Everything You Need to Know About Smoking and Best Smokers
In this guide we'll cover the basics of how to smoke meat, breakdown the 9 most popular types of smokers, and provide best practice tips.
Most of us already love the aroma of smoke from a campfire. Now, imagine that aroma absorbed into the softest, juiciest piece of beef you’ve ever had. Smoke a piece of meat and that’s what you get.
But have you ever wondered what exactly it means to “smoke” meat? Are there different smoking methods? How is it different from other methods of cooking? And why even go to the trouble of doing it in the first place? A shiny new smoker is glistening on your back porch and you're eager to start your first smoke job. Smoking is a delicate science that requires more finesse than grilling brats or burgers.
By the time you complete this article you'll have a full understanding of the various types of smokers and the art of BBQ as it relates to smoking.
Why Bother With It?
If you look up "smoking" meat in the dictionary, the definition you pull up will be something like: The Cooking Method That Makes Barbecue Real Barbecue. Okay, so it will likely be something more defined than that but when people say “smoking meat,” they are referring to one of two methods: 1) preserving meat through long exposure to heat and smoke, which dehydrates it and imparts antibacterial properties; or 2) barbecuing it.
The first method is the more traditional, having been used for thousands of years for preserving meat.
The now-more-common use of the term is that of barbecuing: cooking meat slowly over indirect heat for extended periods (often 12 to 16 hours, sometimes even more), while the smoke flavors the meat and gives it a unique flavor and texture. This is the method we’re talking about in this comprehensive guide to smoking meat.
If you think about it, smoking meat (in the barbecue sense) derives from one of the oldest means of cooking used: cooking over an open fire, where the smoke naturally imparts flavor into the meat as the heat cooks it. And who doesn’t love a good piece of steak cooked over a fire? It’s a very primal experience.
A common misconception among those not in the know is that “barbecue” is any kind of meat cooked on the grill, or over open flame. You’ll often hear people invite say they are “barbecuing” this weekend, when really, they are just grilling some chicken and burgers out back.
True barbecue refers only to slow-cooked meat over indirect heat, flavored by smoke, until it reaches that soft, juicy, delicate state we all know and love.
What Makes Smoked Meat So Special?
We’ll be the first to admit that smoking isn’t exactly a quick, easy process. It can take all day (and even all night) to get a large pork shoulder or brisket done just right, and a lot of babysitting can go into it, especially when you’re just learning. If you’re more the sear-and-serve type, the process might bore you. So why even bother?
As the meat sits over the flame, it absorbs the thick, somewhat tangy, comforting flavor of the smoke itself, creating a unique, all-natural, and dare-we-say, smoky, flavor.
People have been doing this to cook and flavor their food for thousands of years, but thanks to science, we can (to a degree) tell you what causes smoked food to taste so good. Smoke contains over 100 different compounds and phenols. Some of these are solids, like ash. Some are gases, like carbon monoxide and dioxide. And, some are liquids, such as water vapor. The exact content of smoke depends on exactly which wood is being burned, how much moisture is contained within it and even how much oxygen is available for the fire to consume.
Much of the smell and flavor we usually associate with “smokiness” comes from the compounds syringol and guaiacol, respectively. The more of these compounds absorbed into the meat, the “smokier” it will taste. Creating maximum syringol and guiacol may be a too complicated for most of us, but we can control how much smoke we create inside our smokers. Methods include limiting the amount of oxygen and air coming into the fire and using wetter wood to create more smoke.
You don’t want to create too much smoke. That results in a very bitter, acidic flavor that can make your barbecue unpleasant to eat.
Absorbing smoke into the meat also helps create the bark, the dark, chewy, spicy and tangy, crust-like texture that forms on the outside of the meat during the smoking process. The bark is considered one of the tastiest parts of the meat and is an important part of judging smoked meats in competition; it’s formed by the smoke reacting with the meat, moisture and spice rub in what is called the Maillard Reaction more on that later.
The second advantage to smoking meat is that that it creates a softer and much more tender piece of meat, by virtue of its low-and-slow cooking process.
Melt In Your Mouth...
Cooking over high heat tends to dry the meat out very quickly. Any moisture within the meat is essentially blasted out, leaving it tough, dry and difficult to chew. For delicate meats, cooking over high heat also means that you have less control over the final product, as the internal temperature can quickly rise beyond your desired temperature before you realize it.
Smoking meat low-and-slow, on the other hand, keeps the moisture from evaporating too quickly, allowing you to achieve the perfect combination of tenderness and juiciness.
More importantly, low-and-slow cooking allows the fats and connective tissue – collagens - in the meat to slowly break down (render) into something soft. Collagen has a very high melting point, and when cooked too quickly, dries out and toughens up into something that feels and tastes like rubber, and is just as hard to chew.
Slow cooking, on the other hand, gives collagen time to soften and melt, rendering into a soft, gelatin-like texture. The result? A super-soft, juicy, and tender cut that can be pulled apart and enjoyed. It’ll also be packed full of the meat’s natural flavor. It’s a delectable, melt-in-your-mouth, culinary experience.
That’s why barbecue was invented, actually. Tradition says that Caribbean islanders who could not afford the more expensive, tenderer cuts of meat simply devised a way to render the tougher, chewier pieces (like pork butt or flank steak) softer and actually edible: cooking them over lower heat for hours on end, till all the collagen had rendered.
Direct and Indirect Heat
There are two ways to cook meat: using direct heat or indirect heat. Direct heat is how you grill those tasty burgers. But to smoke, you'll be using indirect heat.
Grilling meat is all about using direct hot heat for short periods of time, while the key to smoking is to use indirect heat to cook meat at a low temperature over a long period of time. Basically, a smoker and a grill are polar opposites.
The magic of smoking lies in indirect heat. In other words, you’re not placing the meat right on top of the flame or heat source; that’s too hot and too hard to control. Instead, you’re letting the heat and smoke from the flame waft over the meat, while keeping it out of the direct path.
Using a dedicated smoker makes cooking with indirect heat simple. A smoker is uniquely designed to keep the meat out of direct heat while still letting smoke reach it and absorb. A good smoker is crafted to ensure smoke and heat properly circulate around the meat for an even cook.
Smoking on a Charcoal Grill
If you’re smoking on your gas or charcoal grill, however, you’ll need to use 2-zone setup, which splits the grill into a hot (direct heat) zone, for browning and searing, and an indirect zone, for smoking and slow-cooking.
A 2-zone setup is simple to create. On a charcoal grill, simply pile all the charcoal on one side of the grill, leaving the other side empty, and ignite. The side with the coals will burn hot as it normally does, allowing you to sear your steaks and get good browning. But the real magic – for smoking – is on the other side. If you own a kettle style grill you can purchase the slow 'n sear, which is an ideal accessory to perfect the 2-zone cook.
The indirect, away from the coals, won’t be hot enough for browning but will let you cook food at a lower temperature, via convection. Perfect for low-and-slow smoking.
Controlling the size of the fire on the hot side will let you get the optimal 225ºF to 275ºF needed achieve maximum tenderness and juiciness. It’ll take practice, as you learn the right amount of charcoal to use, and how your smoker behaves in different weather. But, it’s more than possible with the aid of a BBQ thermometer.
