Should Wood Be On Fire In Smoker & 13 Tips To Stop It When It Shouldn’t

Smoking meat is one of life’s premier joys, and I think there’s nothing quite like the first bite of a smoked brisket you’ve been tending since dawn.

But perfecting the art of cooking with a smoker takes time. It requires patience, resilience, and the humility to accept advice from others.

The only problem is that when it comes to smoking, everyone has their own opinion.

Even with a question as simple as “should your wood be catching fire in the smoker?” there’s some contention (and that’s not to mention the argument surrounding whether to soak your wood or not!) 

Thankfully, I’ve conducted extensive research (both online and in real life) and I’m ready to answer all of your questions regarding wood, flames, and the perfect smoulder.

Should Wood Be On Fire In The Smoker

Should Wood Be On Fire In The Smoker

So should your wood be catching fire when smoking? The answer is not straight forward.

In some offset smokers flames are inevitable as dried wood hits the coals, and indeed such flames can contribute to the thin blue smoke pit masters love to see spilling from their chimneys.

However, in almost any other situation, the opposite is true. Ultimately, you do not want your wood to catch fire. 

When wood catches fire it burns too quickly, producing a thick white bitter smoke that’s just no good at flavouring your food.

What you really want is for your wood to smoke and smoulder at a steady temperature, just below its combustion point. (Wood smokes when it reaches temperatures between 570-750°F (299-399°C).

This way, you can extract those tasty aromas and flavours from the wood, whilst slowly reducing it to charcoal, never spoiling the meat with the acrid taste of burning.

Now that you know your wood probably shouldn’t burn, let’s go through some of the best ways I found to avoid wood catching fire in a smoker, from good general practices, to methods specific to chips and chunks.

How To Keep Wood From Catching Fire In A Smoker

How To Keep Wood From Catching Fire In A Smoker

Choose The Right Wood

First things first, make sure that the wood you’re using in your smoker is up to the task. Green, unseasoned wood (i.e. young and fresh) is liable to catch fire and reach its combustion point quickly.

It is much harder to control than seasoned wood (wood which has been left to dry in the open air for several months, or even dried in a kiln).

Choose seasoned wood to ensure that it is sturdy enough to hold the heat, without bursting into flame.

Reduce Oxygen Levels

Fire needs two things: a fuel source (wood) and oxygen. The more oxygen present in your smoker, the more likely your wood is to catch fire.

In order to prevent flames, you need to reduce the amount of oxygen entering your smoker by manipulating the vents on the smoke box and chimney stack.

You still want to create a nice circulation of air, so as to promote healthy blue smoke (rather than the thick white smoke which closed vents produce), but you don’t want your vents open to the point that your wood will catch on fire.

Play with your smoker until you find that sweet spot.

Soak Your Wood

This is actually a fairly controversial point in the world of smoking.

Soaking your wood (be it in chips or chunks) delays the point at which the wood starts smoking. This is because the wood has become saturated with water, which must burn off first before the wood can give off smoke.

On one hand, this controlled delay allows you more time to steady the temperature and air circulation of your smoker, and may help stave off flames.

On the other hand, introducing unnecessary water to the smoke box is liable to mess with your temperatures, which will affect cooking times.

To soak, or not to soak? I’ll leave it up to you.

Don’t Overload Your Smoke Box

Whether using an offset smoke box, or a smoke box placed directly on coals or the grill, this is a pretty crucial piece of advice.

Remember, more smoke does not equal tastier meat. In fact, long exposure to thin, blue, near-invisible smoke is what proffers the tastiest produce.

The more wood you pile on at once, the more smoke and the more likely it will catch fire. Use just 5 or 6 chips at a time, or just 2 or 3 chunks.

Watch The Weather

As if you didn’t have enough on your mind already, remember that the weather plays a role in smoking, too. Wind fans flames and encourages fire, so on windy days keep your vents closed tighter.

On calm days, however, you may have to keep your vents open wide in order to get enough air circulating. It’s all about the small, careful adjustments.

