What makes a smoker different?
Gas grills simply don’t bring out the robust flavors compared to smoking or charcoal grills, Chavez notes. “The smoking aspect really brings a different flavor profile, especially because you can choose what type of wood that you want to smoke,” he says. “Oakwood, cherry wood and mesquite wood achieve three different flavors, flavors that you won’t find when using a charcoal grill.” But being able to cook low and slow over a flavored heat source isn’t the only difference between a gas grill, charcoal grill and smoker, according Jim Mumford of Jim Cooks Food Good and Brand Ambassador for Johnsonville. Here’s a basic way to understand their differences:
- Gas grill: Low to high heat, no smoke flavor, easy to maintain temperature.
- Charcoal grill: Medium to high heat, some smoke flavor, moderately easy to maintain temperature.
- Smoker: Low to medium heat, heavy smoke flavor, temperature control varies significantly depending on model.
The main benefit of a smoker is that you achieve maximum flavor from your food and it’s healthier, says Max Hardy, owner and head chef of Coop Detroit. However, a major drawback to some is that you must put some time aside because it takes longer to smoke meat properly. “You also have to continue checking the smoker and making sure your temperature is consistent for even smoking. Grab a beer and kick your feet up — let it go low and slow,” he says.
Best smokers: Types
The first order of business in finding the right smoker for you is deciding which type you want. For novices, pellet smokers have become increasingly popular on the market, according to Jonathan Fox of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q. “These smokers are almost ‘set-it-and-forget-it’ cookers that give you low and slow cooking and flavor without the work,” he says. “This is a good way to get your feet wet in barbecue.” However, there is a range of heat source options and smoker styles to be aware of before making your decision.
Best smokers: heat sources
The biggest thing a person should consider when buying a smoker is the fuel source, says Mumford, because each heating element brings with it distinct advantages and drawbacks.
- Pellet smokers. These smokers use pellets of compressed sawdust in a variety of different wood flavors. “You fill up a chamber with these pellets and they are usually gravity-fed to a chamber with a heat source — usually electric — to create heat and smoke,” explains Fox. “These are almost all automated, allowing you to get a good night’s sleep on long cooks.”
- Wood smokers. As opposed to pellets, wood-fired smoking depends on wood as your only heat source. A fire is made from wood logs or wood splits and used to heat a chamber of a smoker. According to Fox, the resulting smoke is much cleaner and has a better taste. However, fire management is a must, requiring a certain skill set for overseeing the right airflow and amount of wood. “This is the original barbecue method, but with wood you are generally adding or stoking the fire with new wood every 30 to 45 minutes — be prepared to hang out with your pit,” he says.
- Charcoal smokers. These smokers depend on either lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes. “Charcoal is wood that has been burned or charred and compressed with fillers, and some have the addition of lighter fluid added in for ease of starting,” he says. “Charcoal briquettes will burn longer and more evenly over time, while lump charcoal is the same thing but not compressed, in a more natural state and without the fillers.”
- Electric smokers. An electric heat source comes from an electric bar used to heat a chamber. “You can add in wood chunks that have been soaked in water for a few hours to smolder and give off smoke,” he says. “This is an easy model to use, but make sure it is grounded if using in the rain — I found out the hard way and that put an end to my day of cooking on an electric smoker”
- Gas smokers. With a gas smoker, a natural gas or propane burner ignites the smoke source, which is typically wood chips. “This type of heat is easier to control but the flames can overheat the wood,” cautions Mumford.
In addition to different heat sources you also have your choice of smoker styles, Mumford explains:
- Offset. The smoke generation area is offset from where the food is, instead of directly underneath it, allowing for finer control of smoke injection. “These are practical-but-pricey,” he warns.
- Direct. The smoke generation is under the food. “This way is harder to control the smoke but it’s best for personal use due to the price,” he says.
- Drum. This is a smoker usually made of metal that looks like a barrel or drum on its side. “You place the heat source at the bottom — usually wood fire or charcoal — and the item you are cooking will hang from bars that run across the top of the barrel,” explains Fox.
- Vertical water smokers. Fox calls these “R2D2 cookers” and notes that they are popular with people just getting started. These upright cylinders come in electric or charcoal and “above the heat source is a water chamber, and this adds moisture to the heated air.” However, Mumford warns, although they are very forgiving in terms of temperature, the food can end up tasting more steamed than smoked — so you have to be willing to trade flavor for convenience.