Smoking on a Gas Grill
Setting up 2-zone cooking on gas grill is even easier. Just turn on the burners on one side of the grill, leaving the others off. Like with charcoal, it will take some experimentation to find exactly which burners to turn on and how high to crank them up. But once you have, controlling the temperature and getting it to 225ºF requires little work.
One trick to help keep a consistent temperature using 2-zone cooking is to place a water pan on the grill. Water absorbs the heat and then radiates it out again, which helps keep overall grill temperature consistent when the heat source spikes or drops suddenly.
The added moisture from evaporating water can also prevent the meat from drying out, keeping it moist and flavorful.
The Maillard Reaction & The Bark
We spend a lot of time talking about how slow-cooking creates soft, tender and juicy meat, but that’s not the only thing that makes smoked meat so delicious. Most of us also love that dark, chewy, blackened outside full of smoky flavor that we call the bark.
If you’re familiar with the delicious flavor imparted to a steak by a good sear, take that and amplify it 5x, and you’ll have an idea of the sensory delight that is a good crust.
This deliciousness is created by what, in barbecue and in scientific circle, is called the Maillard reaction. The name comes from the French scientist Louis-Camille, who studied the way foods brown when cooking.
The Maillard Reaction is what happens when the surface of a food is heated, and the chemicals and compounds in the food react and change, creating new compounds – thousands of them over the surface of the meat.
Specifically, the amino acids in meat (proteins) being heated react with the reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) in the meat, creating new compounds in the process. It’s like caramelization – what happens when you heat sugar on the stove.
That’s how steaks get their beautiful sear and smoked meats get that chewy bark – by undergoing a process similar to caramelization, but this time with proteins and fats from the meat, instead of sugar alone.
The new compounds created by the reducing sugars reacting with the amino acids, all combine to create that crispy, brown texture we all know and love, as well as the accompanying flavor.
The reaction begins at lower temperatures but gets faster and more intense at higher heats – hence why throwing a steak on the grill browns it so more quickly than smoking a brisket at 225°F. Caramelization, on the other hand, doesn’t really occur until about 300°F.
The Maillard Reaction also helps create one of the most comforting aromas in existence: that of cooked meat. This aroma is the result of methianol, a compound of α-dicarbonyl, itself a compound created in the Maillard reaction, and the amino acid methionine. So if you want really delicious-smelling meat, maximizing the Maillard reaction can help.
The Proverbial Stall
The Maillard Reaction is super important to getting a really-good piece of barbecue. But it requires some exact conditions in order to take place.
For one, you need to be cooking with a dry heat. Moisture can slow down the process or even sabotage it and prevent that bark from forming, as it essentially keeps the meat from getting above the boiling point.
This is why "The Stall” when smoking a meat is essential for excellent bark; the water in the meat must be present to break down the water-soluble ingredients in the rub, but also needs to dry out before turning into bark. Riding out “The Stall” gives the moisture more time to brown. This is also why, if you decide to skip pass the stall by wrapping the meat in foil you'll sacrifice complete development of the bark in exchange for a reduced cook time.
To really get a good bark, you can also help maximize browning by sprinkling with some sugar, giving the amino acids more fructose and glucose to work with to create maximum browning. Oil liberally, too, as oil conducts heat better than just air. Removing any excess fat can help as well.
Another tip: turn the meat frequently which slows down the cooking inside the meat, by essentially cooling each side of the meat, and then gives the outside more time to brown.
As for sugar, using a bit in your rub will help maximize browning when cooking low and slow. However, too much or cooking at high temperatures will cause the sugar to burn and blacked – not what you’re trying to achieve.
How Long Will It Take?
Smoke times vary widely. The chart provided above is a rough estimate on what you can expect for various cuts of meat, as well as ideal doneness temperatures. But it's hard to provide a one-size-fits-all solution here. Factors that effect cook time include: size of cut, cooking temperature, how much salt there is, moisture, and even the weather.
With that said, it’s possible to give a loose estimate: for a brisket or pork butt, estimate about 1.5 hours per pound at 225°F. That means an 8-pound brisket will take roughly 12 hours. Crank that up to 275°F and you could achieve a similar result in about half the time.
The caveat is that certain things can make it take longer. A very moist piece of meat takes longer because water content causes the meat to “sweat”, essentially. And a cold, windy night can drive heat away and cooking times up.
So a rule of thumb is just that. To make sure your meat is cooked properly and safely, you really need to monitor it with a reliable meat thermometer.
Time & Temperature for Doneness
Internal Meat Temperature
The smoker's internal temperature isn’t the only the temperature that requires your attention. The final internal temp of the meat is a vital piece of the puzzle for ensuring both ideal tenderness and doneness, and safety.
Meat can harbor various pathogens, such as the particularly nasty E. Coli and Salmonella. To kill them, the USDA recommends that beef and pork chops and steaks be cooked to at least 145°F, while chicken be cooked to 165°F. At these temperatures, you can be sure that your food is completely safe to eat.
Unfortunately, most of us find that cooking food to these temperatures is too much. A steak cooked to 145°F will be encroaching on medium-well territory, far too done for most steak lovers. A chicken breast cooked to 165°F is dry and chewy, not juicy.
Thankfully, a closer reading of the USDA standards shows that’s it’s not totally necessary to cook your meat to those exact numbers. The numbers listed are the temperatures at which pathogens are killed instantly, but they can be also be killed if exposed to lower temperatures for longer periods of time.
Most of us who like a good steak are probably just going to take our chances with rare or medium, since any bacteria on the surface will already have been killed. And when it comes to pork, the traditional threat has been trichinosis, which has been all but eradicated in the Unites States over the past few decades.
Luckily, when smoking meats like pork butt or brisket, we don’t have much to worry about, as our target temperature is usually between 195°F and 205°F - plenty hot enough to kill all dangerous bacteria.
The only accurate way to know all this is to use a meat thermometer. When smoking, you’ll want a specialized Wi-Fi or Bluetooth thermometer to let you keep an eye on your barbecue over the course of a 12-hour smoke. At the very least, you'll need an instant read thermometer for checking doneness. Avoid relying on unproven "hack" methods for checking doneness.
Grill (AKA Ambient or Pitt) Temperature
Grills usually operate around 400°F while a smoker is best around 225°F.
Meats don’t all cook the same way and throwing a pork butt or brisket onto a flaming grill wouldn’t exactly turn out the way we’d like it to. The high heat will have caramelized the outside of the meat – via Maillard Reaction – long before the inside has a chance to heat. Leave it on too long, and it will simply burn on the outside, with a layer of dry, unappetizing meat beneath it.
A general rule of thumb is that the thinner the meat, the higher heat. The thicker the cut, the lower the heat. That’s why we throw steaks on the grill for just a few minutes, but a roast takes all day.
While the high heat from the flame cooks the outside of the meat, the inside is cooked by the radiant heat coming in from the outer layers of the meat. You need to give ample time for the heat to migrate throughout the roast, allowing it to reach the desired internal temp before the outside burns or crusts beyond a desirable point.
