Buying a meat smoker is not for the faint-at-heart. There are so many smokers on the market that it can be tough to decide between them. The truth is that using your meat smoker is a lot easier than choosing which one to buy! Researching the different types of smokers can be an intimidating process.
If you have just started learning about smokers you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed. It is easy to feel bogged down with conflicting information and advice. We are here to give you the tools to pick out the perfect meat smoker for your family.
Let’s put one myth to rest right now- ANY smoker can produce juicy, mouthwatering results. You do not have to buy a specific type of smoker or use a certain kind of fuel to make “real” smoked meats. The best smoker for your family is the one you enjoy using!
- 1 Types of Smokers- Different Styles
- 2 Types of Smokers- Different Fuels
- 3 Buyer’s Guide When Looking at Different Types of Smokers
- 4 Final Thoughts
Types of Smokers- Different Styles
Meat smokers seem intimidating because there are so many different styles and options available. Humans have been smoking meat for most of our existence and we have come up with some clever ways to go about it.
A smoker is a device that flavors, cooks and preserves foods using smoke, most commonly from burning wood or charcoal. Smoking meat creates unique flavors and textures. Other methods of cooking can’t replicate the results you get from slow-smoking.
Sure, you can make pulled pork in your slow cooker but it doesn’t taste the same a slow-smoked pork butt. For that, you need a smoker.
Choosing a smoker is tough because each style has distinct advantages and disadvantages. The style of your smoker will determine how easy it is to use and maintain.
Then there is the question of how you power your smoker (see Types of Smokers- Different Fuels below). It is hard to say if you should focus on picking a style or a fuel source first because of how they intertwine.
We have broken smokers down into eight categories based on their design and style of construction. There is some overlap in the styles but broadly speaking most types of smokers fit into one of these categories.
When someone says smoker, chances are you picture an offset smoker in your mind.
These are the types of smokers you see most frequently at competitions and in front of popular BBQ restaurants. Some purists will claim that the only way to make real BBQ is with a wood-fired offset smoker. But we already cleared up that myth!
Offset smokers have a simple and straightforward design. A typical offset smoker is made from a large metal drum turned sideways with a smaller firebox attached to one side. Folks have been building these smokers in their backyard for many years.
To use an offset smoker, you light a fire in the smaller box and fill the larger drum with your raw meats. The smoke and heat from the fire box move sideways through the main drum, slowly cooking and flavoring your food.
Benefits of an Offset Smoker
Offset smokers offer a lot of advantages to a budding pitmaster. This is the ideal style for folks who need a large-capacity smoker. If you want to make a whole smoked brisket or several 10-pound pork butts then an offset smoker might be the ideal style for you.
Since the fire box is on the side it is easier to maintain the low-and-slow temperatures needed for true BBQ. You can monitor your fire box without disturbing your food.
Offset smokers also make it really easy to check on and rotate your cuts of meat. The wide lid, multiple cooking racks and roomy interior make it a breeze to pop things in and out without unloading the entire smoker.
Disadvantages of an Offset Smoker
This all sounds pretty awesome, right? Well, offset smokers are pretty amazing but they do have their downsides too. The biggest disadvantage to using a traditional offset smoker is the learning curve.
Offset smokers are most commonly fueled using charcoal or wood. Learning how to manage your fire and maintain the low temperatures you need to produce melt-in-your-mouth BBQ is hard. Honestly, the true skill in BBQing comes in the fire-management, not the dry rubs or vinegar sops.
You can see some pretty dramatic temperature variations in an offset smoker too. The area closest to the firebox can get 50-75°F hotter than the farthest end. It takes practice to get your meat to smoke evenly and you may need to rotate the cuts part way through.
The other reason people often opt against an offset-design is that they are space hogs. A horizontally-oriented drum and fire-box is going to take up a lot of room in your yard and is certainly not very portable. They also need plenty of clearance from bushes and other buildings if you don’t want to risk a fire.
If you want an offset smoker but worry about the learning curve, consider getting a hybrid model. These units run on propane or electric fuel and use wood chips or pellets to create smoke.
You will still have to rotate your meats to ensure even smoking but it eliminates the need to babysit the firebox.
If you have seen those odd-looking egg-shaped types of smokers you may be wondering what they’re all about. They are not a gimmick! A Kamado smoker is actually versatile top-loading outdoor cooker that can smoke meat with the best of them.
A Kamado-style smoker has a thick ceramic shell with a tough, weather-resistant outer coating. When you build a fire inside your Kamado, the ceramic walls and lid absorb the heat. This heat radiates evenly from the ceramic material and slowly cooks your food.
