Home » How Often Should I Clean My Smoker: Advice From The Experts

How Often Should I Clean My Smoker: Advice From The Experts

It’s always fun when you are cooking tasty food in the smoker.  But what about when it comes time to clean it?  Surely, cleaning a smoker is not everyone’s favorite job but it does need to be done.  

The real question for most people is, how often?  According to experienced pit masters, your smoker is going to accumulate a layer of grease and soot after just a few long cooking sessions.  It’s when this accumulated fat turns rancid that the flavor of your costly meats start to suffer.  

For that reason, most experts recommend cleaning cooking grates, ash pans and grease catches in your smoker after every single use.  A deeper cleaning to remove carbonized soot should be done at least twice per year depending on use.  Otherwise, you may end up with more than just seasoning on your smoked brisket.

As with most things in life, there is always more to it than that.  That’s why I decided to save you some valuable time and compile the best smoker cleaning advice from a wide range of experts.  Only what you need to know is written below, so let’s take a look.

Do you really need to clean a smoker after every use

The answer to this question really depends on how you define “clean”.  It’s impractical to restore your smoker to a perfectly clean, like-new condition after every use.  I would never want to use my smoker if I had to spend hours polishing every surface after cooking a single meal.

In addition, experts acknowledge that most smokers need to go through a break-in period called “seasoning”.  This essentially means putting the smoker through its paces.  Smoker manufacturers usually suggest running the smoker without food first.  Then smoke a couple chickens, make some pulled pork or even go big on a brisket.  The idea is to burn off the manufacturing chemicals and create that initial, super thin layer of flavor enhanced grease and smoke on all the interior surfaces. 

A deep cleaning to restore your smoker to its original luster will reset the seasoning process.  It’s just not a good idea.  

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some cleaning tasks that should be done after every use.  Things like cleaning out grease pans and ash after every cook is a good idea and won’t negatively impact your seasoned smoker.  

What about the grill grates?  Novices and experts alike have various opinions.  In general though, remove excess grease or charred food bits from grates every time you use it.  

What if you never clean a smoker

There are a fair number of people that never clean their smokers.  Hopefully, you are not one of them but if you are, some expert advise might sway you to change your ways.

Experts point out three very important reasons why you need to deep clean your smoker at least once or twice per year.  

First, a dirty smoker equals bad smoke.  Layers of grease, creosote and food bits will add funky tastes to your smoked meats.  If you wonder why your smoked foods don’t seem to hit it off at summer get togethers, that might be why.  Grease goes rancid fast and imparts bitter flavors while soot and ash particles can coat your food.  Plus, accumulated food chunks attract insects and mold growth which is very unhealthy. 

Second, all that grease and creosote is a fire hazard.  This is more the case for pellet grills and charcoal smokers where temperatures are higher but electric smokers are not immune to malfunction and flare ups when things get especially grimy near the heating element. 

Finally, a smoker that never gets cleaned eventually stops working.  Grease and ash build-up blocks critical air flow, clogs pellet augers, blocks grease trap drains and redirects heat.  All that combined means maintaining temperature, humidity and smoke quality is almost impossible.

In the end, don’t be the person that boasts about never cleaning your smoker because you believe it imparts more flavor.  It’s just not true.  A dirty smoker is not the same thing as a properly seasoned clean smoker.

Should I line my smoker with foil

In an effort to simplify the cleaning process in smokers, a lot of people try lining the surfaces with aluminum foil.  It’s a great idea and I even break out the foil with my own smoker.  However, lining your smoker with foil might have some drawbacks if done incorrectly.

While foil helps reduce messes inside the smoker, only put it where it won’t affect the cooking process.  The primary place foil actually helps is in the drip pan.  This is where grease and cooking juices accumulate.  When the drip pan is lined with foil, it’s a cinch to clean up and it helps prevent a build-up of rancid grease.  

But don’t over do it.  Keep foil off the cooking grates and don’t put foil near air control vents or combustion areas.  You don’t want to mess with the flow of heat and smoke.  

Aside from screwing up a low and slow cooking session, excess foil in the wrong places can also trap moisture and encourage rust development.  Even if you do limit your foil to the drip tray, remove it when you’re done cooking and once the smoker has cooled down.  That way any moisture that got between the foil and the metal drip pan won’t cause rust to form. 

Amazingly simple steps to clean any smoker

Cleaning smokers is far less difficult than you think.  Whether your smoker is electric, charcoal, pellet or gas, they all need a little TLC to stay in their prime.  In less than 20 minutes, you can have any smoker deep cleaned and ready to start cooking again.  

