A Guide To Barbecue Smokers

Types Of Smokers: Finding The Right Smoker For You

If you’re looking for good barbecue in the traditional sense, you’re no doubt looking at trying your hand at smoking. Low and slow ribs, pulled pork, chicken or brisket, there’s nothing better than a juicy piece of meat tenderized and flavored by a good smoker. But it doesn’t have to stop at BBQ. Smoked salmon is a definite crowd pleaser, while you can also make your own cold cuts or try some delicious cheeses in a cold smoker. There are many different ways to look at smoked meat so we’ve broken down the various types of smokers to get you started.

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Before we start, consider the following

(or scroll down to the red marker to jump to smoker types)

What will you be smoking? (Smoker Type)

If you’ve got your taste buds ready for some old-fashioned barbecue, with larger cuts of meat like brisket or Boston butts for pulled pork, you’re going to need a smoker that can handle it. Most larger types will accommodate while smaller cabinets may not fit ribs as well. Fuel type is a consideration too.

Charcoal and wood smokers are best for smoking traditional BBQ, but they also take time and patience, whereas electric or gas smokers are easier to maintain. If you’re only smoking small meats, you might want to consider a cabinet smoker (gas or electric) as they’re smaller and simpler to use.

Where’s the party? (Portability and space constraints)

If you’re the “go to” cook for all things BBQ in your circle of friends, you may need to look at something big that stays put if you entertain at home a lot. Or you may want something that can move around a bit for cookouts in the park, camping or tailgating.

If you’re a low-key family or just a couple living in a smaller space you may not need such a large cooker.  Basic cabinet or vertical water smokers can fit in any corner. Electric smokers are good if you live in an apartment building and aren’t allowed anything else.

How’s The Weather? (Performance & Durability)

With any smoker, you’ll have to take your local weather into consideration. Smokers are designed to cook at lower heats over longer periods of time. If it gets pretty cold where you are, your cooker is going to have put in more effort to keep up. Fuel guzzling and longer cook times can be a drag.

Kamados are insulated quite well for any weather, cheaper models of other smokers aren’t. Heavy-gauge metal, tight lids and air intake are considerations. There are many simple modifications to help various smokers perform in harsher climates. Quality smokers have less to worry about in these conditions.

How Attached Do You Want To Get? (Accessories)

As you get better with barbecue, you might want to branch out from the standards that you’ve been perfecting all summer. There are so many ways to enhance a smoker, with rotisseries,  cast iron grates, temperature regulators and other cool tools.

Take a look at what else your perspective smoker can do. Also, take a look at what modifications can be done to tackle any concerns you may have with a certain smoker. One small flaw may have you on the fence when all it may take is a roll of gasket tape to fix it.

▼ Now let’s look at the different types of smokers 

Charcoal & Wood Barbecue Smokers

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and what makes a good fire? Wood. At it’s purest form, barbecue is traditionally done over a wood fire, using its smoke for flavoring (with optional seasoning or saucing methods). Some BBQ lovers will only eat it when done by fire, others don’t care as long as it tastes good. We won’t get into that debate right now as we enjoy all outdoor cooking here at Grill, Smoke, BBQ. But we will admit that “wood fire” and “tastes good” go hand in hand. Let’s take a look at some smokers!

Vertical Smokers (Cylinder)

Bullet Smokers

First on the list of charcoal smokers, we’ll take a look at a vertical design in the shape of a cylinder. These are called water smokers (or bullets due to their shape). The typical designs of these types of smokers are split into 3 sections.

Fire tray on the bottom, water pan directly above, followed by the cooking chamber on the top. They also have an access door for adding extra charcoal, wood chunks, more water etc. Food loads from the top.

Water adds moisture to the cooking chamber to help keep meat juicy during long cooks, the pan itself also deflects heat and makes flare-ups impossible.

This Weber Smokey Mountain is basically a double-decker version of the kettle grill, which allows for extra layers of cooking surface. The only drawback to this style of cooking chamber vs. the standard Weber Kettle is not being able to access the lower rack without first lifting the top rack. But that’s only a small price to pay for the great smoked food this thing puts out.

