Smoke scares people. Entices people. Puts them in touch with fundamental change from one state to another.

Religions use smoke to let us touch the mystical, and symbolize the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary. Magicians use smoke and mirrors to add magic to the mundane.

Barbecue grillmasters use smoke – as well as rubs, marinades, and degrees of heat – to change ordinary meat into some of the best, most succulent, and grin-making food in the world.

But still, lots of people have the smoke-fear. 

Some of that fear comes from the fact that there’s so much equipment available.

If you’re new to the world of meat-smoking, it can be bewildering – propane smokers, pellet smokers, electric smokers, charcoal smokers, barrel smokers, vertical smokers, offset smokers, WAIT! WON’T SOMEBODY STOP THE SMOKY MADNESS?!   

Yep. We will. Stick with us, we’ll take you through all the varieties of smoker out there, so you’ll know which one has your smoky vibe.

And, what’s more, we’ll give you a handful of options to choose from each time, so you’re not left high and dry with new knowledge, but can press a button and start your awesome barbecue smoking journey.


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Best In Class: cutting to the chase

If you already know your way around the smoking world, and you’re just out for simple answers to the question of which is the best smoker and why – we’ve got you covered.

Best Smokers – Comparison Table

Propane

When it comes to propane smoking, size matters.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that bigger is always better – sorry, guys – it just means you have to choose the size of propane smoker that’s right for you.

How do you know that? Think about how often you want to use it, and when you use it, how much you’re going to want to smoke at a time.  

If you’re tentative or brand new to the world of smoking, firstly, welcome! And secondly, don’t frighten yourself off with an uber-smoker that’s twice the size you are. Fit your smoker to your lifestyle, and go smaller.

Apart from anything else, going smaller gives you far less cleaning hassle, so if you’re only going to use it from time to time when the need for smoky succulence just gets too much, go small. 

If you’re part of a huge family of would-be werewolves, you’re gonna want to go big or go hungry. At that point, you’re looking at vertical smokers, which have a large surface area. A large surface area means more smoking in less time.

Job done.

Whether you’re going large or small, think about ease of cleaning, and with propane, also look for ease of connection, so that if you happen to run low on gas halfway through a cookout, you can change tanks easily without losing too much power to the smoker.

For our money – and for yours too – the best overall propane smoker on the market right now is:

 

Cuisinart COS-244 Vertical 36' Propane Smoker, Black
Our rating:

Why the Cuisinart? First, it’s a bigger smoker than some, and it’s a vertical smoker, so you get more food smoked in a shorter space of time. 

While Cuisinart has plenty of kitchen cred, it’s relatively new in the grilling world. For all that though, in the COS-224, it delivers a well-built smoker with a tight seal. 

At several points in the design, you can check things off your list of ultimate features. Well-built – check. Chunky smoking chamber? Check – 5.45 cubic feet. Multiple smoking racks? Check – four racks here, each 14†x 14â€. Each rack gives you 196 square inches of smoking capacity. Don’t do the math, it’s 784 square inches total.

For ease of tank change, there’s a 40-inch propane hose with a regulator attached, and – and this is where thinking it through pays off – even a bottle opener mounted to the frame. 

Cleaning? The dripping pan and wood chip tray pull out for rapid disposal. The porcelain coating means the pan’s easy to clean too. Give the thermometer a wipe with an abrasive sponge and it should keep giving you accurate internal temperatures.

The particular selling point of this model though is a combined wood chip and water tray. Water constantly surrounds the wood, so you get consistent exposure to both smoke and moisture. That’s a guard against smoking your meat to boot leather, and it’s a thing which pushes the Cuisinart to the top of our recommendations.

That said, be aware, no conversion kit currently exists to turn this relatively new king of propane into a leading natural gas option too.

With the Cuisinart’s built-in thermometer, so you should be able to precisely judge the heat and permeation of your smoke, and solidly responsive heat control, the Cuisinart is our hot tip for propane smoking.

That means that while it will serve an experienced smoke-fiend perfectly well, it doesn’t turn propane smoking into a mystic art, beyond the reach of even beginners. 

Sale
Cuisinart COS-244 Vertical 36" Propane Smoker, Black
  • 5. 45 SQUARE FEET OF INTERIOR: The spacious 5. 45 square foot interior means there is plenty of room to smoke a variety of meats along with several trays of vegetables. The vertical footprint makes it a perfect size for patios and barbecue kitchens.
  • Product Dimensions: 19.3" L x 18.1" W x 38.6" H | Weight: 69.5 lb
  • FOUR 14 X 14-INCH REMOVABLE STAINLESS STEEL SHELVES: Four stainless steel racks can be easily removed for smoking whole birds or large cuts of meat. Racks are dishwasher safe, making cleanup easy.
  • BUILT-IN THERMOMETER: Features easy-to-read thermometer on the front door for accessible monitoring of the internal temperature.
  • TOTAL TEMPERATURE AND SMOKE CONTROL: An adjustable gas supply gives control over the amount of heat. Optimal smoker access through two doors and a rear vent can be opened or closed to control the amount of heat and smoke exiting the oven.

Last update on 2021-09-19 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API


 

Pros
  • Large cooking area – 4 racks
  • Combined wood chip and water pan, for moist smoking
  • Easy clean
  • Effective temperature control
  • 40-inch propane hose
Cons
  • No availability of a natural gas conversion kit as yet

 

Charcoal

Charcoal smoking can give you a flavor like no other kind of smoking. But it’s an adrenaline sport, played at high temperatures and in real-time.

