• Mikey

A Beginner's Guide To Smokers

Updated: May 17

Beginner's Guide To Grills and Smokers

Barbecue (BBQ) is the backbone of American cuisine, but where do you start? What type of smoker should you buy and what is the difference? The market is saturated with confusing insider jargon that makes it difficult to now where to get started.

BBQ is as American as apple pie and you should know a little history. The first tribe encountered by Christopher Columbus on the island he named Hispaniola had developed a unique method for cooking meat over an indirect flame, using green/wet wood to keep the food (and wood) from burning while the tribe continued to forage.

In 1540, close to present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, the Chickasaw tribe. showed explorer Hernando de Soto how to cook a pork feast over hot coals. Eventually, the technique made its way to the original colonies, traveling as far north as Virginia. In 1755, the word “barbecue” was entered into Samuel Johnson’s The Dictionary of the English Language.

America's BBQ was created out of necessity but has evolved into a craze all across the country. Every time there is favorable weather, a gathering of 6 or more, or a national holiday... the grill is fired up. American BBQ is not easily defined and is as ritualistic as a religion. The flavors and ritual aspects provide a scene of calm, normalcy, and comfort for many Americans.


A simple online search instantly shows you the vast range to choose from, and it’s easy to get bogged down with analysis paralysis.


The team at Smoked Bros, we’ve made things a little more simple for you. We’ve put together a Beginner's Guide to Smokers, along with their pros and cons. Picking the right smoker is as simple as choosing the right tool for your needs that is within your price range. Below is a break down of the seven different styles.


1: Propane/Gas Smokers

SURPRISE!!! Gas smokers, use natural gas or propane to generate heat through a gas burner. Gas and propane are terms that are often used interchangeably. Propane smokers come in a fixed or portable system. A fixed system is fully plumbed with gas lines and is typically bricked in. Portable systems often are fueled by a detachable portable propane cylinder with a gas line.


How do they work?

The majority of propane smokers come in a "vertical cabinet style." A vertical gas smoker works by heating a cooking chamber and charing wood chips in a pan and the circulates, heating food via convection.


How does a propane smoker work?

Pros

  • Propane smokers are as simple to use and propane is a widely available.

  • The temperature of a gas smoker is controlled similar to a gas grill or stove, and it’s quicker to make changes to the temperature than with a charcoal or pellet burner.

  • Propane is much faster to get started than a charcoal one. Lighting the fire to cooking in around 10-15 minutes.

Cons

  • Although gas does produce more combustion gasses, and therefore more slightly more flavor than an electric grill. But some people do complain of a weak or faint smoke taste. Gas doesn't always bring the bold smoke flavor people look for in BBQ.

  • Always have an extra tank, just to ensure you don’t run out of gas mid-smoke.


2: Electric Smokers

Electric smokers are a great starting point for those starting out. The are truly a Fire and Forget product, which allows you to focus on other aspects of your BBQ. There is no messy charcoal or lugging around cylinders. Electric smokers can be as easy as setting the temperature, potentially from a Bluetooth app with some higher-end models, setting a time, and then feeding the pit boss beers while the work is done for you.


How Do They Work?

An electric smoker consists of a cooking chamber, an electric heating element, grill racks, a water pan, and the option for wood to burn alongside the electric heaters and give the meat its smoky flavor. Very similar to how the propane smokers work, just your heat source is now an electric coil.



Anatomy of an electric smoker

Pros

  • Electric smokers are the easiest smokers to use, which makes them a great intro tool.

  • You don’t require an additional costs in fuel sources, like gas, pellets, or charcoal.

  • Don't go too cheap when it comes to a quality electric smokers. You need to ensure the smoker is able to retain a consistent temperature.

  • Truly a plug and play product that doesn't require hours of babysitting a fire.

  • The moist atmosphere inside an electric smoker, which is excellent for smoking delicate food like fish, cheese, vegetables, and sausages.

Cons

  • There is zero question that electric smokers produce a milder smoke flavor and less bark than wood smokers can produce.

  • The lack of smoke means your meat won’t form a smoke ring, which is caused by the presence of carbon monoxide and nitric oxide.

  • Electric smokers produce moisture, which makes it much harder to get a crisp crust on chicken skin or ribs.

3: Kettle Grills

Although a kettle grill isn't a smoker, it is an effective smoking tool that most already own. If you follow the technique below, you can create amazing BBQ from the kettle grill in your back yard.


How It Works?

Transforming your kettle grill into a smoker is done by simply arranging charcoal, wood chips, and a water pan on the inside to cook with indirerct heat (see image below). This is often referred to as the snake method or the "C" method.


You then light up a few hot briquettes and place them at the start of the chain.

The burning coals will gradually working their way around the chain. This keeps the temperature very low. The wood chunks scattered throughout the chain will smolder and bring a nice smoke flavor. The water pains are critical to deflect heat and add humidity inside the grill. Air is then drawn up through the vent in the base of the grill, over the coals, wood chips, and water pan. This creates smoke and moisture which flows over the food on the way out of the lid vent, flavoring it while the indirect heat of coals cooks it.

Pros

  • Most people have a kettle grill on hand and it doesn't require you to buy a smoker

  • Set up is affordable and fairly straightforward

  • A much better smoke flavor than the propane and electric smoker. This is due to actual fire kissing the wood and bringing that smoke to the meat. You can produce a decent smoke ring from this technique.

Cons

  • Temperature consistency is going to be difficult. Kettle grills are not designed to be used as a smoker.

  • There is no thermostat, however, controlling the airflow from the dampers will allow you to regulate the temperature.

  • There will be the classic charcoal clean up at the end of your smoke.

4: Barrel Smokers (Drum Smokers)

Drum smokers produce outstanding results with less effort than most other types of charcoal smoker. But, a drum smoker is still a mild form of direct heat. Drum smokers are a step up from the kettle grill. The drum smoker has an increase the vertical distance from the heat source and has a larger volume that allows the smoke to billow inside the drum.


How It Works?

To use a drum smoker, load the firebox with charcoal and light. When the charcoal is ready, put the food on the top rack. Put on the lid and lock it in place, then adjust the vents to your desired cooking temperature. Holding the unit at a low temperature (225 degrees F) will keep the oxygen flow low enough to keep drippings from causing flare-ups.


How a drum smoker works

Pros

  • Barrel/Drum smokers are considered the gold standard when it comes to bringing that deep smokey flavor

  • Drum smokers come in all sizes and styles, making it easy to find one in your price range

  • Charcoal and wood chunks deliver a deep smokey to the meat are smoking and the nitrogen oxide it releases is vital to getting an authentic smoke ring. The drum allows the meat to sit in a nice cloud that saturates the meat

Cons