The food smoking process is much more difficult than grilling. It requires much more knowledge, patience and remembering about many other rules so that the result of smoking is the best it can be. Grilling can probably be handled by everyone after few minutes when it comes to simple food ( meat, hamburgers, sausages ). Smoking, on the other hand, is actually a whole another level, which is why many beginners have huge problems with that and they are exactly who I wrote this guide for.
My advice is that if you’re a beginner then you shouldn’t throw any BBQ parties because the risk of something going wrong is very high, which will lead to disappointed guests. It’s the best to figure out your grill smoker at home on your own and try something simple so that you can learn the basics. Remember that smoking food is fun so you should approach the topic casually and start with less demanding types of meat, and once you get experienced you can try smoking more demanding meat.
I invite you then to check out the below list of top 19 typical mistakes to avoid when smoking meat. Some of them might seem banal, but when you’re a beginner not everything is so obvious so don’t waste more time and start reading.
1. Using lighter fluid to get the Charcoal Burning
It is one of the most popular mistakes to make, the main cause of that is laziness and lack of knowledge. People think that it is the fastest and most convenient way to get the charcoal burning. They don’t know, though, that there are other cheaper, equally fast and convenient methods that don’t create unpleasant smell.
My favorite method is the charcoal chimney starter, the structure of which was designed to make it easy and quick to get a large amount of charcoal burning evenly without any chemical additives. The only tinder you need is few pieces of a regular newspaper and that’s it.
Using substances like lighter fluid, gasoline or other chemical agents is never a good solution. All those substances generate a specific smell that will be noticeable for a long time. Many people think that after few minutes from using something like that to start the fire you can start smoking the meat already, but the truth is that the specific smell of something like lighter fluid will still be there for some time. All of that has a significant impact on the food’s flavor, and the specific smell is often hard to miss.
That’s why I’d like to once again advise against using such agents and honestly recommend buying a charcoal chimney starter that will be great for that purpose.
2. Start slow
You should start the whole process slow, gradually increasing the temperature and not going overboard. Meat smoking is a process of slow cooking, don’t add too much fuel or you might end up increasing the temperature significantly which will make it difficult to get it down.
Meat smoking usually takes few hours, it’s a long process that requires patience so don’t rush it like with regular grilling, setting the smoker slowly and gradually instead, so that you reach the best temperature for smoking a particular type of meat.
3. Preheat the smoker properly
Recipes and different kinds of tables always provide information on how long to smoke a particular type of meat. You need to know that this data is based on starting to smoke the meat in the right temperature. In practice, it means that you have to properly warm up the smoker to the desired temperature before putting meat on the grates. That way the length of smoking will be more or less like what the recipe says ( depending on the meat’s thickness, of course ).
4. Too Much or not Enough Heat - Keep the Balance
Temperature fluctuations aren’t a bad thing for meat smoking as long as they aren’t too big and can fit within a specified limit. Bigger temperature changes of many dozen degrees, on the other hand, are bad for smoking your meat. Temperature fluctuations make the smoking process longer and what’s worse, they put the meat at risk of getting dry.
A good smoker is one that allows to maintain a fixed temperature with only minimal fluctuations. Get more experience and learn how to use your smoker grill so that you can easily maintain a fixed temperature for a long time. Sometimes it’s impossible due to one of the grill’s components malfunctioning so if you suddenly notice significant unexplained fluctuations then check out your grill to make sure everything’s okay with it.
5. You don't control the grill internal temperature
Whereas the problem of maintaining a fixed temperature is popular among beginners, one of the bigger problems when smoking is definitely lack of any temperature control. Sometimes it happens that the weather outside changes significantly, the temperature drops hard or a strong wind blows. In such situations, it is always necessary to check if everything’s okay with the grill, such weather changes very often result in temperature fluctuations that have to be corrected.
Another common problem is running out of charcoal or wood which results in a large temperature drop. If your grill is not equipped with special probes and monitoring systems then it is necessary to control the smoking process once in a while to make sure that everything is going properly.
6. Constantly changing the grill’s settings
All changes take time when smoking, change one thing and then wait a moment and check the results, and only then start changing other settings. In this game, nothing can be changed in a few seconds, it’s a slow and time consuming kind of cooking.
The key to easy temperature maintenance and controlling the whole smoking process is only making slight changes when smoking. By constantly changing the air vent settings and opening the lid, you can easily cause a situation where the temperature has suddenly risen very much which causes a slight problem as it has to be lowered as soon as possible, which isn’t an easy task.
Which is why, regarding earlier tips, you have to smoke slowly, making as few changes as possible.
7. Too much fire – closing all the air vents
You won’t gain control over large flames that suddenly appeared this way. If you want to do this effectively, you have to open the upper air vent all the way, then regulate the air flow using the lower air vent.
You should be especially careful when closing the lower air vent, as lack of air supply might cause the wood to start to smolder, generating unwanted smelly smoke.
The best solution is to open the upper vent and regulate the air flow using the lower vent ( also leaving it open ).
8. Too much wood = Too much smoke
Remember that smoke should be like a little stream, not huge clouds of smoke like in a steam engine. A popular mistake among beginners is adding too much wood which results in producing a lot of smoke.
The right amount of smoke makes the meat taste amazing, whereas a very huge amount of smoke is not what you want for your food. The smoke aroma being too intense is unacceptable, and it makes the meat inedible.
People very often make an even bigger mistake in such situation which is closing the upper air vent so that all the smoke is stuck inside the grill. It shouldn’t be done because it will pretty much make the meat taste bad ( blackened, smelling too much of smoke etc ).
You should gradually add a small amount of wood and maintain a small streak of smoke, which is the best way when smoking. On top of that, you should always have properly opened air vents in order to maintain a good air and smoke flow ( never close the air vents all the way ).
