How to Use a Vertical Smoker?

Last Updated on September 24, 2021

Doug Stephen

Doug Stephen

Doug is a hardcore barbeque enthusiast and connoisseur. While he spends most of his time on editing and research, he sometimes moonlights as a product tester for particularly interesting things he comes across.

How to Use a Vertical Smoker?

When the weather gets warmer, there is often a rush to get the outdoor grill ready for a tasty cookout with family and friends. As grilling is a favorite American pastime, an entire industry has grown and developed a range of innovative grills that produce delicious meals every time.

A vertical smoker is ideal for infusing your meats and vegetables with tasty smoky flavors that melt in your mouth. You can even experiment with various types of spices and liquids to give your meats an extra kick.

A vertical smoker can come with many features, so it is imperative to know precisely how it works.

How Does a Vertical Smoker Work?

cooking chicken in a vertical smoker

A vertical smoker comes in three separate sections. There is a firebox at the bottom, which is where the heat comes from, and in the middle is the water pan. The water pan holds liquids for keeping meats moist during the cooking process and is essential for ensuring food is succulent and flavorsome. 

The top of a vertical smoker has the cooking chamber, and because it is above the smoke, the flavors slowly drift up to permeate the meat.

It is vital to consider some key features of your vertical smoker. Front-loading doors may be a better option than top-loading doors because less smoke comes out the front when checking on meat. Many vertical smokers even come with 2-door access, enabling you to check the water pan is full, and the heat level is sufficient, without the need to open the cooking chamber. 

You may also want to choose a smoker with adjustable shelves for extra flexibility when cooking, and be sure to check the temperature range of your preferred model. Thicker meats such as steak may require a higher temperature than slimmer fish, so you need to be sure your smoker is suitable for your needs. 

While it is possible to cook with gas or electric vertical grills, charcoal models provide the best flavors and are the most fun to use.

How To Use a Vertical Smoker?

How To Use Vertical Smoker

Cooking on a vertical smoker is fun, and because it takes some skill, you can get better with practice. Take the time to understand how small adjustments to the water pan and fuel level are worth the effort as it helps you cook meals to perfection.

Cleaning Your Vertical Smoker

The first step is to clean your vertical smoker thoroughly. While you don’t want any dirt or grime to come into contact with your food, it’s also crucial to ensure there is no fat or grease leftover from a previous cookout. Any little bits of food can ruin the taste of your next grilling experience.

Lighting Your Vertical Smoker

You can use wood or charcoal to light your smoker, but the best method is to use both. Charcoal lights efficiently, and the smoke contributes to the flavors that infuse into your meats and vegetables. You can use lighter fluid on your charcoal or use a charcoal chimney. 

Chimneys have vents, and you light a fire using paper below the coals, and then pour the charcoal into the firebox when they are lit. Charcoal chimneys are safe and effective, making them popular among the outdoor cooking community. You can also buy pretreated charcoal that lights quickly, but a charcoal chimney removes the need for any chemicals that may impact the taste of your food.

When the charcoal is lit and turns gray, it is ready for cooking. As the gray color appears, you can add wood chips on top of the coals for extra flavoring. You can choose from various flavors such as apple or cherry, and you may find that some meats combine better with particular types of wood. Part of the fun of using a vertical smoker is the ability to experiment.

Fill Your Water Pan

When the coals are hot, it is time to fill your water pan. Because the water pan sits above the firebox, the liquid heats and provides moisture to the cooking chamber. Although the primary use is to keep food moist during cooking, many cooking enthusiasts also use the water pan to add extra flavors to their meal. 

You can add spices to the water, or even use cider or beer instead of water. The key is to ensure your pan always contains some liquid, or your food could become dry and tough. 

The ideal starting level is for the pan to be around ¾  full, so you shouldn’t need to refill it too much during cooking. If you fill your water pan to the brim, you might spill some liquid into the firebox, extinguishing the flames before you’ve begun to cook.

Add Your Meat and Monitor

Now that the firebox and water pan are ready, it’s time to add your meat to the cooking chamber. Try to evenly space meat around the cooking chamber so the smoke can fully wrap around the edges and permeate into every morsel.

Conclusion: there is a skill to use a vertical smoker, and you should stay close by to monitor the temperature and smoke levels. As your charcoal and wood burn down, you may find the temperature has dropped, and the smoke has become a thick, black color.

You can add more fuel to raise the temperature, and you should allow more time to thoroughly cook your meat. If the water pan is running low, you need to add more liquid to ensure your meat remains moist and tender. Turn your meat occasionally, allowing smoke to make contact with both sides, and ensuring it cooks all the way through.

Doug Stephen

Doug Stephen


Vertical smokers are excellent for slow-cooking meat, allowing you to try different flavors that you can’t get with other grill types. When relaxing with friends and family, using a vertical smoker is a great way to prepare exciting meals they may not have tasted anywhere else, furthering your reputation as a grill master.

Although vertical smokers tend to be smaller than horizontal cookers, they punch above their weight when it comes to taste. If you’re ready to up your grilling game, then a vertical smoker is an excellent choice.