Drum Smokers (Ugly Drum or UDS)

With the UDS, a big steel drum is used as a vertical smoker. Fire basket is at the bottom with wire grates above for placing your food. What’s great about these vertical types of smokers is their fuel efficiency due to low oxygen levels.

Often we hear the phrase “set it and forget it” in regards to electric and gas smokers, but not traditional wood smokers. However, it does apply here in the case of this Pit Barrel Cooker package and its “self-regulating” design.

Another cool thing about this cooker is the included steel hanging rods. If you need more cooking space, you can remove the wire grates and hang up to 8 racks of ribs (or any meat of your choice).

Will hanging long racks of ribs cook one side more than the other?

No. The convection heat creates an even cooking chamber. Don’t worry about flare ups either. Even though it doesn’t use a water pan, because of that low oxygen, the drippings create a “smoke fog” rather than big flames.

The design of these smokers is simple but very effective. In the case of the Pit Barrel Cooker, they come ready to go out of the box.

Pros And Cons Of Vertical Water Smokers

 

Pros:

  • Top loading design allows for the smoker to double as an efficient grill.

Cons:

  • Top loading design is not as accessible for lower food racks.

Vertical Smokers (Cabinet)

Two Door Smoker

Cabinet smokers are different than the previous verticals due to their front door design. And, since they don’t have a top lid, they’re not meant to double as grills. In the photo on the left ,you’ll see a typical two-door model of a charcoal smoker.

The bottom section is the fuel chamber, where they usually come equipped with a wood tray or charcoal box. The top section is the cooking chamber which will normally have multiple levels of cooking racks. What’s good about this design is how it maintains temperature.

When refueling a one-door model, you’ll have to open up the entire chamber and lose any built up heat. With wood fueled smokers it can take some time to get the right temp, so your work is literally going out the door.

But since heat rises, a two-door model allows you to open the lower access door and add charcoal without losing any heat (as the top chamber remains closed).

Pros And Cons Of Vertical Cabinet Smokers

 

Pros:

  • Cabinet door makes for easy access to the cooking chamber.

Cons:

  • Single door cabinets will lose heat with repeated access.

Horizontal Smokers

As barbecue has become more mainstream, so has a certain smoker type. The offset just looks like “real barbecue.” As backyard cooking enthusiasts rush out to get one, manufacturers are cashing in. Outside of the credibility, they’re spacious and can cook a variety of foods all at once. You can also use real wood in the firebox so naturally they catch the eye of first-time buyers. But before you go out and grab yourself a new “stick burner”, there are a few things you should know about these types of smokers.

Horizontal Offset Smoker

There are many inexpensive cookers that we’ll recommend on this site, because as long as they fit certain standards, good outdoor cooking can be found at all levels of budget. There’s an exception in the case of horizontal offset smokers though and it has to do with design. Offset smokers use a fire box on the side that transfer heat through the cooking chamber and out of the chimney.

Big box store brands that appeal to the casual barbecuer use thin gauge metal and cheaper finish. Throw a couple of burning logs in that small enclosure, and it doesn’t hold up so well. Warping, paint chipping, and rust are common with these cheaper models and really aren’t worth the hassle without extra mods. Offsets also take longer to get their heat up, so be prepared to wait.

This is not meant to steer you away from horizontal wood smokers, on the contrary. well-built offsets are awesome. We just want to be clear that if you really want to get a stick burner, you’re better off looking at the higher end brands with better build quality, so as not to waste your time and money on something that will only frustrate you in the end.

Horizontal Pellet Smoker

Another type of horizontal that is gaining popularity lately, the pellet smoker. They’re old school meets new school, a product of traditional design with a little update from modern technology. Very cool.

They’re set it and forget smokers that still offer great tasting barbecue from natural wood flavoring. Some people may question the automatic nature of these smokers, but a lot of credible teams on the national BBQ circuit use them. Even though they’re connected to an electric feed, they’re still all wood smoke so they’re allowed in competition.

