2017 Top 10 Best Value Backyard Smokers
"Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire." Exodus 12:9
Everyone loves smoky food. The smell of fire roasted meats and spirit of kinship that pervades BBQ gatherings harkens back to our ancestors. You just don't get that with boiled ribs. For many years smoking was a mystery to most home cooks. Today it's commonplace to find backyard smokers filling neighborhoods with irresistible fragrance.
You may have noticed a growing presence of inexpensive smokers at your hardware store. Some cheap smokers can cause disappointment and even outright exasperation. Beware, but don't be deterred! You can get good smokers that are easy to use and produce excellent results for reasonable prices. You've just got to know what to look for. Let us help.
For price and ease of use it is hard to beat the small gas smokers like the Char-Broil or the Camp Chef Smoke Vault. Snobs snort at gas smokers, but we're here to tell you that many top rated BBQ restaurants use big gas smokers, and the small ones are really inexpensive, easy to set and walk away, and the product will make you a hero. 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, and adding wood. 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-cooked or under-cooked.
We've long been advocates for pellet smokers and last year they finally started gaining significant ground. Of all the great smoker designs available, pellet smokers are easiest to use because they are thermostatically controlled just like your indoor kitchen stove. You just select a cooking temperature and a controller maintains it by feeding wood pellets to a fire pot as needed. Many now have WiFi capability that enables you to monitor and control your smoker from a smart phone, tablet, or computer. Price is still an issue that holds sales of pellet smokers back. They use electronics, motors and fans and just plain cost more to make than many other designs. But as popularity increases, so does competition and you now have more choices in designs, sizes, features and price ranges. Our list includes two excellent and innovative pellet smokers by Camp Chef and MAK. Both companies offer advanced features and Camp Chef just introduced an optional Sear Box that produces searing temps better than many gas grills.
The kamado is another design growing in popularity. Usually egg shaped and well insulated, traditionally made from ceramics, but more and more are being made from steel. They are versatile and especially good at cold weather cooking. People love them and manufacturers respond by churning out more choices every year. These days you can find some inexpensive models for a few hundred bucks, but if you want a good one that has unique and thoughtful features, produces great results and will last a long time, take a look at Kamado Joe. They've always offered high quality cookers, and never stopped trying hard to earn more market share. A couple years ago they introduced a unique multi-level grate and heat deflection system called "Divide and Conquer" that provides versatility and comes standard with the model on our list.
Smoking with logs as both a heat source and flavor source is trickier than any other fuel, but the Karubecue C-60 Pit is designed to let the greenest novice smoke meats like a wizened Texas Pit Boss. You have to feed the fire every half hour, but that's all you have to do, Karubecue's brilliant design makes perfect smoke from start to finish every time you fire it up. The results are truly extraordinary!
Sharp-eyed readers may note that there are no electric smokers on the list. We know owners of electrics are rabid in their devotion, that electrics are easy to use, and that the food they make is very good, but they get their heat from glowing metal elements and we think the flavor is less exciting than devices that get heat from combustion of charcoal, wood, or gas.
Although it was not a criteria for our selection process, it is interesting to note that most of the Top 10 are made in the USA.
How we review and rate grills and smokers
I am the only person in the world whose full time job is testing, researching, reviewing, and rating grills and smokers. Not a bad gig! I measure temperatures, slam lids, turn dials, study warranties, kick casters, and cook a lot of food, and consider look, feel, and price. I try to select devices that cover a range of prices, endeavoring to offer you a winner at whatever you can afford. We think these selections are Best Values in their price category. The thumbnail reviews in our Top 10 Lists are in order of manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP), but actual prices can differ significantly, especially since many of these items can be highly customized. Please click the red links to read our complete detailed reviews and find links to suppliers, many of whom sell well below MSRP. In addition to our Top 10 Lists, we have a huge searchable Ratings & Reviews database with hundreds of smokers and grills.
It is a disappointment that so many manufacturers continue to include cheap bimetal dial heat indicators (we can't bring ourselves to call them thermometers). They are usually in the lid, far from where the cooking actually takes place and are frequently off by more than 50°F! Good cooking is all about temperature control. Without accurate thermometers you're asking for wasted money, overdone embarrassment, and food borne illness from underdone food. Please budget for a good digital oven thermometer and a separate rapid read digital food thermometer. For more info, we also have a database of reviews for more than 100 thermometers.
Char-Broil Vertical Gas Smoker $200 - 5th Year On Our List!
The Char-Broil Vertical Gas Smoker is cheaply built, but not as bad as most gas smokers in this price range. 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. Click here to read our complete review of the Char-Broil Vertical Gas Smoker.
Pit Barrel Cooker $299 - 4th Year On Our List!
We're running out of good things to say about this simple, affordable smoker. There's nothing else like it on the market. $299 delivered to your door in a big box. Open it up and start smoking. No assembly, no baby sitting and great results every time. If you've wanted to get a dedicated smoker or replace a cheapo rust bucket that never worked well anyway, the PBC beats anything in this price range hands down.
