If you’re new to using a vertical smoker, one of the first things you’ll need to learn is how to season it. Seasoning your smoker involves coating the interior with oil to help prevent rust and create a non-stick surface for your food. It’s an important step that can help ensure your smoker lasts for years and produces delicious, flavorful food every time. In this article, we’ll explore the process of how to season a vertical smoker.
From cleaning the interior to applying oil, we’ll cover everything you need to know to get started. So, whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting, read on to learn how to season your vertical smoker like a pro.
What is a Vertical Smoker
A vertical smoker is a type of smoker that has a vertical cooking chamber. It stands upright and has one or more racks inside where the meat is placed. The heat and smoke source is at the bottom of the chamber, and the smoke travels up vertically past the meat before escaping out of the top of the smoker.
Vertical smokers are very popular as they are easy to operate and produce delicious smoked meat with a strong smoke flavor. The vertical orientation means there is no need to turn the meat during cooking. Popular types of vertical smokers include offset smokers, barrel smokers, and propane smokers.
Vertical smokers can be fueled by wood, charcoal, gas, or electricity and are used to make smoked brisket, ribs, sausage, and other barbecued meats. For many barbecue enthusiasts, the vertical smoker is the way to go for cooking up delicious smoked and grilled meat at home.
Prepare Your Smoker for Countless Uses
A smoker is an extremely versatile cooking device that can be used to prepare a wide variety of foods. To get the most out of your smoker, it is important to season it properly before first use and maintain it well. Seasoning the smoker involves coating the inside with oil and running it at a high temperature for several hours to create a sticky layer of residue. This residue adds flavor to the foods and protects the smoker. With regular use, a natural patina will form on the inside of the smoker, which also enhances the flavor.
To use your smoker for cooking different types of food, make sure you clean it between uses. For example, after smoking meat, clean the grates and the drain pan to avoid the transfer of meat flavors to other foods. Also, use different pans or containers for strongly flavored foods like fish or nuts.
Using foil and pans makes it easy to keep foods separated and the clean-up minimal. You can also experiment using different types of wood chips to impart subtle flavors to the foods. Fruitwoods like apple and cherry pair well with poultry and nuts, while hickory and mesquite work great with beef, pork, or vegetables.
With proper preparation and care, a single smoker can be used to hot-smoke sausages and nuts, cold-smoke cheeses and fish, grill steaks and seafood, roast vegetables and bread, and even baking cookies or pies. The possibilities are endless. Keep the temperature, smoke levels, wood chips, and duration in mind depending on the specific foods. With some practice, you can become an expert in preparing a wide world of delicious foods for your smoker.
Why Season a Vertical Smoker
Seasoning a vertical smoker before first use is critical to preparing it to cook delicious food and protecting its parts. Seasoning the smoker involves running it at a high temperature for several hours.
During this process, the heat causes the oils and fats left over from manufacturing to melt and coat the inside of the smoker, creating a natural non-stick patina. This patina seals the porous surfaces inside the smoker like paint seals wood. It prevents moisture from entering the material which could cause rust, and it prevents the material from drying out and cracking.
The seasoned patina inside the smoker also improves the flavor of the food. As you cook in the smoker, the patina absorbs the smoke, oils, and flavors from the different types of wood chips used.
The patina releases these flavors back into the subsequent foods you cook, imparting a distinctive smoky and savory taste. The patina also helps create an environment conducive for flavorful browning known as the Maillard reaction to occur in meat. Without seasoning, foods can stick to the grates, burn quickly, and lack the depth of flavor from the patina.
In addition to great flavor and protecting the smoker, seasoning also fills in any microscopic pores in materials like cast iron grates so they become virtually non-stick.
Foods will not stick to a well-seasoned smoker, which makes cooking and cleanup much easier. However, the patina requires ongoing maintenance to prevent it from building up into thick creosote deposits which can be unsafe and difficult to remove.
How to Season a Vertical Smoker – Step-by-Step Instructions
Seasoning a vertical smoker is a simple process, but it’s important to do it correctly to ensure your smoker is ready to use and produces great-tasting food. Here are the step-by-step instructions for seasoning a vertical smoker:
1. Clean the Vertical Smoker’s Equipment
Cleaning the equipment and parts of a vertical smoker is important for proper function and safety. Here are some tips for cleaning the main components of a vertical smoker:
Cooking Grates: The grates hold the food as it smokes and gets coated with grease and drippings. After every few cooks, remove the grates and scrub them with a degreaser and steel wool or abrasive scrubber. Rinse well with water and dry completely. For stuck-on debris, soak the grates in a degreaser solution before scrubbing. Re-season the grates with oil before the next use.
