Winter BBQ is the Best BBQ: Here's How to Make it Easier

By Bob McCarthy

BBQ is known for being hard-core. Whether it’s the long hours or the meticulousness of the process—trim, rub, wait, mop, wrap, wait, sauce, rest, wait—there’s a sense that BBQ is not for dilettantes. Yet despite its reputation, for many people BBQ is fair weather food, cooked exclusively from April to October, forgotten from the winter freeze until the Spring thaw.

There are dozens of reasons to let your smoker hibernate for the winter. There is, however, one overwhelming reason to keep the fire burning through the cold and snow: the food. It’s rich and and indulgent. It sticks to your ribs and warms your soul. It’s filling and satisfying. In short, it’s the perfect comfort food on a bitter winter day. And yet, shockingly, when the weather turns raw, when a perfectly barked brisket would absolutely hit the spot, most people stop BBQing.

Probably it’s the plummeting temperatures or the cutting wind. Or maybe it’s the frozen landscape, the sheets of ice and drifting snow. There’s just no way around it: BBQ is outdoor cooking. And there’s no avoiding the fact that, if you want authentic baby back ribs in the middle of January, you’re going to have to step outside. Sure, there are lesser options. You’ve undoubtedly seen a hundred hacks on how to make ribs in the oven or pulled pork in a crockpot...and you’re probably aware that the results are less than satisfying and far from an acceptable substitute.

But just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you have to accept a substandard stand-in for real BBQ. And your hankering for authentic pulled pork for the Super Bowl doesn’t mean you’re doomed to spending hours shivering in the biting cold, cozying up to your smoker for warmth. Yes, you’ll probably still need a jacket. Heck, you may even need a snow shovel. But your time braving the elements can be short-lived and the payoff will be worth it.

If you want to upgrade your BBQ from a seasonal experience to a year-round all-weather pursuit, here a few ways to make winter BBQing easier.

A Good Smoker or Grill Keeps You Out of the Cold

One reason few people BBQ in the winter is because they believe it means spending hours in the cold, monitoring temperatures, adjusting the grill or smoker. Let’s be honest, if your cooker isn’t up to snuff, you probably will spend half the day trudging across the frozen tundra that is your backyard to constantly tend to the fire.

However, a good smoker or grill can change that. Regardless of the outside temperature, a quality cooker should need only minimal effort and attention, usually at the very beginning when you’re getting up to temp. After that, it should be able to hold and maintain its cooking temperature, allowing you to head indoors to warm your bones. Whether you prefer pellet, charcoal, or gas, there are plenty of great options to keep you feasting on BBQ throughout the winter months.

Pellet Grill - Pellet Grills are the ultimate winter smoker because they precisely maintain their own temperature. You just set the desired temperature and walk away. While you’re inside, warm and comfortable, it automatically feeds the right amount of pellets needed to maintain the desired cooking temperature. Some also have meat probes that show the internal temperature of your food on the digital display, so you can check on it just by peeking out the window. A few even have WiFi capability, allowing you to monitor and control everything from your phone or tablet. While most pellet grills perform well in cooler temperatures, some perform better in the cold than others.

Non-PID pellet grills, which include most of the entry- and mid-level models on the market, feed pellets to the fire at a fixed rate—meaning, when you set the grill to 275F, it continuously feeds the same pre-determined amount of pellets. Since the controllers for most non-PID pellet grills are programmed for ideal conditions and don’t account for heat loss in cold weather, the cooking temperature can be thrown off when the mercury drops. These fluctuations usually aren’t enough to ruin a cook. However, companies such as Traeger do make insulation blankets to improve heat retention in cold weather and provide better temperature control (you can also use a welding blanket).

A pellet grill with a PID controller (typically found on higher-end pellet grills) constantly measures the cooking temperature, compares it to the set temperature, then adjusts for any difference, adding more pellets to the fire as needed. This allows the grill compensate for any heat loss in cold conditions and hold a tight temperature whether it’s sunny and 70° or blustery and 30°.

Charcoal Smokers/Grills - For many people, BBQ is charcoal, no ifs, ands, or buts. And if you want to BBQ in the dead of winter, you need a charcoal cooker that can hold its heat and maintain a consistent temperature. When it comes to heat retention and temperature control, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a charcoal cooker that beats a kamado (also called eggs or ceramic grills). Insulated incredibly well with ceramic—such as Kamado Joe—or double-walled steel—like the Summit Charcoal Grill and Broil King Keg—kamado grills can hold a tight temperature for hours, even in cold weather.

An egg is great, but if you prefer a more traditional smoker with a rugged build and more cooking space, there are other great options, such as The Good One’s line of combo smoker-grills. Beefy steel offers advanced heat retention while an internal damper allows you to precisely maintain your desired cooking temperature.

Gas Grills - Propane isn’t what comes to mind when most people think of BBQ. However, as better gas grills have hit the market, more people are using them for slow-roasting and smoking. Quality gas grills like those from Napoleon and Broil King feature high-quality burners that provide even heat and well designed cookboxes that hold and circulate that heat for consistent cooking temperature for impressive year-round cooking.

No matter what you’re cooking on, you can cut down on the amount of time you spend outside with a remote thermometer. Both the Weber iGrill2 and Maverick ET-735 allow you to monitor your food and grill temperature right from your phone or tablet via Bluetooth. You can even set up alerts to let you know when food is done or if you’re smoker falls out of a preset temperature range.

Automatically Control Your Smoker from the Couch

Let’s say you already have a charcoal smoker and aren’t in the position to upgrade to one that does a good job of holding it’s own temperature. You still have an option. With an automatic temperature controller like the Flame Boss, you can just set the temperature and head back to the warmth of your house. Using a variable speed fan, the Flame Boss will automatically maintain the desired temperature within a few degrees. You can even connect the Flame Boss 300 to your home WiFi then monitor and control your cook from your phone, tablet, or computer. (New to Flame Boss? Learn more and see how it compares to BBQ Guru).

Helpful Winter BBQ Tips

Regardless of whether you have the the ideal cold weather smoker or the latest and greatest gadgets, if you love BBQ, you should fire up the smoker this winter. While it may take a little more effort, and an extra layer of clothes, you'll be happy you did when you're sitting by the fire feasting on some honest-to-goodness down-home comfort food. Plus, you won't have to worry about you're drink getting warm. Here are some helpful Winter BBQ tips to keep in mind:

  1. Open the lid as little as possible to prevent heat loss and temperature fluctuations. Consider getting a remote thermometer so you can monitor food temps while keeping the lid close.
  2. If it snows, shovel a clear path to your grill or smoker as well as the immediate area around the grill to allow for proper air intake and exhaust.
  3. If cooking with charcoal or hardwood pellets, use high-quality fuel that will burn more efficiently and consistently. You may save a few bucks with lower-quality fuel, but you’ll end up having to use more...and you’re food won’t taste quite as good.
  4. Have extra fuel. Whether you’re using charcoal, wood, pellets, or gas, it takes more fuel to maintain a desired temperature in cold weather.
  5. Get grill gloves. They’ll keep your fingers warm while you tend to business and can stand up to high-heat temperatures. Although your winter gloves are warm, you don’t want them anywhere near a hot grill grate.