As BBQ enthusiasm gains momentum, more grillers aspire to enter the mysterious realm of smoking. While you can smoke well on a grill if you know the tricks, nothing beats a dedicated smoker for succulent low-and-slow smoked ribs, pork, and brisket. According to the 2015 Weber GrillWatch Survey, smoker ownership in America has risen this year to 17%, up from 12%. Check out our article on why you should really own a smoker if you’re serious about regularly cooking great barbecue.
You don’t have to spend $10,000 on a big black submarine as seen on TV. Whether you want to go with wood, charcoal, gas, pellet, or electric, you can choose from a wide variety of smokers for less than $500 that are easy to use and offer great results. While there are many designs and styles, there’s one thing they all have in common: You absolutely must forsake the cheap dial temperature indicator (it is not a thermometer, no matter what they call it) included with the unit and use agood digital thermometer instead. Cooking is all about temperature control, and you cannot cook well without one.
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When selecting a smoker, you have a number of options: log burners, charcoal smokers, gas smokers, pellet smokers, and electric smokers. Here’s a breakdown of how each type works, along with our recommended models.
Smokers that burn wood logs, also known as stick burners, produce flavor that is widely considered superior to that of other fuels. However, they require a learning curve and commitment. Wood burns clean at high temperatures, but when you shut down the dampers to go low and slow, it smolders, creating dirty, bitter smoke. Skilled pitmasters with expensive, high-quality equipment often babysit their smokers for hours, adding fuel and managing the intake and chimney openings, all in an effort to hold a steady temperature while creating clean, sweet smoke. The big submarine smokers are called “offsets,” meaning they have a horizontal barrel-shaped food chamber with an attached offset firebox that burns wood and/or charcoal. You cannot find a high-quality model for under $500. All the cheap hardware store models are made of thin metal and leak air, making temperature control very difficult. They usually rust out after a few seasons, and the legs collapse. We know you love the rugged look, but they will probably end up in the trash before long.
Read more about smoking with logs at AmazingRibs.com.
THE BRINKMANN TRAILMASTER 57-INCH VERTICAL SMOKER
Brinkmann’s Trailmaster 57-Inch Vertical Smoker is cheaply made to keep its price down, so it faces durability issues, but the vertical design allows heat and smoke to go where they naturally want to go: up and out the chimney, producing more even heat throughout. This also makes it easy to put in a water pan, a good addition that helps keep meat moist and attracts smoke. It’s just a better design. Plus, this model has plenty of capacity.
Charcoal smokers create great taste when paired with wood chunks or chips. They require practice to master temperature control, which is achieved byregulating air intake and exhaust with adjustable dampers. Some can smoke unattended for several hours, with little adjustment needed. If you wish, there are several thermostat controllers that effectively monitor and regulate air intake, and therefore temp.
Read more about charcoal smokers at AmazingRibs.com.
PIT BARREL COOKER
People who use the $299 Pit Barrel Cooker fall in love with it after the first cook, thanks to the fact that it requires no assembly, no fussing with air dampers, no babysitting, and great results every time. It’s a macho-looking drum, and, although it comes with a grate, for most recipes you hang the meat vertically from hooks—even turkeys! Your jaw will hit the deck as you achieve round after round of deliciously smoked meat with little more effort than trimming and seasoning. Furthermore, the meat-hanging method provides plenty of capacity; for example, the PBC easily accommodates eight full slabs of ribs. Whether you’re a novice or an award-winning competitor (and competition teams now use them), the Pit Barrel Cooker is a welcome addition to any backyard.
WEBER SMOKEY MOUNTAIN 18.5-INCH
Good old Weber has been making the indestructible “bullet”-style Smokey Mountain for years with only minor tweaks to its design. The body is the same enameled steel as the Weber Kettle, and it has two cooking grates and a water pan. We have one that’s 17 years old and still going strong. There is a larger, 22.5-inch model, but we prefer this smaller size because it’s easier to keep the temperature low. A full slab of ribs barely fits, but if you’re willing to cut slabs in half, you can get four halves on easily. Weber sells an accessory that has hooks, allowing you to hang up to eight slabs vertically. It can also be used as a grill, but you have to get on your knees to do it. Temperature control is not hard. The legendary Smokey Mountain has stood the test of time and continues to be a smoker of choice for competition and residential use.
CHAR-GRILLER KAMADO AKORN GRILL
Kamados are superb-but-expensive ceramic smokers/roasters and outdoor ovens. Once you get the temperature dialed in, the thick insulation will hold it steady until the last bits of coal give up the ghost, which makes them especially good for cold-weather cooking. Char-Griller, meanwhile, is a company that’s well known for grills that are inexpensive, but not necessarily the best quality. With their Char-Griller Kamado Akorn Grill, however, that seems to be changing. It’s a double-wall, insulated steel egg that is much lighter, in some ways more durable, and way less expensive than traditional ceramic Kamados; it’s also less than half the price of the popular Big Green Egg. It performs nearly as well as traditional Kamados at a fraction of the cost, but don’t expect the Akorn to last forever. We recommend them as smokers—there are many better options for grilling steaks, etc. But if you’re curious about Kamados and have been waiting for the right time and price, this is it.
Set it and forget it, that’s the selling point of gas smokers. Just be sure to budget for at least two LP tanks, because smoking meat can require loooong cook times, and you don’t want to run out of fuel. Since gas itself doesn’t produce smoke, you add it by tossing chips or chunks on a pan above the burner. There are many options under $200, and they all work pretty darn well. And a note to potential wood snobs: Most of the nation’s best BBQ joints now smoke with gas for heat and wood for flavor (not talking about you, Texas).
