Smokers and pellet grills can help you make delicious meals right in your own backyard. But before you dive in head first, be sure to avoid these common backyard smoker mistakes.

By Sarah Kuta
August 26, 2020
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With mouthwatering visions of juicy brisket and tender spare ribs dancing in your head, you decide to add a smoker or pellet grill to your backyard cooking setup. You'll be everybody's new favorite cook when you start inviting neighbors and friends over for barbecue chicken wings and burnt ends.

Thanks to technological advances and practically foolproof smokers, these days you can cook up award-winning barbecue right in your own backyard. But before you dive in, consider these common smoking mistakes to avoid. 

1. Not being patient

Generally speaking, cooking food on a pellet grill or smoker takes longer than cooking on a traditional grill. There's a reason why the phrase "low and slow" is such a popular barbeque staple, after all. But lots of people get antsy anyway, which means they end up fidgeting and fussing throughout the process.

"People like to putter — they like to open the lid, they like to look at the meat — they need to be doing things," says Danielle Bennett, a world-champion pitmaster and barbeque expert for Traeger.

If you're naturally impatient, give yourself something else to do while your food is cooking — invite a few friends over to hang out in the backyard, or tackle some yard work. Resist the urge to open the lid to check on your food's progress, as this lets out a lot of the heat you've been building, and just trust the process. It'll all be worth it in the end.

2. Only cooking meat

When most people think of smokers and pellet grills, they picture delicious smoked meats like ribs, brisket, and pulled pork.

But did you know you can make pretty much everything under the sun in your smoker? Cheesecake, pastries, omelets, macaroni and cheese, soup, cornbread — if you can eat it, you can make it on your pellet grill. 

"You can make cookies one minute and put on a rack of ribs the next minute," says Bennett. "And everything tastes great."

Don't limit yourself to meat (although, let's be honest, there's nothing wrong with going overboard with smoked meats). Challenge yourself to think outside the box and experiment. You'll liven up your meals and learn something new in the process.

3. Using way too much sauce

Don't get us wrong: Barbeque sauce has a time and a place. But many people go overboard when it comes to sauce, smothering their food until it's a thick, sticky mess.

Sauce is great, but be careful not to use so much sauce that it overpowers or masks the flavor of whatever you're smoking, especially meat. A good cut of meat is expensive, so you want to let its natural flavors shine through.

If you find yourself reaching for sauce all the time, ask yourself why. Take it back to the basics with a little salt, pepper, and garlic salt, then build on the flavor from there. Experiment with dry rubs, too, which can very often take the place of sauce completely.

4. Relying solely on cook times

With a traditional recipe, you mix together the ingredients, preheat the oven, pop in your food, and set a timer. When the timer goes off, voila, your food is done.

But with a pellet grill or smoker, consider these cook times more like loose guidelines — they're an art, not a science. It's really better to rely on your food's temperature instead, says David Rose, a celebrity chef and TV personality who works with Big Green Egg.

"There are many variables that can cause the smoking cook times to change: wind, temperature, a leak, capacity of smoker, raw meat temperature," he says. "Relying solely on cook times can sometimes cause an over- or undercooked product. Instead, invest in a good quality digital thermometer ($12; amazon.com) or probe. This ensures your desired cooking temperature and doneness by eliminating the guesswork."

5. Thinking all wood chips or pellets are the same

You run to the store, grab a bag of wood pellets, and rush home to start smoking. Right? Wrong.

Not all pellets and wood chips are created equal and, in fact, they can make a huge difference in the flavor of your food. For delicate proteins like seafood, consider wood that gives off more of a floral scent and taste, like apple, cherry, or peach, says Rose. Red meat, on the other hand, can handle stronger flavors like mesquite, oak, and hickory. It's a bit like pairing wine with your food.

"The smoke provided by the wood chips should be an accent and complementary flavoring to the product, not overwhelm the entire taste profile," Rose says.

6. Not letting your meat rest

We totally get it — after hours and hours of smelling succulent smoked meats cooking on your pellet grill, you absolutely cannot wait another minute to dig in. 

But there's a good reason why nearly all recipes call for letting your meat rest before cutting in, says Rose.

"After making that perfect prime rib, brisket, or pork butt, the last thing you want to do is lose all that delicious flavor and juices by cutting or shredding the meat prematurely," he says. 

Give your meat 30 to 45 minutes to rest, depending on the size and the cut. Why? When you're cooking, the temperature pushes the meat's moisture toward the surface, causing some of it to evaporate. If you cut into a piping hot brisket, all of those juices will spill out onto your cutting board. Letting the meat rest allows the moisture to redistribute and settle throughout the meat fibers, creating that juicy, moist texture you want.

7. Over-smoking your food

There's a delicate balance to strike when you're smoking foods with a pellet grill or smoker. On the one hand, you really want that smoky flavor to come through. But on the other hand, you don't want to taste so much smoke that you can't taste anything else.

Many people err on the side of too much smoke, says Jason Morse, a chef for Ace Hardware and the owner of 5280 Culinary. Instead, consider smoke as just one element of your flavor profile. 

"I like the smoke to complement the rub, the meat, and the side dishes," he says. "Allow the flavor of that expensive steak to shine right alongside the grilled veggies and potatoes. Smoke is a great enhancement."

8. Adding your food too early

Just like your oven should really preheat before you pop in a frozen pizza, your smoker or pellet grill needs time to heat up, too. If you add your food too early, you could end up with some less-than-ideal flavors, Ollier says. 

Look for that perfect wispy, thin blue smoke before adding your food. 

"Don't add the meat early on when the smoker is bellowing tons of heavy smoke," he says. "The heavy smoke is considered ‘dirty' smoke which will cause the meat to become more bitter."

9. Getting discouraged

Barbecue cooks spend their entire lives perfecting their craft. It's a mistake to assume that you'll be able to replicate your favorite restaurant's brisket the first time you use your smoker, says Michael Ollier, a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judge and chef for Certified Angus Beef.

"Don't get discouraged when using your pellet grill for the first time," he says. "Think of it like a dance. You look to your smoker for cues, and every now and again, you might get your toes stepped on. Smoking takes time and practice."

Brisket, for example, is a particularly tricky meat to get right. Consider starting with another cut of meat instead, like a chuck roast, which is more forgiving, Ollier says. Keep practicing and experimenting with different types of foods. You'll be a pro in no time.

Related: Browse our entire collection of Smoked Foods.