Maintaining consistent temps in a large charcoal smoker

Discussion in 'Grilling Tips' started by grillmastermike, Nov 18, 2013.

  1. Hey guys,

    My friends and I have been smoking meat every sunday now for a few months and have put out some awesome food.


    There's a pic from a couple weekends back.  Big slab of spare ribs, a nice fattie, prime rib, shoulder, turkey breast, drum sticks and jalapeno poppers.

    Everything usually comes out great, but one of the things we really struggle with is maintaining a consistent temperature.  We always shoot for the 220º-240º range, but with this massive smoker we have, it's always a struggle to maintain that temperature range.

    This smoker is a beast. It's built in concrete and stone in the backyard of my friends' house, and it can clearly handle a lot of food.  This past weekend I had 3 racks of baby backs and 2 racks of spare ribs fitting comfortable across the top grate. The top grate is probably 3.5 feet off the ground, and the fire is built at ground level, with two vents on the top grill hood and two at the bottom.

    I'd like to get some tips you all might have for how to best regulate the temperate in here.  I recently bought a Maverick wireless meat thermometer, and this weekend we saw some pretty wide swings.  Our current method is to lay a small layer of lump charcoal on the bottom of the smoker, fill a chimney, let it get hot, and add the hot lump to the cold lump.  We then add soaked apple, pecan and/or cherry wood to the hot coals throughout most of the cook which can be 6-12 hours depending on what we're cooking. We also add more lump as needed throughout.  I set an alarm on my Maverick for when temp goes below 195º or above 255º, and that thing was beeping non stop.  

    Does anyone have any good tips for fire building and temperature regulating for a smoker of this size?  I've read some about pyramid method and the Minion method, but I'm not sure which, if either, of those methods are best suited to a grill like this.

    Any advice or wisdom from all you seasoned smokers is appreciated! Happy smoking!

    -Grill Master Mike
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2013
  2. Hello Mike.  More pictures would help.  Are you building the fire on the floor of the smoker or is there a raised fire grate?  Can air flow underneath the coals?  Are you keeping the ash cleaned so that air can flow underneath?  Are you keeping the top vents fully open?  Are all the air leaks sealed?  A little more info will help.  Good luck grillmastermike.

  3. Hey Danny, thanks for your response. I found another picture of our smoker that's slightly better:

    Not sure if you can tell, but there is a raised fire grate just like the ones up top. So yes, air can flow underneath the coals. We try to clean the ash out from under that grate before a smokeout but a good amount of ash is generated during the smoke sesh that we cannot really remove until afterwards when we can remove the fire grate.

    Yes, I usually leave the top two vents fully open for the duration of the cooking. I adjust the bottom two to try to get the temperature I want. If the grill is getting too hot, and is not creating much smoke, I will occasionally shut the top vents, but try to avoid that.

    It's hard to tell if all air leaks are fully sealed. The front doors and lid shut pretty flush, but I will make it a point to check for any noticeable leaks next time.

    Here are a couple more pictures, mainly just of food on the top grate.

  4. One thing I'd like to know is: how high can I let the temp rise in the first 30 mins to an hour without compromising the quality of the meat I put out? Like I said I shoot for 230° ish, but in the first hour, temp can sometimes rise up to almost 300° before cooling down a bit. Is that bad? Also, what is worse, letting my temp drop below, say, 190° during the later hours or letting it rise above 260° ish? Are hot spikes or cold spikes worse for my meat?

    Thanks in advance guys,
    Grill Master Mike
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2013
  5. bruno994

    bruno994 Master of the Pit

    Heck of a smoker there Mike!  I would highly recommend using a charcoal basket of some sort to start with, this would allow you to use the minion method which will help in keeping a more constant temperature through the cook.

    On a side note, with little to do with temp control, but another suggestion would be to stop soaking the wood, this has little to no benefit whatsoever.  

    The initial temp rise is your fire just getting settled in, no worries there.  As far as the temp drops and fluctuation, it really comes down to air flow and fire management.  Top vents open for the entire cook, adjust your intakes to get a temp, then it's all about keeping the fire fed with enough fuel to maintain the target temp.  I cook at 250, but I never expect my smoker to ride at 250 with no fluctuation, my typical range will be from 230 to 270, with the average being 250.  Drops any lower than 230 or rises any higher than 270 means I am neglecting or over managing my fire.  If you don't already, take notes on your next cook, keep up with temps every half hour, noting when you added wood or made any adjustments to the intakes.  This might help you down the line.

    Keep on smoking!

  6. bruno994

    bruno994 Master of the Pit

    Double post....sorry.
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2013
  7. mike johnson

    mike johnson Master of the Pit Group Lead OTBS Member

    One problem I see is there's so many different meats with different cook time in many of the pictures. Every time you open that lid you release the heat and cause the coals to flare. Id try to stick to 1 or 2 different items with close cook times. A charcoal basket that you could shake to remove ash would also be good.
  8. dirtsailor2003

    dirtsailor2003 Smoking Guru OTBS Member

    I'd second a charcoal basket and get the fire a few inches off the bottom if it currently sits right in the bottom. You also mention using soaked wood. I'd use dry only. Also as mentioned every time you open the lid you're going to see larger temp swings.
  9. Thanks everyone for the tips.  I think the charcoal basket is definitely a good idea.  In hindsight, we probably need to be better about removing the ash underneath the fire grate to improve airflow\circulation to the fuel.

    I know it seems like the variety of meat on our grill might be problematic, but with my new Maverick remote thermometer, we're much better about opening and closing the lid.  Also, we've gotten good at coordinating the timing of putting food on/pulling it off to avoid too much time with the lid open.

    It seems like most people think that soaking the wood is unnecessary... I've found that putting dry wood right on the coals will flame up pretty quickly, whereas wood soaked for about 30 mins will at least take a little longer to burn, but I will try using dry wood as suggested.

    So, this weekend I will try fully clearing the ash beneath the fire grate, using a charcoal basket and Minion Method, stick to 2-3 types of meat, using dry wood instead of soaked, check for air leaks, and be better about opening the lid! Quite a list, but I have a feeling this will be our best smoke yet!!

    Grill Master Mike

    PS:  For anyone interested, you can check out all my meat pictures, and other food pictures, on my instagram:  @mtrav
  10. mike johnson

    mike johnson Master of the Pit Group Lead OTBS Member

    Just don't forget to post them pics here too. I cant wait to see how it turns out.
  11. Will do, Mike.  I'll be sure to take some good ones including a one of the smoker itself and the finished products!

    Thanks everyone!
  12. vaquero01

    vaquero01 Smoke Blower

    I believe the others are on to something as far as the soaked wood, you shouldn't really use it. If dry wood is "flaming up pretty quickly" it would appear that you may have an issue with your air control to the fire box. If you can shoot a couple pics showing the fire box area itself specifically we might be able to help you pin down your air control issues. 

     Good Luck
  13. jckdanls 07

    jckdanls 07 Master of the Pit Group Lead OTBS Member

    Also get some pics of the doors and how they function... pics of the air vents (intake and exhaust) will be very helpful as well... more pics the better we can assess the problems... does it have a stack for the exhaust ? if chunks of wood are flaring try to set them off to the side some instead of right dead center of the red hot coals...
    Last edited: Nov 24, 2013

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