Read more about smoking with logs at AmazingRibs.com.
CHAR-BROIL VERTICAL GAS SMOKER
Like many in this price range, the Char-Broil Vertical Gas Smoker is narrow, so you have to cut rib slabs in half or rig up a way to hang them, but you can smoke a lot of meat on the three racks, and it has a built-in warming rack on top. Once you get the hang of it, it can hold temperature pretty steadily, and it doesn’t require nursing. It does have a tendency to run hot.
LANDMANN SMOKY MOUNTAIN 34-INCH TWO-DRAWER VERTICAL GAS SMOKER
The Landmann Smoky Mountain 34-Inch Two-Drawer Vertical Gas Smoker is a nice gas smoker. We like the two separate drawers up front: one for a porcelain-coated water pan, the other for a heavy steel wood chip box. The drawers enable you to replenish water and wood without disturbing meats in the smoke box. It comes with four adjustable-height, chrome-plated racks and a meat-hanging hook.
CAMP CHEF SMOKE VAULT 24-INCH VERTICAL SMOKER
Gas smokers often run hot and have a limited temperature range, but the Camp Chef Smoke Vault 24-Inch Vertical Smoker can be dialed down to 160°F or cranked to 400°F. Go low for smoked nuts and cheese, 225°F for ribs and brisket, and 325°F for crispy chicken. The large width is big enough to lay slabs of ribs flat, and there’s plenty of room inside for turkeys, roasts, and rib racks. It is the only residential gas smoker we know of that can be converted to natural gas, so no more worrying if the tank will run dry before you’re done with a long cook. Bonus: It comes with a nickel-plated mesh rack for smoking jerky.
Pellet smokers are a dream come true for backyard cooks in love with smoked foods. They burn pure wood pellets made of compressed sawdust with no glues or binders, and they’re thermostat-controlled, just like your indoor oven. In fact, they’re often more accurate than your indoor oven. They allow you to load up your smoker at dawn, set it to 225°F, go to work, and come home to a feast of delicious meat that’s been slow-smoking for hours at a steady and accurate temperature.
Many pellet smokers have controllers with an integrated meat probe that displays internal meat temperature as well as the oven temp. A few even have a WiFi remote that allows you to monitor and control your smoker from work, or while watching a game and entertaining guests.
There are some caveats: There are still a few old-fashioned models floating around out there that do not have digital thermostatic control. Avoid them! Please note that pellet smokers aren’t very good for high-temperature searing and grilling steaks, and some people complain that the wood flavor is too delicate for their tastes. Also, they employ motors, fans, and electronics that can break. Read the warranty and consider whether the company you buy from will still be in business in five years.
Read more about pellet smokers at AmazingRibs.com.
GREEN MOUNTAIN DAVY CROCKETT PELLET SMOKER
We believe Green Mountain’s Davy Crockett is the best portable pellet smoker currently on the market. Surprisingly, most of the portables out there still have an antiquated Lo-Med-Hi controller, but the Davy Crockett employs Green Mountain’s advanced digital touch-pad controller, with an integrated meat thermometer that lets you check internal meat temperature with the flick of a switch. Furthermore, adapters to run the electronics from your car battery or cigarette lighter are included. And Green Mountain is aggressively promoting its WiFi capabilities, which enable you to monitor and control the Davy Crockett from your smartphone or laptop.
TRAEGER JUNIOR ELITE
As the name indicates, the Traeger Junior Elite is a smaller version of Traeger’s popular full-size Lil’ Tex Elite smoker. Traeger pioneered and popularized the pellet smoker and remains the best-known brand, since it is in wide distribution. In fact, about 85% of all pellet smokers in the US are Traeger. The consensus is that they are reasonably well built, but some buyers complain that quality has dropped in recent years as the market gets more competitive and Traeger pushes to offer good quality at relatively low prices.
It doesn’t get much easier than smoking on an electric. Set the temperature with the digital controller, throw some wood chips in the pan right above the electric heating element, put your food on the shelf, and walk away. They excel at smoking fish, bacon, jerky, sausage, peppers, nuts, and cheese. That’s their selling point, but we are not fans.
Let’s start with taste. The flavor is wonderful, but just not as wonderful as it is with wood, charcoal, gas, or pellets. There is no substitute for live fire and the flavor that combustion produces. The electric elements are typically weak, and since they don’t need oxygen to feed a fire, manufacturers use very tiny vents to help maintain temperature. This makes them ideal for cooking things where retaining moisture is crucial, but if you want crispy skin on chicken or turkey or a thick, crusty bark for your pulled pork, it is not easy on an electric. We’ve also had problems with components crapping out prematurely. On the other hand, an electric smoker is better than no smoker, especially if you’re in an apartment or condo where they won’t let you have an outdoor cooker with an open flame.
Read more about electric smokers at AmazingRibs.com.
CHAR-BROIL VERTICAL ELECTRIC SMOKER
We like Char-Broil and feel they often deliver a little better quality and customer support in the value-priced categories, so we’re going with them again for electrics. Char-Broil’s Vertical Electric Smoker uses a basic dial thermostat that lets you select low to high temperature with no specific numeric value. Used in conjunction with a good digital thermometer, you can dial up your desired temperature, and the simple controller will be less likely to malfunction over time than cheap digital controllers. Construction is decent and a bit better than comparably priced electrics. A combo water and wood pan sits above the electric heating element to create smoke.