A touch of smoke takes BBQ to the next level. With our expert tips, your smoker will be in tip top shape in no time at all.
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If you love cooking food over low, indirect heat and enjoy the smoky flavor and tender texture this cooking method imparts on ribs, brisket, chicken, and sausages, chances are you own a smoker and use it often. To help your smoker last as long as possible, and ensure your food tastes delicious every time you cook with it, it's important to have a proper care and cleaning regimen in place. Ahead, experts take us through the steps to clean your smoker, including the tools you need for the job, how to regularly maintain your smoker, and when to do a thorough cleaning.

How to Clean

According to "Phil the Grill" Johnson, owner of Trapp Haus BBQ in downtown Phoenix, the biggest mistake people make when cleaning their smoker is using products that harm the integrity of the grill. While you may be tempted to use a heavy-duty chemical cleaner, doing so will harm the finish of the grill. Instead, Johnson recommends using an organic degreaser and cleaning your smoker "when it's hot right after you use it." Make sure to do the job with a stiff brush and brush the grate thoroughly, he adds.

Grilling expert Elizabeth Karmel, author of Taming the Flame  ($8.24, amazon.com) and the What's 4 Dinner? newsletter, adds that the grates should be clear of any food particles from previous smoking sessions, but you need not worry about scrubbing them to perfection. "Cleaning a smoker is pretty much the same as cleaning a grill," she says. You should do regular cleaning, but you don't want to overdo it. The way your food tastes will hint at when to clean your smoker. "I always know it's time to clean it when the food tastes a bit acrid and too smoky," adds Karmel.

Spring Cleaning

If you're taking the smoker or grill out seasonally, Karmel recommends a "spring cleaning" by putting burners on high and cooking until any residue turns to grey ash. "I would recommend if you have a lot of residue, bring the grates into the sink and use a spatula to chip off any residue," she says. "You want them to be seasoned so they are more non-stick." She recommends using warm soapy water, adding. "I particularly like Dawn because it cuts through the grease, a good sponge with one side soft and the other abrasive. Rinse it with clear water; a hose is fine. Then turn it on and set a short cycle after you clean it. Any residue of soap will burn off."

Related: How to Clean Your Grill

Maintenance

The key to cleaning a smoker is maintaining it without over-cleaning it. For a reference point, Karmel suggests thinking of your smoker more like a seasoned cast iron skillet. But, do remember that "stainless steel reflects heat and when it's covered with a patina of smoke and is darker, the heat is not reflected," so stainless steel parts need to be clean. In addition to avoiding chemical cleaners, Karmel says you should avoid using abrasive cleaners and steel wool, because you shouldn't need them. "If something is really cooked on and you can't get it off, you can always heat it and run it through the highest temperature," she says. "Then it's easy to brush off. But try to brush off [the grates] before you use any soap and water."

Is there a difference cleaning a pellet smoker versus a propane or charcoal grill with wood chips?  Karmel says yes. "A pellet smoker doesn't get as hot but otherwise it's exactly the same," she explains. "Sometimes there are more chunks of food stuck on, and it's always easier to take that off when it's hot."

Drip Pan Cleaning

This part of your smoker needs regular attention. "On an everyday basis you should check the drip pan, and empty it when it's half full," says Karmel. The drip pan is typically outside on pellet smokers and animals can be attracted to dirty drop pains. Rainwater can collect in it, too, so check before you start cooking. Trager recommends making a drip pan liner using a heavy duty piece of foil and putting it on the bottom of the smoker box. It will collect the drippings and make it easier to keep your drip plan clean.

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