Be advised that even though these smokers are also categorized as grills, they still use indirect heating. You’re not going to be able to sear steaks or much else in the way of traditional grilling like you would with a vertical smoker that has a top lid design.

Pros And Cons Of Horizontal Smokers

 

Pros:

  • Larger cooking chamber allows for large quantities of food.
  • Reputable brands allow for accessories and customization.
  • Credibility and cool factor. Looks like “real barbecue”.

Cons:

  • Larger frame takes longer to heat up.
  • Not cheap. Big box store brands often fall apart easily.
  • “Real barbecue” takes work, time and patience.

Types Of Smokers (Continued)

Kamado Barbecue Smokers

The kamado smoker or ceramic grill is a repeat on our “guide to” lists, as it’s also featured in our section on Types Of Grills. That’s because it really can be used as both smoker and grill due to its vertical design and top loading access (as opposed to the vertical cylinder). They can get really hot for grilling, or hold temp for longer smoke times.

Kamado Cookers

Kamados are solid multi-purpose cookers that can handle pretty much anything that you can throw at them. Prices can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to the $1500-2000 mark, while high-end models can go for as much as $5000.

The Big Green Egg brand is popular among backyard fans and pros alike, with its versatility, heavy insulation and build quality as strong points. Its diffuser plate prevents flare-ups while smoking yet can be removed for high heat grilling.

A more suitable model for both methods might be the Primo Oval ceramic. This is due to its unique shape. While most ceramics are round, the Primo’s wider oval design allows for better two-zone cooking. This is a technique in which we use one hot side and one indirect side for better heat control.

Kamados are a great option for anyone one who does as much grilling as they do smoking.

weber-summit-charcoal-mdm

Weber Summit Charcoal

Have you seen this? This is the Weber Summit Charcoal Grill and it’s more than just that, it’s kamado, smoker and grill all rolled into one! The difference between this and any other ceramic kamados is that it’s not a ceramic at all. It has the same heavy-duty, porcelain-enameled shell as its Weber Kettle and Weber Smokey Mountain counterparts, only now it’s double-walled with air-insulation to act like a traditional kamado.

How that works: There is an air pocket in between walls to help keep heat in. But unlike ceramic cookers, it cools down much quicker if you overshoot your temp, which can be damaging to your cook if you’re not paying attention.

It also comes with diffuser plates for low and slow cooking, as well as a gas ignition system to get your charcoal going quicker. This is definitely on the higher end of hybrid-smoker types, but if you know Weber, you may have heard that they last a lifetime.

Pros And Cons Of Kamado Smokers

 

Pros:

  • Versatile design allows for good smoking and grilling.
  • Heavy ceramic build allows for good insulation.

Cons:

  • Circular design doesn’t leave as much surface room with two-zone heating.
  • Heavy ceramic build takes longer to cool down if overheated.

Propane Barbecue Smokers A.K.A. “Gassers”

These will be referred to as propane smokers on this page. Although many people call them “gas smokers” these units are almost always propane out of the box, with a few companies offering natural gas conversion options (as in the case of the Camp Check Smoke Vault). There are a few different types of smokers in the propane category, with the cabinet type being the standard. The propane version of the cabinet works the same as others, but will have a fuel line connected to a fire tray in the bottom. This is where you add your chunks for smoking.

Vertical Propane Smoker

The obvious difference between the propane vertical cabinet and the charcoal is the fuel source but we’re mentioning it for a reason. Propane smokers are basically set it and forget it, so you don’t need to keep opening the door.

But with the popular Masterbuilt smoker pictured on the left, the smaller 30″ model is a two-door, while the 40″ version is only one door. So if you want the larger model, you have to keep its temperature in mind when accessing it.

This link will take you to both on the same page, for comparison.

