Let’s make a smoker … out of a flower pot?

I got a request from Bob in FL, who wanted to know more about the funky little flower pot smoker I used to smoke my Buckboard Bacon. The answers he needed–like many things I discuss here–weren’t really going to make for a short discussion … so I decided the topic of homemade smokers needed its own post :)

Let me state up front, this is NOT my design. I saw Alton Brown (of “Good Eats” on the Food Network) build one of these first, roughly six or seven years ago, and it was such an inspired design that I just had to make one for myself! After all, I’m a Deep South girl originally, which means I have cue and smoke in my veins!

Basically, here’s a diagram of what one looks like:

smoker diagram

Looks pretty easy, right? Well … it is :)

Look around first and see how much of this you have on hand already, then gather the rest of the shopping list below:

  • a one burner electric hot plate. AB doesn’t tell you this in his instructions, but I’ve found that you really need at least a 1,000 watt model. My first one was a 750 watt model, and it just did NOT provide enough heat for this job … especially not here in cold and damp Seattle, even when I wrapped the entire pot in an old, really heavy comforter to insulate it. You really need at least a thousand watts, or you have no flexibility in your heat setting. Even running it full blast, all you’re going to get with 750 watts is maybe 180-190 degrees … and that’s if you really insulate the pot, and the air temperature is at least 75 degrees. However, a 1,000 watt model will give you 205-220 degrees, easily … with room to spare. I wasn’t able to find one at any of the normal cheap retailers (WalMart and KMart both had 750 watt models only), but I was finally able to find one at my local Big Lots. If your local Big Lots doesn’t carry them, Amazon.com has them as well. NOTE: buy the hot plate FIRST. You’ll need to have it in-hand when you’re shopping for your flower pot … because you need to buy a flower pot that’s big enough to allow the hot plate to sit flat in the bottom of it.
  • a large terracotta flower pot. As you see from the image above and in the pictures from my Buckboard Bacon post, the best flowerpot for this smoker is one of the brick-colored, classic-shaped terracotta flower pots, sold in pretty much any Home Depot. I believe my pot is a 17-inch version, and–according to the Home Depot website–they sell pots up to 23 inches in diameter … so there should be some variety available to you. If not, you should be able to find at least one pot to suit you there–and they also should have several of the other things on this list, too–so I’d make Home Depot my first stop if you have to shop.
  • a terracotta flower pot drain tray. You’ll probably want to buy the one that goes with your flower pot (that’s what I did) … but what you’re looking for is pretty basic. Since the drain tray becomes the lid of your smoker, you want one that will sit (upside down from normal, of course) on the top of your flower pot like a lid. It doesn’t matter if the drain tray has a hole in it (like the bottom of your flower pot) or not. You can work with one designed either way. The important part is that the drain tray fits roughly against the lip of the flower pot, in order to trap in as much heat and smoke as it can. It will never seal it completely–and that’s okay–but find the best fitting one you can find.
  • three paver-style bricks. They don’t have to be anything fancy. You’re just going to use them to keep the smoker poised a bit above the ground, so that you have access to the hot plate’s cord.
  • a round replacement BBQ grill. I picked mine up at Home Depot as well. You want one that will fit in the top of the pot, in order to keep your meat at least five inches above the heat and smoke source, and the bottom of the rack at least three inches below the top lip of the flower pot.
  • an oven thermometer. I already had one of these in my kitchen, so I didn’t need to buy one for my smoker. If you don’t, they’re readily available in dollar stores and other inexpensive retailers. You don’t have to pay that much for one, and be prepared for it to be sooted completely when you use it … so it’s probably better to buy cheap in this case. If you wonder if it’s accurate, you can check it against the temperature of your oven … just remember that your oven may not be all that accurate either. If you bought a terracotta drain tray that has a hole in the middle of it, you can use one of those stick-type probe thermometers. If not, the type designed to sit on or hang from an oven rack will probably work best. Just sit it on the grill with the meat.
  • a smoker rig … made from two metal pie/cake pans, two metal binder clamps, and wood chips. I found my metal pie pans at a local thrift store. They’re going to be exposed to massive amounts of heat, smoke, etc. … so I wouldn’t spend much money on them. I think I paid $0.59/pan for mine. What you want to look for are two pans that will fit together approximately, that both have lips on them … so that you can use a couple of binder clamps to hold them together. Building the smoker rig is simple. Put one pie/cake pan down in front of you, open side up. Put approximately two cups of water-soaked wood chips into the bottom pan. I prefer hickory myself! Put the other pan on top, flipped upside down, and then latch the two pans together with the binder clamps. NOTE: this is part of the design that I did modify from AB’s original plans. He uses one pie/cake pan, sitting open on top of the hot plate. I found that design caused my meat to get VERY sooty/blackened on the bottom, thanks to the flames and smoke rising straight up out of that pan of wood chips directly below it. With my modified, two-pan design, the flames are contained under the top pan–so they never actually touch the meat–and the smoke is diffused out in a ring around the outside of the pot, rather than just flowing straight up and helping the flames blacken the meat.

