If you’re a fan of smoky, juicy barbecue, then learning how to use a vertical smoker can take your cooking game to the next level. This type of smoker is designed to cook meats slowly and evenly, infusing them with a delicious smoky flavor that’s hard to resist. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pitmaster, mastering the art of vertical smoking can be a fun and rewarding experience. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to use a vertical smoker to create mouthwatering, fall-off-the-bone barbecue.
What is a Vertical Smoker?
A vertical smoker is a popular type of smoker used for cooking barbecued meats at home. Unlike horizontal offset smokers, vertical smokers have a tall, cylindrical shape that allows for large cooking capacity while taking up a small amount of space. Vertical smokers typically have multiple racks to hold food at different levels, enabling you to smoke a variety of foods at once. They also usually have a water pan at the bottom to add moisture and flavor to the smoke.
Vertical smokers are available in both electric and charcoal-powered models. The electric ones use heating elements to produce smoke, while the charcoal ones burn charcoal and wood chips to generate smoke. Vertical smokers are appreciated for being relatively affordable, easy to use, and able to produce delicious smoked foods like brisket, ribs, sausage, and salmon. For home barbecuing, a vertical smoker can be a perfect solution.
How Do Vertical Smokers Work?
Vertical smokers function by producing smoke in a controlled manner within an enclosed chamber. In electric vertical smokers, heating elements generate smoke by slowly burning wood chips added to a chip tray. In charcoal vertical smokers, lit charcoal briquettes and wood chips provide the smoke. The smoke then flows up into the main cooking chamber where the meats are placed on racks. At the same time, a water pan at the bottom of the smoker releases steam, which helps keep the meat from drying out.
Vertical smokers have intake vents at the bottom and exhaust vents at the top to control the airflow. Adjusting these vents regulates the temperature and how much smoke builds up inside the smoker. For best results, you want thin, blue smoke rather than thick, white smoke which makes the food bitter. The optimum temperature depends on what type of meat is being smoked but is usually between 225 to 275 F.
Some key tips for using a vertical smoker are maintaining a consistent temperature, avoiding opening the smoker door for the first 3-4 hours of cooking as it releases a lot of smoke and heat, and replenishing charcoal and wood chips to produce smoke for the entire duration of cooking. Many vertical smokers can smoke meat for up to 8 to 12 hours when filled with charcoal. Following good temperature control and airflow, a vertical smoker can slowly infuse the meat with delicious smoky flavor through patience and low, indirect heat.
Why Cook With A Vertical Smoker?
Here are some of the main benefits of cooking with a vertical smoker:
Great for smoking large amounts of meat. The tall, multi-rack design of vertical smokers allows you to smoke a lot of food at once. You can smoke multiple racks of ribs, briskets, pork shoulders, and more. This makes vertical smokers ideal for large gatherings, parties, or meal prepping for the week.
Easy to use. Vertical smokers are very simple to operate, especially electric models. You just add wood chips to the smoker box or tray, fill the water pan, place the meat on the racks, set the temperature, and let it slowly smoke. No need to babysit the temperature for hours like with some horizontal offset smokers.
More temperature control. Vertical smokers usually have built-in thermometers and adjustable intake/exhaust vents that make controlling the internal temperature easier. You can achieve different temperature zones for smoking meats at different heat levels. Maintaining a consistent, regulated temperature is key to great results.
Great for beginners. Due to their convenience and ease of use, vertical smokers are perfect for people just getting into smoking meat. You don’t need any special skills to produce delicious smoked brisket, ribs, or chicken in a vertical smoker. The results are very satisfying for a first-time smoker.
Compact size. Although vertical smokers can fit a lot of meat, they have a very small footprint. They take up much less space than a horizontal offset smoker. This makes them good for small yards and patios where space is limited.
Inexpensive. You can find a good, large-capacity vertical smoker for a few hundred dollars. Compared to many other types of smokers, vertical smokers are quite affordable while still being very capable. This makes smoked meats more accessible to home cooks.
What Are There Different Kinds of Vertical Smokers?