Kamado smokers produce some of the best smoked meats around. The smoker seals in the heat and moisture so little escapes. Your meat remains moist and juicy even after hours of cooking.
These types of smokers are compact and don’t take up a lot of room on their own. For grilling or 2-zone cooking (cooking using indirect heat) you can use deflector plates to modify the interior. These smokers have a range of 225-750°F making them ideal for both low-and-slow and very high heat cooking!
They are very fuel-efficient and maintain an even temperature even in the cold winter months. With the lid closed, it is very easy to alter your internal temperature by adjusting the dampers. Most Kamado-style grills run on charcoal although some folks have successfully converted theirs to electric.
Benefits of a Kamado Smoker
Kamado-style smokers offer some clear benefits to both novice and experienced meat smokers. Their compact size makes them ideal for folks who have a limited amount of room for storing and using a smoker. You can even get tabletop versions of this smoker!
Kamado smokers have a short learning curve and are easy to use. Since the Kamado seals so tightly your meat stays moist and won’t dry out. The ceramic interior radiates the heat evenly so you don’t have to rotate your meat much during the smoking process.
Their energy efficiency means they will cost you less to operate in the long-run. You won’t have to buy as much charcoal to fuel a Kamado smoker as you would for an offset smoker, for instance.
The ceramic interior is self-cleaning and doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. All you have to do is remove the ashes from the bottom and clean the cooking grates. Some Kamados even come with a removable ash pan.
These types of smokers are also ideal for folks who often cook outside in cooler temperatures. Their thick-walled ceramic construction performs really well in cold weather when other less-insulted smokers would struggle to get to temperature.
Disadvantages of a Kamado Smoker
Great as they are, there are reasons why you don’t see a kamado smoker in every backyard. These babies do a great job of meat-smoking but come with some caveats.
Properly cared for, a quality Kamado smoker should last for a lifetime. But ceramic is a very heavy and brittle material. You can absolutely shatter one of these types of smokers if you drop it. I have a buddy who cracked his when he dropped a cast iron griddle against the ceramic bottom.
The ceramic interior creates another challenge to using a Kamado smoker. The ceramic walls are slow to absorb heat but once they get hot, they stay hot. If you overshoot your target temperature during the preheat stage it will take a while to cool the Kamado back down.
Noteworthy Quirk of Kamado Smokers
One safety quirk of the Kamado that I must mention is their potential for creating a backdraft.
Because these types of smokers seal so tightly there is the possibility that your coals suffocate from a lack of oxygen. If this happens, you could potentially have a small explosion when you open the lid and oxygen rushes in. For this reason, always adjust the dampers wide open and be careful when cracking your Kamado open.
Kamado smokers can double as a small grill but they are not ideal for all kinds of grilling. The size and shape of these models limits what you can do with them.
For instance, unless your model has a separate door to access your coals you may have to unload the entire thing to add more fuel to your fire. This is rarely an issue when using it as a smoker since they are so fuel-efficient.
Unless you get an oval-shaped Kamado it is challenging to create zones for indirect cooking even using deflector plates. There just isn’t enough room in the bottom to have distinct hot and cool zones. The ceramic interior works against you too, since it so evenly absorbs and radiates the heat.
Kamado smokers have a more limited capacity than other styles because they are so compact. You only have the one primary cooking grate and you may have to trim bigger cuts of meat to fit inside. If you need a lot of capacity for smoking meats you may prefer a different type of smoker.
Kamado smokers are ideal for smaller families who want to make regular batches of smoked meats. They have become very popular in the last decade and you can now find them in multiple sizes from several high-quality brands.
The great thing about the Kamado is they are very easy to master and reliably produce fantastic BBQ.
Ugly Drum Smokers (UDS)
If you are a DIY-kind of person then you may want to build your own Ugly Drum Smoker (UDS). This system is about as simple as smoking meat can get. They may not be as fancy-looking as other types of smokers but they can sure make some good BBQ!
An UDS is made from a metal drum set upright on one end. A basket filled with burning charcoal and wood goes in the bottom of the drum. You arrange a cooking grate over the charcoal about a foot above the fuel and add in your meats.
The drum seals closed on the top and vents near the bottom allow you to adjust your temperature. Now grab a beer and wait for your fire to work its magic!
UDS were traditionally made at home from scrap parts. My grandad liked to joke that these were really called the Ugly Duckling Smokers. But it never mattered to us how ugly it was on the outside because the meats inside were so beautifully smoked!
