Home » Do Smokers Work In The Winter: The Simple Truth

Do Smokers Work In The Winter: The Simple Truth

Creating juicy, melt in your mouth meats with delicious smoky flavors shouldn’t be seasonal.  It’s bad enough that we already have a barbecue season. 

Regardless, it does seem that most people new to using smokers see it as a warm weather hobby.  Having only been a backyard pit boss for a few years now, that got me thinking.

Do most people simply not like using a smoker during frigid cold winters because it’s uncomfortable or is it actually because smokers won’t work in cold weather?

Most modern smokers work great in cold weather.  Pellet, gas, charcoal and electric smokers provide more than enough constant heating power to maintain ideal cooking temperatures with sufficient insulation and additional fuel.  Even when the outside temperatures drop below freezing.

Not all smokers are created equal and naturally the quick answer seldom addresses the entire question, so you might want to read on for the full scoop.

The challenges of using a smoker in cold weather

What’s the big deal anyway?  Just turn on the smoker and get to cooking, right?  Well, it’s not that simple.  To most of us, it’s fairly obvious that using any kind of smoker out in the cold is going to pose some problems.  

The first of which is heat loss.  Maintaining a stable temperature during the entire cooking process in a smoker is essential for getting the best results on any cut of meat.  A chilly blast of wind or excessive opening of the smoker can derail the entire process.  In the summer, your smoker is not as susceptible to wild temperature swings.

Another problem with using smokers in the winter is fuel load.  Frigid outside temperatures mean that maintaining the optimum cooking environment will require more fuel.  With an electric smoker, it just requires more electricity.  However, gas, charcoal and pellet smokers will consume more fuel than normal in order to keep things toasty inside.  

That alone is not the end of the world or an excuse to close up shop and store away the smoker for the season.  Both these issues can be remedied.  Plus, not all smokers suffer the cold weather blues.  Some are better than others.

What smokers work best in cold weather

For the serious meat eaters among us, backyard cooking is not limited to warm, sunny weather.  When winter smoking is in your future, there are some smokers that perform better than others.  

So, how do you know which smokers work best in cold weather?  Simple.  The champs of cold weather smoking have built-in insulation to prevent heat transfer and powerful heat sources to make up for any heat loss.  Let’s take a look at heat sources first.

Of the four primary kinds of smokers (charcoal, gas, pellet and electric), electric smokers struggle the most in cold weather.  Especially, if the heating element is too small or the smoker is uninsulated.  On the other hand, gas, charcoal and pellet smokers usually pump out enough BTUs to make up for lost heat, even in sub-zero temperatures.  

That doesn’t mean you want to just crank up the dial and bleed all that heat into the air.   It’s a waste of fuel which isn’t necessarily cheap.  Regardless of smoker type, you also need a smoker with built-in insulation.  It’s the insulation that saves the day.

Take a look at these cold weather super stars.  They all have what it takes to make savory meals in the dead of winter.  

Best cold weather pellet smoker:  Traeger Timberline 850

With a fully insulated cooking area, the Traeger Timberline has what it takes to smoke in any weather.  The large hopper holds 24 pounds of pellets and integrates a low pellet alert that eliminates the risk of running out of pellets mid-cook.  Combine that with wifi remote monitoring and you no longer need to brave the elements just to check on the grill.  With all those features, it’s no wonder the Timberline 850 is a favorite among aspiring pit masters all year long.

Best cold weather charcoal smoker:  Big Green Egg

It might be heavy but that is precisely what gives the Big Green Egg its prowess for winter time smoking and grilling.  The thick ceramic shell efficiently captures heat from the charcoal and acts as a thermal regulator to generate stable temperatures no matter what Mother Nature throws at you.  Utilize the air flow venting to accurately set your desired cooking temperature.  And never fear, the Big Green Egg is made to endure frosty weather without cracking.

Best cold weather electric smoker:  Masterbuilt 30”

When it comes to electric smokers, Masterbuilt does it right.  Compared to most other brands, Masterbuilt has some of the best integrated insulation available.  The entire smoker box is fully insulated and resists fluctuations in cooking temperature, even when the wind howls and the mercury plummets.  With bluetooth controls and real-time temperature monitoring of the internal meat probe, you never have to open the door until absolutely necessary.  The electric heating element pumps out some serious heat and will hold your desired cooking temperature under blustery winter conditions.  Patience is needed though.  Electric smokers take a little longer to heat up than other smoker types in cold weather.

Best cold weather propane smoker:  Camp Chef Smoke Vault

You’ll be hard pressed to find a well insulated propane smoker.  They just don’t exist.  While the Camp Chef Smoke Vault might not be insulated, its stout construction and thick gage steel smoke box helps it stand out from the rest of the pack.  In addition, the protected burner helps funnel heat where it needs to go for even temperature control.  When cold weather takes hold, this propane smoker is ready to go.   

Can you use electric smokers in winter

There might be some well insulated electric smokers out there but should you even use them in the winter?  