9. Opening the grill’s lid too often
Not only does it significantly contribute to temperature fluctuations, thus extending the smoking process and making it more complicated. Opening and closing the lid frequently causes the wood to start to smolder, emitting a smelly smoke that has a bad impact on the food.
Opening the grill’s lid all the time is completely unjustified. Your meat will still be where you left it, and the temperature is visible on the thermometer. You don’t need to open the grill’s lid to change the settings of the air vents and to alter the temperature inside the smoker. Opening the lid is something that should mostly be done to add charcoal, wood or rearrange the meat.
10. Bad quality wood – green, wet
Only seasonal wood is suitable for smoking, don’t forget about it. Never use non-seasonal, green or wet wood ( except for very experienced people who know how much of green wood to use and when ). I suggest that beginners follow my tips, however. Green wood causes meat to get very bitter and beyond saving. Green wood doesn’t burn in a clean way, which gives the meat inadequate taste.
Only use seasonal leafy wood, never use resin wood.
11. Wrong type of wood
There are many types of wood and not all of them are good for everything. You need to know that what type of wood you use has the biggest impact on the meat’s flavor. You should choose the adequate type of wood for a particular type of meat. There’s plenty of tables online that show what type of wood fits your meat the best.
12. Wood and fuel supply
The whole meat smoking process takes many hours and requires proper preparations. Once you’re done preparing the meat, you need to move on to the phase where you have to start the smoker. Maintaining the temperature inside the grill requires constant fuel control so as a beginner you should prepare a large supply of wood, charcoal or pellets depending on what type of smoker you use.
Make sure that, before you start smoking meat, you have prepared enough charcoal or wood, which is there to produce valuable smoke for the food. When it comes to pellet grills, it’s enough to resupply the pellet tank, in other types of smokers, on the other hand, it usually has to be done manually. Remember that there’s nothing worse than suddenly running out of fuel in the middle of smoking.
13. You 100% trust the thermometer on the lid
Plenty of people make a huge mistake and trust the thermometer located on the grill’s lid 100%. Due to the location of this thermometer you need to know that the actual temperature around the grill’s grates is slightly different. The thermometer located on the grill’s lid in most cases is very cheap and also shows the temperature of the space above the grill grates, which is why it shouldn’t be trusted 100% because it lies a little.
As everyone knows, the exact temperature matters when smoking meat, which is why the best solution is to invest in a good smoker thermometer, but more on that in the paragraph below.
14. You don’t use digital thermometers
I believe that a digital thermometer ( a good one ) is a must and every self-respecting cook should have one. Regardless of how long your experience is, you won’t be able to precisely estimate the temperature inside the meat or inside the grill without a digital thermometer. The thermometer on the lid doesn’t show the actual temperature at the grill grates’ level, so if you care about accuracy then this is another argument in favor of it.
There are several types of thermometers, an instant-read thermometer works great for grilling if you want to quickly see if the meat is ready, whereas thermometers for meat smoking are equipped with special probes that allow to constantly monitor the temperature inside the grill and the meat. Much better smoker thermometers not only are more accurate, but are also equipped with interesting features like alarms or tables that show the right temperature for every type of meat.
Personally, I can’t imagine meat smoking these days without a good smoker thermometer and can honestly recommend it to everyone, especially those who are just starting their journey with smoking.
15. Lack of patience
Smoking is definitely something for patient people who can understand that there’s no way they could make the smoking process faster. All the settings related to a smoker need time, you cannot keep changing the settings all the time, like the air vents, because you’ll never get good results that way.
Smoking is a craft that besides patience also requires skills and moderation. But, as we know, skills are earned through practice which is why you should try smoking meat and aim to make as few mistakes as possible – the less mistakes, the better effects of smoking.
16. Over- or Under Smoking Your Meat
Taking the meat out too early will cause it to be raw on the inside whereas smoking it for too long will likely make it dry. You should exercise moderation and properly evaluate when to get the meat off the grates. This problem can be perfectly solved with a meat thermometer with a probe, which will allow you to check the temperature inside the meat to make sure if it’s perfectly done already.
A thermometer doesn’t cost too much and it’s a good thing to have, it would be a shame to waste meat by not being careful and finishing smoking to early or too late.
17. Wrong type of meat
Don’t save money on the quality of meat, try to only buy it from places where you know it’s top quality and most of all fresh. Poor quality or stale meat can really ruin the taste which is why if you expect high quality smoked meat you should invest a little more and buy top-quality products. It is the best to check the offers at different stores so that you can find the place with the best meat for smoking.
18. A meat that is too demanding for a beginner
Are you just starting in the world of meat smoking ? First you have to learn how to use your smoker so that you can easily maintain the right temperature. Then it is the best to start with less demanding meat, like a whole chicken or turkey.
Once you’re satisfied with results of smoking, you can try something new until you gradually gain experience that will allow you to smoke every type of meat and more.
19. You won’t let the meat rest for a while after taking it off the grates
It’s a very important mistake that plenty of people make. I am perfectly aware that after few hours of smoking you just can’t wait and want to try the results of your smoking. Please believe me, though, that the extra 10-15 minutes of waiting are worth it. Why?
You can’t cut the meat right after you’re done smoking because that way you’ll lose the juices that make meat more juicy and tasty. If you start cutting the meat right away, you will lose a lot of flavor, and your meat won’t be as juicy as it could have been which is why you should simply wait for at least 10-15 minutes after taking the meat off the grates.
It is natural to make mistakes, what matters is that you learn from them. Nobody is born a BBQ genius, each of us had to start somewhere which is why I hope tips like mine will help you avoid many problems.
Do you agree with my tips? Would you like to add something more to that list? No problem, I invite you to share all the tips for beginners and more, do you have anything interesting? Share it with us in the comments below!