As such, it probably won’t be the first kind of smoking you do. And when you start charcoal smoking, you’ll want to start with a single smoking rack, eventually moving up to multiple racks with plenty of space between each type of food.

Surface area and high heat are the crucial elements you need in charcoal smoking. For the best smoking results, use multiple racks for meat, fish, and vegetables.

When buying a charcoal smoker, make sure you can remove the racks, because charcoal is a more directly dust-producing fuel source, so you’re going to need anything and everything you can use to make clean-up easier.

Also, be sure to buy a smoker with enough space for all the charcoal you need to get the high heat you want.

Our choice for the best charcoal smoker on the market is:

 

Weber 22-inch Smokey Mountain Cooker, Charcoal Smoker
Our rating:

Weber takes our top spot as a charcoal smoker because, despite what we said about charcoal smoke being a tough real-time high-heat sport, it minimizes the chances of things going wrong.

That makes it a glorious contradiction – a charcoal smoker that experienced smokers respect and love, but which is easy enough for beginners to use.

In lots of ways, it’s very similar to our leading Propane smoker, which means you can get similar results, but with that real charcoal edge to the taste. 

Talk about keeping it simple. There’s a firebox, where you put your charcoal and the wood that gives your smoking its distinctive flavor. A grate in the box lets you control the airflow. 

The cooking section holds the water pan, two cooking grates, and an access door – for adding more charcoal or wood as needed. 

And you close it with a domed lid, with a built-in temperature gauge, so you know what’s happening inside the smoker.

Weber has been selling this ‘bullet’-style smoker since the 1980s – and it’s become popular with serious barbecue masters, because they do everything they need to do, while allowing you some elbow-room for personal ingenuity and flavor profile flair.

In some senses, you can think of it as the moonshiner’s smoker – the technology is fairly simple, the processes straightforward, but using the right ingredients in terms of meats, woods, and heat-levels, you can create almost a whole rainbow of flavors with the Weber smoker.

Unlike the Cuisinart, with its 4-rack complexity, there are only two racks in the Weber, but that doesn’t mean you’re lacking choice. Where the Cuisinart comes in the single size – and it’s on the larger side too, at 36†– the Weber gives you options.

It comes in 14.5†(which gives you 276 square inches of smoking space), 18.5†(481 square inches) and the serious, kick ass and smoke meat 22.5†(726 square inches) version.

That means that when you buy the Weber, you’re given the choice. If you’re a beginner to the arts of smoking meat, the option to go small and learn your instincts and tastes is there for you.

Be aware though, if you’re thinking of using a Weber for even local competitions, some users say only the 22.5†is big enough to smoke a whole brisket.

As ever when buying a smoker, assess your smoking needs, and tailor your purchase accordingly. But if you’re determined to go for the woodsman taste of charcoal smoking, you can do a lot worse than choose the Weber Smokey Mountain.

Sale
Weber 22-inch Smokey Mountain Cooker, Charcoal Smoker
  • Porcelain enameled lid, bowl, and center section retain heat and won’t rust or peel
  • Two cooking grates provide ample room for smoking two large items at once
  • Silicone temperature grommet monitors the internal temperature of your smoker
  • Control the temperature of your smoker by easily adjusting the dampers
  • Fuel door comes off to make adding charcoal or wood easier while smoking

Last update on 2021-09-19 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Pros
  • Three size options – which also means three price options
  • Real charcoal smoking, made easy enough for beginners
  • A long, strong reputation with experienced smokers means you can’t ignore this model
  • Versatility – you can get genuinely creative in your smoking with the Weber
  • Grilling option – although it’s designed first and foremost as a smoker, you can use the 22.5†version as a grill if needed to save yard space
Cons
  • At least two of the size options struggle to smoke some bigger cuts, like a brisket or full rack of ribs
  • Going for the bigger sizes means a hefty charcoal bill
 

Pellet

Charcoal smoking probably offers the most primal connection with our meat-eating ancestors. Propane smoking – along with electric smoking – is probably the most 20th century, chemistry-based approach to the business of getting smoky flavor into meat. 

Pellet smoking is something else again. If you want the almost musky note of wood smoke, but without any of the hassle that leads smokemasters to be revered for their instincts across America – pellet smoking could well be the way to go. 

Pellets are made of sawdust, condensed down into the equivalent of wooden bullets. They’re held in a hopper and fed into the burn pot.

The burn pot…you don’t need us to tell you what happens in the burn pot, do you? They burn, baby, burn, giving off both heat and smoke. Perhaps the cleverest bit of the whole process though is that in pellet smokers, a fan will waft both the heat and the smoke around the whole smoking environment. 

The whole process is pretty scientific – a thermostat will determine the speed at which the pellets go from the hopper to the burn pot, and the amount of oxygen the fan needs to blow over the pellets to get the desired result. This semi-automatic process and its reliance on the thermostat as an active part of the smoking process sets pellet smokers apart from some of their more traditional cousins. 

