Great tasting BBQ begins with a well-designed smoker. In this article we explain what makes a good smoker and then present our five best buys based on performance and cost. Click here to jump down to the winners and their reviews.
If you have experience with smokers and you want to make the case for your favorite smoker to make our ‘Affordable Smoker’ list, leave a comment below. We’ve been known to purchase and test smokers based on our readers’ experiences and feedback from manufacturers.
So, you’ve been smoking meat on your backyard grill for a while, but now it’s time to upgrade to a real smoker. You just don’t have a lot of money to drop on one.
Fear not, Meat Geeks – there are still some great smokers that you can snag for under $500.
$500 is a doable amount for most people, giving you your pick of reliable and quality-built smokers. Some of our top picks cost half that, while yielding a great tasting smoky piece of meat that is no different than what you would get from smokers that cost three times as much.
Here are our lean, mean, smoking machines. We break down what we like, don’t like, and everything you need to know when looking for the best smoker for your money.
How to Buy a Smoker / How We Chose
5 Things To Look For In A Budget Smoker to Avoid A Poorly Designed One
If you’ve never had your own dedicated smoker before, how do you know what you need in one – and what style to get? Drum Smoker, offset, pellet smoker? We selected our favorite smokers under $500 based on how each accomplished the basics we look for in a quality meat smoker. These are:
1. Build Quality and Design:
A good smoker must be heavy-duty, durable and well-sealed to keep heat and air in. Most quality smokers are built from steel and have either a powder-coating or enamel for protection against rust, rain and high heat. The enamel on the Pit Barrel Cooker and Weber Smokey Mountain particularly good, and the steel build to be tough-as-nails.
2. Consistent Temperatures:
If a smoker can’t hold a low-and-steady ambient smoking temperature, it’s no good. For beginners, you want a consistent, smooth 225°F to 250°F, and you want it all day long. Smoker design, choice of fuel, construction, seal, and air intake, all play a role in how well a smoker can maintain consistent temperatures. For example, drum and bullet smokers make for smoother cooking than offset smokers.
Of our 5 picks, the Pit Barrel Cooker and the Weber Smokey Mountain were once again the top dogs. The Pit Barrel Cooker ran a bit hotter than 225°F but burned consistently and ended up cooking meat a lot faster than most low-and-slow smokers. The Camp Chef DLX also performed well, by virtue of its pellet smoker design. The Dyna Glo was the least consistent, as it doesn’t seal as well (but it’s under $300).
3. Size and Cooking Area:
If you’re smoking meat all day long, you might as well smoke a ton of it – especially when the whole family is coming over. Small cooking grates are gonna throw a wrench in those plans, so unless you plan on traveling often, make your first smoker one with plenty of space.
The affordable Char-Broil Vertical Gas Smoker was the winner here, with its impressive 595 square inches of cooking area spread out over 3 stacked racks. The Camp Chef DLX came in second, with 540 square inches. The Pit Barrel Cooker makes up for its smaller cooking area with the ability to hang slabs of meat. The Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett had the least of all, with only 219 square inches – making it best saved for portable meat smoking-on-the-go.
We wouldn’t be here if price wasn’t a factor, after all. We evaluated our top smoker picks based on how much they cost, relative to both each other and higher-end competition. At $349 shipped, the Pit Barrel Cooker was the clear winner when considering quality, reliability and ease-of-use, but all our picks stacked up well. If you’re on a serious budget, the Char-Broil Vertical Smoker was the absolute cheapest.
5. Smoke Flavor and Final Meat Results:
In the end, it’s all about the meat. All the smokers we picked made some juicy, soft barbecue when cooked low-and-slow. Since electric smokers tend to come up short when it comes to flavor, none of them made our top 5. The Pit Barrel Cooker easily had the smokiest flavor and best bark, thanks to its hanging-meat design. As a pellet grill, the GMG Davy Crockett had the lightest smoke.
1. Winner, Pit Barrel Cooker by Pit Barrel Cooker Co.
Note: The Pit Barrel Cooker is not sold on Amazon, beware of generic drum smoker knock-offs.
