Smoking meat usually involves having to babysit your smoker most of the day, which makes it hard to leave your house or go to bed at night. If you’re smoking a large brisket, it can take up to 20 hours to cook, which is a long time to stay at home and monitor a smoker. Some pitmasters are cautious and always keep watch over their smoker, while others are more relaxed and will leave meat in the smoker overnight. I wanted to explore all the risks associated with different smokers, so I consulted experienced pitmasters to find out how many leave their pit.
In general, it is not recommended to leave a smoker unattended because most smokers carry some form of risk. A grease fire or a change in weather can cause huge temperature swings in charcoal smokers, which can ruin your meat or pose a fire risk. Pellet grills can sometimes have an active backburn in the auger, causing an excessive amount of smoke to come out of the hopper. Although many of these problems are rare, they are not uncommon. Leaving a smoker unattended depends on the smoker you are using, the fuel source, the weather, and where your smoker is situated.
Before You Leave Your Smoker – Know Your Pit
Before you consider leaving your smoker unattended, it’s important to have a very good understanding of your pit. You need to have mastered temperature control over that particular smoker and know how the temperatures fluctuate. Once you have done multiple cooks on a smoker, you can be more confident leaving it alone. You will know how much charcoal will last and what temperature.
Know Your Climate
Before leaving your smoker alone, you should also have a good knowledge of your local weather. Where I live, there’s always a strong afternoon breeze, so I definitely wouldn’t leave a charcoal smoker unattended any time after lunch unless it was in a well protected area. A strong wind can cause temperature in your smoker to fluctuate because an intake of oxygen can change the temperature fast.
Never leave your smoker in poor weather. Cold days require more fuel so you will need to be home to add more coals to the fire. It is dangerous to leave your cooker unattended if you live in an area with hot, dry conditions. One ember can start a big fire.
Flying Embers are a risk in windy conditions if you leave a charcoal smoker unattended. Embers can set fire to gardens or wooden decks.
Know Your Meat
If you’re going to leave your smoker unattended, you will want have a good understanding of the meat you are smoking because every cut of meat is different and will require specific techniques. Smoking a brisket is different to smoking ribs, and smoking turkey is something different all together.
How Long Will You Be Gone?
Listening to experienced pitmasters, many regularly cook overnight but few leave the house with their smoker unattended. It only takes one time for an accident to happen. If the temperature rapidly rises and starts a grease fire, you need to be there to deal with it. Those who sleep with something in the smoker will always have a good thermometer by their bedside to alert them of any significant temperature changes.
If you want to pop down to the store, the risk of anything bad happening is much lower. However, if you are going to be away from your smoker all day, that carries a great risk. You at least want to have somebody home in case of an emergency.
What If My Smoker Is Wi-Fi Controlled?
The merging of technology and barbeque has made monitoring your smoker much easier to leave your smoker unattended.These days there are a lot of the automated “set and forget” smokers that make low and slow cooking seem so simple and you can monitor your pit from remotely. However, when you are cooking with a fire, care always needs to be taken because it only takes one time for something to go wrong and disaster can strike.
There are several Wi-Fi thermometers on the market, and several pellet grills with Wi-Fi controllers. The Wi-Fi allows the thermometer or pellet grill to connect your smoker to a cloud and can be monitored via an app. You could be anywhere in the world and know how your smoked turkey is tracking. This technology has led to some complacency. It’s far more tempting to leave your smoker for the afternoon if you can keep watch on the temperature with an app on your smartphone.
If you are interested in Wi-Fi technology merged with barbecue, you might be interested in an article I’ve written about Wi-Fi thermometers that allow you to monitor your smoker via Cloud technology and an App. You can find the article here: Best Wi-Fi Meat Thermometers (We Review the 5 Top Models). Also Traeger now make Wi-Fi pellet grills, and you can read all about them in this article: Which Traeger Should I Buy? The Complete Guide To Traeger Pellet Grills
Can you Leave Your Smoker Overnight?
No doubt, the most common reason people leave their smoker is at night. An overnight brisket is common practice. Once the brisket has been wrapped, you can bring it inside and finish in the oven. You need a good thermometer to do this, and if something changes, at least you will be alerted. Leaving a charcoal smoker outside all night is a little risky. I would never leave a cheap charcoal smoker unattended, but feel more comfortable leaving a Weber Smokey Mountain, an Ugly Drum or a Kamado. However, even though those high-end smokers are well insulated, they can get hot very fast and need the vents closed off immediately.
Prevent Grease Fires
Residual grease can build up inside your smoker and ignite a grease fire in your cook chamber. If you are not around to manage the fire, things could easily go sideways. In the event of a grease fire, someone should be available to close off the doors and vents to starve the fire of oxygen.
Clean Your Smoker
You should make sure that your smoker is squeaky clean before you leave it unattended. Clean any grease from the grill grates and the bottom of your smoker. Make sure your drip pans are in place to catch any fat. For a more detailed article, check out Cleaning Your Smoker: How Often Should I Clean My Pit?
There is the risk of the fire going out completely and your meat not cooking. Ash could build up in the charcoal basket and suffocate your coals and cause a drop in temperature. If you are leaving the smoker for long periods, make sure you shake the coal basket to get rid of the ash before you leave and when you get back.
