Reviewing all the features and designs of the various products on the market could be an endless process. Consequently, I think it is more productive to break this information down into three sections. The first two sections are basic information that will help to narrow down your choices. The last section gets into reviewing the pros and cons of specific types of smokers.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1) CHECK LIST FOR PURCHASING A SMOKER
2) 6 TYPES OF SMOKERS BASED ON FUEL SOURCE
3) PROS AND CONS OF DIFFERENT MODELS OF SMOKERS
4) FINAL WORDS
5) ADDITIONAL POSTS OF INTEREST
Check list for purchasing a smoker
This is likely the bottom line for most of us. You can find inexpensive smokers for for around $100, gas smokers for about $150, and electric smokers for around $300. Pellets smokers will set you back about $600. And if you want to go all out, you can spend up to $10,000.
My best suggestion would be to set your budget and shop online prior to venturing out.
- Temperature control
This is the single most important thing to look for when purchasing a smoker. A smoker with proper temperature control means a lot less maintenance when it comes to this whole process. Consequently, you need to look for a smoker that is easy to set the temperature and forget about it.
Charcoal smokers are likely the most difficult to control the temperature and require a lot more attention.
Electric smokers do have thermostats. However, in my opinion, the flavor of smoked food is much better using gas, wood, or pellets.
Gas smokers are very easy to control. This is what I have and my smokes have been very successful.
Pellet smokers are top of the line as far as temperature control. You set the temperature and forget about it. The temperature control is a combination of a thermostat and precise control of the addition of wood pellets.
- Type of fuel used
There are a variety of smokers that use different types of fuels. You have a choice of charcoal briquettes, wood chunks or chips, wood pellets, electricity or gas.
While all are excellent choices, each fuel source will produce a different flavor. However, you also have to consider where the fuel will come from. Do you have easy access to different types of wood? Can you get electricity to the smoker if needed? If you live in an apartment or condominium, are you allow to have charcoal fires?
Additionally, electricity and gas provide a quick and easy source of heat and fire as well as ease of temperature control. But charcoal and wood take time to build coals and need a little more attention.
- Multi-purpose unit
Do you want a dedicated smoker or something that has multiple functions? What if you want to grill something instead of smoking? What if you need an outdoor oven? Do you have the space available for both types of appliances if you have a dedicated smoker?
- Temperature range
For maximum flexibility and cost savings, get a smoker that has a wide temperature range. Then it is possible to smoke meats low and slow as well as sear a steak on direct heat.
- Quality materials
Look for heavy steel construction and thick insulation. Good smokers are made of heavy duty steel which holds and evenly distributes heat. In the absence of heavy steel, look for thicker walls with good insulation.
- Quality workmanship and durability
Inspect the corners for good, strong welds that will stand the test of time and the stress of moving the unit if you have to do so. Look at the overall construction as well. Are there sturdy legs, handles, larger hinges, and good quality screws?
Dampers help to control the heat by limiting oxygen to the wood. This is accomplished by having a damper that controls the air intake on the fire box and one on the chimney that controls the escape of smoke.
- Quality Thermometer
If you have any doubts about the quality of the thermometer provided with the smoker, then purchase a separate thermometer. The thermometer needs to be at the level of the food and not high in the lid where the temperature is going to be hotter.
- Shelf space, capacity
This is directly related to your intended use of the smoker. Think about how many people you will be cooking for. If you only plan on smoking small amounts of things occasionally then a smaller smoker is perfect. But if you want to smoke enough to feed a crowd of people you are going to need a lot more shelf space. Also, smoking large racks of ribs dictates having more shelf space versus smoking small cuts of chicken.
- Adjustable and/or removable shelves
This is imperative for adjusting your shelving space depending on what you are smoking. Additionally, removable shelves make clean up much easier.
- Ease of moving
Larger units can be difficult to move. Smaller cabinet style smokers are very easy to relocate. Does the smoker have good strong wheels that make it easy to move?
- Physical dimensions
Do you have a large enough patio or deck to house a larger smoker? If not, go with a smaller cabinet style. Do you plan on hanging meat in the smoker or trying to smoke a whole turkey? If so, a larger smoker will be necessary.
- External shelves and work surfaces
A good smoker is going to also have surfaces to set utensils, sauces, marinades, etc while you are smoking.
Does it come with additional tools, hooks, cooking racks, or a good quality cover?
