There’s so many different meat smokers on the market it can be confusing and difficult to know where to begin. Not only are there categories of smokers but sub-categories as well. I tried to find out everything I could about all the smokers on the market and put together a smoker guide that will give you a good understanding of entry-level smokers right through to the professional competition grade pits.
There are five different types of smokers. They are:
- Offset Smokers
- Pellet Smokers
- Electric Smokers
- Gas Smokers
- Charcoal Smokers
Charcoal Smokers have sub-categories:
- Kettle Grills
- Bullet Smokers
- Ceramic Egg/Kamado smokers
- Drum Smokers
What Smoker Should I Buy?
So what’s the best smoker to buy? This depends on several things because there are so many things to take into consideration. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself:
- Do you want to cook for large crowds or just your family?
- Do you want a “set-and-forget” smoker?
- Do you enjoy spending the day managing a fire?
- Do you want to spend $100 or $1000 plus?
- Do you want good, great or fantastic smoked meat?
- Do you live in a colder climate?
- Do you want a smoker that you will regret immediately?
- Do you also want a smoker that can grill, bake and roast?
- Do you want something fuel efficient?
- Do you want a smoker you can transport?
Meat smoked on charcoal smokers has a distinct taste. Charcoal smokers can reach high temperatures, which is great for crispy skin and bark. Charcoal smokers need some attention, but managing the fire is part of the fun. Charcoal smokers are the most common meat smoker and there are several styles. They include:
- Kettle Grills
- Drum Smokers
- Ceramic smokers
- Bullet Smokers
- El’Cheapo Smokers
1. Kettle Smokers
Kettles are one of the best cookers to learn the basics of meat smoking. They can smoke just about anything from brisket and ribs to turkeys and pork butts.
You can buy a Weber Kettle on Craigslist for cheap or buy a new one for $150-$200. Kettles are known for grilling and roasting, but with a few wood chunks in the fire, kettles are good little smokers.
Briquettes as Fuel
Kettles use charcoal briquettes as the primary fuel source, and with the right setup, can smoke for 10-hours at 225°F to 250°F. The Minion Method and The Snake Method are the best charcoal arrangement for low-and-slow cooking. You can use lump charcoal in a kettle but chop the larger pieces.
Indirect Cooking on a Kettle
Indirect cooking is the best way to cook low-and-slow. You can set up kettle grills for two-zone indirect cooking by placing a full charcoal chimney of briquettes on one side of the kettle, and a water pan the other side. When you add the meat, make sure it’s placed on the opposite side of the fire.
Kettles can be hard to hold in the 225°F to 250°F range, especially in winter or windy conditions. The other problem with kettles is there is limited space on the grill for multiple roasts, but this is only an issue if you want to cook for crowds.
The Best Wood for a Kettle
Wood chunks are the best wood for smoking meat in a Kettle. Wood chips or pellets will burn too fast on hot charcoal. Lay two or three chunks of wood on lit charcoal and it will provide you with smoke for a couple of hours.
2. Bullet Smokers – Weber Smokey Mountain
Bullet smokers are a popular style of charcoal smoker. There are some good bullets and a lot of cheap and nasty bullets. The Weber Smokey Mountain is the best and most popular of the bunch.
The Weber Smokey Mountain is one of the best charcoal smokers on the market and rivals any smoker. Harry Soo has made Smokey Mountain’s famous by winning smoking competitions with his WSM. A Smokey Mountain smokes meat like a thousand dollar pit for around $300.
The bullet-shaped design falls into the water smoker category. A water smoker holds a water bowl between the meat and the fire, which helps regulate the temperature and keeps a moist atmosphere in the cook chamber.
The Weber Smokey Mountain is a well-constructed smoker made from solid materials, which is the reason they can maintain steady temperatures for 16-18 hours with no trouble.
A WSM is much easier to use than other charcoal smokers. Once the fire is going and the temperature has stabilized, you don’t need to do much at all.
The Smokey Mountain is Compact
One of the best things about the Weber Smokey Mountain is the compact size and shape. A Smokey Mountain will sit nicely in the corner of a patio or deck without taking up much room.
Smokey Mountain Capacity
The cooking capacity depends on the WSM size. They are available in three different sizes. There is the small 14.5″, the 18.5″, and the large 22.5″.
This Smoker Gets Hot
A full chimney of charcoal should get a Smokey Mountain into the 300 ° F range. There are four vents to regulate the temperature, three below and one exhaust vent on top.