As long as you protect the smoker from the elements, an electric smoker functions just fine in the winter.  It will take a bit longer for electric smokers to come to temperature in cold weather.  However, once warmed up, they can maintain sufficient heat to satisfy any backyard chef. 

If your electric smoker is getting pounded by rain, sleet or snow, consider using an insulation blanket made for your smoker.  External moisture is not good for an electric smoker.

Can you use a pellet grill in cold weather

There seems to be some chatter on the web that pellet smokers “explode” in cold weather.  While there is some truth to the matter, it is hardly a simple theory of cold equals boom with pellet smokers.  It’s something called “flameout” that leads to an unsafe situation.  But it only gets dangerous when people don’t follow the instructions for restarting the pellet smoker.  

Used properly, a pellet smoker will operate safely in cold weather.  Most issues that cause flameouts are avoidable with the right precautions.  Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions to avoid flameouts.  Just as importantly, follow the instructions on how to safely restart a pellet grill after a flameout occurs.

In cold weather, avoid flameouts with a pellet smoker by using dry, high quality pellets.  Humid or damp conditions common in winter cause improperly stored pellets to absorb moisture.  This leads to clumping in the hopper which inhibits the proper feed rate.  Moisture also leads to lower combustion temperatures in the fire box.  Always check your pellets before each use and store them in a dry container.

If a flameout happens, follow the proper restart procedure.  Not doing so will result in over loading the fire box.  This generates billowing smoke which can suddenly and violently combust.  

By using dry, high quality pellets and an insulation jacket around the smoker, you can use your pellet smoker in the winter without problems.  Most pellet smoker explosions are a result of user error.

What about charcoal and gas smokers

Both charcoal and propane gas smokers work well in the winter.  It all comes down to their ability to regulate internal cooking temperature in extreme winter weather.  You can help keep your smoker happy by using insulation while maintaining the right level of fuel.

What is the best insulation for a smoker

Aside from insulation already built in, there are other means of adding a nice cozy jacket to your beloved smoker.  Taking extra steps to provide additional insulation on your smoker means you can pump out delicious feasts all winter long.  Take a look at this list of the best insulation options for any smoker.

  • Insulating jackets – This is probably the easiest way to insulate a smoker.  Most are made by the smoker manufacturer to fit perfectly on specific models.  
  • Insulation blankets – Similar to insulation jackets, these blankets wrap around most types of smokers.  They contain a layer of aluminum beneath the fabric to trap in heat.  It’s not always a custom fit so some adjustments are needed. 
  • Welding blankets – These fairly inexpensive blankets are made from flame retardant fiberglass or felt.  They handle heat in excess of 1000°F.  It’s not a perfect solution but draping it over a horizontal smoker or wrapping it around a vertical smoker does provide excellent insulation.
  • Water heater blankets – As the name suggests, these are designed to insulate the water heater in your home.  Yet, they do work quite well as a quick way to insulate most styles of smokers.

Insulating jackets designed specifically for your smoker are likely to produce the best results.  They seem to have better heat retention and repel rain and snow more effectively than the other options.

Regardless of the type of insulation you add to your smoker, remember to only wrap it around the smoker box.  Keep insulation away from the fire box and don’t restrict air flow by covering the vents.

What if you can’t get your smoker hot enough

Still not able to get your smoker to cook right in the cold?  Unfortunately, not all smokers are up to the task.  If you’ve done all you can to insulate and protect your smoker from the elements but it still won’t maintain an appropriate cooking temperature, resist the urge to use it in the garage or shop.  

Using a smoker in confined spaces is always a bad idea.  You might be okay using your smoker under a covered porch.  Just be sure it is far away from any indoor living space.  

Take a look at my popular article to see why using smokers in the garage is a surprisingly bad idea.

5 cold weather smoking tips

If you made it to this point, then you understand that using a smoker in the winter is more complicated than expected.  That doesn’t mean it’s not a worth while endeavor though.  Follow these 5 cold weather smoking tips to help you simplify the process.

  • Put your smoker in a spot protected (but not enclosed) from winter elements.  Rain, wind and snow challenge even the best smokers.  Just remember, never use your smoker in the garage.
  1. Use insulation to help retain heat in the smoker box.  The most important part to protect is the lid, sides and door.  Use only flame resistant material and don’t let the insulation come into contact with the heat source or cover any vents.
  1. Keep the lid shut on your smoker.  Every time you sneak a peek during the smoking process, you allow heat to escape.  Keep that hard won heat inside and only pop open the door when truly necessary.
  1. Load up on fuel before you start.  Gas, charcoal and pellet smokers burn significantly more fuel when it’s cold.  Avoid running out of fuel mid-cook by loading up before you start.  Keep an eye on your fuel level during the process too.
  1. Adjust your expectations.  You might be able to set it and forget it during ideal weather but smokers out in the cold require a little more attention and a little more time.  When the cold starts affecting the cooking process, pay close attention and adjust your settings as needed.