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How do I Build a Smoker?

By Ron Marr
Updated May 16, 2024
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When it comes to opinions and theories, there are few people more outspoken than barbecue purists. They will debate equipment, techniques, cooking times, optimum temperatures, sauce recipes, and the advantages of wood, charcoal, electricity, and propane. However, there is one point upon which all barbecue aficionados will agree.

Real barbecue is barbecue that is smoked. The art involves cooking succulent slabs of pork, beef, fish, or poultry over wood, using indirect heat. Various woods impart different flavors to the preferred entrée. The slow-smoking process, if performed correctly, results in a meal that is “fall-off-the-bone” tender.

There are countless commercial barbecue smokers on the market, ranging in size and quality from tiny, backyard models to those that are towed behind a truck. For many people, however, the pinnacle of barbecue Nirvana arrives when one chooses to build a smoker of their own. Little technical knowledge is needed to build a smoker, and one is hindered only by their imagination.

The simplest way to build a smoker is to slightly modify a charcoal barbecue grill. The key to quality smoking is indirect heat, and smoke, and not too much of either. Too high a temperature will toughen the meat, while too much smoke will result in an over-powering flavor. To build a smoker out of a standard grill, the only extra materials required are a few bricks, a bit of charcoal, some soaked wood chips, a pan of water, and an inexpensive oven thermometer.

In traditional grilling, charcoal is placed in the bottom of the standard barbecue cooker, directly under the meat. To build a smoker out of a barbecue cooker, place two or three bricks, stacked lengthwise, in the bottom of the unit. Locate them roughly a quarter of the way from the edge of the cooker.

This is your “smoke pit,” and it should be filled with approximately two layers of charcoal. Once the coals have been lit, and have burned down to a whitish color, they should be covered with soaked woodchips. Adjacent to the bricks, in the bottom-center of the cooker, one should place an aluminum or foil pan filled with water.

The water is crucial when one wishes to build a smoker. It serves to moisturize the meat and also alleviates a health concern. One often hears of the danger of cancer-causing agents inherent to barbecue. The danger comes not from wood or smoke, but rather from burning fat. The fat, which contains the carcinogen benzopyrene, drips onto hot coals, vaporizes, and sticks to the food. In smoking, since no meat is placed over the heat source, all fats drip harmlessly into the pan of water.

One should not place any meat above the heat source, and a small kitchen thermometer can be set in the middle of the grilling surface. The preferred cooking temperature should be approximately 225 degrees Fahrenheit (107 degrees Celsius) and your roasts, ribs, or chicken will be ready when they reach an internal temperature of 170 degrees Fahrenheit (77 degrees Celsius). The temperature should be checked only once per hour, as opening the lid to take a peek increases cooking time. When checking the temperature, one can also add more charcoal or wood chips as needed.

Smoked meats usually require about one hour per pound of cooking time. After which, all that is left is to dig in and enjoy.

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