Our top pick for The Best Smoker under $500 is the Pit Barrel Cooker (AKA PBC).
This pre-assembled Ugly Drum Smoker (UDS) nails everything that Meat Geeks are looking for in a smoker:
- it’s easy to use
- holds a consistent smoking temperature for hours on end
- makes perfect juicy tender barbecue, faster
- and is super affordable
- $349 shipped to your door
Sweet, Efficient Design and Build
As a UDS, the PBC known for simplicity and smooth heat. But at a 30-gallon drum size, it’s way smaller than the classic 55-gallon UDS; that’s because the narrower width and height are the perfect smoking environment. It’s compact size and effective design make it the best barrel smoker we’ve used. The Pit Barrel Cooker Co. refers to PBC as the “Original Vertical Smoker”. A vertical design allows for a convection style cook, with heat, smoke, and flavors evenly circling around the meat.
The difference is in the science. In a well designed barrel smoker, a vortex of heat circulates the meat evenly, even the meat closest to the coals cooks in unison with the meat at the top.
The newest model is made from an 18-gauge steel with a heavy-duty enamel coating. It feels solid and ready to go right out of the box, it doesn’t need seasoning. The enamel coating is the same type used on that old Weber grill sitting out on your back porch (or shown in the above image) and those can last practically forever.
Assembly takes less than 5 minutes (see our video review below). Just unpack it, slide in the charcoal tray, hanging rods or grate, and screw the handle onto the lid, place it on the stand. You’re off to the barbecue races.
Hanging Slabs: Even Cooking All The Way Around
The ability to hang meat for cooking is one of the best parts of the PBC. It comes with stainless steel meat hooks that hang from the two metal rods, placing briskets, shoulders, ribs and or birds right in the center of the convection heat.
This way, they cook evenly on all 4 sides – and the results are off-the-charts good. Hanging slabs of meat directly over the coals also means juices can drip directly on that hot fire, creating more smoke and an ultra-meaty flavor.
The PBC also includes a grill grate for smoking and grilling, and they even sell a hinged grate for hanging and grilling at the same time.
Ease-of-Use and Consistency: Smoking in Action
The Pit Barrel Cooker is easy to fire up. Fill the charcoal tray up with high-quality charcoal, light some in a charcoal chimney, and dump it on top. Put the meat on and you’re ready to go; the charcoal will burn slowly while keeping a steady temperature.
The PBC usually runs hotter than the classic 225˚F – usually about 255˚F for us. This could be due to how much air is coming into the vents or how much charcoal was lit. Either way, meat comes out finished much quicker than usual; a 16-pound brisket can take about 6 hours – that’s about half what it takes at 225˚F.
Still, the high heat doesn’t affect the final product much; briskets come out just as juicy and delicious, and with the perfect amount of smoke flavor and nice smoke ring. The kind of BBQ Meat Geeks are after.
Our Video Review:
At $349, the Pit Barrel Smoker is well under $500 – and practically a steal. It also made our Best Gifts for Grillers list.
It’s super simple and easy to set up and use, holds a consistent temperature for hours on end (even if it does burn a little hot) and creates juicy, tender barbecue every time. It can also cook a side of ribs or an entire brisket in no time.
We love it – and recommend it as the Best Smoker under $500.
2. Weber Smokey Mountain 18” Smoker
The Weber Smokey Mountain is the bullet smoker counterpart to the Pit Barrel Cooker’s UDS design. It’s also the oldest, and most well-known smokers on our list; Weber introduced the first model back in 1981, and they’ve garnered quite a loyal following in the meantime.
We like the Smokey Mountain because it holds a steady temperature for hours on end, is easy to use, and is built like a tank. It makes some finger-licking good barbecue, too.
Build and Design: Rock Solid Weber Reliability
The Weber Smokey Mountain is a bullet smoker. It burns charcoal and has a cylindrical “bullet” shape and domed lid, which are perfect for even cooking – just like a UDS.