- Warranty and support
A good warranty, customer support, and access to replacement parts comes only with a well established company. If you ever need these things and are unable to get it, you will be terribly frustrated.
- Ease of use and ease of access
Can you add wood, charcoal, pellets, and check on the meat with minimal effort?
- Water pan/drip pan
The smoker should come with one or both. These accessories help with moderating the temperature as well as clean up.
- Ease of clean up
A black finish shows dirty a lot less and is much easier to maintain. A stainless steel finish on the exterior will need to be polished and kept covered to prevent rust. Stainless steel grates last longer and are easier to clean. Chrome plated grates wear out and eventually rust. Can you easily spray out the interior to remove excess fat and grease? Is the firebox easily accessible for cleaning if needed?
- Final comments
When it comes to completing any job or project, high quality tools are extremely important. Good quality tools and equipment not only make things easier but they also last a lot longer. Don’t purchase a piece of junk that will take up space and end up in the trash within a year.
6 Types of Smokers Based on Fuel Source
There are several different ways to characterize smokers. Most commonly smokers are classified by the heat source used or their physical characteristics as in shape, thickness, vertical, cabinet, bullet shaped, off-set, etc. I am going to focus first on the heat source that is used. I think this helps to narrow down the choices a bit sooner and limit the confusion. Then I will discuss the pros and cons of different types of smokers.
- Wood burners (stick burners)
These smokers are exactly what the name implies. The heat source and source of smoke comes strictly from wood. They are also called “stick burners.” They require constant attention and are the most difficult type of smoker to master. If you are just starting out, this is most likely not a good place to start.
These wood burning smokers are often off-set smokers. This means there is a separate firebox and cooking box. This set up tends to create an even heat flow around the meat. Most of these are made of heavy duty steel. Some are even trailer mounted. Prices tend to range from $1,000 to $9,000 USD.
- Charcoal smokers
This type of smoker uses charcoal as the heat source. Once the charcoal is lit, the temperature and air flow are controlled by dampers. The smoke only comes from the charcoal unless you add wood chips or chunks on top of the briquettes. This type of smoker is less hands on than stick burners but do still require some attention.
There are several types of charcoal smokers on the market. Popular brands include Weber Smokey Mountain, Pit Barrel Cookers, and kamado ovens such as the Big Green Egg.
- Gas smokers
Most gas smokers are going to use propane because it is easily available and portable. The propane only provides a heat source. The addition of wood chips or chunks is necessary in order to produce any smoke. If have have a small smoker a 20 pound propane tank may suffice even for longer smokes. However, you would need to keep spare tanks on hand. For larger cookers I would use a 40 pound propane tank.
It is easy to control the temperature in a gas smoker by simply adjusting the level of the flame. Vertical cabinet styles propane smokers typically have a second access door on the bottom for the addition of more wood as needed.
- Electric smokers
This smoker using a heating element in order to produce smoke rather than an open flame. The addition of wood chips and water helps to control the temperature. Since the heating element only causes the wood to smolder instead of combust this type of smoker produces a completely different flavor. The temperature is typically easy to control.
- Pellet smoker
This smoker using pellets of compressed saw dust for combustion and smoke. It uses electricity to feed the pellets and it is thermostatically controlled. This means you can turn it on, set the temperature and forget it. This is the true advantage of the pellet smoker.
- Kettle Grills
When it comes to smoking, this grill is in a category all its own. It is actually a charcoal grill and is not really made for smoking. However, it can be modified with an insert to produce indirect heat. Wood chunks or chips are added to produce the smoke.
Pros and Cons of Different Models of Smokers
Keep in mind that there are numerous styles, models, and endless variations of smokers on the market. I have simply picked 8 of the most popular types of smokers to give a good general overview.
1) Bullet Style Smokers
There are various models of this type of smoker that use charcoal, propane, or electricity. Some people refer to them as “bullet” smokers due to their shape. They are one of the most popular smokers on the market because they are small and inexpensive. If you are just starting out and have limited funds, this may be the way to go.
With this type of smoker, the heat source is at the very bottom. Above that is the water pan to help regulate heat. The smoking chamber is on top.
- Due to its shape, it takes up very little space
- More efficient than larger smokers due to their small size
- Limited fuel consumption
- No mechanical parts that can break
- Easily portable
- Easy to source and can be found in local hardware stores
- Small size and limited cooking space
- More difficult to control the temperature
- Water pan is necessary to control the temperature
- Some models do not have venting
- Top loading models have significant heat loss when opening the lid
- Limited number of shelves
- Primarily a dedicated smoker
Weber Smokey Mountain remains to be one of the best products on the market. Photo credit goes to Weber and their products can be found here.