Cooking low-and-slow also lends more control over the cooking process, ensuring you don’t overshoot and dry out the barbecue. There’s room for error, and minor heat flareups don’t ruin the food.
The traditional temperature for smoking brisket or pork butt is 225°F, which gives the most control and results in the juiciest final product. Many people, however, find that 275°F gives solid results in much less time, results good enough to satisfy most casual barbecue fans. 300°F is another possibility when you’re in a time crunch, but the meat will likely become noticeably less juicy and tender. For beginners, I always recommend smoking between 225°F to 250°F.
Is Smoking Meat Safe?
Cooking meat low-and-slow is as safe as any other cooking method, provided it’s done right.
Since pathogens are killed instantly at temperatures 165°F and above, the outside of the meat – where most bacteria is – will be pasteurized almost immediately once stuck on the smoker at 225°F-275°F, just as if searing. If the temperature remains at 225°F or above the entire cook time, it will remain safe to eat - provided the inside is cooked to safe temperature as well.
Be sure to thoroughly thaw your meat before putting it on the smoker. Since you’re cooking at low temperatures and because a pork shoulder or brisket is large, any frozen meat in the middle can take too long to thaw on the smoker, spending too much time in the “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F. It’ll also take longer to smoke; additionally, as your meat thaws on the grill it will cause more moisture to drip on your coals, cooling them down in the process.
Now the good part.
We’re going to go into detail about how to smoke the ultimate piece of barbecue. A delicacy so smoky that your neighbors will be clamoring at the door for a piece and so tender that died-in-the-wool barbecue fans - from Santa Maria to San Antonio – will be asking for how you did it.
Hyperbole? Maybe. But arm yourself with the know-how in this guide and prepare your next barbecue the right way, you might just find yourself with a brisket that good.
Selecting a Meat for BBQ
You can have the most expensive smoker money can buy and all the time in the world, but if you don't start with a good cut of meat your dreams of barbecue badassery may never take off.
There are a few general pointers you may want to take when selecting the right meat for barbecuing.
Make sure it’s from a high-quality source.
Discount pork from the back of the freezer at Mega-Box Grocery might be cheap, but it’s likely old and pumped full of fillers and a gross saline solution (that “3% Added Water” you also see in packaged chicken breasts). This solution oozes out as you cook, which is both unpleasant and can ruin the final cooked temperature.
Instead, head to your local butcher where the meat is less likely to contain fillers, is usually fresher, and comes from higher-quality sources.
If the thought of avoiding budget meats scares you, don’t worry.
You don’t have to dish out on grass-fed, or expensive cuts of steak
Fattier, Tougher (AKA Cheaper) Cuts Work Great for Smoking.
No need to dish out for tender, choice cuts when smoking. Fattier, tougher cuts often work best, thanks to the science behind smoking and how it renders tough cuts of meat so tender after hours of low-and-slow cooking.
Remember, that’s why barbecue was invented: to find a use for those cheap and tough cuts of meat that nobody wanted -inedible when cooked over direct heat - and turn them into something soft, juicy and downright delicious.
For the best flavor and perfect barbecue, need to look for cuts of meat with plenty of fat and collagen. These will provide plenty of moisture for the meat as it sits in the smoker, slowly tenderizing, melting and rendering into a giant, juicy, cut full of natural, meaty flavor. It’s better to have a piece of meat with plenty of Intramuscular fat and collagen instead of one with just a giant fat cap, as this will allow it to infuse throughout the entire piece of meat. Additionally, fat caps cover large sections of the meat's exterior, this is not conducive to yielding a tasty crust. This crust, often referred to as 'bark', is key to the perfectly smoked peice of meat; more on this later.
So, in short, don’t be afraid of the tougher and cheaper pieces of meat. Given adequate time and heat in the smoker, and they’ll turn out more tender than a ribeye.
Popular Meats for Smoking
Now that we know what we’re looking for, let’s look at some solid standby options.
Generally considered the king of barbecue cuts. It’s cheap, chewy, and difficult to make with other methods, but when smoked for 10 or 12 hours, is just the right amount of tender and delicious for a good sandwich - especially when that smoky crust is done just right. The downside is to brisket is that it’s one of the more expensive BBQ cuts and is less forgiving for beginners.
Pork Butt (AKA boston butt, pork shoulder, picnic shoulder, among other names) is the second most popular choice for smoking, after brisket. Popular in the South as the traditional cut of choice for pulled pork, it’s generally got tons of fat and connective tissue, making for a very soft, juicy cut, and usually comes in 4-8-pound chunks. Pork butt is also cheaper than brisket, and more forgiving. If you’re smoking for the first time, try a pork butt for the best results.
Another favorite; who doesn’t enjoy the meaty taste of fall-off-the-bone ribs, paired with the right barbecue sauce? Ribs have the right ratio of fat, meat and connective tissue holding them to the bone to soften up after a long smoke; they also don’t need as much time on the smoker as large cuts. Like brisket, however, they can be unforgiving if not done right, and can take some getting used to.
Other BBQ Ideas
Some meats are more reliable than others, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit of fun; barbecue is perfect for experimenting with unconventional cuts of meat, as the low-and-slow process leaves plenty of room for trial and error.
For example, try smoking some chicken wings; they’re cheap, small and quick, and delicious when fall-off-the-bone tender.
You can throw a lot more than meat on the smoker, too; smoked tomatoes are delicious as a topping or side and can even be turned into a smoky sauce. Cold smoke some cheese, which pairs well with salami and crackers. Or, try the old standby smoked portobello mushrooms, which work both as a side for your barbecue or on their own as a vegetarian entrée.
Preparing the Meat
Before you put the meat on the smoker, there are a few things you need to do to get it ready, depending on cut of meat.
To Trim or Not To Trim?
If you’re smoking a pork butt or brisket, one of the first questions you’ll encounter is – do you remove the fat cap, or not?
The answer? Yes, if you want to.
We touched on this earlier, when discussing how to select your cut. Contrary to popular belief, the fat cap will not penetrate the meat as it melts. Meat is too dense, as well as mostly water. Fat is oil. The two don’t mix.
Leaving the fat on or not doesn’t make a huge difference for most of us.
Perhaps if your using a standard grill to smoke you can leave it on, as it can provide a layer of protection from direct heat. However, the fat cap will trap moisture in the meat, you may not get as good and crispy a bark. And speaking of the bark, if it covers a large portion of the meat's exterior this is surface area that gets rubbed with seasonings only to be scraped off at the table, at which time you lose all the tasty flavors.
If you’re just starting out, we recommend removing the fat pad just to make to things easier and to create a better bark. You’re not going to eat the fat, anyway. As you gain more experience, you can experiment with leaving it on and see what you like better.
So, go ahead and trim that fat pad as closely as possible. A neat, nicely shaped piece of meat all the way around helps it cook more evenly.
Tying (or trussing)
The expression “trussed up like a turkey” refers to when a turkey (or chicken) is tied up neatly for roasting on a spit or even in the oven. But is this necessary when smoking, and for other cuts of meat?
