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.
Comprehending the unique traits of each type of smoker is crucial for achieving the best results with your chosen grill/smoker. Essentially, smokers fall into three main categories: electric, gas, and charcoal/wood. Each category further encompasses various types of smokers.
Electric Vertical Smokers
Propane Vertical Smokers
Kamado Grills / Ceramic Smokers
Click a link above to jump to the details and our top pick.
From smokers to smoker brands, and accessories, let’s break down the stuff you need to get the perfect result, every time.
The choice of the best smoker is often subjective, depending on your specific needs and considerations. Are you seeking a smoker that is easy to use, cost-effective, or portable? Or perhaps your focus is getting the best value for your money? Maybe cost doesn’t concern you as much as experiencing the genuine, smoky flavor characteristic of barbecue. Generally, the choice of smoker often hinges on your level of experience and your desire for that true barbecue flavor. For beginners, electric smokers are the easiest to operate and ideal to start with, while charcoal or wood smokers are best suited for achieving that authentic barbecue flavor.
When buying a smoker, several factors should be taken into account to ensure that you select the best type to suit your needs. Consider the fuel type. Whether it’s propane, electric, charcoal, or wood, each has its own unique impact on flavor and usability. Next, size matters. Depending on how many people you’re cooking for, you may need a smaller or larger smoker. Portability could also be an essential feature if you plan to move your smoker often. The thing most important to beginners is ease of use. Some smokers require a lot of manual control, while others are more ‘set it and forget it.’ Your experience level and desire for hands-on cooking will guide this decision. Price can be a slippery slop — you can spend $1000s on a smoker when a $500 smoker would yield BBQ that’s just as tasty. The best smoker for you is the one that meets your specific needs and fits you’re budget. While a ceramic Kamado smoker is great I wouldn’t recommend spending $2,000 on your first smoker.
Most of the smokers we feature on this article are under $500. The lowest priced smoker we’d recommend is around $300. You can get a top rated smoker (in our opinion) for $500 – $600. However, you can purchase a high-end smoker like the Kamado Joes starting at $1,100 and ranging up to $3,000 which are considered for home use. In the same price range is the coveted Karubecue smoker by KBQ that runs around $1,500, which, for a dedicated smoker, it doesn’t get much better. In the end, a good rule of thumb for beginners; start with something around $400, if you find you use it often and enjoy the art of slow smoking delicious meats then maybe add-on to your smoker collection by spending something in the $800 – $1000 range.
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.
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.
TYPES OF SMOKERS
8 STYLES OF SMOKERS & OUR TOP PICKS IN 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
Which is the Best Smoker to Buy?
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:
Flavor: Flavor is the heart and soul of any BBQ experience, and the type of smoker you choose plays a vital role here. A good smoker doesn’t just cook the meat; it infuses it with a deep, rich flavor that is unattainable through other cooking methods. The fuel source, whether wood, charcoal, or pellets, impacts the flavor profile of your BBQ. Wood and charcoal smokers, for example, can’t be beat when it comes to smoky, robust flavor you expect from traditional BBQ.
Beyond fuel source, a good smoker should be designed well enough to evenly distribute smoke across the entire cut of meat/food. This results in succulent and tender BBQ with a perfectly caramelized exterior (A.K.A. bark), the holy grail of any BBQ enthusiast.
Price: We make most of our recommendations based on price (as it relates to performance). For example, at $349 shipped, the Pit Barrel Cooker was the clear winner from our “Best Smokers for the Money” when considering quality, reliability and ease-of-use, but all our picks stacked up well. If you’re on a serious budget, the Dyna-Glo offset smoker was the absolute cheapest.
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? 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.
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? 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 charcoal grill or wood smoker one with plenty of space.
The affordable smoker award goes to Dyna-Glo, with over 1000 square inches of cooking area spread out over 5 stacked racks – this is the cheapest smoker on the list with the largest cooking space. 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. The rest of the smokers on the list come in around 560 – 300 sq. in. of cooking space.
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.
Consistent Temperature: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, low and slow smoking, 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 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).
If you’re looking to buy your first smoker jump over and check out our complete review on the Best Smokers Under $500.
If you’re looking for a traditional electric smoker, jump over to our testing and review of some of the best electric smokers here.