Bullet smokers also have water pans in the middle; adding a layer of water helps regulate temperature and acts as a barrier between the hot coals and the food. This helps keep temps low and steady by letting heat radiate instead of hitting food directly and adding moisture.
You can pour water into the pan from the top beforehand, or you can add more through the large access door in the front while smoking. There are two dampers – one at the bottom and one on the lid. The top damper is usually left open to let smoke vent, and the bottom is used to control how hot the fire burns.
Build quality itself is rock-solid. The porcelain enamel finish is tough as nails and we think it will last decades of heavy use. The legs are solid steel and have an aluminum heat shield for protecting whatever you stand the smoker on.
Consistent Temps and Long Cooking Times.
The Smokey Mountain is a pro at keeping a low-and-steady temperature for hours on end. Temps run a bit lower than the Pit Barrel Cooker; while the PBC usually ran between 250˚F and 260˚F, we can easily keep the Smokey Mountain at right about 225˚F.
With the right amount of water and fuel, you can keep that temperature all day – for 12 to 14 hours, which is long enough for most briskets or roasts.
Since the Smokey Mountain doesn’t run as hot as the Pit Barrel Cooker, it takes longer to smoke the same pieces of meat. But the food comes out just as good, which is the whole point.
The Smokey Mountain is easy to get setup and maintain during cooking. To light, you simply add charcoal to the bottom portion before cooking and use a charcoal chimney to start it – just like the PBC.
But it also has that large access door in the front, which makes adding more charcoal or water super easy. Cleaning everything up is quick and easy, too, as all the grates are stainless steel.
Large Cooking Space
The 18” Smokey Mountain has two grates with a combined 481 square inches of cooking area. If smoking vegetables, stick those on top.
Other Things We Like/Don’t Like
- The door on the front doesn’t seal well, letting lots of heat and smoke escape. There are aftermarket doors available if that’s a problem.
- The bi-metal thermometer in the lid is unreliable and inaccurate. Weber put a silicone grommet on the side so you can easily place a thermometer probe for reading temps.
- You can’t always fit full racks of ribs on a single grate.
We love the Weber Smokey Mountain. The 18” model maintains a perfect 225˚F all day long, there’s plenty of cooking space for smoking anything, and the quality and craftsmanship is pure Weber. Asking price is just a little bit more than the Pit Barrell Cooker, but it’s still well under $500. A worthy competitor to the PBC.
3. Camp Chef PG24DLX Pellet
The Camp Chef PG24DLX makes our list as our favorite pellet smoker under $500. It is a mid-sized pellet smoker that cooks up real good barbecue with ease, thanks to an intelligent temperature control, automatic pellet hopper and tons of cooking space. It compares favorably to a Traeger but costs a lot less.
Design and Heavy-Duty Build
The Camp Chef DLX looks like a classic pellet smoker: half gas grill, half offset smoker. It is the best smoker grill combo on our list. Built from heavy-gauge steel, it clocks in at hefty 140 pounds – so isn’t the most portable smoker, but it does have two wheels for moving around the deck.
On the left is a large pellet hopper, with an automatic auger feeding pellets to the firebox automatically according to the temp settings you’ve selected. The 18-pound pellet capacity can last entire smoke – twice the capacity of the portable Davy Crockett. There’s a handy trap-door if you need to empty the hopper anytime.
Digital Temperature Control and Automatic Features
The Camp Chef has a digital temperature control on the hopper to set and control ambient temperature. You can use the dial to select pre-set temperature notches from 175˚F to 500˚F, as well as “Shutdown”, “Feed”, “High”, “Lo Smoke”, and “Hi Smoke,” modes which have precise temperature and pellet auger timing settings.
The dial controller monitors both ambient grill temperature and internal meat temperature (a stainless-steel meat probe is included) and displays both on the LED screen, which we like; it’s nice to see how everything is going with just a glance.
There have been some complaints from people who can’t get the DLX to cook consistently, with large temperature swings and problems with the auger feeding properly. So that is something to watch out for – perhaps a quality control issue, considering the DLX’s entry-level price tag.