It's a variation on the Ugly Drum Smoker or UDS, but the drum is slightly smaller 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 pull one round of deliciously smoked meats after another from this magic drum with little more effort than trimming and seasoning. Furthermore the meat hanging method provides beaucoup capacity. PBC easily accommodates eight full slabs of ribs. Whether you're a novice or an award winning competitor (and competition teams now use them), Pit Barrel is a welcome addition to any backyard. Click here to read our complete review of the Pit Barrel Cooker.
Camp Chef Smoke Vault 24" $344 - 4th Year On Our List!
Gas smokers often run hot and have a limited temperature range, but the Smoke Vault 24" 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 gasser 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 low slow cook. Comes with a nickel-plated mesh rack for smoking jerky. Click here to read our complete review of the Camp Chef Smoke Vault 24".
Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker Smoker 18" $349 - 5th Year On Our List!
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 (we'd like a better thermometer, but then again, we use our own accurate digital thermometer probe). The body is the same enamelized steel as the Weber Kettle. We have one that's 17 years old and going strong. There is also a larger model, but we prefer this size because it is easier to keep the temp low, 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. Click here to read our complete review of the Weber Smokey Mountain 18".
Camp Chef SmokePro DLX Pellet Smoker $700 – New To Our List!
This entry level pellet smoker is loaded with great features and easy to find for way below list price. It has an older style notched digital controller with a dual LED read out for the included meat thermometer so you can toggle between cooking temperature and internal meat temperature. Pellet smokers are known to produce light smoke flavor. If you want more, Camp Chef's controller includes two low temperature settings that allow the wood pellets to smolder and produce extra smoke. Although pellets don't create much ash, it needs to be removed periodically, which is a pain on most other smokers because the greasy grates and drip pan must be lifted out to get at the burn pot. The DLX is one of the few models on the market with an ash removal system that deposits ash in a cup under the smoke box for easy disposal. Pellet smokers are outdoor ovens with smoke. They are great for smoking and roasting, not so much for searing. Some models try, with varying degrees of success, to include hot sear zones. The clever folks at Camp Chef just introduced an optional Sear Box that can reach 900°F and out sear many gas grills. Click here for the full review of the Camp Chef SmokePro DLX Pellet Smoker.
Backwoods Smoker Chubby $1,099 - 5th Year On Our List!
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. We have the next size up, the Party, and it is truly impressive. Click here to read our complete review of the Backwoods Smoker Chubby.
Kamado Joe ClassicJoe $1,099 - 2nd Year On Our List!
An elegant, well-crafted ceramic cooker with solid construction. Most Kamado aficionados concede the best way to create different heat zones in round cookers is by moving foods closer to or further from the fire. This is typically accomplished using a variety of accessories that can be costly and awkward to use. However, in 2014 Kamado Joe introduced a unique multi-level grate and heat deflection system called "Divide and Conquer" that comes standard with this model. We appreciate KJ throwing this in as a package deal to offer their customers more value and versatility.
The glaze is thick and beautiful and looks tough. All ceramic parts are warranted to be free of defects in material and workmanship for as long as the original purchaser owns the grill. Click here to read our complete review of the Kamado Joe ClassicJoe.
Karubecue C-60 Pit $1,450 – 3rd Year On Our List!
With proper fire management, stick burners, smokers that burn wood logs, produce the best smoked meat. Period. But inexpensive stick burners don't work well and even high quality ones, like the Horizon model shown below, require a commitment and learning curve that can be daunting to the backyard chef. Inventor Bill Karau competed on the BBQ circuit and toured BBQ joints around his stomping ground in Texas for many years before designing a stick burner that produced perfect smoke from start to finish, every time, regardless of skill, the Karubecue. At its crux is a patented Inverted Flame Firebox (IFF) which sucks heat and smoke from underneath a wood fire, not the top. Heavy smoke, laden with gases and microscopic particles is pulled through a red hot fire where it burns up, sending clean, light blue smoke and heat into a thermostatically controlled oven.
The results are astonishing. If we could post a scratch and sniff picture of ribs smoked on the Karubecue there would be no need to write any further explanation of why it made our Top Ten List. Alas, we cannot, so click here to read our review of the Karubecue C-60 Pit. The above price includes shipping from the factory.
MAK 1 Star General Pellet Grill $1,500 - 5th Year On Our List!
Yet another pellet smoker, but the higher price buys a number of bells and whistles, including our favorite digital temp 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. Click here to read our complete review of the MAK 1 Star General Pellet Grill.
Horizon 20" RD Special Marshal $1,825 - 5th Year On Our List!
Offset smokers just look cool, but the fact is the cheap ones in the big box stores are junk. They make it almost impossible to manage temperatures and then they turn into rust buckets after one you're Jonesing for the pro look, if you want to burn logs as well as charcoal, this is what you have to spend to get quality. The Horizon is built to cook well 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 optional 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. Click here to read our complete review of the Horizon 20" RD Special Marshal.