Building a Fire in Your Smoker
The number one mistake you will make is building too small of a fire to start with. If you start with a small fire, your pit will take a long time to reach a good smoking temperature, and it will be hard to maintain that temp once you reach it. If you have a smaller smoker, you want to build a stack of wood or charcoal equivalent to 1/3 to 1/2 a 20lb. bag of charcoal. You can add small amounts of charcoal or wood to the fire to keep it going, and you will find it is much easier to maintain 250-275 degrees by doing so.
Different factors including the amount of charcoal or wood you use, how you stack it, and how long you let the fire burn before you cook can make the difference between poorly smoked or perfectly smoked barbecue.
If you use charcoal, build a mound of charcoal that resembles a pyramid shape. If you use wood, stack the wood evenly in the firebox. It is best to use newspaper or a charcoal starter to light your fire, but if you must, you can use lighter fluid; just make sure all of the fluid has burned before you add your meat. If you don't, you can risk the flavor of your meat tasting like lighter fluid. 20 minutes should do the trick.
Light your fire leaving the lid of the firebox and the lid of the smoker wide open. I usually leave the firebox door cracked. Once the fire is going, close the firebox lid, the firebox door, and adjust the firebox vent to about 1/4 open. My smoker will cook at 250 degrees with the vent 100% shut and the exhaust vent 100% open. It will take a little practice to find the optimum settings to maintain a certain temperature in your smoker, but with a little practice you will master it.
After your fire has been lit for 20 minutes or so, many of the coals should be white and your pit should be 250 to 275 degrees F. You are now read to add your meat.
Maintain the fire as the temperature begins to drop. If you notice the fire getting smaller, add a few more coals or one or two pieces of wood. The goal is to maintain the temperature.
I usually leave the exhaust vent 100% open at all times to let the smoke escape. I can usually maintain my cooking temp better by doing so. Again, you will have to practice to find the best settings for your pit.
Purchase an inexpensive oven thermometer to place by the meat you are smoking. The temperature at that level will be different that the temperature reading on the gauge mounted on the smoker door. If the exhaust vent is open, the temperature by the meat will be cooler. If it is closed, the temperature by the meat can be warmer.
If you have questions, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org