Updated: May 10
In this Beginner's Guide To Smokers, We Will Explore The Past And Present
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 nationwide. Whenever 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.
Propane smokers are as simple to use and propane is widely available.
The temperature of a gas smoker is controlled similarly 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 charcoal. Lighting the fire to cooking in around 10-15 minutes.
Although gas does produce more combustion gasses and, therefore 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 to ensure you don’t run out of gas mid-smoke.
2: Electric Smokers
Electric smokers are a great starting point for those starting. They are a Fire and Forget product, allowing 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. Similar to how propane smokers work, your heat source is now an electric coil.
Electric smokers are the easiest to use, making them a great intro tool.
You don’t require additional costs in fuel sources, like gas, pellets, or charcoal.
Don't go too cheap when it comes to quality electric smokers. You need to ensure the smoker can 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 is excellent for smoking delicate food like fish, cheese, vegetables, and sausages.
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. Following the technique below, you can create amazing BBQ from the kettle grill in your backyard.
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 indirect heat (see image below). This is often called the snake 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.
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.
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 smokers. 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 increases 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 the lid on, 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.
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 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
Charcoal requires a lot of babysitting and needs a little more practice. If you want a ‘fire and forget’ smoking operation, you’ll have more luck with an electric or pellet smoker.
You’ll need to have well-lit coals before throwing your meat in. This requires a lot more time and patience.
Charcoal cleanup is waiting at the end of your smoke. If it has been a long smoke... your gonna have a lot of ash.
5: Kamado Grill
Kamado is just another name for grill or range. In fact, it’s the Japanese word for the stove. Kamado grills, regardless of brand, work on a few basic principles:
it’s a wood-burning vessel, no gasses here
it’s got crazy thick walls, perfect insulation for long cooks
it’s got vents on the top and bottom for temp control
If that sounds like a regular grill, it’s because it mostly is. That middle item (thick walls) definitely gets some bonus points, but what I really like about a Kamado is the ability to smoke and grill on a single pit. Think of it as a combo of a drum smoker and kettle grill with ceramic walls.
How It Works?
The key is air flow; most kamado cookers control it with a big ceramic insert. It rests between the burning coals and the grill surface, pushing heat out around the edges, deflecting it away from your precious meaty cargo. If you’d rather cook with direct heat, you can yank this insert out, creating an ideal setup for live-fire grilling.
The decreased airflow inside a Kamado means there is less chance of your food drying out, so you can expect your meat to stay moist and juicy
Kamados are very multi-purpose and, alongside working as a smoker, can also grill, bake, and even double as a pizza oven
If you live in a colder climate where standard grills and smokers struggle with heat retention in the winter months, then the thick walls of the Kamado grill are a great way to ensure a consistent temperature
Great as they are, Kamado grills are not cheap. Expect to pay around $1000 for a top-end model.
Because they only have two vents, temperature control can be a little tricky. If you overshoot, the thick ceramic walls mean it will take a while for the grill to cool.
Because the fire sits below the food, adding more fuel and ash collection can be messy.
6: Pellet Smokers
Pellet grills, sometimes referred to as pellet smokers, are outdoor cookers that combine elements of charcoal smokers, gas grills, and kitchen ovens. Fueled by wood pellets, they can smoke as well as grill and bake using an electronic control panel to automatically feed fuel pellets to the fire, regulate the grill’s airflow, and maintain consistent cooking temperatures
How It Works?
A pellet smoker works by heating a cooking chamber where air circulates, heating food via convection. Charcoal and hardwood pellets burn at the bottom of the cooking chamber (this area is sometimes called a burn pot or fire pot), while food sits on grill grates near the top of the chamber.
Pellet smokers combine the flavor enhancement of actual wood smoke with a cooking system that you can 'fire and forget
Pellet grills/smokers are versatile paying the role as a smoker, grill, and oven all rolled into one
The wood pellets burn down to nearly nothing, meaning there isn’t much cleanup beyond emptying the, usually removable, firebox
They don’t come cheap! Expect to pay at least $400 for an entry-level smoker than is actually worth having
The heating rod that ignites the pellets, the fans, and the drill all run on electricity, so you’ll need a socket nearby
Wood pellets aren’t nearly as easy to find as charcoal or gas, so you’ll need a stockpile, just in case
7: Offset Smoker
The offset smoker is a classic smoker design and one of the most popular out there. Food smokes in a long horizontal chamber while charcoal and smoke wood burn in a firebox attached to one side. Offset smokers feature shelves in the cooking chamber to handle multiple briskets, pork shoulders and racks of ribs.