Dyna Glo also produces a good product. Photo credit to Dyna Glo and their products can be
2) Drum Style Smokers
This is a vertical style smoker that is effective and efficient. You can even make your own by using a 55 gallon food grade drum, a charcoal basket and a grilling grate. It is relatively inexpensive. Drum Style Smokers typically use charcoal as a heat source.
The design of this smoker is what makes it efficient. The thick steel and lid traps heat and reflects if downward essentially creating a convention oven. The heat can last for up to 10 hours. There are hooks in the middle for hanging meat such as a whole turkey or a chicken. Later models have added vents toward the top and on the lid to help control the temperature.
- Easy to build your own
- Easily available
- Traps heat well
- Compact and takes up little space
- Tends to run hot
- Difficult to add more charcoal if needed
- Time and practice to master its use
- Not very attractive
- Limited cooking capacity
The original pit barrel cooker can be found with the PitBarrel Cooker Company.
Image courtesy of pitbarrelcooker.com.
3) Off-Set Smokers
Off set smokers are a very popular design which has been around for a long time. Their name comes from the fact that the firebox is attached off to one side and the food smokes in a separate chamber. Typically they burn wood or charcoal. Most off-set smokers have a long horizontal cooking chamber. There are several shelves and lots of cooking space.
Despite their popularity, off-set smokers are one of the most difficult to figure out. Many people purchase them because of their classic appearance and they like the idea of having a smoker.
The disadvantage of a poorly designed off set smoker is lack of proper heat radiance. Heat from the firebox radiates upward in the food chamber and goes out the smoke stack without ever touching the food. Additionally, the end of the smoker closest to the firebox tends to be much hotter. Lack of vents also makes it difficult to control the temperature. Some of the most important features that make up a good quality smoker are cut out of the design in order to keep the price low. Consequently, a good off-set smoker is going to be an investment.
A good off-set smoker should be constructed of heavy duty steel with doors that seal well. The design should be one that produces reverse heat flow because this solves the problem of uneven heating. Look for a sheet of metal in the bottom of the cooking chamber. Heat from the fire box flows under this sheet of metal toward the opposite end of the food chamber. It then rises up to the food, travels back through the fire box and then out the smoke stake. This is the reverse flow.
- Attractive appearance
- Lots of cooking space
- Very simple design
- A good off-set smoker can be expensive
- More of a learning curve and requires more skill
- Difficult to control the temperature in less expensive models
- The high quality smokers are going to be heavy
Oklahoma Joe has a range of quality products that are competitively priced and can be found here.
Lang is another company that produces great products but be prepared to make an investment. See their product line here.
4) Kamado Grills
The modern Kamado grill is a modification of the Japanese Kamado cooker. For thousands of years the Japanese used this type of cooker for rice. They later added a cooking grate in order to prepare meat. Kamado grills are oval in shape, made of ceramic or steel and are well insulated.
The advantage to a Kamado grill is the versatility. They can be used for low and slow cooking but can also reached temperatures of 750℉. They are well insulated and hold heat for long periods of time. In order to be used as a smoker, the addition of a plate for heat deflection is necessary. The Big Green Egg company calls this a plate setter but other companies have similar modifications. The oval design easily produces sufficient air flow. Combined with baffles for temperature control the Kamado grill makes a perfect smoker.
- Versatility. Can be used for smoking, grilling, baking, and BBQ
- Simple design
- Durability and longevity.
- Produces excellent flavor
- Holds steady temperatures for long periods of time
- Simple maintenance
- Great for cold weather cooking due to superior insulation
- Ceramic models are very heavy
- Steel models can rust if not properly cared for
- Expensive compared to other grills
- Limited cooking space
- Learning curve to figure out temperature control
The original Big Green Egg. Image courtesy of biggreenegg.com
The Big Steel Keg
Image courtesy of
5) Pellet Grills and Smokers
Pellets smokers use compressed hardwood saw dust as a fuel source. These pellets are generally extruded in 1/4 inch round pieces. Due to this uniformity, they have a fairly predictable BTU output. They have a clean burn and produce a light smoke flavor.
Pellet grills and smokers have an external storage bin for pellets that is called the hopper. An auger feeds the pellets into the fire box. The auger looks like a large cork screw and is driven by a low speed motor. The pellets then burn in the firebox producing the heat and smoke.