Another advantage to pellet smoking is that unlike some of the more labor-intensive methods of combining meat and smoke to the benefit of the entire world, you can…

We’re not quite sure how to break this to you, because it seems like it should be against the law of meet-smoking. But you can simply walk away and let the pellet smoker get on with its business, while you get on with yours. Prepare salads. Check Twitter. Pluck a tune. Play touch-football – you do you. The pellet smoker will do its thing. 

While some hardcore barbecue experts will tell you that the smoky flavor you get from pellets is not as strong as that from the likes of charcoal, there are two things to say in rebuttal of that idea.

On the one hand, the evidence of reduced smoky flavor is so far sketchy. And, if it’s proved to be true, there’s a place for those subtler smoky notes alongside the roaring, hardcore smokes.

When it comes to pellet smokers, our top pick is:

 

Camp Chef SmokePro DLX Pellet Grill w/New PID Gen 2 Digital Controller - Bronze
Our rating:

We’ve chosen the Camp Chef not only because it’s a hugely effective 21st century smoker, but because it’s a lot of smoker for the money too. 

With a temperature range running from 160 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the Camp Chef can deliver 25,000 BTUs per hour. 

The fundamental element of walking away and leaving the pellet smoker to do its thing is made possible here with a large, 18-pound hopper. That means you don’t have to run back to refill it every ten minutes. Depending on how you use your smoker, you may not have to refill it in ten hours.

Ten smoke settings and an internal temperature probe let you set the smoker for precisely the result you want. 

And the Camp Chef comes with at least a couple of management systems, including an ash cleanout system so it’s easy to clean and maintain, and a grease management system to limit the likelihood of premature flame-out.

Camp Chef SmokePro DLX Pellet Grill w/New PID Gen 2 Digital Controller - Bronze
  • Large capacity pellet hopper with exclusive ash cleanout system
  • Electronic auto-start ignition for quick and easy start every time
  • Dual LED temperature readout shows internal cooking temps and food temps
  • Simple temperature selection system maintains heat
  • Automatic auger dispenses pellets as needed for improved smoker efficiency

Last update on 2021-09-18 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Pros
  • Large pellet hopper
  • Temperature-controlled smoking means you can walk away
  • Ten smoke settings let you get precisely the result you want
  • Easy cleaning with an ash management system
  • Grease management system to avoid early flame-out
Cons
  • Potentially more subtle smoke flavor thanks to the pellet system
 

Electric

There’s something particularly modern about using an electric smoker.

Many types of smoker call back to the primal urges of barbecue – meat+wood of some kind to change the flavor and texture of your chosen protein into something extra, something that opens up new sense memories, and something that tastes like the universe loves you.

For electricity to achieve that same primal result, there’s an instinct that says you should be capturing lightning itself and channeling it through to your wood, for the smoke of ancient, storm-ruined forests.

Electric smokers are…not going to give you that effect.

In fact, one of the biggest selling points of an electric smoker is that it gives you one of the most controllable smokes available. Using electricity means a few important things.

It means waiting a while for the electric heating element to come up to temperature.

It means – and we realize this sounds obvious – you need an electric power socket to plug it into, so your range from the house is probably limited unless you’ve invested in a portable power station.

But it also means more or less entirely predictable, controllable heat levels and smoke distribution. 

If charcoal smoking is a bargain between you, the elemental smoke gods, and the meat of your choice, results wrangled by your skill and instincts, electric smoking is like brewing a pot of coffee. 

But, if we’re making that sound unexciting, forgive us – that’s not our intent at all. Electric smoking brings precision without fuss and ritual. But it also allows for gentler smoking of proteins like fish. They can easily be modified to work as cold smokers for that extra touch of difference at your cookout.

And an electric smoker, much more than the likes of charcoal or propane, can give you the sustained, dehydrating smokes you need for the likes of jerky. 

So there’s a place for an electric smoker in your cookout – and if you live in an apartment, there’s a far greater likelihood you’ll be allowed to use one within code than any plans you have for a full-throttle charcoal-fest.    

When you’re buying an electric smoker, oddly enough, look for one that uses as little wood as possible. Again, it’s all about control with an electric smoker. The less wood you use, the more control you have.

And similarly, make sure your electric smoker has a thermostat, rather than the common option of a rheostat. You wouldn’t settle for less than precise information on internal temperature in any other form of smoker – don’t settle for it in an electric one either.

Our top choice for an electric smoker is:

 

Masterbuilt 20070910 30-Inch Black Electric Digital Smoker, Top Controller
Our rating:

From the outside, the Masterbuilt Electric Smoker looks more or less like a safe from a bank vault.

It’s not that. It’s just been designed to be perhaps the ultimate outward-facing expression of what all smokers are – a magic cabinet.

Inside, it has 730 square inches of available cooking space, four chromed racks (for easy cleaning), and an 800watt heating element to give you controllable smoke.

Outside, it looks entirely enigmatic, but it gives you all the controls you need. Thermostatic temperature control gives you the precision you want, from 100-275 degrees F. Digital time controls give you truly ‘set and forget’ ease of smoking, for that minimum-fuss feel.

You feed wood chips into the smoker through a side vent, the drip pan’s removable for ease of cleaning, and you have a topside air damper, so you end up with a box of magic tricks more programmable than a smartwatch. A smartwatch that makes you kickass smoked meats.

You can hear the researchers at Apple trying to work that one out for their next launch, can’t you?

The point is, it’s an easy smoker, using only relatively low heat and relatively gentle smoke, to give you options unexplorable by some of the more hardcore smokers on the market.