Benefits of an Ugly Drum Smoker
The primary benefit of this style of smoker is its simplicity. Next to digging a pit oven in your backyard you really can’t make meat smoking any easier.
The drum seals tightly and there are only small vents near the bottom, so the airflow inside is quite limited. Your fire will smolder rather than flare-up. This keeps the temperature low and provides a nice quantity of flavorful smoke.
Often an UDS can burn for many hours before it needs any additional fuel added to the fire. These compact types of smokers don’t take up a lot of room in your yard either.
You can use your UDS as a grill as well, and I have successfully set up cooking zones in a 55-gallon drum. If your UDS is smaller it may be more challenging. The hardest part of using a UDS as a grill is leaning into it to reach the cooking grate.
Many folks assemble these at home and there are tons of designs and instructions available online. But with the advent of the DIY-revolution there are now kits you can buy that include all the necessary parts.
These UDS kits can be more attractive than the traditional scrap-part types of smokers that lent their name to the original Ugly Drum. It is now common to see kits with steel drums, porcelain-enameled cooking grates and integrated thermometers.
Disadvantages of an Ugly Drum Smoker
The primary downside to using an UDS is the capacity. The compact design limits the amount of meat you can smoke at one time. If you need a lot of capacity a single UDS may not be enough for you.
UDS are great for smoking and work well as a grill but the round cooking grate may impose some limitations. You may need to trim your cuts of meat to fit inside. If you do a lot of rib racks or other bigger cuts you may prefer a different shape in a smoker.
The most annoying part of using this smoker are those occasions when you do need to add more fuel. You have to unload the entire smoker to access your coals. This is a downside to many top-loading types of smokers that lack coal-access doors.
The Ugly Drums are prettier than they use to be but they are still a great, inexpensive way to smoke meat in your yard. You can customize your set-up with wheels, handles and any other features you desire. UDS are ideal for the family that likes to build and cook together.
Vertical Water Smokers
Another broad category of smoker is vertical water smokers. Also known as bullet smokers, these compact models are available in a wide assortment of designs and fuel types.
A vertical water smoker has an upright bullet-shape chamber with a dome lid. You build your fire in the bottom and place a pan of water above the fire. The cooking racks drop in above the water pan and the lid seals closed.
As your fire burns, smoke fills the inner chamber. The water pan helps moderate the temperature and distribute it evenly around your meats. Typically these types of smokers use charcoal or gas to fuel their fire.
Benefits of a Vertical Water Smoker
Vertical water smokers are one of the most popular styles, especially with novice meat smokers. They have a short learning curve and their design makes them pretty easy to control. They have a simple design without a lot of parts to mess with.
Their compact, narrow shape makes them ideal for use on a porch or deck and they are easy to store away. Most vertical water smokers have separate access doors for monitoring your charcoal or adding more wood chips. Premium models may also have a door to access the water pan as well.
Disadvantages of a Vertical Water Smoker
Vertical water smokers have their downsides as well. These top-loading models have a limited capacity and rather narrow cooking grates. You may need to trim larger cuts down to fit inside your smoker.
The top-loading design means that you may have to unload the smoker to access your fuel and water pan. If you have a larger smoker you may also have to rotate your meats so they cook evenly. This style does make it a bit more tricky to check on your food while it cooks.
Another annoying part of dealing with these types of smokers is cleaning the water pan. Since it sits under your food it usually ends up covered in grease. Water pans also frequently wear out and will likely need replacing every few years too.
Look for vertical water smokers with access doors for the fuel and water pan if you want to save some frustration. If you go for a charcoal smoker then buy one with a removable ash pan as well.
Vertical water smokers are ideal for folks who don’t need a large capacity and prefer a really compact smoker. They are a good choice for folks just starting to smoke meats and usually don’t require a large financial investment.
Cabinet Smoker and Vertical Smokers
If you find vertical water smokers intriguing but want something with greater capacity then consider a cabinet-style or vertical smoker. There are several different types of smokers in this category but they all operate on the same principle.
Cabinet smokers often appear similar to a filing cabinet with legs. They usually have a tall profile with one or more access doors in the front. Inside you have a series of pull-out shelves above the fuel chamber.
To use your cabinet smoker, fill the shelves with your meats and start a fire in the bottom chamber. The smoke produced will drift upward where it flavors and cooks your meats.
Many cabinet and vertical smokers use a water pan to moderate the temperature and catch the drippings. Since vertical smokers tend to be less-insulated than other types of smokers, the water pan really helps even out the heat. It also adds moisture to the smoking chamber.
Some cabinet and vertical smokers operate using charcoal but many are now available for gas and electricity as well. These types of smokers vary between small tabletop units all the way up to full-size competition rigs.
