There are good reasons why the electric smoker is a viable niche in the equipment market. Our view is also that they are especially good as an introduction to smoking meats, and that is how we are approaching this project. The market keeps growing with alternatives to get that smoking goodness applied to meats, veggies, cheese, and more. Is there really a place for all the categories? Of course, the answer is yes and no.
The cheapest way to smoke is with a metal container for the heat and a tube to another container to capture the smoke surrounding the food. Dead fridge, old file cabinet, a sturdy wood crate, DIY it together with metal ducting and you’re there. Light a fire, add wood as needed, and repeat. An insulated box, an electric element and a thermostat steps the game right into the niche for electric smokers.
Why an electric smoker?
The first favorable aspect of these devices is that they utilize actual wood, in chip or small chunk form. This offers you results closer to the pro using full chunk split hardwood and fruit woods or coarse sawdust. Nothing against pellets, they offer a different set of attractive features, but with this you get to use a natural consistent product.
Electric smokers offer a pretty good value
to provide all the smoke and flavor that you want,
contained in a small package,
with a degree of set and forget thrown in.
The variables we’ve found are temperature ranges, insulation values, device accuracy, simplicity of operation, ease of clean up, and more. We’ll examine those characteristics in detail for you and bring you our favorite buys under $500.
Buyers guide for electric smokers
There are some specific things we like to see in the products we use. In this case, stainless steel is the first thing. It doesn’t have to be throughout, but definitely the removable components; drip tray, water dish, wood firebox and bottom tray. Porcelain clad is a close second. What we are looking for is ease of clean up. No matter how you slice it, smoking can be an inherently messy process, better surfaces clean easier.
The material for the shelving is pretty consistent at chromed or stainless steel, occasionally porcelain clad. The other thing we like is flexibility with the shelving. Sometimes you’re going to fill the box with one turkey, two shelves of whole chicken, 3 shelves with briskets, four shelves with slabs of ribs…you get the point. You can do more with the compact unit if you can arrange it to fit your needs.
How much wood can it accommodate, how it is loaded and how fast is it consumed; the most practical set of questions when you are shopping for an electric smoker. If you have to open the door every 45-60 minutes to replenish the chips, it makes a good consistent smoke temp much harder. Conversely, hours of smoke from one load, or a wood chip delivery system that keeps the chamber sealed up gets you better results.
The other big factor is how you control the device. More information is better, if it is accurate. This can be a quandary, because if you set it to 225 degrees and it is 40 degrees off that is a big variation. If you have a color coded or low-med-high type settings there is a learning curve associated with translating that to usable temperatures.
Best Electric Smokers
| Char-Broil Deluxe|
| PIT BOSS Analog Smoker|
| Masterbuilt MB20071117|
| Bradley Smoker Original|
| Cuisinart COS-330|
Char-Broil is a brand we are familiar with and think favorably toward both because they make solid products, and have a track record spanning almost 75 years. This smoker is another example, although there are some aspects where they come close, but could do better.
For starters, we like legs on our smokers, unless you have a stable heat resistant raised surface for the device. This unit does not have legs, but they do offer a base stand, which pushes pricing toward the top end of the smokers we are reviewing here.
Offering a mixed result, you get four shelves, and four fixed brackets on which to use them. You don’t get much flexibility, but you do have options by leaving shelves in or out depending on the dimensions of your smoked product. At over 700 square inches, this is toward the top end in usable space.
It has a glass door and a solid latch closure. Glass is another mixed blessing. It can be just another thing to keep clean, and for a cooking process measured in hours it is not really essential. The entire unit is well insulated and has a sturdy feel to it. The interior pieces disassemble easily for cleanup, and for setting up again. The wood chip box is a nice size rated for 4-7 hours of smoke per load, the best of the group, although you have to open the door to refill it.
We love the approach of the digital controls, and the fact that there is an included food thermometer that integrates to your cooking parameters. You can set the device to respond to the internal temperature of your meat for instance, and once that temp is reached the smoker will drop to a holding temperature of 120 degrees. Two factors come in to play on this. First, the accuracy of the temperature monitoring system; we found it to have some variations. Secondly, when in this mode the only thing you see displayed is the current meat temp and the target temp. It does not show you the chamber temperature. As a result you are trusting the device to give you a low and slow cooking process. A better chip that could process and display both aspects of temperature would be nice.
- Easy digital controls
- Integrated thermometer
- Solid build
- Good wood chip capacity
- No legs or wheels
- Controls too simple
- Temperature discrepancies
For over twenty years Pit Boss has been steadily building a name in the smoking appliance industry. We wanted to take a closer look at this model because it fits well with the idea of entering the smoker category. In spite of the fact that it is a bright blue, we found a lot to like about this smoker.
The not great things about this smoker start with temperature range. It says it will go 150-325°F. It probably does, although getting there will take a long long time. Since most smoking is done at 225°F, this may not be a big deal. It certainly means that you will want to allow for a solid pre-heat cycle to get to temperature for better results.
On the topic of temperature, like many integrated units, the thermometer is of questionable accuracy. It’s big and easy to read right there on the front of the cabinet. We are always concerned about all the temperatures surrounding our smoking process, so this was not too daunting because we used other devices to verify internal and ambient temperatures.
For wood consumption, this unit hits slightly better than average for the amount of time per load of chips. Since you can also load more chips from the outside, without opening the door, the system is more efficient when you consider the loading process.
