How To Use The Smokenator
Like the Slow 'N Sear, the Smokenator is designed to insert into a Weber Kettle and turn it into a smoker and it does a fine job of it. It deserves credit for being the pioneer in this space. But the Slow 'N Sear, Johnny Come Lately that it is, has one upped this fine tool. If you are looking for an inexpensive way to make smoked meats, the Smokenator is a good choice but the SnS is a better choice.
If you have a Smokenator, first thing you need to know is that you should not rely on the Smokenator manual. This page should be your new manual.
Here's how this simple gadget works: The Smokenator is a simple piece of bent 18 gauge stainless steel that inserts into the lower half of the kettle. You can place meat on the lower and the upper rack so it is possible you can get eight to 10 slabs on at once. Then you put some hot charcoal in the Smokenator, some wood chunks on top of them, and some water in the water cup. If you have something drippy like a pork butt, put a drip pan under it. Add water if you like.
Put the lid on, adjust the dampers, and go drink a beer. The Smokenator will pump out aromatic smoke and just the right low and slow temp for hours. I have no trouble keeping the temp under 250°F on a 100°F day. The thick steel plate blocks your meat from direct exposure to the flames becoming a large flat radiator providing indirect heat. The water bowl puts moisture in the oven which condenses on the meat and attracts smoke (although it runs out quickly). Keep in mind that this is a "hot" smoker so it can't do cold smoking for things like lox or cheese.
You can also use it for cooking thick steaks with the reverse sear. Start the meat in the indirect side, just a few pellets in the Smokenator with the coals, and slowly warm the meat to about 115°F, getting the interior perfectly even colored. Then I take the steak off for a few moments, lift the grill grate, remove the smokenator, and place the steak right over the hot coals to sear the exterior. Click here to learn more about the reverse sear.
Setup and tips
Here are some tips for success. Special thanks to Alex Hambrick of House Divided BBQ Team in Texas for several of these tips. Alex won money on the competition circuit with the Smokenator competing against teams with $10,000 smokers until he switched to the Slow 'N Sear when it came out in 2015.
- Before you start cooking, calibrate your tool. Do some dry runs without meat so you know what it is actually doing and how it reacts to changing vent openings and when coals burn down. Start by reading my article on calibrating and seasoning your new grill or smoker.
- The Smokenator manual says "Insert a Taylor candy thermometer or a bi-metal thermometer into one of the upper vent openings." Do not use a thermometer in the dome unless you plan to eat the dome. The side of the grill with the Smokenator will be hot, the side without will be much cooler. The temp in the dome will be a blend of the two. In addition, the temp on the bottom rack will be about 50°F lower than the temp on the top rack and that will be different than in the dome. You must always measure the air temp where the meat will be. It is the meat that you are cooking, after all.
Besides, bi-metal dial thermometers, especially the $10 variety are usually absolute pure junk. They are often off by 50°F or more. You absolutely must use a good digital oven thermometer to get this baby under control. Once you've done that you can smoke as well as any of the big units. Click here to read my buyer's guide to thermometers.
Use a probe with a cable and drop the probe through the vent holes in the top, not under the lid. Snaking it under the lid will allow in air. Better still, drill a small hole in the side of your kettle just above the grate on the side opposite the Smokenator so you can slide the probe in there. While you're at it drill another hole just above the lower grate for when you cook down there.
If the temp drops below your target or about every 30 minutes, use the skewer they supply to stir the coals and knock off ash, add unlit charcoals to fill it back up, and top off the water pan. The unlit coals will create smoke so you may not need to add wood. And, no, unlit charcoal will not make your food taste bad unless you use the stuff that has accelerant in it like Match-Light. Read my article on The Science of Charcoal.
- Remove all ash before using the Smokenator.
- A charcoal grill uses two fuels, charcoal and oxygen. You need to figure out how to control them to get the right temp, usually 225°F or 325°F depending on the food.
- Open the top vent halfway and leave it there for your first dry run. Never close the top vent all the way. Start with the bottom vent open all the way. Control the oxygen with the bottom vent only since it feeds oxygen to the coals. Try not to close the bottom more than halfway. If your lid is bent, it is letting air in and you can't control temp. Get a new lid.