That means it could well be the first machine newcomers to meat smoking use, and it could prove itself not only on its own terms but as that entry-level smoker that leads to greater things.

Masterbuilt 20070910 30-Inch Black Electric Digital Smoker, Top Controller
  • 730 sq. inches of cooking space with 4 chrome-coated racks and 800 watt heating element
  • Digital temperature and timer controls
  • Thermostat temperature control for even cooking from 100 to 275 degrees F
  • Convenient side loading wood chips, removable drip pan and top air damper
  • Ideal smoker for all experience levels

Last update on 2021-09-19 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Pros
  • A highly controllable heat source
  • Low heat
  • Entirely insulated for safety
  • Set and forget’ temperature and timer controls
  • A great first step into smoking
  • Apartment-safe
Cons
  • Low levels of heat
  • Feels like using most other kitchen appliances, rather than wild smoking
  • Requires a source of electric connection
 

Best Smokers – Buyers Guide

Smokers By Fuel Type

We’ve given you a handful of the best smokers on the market, whatever kind of fuel source you’re using.

But how does the type of fuel define the kind of smoker you’ll use?

Let’s take a quick tour, so you know what’s what when it comes to fuel, flame, smoke, and succulence.

Electric Smokers

Electric smokers are the least dramatic smokers you can buy – or even possibly imagine.

Powered, as the name suggests, by electricity, they can’t free-stand, but must be connected to a power source to work. Whether that’s a domestic electricity supply or the likes of a portable power station doesn’t matter – they need to be plugged into a power source to get your smoking done.

Because they’re relatively unobtrusive, they’re safe for the likes of apartments. They use electricity to set light to relatively small amounts of wood, and circulate both heat and smoke around a usually central chamber.

They are intensely programmable, so they’re regarded as a ‘set and forget’ technology, like a dishwasher, if a dishwasher, instead of squeaky clean plates delivered you something worth dirtying them for.

Electric smokers tend to come in one of two varieties:

Vertical electric smokers, which cost you less but are very much a summer-only option;

and electric cabinets, which look like many of your other kitchen appliances, like the refrigerator or dishwasher. These will have much better core temperature control, meaning you can use them all year round.

The point about electric smokers is they have exquisite controllability. You can set the temperature and the smoke level inside the smoking chamber, feed them their wood chips, set the timer, and then – in a move widely considered blasphemy among the smoking community – you can go away and do something else.

Many smokers feel this is somehow not quite playing the game. In fairness to their point of view, many of the other forms of smoker would burn to metal death, fall apart or commit smoky suicide if they weren’t constantly regulated by a smokemaster with significant skill in knowing when things were happening, the precise moment when the meat was at its finest, its smoke ring perfectly formed.

Electric smokers, while the flavor they deliver is often more delicate due to the lower temperatures at which they smoke things, mean you don’t have to get in touch with that primal skill of meat cookery in a highly unstable environment. They give you a highly stable environment, and let you have a little bit of extra life doing something else other than staring at dials and smoke plumes and fretting about permeation.

It may not be playing the primal meat-smoking game, but the results of electronic smoking speak for themselves. If you want a more delicate smoky taste, rather than smoke that attacks like a bear, they’re a highly viable option in the 21st century.

Gas Smokers

Most gas smokers look like the kind of safe your school would use for confiscated items.

They’re not, on the whole, pretty to look at. But you can look like a three-headed leprechaun if you do the sorts of things most gas smokers do. They give you gorgeous, succulent smoked meats, and they do it as long as the protein and the gas keep coming.

Beneath the ‘business section’ of the smoker is the power that heats the throne. Usually – as there is at present a significant shortage of conversion kits for natural gas – the heat source is a propane gas burner. Above the burner, there’s a tray for whatever you want to use to provide your smoke – wood chips, wood chunks, or even sawdust.

On the top of the unit, you’ll usually find a chimney or damper – that’s acting as a smoke vent. That’s useful if you don’t want to end up with oversmoked, dry as boot-leather meat in your smoker.

Some people will tell you that gas smokers are the ideal smoker for beginners.

Some people will happily sell you Brooklyn Bridge.

Electric smokers are by far the easiest sort of smoker on which to cut your baby teeth in meat smoking. After them, probably pellet smokers come next, because like electric smokers, you can set their dials and walk away, sure in the knowledge that your meat will smoke while you’re Doing Other Things.

With gas smokers, there’s every possibility that if you ‘set and forget’ your smoker, your gas bottle will run out halfway through, meaning your flame will go out, your smoke will sputter, and your meat will be only poorly smoked at best, and potentially ruined at worst.

Also, gas smokers can be persnickety in terms of parts – they can break relatively easily.

Yes, most hardware stores will have the parts you need to replace them, but you might be surprised how deflating it can be to the mood of a cookout to have your smoker go clang, and the host have to dash to Johnson’s Hardware for a new smoke valve sprocket before the fun times can continue.

Wood Smokers 

So, you think you know all about smoking, eh?

Step right up, young sir, madam, or other (non-binary people love smoked meats too!). If you can smoke a whole brisket by gas with your eyes closed, the smoke is clearly strong in you. That means it’s time to try your hand at wood smoking.

The learning curve when you move up to wood smoking is more or less the same as the learning curve of being thrown off a boat. Steep, cold, filled with panic and the flapping of arms, but ultimately, hugely worth it.