Water Pan: Empty and clean the water pan after every cook to remove grease and food particles. Wash with hot, soapy water, rinse and dry. The water pan catches drippings and also helps regulate temperature and smoke levels, so keep it clean for the best results.
Smokestack: Use a damp cloth to wipe down the inside of the smokestack and clean the lid to remove any built-up creosote before it gets too thick. Creosote is flammable in high concentrations. For tough creosote stains, make a paste from water and baking soda or scrub with a fine-grit sandpaper.
Firebox: Scoop out excess ashes and debris from charcoal smokers. Use a metal scraper to scrape off any thick creosote inside the firebox and along the seals and doors. Creosote can build up on electric and gas smokers, too, so wipe away any residue in those areas. Remove grates and heat deflectors to access all surfaces.
Seals and Doors: Wipe down seals, gaskets, doors, and access covers to remove grease and debris. Check for any damage to seals and gaskets; temperatures inside a vertical smoker can reach up to 300 F, exposing any open seals or cracks. Reseal or replace damaged parts.
Exterior Surface: Use hot, soapy water to wipe down the entire exterior surface of the smoker to remove grease splatters and grime. Rinse well and dry to prevent streaks. Apply a sealant or protectant to painted metal surfaces if desired.
Ash Drawers: Empty ash drawers regularly and sift through ashes to remove any large unburned pieces before the next cook. For electric smokers, wipe down elements and connectors to remove grease buildup which can become a fire hazard.
2. Air Dry All Cleaned Surfaces
Air drying all cleaned surfaces in a vertical smoker is important for several reasons:
Preventing rust: Excess moisture left on metal surfaces like cooking grates, fireboxes, smokestacks, etc. can lead to rust formation. Rust damages the parts of the smoker and affects cooking performance and food flavor. Air drying removes all moisture so the metal surfaces remain in good condition.
Preventing creosote buildup: Creosote is a flammable residue produced from the combustion of wood chips used in vertical smokers. When hot smoke combines with moisture, creosote forms more rapidly. Air drying eliminates the moisture so creosote is less likely to accumulate, especially on surfaces like the smokestack, seals, and doors.
Preventing temperature issues: Trapped moisture can create hot and cool spots in a vertical smoker which leads to uneven cooking. It also causes the smoker’s temperature to fluctuate as the moisture evaporates during cooking. Air drying provides more consistent conditions for controlling smoker temperature.
Preventing food safety issues: Excess moisture in a smoker allows bacteria and other pathogens to grow more easily on surfaces, posing risks when cooking meat. Air drying sterilizes surfaces by removing moisture, which helps prevent issues like cross-contamination when cooking.
Extending the smoker’s lifespan: The moist, hot environment inside a vertical smoker causes damage, rust, and breakdown of parts over time. Thorough air drying after every use significantly slows this damage and helps the smoker last longer.
To properly air dry your vertical smoker after cleaning:
Open the doors and access panels of the smoker and use paper towels, rags, or a leaf blower to remove excess moisture and debris from all surfaces.
Leave the smoker open in a sheltered area with good airflow and ventilation. Let it sit for at least 2 to 3 hours so all inner surfaces can dry completely.
For wood-burning smokers, remove ashes and coals and wipe down the firebox. Run a fan inside the firebox to speed up drying. Clean out the ash drawer or pan as well.
Use wrenches or pliers to remove cooking grates and heat deflectors. Dry each part with towels before putting the smoker back together.
Re-season the cooking grates before the next use. The seasoning oil will provide another protective barrier over the dry surfaces.
3. Apply the Oil
Applying oil is an important part of seasoning and maintaining a vertical smoker. Here are some tips for applying oil:
Use a high smoke point oil: Choose an oil with a high smoke point, such as canola, peanut, sunflower, or flaxseed oil. These oils can withstand the high heat inside a smoker without breaking down. Avoid using low-smoke point oils like olive oil which will burn and become bitter.