Benefits of Cabinet and Vertical Smokers
This style of smoker is generally very user-friendly and they are popular with novice and experienced smokers alike.
The cabinet design makes it very easy to access your food. You don’t have to unload the entire smoker to check on your meats and can easily rotate or remove them.
The lack of heavy insulation makes these ideal for summer or warm-weather use when other types of smokers tend to overheat. You might have trouble getting them to temperature in the cooler weather, however. I add additional seals to mine for better wintertime performance.
Disadvantages of a Cabinet or Vertical Smoker
The downsides to this style really depend on your specific smoker. This is such a broad category that it’s hard to generalize across all the various models.
Typically these types of smokers take longer to preheat than the more compact Kamado or vertical water smokers. The large central cooking chamber may vary in temperature from top to bottom. It can be hard to evenly cook meat on all the shelves without rotating the food.
Less expensive cabinet smokers tend to be a bit lightweight and flimsy in construction. They may not come with seals for the doors and vents. These types of smokers may leak a lot of heat and smoke.
A cheap cabinet smoker typically has a single access door for your fuel and food. So you have to open the entire thing to add more fuel or refill your water pan. This can slow down your meat-smoking process.
As you go up in price the construction gets more sturdy with higher quality insulation. You start to see separate access doors for your fuel and seals on the vents. The cooking grates may be higher quality as well. At the high-end, a cabinet or vertical smoker may be nearly as automated as a wood pellet smoker.
Cabinet smokers are convenient, easy to use and don’t have a big learning curve. I personally love being able to open the door and check on my meats without unloading the whole thing. You have a lot of options for fuel source too.
Gravity Fed Smokers
The first time I saw a gravity fed smoker I thought it was cabinet smoker on steroids. Seriously, I had never seen a smoker that was as solidly constructed as this one outside the competition circuit.
Gravity fed smoker are not typically seen in backyards because they are quite expensive. But for folks who take their BBQ seriously, they are the ultimate way to smoke meats.
A gravity fed smoker is a set-and-forget it style charcoal smoker. You load the chute with your charcoal, start a fire and fill the cabinet with your meats. As the charcoal inside burns away, gravity automatically feeds in the next batch from the chute.
Gravity smokers are so heavily constructed because they maintain a low oxygen environment during the smoking process. There are only a couple of vents in this smoker near the firebox. The rest of the unit seals tightly.
This low oxygen setup is essential for its operation. It prevents the entire batch of charcoal from igniting outside the fire chamber. Instead, only the charcoal in the fire box will smolder. The exhaust pipe helps cycle the smoke from the fire chamber up through your foods.
Benefits of a Gravity Fed Smoker
These types of smokers offer a lot of benefits to the right family. They are incredibly easy to use and produce top-notch BBQ. Many professional BBQ competitors swear by their gravity fed smokers.
Gravity fed smokers come in a variety of sizes but even the smallest ones give you plenty of capacity. These are an ideal smoker for someone who regularly makes big batches of smoked meats.
The low oxygen environment means you don’t have to babysit your fire. Gravity keeps feeding the fire while you relax and enjoy time with your guests. The heavy insulation ensures that your meat cooks evenly and doesn’t require rotation.
Disadvantages of a Gravity Fed Smoker
The biggest disadvantage of these types of smokers is the cost. Even a small gravity fed smoker is quite expensive.
A gravity fed smoker is typically custom-built to meet the specific needs of the pitmaster. They offer features like reinforced corners, locking caster wheels, integrated thermometers, and handles and D-rings for easy transporting.
While a gravity fed smoker does most of the work for you, you still have to pay attention to its operation. Sometimes the charcoal can get stuck in the chute, for instance. If you don’t fix the problem quickly your fire could go out.
Despite these downsides, gravity smokers are still the ideal smoker if you can afford one. They are extremely high-quality and you can customize them in so many different ways. If you want to make traditional charcoal-smoked BBQ but don’t like being chained to your smoker this is the ideal smoker for you.
Use a Standard Grill as a Smoker
If you have never used a smoker but want to try one out, why not convert your grill over? Using a charcoal or gas grill as a smoker is easy and you don’t need any fancy gadgets to do it either!
Years before I bought my first smoker I played around with smoking meat on my grill. I tried a bunch of different smoker boxes, inserts and even those foil-wrapped packages of wood chips. There are so many ways to convert your grill into a smoker!