There are some variations of of this style. You have a basic offset and offset with reverse flow. There is a significant difference which you can see in the diagrams below.
How It Works?
Offset Smoker: You build a wood or charcoal and wood-enhanced fire in the firebox, so the heat is next to (not directly under) the meat. The heat and smokeflow through a portal into the cook chamber where they circulate around the food and exit through the chimney.
The cooking chamber of an offset smokers makes it easy to cook up massive amounts of food
Some models offer a grill plate that you can attach above the firebox, giving you a two-in-one griller and smoker
Because the firebox is separate from the cooking chamber, you can add more fuel to the fire without letting out the heat and smoke.
Cheap offset smokers are not worth the money. Poor construction means bad heat retention, leaks, and dry food. It might cost a little extra, but good quality offset smokers are always worth spending more in the long run
Starting up an offset smoker is a long process. Expect it to take an hour for you to get it up to temperature and start cooking.
It’s also not a simple ‘fire and forget’ system like the electric smoker. Getting the best from your offset smoker means a lot of practice to learn how to use it, but when you do get it right, you can expect to produce some excellent food.
Reverse Flow Smoker: Similar to the Offset Smoker in how it works. However, the heat drafts from the firebox into the cooking cylinder and draws down under a baffled-flue to the end, then it reverses flow (thus the nick name reverse-flow) and drafts back over the top of the heated baffle-flue. This creates a more consistent cooking temperature.
Consistent cooking environment = more consistent results
More even smoke distribution for greater flavor
Baffle plate reduces hot spot next to the firebox so you don’t need to move meat mid-cook
Less prone to temperature spikes after adding more fuel to the fire
Faster return to cooking temperature after opening the cooking chamber door
Improved flavor and moisture as the fat renders out of the meat, sears on the griddle pan and filters through the cooking chamber
More uniform heat can be a negative if you like having different temperature zones
Restricted air flow can reduce the cleanliness of the burn
Takes longer to heat up because the heat and smoke have to travel further and the extra baffle needs to be brought up to temperature too
Slightly less fuel efficient than normal offset smokers
Most baffle plates are welded in and can’t be removed for easy cleaning
Things to Consider Before Buying a Smoker
What is your budget?
The amount you can spend is going to dictate what type of smoker you should buy.
If your budget is under $500, you should probably avoid an offset smoker as everything in your budget will be cheaply made and difficult to work with.
You’ll also be stuck in the budget range for pellet grills where quality isn’t necessarily fantastic.
Between $200-$500 you have a lot of great options in the charcoal, propane and electric family.
Finally, if you can get over $1,000 your options open right up and you can look at the best brands of offset smoker like Yoder, a quality Kamado like the Kamado Joe or a large high tech pellet smoker.
Type of fuel?
Budget dictates your options, but you still have to choose which fuel source or type of smoker to go with within your budget.
We cover this in pretty decent detail above, and in our buying guides.
As a general rule of thumb, I recommend a charcoal smoker to anyone who wants to learn the art of barbecue, a pellet smoker to someone who wants great food and can spend some money, and a propane smoker for someone who doesn’t have a lot to spend but wants the set and forgets the convenience of a pellet smoker.
I suggest you leave the offset until your second or third smoker, and finally, a Kamado is a good option if you have a decent budget and want a grill/smoker combo.
The number of people you will be cooking for?
All types of smokers come in various sizes, although some, like electric/propane, tend to run on the large size.
You can usually compare the size of the cooking area in square inches, and many manufacturers will provide helpful guidance in terms of how many chickens or burgers you can fit.
One thing to watch out for is that just because a smoker has a certain amount of square inches, doesn’t mean you can actually fit what you plan to cook.
Many people have been disappointed when they found out their “huge” electric smoker couldn’t fit a full-pack brisket or rack of ribs without cutting it.
Do you need it to be portable?
Smokers aren’t typically the most portable devices. That said, some manufacturers make decent units for camping or tailgating.
These are almost always a compact size to fit easily in your trunk so you will give up space for this feature.
Some good portable options include charcoal and pellet grills.
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