Wood smokers are made of two chambers; the offset chamber, and the cooking chamber. You understand what happens in the cooking chamber. The offset chamber is where you put the wood which is going to do the cooking.

Heated wood produces smoke, smoke will be drawn to lower-smoke environments. The escape route to a lower-smoke environment is the chimney above the cooking chamber, and so the smoke is drawn towards it, passing over the food on the way, and imparting smoky flavor to the meat. Result – wood-smoked meats. 

The trick with wood smokers is that unlike the early, baby-step smokers on which you’ll have become proficient, you need to watch it. You need to worry. The furrow of your brow is part of the magic that makes it work, because the wood needs to be kept at a temperature where it’s hot enough to produce smoke, but not quite hot enough to burst into flame and give you meat-dust.

If you think that this is easy – you’re not ready to take it on.

Pellet Smokers

Pellet smokers are the bright new 21st century kid on the block. And where traditional wood smoking depends on human sweat and worry for its success, pellet smoking is almost as easy as electric smoking, but with an altogether more organic, woodsmoke vibe to the whole thing.

Pellets are made of swept-up sawdust, condensed into a kind of bullet. You store all your pellets in a hopper, set off from the cooking chamber. Pellets go from the hopper to the burn pot, delivered by an augur. If the whole ‘power from sawdust pellets’ thing didn’t do it for you, this is where it gets really clever.  

So set light to the pellets in the burn pot – as with most things in smoking, the clue is in the name. But when the pellets are smoking, a fan kicks in to push both heat and smoker around the cooking chamber.

How does the whole thing not run comically amok? Simple – it’s controlled by a thermostat. The thermostat determines the rate at which pellets are added to the burn pot. When it’s hot enough for the smoke level you select, it stops letting them in.

If you turn the dial for hotter temperatures – more pellets. The thermostat also determined the amount of oxygen needed from the motion of the fan to get the right amount of smoker blowing through the system and over the food. Yes, technically, if your thermostat explodes, what you have is a relatively expensive tin can – but fortunately, it won’t cost you the earth to get the thermostat replaced.

Thermostatic control is important in pellet smokers – everything that happens, everything you can control, amounts to a tweak to the thermostat, or the factors it measures. The lower the temperature in your smoker, the more smoke it’s likely to generate. The more heat, the closer you get to actual ignition and the waste of all that lovely smoke in a brief, bright moment of fire.

That thermostatic control over the level of heat and smoke also means you can ‘set and forget’ your pellet smoker. In some respects, it’s the polar opposite of hardcore wood smoking.

Do you get as strong a smoky flavor from pellets as you get from the likes of wood smoke or charcoal? Many smoking connoisseurs will tell you don’t. Is that the truth, or is it just an expression of the idea that you shouldn’t be able to get the same level of smoke without the same level of sweat?

The jury’s out.

Charcoal Smokers

When you are strong in the ways of the smoke, you can graduate to the upper levels of the craft – to wood smoking, and to charcoal. These are not at all easy ways to smoke meat, but they impart a level of smoky flavor unlike anything else available to you.

Charcoal smokers are generally divided into vertical water smokers and offset dry smokers.

In a vertical water smoker, like the Weber Smokey Mountain, a charcoal heat source heats up a pan of water, which stops the meat from drying out in the smoke and helps maintain the succulence of the protein during the smoking process.

Dry offset smokers have a firebox on one side, a cooking chamber on the other, and a central vent or chimney. The fuel is burned in the firebox, then the chimney pulls both heat and smoke over the meat on its way to the chimney and escapes.

While you get a flavor unlike any other from charcoal smokers, it takes time, skill, and considerable effort to get that flavor and that consistency of smoking. That’s why wood and charcoal smoking are regarded as top-level smoking, only to be attempted when you’ve developed some impressive instincts for the process of smoking.

Smokers By Shape And Form

Just as there are a variety of shapes and types for lots of household appliances, like washing machines (front loader, top loader, etc), so in terms of smokers, their fuel source is not the only differentiating factor.

Let’s take a quick run through the different forms of smokers on the market, so you know what’s what.  

Kamado Smokers (egg-shaped and oval smokers)

Kamado smokers are an updated version of a design that’s been around for centuries. Particularly popular in China and India, they look something like a traditional burial urn or a large egg.

Mostly, they’re made of ceramics, and both their shape and this material make them among the best insulators available. That in turn means they work really well in terms of getting even smoky flavor to all the food you’re smoking.

Even heat radiation and regulated, steady heat make Kamado smokers unhurried, relatively hassle-free smoking options that can keep you smoking even through the winter. If that sounds like an odd thing, imagine glazed home-smoked ham at your Christmas table and tell us we’re nuts.

Recommended Kamado Smoker

If you’re going for a Kamado smoker, you can do a lot worse than:

Primo 774 Ceramic Charcoal Smoker

Available in two sizes, Junior and Large, the Junior version can give you between 210 square inches of standard cooking space and 30 square inches if you deploy rack extensions.

High-quality ceramics will give you decades of even heat and solid service – which is why the ceramic elements of this smoker are warrantied for 20 years. That’s a lot of succulent smoked meat for your money.

Be aware though – this is a charcoal smoker, with all the difficulties and subtleties that entails.