There are two main types of vertical smokers:
Electric vertical smokers: Electric vertical smokers use electric heating elements to generate smoke from wood chips and heat the cooking chamber. Popular brands include Masterbuilt, Char-Broil, and Dyna-Glo. Electric vertical smokers are very easy to use, have precise temperature control, and have minimal maintenance. However, some people feel they lack the authentic smoky flavor of charcoal smokers.
Charcoal vertical smokers: Charcoal vertical smokers burn charcoal and wood chips to produce smoke and heat. Common brands are Char-Griller, Pit Boss, and Dyna-Glo. Charcoal vertical smokers typically provide better smoke flavor than electric ones but require close monitoring of temperatures and refilling charcoal. Charcoal models tend to be less expensive, though.
Within these two types, there are a few different styles of vertical smokers:
Cabinet style: A simple box-shaped vertical smoker with one door in front to access racks. Most affordably priced. Popular for electric and charcoal models.
Pellet-fed: Pellet-fed charcoal models have a hopper for wood-smoking pellets that automatically feed into the burner. Makes temperature control very easy but pellets can be more expensive than charcoal and wood chips.
Offset firebox: Has a side firebox attached to a vertical barrel chamber. Usually charcoal fueled only. The offset firebox provides a more authentic smoke flavor. However, temperature regulation can be trickier.
Digital/Programmable: Higher-end vertical smokers, typically electric, have digital thermostatic controls and multiple vents. Racks and water/drip pans are often removable for easy cleaning. The “set it and forget it” design produces consistent results but at a higher cost.
Commercial-style: Large-capacity models suited for catering, competitions, or meal prepping. Often over 40 inches in size, with some as large as 70 inches. Mostly charcoal fueled. Too big for average home use but excellent for large-scale smoking.
How to use a vertical smoker – Sep by step instructions
Using a vertical smoker can seem daunting at first, but with a little practice, you can quickly master the basics and create delicious smoked meats that will wow your friends and family. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to use a vertical smoker:
Step #1: Set Up Your Smoker
Place the smoker on a level surface in an area with good ventilation and clearance from buildings. Vertical smokers release smoke and grease that can stain walls and patios.
Load the water pan and place it at the bottom of the smoker. Fill the pan 2/3 full with water, juice, or wine to add moisture to the smoke.
Add charcoal and wood chips to the smoker (for charcoal models) or fill the chip tray/box with wood chips (for electric models). For charcoal smokers, fill the bottom of the smoker with a layer of unlit charcoal and bury 4-6 lit coals in the pile to slowly heat up.
Check and open all intake and exhaust vents to allow good airflow. Most smokers have multiple vents around the top and bottom. Opening all vents helps quickly heat the smoker.
Check that racks are installed and slide out easily. Spray racks with cooking spray to prevent the meat from sticking during long smokes.
Check that all smoker seals/gaskets are in good shape to maintain consistent heat and proper venting of smoke. Replace or repair any damaged seals.
Install a thermometer probe into one of the intake vents or an existing probe port. The probe displays the internal temperature of the smoker which is critical for regulating temperature.
Once the intake vent temperature reaches 200-225 F, you can add dry wood chunks or pre-soaked wood chips to produce smoke. Never over-fill the chip tray with wood, it should be mostly air.
Partially close exhaust vents and check damper settings to bring the smoker to your target temperature, usually 225-275 F depending on the meat. Make minor vent adjustments to maintain a consistent temperature.
Your vertical smoker is now set up and ready to start smoking meat! Place the meat on racks, close the smoker door, and monitor the internal temperature and wood chips regularly to ensure perfect results.
Step #2: Fire Up the Smoker (Add Wood Chips)
Make sure your smoker is properly set up with charcoal/heating elements, a water pan, racks, vents adjusted, and a thermometer probe in place. The smoker should be preheated to 200-225 F.
Have your choice of wood chips ready in a bowl or lidded container. Soaked or dry chips work fine, depending on how much smoke flavor you want. Soaked chips produce smoke for longer. Popular wood types for smoking meat include hickory, mesquite, apple, and pecan.
For charcoal smokers, lift the charcoal grate or firebox door and use tongs to bury 4-6 lit charcoal briquettes evenly in the unlit charcoal. Make sure not to uncover too much of the charcoal at once, it releases a lot of heat. Bury the lit briquettes and recover the grate/door quickly.
