How to use a water smoker? The ultimate guide

A Guide to Charcoal Water Smokers

A water smoker is a great investment for a beginning griller or for someone working on a budget. This article, How to use a water smoker? The ultimate guide will help explain what to look for in a smoker.


They do not take up much room, offer a wide range of cooking options, and are relatively inexpensive.

These are very easy to use which makes these types of smokers very popular.

What Is a Water Smoker?

At first the term “water smoker” might seem a little misleading. What does water have to do with smoke and why is water involved with smoking food? Understanding what a water smoker, sometimes referred to as a bullet smoker. is and what benefits it provides, will help you to understand what it is and how it works.

A typical water smoker also called a vertical smoker is about the size of a kettle grill. Some are round and some are rectangular depending on the manufacturer but the smoking principle is the same.

The other popular style of a smoker is the barrel smokers or horizontal smokers.

There are three sections to a vertical water smoker:

The firebox –

this is the bottom section which probably has the legs attached. This will be the heat source for the unit, it can be gas, charcoal, or an electric smoker.

If it is a charcoal grill there should be a smaller section inside to place the charcoal in to keep the coals centered and intense. If it is one of the electric smokers you will need an electrical outlet to plug into.

The water chamber –

this is the mid-section and should have a door on it so you can add charcoal or wood and a water pan or container that sits between the fire and the food at the top.

The cooking chamber- 

this will start above the water pan and go all the way to the top. The cooking chamber will have wire grates to hold the food and a lid to trap the heat and smoke. The lid should have a thermometer installed in it.


How to Use a Vertical Water Smoker

The smoking process might be different depending on the type of smoker you use, the steps are generally the same.

This will give you a brief overview of how to use your vertical water smoker.

Fire up the smoker

In the center of the firebox add your charcoal keeping in mind the more charcoal you use the hotter the fire. Using a chimney charcoal starter get a batch of charcoal burning and add to the charcoal in the firebox.

It is not recommended to use lighter fluid because there will be an odor that will add that smell and taste to your food since the food is cooking in a closed environment.


While waiting for the coals to get fully burning put liquid of choice into the water chamber bowl. Fill the pan about half full.

Once the charcoal is fully lit, gray, and glowing place the water chamber on top of the firebox and the cooking chamber with the lid on top of the water chamber.

If you are using wood chunks to add a smoky flavor place them on the charcoal and adjust the bottom and top vents to get to the desired temperature. Start with the bottom vents about a quarter open and the top vents wide open which will get your cooker hot, then adjust the top vents to control the heat. 

Do not close the top vents all the way or the fire will smother and die.

Preheat the smoker for about 10 or 15 minutes while monitoring the temperatures. 

It will take several times cooking on your grill to learn the temperatures at the top compared to the cooking grates down below. 

Stick a meat thermometer through one of the vent holes in the top to get an accurate reading of the temperature at the top and compare it to the built-in thermometer on the lid if the unit has one. Also, place an oven thermometer on the meat grate to compare the heat level at that location.

Now that you know the temperatures at the different levels you can control the heat for what you are cooking.


Once Preheated, You Can Put Your Meat Inside

Once the smoker is to the correct temperature get ready to start cooking. 

The food goes on the wire racks over the water pans. If you have two grates place the lean meats and vegetables on the lower grate so that richer, fattier meats can drip on them from the top rack adding to the flavor of the food. 

Check that the fire is still burning and if you need to add more charcoal, wood pellets, or wood pieces. Also, check the level of liquid in the water pans and add more if necessary, try to keep it about half to two-thirds full.

Since the meat is in a different chamber you can maintain the water and fuel as needed without affecting your meat.

Check the temperature every half hour or so. If the smoker is running too hot, close the bottom vents more and close the top vents some to reduce the oxygen. Or adding cool water or even ice cubes to the smoker water pans will drop the temperature. If still burning hot remove some of the charcoal.

You don’t have to put liquid in the water pan, but doing so will hydrate the smoking chamber and help maintain a consistent smoking temperature. The filled pan creates a barrier between the charcoal fire and the meats making low and slow cooking easier.

You can also add to the flavor by using beer, wine, cider, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and herbs in addition to the water.

If the smoker runs too cool, open the vents more to add oxygen which equals a hotter fire, or add a few additional lumps of charcoal through the access door.

