How To Regulate Your Smoker Temperature [The Bottom Line]

For anyone who has spent time working with smokers, you’ll know that temperature control is key.

It can mean the difference between ruining your food with a carbon-rich, thick white smoke, and producing a true masterpiece filled with that lovely thin blue smoke.

I’m going to make this really simple for you guys and pin it down to one basic thing:

Airflow.

If you want to learn how to regulate your smoker temperature, you need to know that airflow is the major factor affecting how much heat and what quality of smoke is being produced.

This article will show you what you need to do to maintain a constant temperature, how to raise or lower your smoker temperature, and how to get the smoke you want by fiddling with your smoker’s airflow.

First, I’ll run you through why airflow is so important. Then I’ll address some common problems I’ve come across. And lastly, I’ll give you five tips for controlling your smoker temperature, so that you can be confident cooking in any conditions.

Airflow = Oxygen

The reason it all boils down to airflow is simple. Any flame, from wildfires to the hot furnaces powering steam engines, needs oxygen to survive. Without getting too deeply into the chemistry of it, let’s go back to school for a moment. Fire safety school, to be specific, which teaches us the famous Fire Triangle.  

There are three things any fire needs to burn:

We will talk briefly about each of these and how they relate to getting the best out of your smoker, but oxygen by means of airflow is the easiest ingredient for you to control. In my tips, I’ll most focus on controlling airflow and regulating smoke quality in this way.

Smoker Problems

My smoker temperature is too low

This is a common problem, and again we can take a look at it from an airflow standpoint. Now, it might be the case that you actually don’t have enough fuel, or that you haven’t actually got the flame going to being with: for this section, I’ll just assume that you’ve got the basics down and are having trouble keeping your smoker warm enough.

Again, we’re going to focus on airflow. If your smoker is too cool, you’ll need to increase the available oxygen to the fire box. That means opening up your damper and allowing for a greater airflow. Some people find this counter-intuitive and avoid it: As humans, we like to think of heat as something that we need to trap in. Like staying warm underneath a blanket!

When it comes to fire, do the opposite. Open it up so that your flame and fuel source have access to all the oxygen and airflow it can get. That will really stir up your flame and boost the temperature faster than any other method.

If you’re still having problems raising the temperature, even after opening your damper and increasing the air in-flow, then there is likely something blocking the out-flow. Maybe you have too much meat on the grill, or there might be some obstruction to the exhaust. I would recommend taking a look inside the firebox to make sure enough air is getting in and out of there. 

My smoker temperature is too hot

On the other side of things, if your temperature is too high you need to ease back on the air in-flow. When the fire is getting plenty of oxygen, it doesn’t know when to stop--you might want it to slow down, but it will just keep burning fuel as quickly as possible! 

The best way to lower your smoker temperature is to reduce the amount of oxygen that is getting into the fire pit, which will then slow down the flame.

You’ll also want to leave your exhaust open, so that some of the excess heat and smoke can escape.

I keep seeing thick white smoke from my smoker

Another common issue is that the wood isn’t burning properly. This could be for a couple of reasons:

  1. The wood isn’t getting enough oxygen;
  2. You’re using wet or dirty wood; or
  3. You have too much wood for your coals to handle.

More than likely, the issue will be a matter of airflow. In order for your wood to burn properly, the coals in your firebox need to get up to a decent temperature. If you’re using too much wood for your coals, the fire will get choked out and produce a thick white smoke. This is not ideal, since thick white smoke is packed with carbon and will produce a bitter flavor in your meats.

That picture perfect thin blue smoke (the one every BBQ lover dreams about) is a sign of clean wood being combusted just as it should be. 

That’s the smoke that will give your food the rich quality you’re after, and it’s usually a matter of finding the right balance between your: Air in-flow, out-flow and fuel source.

Feeding the fire with enough oxygen at the beginning is so important to begin the clean burning cycle, so don’t worry if the initial temperature gets a bit high -- you can always cool it down once the flame is running consistently.

Tips

Experiment

This doesn’t mean load up your grill with the most expensive meat you have.

I’m talking about learning how to control your smoker temperature in a test setting--to be clear, without any food. The idea is to play around with your damper and exhaust to find what each one does on your specific model. Some are more fine-tuned, while others may not give you much freedom at all.

Test out a few different combinations of air inflow and outflow:

In-flow: This is how much air is coming into the fire box, which promotes the fire to burn its fuel source.

Out-flow: This is your exhaust. After reacting with the fuel, the oxygen is turned into that valuable smoke and heat we want to capture. Keeping too much smoke around the fire, however, will smother it and it won’t be able to survive. That’s why you need to play around not just with how much air is coming in, but how much air can get out.

*It’s also worth noting that your exhaust vent will actually allow your in-vent to do its job. By removing the combustion gases, heat and smoke to escape, it actually pulls in new fresh oxygen through the in-vent.

Maintain a constant temperature

Once you’ve figured out how your damper and exhaust like to run, you can try your hand at maintaining a constant temperature.

 When things are running well, you should see a thin blue smoke being emitted from your pit. That’s great. That means your airflow balance is just right--letting in the right amount of oxygen, and releasing enough smoke to keep the fire alive.

When you’ve hit this constant thin blue smoke balance, your temperature should remain stable along with it.

Stoke your fire manually

If you’ve ever had any experience with making real outdoor fires, you’ll know that stoking the fire can be just the extra kick that’s needed to get things rolling. Particularly for raising your smoker temperature, this will be useful. If you have an old-school firebox that opens wide on the side, feel free to load up the box with some new wood, then stoke the coals with a metal rod. This will boost airflow, while also livening the coals and encourage your wood fuel source to catch fire.

Account for wind and weather when setting up your smoker

Ideally, you’ll want to set-up your smoker undercover. This will ensure that weather conditions like rain won’t be able to mess with your flame, and it’ll also boost the lifespan of your device.

One weather factor which doesn’t get as much attention as it should is wind. On a windy day, your smoker can be exposed to much higher amounts of oxygen than usual, which can boost your temperature randomly and uncontrollably. When setting up your smoker for use, take a moment to consider any common wind flows that occur in your area. If possible, protect your smoker from these winds by placing it in a corner, behind a wall or otherwise protected from high winds.Make minor adjustments before reaching your target temperature

We spoke already about some ways that you can lower the temperature of your smoker if it gets too hot. But what if you could stop it from getting too hot in the first place? It’s not a good idea to get in the habit of overshooting your target temperature--once a firebox gets going, it’s much more difficult to cool it down than it was to heat it up. The fire builds momentum, and if you shut it off completely for too long, then that’s like hitting the kill switch and you’ll need to start from scratch.

What you want to do is survey your temperature as it rises and approaches your target temperature. As it gets nearer, make minor adjustments to the in and out-flow vents to slow the fires rate of speed. Say you want to cook something at 190F, and your fire is slowly rising up past 175F. The jump from 175F to 190F can be quicker than anticipated, and it’s possible that it will fly past and you’ll be up over 200F in no time. To avoid this, tamper with the exhaust vent a little bit until you’re comfortable that the temperature is rising steadily as you want it.

Summing Up

Yep, it pretty much all comes down to airflow. For advanced flavors and getting that perfect blue smoke, you’ll also want to look a little closer into the quality of wood you’re using. You’ll also want to look into natural coal sources that burn clean. Beyond that, however, the most fundamental rule to smoking is temperature control.

Now that you know how to control your airflow, you’ll be able to control your smoker’s temperature and get the best results time and time again. Hope this helped!

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