Grills Are Easy to Convert
What eventually worked best for me was to build a 2-zone fire in my charcoal grill. When it was ready I would place the meat on the cool side with a drip pan underneath. Then I would toss some wood chips on the charcoal, close the lid and let things smolder away inside.
You can do this with a gas grill as well. In that case, preheat the entire grill first. Then turn off one side and arrange the drip pan and your meat. On the hot side, you remove the grate and place a smoker box or perforated foil pan filled with wood chips.
Once you place the chips over the fire they will quickly begin to combust. Just close the lid on your grill and grab a beer while your food cooks!
Disadvantages of Using a Grill as a Smoker
Of course, using your grill isn’t exactly like using the different types of smokers. With the limited space on a grill, you may not have room for a whole brisket. Using your warming rack as an extra place to stack meat helps increase the capacity.
Then there is the issue of clean-up. If you use your grill as a smoker you definitely want to use a drip pan! Otherwise you might have quite a fire the next time you use your grill.
Grills are also much harder to maintain at the low temperatures ideal for meat smoking. Often your grill is just going to get too hot for an extended smoking session.
The trick to get around this is to allow your meat to smoke for a few hours at higher temperatures and then pull it before it is finished. You can finish the meat low-and-slow in your oven, pressure cooker or even dutch oven.
Using a grill as a smoker is a great way to develop an addiction to meat smoking. Many of us start smoking on our grills and then move on to proper smokers once we are ready. It may not produce identical results but you can still make some good BBQ on your grill.
I know I said at the beginning that ANY meat smoker could produce fantastic BBQ. Stovetop smokers are the exception to this rule. They have their place but they are not the same thing as a meat smoker.
Stovetop smokers work for smoking small cuts of meats or fish directly on your stovetop. At their simplest, they are nothing more than a pan with a lower chamber for the wood chips and an upper one for your food. When you heat the pan, the chips combust and flavor your food with smoke.
These are compact and inexpensive smokers and are really ideal for giving delicate foods a bit of smoke flavor. They are not ideal for actual cooking or low-and-slow BBQ. I have used these to make smoke-infused salts, herbs and vegetables successfully.
If you use one of these devices be sure you have a well-ventilated kitchen! No matter how well the box seals you will still have a kitchen full of smoke. The few times I have used mine indoors I set off the fire alarm.
Types of Smokers- Different Fuels
Styles aside, there is another way to categorize smokers, and this is by their power source. Every smoker uses fuel to generate the heat and smoke needed for low-and-slow BBQ. The different types of smokers on the market go about this in several ways.
There are really two aspects to the fuel question. First, how does a smoker generate heat? Do you build a fire, turn on the gas or just plug the unit in and turn it on?
The primary fuel source will determine how quickly and easily you can get your smoker started. It also influences the learning curve and how much skill it takes to operate your smoker. Obviously, the style of the smoker and your experience level will play into this as well.
The second question is how does the smoker generate smoke? It might seem silly to ask this question but some types use different fuel sources for heating and smoke generation. These hybrid smokers combust wood chips or pellets because their primary fuel doesn’t produce any smoke on its own.
Your choice of fuel will influence the taste and appearance of your meats. Smokers use the products of combustion to create the flavor profiles we associate with smoked meats. When using a hybrid smoker, your fuel adds its own unique flavor to your meats apart from the taste of the smoke.
Of all the different types of smokers, none is more associated with BBQ than the classic charcoal smoker. Many pitmasters and BBQ enthusiasts believe the best smoked meats come from wood or charcoal-fueled smokers. It is hard to argue against tradition.
Charcoal smokers are the broadest category of smoker since pretty much every style and brand comes in a charcoal-fueled model. You have a huge variety of options at every price-point when you go charcoal.
There are several advantages to using a charcoal smoker. The flavor of meats smoked over lump charcoal is generally outstanding. You can also see a distinct smoke ring when you slice into your meats.
Since burning charcoal produces smoke on its own you won’t have to buy a separate bag of wood chips to get a smokey flavor in your foods. Charcoal offers a lot of versatility once you learn the quirks of your specific smoker.
The downside to using a charcoal smoker is that they are very hands-on. You have to learn how to manage the burning coals to get the temperature you need inside your smoker. They can take longer to set-up because you will have to light your coals and allow them to burn down before you can preheat the smoker.
Charcoal is traditional and a lot of fun to master if you don’t mind babysitting your smoker. If you want to feel like a real pitmaster or practice for BBQ competitions then you should buy a charcoal smoker.
Wood Pellet Smokers
On the opposite end of the smoker-spectrum are the wood pellet smokers. Unlike charcoal smokers, which are very hands-on, wood pellet smokers do almost all of the work for you. If you want a true set-and-forget it smoker then go for a wood pellet!
