Maintenance, like most things in life, is not fun, but a necessity none the less. Much like your oven needs cleaned and your knives need sharpened, your outdoor cooking equipment needs to be taken care of as well.
I am extremely guilty of not taking care of my outdoor equipment which is what prompted this post. My smoker was purchased in the late 90’s, and is only now getting its first real cleaning and maintenance, as well as some upgrades. My charcoal grill is fairly new yet, but most of these tips apply to both. As for a gas grill, that is a whole different animal and will be getting its own post.
General cleaning is just the basic things to do before/after every cook. The majority of this article deals with once or twice a year cleaning. To make those cleans go quicker, some simple methods can be applied to your cooking during warm up time. You do remember to warm your grill/smoker up before throwing the meat on right? Right. When you first turn your grill on, or put the coals in, let the grates heat up to temp for 5 or 10 minutes. Then simply brush with a wire brush, try to get all around the grate, and let them heat up some more. You probably already take that step, but if you do it again right after you take the food off, it goes much quicker and can help prevent bugs or mold.
A good way to keep a polish on the inside, and help slow the buildup of carbon and grease is to spray the inside with Pam. I know I covered it in the maintenance post, but it really makes a difference come deep clean time. Just spray a light coating over the interior and bring to temp.
Until last summer, my smoker had sat idle for probably six years, just sitting in the yard. No cover, no use, it just sat there. Upon coming back into the area last year, it did get a substantial cleaning, but upon using it through the fall, I noticed a lot of things that needed repair and taken care of, so with Spring around the corner, and the beginning of smoking season with it, it’s time to tackle those problems.
Begin everything with a good cleaning. High powered Dawn dish soap works well, as do power washers, such as at a car wash, which is where I took mine to clean. My alternate goal was to find all the thin spots, so I wanted extremely high pressure. Many people argue about the buildup of grease and carbon adding flavor and uniqueness to their cooks, but I think about it this way “Would I eat in a restaurant if I knew the cooktop hadn’t had more than a scraping for over a year?” No, I wouldn’t. The grease gets rancid with age, especially with being outside year round. Mold grows, bees and spiders move in. At least once a year, do yourself a favor and deep clean your smoker or charcoal grill. To help it stay looking good and easier to clean in the future, after all the water is dry, spray the entire inside with Pam or a similar cooking spray. The PAM acts as the same as seasoning a cast iron skillet. Don’t forget to clean all the grates, if you have a tub big enough, let them soak in soapy water or just use the pressure washer again.
After cleaning everything, spraying the smoker down with Pam, and reassembling it, it’s time for the burn in. I recommend doing this as a two part process. The first part is pretty simple. Open all the vents the whole way, and build a fire in your fire box. Start with two full chimneys of burning charcoal AT THE SAME TIME. You want it hot, as hot as you can make it, and let it burn out. This initial high temperature burn will set the seasoning properties of the Pam, as well as destroy any bacteria or bugs that the wash missed. After the fire has completely burned out, I actually do this step a day or two later, do one or two dry runs. This means build a fire to cook as you usually would, and watch it. Keep track of how long it takes to get up to temp, how long it stays there, is there any smoke leaking out? In my case, I know I have leaks, so I will be touching on repair in the next part. If you’re holding a good temperature, and getting a good burn time, with no leaks, you’re good and ready for the season.
If, like me, you have leaks and holes to deal with, and unsteady temperatures, it’s time to take some steps to fix them. A general rule of thumb to keep in mind, is any paint, epoxies, tapes, anything that has fumes should not be applied inside the cooking area. You can, and let it air, and burn it out before cooking food, but make it easier on yourself and just try to keep fixes external. I have a small rust hole in the bottom of the cooking chamber, a leaky door, and my little wooden shelf rotted off and disappeared over a decade ago.
To fix the leaky door, I simply ordered this roll of Nomex gasket material. There is more than enough to do my cooking chamber door, so I can keep it for in the future. It fills the gaps fairly evenly, and prevents leaks through the door, keeping smoke and temperature inside where it can do the most good. Before applying, cut the strips to length, then dry fit. Clean with a degreaser and then wipe with isopropyl(rubbing)alcohol before applying the gasket. Depending on your brand or type of smoker, you may be able to find a custom gasket set available, but this path is much cheaper.
For small holes rusted through, there are a few options available. I picked JB Weld High Heat, as it’s simple to apply, can withstand way higher temps than my cooking chamber reaches, and is relatively inexpensive. Any exhaust putty, exhaust tape, or even ceramic coating work well, just make sure that you don’t get something that will melt onto the food, and always allow at least a day, preferably a day and a dry run before adding food to minimize risk of taste or toxicity. If you wish to paint over your repair, for whatever reason, engine block paint, ceramics, or high heat enamels are preferred.
For the shelf, I just laid some scrap plywood across the arms. I’ll be building a better, metal shelf this year that I’ll document, but scrap boards make great shelves.
Having gasketed the doors, sealed the leaks, and replaced the shelf, it’s time to try another dry run. Pay particular attention to times, and be sure to keep an eye out for any more leaks. If everything is acting as it should, the season begins.