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How Hot is Too Hot?
Assuming the cook is using the Smokey Mountain for its intended purpose of cooking food at low temperatures for long periods of time with indirect heat, it is necessary to know how hot is too hot. Fortunately, the Weber is a well made piece of equipment and is designed to keep cooking temperatures in the range of 225-275 degrees which is optimal for barbecue.
That being said, each cooking environment is different so temperatures are sure to vary based on many factors such as exterior temperatures, wind conditions, altitude, and numerous others. It is common, especially when a Smokey Mountain cooker is new and shiny on the inside, for temperatures to run hotter than the optimal smoking zone and be near or above 300 degrees.
This should not have major detrimental effects on the finished product since barbecue needs to be cooked over a long duration, short term temperature fluctuations should even themselves out over the several hours that the cooker will be running. In general, keeping the smoker under 300 degrees will produce delicious barbecue.
Optimal Temperature Settings
One of the many wonderful features of the Weber Smokey Mountain is the built in temperature gauge integrated into the top of the unit. The gray area labeled “Smoke” should be the cook’s guide for best results. When cooking barbecue, the goal is to let the heat cook the heat indirectly and have smoke surround and permeate the meat. At high temperatures like grilling or baking, the meat will cook too quickly and the smoke will not have enough time to penetrate the exterior and impart flavor.
Smoking the meat allows that indirect heat to take its time and break down the fat and tissue over many hours, all while the smoke goes to work layering in the flavors of the wood fuel that is being burned such as hickory, pecan, or apple.
Keeping the temperature in the range of 200-275 degrees will let the smoker perform at its best, turning tough pieces of brisket and pork ribs into tender delicacies that marry the natural flavors of the meats with the wood smoke and seasoning into a symphony of flavors.
Vent Settings to Cool the Smoker
Sometimes the Smokey Mountain can run hot, with sustained temperatures pushing 300 degrees. This is not unusual, especially for a new smoker or at the beginning of a cooking session.
The first line of defense against this are the built in vents at the top and bottom of the unit. These vents, especially on the bottom near the firebox allow the cook to control the temperature and get the smoker into the proper smoking range.
The more the vent doors are closed, the less air will flow through the bottom of the unit which in turn feeds less fuel to the fire. Since there are three vents on the bottom, each particular smoker will take some trial and error to find the right combination of door openings for its placement and external air flow.
One effective strategy is to begin by partially closing one vent’s door then waiting a few minutes to see what effect that has on the temperature. If the fire is still burning too hot, partially close a second door and wait, then the third if necessary. Incrementally closing the doors individually should allow each cook to dial the smoker in to its particular environment.
The second line of defense is the top vent, which functions as exhaust. Though it is generally best to keep the top vent fully open to allow smoke and air to escape the unit, small adjustments can help keep the temperature in the desired range.
Measuring Grate Temperatures
One of the few things the Smokey Mountain doesn’t do right out of the box is measure temperatures on the actual cooking grates. For this, some aftermarket accessories will be necessary. Fortunately, there are a few different tools that can accomplish this, with varying levels of technology. First are oven thermometers, which are small dials designed for use inside ovens, as the name implies.
These are the cheapest and simplest option but come with a drawback, namely anytime the cook wants to check the temperature on the rack, the lid must be opened which can cause a loss of heat and smoke. Oven dial thermometers are the most cost effective tool, as they typically only cost a few dollars. The second option is a probe thermometer, which consists of a metal spike connected by a cable to an output unit that displays the temperature.
Some probe thermometers have a clip that can be attached to the grate while others do not and require a weight of some kind to hold them down onto the grate. The lid can be kept closed while reading a probe thermometer so heat and smoke will not be lost.
Probe thermometers have an additional benefit in that they can be inserted directly into meat while on the smoker to obtain an accurate reading of the food’s internal temperature. Many models can be found for $50 or under. Moving up the technological ladder, some probe thermometers lose the cable and operate remotely. Using a radio transmitter, the output unit can be read outside the cooker and a short distance away from the probe inside the smoker. Since remote thermometers let the cook monitor the temperature from a distance, there is reduced temptation to open the lid and take a look. Finally there are smartphone app enabled thermometers such as the Weber Connect Smart Grilling Hub which utilizes WiFi and Bluetooth technology to send temperature readings to a smartphone. The Weber Connect supports multiple probes so both cooking racks can be monitored simultaneously.
Weber also makes a tool called the iGrill 2 that works with the Smokey Mountain and is designed to monitor the internal temperature of meat, sending alerts to a smartphone when the desired temperature is reached. While the app connected solutions are the most technologically advanced, they are also the priciest with the Weber Connect Smart Grilling Hub costing about $130 and the iGrill 2 costing about $100.
How to Cool Down a Weber Smokey Mountain
Cooling down a smoker that is running hot can be done using the tools that come integrated into it. As discussed previously, the vents are the best and easiest way to adjust the temperature. The three bottom vents are best used as temperature regulators, and partially closing their doors will restrict the air to the firebox, providing less fuel to the fire.
The top vent can also be closed, though it should be left at least slightly open for safety purposes as it allows air to circulate around the smoker and not let hot air build up in the top.
The water pan is another level the cook can pull to lower the temperature. In general, a full water pan will absorb a great deal of heat energy from the fire, helping the smoker run at lower temperatures needed to produce great barbecue. This is another factor that will need to be customized based on each individual unit’s environment.
Colder days should not require as much water in the pan as hot summer days to keep the temperature in the smoke zone. Perhaps the most delicious option to lower cooking temperatures however, is simply to add food to the smoker if there is room on the grates. More meat to be cooked means more surface area to absorb heat.
Even on smokers loaded up with ribs and chickens and pork butts, there are typically nooks and crannies available to add some sausagelinks or foil packets of vegetables.
Temperature Maintenance on a Weber Smokey Mountain
Keeping the smoker’s temperature in the 225-275 degrees range will yield the best end results, and there are a number of ways to achieve this. As discussed previously, the Minion Method of charcoal distribution will go a long way toward keeping the fuel source steady. This is where the charcoal pan is lined with unlit coals and wood chunks, then a batch of lit charcoals from a chimney started is placed on top the pile, igniting them slowly and evenly.
The previous section covers vent adjustments and water pan fill levels which also help keep the temperature constant. Opening vents will get the temperature up while closing them will get the temperature down. More water in the pan will soak up heat energy and reduce the temperature while a less full pan will allow for higher temperature.
How Much Fuel to Use in the Weber Smokey Mountain?
The goal for any cooking session is to load the smoker at the start with enough fuel to last the entire process and not have to add fuel while the smoker is running. Matching the amount of food to the amount of food is of paramount importance. Here it makes sense to figure out the item that will take the longest to cook, such as a large brisket or pork butt, and work backwards.
If a session will involve a pork butt that will take 8 hours, ribs that will take 4-5 hours, and chicken that will take 3 hours then enough fuel will need to be loaded to last more than 8 hours, since a loaded smoker will take longer to run than one that is cooking items individually.
For such an example, a layer of unlit coals spread over the fuel chamber 1-2 coals deep, 3-4 fist sized chunks of wood, and a chimney starter filled to the top with lit coals should get the job done. Quicker sessions of chicken wings may only need a single chimney starter’s worth of coals, while it is possible that filling the chamber with an entire large bag of charcoal will keep the Smokey Mountain going for 12 hours or more.