And, last but not least:

  • the meat you’d like to smoke! In this requirement, the sky’s the limit! I’ve smoked poultry of various varieties, beef, pork, lamb, seafood, ribs, burgers, huge roasts, and a whole lot more … even my own bacon :) The choice is yours!

To assemble your smoker:

  1. Pick a flat place where your smoker can work safely for several hours, without being too close to anything flammable.
  2. Put your three paver bricks on the ground in a triangle-shaped pattern, leaving one corner open.
  3. Set your terracotta flower pot on top of the paver bricks.
  4. Feed the hot plate’s power cord through the bottom of the flower pot, and then feed the cord out of the hole you left between the bricks.
  5. Put your hot plate down flat in the bottom of the pot, running the rest of the cord outside of the bottom of the pot.
  6. Set the assembled smoker rig on top of the burner of the hot plate.
  7. Turn on the hot plate.
  8. Set the round replacement BBQ grill down into the top of the pot. It should ultimately rest approx. four to six inches above the top of the smoker rig, and at least three inches below the top of the pot.
  9. Add your meat to the grill, making sure to leave at least some air space between the different pieces, and between the pieces and the edges of the pot.
  10. If your oven thermometer is designed to sit on/hang from the rack, set it beside the meat on the grill at this point. If it’s one of the spike-style thermometers, use it to plug the hole in the terracotta drain tray once it’s installed.
  11. Add the terracotta drain tray on top, flipped concave side down. Add the thermometer, if necessary.

It’s that easy!

A couple of hints for optimum operation:

  1. I’ve found that a long-handled metal meat skewer makes the perfect tool to stick down through the grill while the smoker is operating … to turn the thermostat on the hot plate up or down, as needed. That way, you don’t have to unload all the meat, move the rack, adjust the heat, replace the rack, and then reset all the meat. It’s waaaaayyyy less work overall to adjust it with a skewer.
  2. Just like with most smokers, the more times you open the flower pot smoker to peek at your food … the longer it’s going to take to cook. You’re not working with a lot of heat here, so it’s especially vital to preserve all the heat you can for the long term. Remember, every time you open the lid … you’re probably adding at least a half-hour to your overall cooking time, maybe more.
  3. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve found that–if the air temperature is going to be below sixty degrees on the day/night I’m smoking–I have to wrap my flower pot smoker with an old king-size comforter in order to get it up to the proper smoking temperature: somewhere between 190 and 220 degrees, depending on what you’re smoking. Without adding the insulation of my old, thick comforter … my smoker just can’t get that hot around here, especially not in our colder months.
  4. Likewise, if your smoker is exposed to the elements (like mine is), you need to devise some way to keep the rain off of it. Again, it’s a heat management issue. A wet terracotta flower pot acts like a heat sink–it sucks all the heat away from your meat–so I use an old plastic patio table for a cover when rain is threatening. Once I have the smoker wrapped with the old comforter, I simply put the table over the top of the whole thing.
  5. If you have access to free wood–hickory, apple, cherry, and mesquite are all popular choices–then you’re a lucky BBQer. You should avoid any chemically-treated woods, but natural woods are easy to use in your home smoker. Simply dry and chip your own wood for the smoker rig. If you’re not lucky enough to live around a lot of great smoking wood, many of the big-box-type retailers sell wood chips of various varieties, each ready to use. Some are cheap. Some are expensive. Just shop smart. I’ve found that the chips at WalMart are reasonable and plentiful … plus, they always have my favorite: hickory! … so I tend to buy my chips there. One bag usually lasts me at least two cookings.

Beyond that–as always–use your imagination! A smoker can turn lots of great foods into smoke-perfumed wonders for your taste buds! And don’t let the usual suspects stop you from trying something new!

This entry was posted on 19. August 2010 at 21:19


4 Responses to “Let’s make an electric smoker … out of a flower pot? :)”

  1. Marsha says:
    22. August 2010 at 20:40

Where does the grease go? Does it drip down over the pie pans and onto the hot plate?

  1. Lane says:
    22. August 2010 at 22:10

Hi Marsha!

Thanks for asking! I forgot to address the issue of fatty meats.

If my meat is especially fatty (like a pork butt), I often cover the BBQ grill with heavy-duty tinfoil, drop it into the top of the pot, position the meat on it, and then I’ll take a knife and cut slits in the tinfoil around the outside edge of the pot. That way, smoke rises up all around the outside edge of the meat, but not directly from underneath it … and the fat tends to roll out to the edges of the tinfoil, drip through the slits I cut in the tinfoil, and either roll down the sides of the flower pot or drip around the outside of the hot plate.

