I have a buddy who is a magician with a smoker (as well as a grill). He’s into his meats and puts on amazing spreads. He smokes all kinds of meats, but his specialty is salmon (we’re British Columbia where there’s plenty of fresh salmon to be had).
It’s absolutely amazing. If you’re into preparing amazing meats, a smoker can be an ideal appliance to buy. But, there are many different types of smokers you can choose from.
We put together this expansive smoker buying guide to help you figure out the many options so you get an idea of which type is best for your needs. Below you discover the types, temperature options, pricing, capacity, grilling combo options, cleaning information, and of course smoker accessories (everything these days has accessory options).
I. Barbecue Smoker Buying Guide
As the name suggests, a smoker is a piece of equipment similar to a grill that cooks meats through the use of smoke. Unlike direct grilling, this is a process that happens slowly and over low heat. As anyone who’s eaten smoked meat knows, during this process, the unique flavor of the smoke (which will differ slightly based on what type of wood you’re using) slowly works its way into the meat and creates delicious meals, unlike any other preparation.
Over the years, a number of different designs have been engineered for ways to smoke meats. All of these designs have their pros and cons, whether its size, temperature control, or price.
Below is a comprehensive list of the different smokers available on the market.
A. Types of Smokers
Each of the smokers that we’re going to discuss here has advantages and disadvantages. These include the heat source, the controls, and the ease of use. Between vertical water smokers, horizontal offset smokers, cabinet smokers, smoker ovens, and drum smokers, there are quite a few options available.
1. Vertical Water Smokers
We’ll start our tour of smokers with one of the simplest models on the market that is often popular with beginners, the vertical water smoker.
Vertical water smokers are usually some of the cheapest available and are often quite simple to operate as well. This makes vertical water smokers ideal for beginners. In addition, vertical water smokers don’t take up much room, making them ideal for those with small amounts of outdoor space.
Let’s take a look:
Vertical water smokers are comprised of three compartments.
The first compartment, located on the bottom level, is the firebox, which is where the heat is generated. This is basically a metal bowl, with a grate at the bottom, and a perforated metal collar. Charcoal is placed in the firebox and lit on fire, along with any wood chips you choose to add for flavor.
The second level up is the water pan. The water pan is the basis for this whole system. As the firebox heats up, the water is heated.
This disperses the heat while also helping to keep the meat from drying out. The third chamber is the smoking chamber. This is the entire top part of the machine, beginning above the water and extended up to where the grill where the meat is placed.
It is from here that the meat gets smoked. The top of the smoking chamber is the lid, which is usually dome-shaped. Because of their size, water smokers are also usually more efficient than other smokers, often weighing less than 50 pounds. In addition, clean-up is typically very easy and can be done using a simple grill brush, garden hose, and some degreaser.
2. Horizontal Offset Smokers
Source: Oklahoma Joe’s
This is the smoker that is preferred by the primaries, those who know what they’re talking about, and people with a real taste for smoked meat. A horizontal offset smoker, which is sometimes referred to as an offset, is a two-part smoker. The cooking chamber is usually a long metal or grated chamber with grillwork inside to hold the meat.
This chamber usually has a lift door or a smokestack to let out excess smoke. The second part is the firebox, which is attached to one of the ends of the cooking chamber. The firebox has either a top or side access door as well as a fire vent.
Once your wood chips or charcoal is lit, the smoke that’s generated in the firebox then travels through the cooking chamber, where it does its work on the meat, and then the smoke flows out of the cooking chamber and out through the smokestack. While you’re smoking, you can adjust the temperature as well as the flow of the smoke by fiddling with the exhaust and intake vents. When using an offset smoker, it is wise to rotate the meat, as the end of the grill closest to the smoke will be hotter than the far end.
One of the advantages is that you can refill the chips or charcoal without opening the cooking chamber. Another advantage is that you can use it as a grill as well, simply by installing a grate above the firebox. As these offset smokers are the gold standard within the industry, you can spend a pretty penny on them.
Well-constructed units can cost anywhere between 1000 and 5000 dollars. You may also check: How to Dehydrate Fruits, Vegetables, and Meats (Food Preservation)!
3. Box Smokers
Box smokers, which are also known as cabinet smokers, vault smokers, and block smokers are essentially tall boxes with a cooking chamber inside of them. This means that, unlike offset smokers, the smoke source is located right inside the box along with the meat. Because of the simplicity of the design, the main difference that you’ll find between inexpensive box smokers and those at the top of the line is the insulation that’s used.