The Smokey Mountain is no different to most smokers and will burn extra fuel in the colder months. If it’s freezing outside, the WSM will take longer to come up to temperature. Just be prepared with some extra charcoal and allow extra time.
How to Use a Weber Smokey Mountain
The Smokey Mountain is easy to use. It’s as simple as lighting a charcoal chimney, fill the bowl of water, dump the charcoal in the ring, and wait for it to come up to temperature. Throw a few chunks of wood on the fire, adjust the vents and wait for the good smoke to roll.
3. Ugly Drum Smokers
An Ugly Drum Smoker can perform as well as an expensive meat smoker, but for a fraction of the cost. Drum smokers are easy to build yourself by downloading a plan (here) and buying the parts from a hardware store. It’s not a complicated build either, if you can use a drill then you can build a UDS.
Drums Gets Hot
Drum smokers cook at very high temperatures and are well insulated, which makes them extremely fuel efficient. A basket of coal will burn 10-15 hours, no problem.
Drum smokers can get out of control easily. You want to avoid opening the lid as much as possible because the surge in oxygen will send the temperature soaring. You can avoid this if the vents are closed off for a few minutes before and after you open the lid.
Drums are Economical
A UDS is one of the most economical smokers for fuel. Smokers that aren’t well sealed will burn through the coal because of the higher intake of oxygen.Unlike most other smokers, a UDS is easy to manage you live in a cold and windy area.
A UDS doesn’t have a huge surface area to hold meat. It’s deep, which makes it good for hanging ribs, but you can only smoke one brisket at a time. You can install a second grill grate, but it will be directly above the flame. However, a deflector plate could solve that problem.
How to Use a Drum
The easiest way to light a UDS is to use The Minion Method. Fill the coal basket with unlit lump charcoal and leave a gap in the middle. Light half of a charcoal chimney, then dump it in the middle of the charcoal basket. The coals will gradually set alight, which will provide a consistent temperature.
When firing up a UDS, it’s a good idea to open all the vents. Once the temperature has reached 250°F, close off the intake vents until it’s open 1/4, and open the top vent. Add the wood just before the meat. Drum smokers can be very difficult to control and the temperature can get out of hand quickly, so it’s important to master your drum before smoking one of the ‘big meats’.
A good digital thermometer will be your best friend. Some people attach a thermometer as part of the UDS build. I prefer to use my digital thermometer and attach the probes to the grill grate. You can feed the probes through the lid.
Best Wood for a Drum Smoker
Wood chunks work best with drum smokers. Wood chips and pellets will burn within a few minutes.
4. Ceramic Kamado/Egg Smokers
Ceramic cookers sit in the $1000 price range, depending on which brand. The Big Green Egg was the original kamado to hit the USA, but now there are several brands on the market. Other common ceramic cookers available are Kamado Joe, Akorn, and Primo.
The Kamado – An Ancient Smoker
Ceramic smokers are costly smokers but these charcoal smokers but also the most versatile, insulated and efficient. Ceramic smokers are mostly dome-shaped in design and made of ceramic materials. This design of cooker is thousands of years old and originated in Japan and referred to as kamado ovens.
Smoke, Roast, Grill and Bake
The best feature of the kamado cookers is their versatility. They are true all-in-one cookers that can grill, roast, smoke and bake. These cookers can reach the 700°F range, which means you can bake wood-fired pizza and get a nice, crispy crust. The dome-shaped kamado design helps air to circulate throughout the cook which helps retain moisture and keep meat from drying out.
The Best Smoker in Winter
Kamado cookers can smoke meat in the wind, rain or snow. They are so well insulated; they stay hot for hours and are fuel efficient. A UDS is the only other smoker that rivals a kamado in terms of cold-weather cooking. Egg/ Kamado smokers are very fuel efficient and can smoke meat for 14 to 16 hours without having to refill the charcoal basket. Most smokers will lose heat after the lid is opened, but because they make egg smokers of ceramic, so they’re able to retain heat.
The only problem with kamado smokers is they are heavy and are difficult to move about your yard. So wherever you put your kamado is where it will stay.
Kamado cookers come with a heat deflector or sell it as an additional accessory. This heavy duty deflector plate shields the meat from the full force of the fire and allows you to cook in the 230-400°F range. The deflector plate is an important accessory for low-and-slow cooking.