- The air temp outside the grill, rain, and wind can drastically impact the internal temp. You cannot rely on the settings in the manual. It was written by people in San Jose, CA, where the weather is always beautiful. The colder the day, the more lit coals you need to use. On hot days use a mix of lit coals and unlit coals. You can put hot coals on top of unlit coals or visa versa, it doesn't make much of a difference. But beware, unlit coals produce more smoke, so you will need less wood.
- Don't use lump charcoal. It varies from bag to bag and you need consistent heat. There is also too much dust in lump bags and dust impedes airflow in the Smokenator. Also, with briquets you can count them and this helps you control temp. Smokenators tend to run hot so I recommend Kingsford Blue Bag charcoal because it does not burn as hot as the Kingsford Competition (brown bag). Pick one charcoal and stick with it.
- Remove the water pan and fogeddaboutit. It takes up too much space within the Smokenator. You need that space for charcoal so you can get longer burns. Instead you will put a larger capacity pan on the grate above the Smokenator. Use a baking pan or a disposable aluminum pan.
- Turn the Smokenator around backwards and stack the coals neatly like bricks against the side of the kettle. If you do it this way you can get in many more briquets and that will extend your burn time. Then remove 12 briquets to be used to light in a chimney. Wait until they are coated white. Turn the Smokenator around and put it in place with the holes above the coals. Pour the lit coals through the holes. Put two wood chunks, roughly about golf ball size, not chips, on top of the lit coals. Mojobricks, which are made from compressed sawdust are great for this purpose. Read my article on the Science of Wood.
Top it off with more unlit coals if there is room, add the grate, add the water pan and fill it with hot water, boiling if possible, close the lid, and start watching the temp. Adjust the lower vent. Try not to touch the top vent, and never close it more than 3/4. Read my article on controlling temps with vents. Take notes with my cooking log. If it runs too hot, next time use fewer hot coals and/or close the lower vents. Learn your tool.
- You can put food on both the food grate and the lower charcoal grate but beware that the temp down there is usually about 50°F cooler.
- Cook on the upper grate most of the time, but if it is running hot, use the lower grate.
- You can use rib racks, but don't crowd them. There must be airflow between the slabs of meat. Click here to read my article on Cooking More Than One.
- The more cold food in the grill, the colder the air temp in the grill will be so you will need more fuel in the form of lit coals or air or both.
- Fill the water pan with hot water, not beer, wine, juice, etc. They don't penetrate the meat. They just waste money. Click here to read more. Use hot water, the hotter the better, so the energy from the charcoal isn't wasted heating the water. Don't skip the water, it helps keep the temp from spiking and dipping. Fill the water pan whenever it gets low.
- When you lift the lid, lift it straight up and don't tilt it. That will trap much of the heat under the hood and recovery will be faster when you put it back on. Click here to read the debunking of "lookin you ain't cookin".
- Join the Smokenator Forum. There is a message board with idea exchanges between Smokenator owners, more tips, and tricks.
- Hambrick has a clever way of dealing with a common problem, when the temp starts to drop and there aren't many lit coals left. "For longer smokes I put the food on the bottom grate. If you waited too long and there's not enough coal on the bottom, no worries. Just fill a chimney up with 10 to 15 coals, light it, and wait until they are gray. "With heavy gloves I take out the Smokenator, flip it around, and tent the meat with the Smokenator. This keeps it warm while I fire up the new coals. This is why I use the bottom grate for the food, it makes it super easy just to flip the Smokenator around and rest it on the inside of the grill over the meat. "Using a metal garden trowel or tongs, I scoop up all the lit coals and drop them in the chimney or in the lid to store them, which keeps the lid nice and warm. I give the ash scraper a few go-arounds to clear out all the ash, and then take the Smokenator off the meat and put it back in position. Now I treat it like an empty Smokenator: I fill it up with unlit coals and wood, and then using the trowel or tongs, I place the lit coals from the lid/chimney on top of all the unlit ones."
- Keep the lid on tight. If you are having temp control problems, chances are you are leaking too much. Air flow control is vital. If you see a lot of leakage under the lid, go buy four or five 1.5" binder clips in your office supply store. They'll hold it tight.
How to order a Smokenator
Click below for discount pricing and direct ordering from Amazon:
- Smokenator 1000 for the 22.5" Weber Kettle
- Smokenator 2600 for the 26.75" Weber Kettle
- Smokenator 180 for the 18.5" Weber Kettle
- PartyQ from BBQ Guru