Coat all surfaces: Use a brush, paper towels, or lint-free cloth to coat the entire inside of the smoker with oil. This includes the firebox, smokestack, cooking grates, water pan, seals, doors, handles – every surface. The oil will bake during the seasoning process to form a protective patina.
Check and re-coat often: When seasoning the smoker for the first time, check on it frequently and re-coat any areas where the oil has burned off. The oil may bake on faster in some areas of the smoker, so re-coating helps ensure an even patina forms all over.
Never overload with oil: While coating all surfaces is important, do not overload the smoker with excess oil. Use a thin, even coat on each surface. Too much oil will take longer to bake on, drip, and burn, causing issues with creosote and temperature control. Thinner coats are better.
Re-oil after cleaning: Any time parts like cooking grates, water pan, firebox, etc. are removed for cleaning, re-season them before putting the smoker back together. The patina on the removable parts prevents sticking, and re-oiling restores it after cleaning.
Tend carefully when hot: Only apply oil and tend to the inside of the smoker when it is cool enough to handle without gloves. The smoker will be extremely hot during the seasoning process and re-oiling hot parts can cause burns. Exercise caution.
Store oil properly: Choose an oil with a long shelf life and store it in a cool, dark place away from heat sources. Do not use rancid oil which can leave an unpleasant bitter taste on the patina. Prevent contaminating the oil with moisture, dirt, or debris.
4. Add a Water Pan
Adding a water pan to a vertical smoker provides several benefits:
Humidity control: The water in the pan evaporates with the heat and smoke, releasing moisture into the smoker. This helps foods stay juicy and prevents drying out. For hot-smoking meat like brisket, extra humidity is important. For cold-smoking cheese or nuts, using less water or no water pan at all works better. Control the amount of water to regulate humidity based on what you are cooking.
Temperature regulation: Water requires a large amount of energy to heat and vaporize. The water pan absorbs some of the heat energy in the smoker, helping to regulate and stabilize the temperature. This results in more even, consistent cooking. Without a water pan, smoker temperatures can fluctuate and spike more easily.
Catch drippings: The water pan catches excess fat, grease, and drippings falling from the meat as it cooks. This prevents grease fires in the smoker and messy cleanups. Empty and wash the water pan after every use.
Smoke infusion: Smoke particles stick to the water and moisture in the smoker, imparting more smoke flavor to the meat. The smoke-infused steam surrounds the food, resulting in a stronger smoke-flavored end product.
Additional heating: When smoking in cold weather, fill the water pan with sand, bricks, lava rocks, or steel balls instead of water. The pan will retain and help distribute heat, improving cooking efficiency. Cover the pan for maximum heat retention.
Creates steam: Filling the water pan and leaving the smoker vents and doors open helps create steam. The hot, humid air speeds up cooking and gives the meat a lighter, juicier texture compared to traditional dry smoked meat. Adding beer, wine, or juice to the water pan infuses more flavor into the steam.
For the best results:
Choose a water pan made from aluminum, stainless steel, or enameled steel that can handle high heat. Avoid chrome or Teflon.
Use filtered or distilled water. Minerals and chemicals in tap water can impart metallic or bitter tastes.
Play around with different levels of water to find the right amount of humidity for what you want to cook. Less water for cold smoking and more for hot smoking meat.
Refill or replace water between uses. Empty and clean the water pan after every cook to prevent contamination.
5. Prepare the Cook: Open the Vent & Set the Temperature to Maximum
Opening the vents and bringing a vertical smoker to the maximum temperature before cooking is important for several reasons:
Preheats the smoker: Firing up the smoker in advance of cooking brings it up to the target temperature. This ensures the entire smoker, including the walls and seals, is hot before adding food. A preheated smoker will maintain temperature better when food is added, leading to more even cooking.
Kills bacteria: The high heat during preheating helps sterilize the inside of the smoker by killing any bacteria, pathogens, or mold present. This is especially important when hot-smoking meat, poultry, or seafood. For cold smoking, preheating still provides antibacterial benefits before the smoker’s temperature is lowered.
Checks functionality: Running the smoker at maximum temperature before cooking allows you to check that everything is working properly. Ensure enough fuel is burning, wood chips are smoking as expected, water pan is filled, etc. It is easier to troubleshoot any issues before adding food.
Improves smoke infusion: More smoke is produced when the smoker is at maximum temperature. Running it with all vents open allows thick smoke to build up inside. When the food is added, it absorbs the trapped smoke right away for maximum flavor infusion. Especially important when hot smoking.