The reason we’re bringing this up is because as mentioned, they’re quite popular as a bang for your buck smoker. They’re easily modded with a few inexpensive add-ons to get even more performance out of them, but this is what you might want to consider when looking at the different sizes. While the two-door is great for keeping heat in the chamber, in the 30″ you have to angle a full rack of ribs diagonally to make them fit, which takes up space. Or you could just cut your ribs in half and not worry about it.

The 40″ fits full racks of ribs beautifully, but you have only one door to work with. Many propane smokers only come with one door anyway, but since the Masterbuilt always comes up in the entry level smoker conversation, we wanted you to know.

Pros And Cons Of Propane Smokers

 

Pros:

  • Cabinet door makes for easy access to cooking chamber.
  • Can be had for a decent price.
  • Compact models make for a smaller footprint.

Cons:

  • Single door cabinets will lose heat with repeated access.
  • Budget smokers often need extra mods for better performance. **
  • Square cabinet models won’t fit ribs as easily.

** Modifications mentioned can be as simple as using a cast iron frying pan instead of fire tray. Gasket on doors to better seal in heat.

Electric Barbecue Smokers

While electric might not be the first thing traditional barbecuers bring up when on the subject of smokers, there are definitely advantages to them. Especially if you’re not as concerned with the method as long as the outcome is good. Most apartment buildings won’t allow propane, and they certainly won’t allow wood fires so electric is your best option when restricted by living space, but still want to dabble in a little smoke. Less mess, simple to use and if well insulated, great in the winter.

In the backyard, they’re great to have on the side while handling other cookout duties. Whether it’s tending to the grill or your guests, electric smokers give you extra options for more food without having to do too much. Bonus on low fuel costs, all you need is a bag of wood chips or chunks and you’re ready to go.

Self Fed Digital Smoker

So here’s a cool looking smoker, which also makes it a popular one when looking at electric models. It’s the “Jim Beam” digital by Bradley Smokers, a unit that automatically feeds fuel pucks (called “bisquettes”) into its smoke generator, which in turn connects to the cabinet style cooking chamber.

Each bisquette is good for 20 minutes of smoking, and depending on where you buy them, a 48 pack at $15 will add up to $1.33 per hour. While it gets generally positive reviews on Amazon, there are a few things to consider with these types of smokers.

With a need for special bisquettes, can you rely on availability? You can always order online, but there may be shipping costs and wait times. What if you want to smoke something now and don’t have the option due to an empty stash?

Bradley is a trusted brand that’s been around for a while, but with a need for special fuel, you run the risk of a product going obsolete when new ones are introduced.

With a reliance on electronics, if something fails you’ll need to look into repairs.

Masterbuilt Electric Smoker

An alternative option in electric smokers is 40″ front controller smoker with viewing window from Masterbuilt. It comes with a built-in digital probe for monitoring your temperatures, as well as remote control for the digital panel.

In terms of electric smokers, it has a very large cooking area at 975 square inches, it also has a 1200 watt burner which is more than double the average of other brands. We also like Masterbuilt smokers in general when it comes budget smokers (although electric models are a bit more in price than their propane counterparts).

As mentioned, electronics can fail but there is less to repair with this. And as long as your watt burner works, this thing will still cook.

Pros And Cons Of Electric Smokers

 

Pros:

  • No extra fuel sources, only wood chips needed.
  • “Set it and forget it”. Automated for ease of use.
  • Self-fed systems are innovative and convenient.

Cons:

  • Wood chips over a burner with no extra flame, you lose out on natural flavor.
  • Automation uses electronics, which can fail with a need for pricey repairs.
  • Can you rely on only one manufacturer for special pucks? (Availability)

Guide To Smoker Types Conclusion

There’s a lot to consider when figuring out which smoker is right for you. There are enthusiasts who only swear by one style of smoking, while others like to experiment. With a hobby like barbecue, it can get really exciting to try new foods and gadgets as you get better at it. But, it’s also easy to be misled when starting out, and it can be frustrating when expectations aren’t met. Friendly advice is good, but always remember what matters most, and that’s what you want out of your new hobby. Smoke on!

Now that you’re up to speed, check out the ▶︎ Best BBQ Smokers ◀︎

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