The 2013 AmazingRibs.com Top 10 Backyard Smokers Under $2,000
You can make damned good smoked meats on an all-purpose charcoal grill (click here for tips) or gas grill (click here for tips), but to make the most amazing ribs, salmon, bacon, pulled pork, turkey, etc., you need a smoker. What to buy? Ohhh, there are sooooo many choices!
With a high quality modern barbecue smoker you no longer need to hover over your machine for hours, constantly monitoring the temp, fiddling with the dampers, shoveling coal, adding wood chips, and spritzing your meat with a mist of secret moisturizer. A good smoker means that you can win the battle against creosote, soot, and ash. With a good smoker you can get your food on the table on time and not fear that it is over- or under-cooked.
The hottest and fastest growing categories are pellet smokers and egg/kamados. Pellet smokers burn hardwood sawdust that has been compressed into pellets. Egg/kamados are usually egg shaped and well insulated, often made from ceramics.
Readers will note that there are no electric smokers on the list. We know owners of electrics are rabid in their devotion, and that the food they make is very good, but we think the flavor is inferior to the flavor from other devices that generate heat by combustion. We anticipate that electric owners will think we are idiots and probably tell us so in the comments, but we stand by our palates.
In making our selections we tried to cover a wide range of designs and prices and pick the best of breed. Although it was not a criteria for our selection process, interestingly most of the Top 10 are made in the USA.
This simple piece of bent metal, overpriced at $70, is still an amazing value if you already own a basic 22.5" Weber Kettle, which is a heckuva a grill for only $89. Put the two together and it will perform as well as a standalone smoker for twice the price. Smokenators are also available for 18.5" and 26.75" Weber Kettles. Even if you don't have a Kettle, the combo gives you the best of both worlds, grilling and smoking. It corrals the charcoal all on one side better than the Weber branded charcoal basket, holds more charcoal, and the solid metal face makes an extremely efficient indirect heater. We know a competition team in Texas that wins money with theirs. Best of all, the flavor it produces is superb. Smokenators are mostly made in the USA. Only the water pan and a scraper for knocking down ash are imported.
Yes, it is cheaply built and, unless you take care of it, it will probably start falling apart in five years, but by then you can save up for a really good smoker. It is narrow so you have to cut rib slabs in half, but it can hold a lot of food. Once you get the hang of it, it can hold temps pretty steadily and it doesn't require nursing. But you absolutely must replace the temperature indicator (it is not a thermometer no matter what they call it) with a good digital thermometer. Foods cooked on a gasser taste wonderful, although they taste slightly different from charcoal or wood smoked, and a lot better than food cooked on an electric smoker.
We know you lust after one of those macho looking sideways offset barrel smokers for under $200 at the big box store. Please don't do it. It is an unbelievable pain to operate, you'll spend hours trying to modify it, and by the end of the summer it will be in the garbage. If you need to look kewl, build an "Ugly Drum Smoker" with this cleverly designed kit. Food grade drums can easily be found for as little as $20, so for well under $200 you can have a fine smoker. This kit significantly reduces the cost, time required, and probability of error. And the results can cook competition worthy meat. Really.
Good old Weber has been making this indestructible charcoal fired "bullet" for years and has made only minor tweaks, although there are minor tweaks yet to be made (for example the thermometer is not accurate). The body is the same enamelized steel as the Weber Kettle and mine is 15 years old and going strong. There is also a larger model, but we prefer this one because it is easier to keep the temp low, and that's crucial to great smoker, although a full slab of ribs barely fits. It can also be used as a grill, but you have to get on your knees to do it. Most parts on this smoker are made in the USA.
Ceramic smokers based on an ancient Japanese "kamado" design are all the rage, with the Big Green Egg the most popular of the breed. Ceramics are very efficient, holding heat and using very little charcoal. They can also be used as grills, but the cone shape of most of them doesn't make them ideal for two-zone cooking, a technique we consider vital for grilling. There are two exceptions, however, the two Primo models, which are oval shaped and can be easily set up with two zones for great grilling. There is even a larger model, the XL. We like them better than the Egg. The stand in the picture is not included. Made in the USA.
This little baby looks like a dorm fridge and it shares a lot in common with it. The walls are well insulated, the door latches tight, there's a clever reverse flow heat and smoke transit system, temp control is incredibly simple, and it can hold standard hotel pans. A water pan between the charcoal and the food keeps the cooking chamber moist. There are larger sizes that are popular among the professional competition teams. I have the next size up, the Party, and it is truly impressive. Made in the USA.
We are in love with the new generation of pellet smokers. These clever designs burn wood pellets that look like pencils broken into 1/2" sections. The pellets are made from hardwood sawdust scrap from sawmills and furniture manufacturers. A digital thermostat system controls the better models by controlling the flow of pellets and air into the burner. They are truly set-it-forget-it easy and hold the temp rock solid. They cook by hot air and smoke circulating, so most pellet burners are not good at direct heat grilling. Pellet grills need electricity to run the controller so you'll not be hauling them to the beach, and the smoke flavor is delicate and elegant, but not as aggressive and deep as charcoal and wood. We know that a model by Traeger is by far the more popular and widely distributed, but we think this is a lot better chiefly because we like the controller better. And it is a lot better looking, especially with the metal bulls horns for handles.
Another pellet grill like the REC TEC above, but the slightly higher price buys a number of bells and whistles, including our favorite digital controller. Built entirely in the USA, it is solid with a heavy duty powder coat. The hood is a roll top, meaning it does not need a lot of rear clearance like some of its competitors, and there is plenty of room inside. We recommend you buy the optional upper level racks. My only criticism is that it looks like a WWI tank. Made in the USA.
The innovation here is that the cooking surface is divided into two sections, one is much like all the other pellet smokers, strictly indirect convection air cooking, but the other, smaller section exposes the meat to direct radiant heat so you can get a good dark sear when you want to high heat grill. And there is a 30-day money back guarantee! Made in the USA.
If you're Jonesing for the pro look, if you want to burn logs and/or charcoal, this is what you have to spend if you also want quality. As I explained above, the cheapo offsets in the hardware stores suck. But the Horizon is built to cook and to last. Made of 1/4" thick steel, when it heats up the mass retains heat and holds temp. You still have to practice to get control over the vents to control heat and it's a good idea to sit nearby to watch it, but that's why lounge chairs and beer were invented. If you get one, make sure it has the convection plate. It helps distribute the heat more evenly. And the capacious cooking chamber can be loaded with charcoal if the entire Little League is coming over and you need to grill up 43 burgers at once. Made in the USA.