Tips for Smoking Meat in Cold Weather

The dead of winter may not seem like the right time to be outside cooking tasty BBQ. But with just a little extra preparation, your cold weather BBQ will be every bit as good as it is in warmer weather. Even when it’s cold outside, you can enjoy delicious food. Don’t let cold weather stop you from keeping the pit going all year long.

Shorts and a t-shirt may be proper BBQ attire, but they won’t keep you warm in freezing-cold temperatures. Grilling and smoking when it’s cold outside means you need to dress a bit warmer than normal. So, bundle up and make sure you’re not wearing anything that could dangle in the fire.

Can you smoke meat when it's cold outside?

Absolutely. You can smoke meat when it’s cold outside. Stock up on charcoal and wood before you ever start cooking, especially in cold weather. Keep your wood chopped up and ready to go in a dry, easily accessible place like a wood rack. Your smoker will go through more wood and charcoal than it would in warmer weather. When it is time to refuel, you won’t risk a drop in temperature when you have your charcoal and wood at the ready. Have all the tools and utensils you need while smoking to ensure a smoother cook without frantically searching for the equipment you need.

Monitor the wind direction and adjust your intakes accordingly. For example, you may need to close a vent facing the wind if it’s too strong and use another vent for adjusting temperatures. Increased airflow through your smoker will stoke the fire, raising temperatures. Insufficient airflow will cause heat loss, as the fuel cannot burn without oxygen. Reducing airflow too much will drop the temperature in the chamber, which can result in a dirty fire that produces undesirable smoke that can overpower your food. Maintaining a consistent temperature is important because large fluctuations in temperature can result in under or over-cooked food. Your main objective is to avoid big spikes in temperature as well as extinguishing the fire.

As you may know, different smokers perform differently in cold weather conditions. Smokers with thin outer walls will struggle to get up to temperature and maintain consistent temps throughout the cook. While smokers with thicker walls will struggle to reach cooking temps, they are naturally more insulated, making it easier to maintain consistent heat.

Offset Smokers: Probably the most challenging smoker for cold-weather smoking with the heat source off to the side of the cooking chamber, managing airflow is even more important with an offset smoker.

Drum Smokers: A good option for smoking in the winter, the fuel is contained and concentrated under the cooking grate. You may want to load more charcoal/wood at the start with a drum smoker since you can expect to go through more fuel to maintain temps.

Pellet Grills: Using a pellet grill grill is a great cold weather cooker because steady heat is produced by the auger continuously feeding wood pellets to the fire pot. It’s also very easy to add pellets to the hopper to keep the fire going.

That being said, most smokers will have trouble getting up to temp, especially when it’s brutally cold outside. A smoker jacket or blanket will help to maintain your cooking temps and conserve fuel. Many smoker brands carry custom-fit jackets or blankets for their smokers. If your smoker doesn’t have a custom-fit option, look for a universal brand. Be sure that the smoker jacket you use allows for adequate air flow, ease of access and fire resistance. They can also be used to cover your cooker when you’re not cooking.

There are some great DIY options for insulating your smoker. Take a trip to your local hardware store and look for something made with fireproof/resistant materials. For example, a welder’s blanket provides protection from the winter weather without the risk of catching fire. Cut it to fit your smoker and make sure the vents are not covered. Furnace and double foil insulation are good options to insulate your smoker too. Don’t wrap the firebox itself, as the inner insulation could melt. The most important considerations are safety, airflow and effectiveness.

What is the ideal temperature for smoking meat?

There is not an ideal temperature for smoking all meats. Low and slow meat smoking is usually done at temps between 200°F and 225°F to an internal temperature between 145° and 165°F. But if you’re cooking a brisket point hot and fast, you would start with your smoker at 400°F until the internal temperature reaches 165°F. At that point, you might bring the cooking temp down to around 250°F; then cook to an internal temperature of 180°F for extra tenderness. If you like your steak or prime rib on the rare side, you might give it a quick sear first at 500°F; then cook at 225°F until desired doneness, between 125°F and 130°F. Using the reverse-sear technique, you would cook it to temp at 225°F and finish it with a sear at 500°F.

How do you smoke in the winter?

First things first, place your smoker in an area that is sheltered from the wind and rain and away from overhead tree boughs, awnings or anything that could drop snow onto your smoker in the middle of a cook. If there is snow on the ground, shovel it away from your smoker. Clear a path from the house to your smoker so nobody slips and falls, especially with a tray full of tasty BBQ. When seeking a sheltered spot for your smoker, never move it inside your home or any other confined space when cooking, not even your garage. Carbon monoxide, a deadly gas, is produced by your smoker when the fire is burning.

Keeping track of your temps is even more important in extreme temperatures. Using a remote digital thermometer or food probe enables you to keep an eye on internal temps in real time, without having to lift the lid or stand out in the cold for too long. It will also alert you when the meat reaches targeted temperature. If you don’t have a remote thermometer, insert a leave-in meat thermometer into the thickest part of the cut. Position it so that it can be quickly read.

As always, keep the lid closed as much as possible. This is even more important when the outside temperatures drop. Every time you open the lid, the heat from your carefully-tended fire escapes your smoker. Even lifting the lid for just a 5 minute peek, can cost your cooker 15 to 20 minutes to get back up to temperature. So, keep the lid closed when it’s cold outside, opening only when absolutely necessary.

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