Smoking and barbecuing food are becoming increasingly popular in many homes today.
A smoker utilizes smoke to cook meats and other foods, by maintaining low cooking temperatures over long periods of time. Smoke gives the meat a distinct flavor, and juicy tenderness, without the charring or burning that can result from grilling.
Smoking is done in temperatures as low as 60F, as when cold-smoking jerky, cheeses or fish, or in temperatures as high as 225F perfect for pork, beef, and poultry.
So how do you know which is the best smoker to go for? Each type has specific advantages and disadvantages according to their function, which you must scrutinize before deciding on the model that best suits you. In this guide we’ll look at the various types of barbecue smokers available on the market, and which best suit the different types of foods or capacity for smoking.
Gas smokers utilize propane or LP gas as their fuel source, and you’ll need to hook this smoker up to an external gas cylinder or connection point. Ignition and temperature control knobs allow you to control the amount of flame in the smoking chamber, and temperature gauges monitor the internal temperature.
These smokers have wood chip pans that sit on top of the gas flame, and when filled with wood chips that burn and smolder, smoke the meat to perfection. Multiple internal racks divide the smoking chamber into various levels onto which to place your cuts of meat.
Additionally, a water pan sits above the wood chip pan, to catch all the drippings from the meat keeping them away from the gas flame and providing that moist, temperature-controlled environment that’s needed to cook the meat without drying it out.
Masterbuilt makes some of the best gas smokers available on the market today.
- Due to their relatively small size, they tend to be more fuel efficient, and are perfect if you don’t have a lot of storage space or if you’re mostly smoking smaller cuts of meat like sausages or baby-back ribs.
- The perfect smoker for entry-level barbecue enthusiasts who may not want to make a big investment, and want an easy-to-use smoker with which to learn the ropes.
- You’ll need to make sure you have enough gas on hand at all times. Running out of gas while cooking isn’t a good idea and could damage the unit.
- They’re not ideal for smoking larger cuts of meat like brisket or a whole turkey, as you’ll struggle for space.
Electric smokers, are the workhorse of the meat smoking world and can do both cold and hot smoking relatively easily. They are the king of automation; simply select a time, load up your racks with meat, and turn the ignition button on.
Electricity is their fuel source; an electric element attached at the bottom of the smoking chamber heats up the wood chip pan and makes the wood chips smolder.
As in gas smokers, electric smokers have a water pan crucial for internal temperature regulation, and to catch meat drippings as the meat smokes. Multiple removable racks allow you to layer your cuts of meat in the smoke chamber.
Our comprehensive guide to electric smokers should help you to decide which model is best for you. Brands like Bradley, Landmann and Charbroil Deluxe, make some of the best electric smokers out there.
- Diminutive in size, they are fuel efficient and better suited to cooking smaller cuts of meat like chicken, or small pork joints.
- They are easily automated; if you prefer to just set and forget, or are not yet comfortable in your pit master abilities, then this is the smoker for you.
- They’re generally more expensive so be prepared to spend
- Designed to work in the ideal smoking temperature range of between 60F and 225F, they tend to struggle outside this range, leading to less than impressive results for those who have not yet really got the hang of smoking.
Charcoal is the primary fuel source for these smokers but they can also use pellets. Indeed pellet smokers could be considered a whole category on their own.
Typically this smoker will be circular, and the smoke chamber will have two to three 3 levels of circular racks onto which to layer your cuts of meat. The charcoal goes on the bottom layer, along with your wood chips of choice to act as the primary heat and fuel source. A water bowl is then placed on top of the wood and charcoal to catch all the meat drippings and provide ambient humidity, needed to keep meat or vegetables tender.
A variation on charcoal smokers is the drum smoker. This very basic and easy-to-use smoker is composed of a steel drum with a firebox at the bottom and a cooking rack at the top. The difference between this charcoal smoker and others is that it utilizes direct smoking, and only needs the radiant energy of the hot coals to cook the food.
Weber makes excellent, colorful, and fun charcoal smokers, in fact, they’re practically known for them.
- They don’t just smoke; they grill and barbecue foods too hence have great versatility.
