Pellet smokers are popular choices among the meat lovers community. Their main fuel source is wood pellets made from compressed sawdust. These create a wonderful smoke that can cook meat to perfection. As an added bonus, these smokers are also fairly easy to clean and maintain!
Pellet smokers need to be cleaned on a regular basis. Burning pellets often leave an ashy, greasy residue on the smoker’s interior. After every 3-5 smokes, it’s usually best to give your smoker a thorough cleaning. The main areas to focus on are the drip pan, the grill grate, and the smokestack.
These smokers are popular for a reason and you’ll be able to enjoy them for years if you clean them properly. We’ll cover some of the most important topics below, including why cleaning is important, how to clean a pellet smoker, and some tips and tricks to make the job easier.
Why Is Cleaning Important?
Every pitmaster has different techniques and beliefs when it comes to “the right way” to smoke meat. Some of them even claim that it’s better to not clean your smoker because the buildup adds flavor and seasoning to the meat. This isn’t true and it can actually be dangerous (not to mention unhealthy) to let the grime build up.
Pellet smokers produce a lot of smoke, but also a lot of ash. This particulate can get stuck to the inside of the smoker and build up layers over time. Once there’s too much to handle, it might start to flake off and land on your food. Nobody wants an ashy brisket!
Dirty grills that are soaked in water or grease can develop stubborn stains and start to rust over time. This shortens the lifespan of the smoker and will make it much harder for you to clean it in the future.
Cleaning your smoker also clears up the airways, which leads to better oxygen flow for the fire. If there’s too much debris in the smokestack or grilling chamber, the fire might become starved and die out. Your smoker could even explode if you don’t clean it often enough! If the fire goes out but wood gas is still being produced, you’re dealing with a time bomb. If it’s exposed to a spark and some fresh air, the whole thing could blow.
But at the end of the day, it’s important to clean your smoker because you probably want it to last a long time. Your food will be cleaner, there’s a lower chance of rusting, and you won’t have to worry about dangerous buildup.
Before you jump into the cleaning process, you need to gather a few materials first. Some of these can be substituted, but generally, you’ll need:
- A drop cloth or tarp
- A shop vacuum
- De-greaser cleaning spray and/or dish soap
- Paper towels or damp hand towels
- Plastic putty knife or griddle scraper
- Stiff bristle brush
First up, wheel the smoker onto the drop cloth. It’s best if you can clean in an outdoor area with a flat surface. Porches, driveways, and garages are all good options.
Next, you need to dump the pellet hopper then remove the grilling grate and drip pan. These are some of the dirtiest parts of a smoker, so they require extra attention.
Scrape out the charred debris inside the drip pan with the putty knife/scraper. Metal instruments can scratch the smoker, so it’s better to use nonmetallic tools if you can. After the main buildup has been cleared, spray out the drip pan with a hose and scrub it with your stiff bristle brush. Use a bit of cleaning product as well. Once it’s clean and scrubbed, spray it down one final time, thoroughly dry it, and set it aside.
For the grilling plate, you’ll want to scrub it down with the stiff bristle brush and a mixture of soap and water. Use the putty knife to loosen any particularly stubborn debris. Again, rinse it, dry it, and set it aside.
Next, we need to focus on the inside of the smoker. Residue from wood ash and grease from the drip pan can build up on the interior mechanisms. Most of this will be fairly dry and brittle, which makes it easier to clean up. Scrape the smoker’s interior with the putty knife and bristle brush. Don’t forget to scrape the smokestack too! You may need to use long-handled wire brushes to reach inside of this area. Unscrew the cap and clean it like the rest of the smoker pieces.
Once all the debris has fallen to the bottom, use the shop vacuum to suck up the wood shavings, ash, and burned remains. If you don’t have access to a shop vacuum, or prefer to clean it by hand you can also wipe the smoker down with damp paper towels or hand towels. Just don’t use any towels that you’re attached to, because they’ll get messy!
Warning: Make sure the whole smoker is completely cooled before you vacuum up any debris. Warm wood shavings can cause the vacuum to catch fire.
Once everything is clean, you just need to replace the drip pan and grill plate, wipe down the exterior with some water and cleaner, and wheel it back to its usual resting spot.
Tips And Tricks
The guide above will get your pellet smoker clean, but there are a few things you can try that will make cleaning easier in the future.
- Line the drip pan with foil and replace it after every use. Store-bought foil pans also work well! Lining the drip pan with foil makes cleaning much faster and cleaner. All you need to do is remove the foil and replace it.
- Don’t mess with the pellet hopper. It might be tempting to scrub the pellet. hopped, but this can damage the mechanics, create rust, and cause any remaining pellets to expand with water. It’s usually sufficient to just dump the contents of the hopper before cleaning the smoker.
- Run the grill plate through the dishwasher. Some grates are. too large to fit in your home. dishwasher, but if it fits, put it in for a cycle! This will help dislodge any extra grease or ashy buildup.
- Keep the smoker dry. Pellet smokers are particularly vulnerable to wet conditions. If the pellets get wet, they will swell and create pressure inside the hopper. It will also be harder to light fires and your smoker could become rusty.
How Often Do You Need To Clean A Pellet Smoker?
Pellet smokers need to be cleaned regularly, but not every time you use them. As long as you empty out the drip pan and dump the hopper before each use, you can smoke 3-5 times before you need to do a deep clean.
Overall, the time between cleaning periods depends on the rate of use. Make sure to clean your smoker to before you store it for long periods of time! This will help prevent damage, and give you a nice clean smoker to use when you’re ready for it again.