Cast Iron VS. Sheet Metal

Cast iron is thicker and sturdier than the sheet metal with which a lot of stock smoke boxes are made.

Cast iron heats up slower, and retains heat better. It is therefore the superior choice when looking to keep your wood from catching fire.

Keep Your Tray Clean And Your Water Topped Up

Proper maintenance of a smoker is essential to its performance.

Keep it clean to prevent residue from previous smokes contributing to variations in heat control, and keep your water/drip tray topped up. The more moisture in the smoker’s atmosphere, the juicier the meat and the less likely your wood will catch.

Don’t Peak!

Last, but most certainly not least, don’t peak! It’s naturally tempting to want to check the status of your cooking, but unless necessary, don’t!

Buy yourself a quality meat thermometer and use it to monitor cooking status instead.

Regularly opening and closing the lid causes fluctuations in temperature and oxygen levels, which affect cooking times and increase the chances of wood combustion.

How To Keep Wood Chips From Catching Fire

You’ve learned my top tips for preventing wood from catching fire in a smoker, but what about some tips specific to wood chips?

Use A Smoke Box

Many smokers come with integrated smoke boxes, but you can also buy one easily enough if your smoker didn’t.

A smoke box (preferably cast iron) is a small container with vents on top, into which you place your wood chips. Because the box acts as a barrier between naked heat and wood, the chips are far less likely to catch fire.

Instead, they will smoulder gently, releasing their aromatic smoke through the vents in the box.

A cast iron box will take a little longer to heat to the point of inducing smoking, but is more manageable for it. If you still face problems when using a smoke box, try introducing a layer of pierced foil between the lid and the chips.

Make Your Own Smoke Box

If you’re unable to purchase a manufactured smoke box, you can always make one yourself!

This DIY smoke box works as well in conventional and offset smokers as it does on a traditional grill or barbecue:

Simply take one or two layers of aluminium foil and place a handful of chips (as few as 5 or 6) in the center. Next, fold the aluminium around the chips nice and tightly. Finally, pierce the top of the makeshift ‘box’ several times with a fork.

Adjust The Heat

You want to start your chips (in your smoker box) out on a high heat, placing them on the hottest part of the grill, or right next to the coals.

Once those chips start to smoke, however, you’ve got to get them away from the heat source. Either move them to a corner away from the coals, or to the coolest section of the grill.

How To Keep Wood Chunks From Catching Fire

Now that we’ve had a look at tips specific to wood chips, let’s look at those for wood chunks to finish this guide off.

Limit The Feed

It’s tempting to just throw a bunch of wood chunks into the burner in an attempt to produce lots of smoke. But doing so is only going to increase the chances of your wood catching alight.

A better technique is to use only 1-3 chunks of wood at a time, placing them on the opposite side of the box to the coals, so that they gradually heat up to smouldering and smoking temperatures.

Once they’ve turned toward charcoal, add them to the coals and place your next batch of chunks on the vacated side.

Use A Cast Iron Skillet Or Pan

If limiting the feed still isn’t solving your flame issues, then there is one other trick you can try.

Try placing a cast iron skillet or pan (make sure any flammable handles have been removed) over the coals in the smoke box, then place your wood chunks in the pan.

Like the makeshift box suggested for wood chips, this DIY fix simply places a barrier between naked heat and your wood, thus reducing the chance that the wood will catch fire.

Conclusion

Smoking food is an artform. It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes perseverance. One of the most common causes of wood catching fire in a smoker is, quite simply, the inexperience of the pit master. 

Take time to read, watch, and learn all of the intricacies which go into perfectly smoking your food, and maintaining the perfect smoker or barbecue.

Don’t be ashamed to fail, either, because learning from your mistakes is an important part of the process. Know that different grills function differently, and what works in one smoker might not in another.

And most importantly, remember these tips for preventing fire in your smoker.

  • Don’t overload the smoke box.
  • Make small adjustments to control the flow of air and levels of oxygen inside the smoker.
  • Use the right kind of wood.
  • Place a barrier between the heat source and the fuel.
  • Watch the weather.
  • And, most importantly of all, don’t peak!

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