If that’s the case, it can be useful to keep the string on when smoking it, keeping any flaps of meat or odds and ends from cooking faster or slower than the main roast. If your pork butt is already evenly shaped, trussing is not necessary.
Trussing is most vital is with chickens and turkeys, however. Since these birds are (quite obviously) shaped irregularly – with legs and wings – tying it up makes a neater, more compact package. This can help it cook evenly, but also makes it easier to turn and move frequently - essential for grilling or smoking. It’ll also prevent the skin from splitting.
The takeaway: truss up birds before cooking, and if your pork butt/brisket/etc has lots of uneven flaps, think about tying them up too.
Properly seasoning meat can mean many things to many people. The one thing everybody can agree on is salt.
Salt does two things: it penetrates the meat and helps tenderize it, making it easier to chew and more pleasant to eat. It also makes it juicier, helping moisture migrate further into the meat and stay there during cooking, so it doesn’t dry out too quickly.
Second, salt adds flavor. Rather, it “brings out” the flavor. An old saying in culinary circles is that meat is flavorless in the absence of salt and fat. Thankfully, a good barbecue recipe has all three.
A good rule of thumb when deciding how much salt to apply, go with about 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound or if using table salt go with 1/4 teaspoon per pound.
Adding salt to meat suppresses bitter flavors, enhances sweetness, and helps increase taste bud usage. The result? The meat tastes that much better.
After salt, the most important seasoning is pepper. Pepper adds some spice that helps balance out the salt, ensuring a well-rounded profile on the palate.
For most brines, all you need is a hefty dose of salt applied evenly into the meat, and given adequate time to penetrate. This is commonly called a dry brine. Salt is about the only seasoning that will penetrate the meat. Additionally, salt literally attacks tough proteins to help break them down through a process called denaturation. I often wonder about dry brine recipes that call for seasonings and herbs since so little of their aromatics will be pulled into the meat.
Brining is best for poultry and fish since these meats contain very little fat which is what makes meats rich and juicy. A brine is really salty, but don’t worry, if done correctly the meat will not taste over salted.
A wet brine, on the other hand, is a solution of salt and other spices – mixed into water. Sometimes it also contains acids, such as vinegar or lemon juice, to further tenderize the meat. Letting the meat marinade in brine for several hours (sometimes up to 24) allows it to absorb more moisture, as the salt penetrates the meat and brings water with it. This moisture will remain during cooking, translating into a juicier finished product.
Be careful not to overdo it or you'll end up with mushy, unappetizing meat.
Salt and acid soften the outer layer of the meat, and leaving it unattended for too long can cause it to break down too much, resulting in a soft texture that just doesn’t look – or taste – the way we’re expecting.
You’ll want to add a rub to your meat just before smoking it. Unlike salt, the herbs and spices in dry rubs don’t penetrate the meat and stay solely on the surface. For that reason, they don’t need to be applied more than a few minutes before throwing the meat on the smoker. Rubs are usually made with just a few ingredients; you want to add flavor without overpowering the meat. The base of a good rub is usually salt, sugar, pepper, garlic, and onion. From here you can add any spices or herbs you like to make your very own unique flavor.
Dry rubs are used in a lot of regional barbecue styles. Santa Maria Tri-Tip, for example, uses a mixture of black pepper, lots of garlic powder, onion powder, and some cayenne and maybe paprika for a tangy, spicy flavor. Many dry rubs also include sugar, which adds some sweetness and helps the meat caramelize.
While the simplest barbecue recipes usually just call for a liberal coating of salt and pepper, many traditional recipes from different corners of the country call for a dry rub – a hefty mixture of spices and herbs, in addition to salt and pepper. Pretty much everything from chili powder to jerk seasoning is a dry rub and finding the right one is mainly a matter of personal taste; experiment with some of your own recipes to find what you like you best. We've hand picked a few rubs to try out below.
Few things elicit as many strong emotions among barbecue lovers as the sauce being slathered on. Carolina barbecue fans love their vinegar-based sauces, while Texas-style aficionados may not care about the sauce all that much. A Kansas City eatery might give you dozens of sauce choices.
There’s a lot of sauces to try out there, and if you wish to experiment, it’s not hard to come up with your own – whether tomato or vinegar-based.
In classic barbecue, sauce isn’t applied until the meat is removed from the smoker, and at the discretion of those partaking.
Beginner's Brisket Recipe (KISS)
- Smoker / Grill
- 10 lbs Brisket Trimmed
- 1/2 cup Brown Sugar
- 1/3 cup Kosher Salt Skip if brined
- 1/3 cup Paprika
- 1/3 cup Chili Powder
- 1/4 cup Black Pepper
- Trim fat, apply rub, bring smoker/grill to 225°F
- Place brisket in smoker until internal meat temperature reaches 165°F (about 7 hours)
- Remove brisket to wrap in butcher paper (or aluminum foil) place brisket back in smoker/grill until the point (thickest end of the brisket) reaches 200°F.
- Check for doneness by probing the flat (thinest end of the brisket) for tenderness. Once tender remove brisket.
- Leave brisket wrapped and allow it to rest for at least 45 minutes before slicing. Serve and enjoy.
Beginner's Classic Pulled Pork (KISS)
- Smoker / Grill
- 7 Lbs Pork Butt Trim fat cap
- 3 tbsp Course Sea Salt
- 3 tbsp Paprika
- 1 tbsp Garlic Powder
- 1 tbsp Brown Sugar
- 1 tbsp Dry Mustard
- Mix the dry ingredients together in a small bowl and rub the resulting blend all over the pork butt, massaging and patting it into the meat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to overnight.
- Remove pork butt from smoker, wrap in foil and allow to rest for 30 minutes before pulling.
The final piece of the smoked meat equation is the equipment you need to smoke with. From smokers to accessories, let’s break down the stuff you need to get the perfect result, every time.
Smokers are not created equally. Each as their unique strengths and weaknesses. A gas or charcoal grill can be used as a smoker, but it is entirely different from a pellet smoker, upright smoker, off-set smoker, etc. Technically speaking, you can even smoke meat indoors without the need for a dedicated smoker.
Understanding the characteristics of each type of smoker is important in yielding the best final product with any given grill/smoker. After we cover these basics we'll break down each type of smoker and provide you with our top picks in each category.
In the old days, people smoked meat on a spit, or in holes in the ground. Today, we’ve got a variety of smokers and contraptions we can choose from to make the job easier and the meat juicier. Each has their own perks and their own cons.
If you’re really pressed for time and money, it’s easy to smoke food on your gas grill with some wood chips and good thermometer. There are also kits (like the Slow-n-Sear) that can turn your regular charcoal grill into a versatile backyard smoker and will only set you back $100 or so. But there are advantages to shelling out the cash for a dedicated smoker, if you’re so inclined.
What Makes A Good Smoker?
Smoker designs vary widely, but since they’re all designed to do the same thing, you’re essentially looking for the same qualities in each one. These include:
Build Quality: How high quality is the smoker and how well put-together is it? Can you count on it to last years of use? Are the seams, vents and welds airtight and quality enough to be effective and prevent leaks?