What is a wood Pellet Smoker?
A wood pellet smoker is a hybrid unit that uses electricity to power the various functions. Food-grade wood pellets go in the hopper and automatically feed through an auger until they reach the combustion chamber. There, an electric coil ignites the pellets, creating smoke and generating heat.
Of the different types of smokers, the wood pellet-styles typically have a higher starting price due to all of the automated features. These smokers have integrated thermostats that can be set to maintain precise internal temperatures.
Many also come with built-in meat thermometers. You can set the smoker for your desired temperature and when your meat is ready the smoker turns off! Digital control screens and even wi-fi enabled controls are common features to see in these types of smokers.
There are some disadvantages to wood pellet smokers aside from their higher cost.
Because they require electrical power you have some limits on where you can use them. You may need to have an exterior outlet installed or use a grounded extension cord. Obviously, you will have to purchase wood pellets to fuel your smoker as well.
These are a great option for novice and experienced meat smokers alike. The short learning curve is a benefit to those who have struggled to use other types of smokers. They are also available in a wide array of styles including the classic offset smoker.
If you worry that these types are too easy to use or don’t make “real” smoke meats, let me put your concerns to rest. They can produce first-class BBQ and even show up in some BBQ competitions. As a bonus, they are very easy to clean because the wood pellets produce little ash residue.
The most challenging, and frankly frustrating, part of learning to smoke meats is mastering your temperature control. Gas smokers reduce the learning curve by using a tank of liquid propane or your home’s natural gas line to power your smoker.
Instead of having to manage a pile of flaming charcoal, you can just turn on the gas and hit the ignition. By adjusting the level of the flame you can easily modify the internal temperature. These hybrid smokers use wood chips or small lumps of wood to produce the smoke that flavors your foods.
Should I buy a Gas Smoker?
Gas smokers are an intermediary type of smoker. They are easier to master than a charcoal smoker but more hands-on than a wood pellet or electric smoker. They are not entirely set-or-forget but some higher-end models can come close.
There are several distinct benefits to using a gas-powered unit over the other different types of smoker.
They are quick to light and don’t take very long to preheat. Once your unit has reached the desired temperature it will stay there until you make adjustments. Instead of worrying about your fire you can focus all of your attention on your meat smoking.
Gas smokers are very popular and come in a wide range of styles, sizes and price points. Typical features you will find in a gas smoker include a built-in thermometer, push-button ignition and a temperature control dial. They can produce fantastic BBQ that is only slightly less complex in flavor than that from a charcoal smoker.
If you want to take an active role in your meat-smoking but don’t want the hassle of managing the fire then a gas smoker might be the choice for you. At the higher end, you can find models that are almost as automated as a wood pellet smoker. Gas smokers are a great option for any family no matter your experience level.
A final type of smoker is the electric smoker. We covered these a bit above under the wood pellet-variety but the category itself is much broader. Electric smokers have improved a lot over the last decade so if you have heard negative things, read on.
On the high end, electric smokers can be truly set-and-forget. They use an electric coil to generate heat. This heat cooks your food and causes the wood chips in the firepan to smolder and produce smoke.
Most electric smokers have an internal thermometer and thermostat that automatically maintain your set temperature. Fully-automated electric smokers allow you to start your food and then walk away. This is an ideal style if you want to have fresh BBQ ready when you walk in the door from work!
They are fast-starting and preheat quickly. Since they use electricity to combust the wood chips you won’t have to worry about adjusting dampers to maintain a fire. The lower airflow means your food loses less moisture and stays juicier when smoked in an electric smoker.
Electric smokers are especially ideal for cool-smoking items like cheese, fish, nuts, and jerky that would overcook or dry out at higher temperatures. But electric smokers don’t always produce great results for larger cuts of beef, chicken, and pork.
The biggest downside to an electric smoker is the limited combustion. There is nothing to burn other than the wood chips. Low airflow and high moisture levels prevent your meats from forming the crusty bark that is so loved by BBQ enthusiasts.
This also means that BBQ from an electric smoker rarely achieves a nice smoke ring. I am less concerned about the missing smoke ring since that is all about appearance and not flavor. But personally, I think making a smoked brisket or pork butt without that tasty crust is a food crime!
There are a bunch of reasons why this is a unique issue with electric smokers and doesn’t usually impact the wood pellet types. If you want to learn more about the science behind smoke rings and meat bark there’s some great information here.