- Vertical. These smokers are usually made of metal that looks like an upright cylinder — usually direct and best for small home smoking.
- Ceramic. A ceramic cooker is a charcoal smoker that can double as a grill and so much more, Fox says. The ceramic material retains heat better than metal.
Best smokers to shop
Since smokers can provide heavy smoke flavor in a low heat environment, they offer something that grills just can’t emulate. Depending on the type of smoker you’re looking for, these are the top picks, according to the experts we consulted.
Best overall smoker: Traeger
This six-in-one pellet grill gives backyard pitmasters the ability to grill, smoke, bake, roast, braise and bbq. With WiFIRE Technology that allows you to monitor and adjust the grill anywhere, this Wi-Fi pellet grill is a sophisticated model that allows you to both sear and cook low and slow with impressive results. With a hopper capacity of 20 pounds (complete with a pellet system), adjustable two-tier grate system and 885 square inches of cooking space, you can enjoy the equivalent of ten chickens, seven racks of ribs and nine pork butts for a wood-fired backyard feast.
Best portable smoker: PK Grills
With four vents and a capsule shape, this charcoal smoker can easily convert from slow and low heat into a fiery grill. Bill Espiricueta, executive chef and owner of Smōk, recommends this portable cast aluminum grill and smoker combo that easily detaches from its stand to make traveling with it a breeze. “It’s so well made, easy to transport and doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that just end up confusing some home grillers,” he says.
Best smart smoker: Camp Chef
Don’t let the size of this pellet smoker mislead you, says Gina Ferwerd, recipe developer, food blogger behind Nom News and author of “Meals from the Mitten.” Not only can it fit a surprising amount of meat, it’s also equipped with a smart Wi-Fi and Proportional, Integral, Derivative (PID) controller, which automatically maintains the cooking temperature. “The Wi-Fi allows me to know the temperature and let’s me know when to flip or take the meat off through the Camp Chef App,” she says. “Once I set the temperature, the PID controller regulates the automation of feeding the pellets to add more heat or restricts the pellets if the temperature is up to par. It basically does all of the work for you.”
Best all-in-one smoker: Pit Barrel Cooker Co.
Whether you’re using this as a “set-it-and-forget-it” smoker for traditional smoking or want to switch to a high-heat charcoal grill, the Classic Pit Barrel Cooker is both versatile and compact. The unique “Hook and Hang” design smokes food vertically so juices drip down the cooking chamber and onto coals, infusing extra flavor into the smoke. The 30-gallon steel drum cooker is 18.5 inches and made from 18 gauge steel with a porcelain enamel coating.
Best splurge smoker: Big Green Egg
Although the Big Green Egg is at a higher price point than other at-home smokers, “these ceramic cookers are almost a must for any backyard kitchen,” explains Fox. Many agree that this versatile ceramic kamado-style charcoal grill is worth the investment with its ability to grill, roast, smoke, bake and sear. Plus, with a lifetime warranty, you don’t have to worry about rust or how it holds up to the elements. The seven different sizes to accommodate different yard spaces all share the innovative egg-shape design, but the most popular is the Large, which can cook 12 burgers, six chickens vertically and seven racks of ribs vertically.
While The Big Green Egg can be purchased in stores, it’s not sold online. A similar product, the Kamado Joe Classic I, can be shipped to your home, however. It smokes meat starting at 225 degrees and can cook food up to 750 degrees. There is also a slide-out drawer, which makes cleanup easy.
Best smoker for beginners: Masterbuilt Pro
The Masterbuilt Pro is one of the most widely used and versatile brands out there on the market, according to Chavez. This straight-forward electric smoker is ideal for those getting started and features four chrome-coated smoking racks, a side wood chip loading system and digital controls. All you have to do is plug it in, sit back and get ready to enjoy the final product without having to worry about charcoal or propane.
Best affordable smoker: Weber
The Weber Smokey line is the top pick for Hardy because it meets all of the needs for both the professional and amateur smoker. The 14-inch version is the smallest of the three, making it ideal for delicious barbecue even when you’re away from your backyard. This portable charcoal smoker comes with a cover, plated steel cooking grates, rust-resistant metal legs and a built-in lid thermometer.