Build Material: A good smoker is built from a thick steel, which absorbs and radiates heat more evenly than cheaper materials like aluminum. Better radiant heat = better, easier cooking.
Size and Capacity: How many slabs of meat or full-size turkeys can fit inside the smoker? Are they hung by hooks or set on a grate on top? And related, how big the smoker and will it fit in your backyard or back deck?
Ventilation and Air Flow: Ventilation is a big part of a smoker’s design and allows you to control the size of the fire (and consequently, the heat). It’s important to make sure the smoker you choose has adequate vents and dampers. There should usually be a damper on the firebox, and on the chimney. And again, make sure the seal is tight so it functions properly.
Now that you have a basic understanding of what you're looking for in a grill/smoker we'll cover 9 types of grills/smokers and which one we picked as our "Best Smoker" in each category. Additionally, if you're looking to buy your first smoker jump over and check out our complete review on the Best Smokers Under $500.
BEST TYPES OF SMOKERS
8 STYLES OF SMOKERS & OUR TOP PICKS FOR EACH CATEGORY
Ugly drum smokers have changed the backyard BBQ game. They are even now being used in barbecue competitions. What was once considered the "underground" style of smoker is now trending. And for good reason. This vertical style smoker is effective and efficient. You can make your own by simply drilling some holes into a (food-grade) 55-gallon drum, and then building a quick charcoal basket and grilling grate. Load up with some charcoal and you’re ready to go. This is a great project for meat geeks with an insatiable drive for DIY tasks. You’ll need some specific tools, but if you're a hardcore DIY-er then you probably already have all the tools you need.
The Pit Barrel Cooker Co. sells a ready-to-go model. We selected this barrel smoker as the winner of our "Best Smoker Under $500" – we stand by the drum smoker especially for the price. Best of all, they offer financing so you can smoke now and pay later.
Constructing a UDS
Although it might sound complicated, building one of these beasts is actually pretty easy for the average do it yourselfer. In a nutshell, it goes like this… get a 55-gallon drum, then strategically drill a bunch of holes into it. Build a charcoal basket and find a 22-inch grilling grate to place inside. Finally, attach some plumbing valves to work as the air inlets. And voilà you’ve got yourself a one of a kind ugly drum smoker.
The cylindrical design does a good job of trapping heat and radiating it evenly throughout the entire inside of the barrel; the heat and air reflect off the top and sides and move back downward, effectively creating a convection oven inside the drum. There are usually hooks that allow you to hang slabs of meat or birds in the center of the drum, so it cooks more evenly. And, as juices drip off into the charcoal, it creates smoke that floats right back up and gives the meat an even more unique flavor.
Lay down a layer of charcoal, UDS experts advise adding more charcoal to the basket than you think you might need because trying to add more charcoal once the smoker is going is pretty tricky. On the same note, try starting fewer briquettes than you think you might need. If the smoker gets overheated it can be difficult to cool it back off.
Once you have your charcoals ready, lay the heat shield down and put the grates back in and place your meat on the rack. Try to keep the lid down, if you need to check the meat, take it out and close the lid while you check it. It might help to close the intake valve before you take the lid off, just remember to open them back up when you close the lid.
Downside to UDS include that they can be difficult to control, and they also do such a good job of trapping heat that they tend to run hot – closer to 300F than a low-and-slow 225F. You’ll need to develop skill to effectively control it by keeping the charcoal fire low.
The Best Ugly Drum Smoker
If you’re interested in an UDS but don’t want to spend too much time building your own, look at the Pit Barrell Cooker Company. For $350, you get a prebuilt-and-ready-to-go drum smoker delivered straight to your door, no assembly required. Just add charcoal and get to work.
The Pit Barrel Cooker masters the art of both hook-hanging cooking and cooking on a grate. There’s plenty of room for a several briskets and pork butts on there – up to 8 - or even to hang a couple of chickens from the hook. And thanks to the steel barrel design, the Pit Barrell Cooker is perfect for creating consistent and even “convection” heat that lasts all day – up to 10 hours.
In fact, the Pit Barrel Cooker comes in 30-gallon size - and not the classic 55-gallon drum - as the creators found that the smaller size is better for creating a “convection oven” environment for even and fast cooking. How fast? You can smoke a slab of meat in almost half the time as with a 55-gallon drum.
So if you’d like a quick, convenient drum smoker that performs as good as any other but without a massive price tag, the Pit Barrel Cooker is the right choice – which is why it’s our favorite smoker under $500.
PROS & CONS FOR DRUM SMOKERS
- Usually Cheap
- Easy to DIY
- Gives meat a unique flavor
- Hold consistent temp for long periods
- Can require some skill and practice
- Runs hot
To prepare your Weber grill for smoking first, remove the cooking grate from your grill. On one side of your grill place an aluminum drip pan. To add some moisture to your smoker fill the pan approximately halfway with water. On the opposite side of the grill, pile up your coals..
Get your coals nice and hot, when they are white you are ready to add the wood.
You don’t need much wood to get a good flavor but choosing the right wood is important. Wood chunks work best, but if you have to use chips make sure they have been soak for at least an hour.
Place a chunk of wood or a hand full of chips on top of your hot coals and replace the cooking grate.
Now, you're ready to cook. Place the meat over the drip pan, away from the fire, and cover your grill making sure the vents are over your meat, not your coals. Check your vents; they should be set about aquarter of the way open. Now, you wait. Since you are using a grill you will need to occasionally add more coal or wood, but it's important to keep the lid closed as much as possible. There is no need to flip the meat, just let the smoke do its job. Remember smoking meat takes time, therefore, be patient with the process.
What makes a pellet smoker so popular isn’t just the taste it creates but its ease of use. You can easily set it up and leave it until it's done. This is the reason for the huge craze which Traeger has done well to capitalize on. There is no babysitting, hovering or double-checking required. The reason for this, internal temperature control.
Traeger's, unlike other models, have a temperature probe, these sensors tell it if the temperature is too low and automatically feeds more pellets to the fire. You can set up the temperature in 5-degree increments. Other brands and cheaper versions only offer three settings low, medium and high. There is no sensor to monitor the temperature.
Many pellet smokers have automatic starts and large drip pans making prep and clean up easy. Also, you can load up the chamber and not worry about uneven cooking.
Finally, pellet smokers are versatile. They can smoke, roast, barbecue, and bake.
Access to electricity has its downfalls, however. First, if the cord isn’t long enough you will need to make sure you have a proper extension cord. Using the wrong cord is a fire hazard. Do the math (watts/volts = amps) and make sure you have the right extension cord. The smoker is also less mobile, and if it's stored outside it absolutely must have a cover. Electrical components and weather don’t mix.
Propane vertical smokers usually have a very simple design. Propane vertical smokers look just like their electric counterparts, but instead use to propane gas to fuel the fire. An open flame results in more smoke, gases, burning grease and thus, more flavor. It also makes them a lot more fun. And to make them even more attractive, propane smokers are relatively cheap. A good balance of the ease of an electric smoker and the flavor a charcoal or wood grill gives you.