Electric smokers are a good option for the right family. If you can’t have an “open flame” grill or smoker then electric might be the only way to go. Electric smokers are available in a wide range of styles and sizes and can run from cheap to quite expensive.
Buyer’s Guide When Looking at Different Types of Smokers
How do you decide between the different types of smokers? It is a tough thing to do because every smoker has its benefits. If you are like me, you might eventually end up with several different types of smokers to cover all your needs.
The main decisions when buying a smoker are settling on a style and picking a fuel source. Once those choices are made you can focus on finding a smoker with the features you want at the right price.
Consider the following factors when shopping for a meat smoker:
How much will a smoker cost? It depends. Smokers range in price based on their style, capacity, fuel source, construction, brand, and features.
Inexpensive smokers often use less-durable materials and don’t have as much insulation. These types of smokers can do the job if everything is just right, and I have made some great BBQ on a cheap smoker. But they can be incredibly frustrating for novice smokers to master!
Honestly, my advice is to get the highest-quality smoker you can in your desired style and fuel source. The learning curve is so much shorter when you are not fighting with your equipment. Also, don’t forget to factor in the operating costs when selecting a smoker.
Price Range for the Different Types of Smoker
For a charcoal smoker you can expect to spend around $100 for a basic model up to well over $10,000 for a competition-ready set-up. A premium charcoal smoker usually starts at around $800.
These types of smokers are available in the widest range of styles, brands, and features. You will also need to grab some lump charcoal or hardwood chunks to power the smoker and flavor your foods.
Gas smokers usually start at around $200 and range upward of $800 for the premium models. They are the second-most popular fuel type for home-smoking and come in a wide array of styles and brands.
You will need to pick up some wood chips or pellets to use with your smoker. You may also need to buy an extra propane tank or two. I recommend always having a spare tank handy because it really sucks when you run out of gas partway through a smoking session.
Wood pellet smokers tend to be the most expensive because they are fully automated. They range from $600 for a basic home-smoker to well over $10,000 for competition rig.
These types of smokers require electricity so you may need to install an outdoor power outlet or invest in an outdoor-safe extension cord. You will also have to purchase wood pellets to create the smoke that flavors your foods.
Electric smokers are all over the map in terms of price. I have seen small electric models ideal for smoking cheese, fish and jerky priced around $100. Larger units can range from $300 for a basic to over $800 for a fully automated smoker.
As with the wood pellet smokers, you will need an outdoor outlet or extension cord handy to power your electric smoker. Wood chips are typically used for producing the smoke. These units tend to use a pretty small amount of wood chips due to their efficiency and are typically less-expensive to fuel than a pellet smoker.
How easy is it to change the temperature in your smoker? Since the true skill in smoking meat is in your fire management (aka temperature control) this is a critical thing to know. You definitely want a smoker that has good temperature control and isn’t difficult to adjust.
There are two parts to the temperature control question:
- How easy is it to change the temperature by turning a dial or opening a damper?
- How long does it take your smoker to reach the new temperature after you have made a change?
The temperature control of your smoker will vary depending on its style, construction, and fuel source. But outside factors can influence the internal temperature too. In very hot or cold weather you may find your smoker has a harder time reaching your desired temperature.
Gas, wood pellet and electric smokers are easy to adjust on the fly because they have control dials. The change in temperature usually happens pretty quickly. Wood pellet and higher-end electric smokers use thermostats to maintain your temperatures so you can just set them and walk away.
Charcoal smokers require more skill and experience when it comes to temperature control. You may have to add fuel or adjust the dampers to change the temperature. Depending on the adjustment, it may take a while before your charcoal smoker registers the change.
Insulation and Seals
When choosing a smoker, look for one with good insulation and seals around the openings. A smoker made from heavy-gauge steel will absorb and radiate the heat evenly around your food. Sealed openings keep the heat and smoke inside where it can work its magic.
It is very frustrating to use a cheap, shoddily-constructed smoker. A thin-walled smoker will heat unevenly and may struggle to reach the right temperature. They burn through fuel and worse- most of that heat and smoke just leaks away.
A solidly-constructed smoker with good insulation and seals is also more durable and will last longer. You may need to eventually replace the seals but often these types of smokers will keep on ticking for years to come.
It is important to select a smoker that has the right temperature range for the foods you plan to smoke. Most smokers aim for hot smoking meats like beef, pork or chicken. But there are models designed for smoking foods at cooler temps and you wouldn’t want to get them mixed-up.
Traditional meat smoking is a low-and-slow process. For a whole brisket or pulled pork, a smoker is typically maintained at about 225°F until the meat’s internal temp reaches the desired setting. Chicken and turkey are usually cooked at a higher 325°F temperature.