You’ll need to replenish the charcoal and wood chips once an hour and check to make sure there are at least 2 inches of liquid in the pan. By adding hot water to the pan it will be easier to maintain the desired cooking temperatures.

There will be times when you don’t want to add liquid to the water pan if you want crisp skin on chicken or want to add a sear to a steak or other meats. Without liquid to control the heat of the fire, temperatures in the smoker can get to 300 to 350 degrees or higher.

If you are cooking using indirect heat use a water pan with liquid in it. If you are direct cooking, wanting higher heat, do not put liquid in the pan. You can cook without the pan completely so that the grease and juices from the meats drip into the charcoal, but you may have a mess in the bottom of the firebox when clean-up comes around.


Advantages Of A Water Smoker:

• Water smokers can burn charcoal but also propane or natural gas. There are electric smokers which can be convenient for those not wanting to wait for the fire to get going. Electric smokers are great for people who live where they are not allowed to cook with an open flame, like apartments and condos.

• Most cost less than $350 with some costing less than $100.

•Thes smokers have few moving parts that would need replacing. If maintained following the owner’s manual, usually just cleaning a unit can last many years.

• Most models weigh less than 50 pounds, which makes them very portable.

• They have a small footprint, generally the diameter of their grill grates, which range from 14.5 inches to 22.5 inches.

• Use of the water pan to control heat, almost guarantees moist barbecued meats, seafood, and poultry.

• Clean-up is easy, and in most cases, can be accomplished with a grill brush, degreaser, and a garden hose.

Downside Of A Water Smoker:

• Cooking surface is small compared to some other types of grills, particularly charcoal and gas grills. Some models have multiple grates to increase the cooking area.

• If your model has multiple grates you may need to remove the top grate to get to the food on the lower rack, this can be awkward.

• Not all models have a door on the water chamber which again can make it difficult to add water or fuel.

• Some of the inexpensive models do not have bottom vents which makes it more difficult to control heat.

• Some models use inexpensive material which makes it hard to control the temperature in cold, windy weather conditions.

• Not all vertical charcoal smokers are airtight. Ill-fitting parts can allow smoke to escape during barbecue sessions.

• When kept outside water can collect in the bottom causing it to rust. Must keep it covered.

• If the exterior of the smoker is porcelain-coated enamel, which most are, you must be careful not to chip it or it will rust. The lid is especially prone to scratches.


LANDMANN MCO 32954 Landmann Smoky Mountain 26″ Electric Smoker-Black-OPP w/Viewing Window

What You Should Consider When Buying A Water Smoker:

• The limited size of the grilling area. Buy a smoker large enough to handle the size of gatherings you plan to cook for. 

• Be sure there is at least one bottom vent in the firebox, the charcoal pan, for controlling how hot the fire is. Be sure the firebox, the charcoal pan has one or more vents; they are key for temperature control and some of the cheaper models do not have them.

• Be sure you can get to the water and charcoal pans without removing the grates and cooking chamber.

• Check for a well-fitting door in front. The seals are an important feature.

• Handles on either side of the cooking chamber are needed.

• Is there a built-in thermometer in the smoker lid?

• How long is the warranty? Is the company likely to be in business in 5 years?

What makes a water smoker different from other models is its dependence on moisture and water vapor. During long hours of smoking, moisture is very important to keep the food tender.

Tips For Using A Chimney Starter 

Do not use lighter fluid when using a chimney starter, the starter is designed to work with some crumpled newspaper or paraffin cubes. The chimney design will force the heat and flames through the funnel quickly igniting the briquets.

After fifteen minutes check the coals in the chimney, they should be hot and glowing. 

Make sure to use tongs or a long match when handling the hot coals, when raking them across your grill, or when lighting the starter cubes or kindling underneath your chimney starter.

When the hot coals have started to turn grey, you may see small flames coming from the top of the chimney meaning the coals are ready to be used.


1. Wash the smoker with warm water and a degreaser detergent. Thoroughly rinse and air dry.

2. Treat rust spots. Use a wire brush to remove any deep rust or pitting. Burnish over that with fine sandpaper for metal or steel wool until removed. For exterior surfaces, spray paint over the area with high-temperature paint.

3. Check your thermometer’s calibration. Stick the stem in boiling water and see if it reads the correct boiling point of about 212°F. Many thermometers are adjustable by turning the nut at the back of the thermometer until it reads the correct temperature.


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