A door for adding wood or water is located at the bottom end of the smoker, while the main door to the smoking chamber sits above.
Propane smokers usually have a thermostat located in the door to help you cook and control the fire, but these are usually horribly inaccurate. You will definitely want to use a WiFi/Bluetooth thermometer to monitor smoker temps. Temperature is not as easy to control as electric smokers, but you can control the gas flow and thus the size of the fire, which is easier than burning wood or charcoal.
Using a gas smoker is pretty simple. First, fill the water pan and place it in the smoker. Then, with the lid open, light the burner. Once the smoker is warmed up to the right temperature, about 10 to 15 minutes, add the wood chunks.
Once a white billowy smoke begins to escape the chimney you are ready to add the meat.
Check the smoker periodically, you may need to add more water or wood. Otherwise, you can just sit back and let the smoker do its job.
PROS & CONS
- Easy to use
- Great flavor
- Limited cooking space
- The cost of propane adds up
Electric smokers are convenient options if you don’t want to go through the effort of keeping a consistent temperature in your smoker for hours on end. Just set your desired temperature, add some wood chips and let the smoker do its thing; it’s that simple. These smokers have been labeled as "outdoor ovens", and rightfully so. But there's something to be said for the set-it-and-forget-it approach. While the Masterbuilt featured above is our Value Pick, we also reviewed Char-Broil's Digital Electric Smoker and it was good enough for the price as well.
Electric smokers are some of the easiest to use because the temperature is much easier to control than with other types of smokers. Unlike working with different sources of heat like gas, wood, and charcoal, an electric smoker will regulate the temperature all on its own.
Electric smokers generate heat with electric coils, like an electric stove. You get smoke for flavor by putting wood chips right above the coils, and you only need a little bit to create some good flavor.
Although it is an easier machine, it takes some of the fun out of smoking.
To use an electric vertical smoker, simply add water to the water pan, then add wood chips or chunks to the wood tray. Then turn on the smoker to the desired temperature.
Once the smoker has reached the right temperature then you are ready to add the meat. Try to do this step as quickly as possible, while the doors are open you’re losing heat and smoke.
Your work here is pretty much done, you may need to add more water and wood to the tray during the smoking process, but mostly you can just let your smoker do the work while you enjoy a good night's rest.
Is the flavor from an electric smoker as good as from a charcoal or gas one? The consensus is no, but some people do think so. Some flavor in the meat likely won’t be as strong, as it doesn’t have all the same gases and liquids that make smoked food so delicious. But if done properly, it’s usually more than passable.
The vertical design of these electric smokers makes the process simple and effective, as smoke and heat rise. Combine that with the super-easy control and set-it-and-forget-it convenience, and an electric smoker becomes a very appeal option.
PROS & CONS
- Easy to use
- Easy to control. Consistent temperature.
- Don’t need much wood
- Lacks a true smoky flavor
A bullet or water smoker looks a lot like a knock-off R2D2. But it has the same components of any smoker such as charcoal and water pans and a couple of racks. Luckily, it's not as difficult to understand as R2D2.
As the name suggests water is the key to a bullet smoker. These smokers rely on moisture, unlike other models where the water pan is optional. In the bullet, the water is necessary for maintaining the temperature inside the smoker because it provides a barrier between the heat soåurce and the meat.
Before you start smoking make sure to fill the water pan, then keep a close eye on it through cooking. Refill the water pan as needed, there should never be less than 2 inches of water in the pan. If you let the pan go dry the temperature will shoot up. Make sure to use warm water when you refill the pan or the temperature will fall.
To start the smoker, just fill the fire box with hot coals and add wood chip or chunks; your water pan should already be full.
Set up the grate for your meat but wait until the smoker has reached the right temperature before you put it in. When you add the meat, do it quickly or else you will lose too much heat from the smoker.
The Big Green Egg is a ceramic smoker that can do anything from oven baked pizza to juicy tender briskets. It is the best on our list for achieving high levels of heat and maintaining it. Think of a kilns -- used to harden clay, bricks, and pottery -- they reach temperatures above 2000° F. While ceramic egg smokers won't reach these types of temperatures, you can get them up to around 600°F which is nice for things like pizza.
Like other smokers, the temperature is simply regulated by the vents..
The Egg comes with some special features like a Plate Setter, which is a stoneware part that turns your smoker into a brick oven. You can also turn the Egg into a convection oven. So the Egg can be a versatile tool. Keep in mind, however, that the Egg is really heavy; it's not the kind of smoker you will be able to move around.
To set your Egg up for smoking add the charcoal and the wood chips first. Spread the chips out so they are not placed in just one heap. Then light a few briquettes near the center. These will gradually light the briquettes around it and keep the heat and the smoke going for as much as 16 hours.
After you light the briquettes put the plate setter in, legs side up, to hold the meat. Close the lid and adjust your vent until you have the right temperature.
An offset smoker may be the most difficult to figure out, but once you have it down it's a great all-around smoker. Most smokers feel the offset is what sets real aficionados apart from the rest of the crowd. However, most of the cheap ones are built for people who like the idea of owning an offset smoker, more than they care about how well it smokes. As a result, most offset smokers are better as stand alone grills than smokers. However, the Oklahoma Joe featured above is one of the best values of all the smokers on our list as it offers both the ability to run as a smoker and a gas grill, all for under $500.
Offset smokers are popular choices. Their distinctive look and shape is what most folks imagine when they think of a smoker, probably because they’re such a classic design that has been around for a while.
That design is very simple; offset smokers consist of two parts: a main cooking chamber and a firebox to the side. You place your wood chips or logs into the firebox, light them up, and keep your meat in the cooking drum, where indirect heat hits it.
Unfortunately, this simple design means that most offset smokers are neither very effective or very reliable. There’s a pretty big flaw in the simple design; heat rises, but the food being smoked is located is off to the side. Thus, much of the heat simply radiates up and out of the smoker instead of making its way toward the food. One end of the smoker ends up much hotter than the other, and controlling the temperature becomes very difficult.
This is especially true for cheap offset smokers. Due to their popularity, most offset smokers are low-priced and aren’t built to high quality standards; vents and other details are usually some of the first pieces to get cut, making temperature control hard.
If you’re going to spend money on offset smoker, it’s worth shelling out extra for one with the controls you need.
Start a fire in the firebox or prepare the charcoal in a chimney starter, open the intake vent and the chimney vent completely.
Close the firebox lid and the lid to the smoking chamber. Adjust the vents until you get the right temperature.
When you've preheated the smoker put the meat on the smoking grate and add wood chips or chunks to the firebox. As you cook you can add more wood to the smoker without opening the smoking chamber.
PROS & CONS:
- Cheap and simple
- Lots of space for food
- Classic Looks
- Hard to control temperature
- Require skill
Grilling is the process of cooking food by exposing it high, direct heat from an open flame. Grills can use gas, charcoal or wood to create this flame. Each of these fuels has its own cooking properties and creating its own unique flavor; cooking over wood and charcoal creates stronger smoke flavor than cooking over gas.