Cheaper models will let heat escape, whereas more expensive models will keep all of it inside, infusing your meat with that deliciousness. One of the features to look for in a higher-quality box smoker is the ability to reload the firebox without opening the door. These top models will also have computer controls and a meat probe, which will keep the temperature steady without you having to maintain it by hand.
4. Electric Smokers
There are a few advantages to electric smokers, such as the ability to set your temperature before you start and not have to check it throughout the process. The major downside of electric smokers is perhaps the most important, which is that the flavor suffers. Not that you’ll make food that tastes bad, but compared to meats that are smoked by charcoal, wood, or pellets, there’s almost no comparison.
Essentially, since there is no combustion happening, the smoke tastes much different than it does with charcoal or wood. The most noticeable difference is that with electric smokers, you don’t get the “smoke ring,” which is that layer of pink meat just below the surface that connoisseurs of barbecue will look for in smoked meats.
5. Drum Smokers
Drum smokers, which are also known as UDSs, which is the abbreviated version of “ugly drum smokers” are a Do-It-Yourself project made out of steel drums.
The chief benefits of a UDS are simplicity and cost. If done right, you can build your own ugly drum smoker for about $100. Despite the low cost, these have been known to create world-class smoked meat, and even regularly take-home awards at BBQ competitions. This is the least complex design that we’ll be looking at today in that the meat will be cooking from the direct heat coming off of the firebox below it.
In fact, other than the firebox and the grate where the meat gets placed, there’s not much to these smokers. Basically, as the smoke rises, it escapes through a vent at the top, and as the fire burns, it pulls in heat through a vent at the bottom. The more air you allow to enter, the hotter your flames will burn.
One of the downsides to using a UDS is that it makes the temperature more difficult to control, and for certain types of meat, an ugly drum smoker will not be ideal.
6. Smoker Ovens
The difference between a smoker oven and the rest of the models featured here is the amount of control you have over the temperature. These appliances often have computer controls and temperature probes, which makes them easy for barbecue non-experts to use. In addition, you can leave the smoker oven while you do other things or go to work, and come back to smoked meat.
By design, these are basically heavily insulated boxes with a heating element at the bottom. Once the wood chips have been placed in the box, they’ll heat up, and the smoke will rise through a funneled piece of metal which prevents the meat from being exposed to direct heat, as well as keeping the heating elements clean, and keeping the grease from starting a fire. These are what we’re referring to when we talk about electric smokers.
7. Kamado Grills
Source: Kamado Joe
The Kamado grill originally comes to us from Japan, and gets its name from the Japanese word for “stove,” “cooking range,” or originally, “place for the cauldron.” The Kamado grill as we know it today is Ceramic-shelled (although there are metal and clay versions too) but is based on a 3,000-year-old design, from a time when these stoves were originally made from clay. The best-known Kamado grills in the U.S. are those made by the Big Green Egg company, which is based in Georgia and has been around since the 1970s.
The signature characteristic of these grills is how well insulated they are, and the way their ceramic construction makes them exceptionally good at holding steady temperatures. If you adjust the vents to get the temperature just right, you can get these grills to smoke your meat at the slow pace and low temperature that’s required without too much tending.
8. Pellet Grills
An incredible innovation in the grill marketplace, pellet grills burn pellets that are shaped from sawdust. Using a digital thermostatic controller, the grill will adjust the number of pellets it drops from an automatic hopper into the firepot according to the temperature in the grill and the setting you’ve chosen. Many pellet grills being manufactured now will also include probes to tell you the internal temperature of your meat.
An even fancier innovation is the ability to control temperatures remotely from your smartphone or tablet.
Because of the technology involved, these grills are going to be more expensive than many of the other smokers on our list, but the amount of control they give you may well be worth it.
B. What to Look for When Shopping for a Smoker:
You can spend anywhere from $100 to $26,000 on a backyard smoker, so before you get too enamored with the look or features of a smoker, it’s wise to decide what you want to spend. It can be easy to get carried away when you see a toy that looks fun to play with, but you can also get a number of quality products from within a variety of price ranges.
2. Temperature Control
One of the most important features to look for in a smoker is the ability to easily control your temperature. There are a few models which have digital temperature control, especially pellet grills, but for many, you’ll have to control the temperature yourself and consistently check the temperature of your meat. If you picture the experience of using your smoker, do you want to be checking it every hour?
Or would you rather be able to set the temperature and forget about it until it’s done? Depending on the type of experience you want to have, you’ll be looking at very different smokers.
Before you purchase a smoker, you also need to think about how much room you have to situate it. Do you have a giant back porch to work with? Or a tiny side patio?