Add a first batch of dry wood chips over the charcoal or in the dedicated chip tray/box in your smoker and cover. For electric smokers, simply fill the chip tray with a generous handful of wood chips. Do not overfill the tray, it’s best if it’s no more than half full for airflow.
Keep your smoker intake and exhaust vents fully open at first to quickly produce smoke. Watch the internal temperature and vent positions to bring the temperature to your target (usually 225-275 F). Adjust vents to stabilize the temperature.
Check on your smoker within the first 30 minutes to ensure it’s producing thin, blue smoke rather than thick, white smoke which will make the meat bitter. Add another batch of chips if the first load has burned up and the smoke has cleared.
Add water to the water pan, more charcoal, and wood chips as needed to maintain both smoke and temperature for the duration of cooking. Check at least every 2 hours. Do not let the water pan run dry or the temperature drop.
Avoid opening the smoker door frequently, especially for the first 3-4 hours. Only open to add charcoal, chips, or water and close the door again quickly each time.
Once done cooking, shut down your smoker by closing all vents to smother the charcoal and wood chips. Never leave a smoker fully unattended after cooking is completed.
Step #3: Fill the Water Pan with Water
Filling the water pan in a vertical smoker is an important step for producing juicy, flavorful meat. Here are some tips for using the water pan:
Choose a heatproof pan that fits securely in your smoker. Stainless steel and cast iron pans work well. Make sure any handle attachments can withstand high heat or remove them.
Fill the pan at least 2/3 full with water, juice, or wine before placing it in the smoker. The liquid will slowly evaporate, releasing steam to moisten the meat. Do not overfill the pan, it’s best if there’s still some air space at the top.
For extra flavor, use fruit juice (apple, cherry, grape), wine (especially fruity ones), or diluted vinegar or citrus juice instead of plain water. The natural sugars and flavors will impart subtle notes to the meat.
Check the water level in the pan every 2-3 hours while smoking and refill as needed. Do not let the pan run dry, it’s important for continuously moisturizing the meat.
To avoid spills when refilling or removing the pan from the smoker, have oven mitts, tongs, and a tray ready. Carefully lift one end at a time rather than trying to remove the entire pan at once.
For long smokes (8 hours or more), consider using a larger pan, drip pan, or foil pan in addition to the water pan. The extra pan catches grease drippings from the meat to prevent flare-ups. Empty it after cooking before the grease hardens.
Once done cooking, let any remaining water, juice, or wine cool before disposing of it. Do not dump a full, hot pan immediately after removing it from the smoker. Letting it cool prevents dangerous spills and splattering.
Clean the water pan with hot, soapy water after each use to prevent built-up grime and bacterial growth. Dry completely before storing.
Using a water pan helps produce tender, juicy meat in a vertical smoker. The steam and moisture it provides balance out the drying effects of low and slow smoking.
Step #4: Place the Grills, then the Food
After preparing your vertical smoker and adding wood chips for smoke, you’re ready to place the grills and arrange the meat. Here are some tips for Step #4:
Make sure racks/grills are installed according to your smoker’s instructions. Racks allow for proper airflow and support the meat during long cook times.
For easier cleaning, you can spray racks with nonstick cooking spray before adding meat. The coating prevents excess stuck-on bits after smoking.
Arrange meat evenly on racks in a single layer. Do not stack pieces on top of each other, which prevents proper smoke circulation.
For large cuts of meat (brisket, pork shoulder), center the thickest part over the water pan. The extra moisture will help the densest area cook through.
Place fattier cuts (ribs, sausages) on upper racks where they will drip onto the water pan. The excess grease can cause flare-ups on lower racks.
Make sure all vents/dampers are fully open before placing the meat. Getting plenty of airflow and heat inside the smoker helps it recover the temperature that was lost when the door was opened.
Add water, juice, or wine to replenish the water pan after arranging the meat. moisture continuously escapes during long smokes and keeping the pan from running dry is critical.
Check on the meat within 30 minutes to ensure it’s producing thin, blue smoke and the temperature has stabilized. Make any necessary vent/damper adjustments and wood chip additions at this point before avoiding opening the door again for 3-4 hours if possible.
