Cleaning Your Smoker: How Often Should I Clean My Pit?


When smoking meat, we want to eliminate as many problems as possible. Cleaning and maintaining your smoker is essential if you want to produce quality smoked meat. A dirty smoker can cause all kinds of problems from grease fires to bad smoke that will make your meat taste disgusting. Temperature control is critical with low-and-slow cooking, and a dirty smoker can block vents and effect airflow, causing temperature fluctuations. Regular cleaning and maintenance of your smoker is the best way to avoid these problems. But how often should you clean your smoker? 

As a general rule, clean your smoker every two or three cooks. Scrape grill grates before each use and remove any lumps of grease to prevent it from catching fire and producing dirty smoke that will ruin your meat. Clean charcoal smokers every two cooks because they create a lot of mess. Electric, pellet and gas smokers produce less mess and only need cleaning after every four or five cooks, however, pellet grills should have the fire pot vacuumed before each use.

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Dirty Smoker Equals Bad Smoke

Creating a nice, clean smoke is one key to perfect smoked meat. If your smoker is dirty, it will start producing dirty smoke. Grease and gunk can build up in your smoker, and when it catches fire, it can create dirty smoke and will make your meat taste disgusting. A smoker should produce an almost transparent blue purple smoke. When grease on cooking grates catch fire, it can create black smoke that will make the meat taste bitter. Bad smoke is something we want to avoid, so we want to do everything possible to get a nice, clean smoke rolling out from our smoker.

Remove Creosote

The build-up of black soot and ash on the walls of your smoker contains creosote, a substance that will make your meat taste bitter. It’s always easier to clean your smoker while it’s still hot. It pays to give the walls a quick wipe after each cook, just to prevent a build-up of creosote.

Grease Fires

Grease fires are something you want to avoid when smoking meat because it will cause the temperature of your smoker to spike and burn or dry out your meat. Also, when grease catches fire it will create excess smoke. A small amount of grease smoke won’t harm your meat, but too much may affect the taste. We always want to do our best to control the quality of the smoke and ensure we smoked our meat with clean smoke from wood and charcoal.

A grease fire also poses a huge safety risk if you leave your smoker unattended. Briskets are a day and night cook, so it’s not uncommon for people to do an overnight smoke. If you are thinking about leaving your smoker unattended, make sure it is squeaky clean and free of grease. If a lump of grease catches fire at the bottom of your smoker, the temperature of your smoker will increase and dry out your brisket.

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Remove Grease

Clean your grill grates and scrape off any lumps of grease. Empty your grease tray and clear the grease hole if your smoker has one. Always use a drip tray and keep it clean. Position your grease tray directly under your meat so no grease drips down onto the fire.

Grease pans should to catch anything that falls from the meat, but after a few cooks, there can be a build-up of grease drippings at the bottom of the smoker and on the grill grates. This grease will turn bad after a while, and when heated, it can convert into bad vapors that are released into the cooking chamber and influence the taste of your meat.

Grease Pans

Most smokers will have a grease pan to collect grease drippings. The grease pan is usually a tray that slides out at the bottom of the smoker. There should also be a hole somewhere at the bottom of your smoker where the grease can drip through and fall into the grease pan below. When cleaning your smoker, make sure the grease hole isn’t blocked and remove the tray for cleaning.

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Ash Build-Up

If you are using a charcoal smoker, it’s important to clear the ash from the basket before each cook because ash build-up can choke out your flame. Excess ash can block the vents and prevent airflow, and if the smoker doesn’t have good airflow, your fire won’t get enough oxygen. Ash left at the bottom of your smoker can also damage the metal over time, so sweep it out with a brush & pan or a Shop Vac.

Grill Grates

Try clean cooking grates while they are still hot or take them inside and wash them with the dishes. The gunk and grease on grates can transfer across to your food, so they need to be clean before adding meat. Dirty grill grates can also produce black smoke which we want to avoid at all costs. Some racks have a protective coating so care needs to be taken when cleaning. As much as possible, avoid using metal brushes or scrapers that may remove the protective coating on the grills. This will prevent the grills from rusting. 

Mould

If you haven’t used your smoker in a while, you may get mould in your smoker. Mould results from trapped moisture and can build up on grill grates and the walls of the cook chamber. The best way to deal with mould is to fire up your smoker and burn it off, then give your smoker a good scrape and clean.

To avoid mould, make sure your smoker is free from grease and moisture if you don’t plan on using it for a while. Keep your smoker in a dry area and make sure it has good airflow. Be careful throwing blankets or covers over your smoker because this will trap the moisture inside your smoker and lead to mould. Depending on your type of smoker, remove the lid or open the air vents while your smoker is in storage.

Degreaser and BBQ Cleaners

As a general rule, it’s best to avoid using chemical cleaners on your smoker because we don’t want to introduce any toxins that will ruin our meat. If anything, use a mild dishwashing liquid to clean the walls and grates of your smoker. Rather than using chemicals, buy some good cleaning tools with a scraper and a metal brush, and clean areas of your smoker while it’s hot.

Smoker Cleaning Tools

The best tool for cleaning a smoker is a metal brush with a scraper. I use a two-in-one multi tool with a scraper and brush. If you do a lot of barbecuing or meat smoking, then you should equip yourself with the right tools. Here is a list of useful tools and equipment to clean your smoker:

  • Scraper tools (long and short)
  • Metal Brush
  • Plastic scraper 
  • Paper Towels
  • Empty Buckets
  • Plastic Tub
  • Shop Vac wet/dry vacuum
  • Hose and clean water
  • Razor blades

Cleaning Pellet Grills

A Shop Vac is the best and safest way to clean a pellet grill. Never use water to clean a pellet grill because they have several electrical components that need to be kept dry. Also, wood pellets will be ruined if they get wet. Remove the cooking grates and clean them in your kitchen, rather than splashing water all over your grill.