The Best Charcoal for Kamados
Lump charcoal is the best fuel source for egg smokers. Briquettes can burn out and choke the fire. Lump burns clean and fast and won’t need refueling in a kamado.
The temperature of the egg is determined by the amount of charcoal added to the fire basket. Once you have cooked of the egg a few times, you will have a good idea of the amount of coal you will need to reach certain temperatures.
How to Control Temperature
Eggs cookers can get out of control quick. You should never leave the vents all the way open while heating because it will be difficult to bring down. You should open vents 1/4 while heating, then 1/8 when cooking.
Big Green Eggs Cons
BGE’s are very popular, but they are expensive. Unlike other ceramic cookers, the BGE accessories have to be purchased separately.
5. El’Cheapo Brinkman
Cheap bullet/vertical smokers are a popular entry-level smoker for many people. These smokers are commonly referred to as El’Cheapos or a Brinkmans and are found in the barbeque section of most stores. These smokers may look fantastic in the showroom, but they’re a nightmare to control after you fire them up.
Brinkmans Are Hard To Control
The problem with El’Cheapo smokers is temperature control. The key to low-and slow cooking is being able to bring your smoker up to a certain temperature and hold it there. Cheap bullets smokers are constructed out of thin metal, which is why they don’t retain heat. Also, these smokers are not well sealed and leak from all directions.
Although theses smokers are not recommended, if you have already purchased one, there are some modifications that you can make. Some basic modifications will enable you to maintain a 250-275°F temperature for 2.5 hours.
The most common modification involves removing the legs and placing them on the outside. Another suggestion is to drill holes in the fire bowl to increase airflow. Some people seal the gaps with sealant, and others have used thermal blankets to keep the heat locked in.
6. Offset Smokers “Stick burners”
Stickburners are loved by smoking enthusiasts because they produce a pure wood smoke and are the best smokers for indirect cooking.
Offset smokers, or “stickburners”, use wood rather than charcoal as the primary fuel source. These smokers are designed differently that other smokers with a firebox “offset” on one side and the cook chamber on the other side.
An offset smoker has a firebox separate from the cook chamber and offset smokers use wood splits. Smoking with logs takes some practice because they produce bad smoke temperature is low. Stickburners should keep above 275–300°F for a clean smoke. A charcoal fire easier to control, but logs are hard to control and the temperature fluctuates.
The smoke from charcoal smokers is a mixture of charcoal, wood, grease, water which can produce ‘dirty smoke’. The smoke that is produced from stick burners is from wood alone, so it’s much cleaner.
Indirect Cooking on a Stickburner
Over-exposure to high heat cooking can make meat tough, which is why the 2-zone setup is the most important concepts in barbecue. Stick burners are designed for the indirect cooking method.
Offset Smokers are Expensive
A stick burner isn’t a “set-and-forget” smoker, it’s a lot of work and they aren’t recommended for beginners. Not only are offset smokers hard work, they are difficult to control and very expensive. Real offset smokers cost a lot of money. A decent stick burner will set you back over 1K and another $500 for shipping.
Don’t Buy A Cheap Offset
Cheap imitation offset smokers are a waste of time and money. There’s a vast difference between an expensive offset smoker and a cheap offset. An expensive offset is constructed from thick metal and therefore retain heat. They make a cheap offset smokers from thin metal and won’t be able to retain heat.
7. Pellet Grills
Traeger were the original pellet grill, but now there are many competitors. Pellet smokers are the easiest ‘set-and-forget’ smokers that can grill, smoke and bake. Charcoal smokers are time-consuming, but pellet grills are fully automated. Pellet smokers can produce smoked meat like a charcoal pit with the ease of an electric smoker.
How Much Are Pellet Grills?
Pellet smokers cost between $400 to 5k. The difference between the cheap and expensive pellet grills are the quality of materials. You get what you pay for with pellet smokers.
How Pellet Grills Work?
Pellet smokers automatically feed pellets into the fire, making it a true set-and-forget smoker. Pellet grills can regulate the temperature of the cooker and the internal meat temperature.
Pellet grills look like a regular barbecue grill, except they have a pellet hopper attached to the side. The hopper feeds pellets into the fire. With the cooking chamber and the fire in different compartments, pellet grills can cook indirectly.
Wood pellet fueled fire is a new technology. Pellets are simply compressed sawdust capsules. Pellets only leave 1% ash, so they burn very clean and are food-grade and produce a safe smoke. There are different wood flavors available such as hickory, pecan, apple, cherry, oak and mesquite. Pellet grills burn about 1- 2 pounds of wood pellets for every hour of smoking. Pellet grills produce less smoke than a charcoal cooker, but enough good smoke to make tasty smoked meat.
