A few weeks back, I traded in my aging propane grill for a spankin’ new Weber. The first charcoal cookout was great, but I immediately wanted a few accessories (like hooks for hanging tools. How are hanging hooks not standard?). In poking around on Amazon.com, I came across The Smokenator. It’s a sweet little device that converts your Weber grill into a smoker. I’ve had some pretty amazing smoked BBQ at Dave’s, so I got one.
The Smokenator works by restricting the air that gets to the coals and wood. You control the temperature with the vents at the top and bottom of the Weber. The water pan that sets in the coals puts steam throughout the kettle (read: juicy meat) and acts as a heat-sink for the entire contraption.
Having used the Smokenator a couple of times now, here’s the positives.
- It’s tiny. No extra smoker or grills cluttering up the back yard or the garage.
- It smokes really well. I’ve done pulled pork, sausages and, just this past weekend, brisket. Awesome.
- It holds a lot of fuel. I typically drop glowing coals into the Smokenator every two hours or so, but depending on how hot you run it, apparently you can go a lot longer.
- It’s damn inexpensive. $49 for a smoker? Sign me up!
- The directions and instructions that come along with the Smokenator are simple and thorough.
And I love the DIY aspect of the Smokenator. It’s a small operation in California run by inventor Don Thompson:
BS Brewing: How did you come up with the idea?
Don: I wanted to do a turkey with out charring the heck out of it. Also a 20 lb turkey won’t fit on top of the food support grill (of a Weber). If you put (the turkey) on the coal support, a typical char-basket or charcoal rail will crisp the turkey. Foil is “ok” but the shield works better. Way better.
BS Brewing: What sort of design tweaks have you made to it over the years?
Don: The only innovation was to put the water pan into the coals. This make the device incredibly versatile. From total humidity in the kettle to a dry environment. In the manual, it covers both so you as a chef have real options. Chicken and turkey come out incredibly moist when using the pan. A turkey doesn’t even have to be basted! it just is moist, but only if you cook it with water in the pan throughout the entire cook.
BS Brewing: What’s the key to success in using it?
Don: Reading the quick start guide and manual. Then loading it up with about 45 coals and wood chunks and firing up 12-15 coals, setting the vents properly and preheat to 230 deg F dome and then go. Check temperature every hour or so and water.
The other key is to realize that the kettle will now operate in complete dryness or near saturated with steam. Nothing out there to my knowledge does this.
BS Brewing: What are common mistakes?
Don: Not putting lid back down firmly and seating it. Not being accurate with your upper vent settings. Putting too many lit coals in to start with.
So, with my tiny back patio, the Smokenator works because I just can’t imagine having a full-sized smoker. And my wife can’t justify $250 for something I might use, at best, twice a month for four months of the year. Being able to just use my same Weber is rockin’.
When you’re using it, there are a few “limitations” to get comfortable with:
- You’ll need to check on the water pan every hour or so. I just got into the habit of refilling it everytime I open the lid. The hotter you run it, the more often you need to check it.
- If there is one drawback to this product, it’s the way you add coals. I find it hard to add more coals without removing the main rack of the grill, so I got into the habit of cleaning off a place to set the food rack to when adding more coals. You can rotate the rack so the handles are over the holes, and squeeze a coal at a time. But it’s easier to just lift the rack and food off, put it somewhere clean, load up with coals and wood, then put the rack back on. Note, if you’re just using the charcoal rack, it’s a moot point.
- I would find one of those hinged food grates from Weber. I bet that would make it a lot easier to put the coals in.
- Get yourself a good digital thermometer for smoking. I got the two-probe Maverick electronic thermometer. I set a range of temperatures. If it gets too cool, I know I closed down the vents too much. If it gets too hot, I know that the water pan is probably empty.
I used to consider myself pretty handy with my propane grill. But charcoal, and especially smoking? Man. It’s so much more interesting and nuanced than just grilling with propane. And the Smokenator makes it pretty dang easy to get started without a major investment of money or space.