Vertical Smokers

There is little in life less inspiring to look at than a vertical smoker. But looks and performance are two different things, and vertical smokers offer quite a variety of options for smoking your favorite proteins.

With a heat source on the bottom, you put your wood (in either chunk or pellet form) on top, followed by a pan of water – or other liquids, the choice is yours and the choice is almost endless – to give you moist smoke.

Above the liquid pan is where you add the smoking racks, and you cover the whole thing with a lid to get the intense smoking chamber you’re looking for.

They may not look especially impressive, but vertical smokers can get you great results. Be aware – as with most things, you get what you pay for in vertical smokers. The basic set-up is the same everywhere, but make sure you check out the space for wood fuel and the amount of space on each rack so you can get the most smoking action for your vertical buck.

Barrel Smokers

Barrel smokers have a rustic look and were originally cobbled together from steel drums and ingenuity. To this day, they’re usually made from retrofitted drums for that rural chic look.

Racks and hooks hold the food in suspension (the hooks can be handy if you want to smoke sausage), and what the original makers of handmade barrel smokers found was that the drum shape gave an impressively regular temperature, which is great for items with longer cooking times.

You want to break down a brisket and have ribs falling off the bones? Barrel smokers can give you that with remarkably little hassle.

Offset Smokers

Looking like a cross between a wheelbarrow and an early steam engine, offset smokers are an undisputed hit with long-time smoke-fiends. Taking a different approach to most other types, the food is placed in a horizontal chamber, with charcoal and smoke wood in a firebox on the side. 

The cooking chamber has a range of racks that can usually handle even the bigger cuts of meat, like full rib racks and briskets.

To maintain the heat needed to get the best results in these smokers, offset machines are made of thick steel. Be aware when you’re trying to move them, they’re a hernia waiting to happen if you don’t approach them with respect and bent knees. That’s why most of them have wheels attached – to make your smoking life easier, while giving you the hardcore steel smoking you want.

Recommended Offset Smoker

If you’re in the market for an offset smoker, try:

Oklahoma Joe’s Longhorn Reverse Flow Smoker

With a total cooking surface area of 1061 square inches, we’re into serious smoking territory here. It’s a reverse-flow smoker, with a series of four baffles to direct the smoker with a degree of precision that makes for succulent smoked meats practically every time.

A range of smokestack position possibilities also lets you customize the set-up as you want it.

The trademark combination of heavy steel and porcelain-coated grates for ease of cleaning means the Oklahoma Joe’s Longhorn Reverse Flow Smoker could well be all the smoker you’ll need for decades to come.

Kettle Smokers

As you might expect, kettle smokers use direct but distant heat to smoke meat. The heat source is in the bottom, the racks elevated, as in a standard charcoal grill.

The smoking takes hours, and supplies of water help keep the meat moist during the process, helping the smoke to permeate into its fibers. The water also helps to stop the meat from frying on the racks, and instead maintains a low, slow temperature.

Wood chips are added directly on top of the coals across the smoking process. At this point, you can technically add any other ‘flavorings’ you like to the coals, to affect the taste of the smoke that goes into your meat. As such, kettle smokers invite their owners to be creative and find combinations of flavor to add to their smoke.

Recommended Kettle Smoker

If you’re tempted by the simple direct action of a kettle steamer, try:

Nordic Ware 365 Indoor/Outdoor Kettle Smoker

The versatility of this kettle smoker is one of its biggest draws. Outdoors, indoors, round the year smoking in a relatively small space makes the Nordic Ware 365 a winner. As with many kettle steamers, the combination of the water pan, elevated smoking rack, and importantly, the thermometer for heat and smoke control gives you an almost infinite range of options with this machine.

It’s not by any means a ‘set and forget’ operation, but pay this kettle smoker the attention it demands and it will give you succulent smoked meats 365 days a year. Adding to the versatility, you can use this smoker with gas, electric, or outdoor grills.

Handheld Smokers

When is a smoker not a smoker? When you have to hold it by hand and fully smoking a piece of meat would take you half a day?

You’ve seen handheld smokers before, on Top Chef and the like. They’re more infusers than smokers, designed to give a sense of smoke and particularly an immediate hit of smoky flavor to a dish just as you take it to your guests.

You light some smoking material – wood shavings, hay, spices, you name it, go wild and crazy – in a bowl of what looks like nothing so much as a hash pipe. Then a simple battery-powered motor pulls the emerging smoke through a tube and out of the hole in the end. 

Trap the food under a dome or cloche, put your smoking nozzle in with the food, and leave for a few seconds or longer, to give a sense of smoke to your dishes.

Cheating? Oh, absolutely, in terms of full-on smoking. But as a way to give the flavor of smoke without sweating over a charcoal grill for six hours, sometimes, it’s a cheat worth using.

Competition and Commercial Smokers

The more you get into the art of smoking meat, the more the lure of competition becomes irresistible. Be aware though, competition smoking is a whole other ball game – you need more capacity to deal with the demands of the judges, and to get consistent results every time, competition and commercial smokers are usually made of heavy grade steel.

If you’re going to make the leap to competition smoking, remember you also need somewhere to store a bigger, more hardcore smoker between gigs, as well as a way of transporting your uber-smoker to and from events.

Buyer’s Guide.. continued

You’ve seen the range of smokers available, from small-scale Kamado smokers all the way up to commercial and competition machines, from electric, apartment-friendly ‘set and forget’ appliances up to heavy steel offset smoking wheelbarrows.