Pellet Grills in Winter
In the colder months, pellet grills burn more wood because of the extra time they take to come up to temperature. Some pellet grill pellet manufacturers produce thermal blankets to keep the weather off the grill.
The Problem with Traegers
Traeger grills are the most known pellet grills, they don’t have a very good reputation. Do the research yourself, and you will find a lot of negative feedback. The major criticism is they aren’t made from quality materials when compared to other pellet grills. Traeger’s have thin metal the parts breakdown within the first three to five years.
8. Electric Smokers
Meat tastes much better when smoked in a charcoal smoker, but owning an electric smoker is about having smoked meat when you wouldn’t normally have the time. Many smoking enthusiasts are critical of electric smokers, but often the critics miss the point. Electric smokers are as easy to use as a conventional oven, which makes them great for beginners and useful for the pro. Smoking meat on a charcoal fire takes time and effort. People who live busy lives can only smoke meat on weekends if they are lucky. Electric smokers allow you to smoke meat any day of the week, no matter how busy you are.
Electric Smokers in Winter
Electric smokers are also good for people who live in extreme climates. Few smokers can reach the required 250ºF when it’s snowing. If they can get hot enough, they have to use a tonne of fuel. Electrics smokers will smoke you a pork butt even if it’s below zero.
Can Electric Smokers Make Tasty Meat?
Electric smokers can still make delicious smoked meat and can smoke anything from brisket through to cheese and nuts. Electrics are cheap to run, affordable to buy, and they don’t take up much space.
Electric Smoker Design
Electric smokers are a simple design, often a vertical box with a door and two or three racks. Some electric smokers have a heating element similar to the hotplate of an electric stove, and others use a heat probe inside the cook chamber.
What Wood Do Electric Smokers Use?
Some electric smokers use wood chunks, but most use wood chips. The wood chips sit above the heating element and cause the wood to smolder. The wood chips sit in a wood chip tray in a compartment that slides in and out. The wood compartment hold 2 to 6 ounces of wood.
Smoke Tubes in Electrics
Some people use smoke tubes for an extra shot of smoke flavor. The tube sits on the bottom rack of the smoker. Smoke tubes smolder sawdust or wood pellets and can produce continuous smoke for hours.
Electric Smoker Cons
Electric smokers are so easy they are boring. Part of what makes smoking meat enjoyable is the process. There is no process with an electric smoker. Meat goes in, and meat comes out.
No Crispy Skin
Electric smokers can’t cook at high temperatures, which means you can’t get that nice crispy skin on the turkey. The way around this is to finish the turkey off in a conventional oven, just to crisp up the skin.
No Smoke Ring
The pink ring around the outside of the meat is an emblem of success to the pitmaster and a sign the meat was smoked low-and-slow. Critics point out that electric smokers don’t produce a smoke ring, and they are right. However, the smoke ring doesn’t add any extra flavor.
The Best Electric Smokers
Cheap electric smokers because will only last a few years, so I would I recommend getting a half decent model. Many electric smokers have glass doors, but I would recommend buying one with a stainless steel door. Glass doors, but these are pointless because they turn black and are impossible to clean.
9. Gas Smokers
Gas smokers are like electric smokers in that they are convenient set-and-forget smokers and easy to operate. Gas smokers are inexpensive and produce clean heat. Similar to electric smokers, gas smokers generate smoke by burning woodchips or wood pellets.
Gas Smoker Design
Gas smokers are mostly a cabinet style cooker with about three or four shelves for food. A gas burner at the bottom. The wood sits above the burner and a water pan sits on a shelf above the wood.
Gas smokers are easy to control temperature, unlike charcoal cookers where the temperatures fluctuate. Gas smokers have vents and the top and bottom, but the bottom damper can’t be closed to allow gas to escape.
Gas smokers have limited shelf space and don’t fit large cuts of meat.
Keep a Spare Propane Tank
The problem with propane smokers is you always must monitor gas tanks. If you are smoking a 12-hour brisket, judge the gas remaining in your tank. When doing long cooks, always ensure you have a spare propane tank ready to go.
Temperatures of a Gas Smoker
When smoking meat, 225°F is the ideal range. Gas smokers can reach hotter temperatures of 275°F which is good if you want the option.