How to Choose the Right Barbecue Smoker for You
Smoking has been around since prehistory. It’s one of the oldest methods of food preservation, and it’s still popular today. The practical need to preserve food isn’t as relevant to us today, but we still love the delicious flavors that come from smoking meat and other foods. If you’re a barbecue lover, you may have thought about trying to smoke meat at home.
We’ve created a smoker buying guide to help you get started, so you can determine what kind of smoker to buy. There’s an overwhelming number of options out there, but by understanding the types to choose from and the features that matter most to you, you can make a selection that meets your needs and allows you to start turning out delicious smoked meats at home.
Different Kinds of Smokers
There are nearly endless options to choose from when you’re in the market for a smoker, but we can break down these options into a few fundamentals. First, one thing you’ll notice that separates various smokers from each other is the fuel they burn. The types of fuel smokers can use include the following.
- Gas: Gas smokers use either propane or natural gas to heat up, but they need the addition of wood to create smoke.
- Electricity: Purely electric smokers do not produce an open flame, which affects the flavor, even with the addition of wood chips.
- Wood: Stick burners are smokers that rely solely on wood as their source of fuel. They require the user to keep the fire going.
- Charcoal: With charcoal smokers, the burning coals provide smoke, but you can also add wood chips for different flavor notes.
- Pellets: A pellet smoker uses electricity to automatically feeds pellets, made from compressed wood, to a firepot. These smokers can feature thermostatic controls for precision.
Now, let’s look at six basic types of smokers you’ll find on the market today. These include electric smokers, kamado grills, pellet smoker grills, vertical water smokers, horizontal offset smokers, and cabinet smokers.
1. Electric Smoker Ovens
Electric smokers are typically rectangular ovens, similar to other cabinet-style smokers. Electric smokers are among the most straightforward to use, since they require you to select your settings and leave them until the contents have cooked. Some models even include digital display panels. These smokers are far from rustic, and are typically the first choice of people who are looking for an easy option, rather than folks who are after the best-tasting smoked food possible.
It’s not hard to see how the lack of an open flame is going to leave you with meat that doesn’t quite measure up to that full-bodied smoked flavor you get with other smoking methods. That said, the ease of use still makes these smokers a good option for some. You may find electric smoker ovens do well when you want to smoke cheeses, nuts or other delicacies, but fall short in flavor when it comes to meat.
2. Kamado Grills
Kamado grills, also known as ceramic smokers, consist of egg-shaped containers on a stand. These grills take their inspiration from ancient Asian cooking chambers. Because they are ceramic, these smokers are extremely well-insulated, which makes them great at maintaining a consistent temperature. They work more like an oven than a grill. You will find some cheaper options made from other materials, like steel, but these won’t deliver the same insulation you get with a ceramic smoker.
You can use a kamado grill for both smoking and grilling. Above the smoldering charcoal, a heat deflector keeps the heat dispersed for indirect smoking, rather than allowing an open flame to cook the meat above. You can remove this deflector when you want to cook with direct heat. Because kamado grills can get so hot, you can get an excellent sear on steaks, bake pizza and more. Kamado grills are exceptionally versatile.
3. Pellet Smokers
Pellet smokers, also known as pellet grills, combine many of the advantages of various smoker types into one. They use compressed wood pellets to fuel the fire. Rather than having to maintain the fire yourself, the smoker automatically adds pellets to the fire pot as needed. All you have to do is set your desired temperature. As the fire burns, a fan pushes the smoke upward, so the heat and smoke fill the cooking chamber consistently.
The automation of a pellet grill allows for the same type of precision and hands-off ease you get with an electric smoker, but it also gives you the classic smoked flavor an all-electric smoker lacks. Pellet grills are some of the higher-end smokers you’ll find on the market, so they may not be the first choice for a beginner who just wants to smoke occasionally. However, for smoking enthusiasts, they’re a favorite option. As with kamado grills, pellet grills are extremely versatile. In addition to smoking, you can roast, grill, bake and more.
4. Vertical Water Smokers
Vertical water smokers consist of a firebox at the bottom containing charcoal, a water pan in the middle and the smoking chamber at the top. Like electric smokers, these smokers are easy to use and work well for beginners who want to try smoking meats or other foods at home. These smokers are some of the cheapest you’ll find, and they’re small, which can be an advantage if you want a smoker with a minimal footprint, but of course, it limits how much you can smoke at one time.
Two of the most straightforward designs are bullet smokers, named for their cylindrical shape, and ugly drum smokers, which DIY enthusiasts can build at home. One of the downsides of vertical water smokers is that they tend to have poor air control. In other words, they may leak excessively or may not maintain proper ventilation. The bottom line is that these smokers are a good starting point for people who want to try smoking for the first time, but not for more serious smokers.
5. Horizontal Offset Smokers
If you asked many people to picture a smoker, this is the type that would pop into their heads. It consists of two main parts. To one side, there is a firebox, which is accessible either by the top of the side. You can burn wood chips or charcoal in the firebox. Either way, the smoke produced fills the cooking chamber on the other side of the smoker. The cooking chamber typically includes a smokestack or a lift door to keep too much smoke from building up inside.
