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: It is very important to keep the inside of your pellet grill/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 natural cleanser. 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.
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Project Smoke on public television. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.