I just got a new smoker and am trying to smoke a Boston Butt. I'm having trouble maintaining hot coals in the offset firebox. I'm trying not to open the lid, so I've been trying to monitor the temp by touching the outside of the firebox and the main body of the smoker. I did this about an hour ago and things seemed okay, but I checked a few minutes ago and had no coals at all- they were stone cold. These coals lasted a couple of hours, tops.
Any hints? I'm not sure if I'm using enough charcoal(I'm using hardwood lump charcoal). How much should I put in the firebox? I've been limited by not being sure how to get it started. I've been using a chimney starter, but I can only get around a quarter of a pound of charcoal in that at once, if that. How much do I need to smoke this thing for 12 hours or so?
I know there is at least one thread on cookware that addresses smokers and the use of lump charcoal. But I can't imagine trying to keep a good steady low smoking temperature going with charcoal for the time you'll need to properly smoke a butt - I always used hardwood as the fuel, and was able to add just one small piece or two of wood as needed to maintain the temperature (once the initial roaring fire calmed down). But that thread I saw on cookware did have fans of charcoal, so if you do a search there you might find the information you need.
Your hardwood lump shouldn't burn out that quickly. You may want to google the minion method of using charcoal which will allow you to easily keep the temps you want with charcoal. Secondly think about getting a remote thermometer, something with a cable on it at least three feet long. You should also be able to safely open your charcoal box without fear of losing too much heat, now opening the main chamber that is another story all together.
As for how long do you have to smoke it for, loaded question really. Could be another 10 minutes or could be another 8 hours. Butts don't work by hours, they go by temp, if your going by hours you might get 50% of the butts you cook done right, the other 50% will be over or undercooked. Go with internal temp below shoulder blade, don't touch the bone, depending on how you like it anywhere from 188 to 194 should make you happy (you will get a ton of answers on temps, we cook to 194 with charcoal, 189 with gas, then there is a feel to it).
If the smoker doesn't have a thermometer, then you must find a way to install one. You should maintain as close to 225* as possible. Sounds like you closed off the vent and the coals went out. If your using charcoal only, then your not going to get a bar-b-q taste you need to add hard wood, hickory, pecan, some like oak but me not so much. You need to see almost constant smoke coming from the vent stack.
I have that exact grill/smoker.
As some of the posters already pointed out (and I agree), you gotta get a thermometer installed, but it is very simple. There's a hole in the lid of the barrel. When you assembled it, the instructions had you fill it with a star-like plug. The hole is made for a thermometer, which you can pick up at most hardware stores. Pop out the plug and install the thermometer.
Once the thermometer is in place, you can determine the true temp and know if you need more (or less) heat.
Many people swear by chimney starters and say using fluid will mar the taste of the meat. Me? I like to use fluid, if just to see the nice fire at start-up. Ruining the meat? Not to me (I know purists will disagree).
As to how long to smoke, well Buster has it right (hey Buster), it depends. But what took me long enough to learn is that a big hunk of meat will take only so much smoke. After that, the job is to continue low and slow to get a tender, cooked piece of meat.
Or, as I also learned, you can over-smoke, like ribs, as well.
I think most people will smoke heavily at the start using chips or sawdust, then add only charcoal to simply maintain heat (I'd even wrap in foil after a few hours to keep in moisture).
With that said, here's the humble tips of a Canadian smoker.
Let your butt come to room temp before smoking.
Find a rub you like and it'll improve your end-product.
Fire up charcoal, about 1/3 volume (rough measure) of the off-set box. Lump or brickets (lump burns hotter and faster, brickets not as hot, lasts longer). Use whatever you like, chimney or fluid, but get about 1/3 of the box full of hot coals. If using fluid, make sure it is all burned off.
Use chips or sawdust of your favorite wood (mesquite/cherry/apple/maple etc - I like an apple/cherry mix and maple lump for pork, mesquite/maple lump for beef) soaked in water for the smoke.
Once coals are ready, close box and lid, adjust damper and chimney to get temp to about 250.
Put your meat in.
Add a handful of wet chips to charcoal. This will lower temp to about 225/235, the target temp.
Keep an eye on the temp (this is always key but don't panic, its barbecue after all): too high, close the damper and/or chimney a bit. Too low open them up a bit. You gotta fiddle with it (and a year or two) to get used to it.
Keep an eye on the smoke. If it dies out, add another handful of wet chips.
Keep an eye on the charcoal. If it is dwindling, add more, maybe even lump by lump (eg, after an hour, maybe add 3-4 large lumps). When you add, probably open up the damper to get it going, but keep an eye on the temp.
After 2 or 3 or 4 hours of smoke (all depends on what you want), forget the chips and simply keep the heat constant (225) with charcoal.
At that point, I'd even wrap the meat with foil. (Hell, after smoking, you could even wrap and throw it into your 225 oven, but I know, this ain't Q...haha)
You shouldn't need much more than 10lbs (5kg) or so of lump for 12 or 14 hours, but it helps to have more on hand just in case.
As you'll see, its not so much a science as an art (the weather will even affect outdoor smoking) and nothing substitutes experience. In other words, advice goes a long way, but you gotta learn your smoker, make mistakes, and go from there.
The other option for a thermometer is to get a remote thermometer with a 3-6' length of wire for the probe. Push the probe end through a halfed potato ensuring that the end of the probe is at least 2 inches outside of the potato (sharp end). Set on your grill. That will give you the best indication of what your actual grill temp is and always works well. (Hey Porker - I know you from your writing style but I am trying to place a name to it).
I have the same smoker as well and use a combination of lump and briquette. I find the lump burns out after a couple of hours. So about a 50/50 mix seems to work well. Especially with the wood chunks.
I installed a thermometer and found that it doesn't keep an accurate temperature. The tip that I was given was to put you hand on the smoking chamber. If it's too hot to touch, it's too hot. If it's okay for your hand to remain on there, it's too cold. If you put you hand there and about a second later you need to pull it away, it's just right.
Adjusting the vents on the fire box and the chimney are all dependant on certain things. Outside temperature and wind being the two biggest factors. I just play around with it until I get it right.
FWIW I use a chimney starter. Half fill with lump and top with briquettes.