These smokers are better suited to experienced smokers who know how to manipulate the temperature and smoke flow to get the results they’re after. Smoking in an offset also requires some maintenance. Because the heat comes at the meat from one side, you’ll need to rotate the meat every so often. Horizontal offset smokers are a longstanding favorite for many professional smokers, but they can be expensive and can require a level of finesse that is intimidating to many home cooks.
6. Cabinet-Style Smokers
Cabinet smokers go by many names, including box smokers, block smokers and vault smokers. These smokers look similar to old-fashioned icebox refrigerators. They come in a variety of types, including smokers that run on gas and those that use charcoal. Like a bullet smoker, cabinet smokers have their source of heat at the bottom and some kind of buffer, such as a water pan, in the middle with the cooking chamber at the top. Vents at the top and bottom help regulate the temperature.
The main difference between bullet smokers and cabinet smokers is that cabinet smokers are larger. They often contain multiple racks in the cooking chamber so you can smoke a lot of meat or various dishes all at once. As with cheap bullet smokers, lower-end cabinet smokers may not be well-insulated. At the higher end, you’ll find cabinet smokers with digital controls and superior insulation.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Smoker
Now that you have a foundational understanding of the different types of smokers, you can start to think about your needs and preferences. When you’re considering what makes a good smoker, you need to use criteria that are specific to you. If you’re not sure how to choose a smoker that will fit your needs, consider your budgetary restrictions, what level of convenience you’re looking for, what size smoker you want, how versatile you want your smoker to be and, finally, what level of quality and durability you’re looking for.
Smokers come in a broad range of price points, so one way you can quickly narrow down your search is by defining a price range you’re comfortable with. At the lowest end of the spectrum, expect to find smokers that are generally low-quality with poor insulation. With these smokers, you’ll need to factor in the outside temperature when you’re determining how long it will take to get meat to your target internal temperature. If you’re willing to pay a bit more, you can get a better-quality smoker that may deliver more consistent results.
If you want to invest in a larger or a superior-quality smoker that will last a long time and deliver great results, you’ll be looking at the higher end of the price range. Top-of-the-line smokers, like pellet smokers, fall into this higher-end category, but many barbecue enthusiasts will tell you they are well worth the investment.
You’ll also want to think about the ease of use you’re after. Some cooks enjoy the hands-on aspect of adding fuel and manually fiddling with the smoker as it works to influence the results. However, for many people, the less work a smoker requires from them, the better. Smokers with more automation are more convenient for people who want to set the smoker and either relax or focus on other tasks while it works its magic.
Automation isn’t the only aspect of convenience to consider. You’ll also want to find out how easy it is to maintain a smoker you’re thinking of buying. Here is where reviews can be helpful. Find out from real users whether the smoker is easy to clean, for instance.
Another factor to consider is the smoker’s capacity. In other words, how much can you smoke in it at one time? If you plan to smoke large quantities, you’ll want to make sure you get a smoker that can handle that amount. Some cooks may start with a smaller smoker to get started and end up getting a larger one once their friends start flocking to their house to enjoy delicious smoked meats on the weekends.
If you only plan to smoke a pork loin occasionally for your family, at least for now, you can get away with a small smoker. You may prefer a smaller-capacity smoker, since it will take up less space on your back porch or wherever you have it placed. Smaller smokers are also typically more portable, which can be a valuable feature if you want to pack your smoker along for a family barbecue or camping trip.
Another thing to consider is versatility. How much can the smoker do? Can you also use your smoker for other types of cooking? You’ve probably noticed that, with many types of machines, the more specialized its function, the higher-performing it is, and the more it’s capable of, the lower its overall performance. If that were true in this case, wouldn’t smoking masters prefer appliances whose only purpose was to smoke?
While the “jack of all trades, master of none” principle does apply to many types of machines, it isn’t necessarily the case with smokers. Some of the best smokers out there are also some of the most versatile ones. They allow you to grill, bake and more, along with smoking. Cheaper, smaller smokers tend to only do smoking, so you may not get as much use out of them as you would with more versatile options.
Finally, you want to consider the overall quality of a smoker. It ties into the other factors we’ve already looked at, but another aspect of quality is durability. Generally, a higher-end smoker will have a better design with sturdier materials, so it will continue to perform well over time. If you’re just starting to dabble in smoking as a hobby, you may not be thinking long-term, and that’s OK. You may want to start with a low-end, cheaply made smoker to get your feet wet a bit.
If you love the results of smoking at home and you want to take your hobby to the next level, make sure you choose a smoker that will last. Look for a quality smoker with a generous warranty and a proven history of durability. The name of the game is value at a price point you can afford.
Quality Smokers From Grilla Grills
So, what is the best type of smoker? There is no definitive, one-size-fits-all answer. The secret is to know what you’re looking for and find the best smoker for you. If you’re in the market for either a kamado grill or a pellet smoker, check out the smokers we offer here at Grilla Grills. Our grills and smokers provide superior quality and all the features and versatility you need to earn a reputation as the barbecue master in your family or your neighborhood. Check out the options we offer online or visit our showroom in Holland, Michigan. If you have any questions, give us a call at 616-392-7410, and we’ll share our expertise to help you make the right choice.