How To Buy A Smoker: Take This When You Shop

"Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping."Bo Derek

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, you need a specialized smoker.

With a high quality modern barbecue smoker, and a little practice, you can make food better than the ribs, brisket, etc. holding in the warming ovens of restaurants. With a good modern smoker you no longer need to hover over your machine for five hours, constantly monitoring the temp, fiddling with the dampers, shoveling coal, adding wood, and spritzing your meat with a mist of secret moisturizer. With a good smoker you can get your food on the table on time and without fear that it is over-cooked (an expensive waste) or under-cooked (dangerous). Here is a checklist of what to look for before you buy, and of course, you can read reviews of individual devices in our equipment reviews and ratings database.

Price. What is the bottom line for back yard tools? Prices range from $100 for cheapo charcoal cookers up to $10,000 for all-in-one smoker/grill combos. You usually get what you pay for. You can get a nice gas unit for under $200, a good charcoal unit for about $300, and a nifty pellet smokers start at about $600.

Temperature control is the most important thing to look for. Delivering the meal on time is more important to your spouse and guests than paying homage to your heritage by digging a pit and setting George Washington's cherry tree ablaze. That's why, first and foremost, you should look for a smoker that makes it easy to control temperature. The problem is that damn few outdoor ovens have that most basic standard equipment feature on every indoor oven: A thermostat. The exception of note is pellet smokers. Better models have a highly reliable thermostat. Pick a number and set it, forget it.

Electric smokers have thermostats, and food cooked on an electric can be wonderful, but, frankly, for most foods, the flavor is inferior to wood, charcoal, and even gas.

Some charcoal smokers make it easy to control temp, and if you want to make it really easy, there are third party thermostat add-ons that really work. The fanciest can be driven from your smart phone from miles away.

Gas smokers produce great flavor, they are fairly easy to set and forget, and they are cheap.

If you dream of competing on the barbecue contest circuit, you must cook with wood or charcoal. Most competitions don't allow electric or gas smokers. They're too easy. The notable exception is South Carolina where gas and electric cookers are allowed. For competitions, the easiest way to go is with a pellet smoker which are legal because the fuel is wood, even though they need electricity to control the feed mechanism and thermostat.

Thick metal, insulation, and seals. Thick steel absorbs heat and distributes it evenly around the cooking chamber and then radiates it back. It moderates fluctuations. The best smokers are heavy from thick steel. Better smokers have doors and dampers that close tightly. Cheap units leak. Your heat and smoke escape. And that makes it hard to stabilize temperatures and manage the amount of smoke flavor. Leaky smokers can still produce great food, but the results are just a bit less predictable. So study the insulation, seals, welds, and thickness of the metal before you buy.

Materials, workmanship, and durability. How are the welds? Does it have sharp edges? Sturdy legs and wheels? Big hinges and latches? Is the paint going to remain waterproof and rustproof? Do the moving parts look like they'll last? Will the screws rust? Is there a lot of plastic? Stainless steel looks cool, but is not always the best choice. Click here for more thoughts about stainless steel.

Even heat. Sometimes there is a large difference in temp in the unit, especially with offsets where it can be 50 to 75°F hotter near the firebox than on the opposite side. Is the temp the same at the top as at the bottom in the cabinet or bullet?

Thermometer. Make room in your budget got a high-quality thermometer that you can place at grate level, where the food will go, not high in the lid. You also want something that has a probe that can be moved from side to side. If you buy one of those long offset smokers, you need two thermometers at grate level because the temp on the left and right can be very different. The sad fact is that most grill and smoker builders skimp on thermometers and they are usually totally unreliable. I have seen them off by as much as 50°F. Click here to read my buying guide to thermometers.

Temperature range. Can you crank it to 325°F for cooking turkey? Can you get it to 500°F over direct heat for searing a steak or sizzling and caramelizing sauces?

Dampers. With wood and charcoal cookers, you will control the heat by cutting back on the oxygen supply to the fire. To do this, you need to have a damper on the firebox and another on the chimney. Make sure they are easy to reach and operate and that the seal tight when closed.