Grilling uses hotter, more direct cooking than smoking – often temperatures up to 500 or 600 degrees. If you’re not careful, it can quickly dry out or overdo meats if the right technique isn’t used.
Grill-roasting is the act of roasting your meat on the grill, using said device like an oven to create indirect, convection-heat; you crank up the heat on the sides (either by piling charcoal or using the burners) to heat the grill up to 300 or 400 degrees, while leaving the middle cooler so you can place the meat on it. The lid is left down, to trap the heat in like in an oven.
Braising is when a piece of meat is browned in fat or oil, and then simmered over low heat in a liquid (maybe that same fat or oil, maybe in wine) for a slightly-more extended time. This creates a softer, juicer, more tender piece of meat – similar to the soft, succulent meat that barbecue creates – and helps it gain a lot of flavor. It’s frequently used on tougher cuts of meat but works great for virtually anything if tenderness and flavor matter.
...Hot Vs. Cold Smoking
As you can probably guess from the name, hot smoking and cold smoking are differentiated by the temperatures at which the food is smoked. Hot smoking is our usual barbecue method, usually somewhere between 225°F and 300°F (or at least 165°F) where the food is cooked while also being flavored by the smoke.
Cold smoking, on the other hand, uses lower temperatures; you’re flavoring the meat with the smoke till it’s delicious, but you’re not cooking it. This is like the traditional definition of smoking that has been used for millennia; drying out and preserving meat with smoke. This would be achieved by placing the meat further away from the flame or in another chamber, where the smoke could reach it.
As with many things barbecue-related, there’s some debate over the exact temperature where these two are differentiated, but generally, a cold smoke is done between 90°F and 120°F, sometimes up to 140°F. Bacteria breeds rapidly at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F.
If you leave food out for too long while being cold-smoked, you could be venturing into dangerous territory.
Cold smoking best done with with foods that don’t need to be cooked. Doing it properly and safely requires expertise and the right tools.
Science of Smoke
You need to have a basic understanding of how smoke works.
Smoke is created by the process of combustion. When you light a grill you are creating combustion, which is just the reaction of oxygen when it hits fuel, but combustion is what creates smoke.
Depending on the heat source, coal, wood, gas or pellet, the flavor of the smoke changes because each fuel source produces its own unique combination.
Let’s try layman's terms... when wood burns it creates chemicals, some of those chemicals dissolve, what's left attaches itself to new chemicals found in the meat. The correct combination of chemicals in the smoke and in the meat are essential, too much nitrogen dioxide or smoke, and you will end up with a culinary Hindenburg.
With that being said, the best smoke is almost almost invisible.
A common rookie mistake is to create billowing white clouds of smoke. You're after a light blue smoke.
Burning the right type of wood will make or break your meal. You need to use hardwoods for the best smoking flavor, like fruit and nut trees. Softwoods usually contain more air and sap and cause a mixture of garbage that makes your food taste like, well, garbage.
Types of wood
So, it’s time to start smoking that thing, but not before we get the smoker all set up. First step? Wood.
One of the main reasons to smoke meat is, of course, to get all that delicious smoke and wood flavor in the meat. The kind of wood also has some effect on the final flavor.
Hickory is a common choice for smoking, thanks to the very strong smoky flavor it imparts; it’s reminiscent of bacon.
Oak is another very popular choice; it’s easy to find, well-rounded and works with almost anything you throw on the grill.
Some like their barbecue sweet. In that case, choices might include apple, mesquite, which is popular in Texas barbecue; and almond.
With that said, many people believe that the exact wood being used doesn’t have a huge effect on the flavor of the final product. Just be sure to avoid pine and other sappy woods, which flare up, create a lot of smoke, and give off a bitter, unpalatable flavor. You also want to find wood that has been properly dried and aged (aka, cured). Kiln dried wood is very low in moisture and thus burns much hotter and faster, while naturally-cured wood might have a bit more water in it, burning more slowly and creating more smoke (for more flavor).
You can even try out the same kinds of wood but from different places; each wood is affected by the terroir (climate, soil, weather, etc) in which it is grown, and will taste and burn a bit differently tree to tree. Applewood from New England is different from applewood grown in California.
For a more detailed pairing chart, check out this PDF from Deejay's smoke pit.
Logs, Chips, Chunks, or Pellets?
When smoking with wood, you can get it in wood chips or whole logs, or pellets. The exact choice depends on what kind of smoker you’re using; traditional pit smokers often use logs, smoking on the grill calls for wood chips, and a pellet smoker necessitates wood pellets.
Throwing whole logs into your pit might sound fun and “old-timey,” but requires expertise to get right; whole logs need to burn at higher temps to create clean smoke. Instead, they are often pre-burned into embers, which are then used for smoking.
Chunks are more desirable for pitmasters of all skill levels; they burn faster and are easier to control than logs, but more slowly than chips, giving you more control over the cooking process.
Wood chips are common and can be picked up at almost hardware or grocery store. They’re good for smoking on a gas or charcoal grill, as they can be placed in foil and moved around. And while they burn quickly, you can easily add more by grabbing a handful and tossing them on.
Pellets are becoming more common as pellet grills become more popular. They’re created by taking wet sawdust and pressing it so tightly that it holds together in pellets; there are, no fillers or glues holding them together, and if they became wet, they would merely become sawdust again.
Wood pellets are very convenient as, like chips, you just toss some more into the fire when needed. Many pellet smokers also have automated augers that feed pellets into the pit when the thermostats signals, keeping a consistent heat going. They also create a smooth, clean smoke that imparts a generally desirable flavor.
Avoid using pressure-treated wood, which can sometimes contain toxic compounds.
Soaking the Wood
Many people think it’s a good idea to soak your wood chips or chunks before putting them on the fire, but we don’t think that’s the case. The conventional wisdom is that soaking the wood helps it burn more slowly, while also creating more smoke. In practice,the water barely makes it beyond the outer layers of the wood and the interior remains bone dry.
If you put wet wood on top of the flames, it will smolder while the water on the outside evaporates. Once it has evaporated, the wood will simply burn.
Throwing wet wood right into the pit also makes it harder to keep a consistent temperature, as it cools off the fire before having time to dry and ignite.
Preparing Wood for Smoking
If using wood chips on a gas or charcoal grill, you can prepare them by placing them either in an aluminum cooking tray, or by wrapping them up in an aluminum foil and creating a pouch. Pole some holes into it to let smoke and air in.
You then place this pouch or tray full of wood chips either right on top of the charcoal, or above one of the gas burners. As the wood burns, it gives off the smoke, just like a wood-burning smoker.
Some gas grills come with dedicated smoker boxes, set right over their own gas burners; alternatively, you can purchase a smoke tube. Simply place your wood chips directly in the smoker box and crank up the burner. Voila.
How Much Wood Do You Use?
There really isn’t a rule for this; you’ll need to add enough wood to keep producing smoke as long as you need.
One thing worth mentioning, people often ask if the meat stops taking on smoke after a certain period of time. The answer is no. As long as the wood's still smoking the meat will continue to absorb smoke throughout the duration of the cook.