Condensing all that down into a few handy hints when hovering over the ‘Buy’ button is tricky, but we can break it down for you.

1. Choose Your Terrain

Look at your lifestyle and the kind of smoking you want to do. Indoor? Outdoor? Are you new to smoking, or is this not your first smoky rodeo?

Start smaller and simpler, so the likelihood of lost product is minimized. Smoking is more or less a discipline like any other – you get better at it the more you do it.

Choose a smoker that will fit with your lifestyle, your available space, and the kind of smoking you want to master.

2. Temperature And Time Control

There are plenty of things not to skimp on when it comes to buying your smoker, but more than almost anything else, do not skimp on your heat and time controls. The smoker’s a sealed-off environment.

The only way you know what to do – other than by learned instinct – is by having a top-quality thermometer to tell you what’s happening inside that environment.

And the only way you can affect what goes on in there is by having good controls which are easy to understand, and which make the changes to the smoking environment quickly, so you’re not waiting on the environment to change.

3. Price

We know, it can be difficult when you see the shiny new Smoke-O-Rama 12000 not to get swept away with all the cool things it can do.

Bottom line, if you can afford to drop the cash for the Smoke-O-Rama, go for it. If you can’t – don’t overextend yourself. Smoking meats, like a lot of hobbies, can get compulsive. You can feel like you’re on a journey, and you need to make the next leap as soon as it’s available.

Take a breath. Check your bank account. Check your situation. If you can, buy the smoker you want – we’re not here to make you sad. But if it would be a struggle right now, buy a cheaper smoker this time out and master it.

Chances are, you’ll have just as much fun on the less expensive model, and it will still give you the food of the smoked meat gods. If things change, or if the price of the newest smoker in town comes down over time, you’ll still be there and you can grab yourself a bargain.

Please smoke responsibly.

Sundries and Fixings

We’ve talked a lot about smokers, and only a little about smoke.

The smoke you make will determine the flavor that goes into your meat. So, what are the best and most popular woods to use for smoking?

Oak

Naturally, as with any flavoring, the best wood to use will change depending on what meat you’re using. Like pairing wines with dishes, some woods give smokes more suited to some meats than others.

Oak is a great place to start your smoking career though. Strong but not overpowering, it will boost your brisket and sass up your sausage, but is forgiving enough to add flavor to lamb too, should you decide to go a different route.

Oak is a smoke that feels like an old friend, the one you laugh with, and who’d be there for you in a heartbeat if you called.

Unsurprisingly, it’s enormously popular, especially with those who are new to smoking.

Hickory

Hickory’s a versatile star among smokes – ribs, pork shoulder, most red meats, and even poultry will be well served by a touch of hickory, which dances on the bittersweet line and usually brings a hearty umami note with a touch of bacon. 

One word of warning though. Hickory may dance on the bittersweet borderline, but overdo it, and the bitterness comes to the fore more than you might like. A very versatile smoke, but treat it right or it’ll bite you.

Maple

You almost think you know what maple smoke will taste like – sweet, right?

Well, yes and no. There is an undeniable sweetness to maple smoke, but there’s a subtle musky note to the smoke from Canada’s favorite too, so it gives a gently smoky note to poultry, pork, and game, with the sweetness an up-kick on the palate towards the end.

Not great for stronger red meats, but an intriguing smoke to use on poultry and game.

Mesquite

You’ve seen mesquite around the place, even if you’re new to smoking. It’s often used as a ‘flavor’ in things like corn chips when manufacturers want to give them a smoky vibe without ever actually being smoked.

To be used that way, you have to pack a punch, and mesquite does. That means you need a meat that can stand up to it – bring on all the red meats, which can do a flavor dance with mesquite and come out with everyone as the winner.

Apple

Who knew? Well, smokers did. Applewood, like maple, has a subtlety and a sweetness to it that leads it towards the white meat end of the spectrum – chicken and pork do unusual things when apple-smoked, as do some milder cheeses.

Because it’s a milder smoke, it takes a good long while to get into your meat and have a noticeable effect on the flavor.

Once it’s there though, you won’t mistake it. Not an everyday smoking wood, true, but once in a while – especially with pork – it’s worth putting in the hours of effort to get your apple smoke on.

Alder

One for the fish fans. Too bold and harsh a smoke can make even the hardiest fish inedible. Use alder though and the delicacy of its smoke will bring out the sweetness in the fish flesh and give you something really rather special.

Cherry

Remember we tempted you with smoked ham for your Christmas table?

It seems almost impossibly obvious as a suggestion, but hit that ham with some cherry wood smoke, and you have something glorious on your hands.

If you want to damp down the sweetness of cherry wood, maybe use a cherry-hickory mix, so you have the sweetness, but it’s bolstered by the stronger, more savory flavor.

Tools

Smoking is like any food preparation. You wouldn’t roll out pastry without some sort of rolling pin.

You wouldn’t grab a cookie sheet out of the oven without some sort of mitt unless you’re a super-hardcore chef with asbestos hands.

What are the tools you need to go from newbie to smokemaster?

Long-Handled Spatula

A long-handled spatula is the extension of your arm and hand. You want it to be flexible and strong, and ideally offset, so you can get into places your actual hand can’t go.