But most people have no problems, and from our testing – we have faith in the Camp Chef to get the job done.
Easy Ash-Cleanout System
Cleaning grills and smokers can be messy, but not with the Camp Chef. Just pull the lever on the right-hand side, and all the ash empties into a basket that you can shake into the trash can. Quick and easy! We love it.
Large Cooking Area
The main rack packs 429 sq. in. of cooking space, and another 141 sq. in. on the top rack for a total of 540. That’s enough for a couple of large briskets or pork butts as well as several racks of short ribs, and almost as much as the Char-Broil vertical smoker below.
Mild Smoke Flavor
Pellet grills aren’t known for creating lots of smoke or a strong smoke flavor. The Camp Chef is no different; it creates a light – but consistent – amount of smoke that gives meats a mildly smoky flavor. That’s neither good nor bad – some people like heavy smoke more than others.
While we don’t normally post promo videos, we thought this one did a good job showing off the product first hand:
Other Things We Like/Don’t Like
- It’s heavy – and kind of a bear to move on your own, even with wheels.
- We think insulation could be better. The grill-and-lid design means there are some places where heat can escape, which can cause temperature fluctuations on very windy, cold days.
- Being able to collect grease in a drip bucket is really nice and makes clean up easy.
The Camp Chef PG24DLX is a fantastic pellet smoker for the price, which usually hovers at just under $500. Pellet smokers are the closet thing you’re gonna get to an automatic, set-it-and-forget barbecue solution, and the Camp Chef DLX certainly doesn’t disappoint.
It’s built like a tank, has an intuitive and easy-to-use temperature controller, automatic auger and built-in thermometers, and a large hopper for cooking all day. That’s why it’s easily the best pellet grill under $500.
4. Dyna-Glo Vertical Offset Charcoal Smoker
This is the only offset smoker that is part of our value group. First off, this is not really an introductory product for smoking, you should know your way around smoking meat to move into this. If you do, this may be the best smoker for the money for you.
Tough Build, Simple Design
At 124 pounds this is no lightweight item. It is also very spacious, with over 1300 square inches of cooking space. Being that large, the steel is spread a little thinner instead of being built like a tank. Perhaps it won’t be an heirloom you pass along, but getting a decade of regular use seems likely. The details are part of what makes this a nice product; wire wrapped handles, large wheels for moving about, pre-installed hooks for sausage and such, along with other features. Seeing thoughtful design components in this price range is refreshing.
Quintuple layered Cooking Space
That’s right, five layers of cooking. They are all removable so all that flat space is easily converted to vertical space, as in enough to smoke the entire carcass of some critters. At 17 inches in diameter, you could fit most whole briskets or racks of ribs on each shelf. Our view is if you are going to fire it up, you might as well cook a bunch.
How It Performs
The biggest trade off to this smoker is that it does require some attention during the smoking process. It has a good firebox. This will also work as a small grill if needed.
However if you remove that grill, you now have a monster firebox. Obviously you can’t pack it for a 12 hours smoke, but for adding lump style charcoal or wood, it doesn’t get much easier. You do need to stoke it a bit higher than you may expect, as is the nature of offset smokers.
Other Things We Like/Don’t Like
- A number of folks didn’t think it sealed well, and they are not really wrong. You can buy a gasket kit that will seal it up tight, or just understand that it may add to cook times and fuel usage.
- The slide out fuel drawer also makes clean up and ash removal easier
- • Offset style allows for easy low temperature smoking
If you are ready for the next step in pit smoking, this is a great product. If you already have that skill level, this will allow you to show off, and do it with a large amount of cooked food in one session. It is still a value product, only time will tell if that shows up to diminish longevity, but it seems to deliver for the price point.
5. Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett Pellet
The Davy Crockett from Green Mountain Grills is a compact, WiFi-capable pellet, and the best of the limited budget pellet grill selection. If the Camp Chef is still out of your price range, go for the Davy Crockett. It’s totally portable, so you can smoke (and grill) all your favorite meats at the tailgate or the campsite.