For a classic pork butt or brisket in a traditional smoker, that usually means starting with about 10 ounces of wood, and adding more as it burns down. On a grill, you can get away with less. On a charcoal grill, you likely need a little more.
Chickens and turkeys need less wood for smoking than brisket or pork as you aren’t trying to impart as smoky a flavor or as thick a bark. Fruits, vegetables, cheeses, etc, need even less.
Always remember, if your creating billowing clouds of smoke you're doing it wrong. Your neighbors shouldn't wonder if you've set fire to your house. Too much smoke will give the meat a bitter flavor after about an hour. The goal is to maintain a light colored, almost invisible, stream of smoke throughout the duration of the cook.
Feel free to experiment and find the amount of wood – and thus the amount of smoke – you prefer for your barbecue.
Start out by checking our collaboration of cool things grillers should own. Aside from that, the items below are good basics to have on deck.
Control is Key, Knowledge is Power: Why You Need a Thermometer
We’ve mentioned several times how essential a meat thermometer is for smoking meat. Allow us to reiterate that point:
Thermometers are the only way to ensure that meat is properly cooked to a safe temperature and that all harmful pathogens in or on the meat are killed off.
For most cooking, an instant read is all you need; poke it deep within the meat and see your food’s doneness within seconds.
When barbecuing, however, thermometers have other equally important purposes: 1) monitoring and maintaining pit temperature, and 2) watching the meat’s internal temp to ensure its reaches the point of maximum tender juiciness without drying out.
Types of Thermometers
These are the small dial thermometers with red needle you see embedded in the top of your grill or smoker. You can also find them in probe form for sticking into a roast or bird. Bi-metal thermometers use two metal coils within the probe, which expand when exposed to heat.
Bi-metal dials are generally included with grills because they’re simple and cheap. Unfortunately, they’re also unreliable. Many have been to be anywhere from 50 to 100 degrees off! Hard to achieve a tenderly smoked brisket that way. They are also quite slow, taking up to a whole, tedious minute to stabilize.
Just throw that cheap one out and invest in a real meat thermometer.
Instant Read Thermometers
Digital instant read thermometers are perfect for regular grilling and cooking in the kitchen; insert it into the meat and an accurate reading appears within seconds. They’re quite accurate, within 1F +/- of true temperature, and read out within 1-2 seconds.
Instant reads come in two types; thermistors and thermocouples.
Thermistors are cheaper and more basic than thermocouples. They conduct electric signals through the probe, where a resistor sits, and measure the changes in resistance as changes in temperature. While not as accurate as thermocouples, they can get within 2-5 degrees. They’re also slower, taking anywhere from 5-10 seconds to stabilize.
Thermocouples are more expensive and sophisticated; they are more accurate (down to .7F) and faster. They function thanks to two metal wires in the probe, which react to changes in temperature and create an electric current in response. They are usually bit pricier than thermistors, but we find the few extra bucks worth the accuracy and speed.
Instant read thermometers are designed for quick and general use in the kitchen, so they’re usually simple in design. But, they may have some extra nice features like waterproofing and intelligent displays. Battery life is great, too. Our pick is the ThermoPop coming in at $34.
Instant read thermometers are great for everyday cooking, but barbecue calls for a little more power. With the magic of Bluetooth, you’ll be able to monitor these temps live with the app on your phone or tablet, as you wander around the house instead of hovering about. Most thermometers have an effective range of 100 feet, while some might get 150-300 feet. Our favorite Bluetooth thermometer is the BlueDot by TheremoWorks. It combines the best of affordability, ease-of-use and features into one complete package.
Bluetooth thermometers are smart devices, consisting of a device and a handful of probes (usually 2-4, sometimes 6 or 8) attached by way of heat-resistant cables. By sticking a probe (or several) into the slabs of meat and placing one in the pit itself for an ambient reading, you get to keep an eye on temps during long, all-day smokes.
Bluetooth thermometers include smart features such as auto alerts and temperature thresholds alerting you when your food or pit gets too hot or too cold. Most have cool features like cooking graphs and logs to track your progress and learn from each meat smoking session.
WiFi thermometers are the biggest, baddest and most powerful of all meat thermometer for BBQ. They’re also some of most expensive. For a true meat geek, there’s no other choice: you need a WiFi thermometer. You can see our complete write-up where we review all the top WiFi devices here.
These devices are similar to Bluetooth, the big difference, they connect to your phone through the cloud via WiFi, as opposed to Bluetooth. Cloud connectivity means you can monitor your meat on your phone free from distance limitations. So, feel free to head out and do some errands or grab a cool beer with a friend during the 14-hour smoke. As long as you keep your phone with you, you can watch the meat’s precise progress.
High-end WiFi thermometers also often support integrated pit controllers; using a special PID-enabled cable or device, the device can be connected to a fan blower which attaches to your smoker/grill to control your internal pit temperature to maintain your desired ambient pit temperature throughout the duration of your smoking session. You are now free to enjoy a set-it-and-forget cook (like you can with an electric smoker) while getting all the benefits of smoking meat with wood or charcoal.
We love the Fireboard, it offers the most features of all the WiFi thermometers on the market, while receiving 5 stars from us across the board for quality, accuracy, and functionality.
Smoking meat involves heat, and where there’s heat – there’s the danger of burning yourself. A good pair of BBQ gloves can help keep your hands safe – and comfortable.
BBQ gloves come in 4 types:
Silicone gloves are the best for handling food directly, fashioned from food-grade silicone. They don’t have as much insulation as other types of gloves and aren’t very dexterous. But the non-slip silicone lets you grab food and move it around the smoker; it’s also easy to clean.
Our favorite silicone gloves are the EkoGrips BBQ Oven Gloves.
Leather is old-school, and reliable. A pair of leather gloves makes grabbing hot grates, handling tools, and throwing logs into the fire comfortable and easy. Their thickness makes them good for protecting your hands, but not for dexterity. And since leather is hard to clean, they are not ideal for handling food directly.
Our top pick for leather BBQ gloves? Steve Raichlen Extra Long gloves, which boast 18” long gauntlets.
Usually made from some sort of heat-resistant fabric like Kevlar or Aramid, fabric gloves are nimble and easy to use, with non-slip grips on the palms. They’re not great for handling food but work fine for grill grates and hot pans. Just don’t use them when wet: water makes them conduct heat rapidly, making them dangerous to use.
Our favorite fabric gloves are the Grill Armor 932, with their insane 932F rating.
Synthetic gloves are a good compromise between fabric and silicone gloves. They usually have a fabric inner and rubber or silicone exterior, for grabbing both utensils and hot food directly. They’re usually pretty easy to clean thanks to the rubber outside, and well insulated to keep your hands safe – just don’t use them when wet, as with fabric gloves.
We like the Mitt Pitt BBQ gloves.
As anybody with a charcoal grill can attest, fires can be difficult to start in a hurry. A charcoal chimney can help. A chimney has a place for sticking newspaper in the bottom compartment and charcoal above it; light the paper and put the charcoal above it. The oxygen coming in from the bottom creates a bellows effect that causes the fire to burn white hot, lighting the charcoal within minutes. From there, put the coals into your smoker and add more if necessary.