Accessories. Does it come with tools? Tool hooks? Does it come with a cover? Will it last more than a week? Can you leave it uncovered without it getting wet inside or rusting? Most eggs offer deflector plates, extra racks and other add-ons. Better offsets may offer deflector plates that help you tune the heat distribution, counter weights that make the heavy lid easier to open, and baskets to hold the charcoal. One pellet smoker company even sells a solar panel and battery pack!

Work surfaces and storage. Some cookers come with built-in tables and other work surfaces. You need these to put tools on, sauces, cutting boards, mitts, etc. The more work surfaces, the better. Some cookers also come with storage bins and cabinets for wood, tongs, etc. These are nice.

Warranty and support. What kind of warranty and/or guarantee does it come with? What is the dealer's reputation? Is there a phone number and email for tech support? Is the website informative? How about the manual? What if you need parts? How long have they been in business? Will they have parts in five years?

Safety. It must be child and pet safe. Are electrical parts safe from rain and snow? Do wheels lock? Are handles cool? Wood handles disintegrate. Coiled stainless steel handles are the best because they last and disperse heat easily so they remain cool.

Access. Look for easy access to the firebox to add fuel if you buy a charcoal or wood smoker. If you use chips, chunks, or pellets for smoke, you will need easy access to the place they go to smolder. Most important, you want easy access to the food to move it and check its temp. Front-loading, cabinet-style smokers give you much easier access to all shelves than top-loading bullet-style smokers.

Capacity. If all you cook is an occasional slab of ribs for you and your spouse, then a small bullet will do the job. But if you throw an annual Fourth of July party, you may need more capacity.

Footprint. Don't forget that you need plenty of space around your smoker so you don't set something on fire and because ventilation and airflow are important. A bullet shaped smoker will only take up a space of about 3' x 3', allowing for a little space around it. That means it will fit on a balcony. On the other hand, a small offset can take up 12' x 5' with space around it.

Wide enough for long slabs of ribs. Some slabs can run up to 16". If the racks are narrower you may have to trim the slab or cut it in half. They'll still taste good, but the edges tend to get a bit overcooked so there will be a bit more overcooked meat if you have to cut slabs in half. If the shelves are square or rectangular, measure the diagonal.

Tall enough for large turkeys. You will want enough interior room to smoke a turkey, so make there is enough headspace between a rack and the top of at least 12".

Wheels. You may want to move the thing when you set it up, perhaps to store it over the winter, so it should have wheels or it should break down easily. If it has wheels, how sturdy are they, and are they large enough to roll smoothly on a rough surface such a deck, concrete, pavers, or the lawn?

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Grill. Some offsets have a rack that allow you to use the firebox as a grill like the Char-Broil Bandera shown here. Some bullets can be easily converted to a grill by removing the water pan and the center section. This is a nice feature. If there is a grill, can you control the heat? Can you move the fire closer to or away from the meat or move the meat closer to or further from the fire?

Movable shelves. It's nice to remove shelves to adjust the interior configuration so it can handle large slabs of ribs, half slabs, or pork butts and even large objects like turkeys. Removable shelves also make cleanup easier.

Can you add fuel, wood, water, and check the meat easily? A good smoker should allow you to add charcoal, wood, and water easily. This can be a real problem with bullets and cabinets.

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Water pan. Many smokers, especially bullets, have a pan that is placed above the heat source. You can fill it with water, beer, wine, herbs, but water is all you should use. The liquid moderates the temperature fluctuations in the oven. The moisture raises the humidity in the unit and helps keep the meat from drying out while the aromatics penetrate the meat, adding subtle flavor. It also condenses on the meat helping smoke stick, and it mixes with combustion gases improving flavor. Water pans or the ability to add a water pan are important. The bigger the better.

Drip pan. Fats and other fluids often drip from the food. Sometimes it is nice to have these liquids fall onto the fire and create steam and smoke. Sometimes it is nice to gather the drippings for sauces (see my Ultimate Smoked Turkey recipe for an example). Most of the time we just want to get rid of drippings, and a good smoker should have a way to collect them for disposal. The water pan often doubles as the drip pan.