It’s a good practice to Shop Vac your pellet grill before each use just to avoid any problems. Make sure you vacuum wood pellets and ash out of the firepot leftover from the previous cook. The digital controller on your pellet grill won’t know that there are already pellets in the firepot, so it will feed more through. This can be dangerous with some pellet grills. If you don’t have a Shop Vac, you can pick one up for about $100 on Amazon. Check the latest price here.

How to Clean a Pellet Smoker

  1. Clean a pellet smoker from the top down. Clean the residue from the inside of the lid with a sponge of paper towel. 
  2. The area where the chimney meets the barrel can get very dirty. Use a plastic scraper to clean around the chimney. 
  3. Remove and clean the grill grates. Avoid using heavy scrapers if grill grates have a protective coating. Some pellet smokers have removable grill grates that can go into the dishwasher. 
  4. Most pellet smokers have a deflector pan under the grill grate. These deflector pans contain vents that become blocked with dust. Use a small metal scraper to clear the vents. 
  5. The thermometer inside the grill plays an important role in the distribution of pellets. Clean the thermometer with a paper towel or soft sponge. 
  6. Grease spillages at the bottom of pellet smokers can start grease fires. To avoid this, clean out the grease shoot, the grease tray and the grease bucket. 
  7. Use a Shop Vac vacuum cleaner to remove any debris from the fire pot and other areas.
  8. Clean the outside of the smoker with a degreaser spray. 

How To Clean A Charcoal Smoker 

Charcoal smokers such as kettle grills, drum smokers, kamado smokers produce a lot of mess, so we should clean them every few cooks. Empty and clean the charcoal basket before each cook and dust off the vents. It also pays to give the grill grates a quick scrape while the smoker is heating, because you don’t want any gunk dropping into the fire. A dirty smoker will produce dirty smoke and give your meat a bitter taste.

How to Clean a Big Green Egg

Ceramic smokers are fairly straightforward to clean and should be done every four to five cooks. You can buy specific Big Green Egg cleaning tools, but a regular grill tool can get the job done. Ceramic smokers are fairly straightforward to clean and should be done every four to five cooks.

  1. Use the grill brush to scrape the grill. It is easier to while hot after each cook. 
  2. Remove grill and rake the coals at the bottom of the pit. Use the grill tool and sift the ash from the coal. Remove the coal and put it aside for future use. 
  3. Once you’ve removed the coal, clean the holes on the bottom grate. Make sure the holes are unblocked. If the holes get blocked with ash, it will affect the airflow of the smoker. 
  4. Using the grill tool, slide open the fire gate at the bottom of the smoker. Scrape all the ash out of the bottom of the fire gate into a bucket. 
  5. Remove the fire ring and the bottom grate. Scrape the bottom on the smoker, then vacuum the remaining ash from all the corners. 

How to Clean an Offset Smoker

Offset smokers are one of the easier smokers to clean because the fire and ash are separate from the cook chamber, which makes cleaning easier. 

  1. Clean out the firebox. Remove the charcoal basket and empty. Remove the grate from the firebox. Scrape the ash out of the firebox and scrape into a bucket. You only have to dust the firebox, not scrubbed.  
  2. Remove the sensor, grates and plates and lay them in a tub. Scrape and clean them with water but avoid detergents. 
  3. Clean the inside of the cook chamber and the inside of the lid. Flakes can fall down onto your food which is what you want to avoid. 
  4. Clean outside of the smoker with a paper towel and wipe the thermometers. 
  5. Try to avoid the pit getting wet. If the offset smoker gets wet, fire it up to dry it out. 

How to Clean an Electric Smoker

Electric smokers are one of the easiest smokers to keep clean. However, grease spills and black soot build up inside and you will need to clean it out every four or five cooks.

  1. First, slide out the grease trap at the bottom of the smoker. We can clean this inside just like a pot or pan. 
  2. Open the smoker and remove all the probes, trays and racks. You should also clean racks in the kitchen sink. 
  3. Remove the wood box and scrape out any woodsheds our ash. 
  4. Take a metal scraper and remove the gunk at the bottom of the electric smoker. Use a damp paper towel to wipe the bottom surface. Avoid using chemicals. Some people use mild dishwashing soap, but it is best to avoid if possible. 
  5. The bottom of the smoker should have some kind of grease hole that leads to the grease trap. Make sure this hole isn’t blocked to avoid any grease fires. 

How to Clean Glass Door on an Electric Smoker

Some electric smokers have a glass door, and these turn black. The best way to clean the glass on an electric smoker is with a razor blade. Scrape the glass with the blade and the black gunk will fall away. The glass on an electric smoker will turn black after several smokes. This is difficult to clean without chemicals, so some believe it is best to leave alone since you need not be able to see what is going on inside the smoker. 

How to Clean An Ugly Drum Smoker

  1. Take out all the grates from the drum and empty the charcoal bin. 
  2. Remove the liner from the barrel.
  3. Use a metal scraper to scrape the bottom of the drum. Scrape the edges of the barrel. 
  4. Lift the drum and empty the debris into a bin. 
  5. Some people use a BBQ caustic cleaner to clean out the drum. This is effective in cleaning the drum but make sure you hose out thoroughly. As mentioned in the above post, using chemicals in smokers is generally frowned upon. 
  6. An additional tip for a drum smoker is to line the bottom with foil or buy a plate to sit under the firebox. 

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