How to Clean a Smoker and Perform Routine Maintenance

There’s nothing quite like the look and feel of a well-seasoned smoker. You just know you’re going to get quality barbecue from it.

But here’s the key – there’s a difference between a seasoned smoker and a dirty one. Nobody wants a dirty one. Everybody needs to know how to clean a smoker.

What we’re describing first is a deep clean. Depending on how often you use it, you might need to do this about 2/3 times a year. It should be done before storing for winter. For in between, check out our tips below for a quick clean.

With 75% of American adults owning a smoker or grill, chances are you need to know how to clean one.

Here’s all you need to know about how to clean a smoker.

A New Smoker – Before You Begin

First of all, we’ll show you how to clean a smoker when it’s brand new. From the manufacturing process, there will be some residues that get left on the smoker.

Running the smoker, allowing it to get up to temperature and sit for a fair amount of time will help burn these residues off and stop them contaminating your food. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations for how long to do this.

Also, give it a wipe down to remove any dust and other unwanted items that may have settled on it during packing and transit.

Do this a couple of times without food to season it and help you understand how it works. You’ll be able to see what it needs to get up to your target temperatures.

Do all this and you’ll have a clean but seasoned smoker ready for action.

If you’re just starting out, learn from mistakes others have made so you don’t have to. Check out our definitive guide for beginners and one of the perfect smokers for newcomer!

First Steps – Assemble Your Gear

Every smoker is slightly different. These general guidelines on how to clean a smoker are based on an offset barrel smoker, but should mainly apply across the board.

However, to avoid doing any damage to your machine, make sure you check out the manufacturer’s guidelines before starting. Be especially careful to protect all electrical components from water ingress during cleaning.

First, make sure you have a nice, open space that you can set all your gear out in.

It can be a messy job, so this isn’t the time for your Sunday best. Get into work clothes and cover anything nearby you don’t want to be spattered with residue.

Don’t forget to wear heavy-duty gloves too. Cover the ground if you don’t want it to get drenched in gunk.

Gather the tools you need. The essentials are a paint scraper, some type of degreaser, scouring pads and preferably a high-pressure washer.

The Big Clean

Before you set out on this stage, have your goal clearly in mind. Are you looking to return it to showroom standard? Probably not, and in fact, you probably never will.

There’s nothing wrong with a seasoned smoker. The goal of this clean is to remove anything that could grow mold or anything that could cause the steam to combine with soot and form a bitter, acrid liquid that could drip onto the meat.

First, attack any big deposits with the paint scraper. Don’t look to take it back to metal. Just get all of the big stuff off and any deposits that could make the aforementioned unholy brew.

Work your way through methodically, removing all build-ups of grease, ash, and gunk with the brush and scraper. Once all the big stuff is off, you can move on to a hot water solution with degreaser.

Thoroughly scrub off and rinse any visible grease left on all parts of the machine, taking care to remove the drip tray and water pan to give them a good clean.

Next, take your pressure washer, or use a high-pressure hose if you don’t have one. Thoroughly rinse off the smoker, inside and out. Set all of the parts aside to dry, and one complete dry, reassemble for the next stage.

Now comes the vital application of heat. As good as degreaser is, the best thing for your smoker is heat. Light the smoker and let it burn for at least an hour to get fully up to temperature and burn off all residues.

Your smoker will internally be good to go, and ready for its final touches.

Polish to a Shine

If you have a stainless steel smoker, keeping the outside looking pristine takes serious elbow grease, plus a good quality stainless steel cleaner.

Never use anything abrasive on the exterior of these babies. Work with the grain of the steel and buff to a high-sheen finish.

Cleaning the Cooking Grates

When thinking about how to clean a smoker, cleaning the grates is probably the thing that people dread most.

As they’re in constant contact with meat, the cooking bear the brunt of the cooking process. The juices get burnt on and due to meat fat, plus the natural and added sugars in the barbecuing process, could give off acrid smoke if not well cleaned.

A good tip for the future is to cover your grates in aluminum foil, although some purists feel that this inhibits the flavor, the whole point of barbecuing. It does make cleanup a whole lot easier, though!

If that’s a bridge too far, at least consider lining your drip pan with heavy duty aluminum foil and do the same for the bottom of the water pan. The key to how to clean a smoker also includes keeping it clean in the first place.

There’s no benefit to these residues in terms of seasoning, and you can just remove the foil when you’re done.

1. Brush Off

How to clean a smoker 101: regular brushing. This is one of the best and most straightforward ways to keep your grates clean.

After you’ve finished smoking, whack the temperature up high and let it sit for some time, up to 45 minutes. Make sure that before embarking on this, you’re in a fit state to see it through though!

The heat will burn off much of the residue left on the cooking grates. Then you can systematically go through and scrub off the particles with the brush, leaving it clean for next time, and leaving nothing that could attract insects.

2. Steam Cleaning

A handheld steam cleaner is ideal to give cooking grates a thorough clean because it loosens and removes burnt on residue. It does this without using chemicals meaning there’s no residue to worry about and food won’t be tainted.

Simply set up the steam cleaner and equip yourself with a suitable grill brush. A wire brush could be suitable for this.

Many people avoid wire brushes because of the risk of ingesting small pieces of wire that come off whilst cleaning. Check out alternatives at your local hardware store. Some steamers also come with a brush attachment you could use.

Next, methodically go over your grates, steaming and scrubbing. It might take a few go overs to remove everything. You’ll be left with safe, clean grills that will not taint your food.

3. Deep Clean

Ironically, although it sounds taxing, a less laborious option could be an overnight deep clean. Rather than using steam, this harnesses the power of soaking in water and chemicals to loosen and remove dirt.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Get yourself a large, deep metal tray or a bag, large enough to accommodate the grate and the cleaning solution
  • Mix vinegar and bicarbonate of soda to a ratio of 1:2
  • Add solution to the tray or bag along with the grates
  • Soak overnight to loosen the dirt
  • Next day, rinse off and remove stubborn particles with a brush or steel wool
  • Final hose down before air drying and replacing on the smoker

This is definitely a great option to avoid a lot of back-breaking scrubbing. Let the solution do the work and get them back to nearly new condition.

Quick Cleaning Tips

What we’ve described above is a full deep clean.

There are other, quicker methods you could use for maintenance cleans. Here’s how to clean a smoker when time is limited.

One word of caution – be extremely careful if you’ve got a lot of grease build up, as this could ignite and cause a dangerous grease flare. If this is the case, a thorough clean is necessary.

A few tips:

  • Fuel it up and run it hot to burn off any residue on the grates
  • Carefully rinse through with boiling water and wipe off loosened bits
  • Leave to cool and sweep out all ash residue

Follow these quick tips between more thorough cleanings.

How To Clean a Smoker – The Takeaway

Now you know the secret of how to clean a smoker – regular maintenance cleans, careful application of aluminum foil and a thorough going over a few times a year. Do this and your barbecue will taste just as it should, with nothing nasty added.

Don’t worry that cleaning away that black crust will affect your end product. Acrid smoke from rancid fat is definitely not the answer to a great bark.

Check out our guide to purchasing electric smoker 🙂

If you’re looking to upgrade your smoker, there are lots of factors to consider. Electic, charcoal, pellet, propane – the decisions are endless. It’s a serious investment, so make sure you get one that’s right for you.

Click here to check out our comprehensive guides to choosing and using the best smoker for you.

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