Easy cleaning. Cleaning the exterior is optional. But cleaning the interior is not. If you invest in a shiny stainless-steel exterior, you'll probably want to cover it between uses and polish it so that it shines brighter than Uncle Bill's bald head. If you don't want the hassle, get the black finish and don't worry if there are bird droppings on it. The inside is another thing altogether. When you cook, fat, seasonings, and juices will drip off and splatter. They can become breeding grounds for bacteria and burning rancid grease can make your food unpalatable. Cranking the heat up will kill most everything, but you still want to clean out all surfaces that come into contact with the meat. That means grates. Stainless is easiest to clean, chrome plated grates will wear out with time and then rust. You don't want to put these things in the dishwasher. The grease will coat everything in there and never come off. Can you hose down the interior? How easy is it to remove ash? Will water get into the insulation or electronics if you hit it with a hose or power washer? Before you buy, study the unit and ask yourself how you will clean it and if you are willing to do the work. If not, then you won't, and you'll be wasting your money.

Bottom line. Don't buy on looks. Don't buy crap. Buy something that will last and that is easy to control. Otherwise it will be in the trash within a year.

Click here to see all our reviews and ratings on smokers

offset smoker
Ratings, reviews, and recommendations on what to look for and what to buy when shopping for charcoal or wood fired barbecue smokers. read more
Great Outdoors Smoky Mountain
Ratings, reviews, and recommendations on how to shop for gas fired barbecue smokers. These are simple smokers that produce good flavor, on a modest budget. read more
Smoke types
Ratings, reviews, recommendations, and tips on what to look for and what to buy when shopping for electric barbecue smokers. read more
stovetop smoker
Ratings, reviews, and recommendations on what to look for and what to buy when shopping for stovetop smokers. read more

Pit Barrel Smoker

Meathead Goldwyn

Meathead is the founder and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, and is also known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", a New York Times Best Seller and named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.

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The different types of smokers

There are many different types of smokers. Below are links to the pages that discuss and review them all. But before you go shopping, read and clip this background article.

Bullet charcoal smokers

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They are called bullets because they are usually tubes standing on end with a dome lid. You can get cheapo bullets for under $100, but they are a real pain because the air control is poor. Some leak too much, and some lack proper ventilation. Bullets usually have water/drip pans between the charcoal and the food to help stabilize heat, to help keep it down, to add humidity, and a great way to make gravy. The most popular is the Weber Smokey Mountain (shown here). The WSM comes in two sizes and we highly recommend them. It can even be disassembled and used as a grill or for sizzling on sauce at the end of a smoking session. Their biggest drawback is that access to food on the lower shelf can be tricky, as well as access to the water pan and charcoal grate. Click here for our reviews of Weber Smokey Mountains.

Click here for more about all charcoal smokers and what to look for when you are shopping.

Barrel and drum charcoal smokers

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Barrels, also called Ugly Drum Smokers (UDS) are usually built from steel drums and they look macho. They have large capacity and can be fitted with a water/drip pan. If you want a barrel, you can build your own from scratch with a barrel and parts from the hardware store, or buy a kit like the one from BigPoppaSmokers.com. The Pit Barrel Cooker is shipped pre-assembled. It is a smaller barrel and the meat hangs on hooks. It has a cult following.

Offset side firebox charcoal smokers

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This macho looking style is very popular, but they are a real pain to operate properly, especially the cheap ones for under $500. The problem is that smoke and heat want to go up, not sideways, so one end is usually a lot hotter than the other side. Only the expensive units have enough thick steel and tight sealing doors, and even ducts to make them function properly. Please don't buy a cheap offset, you will regret it. Click here to read more about setting up an offset and read about the modifications people are forced to make to get their cheap offsets to do what they want.

Cabinet style charcoal smokers

 

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These open in the front like a refrigerator. That makes them very easy to use. The better models are very tight and well insulated. We highly recommend this design. The Backwoods Smoker line (shown here) is the gold standard with its water pan, insulated walls, and internal ducting system. They are not cheap.

Kamado, egg, and ceramic smoker/grills

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These large insulated egg shaped cookers are sold as grill/smoker combos, but they are much better at smoking than grilling and high temperature searing. They are usually well insulated and especially good at holding a steady temp, even in cold weather. The Big Green Egg is the most famous of the lot, but this fast growing category now includes inexpensive steel eggs like the very popular Acorn. My fave is an oval shaped one by Primo that makes it better suited for 2-zone cooking than the egg shaped devices. Click here for more about these devices and what to look for when you are shopping.

