Gas Smokers: Buying Guide, Reviews, Ratings, And Recommendations
If you are looking for a smoker with set-it-forget-it simplicity and good flavor, on a modest budget, go gas.
Gas fueled smokers are almost as easy to use as electric smokers and most cost less than $200! They produce a lot of clean heat, and that's why gassers are the most popular smokers in barbecue restaurants. The smoke flavor comes from wood chips, chunks, or pellets.
Most consumer units use propane tanks. Alas, I have never seen one set up for natural gas (NG) nor have I seen them offered with an optional natural gas conversion kit. You may be able to adapt yours to run on NG, but this must be done by a professional unless your goal is to be charred on the outside and rare on the center.
The best are cabinet style, like little hallway lockers. There is a burner at the bottom, usually brass or cast aluminum, very durable, with numerous jets. Above the burner is a shelf for a pan for the wood, and above that is a shelf for a water pan. Above that are four or more shelves for food. The bottom vents cannot be adjusted to make sure the gas gets enough oxygen. At the top there is either a chimney or a damper or two. You should always leave the top vent open all the way to prevent soot buildup on your meat.
The best have two doors. A small one at the bottom so you can check the gas and add wood and water. The main door provides access to the cooking chamber. Most are thin metal and the doors are loose so they leak heat and smoke. That means you will burn more wood chips than airtight units, but there are no airtight units and frankly, the leaks really doesn't impact food quality, just fuel efficiency.
It is much easier to control the temperature of a gasser than a charcoal or wood fueled smoker. Propane smokers don't require access to electricity as do pellet and electric smokers. This makes them more portable. And they are lightweight, although the tanks are heavy.
They don't come with a tank, so budget for two of them. You need to keep a spare on hand because half used tanks have a nasty habit of running out right in the middle of a five hour cooking session. If the tank is running low, you need to check up on it every 30 minutes to be sure the flame is not as dead as your dinner. This is a bit of a pain, especially when you undertake the smoking a nine pound butt for pulled pork, a cooking session that could take 18 hours. For sure it will croak at 2 a.m. If your tank is running low, it's a good idea to remove it and hook a fresh tank when you start a long cook. Alas, this practice leaves you with several partially filled tanks in the garage.
The biggest drawback to these smokers is that they are usually too narrow to fit a full slab of ribs or a whole brisket on a shelf. You can cut the meat in half, or hang it. To hang it you need to be creative. I use metal shower curtain hooks and hang them from a shelf in the top position. Another option is to drill holes in the sides near the top and put in some dowels and run the curtain hooks along them.
One other word of caution. I love the flavor of meat from propane smokers, but it is a tiny bit different than the taste of meat from charcoal smokers, and to my taste, better than the flavor from electric smokers. The combustion gasses combine with the moisture and the wood smoke and produce a fragrance and flavor that is sometimes reminiscent of bacon. Purists complain about this undertone, but I ask you, just what's wrong with a little bacon?
Pimp your gasser
Owners complain about cheap construction, but when they look at the price tag, I don't get their complaint. If they want high quality construction, pay for it and buy a MAK pellet smoker. Part of the fun of a cheap cooker is modifying it. Usually the mods aren't as good as buying a high end cooker built right from the get go, but all the gassers I've seen can use some help. You can take steps to improve these cheapo smokers by putting a gasket inside the doors, sealing leaks, and replacing the thermometer. Here's an article with some links that can help you tighten up your gasser.
Turn down the heat. For some reason, all the models I have played with tend to run hot, in the 250 to 275°F range on the lowest setting. I think ideal temp for low slow smoking is 225°F, but most meats will be just fine at the higher temp. Not ideal, but not bad. If you want to drive down the temp a bit, try ice in the water pan or leaving the door slightly ajar. This wastes fuel, but should do the job. Bruce Swiecicki, Senior Technical Advisor of the National Propane Association says "You might be able to control the flame by turning the cylinder valve, but the flame may be unsteady. I don't know of any safety issues to look out for."
An enterprising reader named Tanner has devised a few mods for his gas smoker that make a lot of sense to me. He has installed a brass needle valve between the regulator and the burner (not between the tank and the regulator). He says that even though there are no marks on the valve, 1/8 turn knocks it back 15°F. Installation was a bit of a pain: "Channel locks and vice grips failed at the initial unscrewing and I had to use a bench mounted vice to grip the parts."
Do not use an adjustable regulator. It can explode.
Water supply. Tanner also added a larger water pan, while reader Marty Smith installed a copper water line with a funnel on top.
Install a better thermometer. Paint over the crappy dial thermometer and install a good digital thermometer. It can be off as much as 50°F!
Buy a cover. They don't come with a cover and the paint jobs are not baked on, so use a cover to prevent rust.
Buy rib racks. These smokers are small, so you will want to buy at least two rib racks in order to pack in enough to feed all the people who will come sniffin' around.
This page was revised 3/28/2013
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