Rescue pieces of meat, flip them, move them around the smoker if necessary, with your long-handled spatula. Metal is your friend here, with a dash of silicone on the paddles, to prevent heat damage.

It sounds obvious, but the longer your handle, the better – it helps you get more reach, and it keeps your hands safe from the heat.

Meat Thermometer

What did we tell you about the importance of thermometers in heat control?

That’s equally true when it comes to cooked and smoked meats. Mess this up and people could go home from your cookout riddles with parasites and destined to spend a handful of unpleasant days locked in their bathroom – which is not a reputation you want to get.

Jab your meat thermometer into the thickest part of your smoked meat and make sure you’re up on your safe central temperatures.

Smoke wild and crazy by all means, but always smoke safe. If at all possible, get yourself a fancy wireless meat thermometer – then you can monitor your meat’s core temperature while you’re away doing other things, rather than simply staring at it really hard, willing it to be right.

Grill Brush

Smoking is not in and of itself a game for the prissy. There will be food particles on your grill rack once you’ve smoked some meat.

There may well be juices, and grease, and all kinds of fun stuff. Leave it there too long and the next time you use your smoker, what you have are rogue elements, ready to throw off your temps, your timings, and let’s not forget, this is meat, so also to be probably rank and gross. 

Grill brush to the rescue. Every time you smoke, do the right thing. Take the time, scrub down your racks with a brass-bristled brush, get rid of today’s nasty so tomorrow’s meat can be sweet.

Brass-bristled? Your choice, but we’d go brass over steel. Steel is by its very nature one hard son of a gun. Brush your enamel grates with that Superman floss, you might well be damaging the surface of the grates. Brass is effective, but a touch more mellow about its business.

Long-Handled Tongs

All those good reasons why you need a long-handled spatula? Mm-hmm. See tongs. Grip your meat, turn it, move it – again, while keeping your hands and arms out of the hot zone.

You go after some tender meats with a knife and fork, you’re just asking for it to break apart. And then you will cry.

Nobody likes to see a grown smoker cry. Get yourself a good pair of metal long-handled tongs with silicon insulation and you’re ready to be a meat-flipping fool all day long and into the night if need be.

Grilling Gloves

Remember that cookie sheet you wouldn’t pull out of the oven without mitts? It’s the same with smoking – get some gloves so you can pull whatever you need from the smoking zone, and put it back when necessary. Look for split leather welding gloves.

Overkill?

Spend a couple of hours and a couple of hundred bucks in the ER, and get back to us.

Welding gloves keep the hands on which your livelihood may depend safe from the heat which determines your absolutely kickass smoked meat.

Meat Injector

Controversial, but we’ll go with it. There are smokers and pitmasters who think meat injectors come straight from the brain of Satan, and would rather hang up their apron than use one.

Then there are smokers and pitmasters who take the view that anything that helps get flavor into meat is a gift from the gods, especially if it also helps moisten up the meats which are more prone to drying out – we’re looking at you, Thanksgiving Turkey, don’t try and hide from us.

When it comes to meat injectors, the rule is simple – it’s better to have one and not need it than need one and not have it. Think of it as Smoker’s Viagra – carry it in case, don’t use it unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Bear Paws

This is hot smoked meat we’re dealing with here. Get your bear on.

Ideal for pulling pork while it’s still succulent and juicy and transferring bigger cuts of meat from place to place, having a good set of bear paws means you’re ready to make the most out of your smoker.

Burger Press

Optional, obviously – if you’re not making burgers, you can leave it indoors at home.

You want to stuff some burgers though, grab the press and let’s go.

As with the meat injector, but with much less controversy, have one in case you need one, even if you won’t use it on every smoking session.

Meat Knife

As with the bear paws, if you thought you were getting away without bringing your knives, you may not in fact be ready to use them. Any top-class chef would tell you they’re only as good as their knives.

Make sure you have a good example of all the necessary hardware – boning knives, chef knives, a fillet knife, possibly a cleaver if you’re breaking down bigger rib cages or carcasses before smoking.

Don’t fool around with knives – make ’em sharp, let them do the work for you, and use them with as much skill and focus as you can muster.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Does the size of my smoker matter?

Yes. When it comes to getting genuine hardcore smoky flavor into meats, the bigger you can go, the happier you’ll be.

That’s down to smoke circulation, space to rack your meat, and the difficulty of getting smoke into meat in smaller rigs if you lose wood, temperature control, or focus.

Go as big as you comfortably can for a better result every time you smoke.

  1. How do I tell what’s going on inside my smoker?

The accurate thermometer is your friend.

It’s one of the most important aspects of any smoker, precisely because it’s your eyes and instincts in a closed environment.

Whatever else you compromise on, never skimp on a good thermometer. Do that and you’re genuinely smoking blind.

  1. How do I cope with the wind when I’m smoking?

Ugh, the wind. The wind is a factor for which you can’t plan with anything beyond the usual, highly localized weather apps available to anyone with a smartphone.

Track the wind on your phone. Map it. Plan for it. It’s capricious, and if at all possible, it will find a way to steal heat from your rig. Because the wind hates you and wants you to fail, that’s why.

It’s by no means always possible, but if you can, keep the path of the airflow going through the smoker in the same direction as the wind. Yes, really, that’s about all you can do about the wind.

Well, you can shake your fist at the sky, but the airflow thing is more effective overall.