Propane gas smokers

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There are some nifty gas fired cabinets that sell for under $200. They are all thin metal, leak like a home made submarine, but they hold a temp pretty steadily and have a water pan, something we recommend. As cheap as they are, they make great tasting food. Keep in mind that most BBQ restaurants use large gas fired smokers. Alas, they are not allowed in most competitions which is a shame because they are the best values on the market and if your budget is very tight, we recommend them. Click here for more about these devices and what to look for when you are shopping.

Pellet smoker/grills

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All but the cheapest models of this new generation cool tool have a digital thermostat control and they burn pure hardwood pellets made from compressed sawdust. Surprisingly, the smoke flavor is milder than charcoal smokers, but it is a clean, elegant flavor because the combustion is so high temp. But nothing beats them for convenience and ease of use. Truly set it and forget it. They are great smokers and smoky ovens, but they are not good as a grill for searing. And beware of the cheap models that have temperature controls that say only "Low Medium, High". You want one where you can set the temp and walk away. This is a fast growing category. Our faves are by MAK (shown here), Memphis, and Rec Tec. Click here for more about these devices and what to look for when you are shopping.

Large capacity, commercial, and trailer mounted rigs for restaurants, caterers, and competitors

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Ready to open a restaurant or give Famous Dave a run for his money? Ready to start a catering biz and drag a smoker to picnics, ball games, corporate retreats, and horse shows? Fantasizing about hitting the road, getting an arm full of tattoos, and doing state and county fairs year round? Envision yourself grabbing big prize money and trophies at the cookoffs you see on TV? You'll want a big rig on wheels. Most are high quality offsets and many have an internal ducting system that reverses the flow of smoke and heat to even it out across the length of the unit. The fire box is offset from the grill- so you can optimize the smoke flavor separate from the cooking temp. Some come with a separate grill attached, bins for hauling wood, and a few even have satellite TV and, yes, the kitchen sink! Click here for more about these devices and what to look for when you are shopping.

Electric smokers

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These are very popular because they can be set it and forget it simple, and the food is good, but when you taste it alongside food smoked with charcoal, gas, or pellets, it almost always is lacking something. That's because the heat comes from electric coils and not combustion, and those combustion gases make all the difference when it comes to flavor. To get smoke, wood is placed above the coils, but the combustion temperature is too low to produce a smoke ring or full flavor. Because they don't need a lot of oxygen their air intakes and chimneys are small, so airflow in low, so humidity is high, producing moister food. This also means they do not produce great bark. This makes them very good at smoking fish, bacon, and vegetables. They are not legal in competitions because organizers say they are too easy and they are not traditional (as if the monster charcoal devices that are common are traditional). Cookshack (shown here) makes the best. Click here for more about these devices and what to look for when you are shopping.

Pig, goat, lamb roasters

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These range from simple and relatively inexpensive to large and overwhelming. You can build your own, or buy one of the many clever designs on the market. Some are enclosed boxes that do not smoke the food like the popular La Caja China, others are simple rotisseries that turn the meat alongside a campfire, and some are elaborate devices that can be used for all sorts of foods. You can build your own, or buy one of the many clever designs on the market. Click here for more about these devices and what to look for when you are shopping.

Wood burning ovens

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If you are into baking bread or making pizzas, these old worldish ovens do the job soooo well. And they are sooooooo expensive. Some are ready to use after a little assembly, and some need a bricklayer. Click here for more about these devices and what to look for when you are shopping.

Handheld smokers

The Smoking GunPlaceholder from PolyScience has created a new category, handheld smokers.

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It has a small bowl like a hash pipe in which you place sawdust, herbs, spices, tea, even hay. Light it and a small motor run by four AA batteries draws air through the bowl and expels smoke through a flexible hose.

It's not a lot of smoke, but chefs are finding novel uses for it from adding a quick undertone of smoke to sushi, butter, salads, sauces, and meringues. I have even used it to amp up a Bloody Mary.

Stovetop smokers

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There are a few simple devices that you can use on your stovetop indoors or on a burner on your outdoor grill. Sawdust goes in the bottom and it smolders producing a delicate smoke flavor, and a lot of noise from your smoke alarm. You better have a good hood before you buy one of these. Click here for more about these devices and what to look for when you are shopping.

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