How to use a smoker safely

Smoking is a great way to add flavor to meat, fish and poultry.

Smoking meat, poultry, and fish are a wonderful way to flavor these foods with natural smoke flavor and can also tenderize meats. A smoker is an outdoor cooker especially made for this purpose and uses electricity or charcoal for slowly cooking foods over an indirect fire. You can also smoke foods using a covered grill. 

Always completely thaw the meat, fish, or poultry before smoking. Since smoking uses low temperatures to cook food, the food will take too long to thaw in the smoker, allowing time for harmful bacteria to grow. Michigan State University Extension recommends that food is never thawed at room temperature; the best place to thaw foods is in the refrigerator. A microwave oven can also be used to thaw foods but then it is important to start the cooking/smoking process immediately after thawing. 

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for preheating the smoker. If the smoker uses charcoal, buy commercial charcoal briquettes or aromatic wood chips. Only use approved fire starters – never use gasoline or other combustibles not made for use with food. Let the charcoal get red hot with gray ash.  This might take 10 to 20 minutes depending on the amount of charcoal. The charcoal should be piled around the drip pan. Fill the drip pan with water to maintain a moist environment. The drip pan will catch any fat or juice from the food and prevent it from flaming up on the coals. 

The USDA recommends using hickory, apple, or maple wood chips or flakes for the best smoke flavor. About ½ cup of wood chips can be added to the charcoal if desired. Wood chips should be soaked in water before using to prevent flare-ups. Check the smoker to make sure the drip pan contains water and add about 15 charcoal briquettes every hour.

The smoker should have a thermometer to monitor the temperature inside of the smoker. Keep the temperature between 225 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit. You should also have a thermometer such as an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature of the foods you are smoking. Do not leave the thermometer in the food inside the smoker unless the thermometer is oven safe. Safe minimum food temperatures are:

  • 145 degrees F for all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal chops, steaks and roasts in the thickest part of the cut.
  • 160 degrees F for ground beef, pork, lamb and veal.
  • 165 degrees F for all types of poultry.

Sauces such as barbecue sauce can be added during the last 15 to 30 minutes of cooking time to avoid burning. 

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