Building the Fire
One of the first steps is to fill your charcoal basket with about one chimney full of unlit lump charcoal. Using lump charcoal will add more smoke flavor to whatever it is your smoking, because lump charcoal is made from pieces of wood burned down to be chunks of charcoal. Lump charcoal also tends to burn hotter and longer than charcoal briquettes. This will be the base that hot coals will eventually be dumped on.
The next step is to fill a chimney with another load of lump charcoal, add a couple fire starters on top and light them. It will take about 10-15 minutes for the entire chimney to be fully engulfed in flames and ready to be dumped on top of your charcoal basket. Remember that this step in the process requires the use of some heat resistant gloves along with placing the chimney on a surface that won’t ignite.
By using a chimney of hot coals in your smoker, the time it takes to get your smoker up to the proper temperature will be reduced.
Once your smoker is close to the temperature you want to smoke at; whether that’s low and slow at 225°, or hotter and faster at 275-300°, you can add your wood for flavor. I always tell people to use whatever flavor of wood you enjoy. If you like fruit woods like Apple and Cherry then use that. If you like something a little stronger like Hickory or Oak then feel free to go with it.
Managing the Fire
About 10-15 minutes after adding your wood, you can add your meat to the smoker. This gives the wood just enough time to ignite and start giving off smoke. If you are cooking larger cuts of meat like pork shoulder or full briskets, you may need to add more wood throughout the first few hours of your cook. After the first few hours you will only need to use additional lump charcoal because there’s only so much smoke your meat can take. If you are wrapping those larger cuts of meat in the middle of the cook you can switch to just adding lump charcoal also, because the wrap will prevent any additional smoke from getting to the meat anyway, and now the fuel source is just a heat source and not there for adding flavor.
When you add more lump charcoal during the cook, be sure to use the chimney to ignite the coals prior to adding them directly into the charcoal basket. By adding unlit coals on top of your lit coals, you could suffocate the fire and this will cause the temperature in your smoker to drop. These are the spikes and dips that you are trying to avoid in order to cook at an even temperature.
Remember that you may need to open and close the air intake on the smoker door throughout the cook if you see the smoker temperature start to climb or drop. A good bit of advice is to use small adjustments when doing this to avoid the temperature moving in the other direction drastically.
Don’t forget that weather will affect the performance of your smoker. Things like wind, rain, and cold will change how long it takes to get your smoker to the right temperature and how much charcoal and wood will be needed to maintain the ideal temperature for smoking.