Supplies you will need:

  • Plastic scraper
  • Metal brush
  • Nylon bristle brush
  • Paper towels/sponge
  • Scotch-Brite pad
  • 50/50 mix of apple cider vinegar and water as a cleaner
  • Shop vacuum
  1. Clean all smokers using the top down approach.  Start by scraping the interior lid and sides to break off loose chunks of creosote and residue.  Stubborn residue can be removed with a sponge or paper towels and a little cleaner if needed.  Beyond that, don’t waste too much time restoring the interior walls to their original condition.  All you need to do is remove any loose stuff that might fall on your food.
  1. Next, give the grates a good scraping.  It’s up to you if you want to wash them completely.  Generally, if there is not a thick layer of grease, a quick scrape is all that is required.  Don’t use metal scrapers on porcelain coated grates.  Once you are satisfied with the grates, pull them out and set aside.
  1. Remove any deflector pans or water pans.  Scrape or scrub them with a Scotch-Brite pad and a little cleaner if needed.  In pellet grills, the deflector pan gets pretty filthy.  Spray it down with an apple cider vinegar/water mix and let it soak for 10 minutes.  Scrub clean with a wire brush.  
  1. Now remove any drip pans or grease catches.  Empty them out and wipe them down.  Continue scraping loose bits off as you work down to the heating element of the smoker.
  1. In charcoal or pellet smokers, it’s important to removes excess ash from the fire pot.  A shop vacuum is indispensable for this job.  Remove the majority of ash by hand and then vacuum up the rest.  With electric smokers, pull out the wood chip tray, dump any ash, then scrape out the pan with a nylon brush.
  1. Continue scraping all the surfaces until no loose bits are visible.  Give the interior a once over with the shop vac and you are almost done.
  1. For electric smokers with glass doors, use a razor blade to scrape off the creosote build-up.  You can use soap and water but it’s really not worth the hassle.  After 2 or 3 uses, the glass generally gets coated again.  Do a quick scrape with a razor if you feel the need to see what’s going on inside.
  1. Now you can reinstall all the smoker components and get to work on the outside.  I like to spray it down with a little cleaner and wipe with paper towels.  That’s usually enough to clean things up a bit.  For stubborn spots, scrub gently with super fine steel wool or a Scotch-Brite pad.  
  1. At this point, replace any foil pans and line drip trays with new foil if desired.  I like to also start up the smoker for 10 to 15 minutes to remove any residual moisture from the cleaner and then you are done!  That’s pretty much all you need to do for a deep clean on your smoker.

Best way to clean smoker grates

It’s important to remove left over food pieces and grease from smoker grates to ensure the best tasting food possible.  Regular cleaning is the best way to ensure your grates do their job.  But you should also show those grill grates some extra love with an annual deep cleaning.

For regular cleanings, the best way to maintain smoker grates is to manually scrape off loose material and grease.  With pellet and charcoal smokers, try cranking up the heat to burn off most of the sooty debris.  Then, use a wire brush and scraper to remove the rest.  

Electric smokers that use stainless steel grates are best cleaned with warm, soapy water in the kitchen sink followed by a rinse in cool water.  Towel dry the grates before replacing them in the electric smoker.

Deep cleaning entails a little bit more work but it’s easier than you might think.  Here is my preferred method for restoring dirty smoker grates to their peak performance.  

  • Remove smoker grates from the smoker and scrape off any large chunks of grease.  Use a wire brush to remove any rust that may be forming. 
  • Thoroughly spay grates with a 50/50 mix of apple cider vinegar and water and let them soak for several minutes.  (Alternatively, use a 2 to 1 mix of white vinegar and baking soda in a large tub or bag and soak grates overnight.)
  • With a green Scotch-Brite pad, completely scrub the grates.  Then, rinse with water.
  • Be sure to dry grates thoroughly before putting them back in the smoker.  For cast iron grates, liberally coat them with vegetable oil to prevent rust.

Keep in mind that smoker grates don’t need to be restored to original condition.  As long as excess grease and soot is removed, you’re good to go.  

Practical cleaning schedule

Alright, at this point I’ve got you on board about the importance of cleaning your smoker.  After all, we all want our food to turn out awesome and delicious.  A smoker in optimal condition leads to great results.  Now let’s stamp out an easy to follow cleaning schedule for the average backyard pit master.  Here’s advice from the experts.

At the very least, scrape grates, remove grease and clean up ash after every use.  According to experts, smokers that get heavy use should be deep cleaned every 4 to 5 cook sessions.  However, the average user can get away with twice per year.  For those that only use their smoker during the summer, deep clean it at the end of grilling season and do a light touch up before the start of the next season.

Nothing is set in stone here.  This is just a recommended cleaning schedule to preserve the life of your smoker and get the best tasting food possible.  Ultimately, the goal is to ensure your smoker operates as it is supposed to.  Whether you use a charcoal, pellet or electric smoker, try to clean it regularly.  Or at least as often as recommended by the manufacturer.  

Cleaners and degreasers 

More often than not, chemical cleaners and degreasers don’t work as well as advertised.  Plus, it’s best to avoid using any chemicals in your smoker.  At high temperatures, residual chemicals can form toxic compounds.  Not only is it unhealthy for you, it could also ruin the taste of your meat.  

Stick with good cleaning tools and try cleaning your smoker while it’s still hot.  Follow that up with a natural cleaning aid like vinegar and you’ll get great results.  Warm, soapy water is also a fantastic degreaser and in my experience, works just as well as any chemical cleaner.  

If there is one commercial grill cleaner worth trying, it would be CitruSafe.  I’ve tried it and it does work quite well.  As far as non-toxic cleaners go, it’s one of the best. 

The bottom line

Ultimately, how you clean your smoker is up to you.  Personally, I trust the pit masters who make their living smoking and grilling up some of the finest meats imaginable.  If they say clean your smoker regularly then who am I to argue.  

At the end of the day, we all want a smoker that will last us years and produce the best tasting foods possible.  Cleaning your smoker often is one of the easiest ways to ensure you get the best results.