- Their smaller sizes make them extremely fuel efficient. Great for smoking vegetables, chicken pieces, fish, cheeses or sausages for your everyday backyard family cookout
- Barbecue purists love the charcoal smoker. It requires attention to regulate and monitor charcoal or pellet levels and temperatures. If this is your barbecuing style, and your smoking skills are intermediate to advanced, then this is the smoker for you.
- Not good for set-and-forget overnight smoking. You must be available to check on temperature controls and charcoal levels.
- Pork roasts and bigger cuts of meat like brisket can be challenging to cook on these charcoal smokers as they can easily dry out.
Great for smoking, as well as barbecuing and baking, ceramic smokers also known as kamado grills are renowned for their incredible fuel efficiency. They’ve been used for thousands of years – the Indian tandoor is an example – and it’s easy to see why.
All you need is a handful of charcoal or pellets, and you’ve got a heat source going for hours on end. They are built strong, with thick ceramic walls and lids to keep the heat in.
They utilize charcoal or pellets as their primary fuel source placed at the bottom of the ceramic chamber, along with wood chips that provide the smoke. Most have ash drawers that can be easily cleaned out, and the layered racks allow you to cook different foods at different temperatures.
Perhaps the best known of these smokers is the Big Green Egg. Distinct in its design, it provides a large enough smoking chamber to cook various foods at once, while boasting a durable and sturdy build.
- Apart from smoking, you can count on them to grill, bake, and slow roast too. Why not try making your skillet cornbread on this smoker the next time you barbecue?
- They are extremely sturdy and if cared for well, will last you a lifetime.
- They smoke and grill quicker than standard charcoal grills due to their superior heat induction and do not suffer from rust.
- The smoking chamber is quite small compared to other types of smokers. You can cook comfortably for up to 12 people, but for numbers above that, you could struggle.
- If cracks develop (and they easily can if this smoker is mishandled), you can kiss it goodbye. As they’re relatively more expensive than standard charcoal smokers, this could result in a significant financial loss.
These smokers operate by using charcoal or pellets, fed into the smoke chamber via external hoppers or fireboxes. Wood chips are also added to give the meat that distinct smoky flavor. They work by utilizing indirect heat so you don’t have the heat source in the same area as your smoking chamber.
Most commercial smokers are offset smokers; they have the build and capacity to smoke large amounts of food and large cuts of meat. Temperature control is achieved by opening and closing side vents on the firebox. The more open the vent, the higher the temperature, as fire needs oxygen to burn.
Heat and smoke generated within the firebox is then sucked into the smoke chamber to cook the food.
These heavy-duty smokers are also versatile; they easily grill or bake food and large amounts at that. From whole suckling pig to leg of lamb or large pieces of brisket, you’ll have no trouble cooking up to 100 pounds of food on this type of smoker. Due to their weight, they’re perhaps not very good if what you need is a portable smoker.
Most models come with removable offset ash pans and charcoal grates for easy cleanup, while convenient external temperature gauges clearly indicate the perfect smoke zone or grill zone temperatures for you.
Dyna-Glo Offset Smokers are perhaps one of the better brands available in the market today.
- Cook large cuts of meat like a leg of lamb, turkey or brisket with this smoker. They’ll come out juicy and tender with a well-developed smoke ring, and can be cooked over 16 – 20 hour periods.
- Not for beginners, but perfect for pit masters. You’ll need a good understanding of smoking to operate this smoker. And you’ll need to be hands-on to ensure that the temperature and fuel levels are always optimal.
- Due to their large size, they’re terrible at fuel efficiency. You’ll burn through a lot of wood, charcoal, or pellets with this smoker.
- Hot spots tend to develop nearer the heat source, but most offset smokers come with in-built tuning plates, which need to be regularly moved around to evenly distribute heat around the smoker.
A Final Word
What could be more American than barbecue smoking? We excel at it and need the perfect appliances to give the best results. Smokers are significant investments, so care should be taken when choosing one. Consider your barbecue skills level, budget, preferred fuel source, storage space available and your primary reason for smoking before making your choice.
Bear in mind that decent smokers on the lower end start at around the $400 mark, while the more high-end smokers can go for as much as $1000.
Your decision will come down to what you want your smoker to do for you, the amount of time you have to dedicate to barbecue smoking, and how much money you have to commit to buying your ultimate smoker. Check out our comprehensive guide on electric smokers, perfect for those looking to start out in the world of barbecue smoking.