Remember, when considering this, that you’ll also need some room around it to maneuver, to check your temperature and your meats, and a little bit of breathing room so that you’re not setting your house (or anything else!) on fire. Also, anytime you’re dealing with flames, it helps to be conscious of airflow, so you’ll want to budget some room in for that as well, making sure you’ve left room for your flames to breathe, and your beautiful smoke to form.
Something else to consider before you purchase a smoker is exactly how much you plan on using it. What kinds of occasions will you want to fire it up for? How many people will you be feeding on your smoker?
And how much meat will you want to smoke at once? If you rarely entertain at home and will only be using it for yourself or small gatherings, you won’t need nearly as much room as if you’re the host of an annual 4th of July celebration and want to invite the entire neighborhood over for your signature smoked brisket.
5. But Can It Grill?
Although smoking is arguably the most delicious way to prepare your meat, there are times when you don’t have time, or simply want to make some burgers or a steak on the grill. Many of the smokers we talk about here can be easily transformed into grills by removing the water pan or adding a grate above the firebox. Before you buy, think about whether you want your smoker to be your grill as well, and vice versa.
6. Does it Have a Drip Pan?
All meats are going to drip fats and juices as they cook, and because gravity exists inside your smoker, that fat has got to end up somewhere. In certain cases, you’re going to want to keep those juices so that you can turn them into a delicious sauce or gravy to serve with your meat. Other times you’re just going to want to dispose of them as easily as possible.
In many cases, the water pan (if your smoker has one) will double as the drip pan, but make sure that you know where those juices are going. You may also like: 17 Different Types of Food Thermometers!
7. Is it easy to clean?
As far as the exterior goes, cleaning your smoker is optional, depending on how good you want it to look. What’s not optional is cleaning the interior. As we’ve established, a fair amount of juices and fats will drop from your meat as it’s cooking, and although a drip pan will catch some of this, there will inevitably be leftover goodies on the inside, especially as you’ll be smoking your meats for hours upon hours at a time.
Before you buy, take a look at how much of the inside is removable. Grates and grills, fireboxes and water pans will all come out, but with smokers that use electricity, hosing out the inside isn’t always an option. Think about how much time you’re willing to spend cleaning your smoker before you decide on which one is right for you.
C. Additional Smoker Accessories
When purchasing a smoker, you’ll also want to think about what other gear you need in order to make your smoking experience successful, convenient, and delicious. Here is a list of some additional accessories that will augment your experience.
1. Meat Thermometer
The key to great smoking is to get a consistent temperature going and keep it there for a long time. In order to monitor the temperature inside your smoker as well as inside your meat, having a quality thermometer is essential. Like many home appliances, many of these are going wireless and can be monitored without you having to stand next to your smoker constantly checking it.
Another accessory that will help augment your smoking experience is a solid pair of tongs. For anyone who’s going to handle meat, you know that you want a combination of tongs that are long enough to keep your hands safe (ideally 16” or so) and sturdy enough to handle even large pieces of meat such as brisket.
3. Heat Resistant Gloves
While you’re handling all of that delicious smoked barbecue, it’s important that you keep your hands safe from burns. Whether you’re handling your chimney fire starter or need to retrieve a fallen piece of chicken, it’s best to do it with your hands safely inside a pair of heat-resistant gloves.
4. Grill Brush
Although the cooking (not to mention the eating) is really the fun part of the smoking experience, it’s always important to keep your equipment clean. All of the juicy drippings that collect inside your smoker can cause problems if they’re not cleaned out after you cook. A solid wire grill brush is the only way to make sure that you’re ready to go the next time you decide you want to smoke.
5. Chimney Fire Starter
Getting your fire going to the point where you’re ready to cook is not as easy as it sounds. Neither quick-start charcoal nor lighter fluid is helpful because the taste of lighter fluid is not one of the flavors you want in your meat. The best way to get your fire started is by stacking your charcoal into a chimney fire starter on top of some old newspaper and waiting for the flames to get going.
Once your charcoal is hot, go ahead and dump it into your smoker’s firebox. Now you’re ready to smoke. You may also check: 10 Different Types of Basters!
6. Bear Claws
Our last accessory may seem like a luxury, but if you’ve ever wondered what does the “pulling” in pulled pork, here is your answer. A sturdy pair of bear claws will shred up pork or chicken to a perfect texture and you can also use them for holding meat while you carve or slice it.
II. Where to Buy a Smoker Online
We hope that this guide to types of smokers has been useful and you feel prepared to go out and make your purchase. While looking at smokers in person is preferable (and more fun!), here is a list of online retailers where you can shop for or buy the smoker of your choice: