Trying to get your temperature to maintain a steady temperature can be a challenge, especially in the colder months. Some smokers are well insulated and can burn hot over a number of hours, but if your smoker struggles to stay hot, here are a few simple tricks.
Make sure you have built a large enough fire in the beginning, otherwise it will be difficult to maintain a high enough temperature. Open all the vents during startup to increase airflow and use a charcoal starter to keep adding lit coal. Once you are well over your target temperature, begin closing down the vents. Eliminate the water pan, use dry charcoal, and clear ash from the fire basket to prevent the coals from being suffocated. If weather is the issue, try Insulate your smoker with a thermal jacket, place a brick in the cooking chamber or make a DIY wind break.
1. Remove The Water Pan
Consider eliminating the water pan if your smoker isn’t getting hot enough. I recommended a water pan most of the time to help regulate the temperature and prevent your meat from drying out, but if your smoker is struggling to reach high temperatures, take it out. If you must use water, use a smaller amount, about an inch or less, and make sure the water is hot before pouring in into the water pan, and control the temperature with the vents rather than water.
2. Put A Brick In Your Smoker
A quick-fix for heat retention is by placing a brick inside your smoker. The brick will absorb heat and keep your smoker hot. Don’t put the brick directly into the fire, keep it well away by placing it on a rack or inside the empty water pan.
3. Keep The Charcoal Basket Full
If you can’t maintain a high temperature in your smoker, you may not have built a big enough fire to begin with. This is especially important if it is a cold day because it will be easier to wind back the temperature rather than trying to raise it. Use a charcoal chimney to pre-light coals and dump multiple loads onto the fire if the temperature dips.
4. Pre-Light Charcoal and Keep It Coming
Make sure the coal is fully ignited your chimney starter before pouring them into the fire basket. If you don’t wait until every coal is white hot, it will take your smoker longer to come up to the target temperature. If the temperature drops during the cook, light another full chimney on the side and then add it to the fire.
5. Don’t Use Damp Coals
Another reason your smoker may not be heating enough is if your fuel is damp or wet. If coals are wet, they will light but they will take a longer. If you don’t want to waste your damp coals, place them on top of the hot coals.
6. Use Lump Charcoal
Lump coal will burn a little hotter than charcoal briquettes. Briquettes contain additives but will give you a long, consistent burn. Lump charcoal burns much hotter and doesn’t leave as much ash. If you use the Minion Method correctly, you can cook for hours.
Not all charcoal is equal, and you will find differences between brands. There have been multiple experiments to find the best charcoal, and I’ve written an article about the findings. If you’re interested, you can find the article here: Which Lump Hardwood Charcoal Burns the Best?
7. Clean The Ash
Clean your ash basket after each use because you want to make sure there is enough oxygen flowing through your fire. Ash can choke out hot coals, especially briquettes. Also, allow your fire to breathe by slightly elevating your charcoal basket so air can flow underneath.
8. Open All The Vents To Create More Airflow
Another reason your smoker may not be getting hot enough could be related to airflow. When starting up your smoker, open all the vents so your fire can get plenty of oxygen. Once the fire is going strong, adjust the vents and close them off so they are open about 1/4.
The bottom vent provides the oxygen to the smoker and will be the main heat driver. If you close the bottom vent, it will starve the fire of oxygen and will burn out. On most pits, the bottom vent is the primary way to control temperature.
The vent on the top of the smoker has two functions. First, it works like a chimney and removes the gases, heat and smoke to escape. Second, the top vent works like a vacuum and pulls oxygen through the smoker. The top vent should always be partially open to allow the gases to escape, otherwise, they will smother the fire. Also, make sure your coals are raised in a grate so the air can flow through the coal basket.
9. Don’t Trust An In-Built Thermometer – Is It Accurate?
If your smoker is measuring low temperatures, make sure your thermometer isn’t lying to you. If you’re serious about low-and-slow cooking, the most important tool you will own is a decent meat thermometer. Never trust an in-built factory thermometer because they don’t give you an accurate reading. Most serious pitmasters use their own duel-probed thermometers that read the temperature of their cooking chamber and the internal temperature of the meat. If you don’t have a good thermometer, you’re cooking blind. If you know nothing about meat thermometers, I wrote an article you might be interested in reading: The Beginner’s Guide To Meat Thermometers.
10. Insulate Your Smoker
If your smoker isn’t well insulated, it will struggle to reach higher temperatures on a cold day. The problem with most smokers is they aren’t very well insulated to deal with the cold weather. Smoking meat in winter can be difficult and you will use twice as much fuel. The more expensive smokers have double-walled insulation, but the cheaper smokers have thin metal so they can’t keep the heat in, and can’t keep the cold out.
If you can’t afford an insulated smoker, there are several options available so you make your pit hotter in the colder months. Many people use welding blankets or thermal jackets for hot water tanks and place them over the smoker’s exterior. If you want more information about insulating your smoker, I’ve written an article Smoking Meat In Winter, and I outline all the different insulation options and products.
11. Build A Shelter To Stop Wind Sucking Out Heat
Sometimes it’s difficult to get your smoker hot enough on a freezing day. Wind is one of your biggest enemies when smoking meat, especially if your smoker has lots of leaks and cracks. If too much wind can blow in and out of your smoker, you’re not going to have any temperature stability. The last thing you want is cold air flowing into the cooking chamber and drawing out all the heat.
You want to retain all the heat inside your smoker, and prevent too much cold air entering. Place the smoker in an area where it protected from the wind. If you live in a windy area, consider building a windbreak out of plywood and an insulated blanket.
12.Buy An Insulated Smoker
If you live in a cold climate, consider buying a smoker that is better able to retain heat. A well-made smoker is constructed with thick metal and has no leaks. Some of the top-of-the-line smokers have double-walled insulation, but most have a single layer.
Ceramic smokers such as the Big Green Egg or Kamado Joe are the most insulated smokers on the market and can be used year-round with no issues. An Ugly Drum Smoker only costs a few hundred dollars but is one of the hottest smokers around. One problem with a UDS is trying to keep the temperature lower.
If you want to know more about ceramic smokers, check out this article where I compare different ceramic smokers. Kamado Joe vs Big Green Egg- Which One is Better? If you want to know more about Ugly Drum Smokers, I have an in-depth guide here: How To Use An Ugly Drum Smoker.
13. How To Make An Electric Smoker Hotter
The main problem with electric smokers is they can’t get hot enough. Most electric smokers can only reach temperatures of about 250°F which is perfect for low-and-slow cooking, but not hot enough for crispy skin on a chicken or turkey. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to make an electric smoker hotter. The only option is to finish your turkey in a conventional oven to make the skin crispy.
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.