Another is plus is the completely adjustable shelving. The rails that hold the racks can be moved, or just removed, allowing for excellent flexibility. A side benefit is that with the rails off, cleanup is easier, both wiping down the walls and cleaning the rails in a sink. We also like legs on the device, with wheels in this case. These are sturdy, the device isn’t real heavy at 58 pounds, but it is nice to tilt and roll versus lifting and carrying.
- Wood consumption
- Wood tray access
- Clean up
- Flexible shelfing
- Low power
- Slow heat up
- Temperature range
Masterbuilt is coming up on their 50th anniversary in business, and to an extent that shows in their product lines. There is a certain KISS like aspect to their design…they keep it simple. As a result, assembly is quick, all the components come in and out easily, so cleanup is also less challenging.
First off, the chips are loaded from the side of the unit so you do not have to open the door and lose temp. It would be nice if the wood chip chute held more volume, you can find yourself replenishing every hour or less. Theoretically, you should get two hours of smoke from a load of soaked chips, but in practice that time was less.
On the up side, the digital controls are easy to use. And their temperatures are surprisingly accurate in our experience, with variations in the single digits. We always recommend a backstop device to measure your temps, but these guys came the closest of the group. The device is meant for smoking, as a result it only has a rated high temp of 275 degrees, which is appropriate.
It comes with 4 racks and fixed mounts for them. The usable space is just over 700 square inches. We recommend buying the legs to add on to the device. Otherwise you have a 45 pound cube with no handles to try and scoot around your outdoor area. The build quality is sturdy, and the insulation is top notch. In fact, it is insulated so well and has such a small vent that some folks feel the smoke flavors are too mild because less heat is needed as a result, creating less smoke. That being said, you can smoke year round even in cold climates.
- Digital controls
- Outside wood chip feed
- Legs are extra
- Fast wood consumption
- Small venting
This is a unique approach to smoking that has some upsides that are worth mentioning. If you are unfamiliar, the unit has a stack of pressed wood ‘bisquettes’ or pucks as we call them. They are fed into a smoker generator and you are off to the races. This design’s main strength is that it separated the heat used to create the smoke from the heat inside the cooking chamber. Yes there is overlap as the smoldering pucks do bring heat into the chamber with them, but overall the design can offer more temperature flexibility and control.
Another unique aspect are the racks. In this case they are chromed steel baskets. The rails are fixed, but they also have solid support when the racks are slid out. If you are doing vegetables or any of a number of items that vary in shape, these baskets are a nice touch. The stainless steel interior makes for easy clean up. The smoke generator removes easily for storage in inclement weather. The unit does not come with legs, nor are there any offered.
One recurring issue is that the unit consumes water. The basin is also where the ashes and unburnt puck pieces end up. This requires changing about every two hours. So, with the stackable puck feeding slide, the problem of adding wood has been solved. Instead you have to refill the water pan which requires opening the door, releasing heat. Tradeoffs.
Lastly, is using briquettes too similar to a pellet smoker, just larger scale? Yes, in many ways.
With a simpler device, Bradley is more of an entry price than most pellet smokers. It does require purchasing the very specific pucks to make it work, and this will slightly inflate the cost as compared to working with wood chips. But for set and forget this device delivers in a fairly solid fashion.
- Positive unique designs
- Effective results
- Good build quality
- Extra moving parts to fail
- Proprietary bisquettes required
- Water changing required
- No legs available
Cuisinart is a well-known name in the kitchen, and they have been working hard to get their name equally as known in the outdoor kitchen world. That may explain why some of their design characteristics are different, and not always better, than other units. Good sturdy legs with a wide base, big handles to move it, and a so-so latch make up the exterior components.
The heating element, listed at 1500 watts, is just like the one at the bottom of an electric oven. And exposed just like that as well. The other units listed here have some kind of shrouding around most of the heat source. The problem this exposed approach causes, is to get the wood chips smoking from the get go. The heat disperses instead of being contained in the chip area. In general, you need to crank it up to high and get the smoke started then hone in the temperature that you want. It also seemed like that high wattage would get up to temp quicker, but it is average, about 45 minutes to come up.
That brings us to the second question mark. The device uses a plug in dial control almost identical to an electric skillet, but without the temperature numbers. Instead you have a color coded scale of cool to hot, putting the burden on you to figure out the associated ‘temperature to dial’ correlation. Add to that the door thermometer, questionably accurate like most of these devices, and it takes a while to hone in the key elements for your smoking process.
Three chromed racks with fixed slides offers about 550 square inches of usable space. The components remove for ease of cleaning. That being said, refilling the wood chip box is an adventure when at temperature. And you will need to refill it, which means opening the door and losing some temperature. With well soaked wood chips you can get as long as two hours between refills. On a brisket or pork butt that can mean many refills. Once you get things dialed in, the smoker works pretty well, but it makes it much harder to see success as a beginning smoker.
- Decent build quality
- Easily cleaned stainless components
- Minimal moving parts to break
- Short chip life
- Learning curve for temps
- Questionable design elements
The big question; is an electric smoker better than traditional wood smokers? NO, you will still get better results and more control from the traditional ways of smoking and the right device. Electric smokers in general make smoking more approachable, in terms of ease of use and entry costs. Each of them has some weaker aspects of performance, easy to overcome, but making the process less simple than we had hoped.