The popularity of this type of appliance is due to the internal temperature control. Most models have an internal thermostat to regulate the temperature. As long as there are pellets in the hopper you can set the temperature and forget about it. The ease of use in this respect is why it is so popular. The better models have incremental temperature settings. The less expensive models have only low, medium, and high settings.
Most pellet smokers are easy to clean. They are also versatile and can be used to grill, smoke, bake, or BBQ.
- Versatility. Can be used to smoke, grill, bake, or BBQ
- Ease of temperature control
- Uses hardwood pellets which produces a clean burn and good smoke
- Very easy to use
- Small learning curve
- Lots of cooking space
- Numerous moving parts which can break or jam
- Repairs can be expensive
- Must have access to electricity via a heavy duty extension cord
- It stored outside it MUST BE covered due to the electrical parts.
- Will not produce intense heat
- If you live in a humid climate, the pellets must be stored properly. Excess humidity causes the pellets to become soggy and then they are useless.
Traeger has a long history of producing quality products. They are some of the best on the market. Image courtesy of traegergrills.com.
Z Grills produces affordable models that are very versatile. Image courtesy of zgrills.com.
Green Mountain Grills also have some great products.
Image courtesy of greenmountaingrills.com
6) Vertical Smokers
The beauty of these products is the simplicity of the design. The fire box is at the bottom with a separate door for adding wood chips or chunks. Above that is the drip pan. The smokes rises vertically into the fire box. Most of these have a thermometer in the door, which is front loading. This style of smoker is also relatively inexpensive which makes it an attractive alternative.
- Ease of Use
- Very small learning curve
- Produces a great flavor
- Consistent temperature
- Uses very little fuel
- Limited cooking space
- Propane fuel is more expensive than wood
The design is essentially the same as the propane verticals. The big difference of course is that this type of smoker uses and electric heating element to produce smoke. Wood chips or chunks are placed directly onto the heating element.
- Ease of use
- Set it and forget it
- Very easy to control the temperature
- Uses very little wood
- Lots of cooking space
- Electrical connection is needed
- High wattage
- Flavor produced is not as intense as other smokers
- A dedicated smoker. Not designed for other uses.
- Must be stored in a waterproof area
This electric smoker is from Masterbuilt. Image courtesy of masterbuilt.com
Here is a propane smoker from Masterbuilt. Image courtesy of masterbuilt.com.
These are Dyna Glo vertical propane and electric smokers. Images courtesy ofhomedepot.com
7) Cabinet Style Smokers (Box smokers)
This is a variation of the vertical smoker. They are called cabinet, box, or vault smokers simply because of their design. The heat source is at the bottom and the smoke rises vertically through the smoker. There are a number of companies that manufacture this type of smoker. There are charcoal, wood, propane, and electric models.
A quality box smoker is going to be a bit more expensive. Look for doors made of heavy steel that are tight fitting. There should also be top and bottom vents for temperature control.
- Large cooking space
- Quality models have a very sturdy design and will last for years
- Few if any moving parts
- Somewhat compact and take up little space
- More expensive that other types of smokers
- Typically these are dedicated smokers
- Larger cooking chamber can take some time to warm up
This is the Camp Chef Smoke Vault. Image courtesy of campchef.com.
A Masterbuilt cabinet smoker. Image courtesy of masterbuilt.com.
8) Kettle Grill Smokers
Most people are familiar with the kettle style grill. This is a small charcoal grill that is popular because it is easily portable and inexpensive. The initial intended use was not as a smoker. But, with a little adaptation, it can be used for smoking small amounts of food.
If using a kettle grill as a smoker, you must create two heat zone. This can accomplish in two ways. Simply pile the coals on one end and put a drip pan on the other end to help control the heat. Use a Slow ‘N Sear insert which is perfect for creating two zone cooking. The temperature can be controlled by adjusting the top and bottom vents.
- Can be used as a grill or a smoker
- Easily portable
- Using very little wood
- Very little cooking space
- Learning curve. It takes patience and practice to learn how to use a grill as a smoker
This is the typical style kettle grill. This particular one is made by Weber, which produces high quality products. Image courtesy of weber.com.
In reality the review that I have presented just scratches the surface of all the different manufacturers of smokers. However, I think the information presented here should give you a little bit of guidance on how to evaluate your options. I hope this has been helpful.
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