Be careful when opening the smoker door to not lose too much heat. Only open briefly to check on meat and the water pan level every 2-3 hours. Loss of heat can drastically impact total cook time.
To check for doneness, the meat’s internal temperature should reach 195-205 F for brisket or pork shoulder, 195 F for chicken, or 195 F for beef ribs. Use a meat probe to check without opening the smoker.
Once the target temperature is reached, promptly remove the meat. Let rest, then serve and enjoy your smoked meat!
Step #5: Monitor and Maintain the Desired Temperature
Maintaining a consistent temperature is one of the most important steps for successfully smoking meat in a vertical smoker. Here are some tips for Step #5:
Use a dual-probe meat thermometer to monitor both the smoker’s temperature and the internal temperature of the meat. Place one probe in the intake vent and the other in the thickest part of the meat.
For most meats, aim for a smoker temperature of 225-275 F. Brisket and pork shoulder are on the lower end of the range, while chicken and sausages are higher. Choose a target temperature based on what you’re smoking.
Make frequent adjustments to the intake and exhaust vents to control the smoker’s temperature. Opening vents increase heat and airflow while closing vents decrease them. Never fully close off airflow, the fire still needs some oxygen.
Check the vents and temperature every 30 minutes to an hour for the first 3-4 hours of smoking, then every 2-3 hours thereafter. Minor tweaks to the vents and ensuring proper fuel levels go a long way in keeping an even temperature.
Don’t let the temperature fluctuate by more than 25 degrees F if possible. Large spikes up and down drastically impact cooking time and can dry out the meat. But doing your best to make the temperature as consistent as reasonably possible is most important.
Add more charcoal, wood chips, and replenish the water pan as needed to maintain temperature and proper smoke levels. Make additions quickly each time the smoker is opened to avoid losing too much heat.
Avoid opening the smoker door frequently, especially for the first few hours. Only open to add more fuel and check on the water pan level. Every time the door is opened, valuable heat and smoke escape.
Be very careful when adding charcoal/wood and removing the water pan from a lit smoker. Always have heavy oven mitts, tongs, and heat-resistant trays ready, and remove one end of the pan at a time. Safety is key.
Once the meat has finished cooking, shut down your smoker completely by closing all vents to smother the charcoal and wood chips. Never leave a smoker fully unattended after cooking.
Step #6: Take Out the Meat and Leave It to Rest
The final step for smoking meat in a vertical smoker is removing it once it reaches the proper internal temperature and allowing it to rest before serving. Here are some tips:
Check the internal temperature of the meat with a probe thermometer. Brisket and pork shoulder should reach 195-205 F, chicken reaches 165 F, and beef ribs 195 F.
Once the target temperature is reached, promptly remove the meat from the smoker. Use heavy-duty tongs and oven mitts to carefully transfer the meat to a platter or cutting board.
Let the meat rest for at least 10-30 minutes before slicing/pulling so the juices can redistribute. The internal temperature will continue to rise slightly, so remove the meat just before it reaches your final target temp.
Loosely tent the meat with foil while resting. Tenting traps steam to help the meat stay warm, but still allows it to breathe. Do not tightly wrap the meat in foil immediately after smoking.
Empty excess grease from the water/drip pan to avoid flare-ups before the juices and grease hardens. Be very careful not to burn yourself on a hot pan – use heavy oven mitts and tongs.
Let any remaining lit charcoal or wood burn out completely inside the smoker after removing the meat. Never leave a smoker fully unattended until the fuel has smoldered and any smoke/vapors have cleared.
After the meat has rested, you can serve, carve, pull, or slice as desired. The resting meat will be very tender and juicy, with melted collagen and fat throughout. Enjoy your delicious smoked meat!
Refrigerate any leftover meat within 2 hours to prevent foodborne illness. Smoked meat can last up to 1 week refrigerated or be frozen for up to 3 months.
Clean your smoker by wiping down racks, water pan, door seals, and the interior with hot, soapy water. Dry completely to prevent rust before storing. Remove accumulated ash from charcoal smokers.
Letting the meat rest is one of the most important steps after smoking for achieving maximum juiciness and tenderness. Be very careful when removing meat and working with a hot smoker.