Opens wood pores: Wood chips have tiny air pockets and pores that expand when heated. Preheating the smoker opens these pores in the wood, allowing more flavor compounds and oils to escape into the smoke. The wood will infuse more flavor into the food when fully heated.
To properly prepare a vertical smoker for cooking:
Make sure enough fuel (wood, charcoal, gas) is added to your cook. For wood-burning, add pre-soaked wood chips as well.
Open all vents fully and set the temperature to a maximum (around 300 F). For gas/electric smokers, turn to the highest setting.
Run the smoker without food for 30-60 minutes until a thick layer of smoke has built up inside.
Add your food, reduce the temperature to your target cooking level, and adjust vents as needed to control the thickness of white or thin blue smoke.
Check on the smoker frequently, especially the first few times using it. Monitor fuel, wood chips, water level, temperature, etc.
Preparing your vertical smoker by preheating it to its maximum temperature helps ensure delicious results every time.
6. Run a Full Cooking Cycle on Your Vertical Smoker
Running a full cooking cycle on your vertical smoker before cooking for the first time is important to test that everything is working properly and make any necessary adjustments. Here are the steps to run a test cycle:
Clean your smoker thoroughly. Scrub all grates and pans, empty the ash drawer, and wipe down seals and doors. Remove any dust or debris from manufacturing/shipping.
Apply a thin coat of oil to all interior surfaces. Use a high smoke point oil and paper towels or basting brush to coat everything including grates, firebox, smokestack, water pan, etc.
Soak your wood chips in water for 30 minutes. For gas or electric smokers, soak chips anyway to create more smoke. Drain the chips thoroughly before adding them to the smoker.
Start your fuel (wood, charcoal, gas) and ignite according to the smoker’s instructions. Add drained wood chips once the fuel begins burning strongly.
Open all vents and leave the smoker doors open. Allow the smoke to start escaping, then seal the doors. Running with vents open for 10-15 minutes sterilizes the inside.
Adjust vents and temperature controls to reach 225-250 F. For wood/charcoal smokers, control airflow to get thin blue smoke. Check the fuel and wood chip levels frequently.
Add a small amount of wood chips every 30-45 minutes to keep a steady stream of smoke. Not too many at once which can cause temperature spikes and creosote buildup.
Check the water pan and add more water as needed. The water should simmer but not fully boil away. Make sure the pan is at least half full.
After 4-6 hours, shut down your smoker according to the instructions. Remove any unused wood chips or charcoal and empty the ash drawer. Allow the smoker to cool completely.
Inspect your smoker for any issues before cooking for the first time. Check that seals/doors are properly closed, temperature gauges are accurate, there are no leaks or hotspots, etc. Make any necessary adjustments or repairs.
Season the smoker again before cooking if needed. A test run may burn off some of the patina, so re-seasoning provides another protective coating.
Variations in Vertical Smoker Seasonings
There are several ways to season a vertical smoker beyond the standard oil seasoning method. Some popular variations include:
Bacon seasoning: Place strips of raw bacon over the cooking grates in your smoker. Run the smoker at 225 F for 4 to 6 hours until the bacon is crispy. The bacon grease and fat will coat the entire inside of the smoker as it cooks, creating a flavorful natural patina. Use tongs to remove excess grease dripping into the water pan during cooking. Let cool, then wipe away any remaining debris before cooking.
Sausage seasoning: Add raw sausage links, ground sausage patties, or bulk sausage to your smoker. As the sausage cooks at 225 F for a few hours, the released oils and fats will season all the surfaces. The sausage also imparts a savory, smoky flavor to the patina. Remove excess grease as needed and wipe away remaining bits after cooking before using the smoker again.
Lard or tallow: If you do not want to use meat to season the smoker, you can coat all surfaces in lard (pork fat) or tallow (beef fat). Apply the lard/tallow with a basting brush and heat the smoker to 225 F for several hours. The natural fats will melt into a patina. Wipe away any excess remaining after cooking. Lard and tallow have high smoke points so they season well without breaking down.
Baking soda: For a simple non-fat method, make a paste from baking soda and water. Apply the paste to all surfaces in the smoker and heat at 225 F for 2 to 3 hours. The baking soda helps break down polymers in the metal, creating a durable patina. Wipe away the paste after cooking – the patina will remain. Baking soda is very alkaline so it works well for seasoning.
