Charcoal or wood fueled smokers are the gold standard and extremely popular for backyard chefs. The taste is top notch and you get to play with fire. Who could ask for more?
The problem with most charcoal and log burners is that they require a bit more nursing than electric smokers, gas smokers, or pellet smokers. You have to monitor and fine tune the fuel and air supply in order to keep the temp within your target range. This takes practice. Some are easier to control than others. With the temp yo-yoing up and down, it can be difficult to estimate when the meat will be ready; so cooks typically ruin a few meals learning a new smoker. Cook too hot and the meat will dry out and be tough. Too cool and you will serve raw meat. Set the air dampers incorrectly and the smoke can turn the food bitter.
If you are going to buy a charcoal or log pit, my best advice is to please buy a good one, invest in a really good thermometer, and plan to hang out on the patio during the cook. Have plenty of beer on hand. And don't invite the boss to dinner until you have the darn thing figgered out.
There are a lot of cheap units in Wally World, K-Mart, Lowes, and Home Depot. If budget limits you to a cheapo, remember this: When it comes to charcoal burners, it is important to pick the one that looks like it will control air flow the best. You need the ability to regulate the air intake near the coals in order to lower or raise the temp. You want a tight and thick cooking chamber so the meat will be heated evenly and be bathed in smoke from one end to the other, and you want a vent on the far end, which is usually left open during cooking. If you can't control temp and smoke, you can't cook.
Please please please don't buy an inexpensive offset/horizontal smoker
I know you want to buy an offset like the one above. It looks so macho. So cool. It says "I'm serious about barbecue". I do not recommend any small inexpensive offsets. I especially mean the Brinkmann Pitmaster, Brinkmann Smoke 'N Pit Professional (a.k.a. SNPP), Char-Broil Silver Smoker, Char-Broil American Gourmet, and especially the Char-Griller Smokin Pro. They are a serious pain in the pork butt. The more expensive heavy duty offsets, let's say $500 and up, are fine cookers, but still require more skill than other designs.
Why? Let me count the ways: First of all, smoke and heat want to go up, not sideways. They leak badly so it is impossible to control airflow and airflow controls temperature. And they are much hotter on the side next to the firebox than on the side next to the chimney, so if you put on six slabs of ribs, some will be done way sooner than the others. Yes, you can move them around, but that's a pain, and they still come out uneven.
The air leaks and thin metal pose other problems. They are a bitch to work with in cold weather, and the increased airflow through the leaks and can dry out your meat. That hot air seeping out the doors carries with it moisture from your meat.
Yes, I know you see the big huge trailer mounted offsets on TV, but they are designed very differently. They are thick steel that retains and distributes heat well. The doors and vents seal tight. They have reverse flow, a system that ducts the heat and smoke across the bottom below the food so they enter the cooking chamber on the side opposite the firebox and flow back across the food to the firebox side where the chimney is mounted. The duct also warms and radiated heat upward. Alas, there are no small backyard models that have these design features. Click here to see an article that explains the difference between cheap direct flow and reverse flow offsets, and the modifications owners have had to do to get their cheap offsets to behave.
Yes, offsets look cool, but they have turned more people off barbecue than any other cooker. That's why they're so cheap on Craig's List. After one season of frustration, owners dump them. Please resist the temptation. If you have to look macho, get a drum smoker (below). There's an inexpensive kit that will have you up and running for under $200, and cooking circles around the offsets.
Get a drum smoker, cheap!
As I beg you above, please do not by an offset smoker unless you spend about $1,000. If you want something that makes you look macho, and something that really works, get a drum smoker. Here are two that have earned our gold medal:
1) Sterling Ball and his team at BigPoppaSmokers.com have created a kit that you can buy for less than $140. You supply the drum. If you click the link I tell you how to get one. This kit significantly reduces the cost, time required, and probability of error. And the results can cook competition worthy meat. Really. To assemble it you will need an electric drill, an adjustable wrench or a 7/8" and a 7/16" wrench, a tape measure, and a straight edge.
2) Another excellent option is the Pit Barrel Cooker. Fully assembled it ships to your door for $299. Period. Looks cool and cooks circles around cheap hardware store offset smokers. They are being used with success in competitions.
The best cheap smoker anywhere
If you have a Weber Kettle (under $100), you don't need to spend a lot of money on a stand alone smoker. Look at my article on the Best Charcoal Grill Setup and you can smoke small quantities right out of the box. Better still, spend about $90 for a Slow 'n' Sear and you've got a serious smoking machine with a larger capacity. It really really works. Competition grade smoked meats. The Best Setup And Accessories For The Weber Kettle And Other Kettles.