Some smokers can even get as hot as your grill. It can be handy to have a smoker that can crank up to 500°F for searing a steak or over 700°F for making a wood-fired pizza.
Warranty and Support
Smokers can be a big financial investment. When comparing the different types of smokers it’s a good idea to read the fine print in the warranty. You need to know what they cover and how to make a claim if you have a problem.
Often with smokers (and grills), the warranty covers the various parts for different lengths of time. The firebox, for instance, may have a 5 year warranty while the heating element gets a single year of coverage. Before you spend your hard-earned money you need to know the details of the warranty.
Also, consider how easy it is to have your smoker serviced if there is a problem. Does the company have a local branch to help you if there is an issue? If you buy online do they still honor the warranty and offer support?
Get a smoker with a good multi-year warranty and support center reasonably close-by. Pick a brand with a helpful website and solid customer service reputation. If you end up going for a premium model then consider getting an extended warranty if one is available.
Capacity- How Many People Will You Be Cooking For?
When buying a smoker, there are two ways to determine your capacity requirements.
You can consider how many people you will be feeding on a regular basis and purchase a smoker ideal for those numbers. Or you can buy a smoker that has the capacity for your largest events.
Most manufacturers define capacity in terms of how many square inches of cooking space their smoker provides. You can usually compare these numbers from smoker to smoker.
The dimensions of the internal grates or shelves also factor into the capacity of your smoker. If you frequently cook whole racks of ribs or brisket you may prefer a smoker with longer or wider grates. Then you won’t have to trim the cuts to fit them in the smoker.
Smokers require some clearance around them when they are in use. You need to be able to access the firebox and smoking chamber as you cook. They also need to be kept away from flammable materials so they don’t start a fire.
Some types of smokers have folding shelves or break down a bit for easy storage. A compact vertical smoker or Kamado will take up substantially less room than a large-capacity offset smoker. Consider where you will use and store your smoker as you shop.
The amount of clearance your smoker needs will vary depending on its style and design. Check with the manufacturer for more information about your smoker’s requirements.
Wheels and other mobility-assisting features are a very useful thing in a smoker. A smoker can be quite heavy when made with quality construction materials and sturdy cooking grates. It can be a challenge to relocate a heavy smoker without help.
If you frequently move your smoker you may prefer one with wheels. Make sure that the wheels can lock though. I once had a smoker roll right off my porch in a bad windstorm. Lifting handles can also be helpful if the smoker isn’t terribly heavy.
Some types of smokers are portable and can travel with you on adventures. If you want to take your smoker on trips look for a compact model with mobility-assisting features like handles and wheels.
Can You Use the Smoker as a Grill?
Versatility is a great bonus in a smoker especially if you don’t have a lot of space. It can be a real benefit to have a smoker that can also function as a grill.
Dual-use smokers are not always equally good at doing both jobs, however. If you take your grilling as serious as your BBQ then you may prefer separate appliances.
If you want a dual-use smoker, look for the high-end charcoal and wood pellet smokers that excel at both tasks. You may want to increase your budget if this feature is important to you.
Is the Smoker Easy to Clean?
Cleaning is usually an afterthought when buying a meat smoker. Of course, we all prefer to focus on the smoking and eating over the clean-up! But a smoker that is easy to clean and maintain will save you time and money in the long run.
Grease and drippings can build-up inside your smoker if you don’t clean it out. When the grease goes rancid it can taint the flavor of anything cooked inside.
Smokers that splash a lot of grease or drippings around can be a real pain to clean. Cabinet-style smokers are famous for the drippings and grease that collect in the corners. If not cleaned out, this grease can also become a fire hazard.
The different types of smokers have maintenance requirements based on their design. If you really like an easy clean-up consider the Kamado or a wood pellet smoker. These styles are especially low-maintenance.
Other features that help with the clean-up include removable ash collectors and dripping pans. If your smoker uses a water pan you might consider covering it with foil. Then all you need to do for the clean-up is toss the dirty foil and let the pan dry!
There is no need to feel overwhelmed when shopping for a smoker. Our comprehensive guide to the different types of smokers has got you covered. The hardest part of the process is the research, then it’s all downhill from there!
Meat smokers may seem intimidating at first but once you sink your teeth into the results you’ll be happy you bought one. Don’t let a lack of experience hold you back from smoked-meat Nirvana. Burgers and steaks are great but nothing says BBQ like a pile of slowly-smoked brisket or pulled pork.
Invest in a high-quality smoker or two and you will be able to satisfy your families cravings for years to come.