Yes, some does occasionally drip on the smoker rig or the hotplate itself, but it just usually burns right off, adding to the smoky goodness in the pot. If this is what you’re asking, don’t worry. I’ve never had a grease fire in it … and I’ve been using it steadily for almost seven years now, and probably only cleaned out the bottom of the flower pot maybe three times in all those years. It just shrugs that grease down to the bottom of the pot, and keeps right on working ‘-)

  1. Bob Leibold says:
    23. August 2010 at 11:28

I made a pot smoker {lol} yesterday from two clay pots I bought at Lowe’s, both the same size and I turn one upside down on top of the other. I found a single burner hot plate at Big Lot’s and I cut it down, a pretty big job, so it would rest comfortably in the bottom of my pot. I already had a grill that barely fits inside the very top of the pot, and while at Big Lot’s, I bought a two-pack of metal pie pans. And a bag of hickory chips at Lowe’s too.
Ok, couldn’t wait, soaked the hickory for awhile and fired her up. Sent wife to IGA for a pork roast and we are off and running. I had a probe thermometer and stuck it in the bottom, which is now the top, of my pot lid. I had to get up early, so the roast cooked all night on a full load of chips. This morning, I had smoked pork for breakfast as naturally I just had to have some. WOW, the smoke flavor is strong and it was thoroughly cooked through out the roast. I cooled it in the fridge for several hours, then in the freezer for about an hour, then sliced the whole thing up. While eating a piece with some good southwestern mustard, I got my dehydrator fired up and put four slices in there to see how that would be. I used no seasonings at all, just the hickory smoke and the meat is delicious, albeit somewhat a little dry, but not too dry. Now to see how it will taste dried in the dehydrator.
My question: Have you ever dried the smoked pork in the dehydrator before and if so, what was the results?

Thanks a bunch,

  1. Lane says:
    23. August 2010 at 14:37

Hi Bob

That’s really smart to use two pots like that! KUDOS!

The only thing I would worry about was the fact that heat rises, so a lot of your heat is going to head straight for the top of that arrangement. Once it heats the entire container up (since that terracotta heats up, and then radiates heat back inward, just like a ceramic smoker does), it will balance out more … but just keep that in mind on things you’re trying to smoke for a shorter duration: fish or thin cuts of meat in particular. You may need a little more time on things like that–proportionally–because of the time it takes to bring the smoker up to full heat, or you may want to consider preheating the smoker some (minus the wood chips) just so you’re not starting with cold meat inside of cold terracotta.

As far as drying my smoked meat goes, no … I haven’t tried that with it. Let me know how it goes! I have, however, canned my smoked pork butt … and my husband loves it! I do too, because It makes a pulled pork sandwich as easy as opening a wide-mouthed pint, and heating the contents with some BBQ sauce!

Thanks for the feedback on the smoker, Bob, and congrats on engineering one of your own. Your design variation was inspired, and it sounds like it’s already working well for you!

About Lane

Just a canner ... on this food journey called life :)
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6 Responses to Let’s make a smoker … out of a flower pot?

  1. Lonnie says:

    I really appreciate all the info about this smoker. As soon as I saw it I knew I would have to make one but not til spring, Minnesota weather would not be great for smoking outdoors in Jan!

    My question is do you have to replace the wood chips during one cooking? I could see that possibility with AB’s open pie pan method. I was hoping to not have to open it up and lose all that heat to put in new chips. Your two pan chip method seems to be better. please let me know.


  2. Lane says:

    Hey Lonnie!

    It’s February 3rd, and there’s only 40 inches of snow at your house in Minnesota right now. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to be out in your back yard building a smoker right now :)

    Actually–just for conversation sake–I’ve used my flower pot smoker here in Seattle during the winter … even below 35 degrees. I just wrap it in an old comforter, put an old plastic patio table over the top of it (to keep the rain off) and it comes right up to temperature. I know we don’t get as cold here as you get there, but … just so you know, you can insulate it against cold weather.

    As far as the two-pan method goes, I originally started doing it that way because … with the chips directly under the meat like that … they smoke (duh!) … and leave soot all over the bottom of the meat. It was a definite problem with the original design … and NOT good eats! That’s why I started using two pans. And–you sussed it correctly–the two pans make the chips burn slower … and last longer :)

    Of course, how long a pan full of chips burns … and whether or not that one pan is enough to smoke your meat … is completely dependent on how much meat you’re smoking, and how many chips you can manage to cram in between the two pie tins. If it helps your calculations, I routinely smoke my 10# batches of buckboard bacon over one pan load maybe 3/4ths full … and I’ve smoked upwards of 25# of pork butt over only two pan of chips … so it seems to be extremely economical wood chip-wise!

    I hope that helps … and thanks for stopping by! :)

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