Meat Smoking Safety Tips
Here are some general safety tips to keep in mind when smoking meat to ensure you keep yourself, your family, and your house safe.
- In the event of a fire, you need to remove the fuel source, oxygen or heat.
- If your smoker catches fire, you need to deprive it of oxygen.
- If you are using an electric smoker, in the event of fire, close the doors and unplug the smoker from the power.
- If using a gas/propane smoker, in the event of fire, turn off all knobs, valves, and the main gas tank. Close all the doors and lid so oxygen can’t get in.
- With charcoal smokers, close the vents, doors and lid top to deprive the cooker of oxygen.
- Always have a fire extinguisher available.
- Have a welding blanket available to smother a fire.
- Keep your smoker away from your house or any other flammable objects.
- Be aware of the dangers if your smoker in on a wooden deck. Embers can set fire to your deck.
- Keep your smoker clean. Grease is a huge fire hazard. Be especially careful when cooking meat such a pork that can produce excessive grease. Grease commonly will build up at the bottom of the cooker.
- Keep heat-proof gloves nearby so you can quickly remove meat or other items from your smoker.
- Ensue your drip pan is in good condition and free from holes. If grease drips down onto the coals, it could start a grease fire. Some people recommend double pan your drip trays or an extra deep pan. Avoid using foil drip pans because they can easily fold, bend, or leak.
- Do not overload your smoker with too much meat. Overloading will cause excess grease that can spill over onto the flames.
- If it’s a hot and windy day, embers can travel and start fires. If you live in a hot, dry area, check if there is a total fire ban before firing up your smoker.
- No matter how different companies market their cookers, no meat smoker is purely “set and forget”. Whenever you are handling fire, there is always a risk.
Can You Leave a Pellet Grill?
Pellet grills are the most tempting smoker to leave unattended because they seem so automated. You can fill your Traeger’s hopper full of pellets and can leave it to smoke for hours. Pellet grills often have issues with the hopper, the auger or the firepot. The firepot can sometimes overfill and cause the temperature to spike. If the chimney isn’t open enough, all the smoke and gases can get trapped and cause the smoker to explode. A common issue is the auger can have an active backburn and copious amounts of smoke will gush out of the hopper.
The Dangers of Cheap Smokers
Some smokers on the market are more “set and forget” than others. If you have a cheaper smoker, be mindful of massive temperature swings. Cheap smokers are not well sealed so a change in temperature can see them destabilize quickly. If you have a cheap offset smoker, it will need re-fueling every hour.
Can you leave an Electric Smoker Unattended?
Electric smokers are probably the safest smoker to leave unattended. However, they still need monitoring. There have been cases where electric smokers have caught fire, so a person should be available to close the doors and unplug the smoker from the power in the event of fire. With electric smokers, it is safer to purchase good products with high-quality components.
Can You Leave a Propane Smoker?
Gas smokers are one of the safer smokers, but as with all smokers, someone should be available to turn off the knobs, valves, and main gas tank in the event of fire. The doors need to be closed so oxygen can’t get in. The other risk of gas smokers is the flame could go out and your meat won’t be cooked.
Kamado Fire Safety
Ceramic smokers like The Big Green Egg or Kamado Joe are safe and easy to use, but can be dangerous if left unattended because the temperatures can spike fast. Ceramic smokers are designed to cook with the lid closed. If a curious kid from the neighborhood wandered into your backyard and opened the lid, things could change dramatically.
My Favorite Meat Smoking Tools
Thanks for checking out this article. I hope you learned a few things. Here are some of my favorite tools I use when smoking brisket that may be useful to you. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to purchase any of these products, I’ll earn a commission. But in all honesty, these are the tools I recommend to my family and friends who are just starting out.
Meat Thermometer: There are dozens of fancy thermometers on the market, but I still use my trusty TP20. For around $50, I have a high-quality meat thermometer with two probes, and can track the temperature of my smoker with one probe, and my meat with the other probe. The ThermoPro TP20 is an Amazon Best Seller because it’s the easiest thermometer to operate, is durable, highly accurate, and comes with pre-programmed meat settings.
Instant Read Thermometer: Arguably, the second most important tool you need is a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. These tools play an important role in the latter stages of the cook when the meat needs regular checking in multiple areas. I use the ThermoPro TP19 because it can do everything a ThermaPen can do, but for a fraction of the cost. You can check out the TP19 on Amazon here.
Butcher Paper: Wrapping brisket in butcher paper has become a huge trend in barbeque thanks to Aaron Franklin. Wrapping your brisket in paper will give you a nice brisket bark. However, you can’t just use any old paper, it has to be unwaxed, food grade paper. You can find it on Amazon here.
Advanced Thermometer and Automatic Temperature Controller: Once you’re ready to take things seriously, the FireBoard 2 Drive is a six-channel Bluetooth/Wi-Fi thermometer that can monitor up to 6 pieces of meat, control and graph your cook sessions on your smartphone, and attaches to an an automatic blower that will convert your charcoal smoker to a set-and-forget. This is one of the most advanced meat thermometers on the market. You can check it out on the FireBoard website here.