Spring Cleaning Your Smoker

Steven Raichlen with Pit Barrel Cooker

There are people on Planet Barbecue who wouldn’t dream of cooking in an oven crusted with carbonized grease and spills, but who persist in calling the same detritus “seasoning” when cooking outdoors on their smokers or grills. No. Just say no. By-products of the smoking process—tar, creosote, soot, and so on—can accumulate to the point where they flake off on your food.

Annual maintenance needn’t be a chore if you have the right equipment, not to mention some tunes and an adult beverage. And for motivation, host an epic barbecue once the work is done.

(Note: The following advice applies to smokers. Also see our spring cleaning tips for gas grills and charcoal grills.)

What you’ll need:

  • Inexpensive plastic tarp for protecting work area

  • Grilling gloves as well as heavy-duty rubber gloves

  • Large plastic utility tub

  • A good cleaner/degreaser, preferably organic, such as Simple Green or SAFECID; special cleaners may be required for smokers constructed of stainless steel

  • Small wet/dry vacuum

  • Water hose with a high pressure sprayer nozzle

  • Heavy-duty scrubbing sponges and scouring pads

  • Long-handled wooden spoon or paint stirring stick

  • Plastic putty knife, paint scraper, or scraper with plastic blades

  • Grill brush

Before proceeding, consult the owner’s manual that came with your smoker for specific instructions. Not sure where the paperwork is? Most large manufacturers publish the manuals online.


Steven Raichlen with offset barrel smoker

Note: The following instructions are for smokers without any electrical or digital components.

Unless you want to power wash your deck or patio after you’ve cleaned your cooker, put on rubber gloves and lay a large tarp down where you plan to work and move the smoker onto the tarp. (Remove any unspent fuel from the cook chamber first.) Recruit help if you need it—some smokers are heavy. Fill a plastic tub with hot water and dish soap or your cleaner of choice and set aside.

Brush the grates with a grill brush. (Use a brush with brass bristles if the grates are porcelain-coated so you don’t nick them.) Place in the tub to soak. Scrape and brush the heat diffuser plate, if your smoker has one. Unscrew the dome from the chimney and add the dome and the diffuser plate to the tub.

Using a paint stirring stick or long-handled wooden spoon or stiff brush, clean the inside of the chimney.

Scrape the inside lid of the firebox and cook chamber with a putty knife or paint scraper. Loosen any pools of grease and/or carbonized food in the bottom and wipe up with paper towels. Scrape the bottom half of the cook chamber, making sure to get into the corners. Clean the grease gutter with the paint stirring stick. Vacuum the loose ash and debris with a wet/dry vac.

Remove the grease catcher and clean out any drippings. Add the grease catcher to the tub. Using hot water, hose out the firebox, cook chamber, and the outside surfaces of the smoker. A pressure washer works even better. Remove any stubborn debris using a scrubby and degreaser. Wipe off the gasket.

Towel out any excess water with rags or paper towels. With the lids up and the vents open, let the smoker air dry. If the smoker shows signs of rust, remove it with sandpaper or steel wool, prime, and spray with a good-quality high-temperature paint.

In the meantime, scrub the smoker parts you’ve soaked in the soapy water, replacing the water as needed. Allow to air dry. Reassemble the smoker. Oil it inside and out with vegetable oil. Lubricate the vents if they’re sticky. (Tip: For easy clean-up, line the grease bucket with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Replace after each use.)

Maintain your grill by doing the following after each smoke:

  • Immediately after smoking, brush the rack clean with a grill brush.

  • When the smoker is barely warm to the touch, scrape out any grease that’s accumulated in the bottom of the smoke chamber. Empty the drip pan or grease bucket. Wipe off the gasket that surrounds the lid with a damp rag.

  • When the grill is completely cold, clean out the spent ash, preferably into a metal ash can.

  • Periodically scrape off any scale that’s developed on the inside of the lid so it doesn’t end up on your food.

  • To prevent rust, occasionally re-oil the smoker.


Steven Raichlen with pellet grill/smoker

Note: It is very important to keep the inside of your pellet smoker dry. Not only are the electronics sensitive to moisture, but the pellets will disintegrate if they get wet, potentially turning to wood “cement” in the augur, jamming it.

Make sure the cooker is completely cold, preferably unused for 24 hours. Fill a large plastic tub with hot water and dish soap or your cleaner of choice and set aside. Place the grill rack in the water along with the chimney dome. Remove any foil from the drip pan and flame deflector and scrape and/or brush off any debris. Add to the tub only if they’re especially dirty. Discard any solids in the grease bucket and add to the tub. Scrub all the parts as needed and air-dry thoroughly.

Using a paint stirring stick or long-handled wooden spoon or stiff brush, clean out the grease shoot. Scrape the inside of the chimney. (You’ll be surprised how much gunk accumulates here.) Secure a damp scrubby to the end of the spoon or brush with rubber bands and wipe out the inside of the chimney. Scrape the inside of the lid to dislodge any flakes of smoke or soot.

Using a shop-type vac, vacuum out the interior of the smoker, including the firepot. Make sure the holes in the side of the firepot are clear. Wipe the interior of the smoker with a barely damp scrubby or rag sprayed with a cleaner like Simple Green. Carefully wipe the temperature probe, usually located on the left hand side of the cook chamber.

Wipe down the outside of the smoker with a fresh damp scrubby. Clean any stainless steel parts with stainless steel polish. Finish any powder-coated parts with auto wax if desired.

Cover the drip pan with fresh heavy-duty aluminum foil. Reassemble the grill; don’t forget to hang the grease bucket from its hook. (You can line it with aluminum foil for easier clean-up.)

Maintain your pellet smoker by doing the following after each smoke:

  • Let the smoker run on High for 10 minutes, then brush the grill grate with a brass-bristled brush. Cool down and turn off the smoker as per the manufacturer’s instructions. Remove the grease bucket from its hook and put it in a place where animals are unable to reach it (raccoons love grease buckets).

  • With a damp rag, wipe any drips off the outside of the smoker.

  • Once the grill has cooled completely, i.e., the next day, replace the foil on the drip pan, if needed, to avoid a grease fire. This is especially important after you’ve cooked fatty meats like bacon or pork shoulder.

  • If you notice any peeling paint, treat it immediately to prevent the unit from rusting.


Steven Raichlen with digital smoker

Note: As with pellet smokers, it is important to keep the electronics that govern electric smokers dry. Again, please consult the owner’s manual for your unit before cleaning the smoker.

Let the smoker cool completely before cleaning.

After each use, the racks, drip pan, and water bowl can be cleaned in hot soapy water or even in the dishwasher, according to some manufacturers. Dry completely. Empty the smoker box and wipe clean with a damp cloth. (Do not immerse in water.)

Periodically, use a soft bristle brush (like a whisk brush) to brush any loose bits of food, ash, or debris to the floor of the smoker. Sweep out. Wipe down the metal walls—not including the glass front, if it has one—of the interior with a damp sponge. (Do not expect to recapture the interior’s shiny surface; it will discolor with use.)

Carefully wipe down the temperature probe and the button-shaped interior thermometer as well as the gasket on the inside of the door.

If the smoker has a glass front, clean it with a damp sponge. Cleaners formulated specifically for ceramic cook tops are approved by some manufacturers.

Clean the outside similarly—with a damp sponge.

Several experienced electric smoker owners recommend running the smoker with a mixture of vinegar or lemon juice and water in the water pan until the interior steams up—about an hour. Let the smoker sit until it cools, then wipe down the interior surfaces (including the glass window) to remove any smoky residue. Let dry completely with the door propped open. Reassemble the smoker when the interior is thoroughly dry.