The Ultimate Guide on How to Use an Offset Smoker Like a Pro

Last Updated on October 12, 2021

Jim Bob

Jim Bob

A long-time contributor to GrillBabyGrill. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.


Offset smokers are classic pieces of outdoor cooking gear and are among the most popular indirect grills on the market. Unlike electric, gas, or charcoal smokers, offset smokers feature multiple compartments that can be challenging for beginners, and there are a few tips you need to know before you can start whipping up delicious barbecue recipes.

To make the most of these exceptional grills, here is a simple step-by-step guide on how to use an offset smoker. By following the steps laid out in this guide, you’ll be able to start cooking up your favorite barbecue meats in no time at all.

An offset smoker infuses your meat and vegetables with a delicious smoky flavor that you just can’t get using other grill types. Offset smokers are also incredibly fun to use, requiring an appreciation of how to control airflow and the skill to react to temperature changes within the cooking chamber.

The name comes from the firebox’s position in relation to the primary cooking chamber, and they use an indirect cooking style that can slow cook meat to succulent perfection. 

If you’re ready to raise your grilling game to the next level, an offset smoker is an ideal choice.

1. What Is an Offset Smoker?


Image Courtesy: Todd Dwyer

An offset smoker is an outdoor grill that features a large horizontal cooking chamber and a small firebox on the side. These grills were originally designed to imitate a classic barbecue pit setup in which the fire is stoked in an adjacent room, and the smoke is drawn into the next room where it flows over the meat, imparting a bold smoky flavor without the intense heat. 

Offset smokers are ideal for low, slow cooking due to the use of indirect heat, and when used correctly, they can produce high-quality, juicy competition-worthy smoked meats.

How it works?

Before using an offset smoker, it’s vital to understand how it works. Most models have a large cooking chamber, and the firebox sits slightly to the side and just below, allowing smoke to rise to enter the cooking area. There are built-in vents for controlling the amount of oxygen that reaches the flames, with more oxygen meaning a hotter and faster burning fire. 

There is also a chimney extruding from the cooking chamber, which you can open and close, depending on how much smoke you want to use when cooking your food. Opening the chimney allows more smoke to escape into the air, producing a light smoky taste.

2. Step-by-Step Guide on How to Use an Offset Smoker

Step 1 – Starting the Fire and Heating Your Smoker

Start by placing your smoker on a level, even surface, preferably a smooth outdoor patio or deck.

Select which fuel-source you want to use; use both coal and wood for more even cooking temperatures. The types of wood you choose is crucial for achieving the best results. Opt for cured hardwood that has been aged for 6-12 months. Avoid kiln dried wood because these varieties tend to be too dry and burn too hot. The wood type drastically affects the flavor of the dish. Choose sweeter wood like applewood or cherrywood for poultry or fish, and mesquite or hickory for red meat as it offers a more intense smoky flavor. 

Place your charcoal in a chimney starter and light the charcoal using a lighter cube or newspaper and a lighter. Avoid dousing your charcoal in lighter fluid to start your charcoal as this can contaminate your meat.

Allow your charcoal to heat for about 20-30 minutes and dump them out of your chimney starter into the firebox. It’s worth emptying the coals on the far side of the firebox, so you don’t have to keep reaching over the fire to access them.

Once you’ve allowed the charcoal to heat, place a couple of wood pieces into the firebox and onto the coals to start burning and generating smoke. Remember to have some spare wood and charcoal available, just in case you need to add some more fuel to your smoker.

Step 2 – Controlling the Temperature

On the right-hand side of your firebox, you’ll see vents that you can open and close to control the temperature of your smoker.

If you want to increase your smoker’s temperature, keep the vent open and add more fuel to your smoker; if you want to lower the temperature, keep the vent partially or entirely closed to limit the oxygen flow. Use a meat thermometer that also measures the smoker’s ambient temperature. Between 225-275°F is the ideal smoker temperature for slow cooking.

Keep an eye on the kind of smoke that’s coming out of the chimney. You don’t want white puffy smoke; you want to have thin blue smoke; this type of smoke gives you the best flavor on your meat. The more air you get to your fire, the cleaner your fire is going to be, so try and keep the vents on the firebox open as much as you can.

Step 3 – Smoke and Fire Management

An offset smoker requires constant tending, and you need to control the amount and type of smoke to obtain the best results. Open the chimney stack, and you can view the smoke produced by the fire, which can tell you a lot about your firebox’s readiness. 

If you see thick, black smoke, your fire is still in the early stages of burning, and you should wait before putting meat on the cooking grates. Dark smoke could also mean that you need to add more charcoal or wood to the firebox, so you should keep a fuel source nearby. 

When the smoke becomes less dense, this indicates you are ready to cook on the grill. However, you need to control the amount of smoke while you cook, as it can change if you add more fuel, run low on wood or charcoal, or even if the weather changes. Sudden gusts of wind could add too much oxygen into the firebox resulting in a rapid increase in heat and smoke.

Use the damper and chimney stack to manage the fire and smoke levels, and this is a skill that becomes easier with experience and practice. The amount of smoke you require depends on how much flavor you want to infuse into your food, and this may change depending on how thick the cut is and the texture of the meat.

Step 4 – Rotate the Meat

The temperature in an offset cooking chamber can vary dramatically from one end of the box to the other. It’s essential to monitor your meat and rotate it regularly to ensure it cooks thoroughly and that there are no hot or cold spots. 

It’s a good idea to invest in a separate temperature gauge to check the heat level in various sections of the cooking chamber, and a meat probe is excellent for ensuring the food is ready for serving. If you use the entire cooking surface area, remember that some foods could be cooking quicker than others, so you need to check each piece of meat individually.

Step 5 – Cleaning Your Smoker

An essential part of learning how to use an offset smoker is understanding how to clean and maintain your grill to prolong its lifespan. 

The first step in doing this is to open up the lid to the main cooking chamber. Use a firm wire brush to scrape all the charcoal residue off your grates.

Next, open up the firebox, use heat-resistant gloves, and remove all the ash and extra coals. Leave your firebox open for a few minutes; this allows your firebox to cool off and dry out. Doing this prevents rusting and ensures your smoker keeps working year after year.

3. General Tips for Using Your Smoker

There are a few things to consider when using a smoker. This also applies to people who made their own DIY offset smoker.

Cook With Charcoal and Wood for the Best Results

To get the best out of an offset smoker, it’s worth cooking with a combination of charcoal and wood. Cooking with only wood can lead to a bitter, creosote taste on your meat. Cooking with just charcoal and you miss out on the nice wood smoke flavor that wood gives to meat.

Keep the Lid Closed as Much as You Can

While you may want to open the lid on the main heating chamber on occasion to burn off excess smoke or check your meat’s internal temperature, you’ll want to keep the lid closed most of the time. Doing so ensures your meat cooks well and contains as much flavor and moisture as possible.

4. Is an Offset Smoker Right for You?

Offset smokers are an excellent investment if you take the time to learn how to use them correctly, and you make sure you clean the smoker regularly to keep it free from rust.

The most important things to remember are to use a combination of coal and wood as your fuel and to choose a wood that complements the flavor profile of the meat you are smoking. Ensure you monitor the smoke emitted from the chimney and control the main chamber’s internal temperature by opening and closing the vents. 

By following a few simple steps when operating your offset smoker, you can enjoy juicy tender smoked meat and entertain family and friends year-round.