- Avoid using treated plywood, pin, or other resinous woods. Stick with proper, dry hardwood chips. Mesquite, cherry, and hickory are very popular options, although you should have fun experimenting and trying out different types in order to discover your preferences.
- If you want maximum smoke, you can try taking your wood chips and soaking them in some water for at least half an hour before you begin cooking.
- There is a way to ensure that the wood chips continue to burn for longer. Simply get some aluminum foil and cover the wood chip tray, once filled. Pierce the foil a few times with a knife before inserting into the box smoker.
- Experienced smokers may run their smokers between 205 and 325 degrees (96 and 163 degrees Celsius). As a guide, cooking at a temperature between 225 and 250 degrees (107 and 121 degrees Celsius respectively) should be appropriate.
- If you’re aiming for a quicker cooking time then you can increase the temperature. In order to do this for a charcoal box smoker, simply use a bit more charcoal than you normally would.
Remember, you’re using an apparatus that can reach extremely high temperatures. Observe the following warnings:
- Never use a box smoker indoors – not even in a garage. It’s been designed for outdoor use and will become a severe hazard if used inside.
- When using the box smoker keep it well away from other structures.
- Be aware that the unit reaches extremely high temperatures during cooking. Don’t touch anything unless you are wearing heat-resistant oven mitts.
- Always read the instructions and guidelines from the manufacturer. Remember, that they already have the expertise and are likely to have gone through a trial and error process to provide best practices on how to use their equipment. If you disagree with a particular guideline then contact the manufacturer to ask for clarification, rather than merely ignoring.
- If you’re using a gas box smoker, and smell gas at any point, then turn off the gas supply immediately.
Don’t let the warnings put you off. The process of smoking is supposed to be enjoyable. It’s not just about eating flavorsome meat. Just remember to look after your smoker as you’re on the way to mastering outdoor cookery.