Wood chips: Soak wood chips in water for 15-30 minutes, then drain and spread them over all cooking grates and surfaces in the smoker. Run the smoker at 225 F for 3 to 4 hours allowing the wood chips to smolder and smoke. The natural oils in the wood will coat the patina. Use tongs to remove excess wood chips after cooking – the oils will remain. Wood chips impart a stronger smoky flavor to the patina.
Oil Options for Seasoning a Vertical Smoker
There are several oil options for seasoning a vertical smoker. Some of the most popular choices include:
Canola oil: Canola oil has a high smoke point (400 F) so it works well for seasoning a smoker. It is neutral in flavor so it does not impart much taste to the patina. Canola oil is affordable and widely available.
Flaxseed oil: Flaxseed oil has a medium-high smoke point (225 F) and creates a durable patina. It has a slightly nutty flavor. Flaxseed oil is more expensive but can create a great patina. Be careful not to overheat the oil which can become bitter.
Coconut oil: Coconut oil has a medium-high smoke point (350 F) and imparts a subtle coconut flavor to the patina. It forms a hard, protective coating when cooled. Coconut oil works well but the patina may soften and melt at higher smoker temperatures.
Avocado oil: Avocado oil has an ultra-high smoke point (520 F) so it handles the heat of seasoning very well without burning. It has a mild flavor and creates a patina similar to canola oil. However, avocado oil is more expensive.
Peanut oil: Peanut oil has a high smoke point (450 F) and adds a faint nutty peanut flavor to the patina. It creates an evenly baked-on coating. Peanut allergies are common though, so check if anyone using the smoker has an allergy.
Vegetable oil: Standard vegetable oil works fine for seasoning in a pinch. It has a medium smoke point (400-450 F) and a neutral flavor. Vegetable oil can work for seasoning but may require multiple coats to create an effective patina. It is very affordable and common.
Lard or tallow: For a meat-based oil, you can use lard (pork fat) or tallow (beef fat). Lard and tallow have high smoke points (375 F and 400 F respectively) and impart a savory meaty flavor to the patina. They work very well for seasoning and creating a natural non-stick coating.
Wood Options for Seasoning a Vertical Smoker
There are several wood options for seasoning a vertical smoker. The wood you choose will impart flavor compounds to the patina and smoke in your smoker. Some of the popular wood options include:
Hickory: Hickory wood produces a savory bacon-like smoke flavor. It is great for seasoning and works well with pork, beef, poultry, and some cheeses. Hickory can overpower more delicate foods though.
Mesquite: Mesquite wood adds a spicy, earthy smoke flavor to the patina. It goes well with beef, duck, venison, and vegetables. Mesquite smoke can be quite strong, so use sparingly.
Cherry: Cherry wood lends a slightly sweet, fruity smoke flavor. It pairs nicely with pork, beef, poultry, fish, and nuts. Cherrywood smoke is more mellow than hickory or mesquite.
Apple: Applewood contributes a mildly sweet smoke with subtle fruity notes. It works great for seasoning and complements pork, poultry, cheese, and nuts. The light, mellow flavor of apple wood smoke also allows the natural flavors of the food to shine through.
Pecan: Pecan wood produces a rich, buttery smoke flavor with nutty hints. It is excellent for seasoning and works well with most meats like pork, beef, poultry, and game. Pecan wood smoke is robust yet balanced.
Oak: Oak wood adds a creamy, caramel-like smoke flavor to the patina. It pairs nicely with red meats like beef and venison as well as hard cheeses. Oak wood smoke is mellow but still quite flavorful.
Maple: Maple wood lends a moderately sweet, earthy-smoke flavor. It is great for seasoning and complements pork, poultry, duck, and vegetables. Maple wood smoke is aromatic and balanced.
To use wood for seasoning a smoker:
Soak wood chips in water for 30 minutes. Drain thoroughly.
Spread a single layer of drained wood chips over the cooking grates and other surfaces in the smoker.
Run the smoker at 225-250 F for 3 to 4 hours until the wood chips are smoldered and ashy.
Let the smoker cool, then remove excess wood chips with tongs. The oils and compounds left behind from the smoking wood will coat and flavor the patina.
Wipe away any remaining debris before cooking. The wood-flavored patina is ready!