Compact, Lightweight Design
This the first reason the Davy Crockett catches most people’s eye; it’s only 31” high, weighs 68 pounds (half that of the Camp Chef), and stands on folding legs that double handles so you can easily move it around the backyard or throw it in the trunk to go wherever you do. Set it up on the back of the truck for the best tailgate food you’ve ever made. It’s built from a combo of steel and stainless-steel parts to cut down on weight.
The only downside to the compact size is the lack of cooking space – only 219 sq. in. But it’s a trade-off; there’s enough room for about 2 racks of ribs, two roasts or 4-6 steaks.
Smart, WiFi-Ready Digital Temp Control
The Davy Crockett has a precise and easy-to-set digital temperature controller on the pellet hopper, and an integrated thermal sensor called Sense-Mate, which monitors the grill’s ambient temperature. Temperature adjusts in 5˚F increments from 150˚F to 550˚F and GMG includes meat probe for monitoring how close food is to completion.
Standard pellet smoker stuff, but the Davy Crockett also connects to WiFi – and it’s not just a gimmick. You can monitor and adjust those temp settings from your phone. Smoking meat just got a heck of a lot easier; you don’t even need to get off the couch to keep things burning smoothly. Server Mode connects through the cloud so you can monitor from far away.
Automatic Hopper For Hands-Off Cooking
Like the Camp Chef, the Davy Crockett has a pellet hopper with automatic auger, working with the auto temp control to feed pellets directly into the firebox and keep the fire burning smoothly. The hopper only holds 9 pounds versus the Camp Chef’s 18, so it doesn’t last all day.
Smoke, Grill, Sear: Versatile Cook Surface
Don’t want to spend the day smoking and just want to grill up a few burgers or sear up some steaks? GMG has you covered; just crank the Davy Crockett up all the way and get to it; it’s as good a grill as it is a smoker. Another reason to take it camping with you.
Other Things We Like/Don’t Like About The Davy Crockett
- It needs to be plugged in to run. That goes for all pellet grills of course. The good news is you can power it with your car from the accessory socket (cigarette lighter) via 12V, or 120AC.
- Since it’s a pellet grill, it doesn’t create the strongest, smokiest flavor. You may not care.
- Green Mountain Grills includes a 2-year warranty.
Sure, it’s not as big as the Camp Chef, but the Davy Crockett is cheaper, portable, smartphone-connected and just as good as smoking meat. If you want a reliable pellet grill well under $500, go for this one.
Smoker VS Grill
As we’ve discussed before, you can make a great smoker out of your charcoal grill. The charcoal makes it easy to produce smoke and maintain a low temperature. The design of these grills, assuming it has a lid, can capture and hold the smoke, but a grill needs constant hand-holding.
One common problem with a charcoal grill is space. When you set up your grill as a smoker, the meat rests on half of the grill, away from direct heat, therefore, half of your grate space must remain empty. There are limits to what you can smoke, if you want more than one rack of ribs or if you have a large roast you won’t be able to use your grill.
Another problem with grill smokers is temperature control. Maintaining a low and steady temperature takes a lot of time. You need to check your grill every 30 minutes to make sure the fire is still burning between the ideal temperature of 225 – 250 degrees. Smoking foods is about maintaining a precise temperature for a duration – babysitting a grill can get old pretty quick.
Finally, while a grill works fine, all meat geeks agree a smoker produces better meat. The flavor is stronger because a smoker can capture, hold and circulate the smoke more efficiently. The smoke ring is evidence of that, meat cooked in a grill has a much lighter and thinner ring than meat out of a smoker.
Gas Grills Don’t Cut The Mustard
If you only have a gas grill, then you definitely need a smoker. The mechanics of gas grills do not make for a good smoker. They are designed to pump heat through the chambers, reaching high temperatures; not what you want when smoking. In addition, the air flow rate is high which makes capturing the smoke difficult. Without making adjustments and ongoing monitoring, smoking on a gas grill will dry out your meat.
We hope this guide has been helpful in pointing you in the right direction for a smoker you can count on without breaking the bank.