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Want mouthwatering BBQ with tender meat falling off your fork? You need a smoker.
Everyone from the weekend cook who wants a grill that doubles as a smoker to the BBQ enthusiast who regularly prepares feasts for family and friends can find a quality smoker that won’t disappoint.
But narrowing down the field can be daunting. Smokers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs, and each style has its pros and cons. Where should you begin?
At BestReviews, we perform in-depth research, test products in our labs, ask the experts, and poll existing customers, all so you can make the most informed shopping decisions.
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If you’re ready to get smoking, check out the matrix above for our top five picks. But if you want to know more about smokers and what to look for before you buy, just keep reading.
Smokers come in all shapes and sizes, but they can be broken down into several broad categories.
This type of smoker has a main cooking chamber with a firebox. The smoke travels from the firebox through the main chamber and out a smokestack. These horizontal smokers can cook a large amount of meat at one time. Professional-grade smokers are often this style.
Born and raised in Paris, the land of unapologetic butter, Francois has spent the last 20 years shaping the American culinary world behind the scenes. He was a buyer at Williams-Sonoma, built the Food Network online store, managed product assortments for Rachael Ray's site, started two meal delivery businesses and runs a successful baking blog. When he's not baking a cake or eating his way through Europe, Francois enjoys sharing cooking skills with cooks of all levels. Rules he lives by: "Use real butter" and "Nothing beats a sharp knife."
These smokers use pellets in a hopper, or external fire bin, that feeds the pellets into an internal firepot.
Temperature is controlled by how quickly pellets are fed into the firepot. This can be done either manually or, with more expensive models, digitally.
Pellet grills work as either a smoker or a grill. Most are excellent smokers, but few are good at both smoking and grilling.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Weber 18-Inch Smokey Mountain
The Weber 18-Inch Smokey Mountain is a compact horizontal water smoker, perfect for those looking to dip in their toes before jumping to a larger smoker. The two cooking grates create enough surface area to cook large cuts of meat, yet the smoker has a small enough footprint that it won’t dominate your backyard. A coated steel exterior stands up to weather and heavy use. An aluminum fuel-access door and vents help prevent rust. Most importantly, the Weber has an accurate temperature gauge that keeps temperatures steady for 12 to 14 hours.
As the name implies, these smokers are shaped like a box, and they front-load through a door. Box smokers can smoke an impressive amount of meat in one go. Cheaper box smokers often don’t produce good results because they lack the insulation necessary to hold heat.
Recognizable by their egg-shape design, these smokers double as grills. They require some modifications to work effectively as smokers, such as adding deflector plates, but they successfully pull double-duty. The high price makes them most practical for those who grill and smoke frequently.
Your smoking skills should help you decide between models that use pre-measured wood chip pucks/bricks versus models that let you customize your own wood chip mix.
The most basic style of smoker, drum smokers are easy to use. They are portable and lightweight but struggle to cook large cuts or quantities of meat.
These smokers have a heat source, usually charcoal, at the bottom. When lit, the heat source warms a water pan, which regulates the heat of the smoker while keeping the meat moist. These small smokers don’t take up much space but also don’t cook a lot of meat at once. Most come with more than one rack, but you have to remove the top rack to reach the rack underneath.
You don’t want flames when smoking. If your smoker flames up, either move the racks up so the meat doesn’t touch the fire or damper down until the flames decrease.
The material used to make a smoker can make a big difference in the results.
Smokers made with thick steel will absorb and distribute heat better, as well as limit temperature fluctuations.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Char-Broil American Gourmet
The Char-Broil American Gourmet’s steel construction and good-sized cooking area make this grill/smoker combo a good choice for those on a budget. As with other offset designs, even heating can be an issue. Using charcoal in the firebox and giving it time to warm up helps distribute heat more evenly. Once properly seasoned, the Char-Broil provides enough surface area to cook for four to six people and possibly more, depending on the cut of meat. As far as starter smokers go, this is a good one. Temperature control takes some trial and error, as much of it relies on the fuel used and damper control, but once you’ve figured it out, the American Gourmet produces consistent flavor.
It’s also important to know the temperature range of a smoker. In general, smoking is done over low heat for a long period of time. But if you want to cook turkey or sear a steak, you’re going to need a smoker that can reach temperatures of 375° and above.
For wood and charcoal smokers, dampers are used to control the temperature by limiting oxygen supply to the heat source. Dampers should be easy to access and close to both the chimney and firebox.
Fat and drippings add to the flavor of the meat. Let fat drip onto the grill and into the drip pan for the best results.
Controlling the temperature of the smoker is key to getting the right amount of flavor and tenderness.
For beginners, an electric or gas smoker is the easiest to control. With these smokers, you can set the temperature and walk away while the meat cooks.
Serious cooks, including those who want to enter BBQ contests, should cook with either charcoal or wood, which are harder to regulate.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Masterbuilt Front Controller Electric Smoker
You can cook a lot in the Masterbuilt Front Controller Electric Smoker. Temperature control is easy with digital controls. Adjustable racks provide the versatility to cook a whole turkey or other large cuts of meat. A built-in meat thermometer lets you keep tabs on the temp. Using the remote, you can check meat temperature and make adjustments without moving from your lawnchair. A small wood chip tray means you’ll have to keep an eye on the chips to make sure they don’t get low, but the results are worth it. Even heating and consistent results make this smoker a standout for those looking to up their BBQ game.
It will be harder to get a predictable flavor with a less insulated smoker. Leaky seals let out smoke and heat.
Deflector plates, hooks, water pans, and counterweights are all tools that make using a smoker easier. Look at what accessories come with the smoker.
Your smoker should be kept at least 10 feet from your house. Cook away from garages or overhangs, as a flare-up could start a fire.
A smoker’s cooking surface area determines how much meat you can smoke at once. If you plan to smoke for a crowd, an offset or box smoker is the best choice.
Vertical smokers and Kamado grills have additional racks to increase the cooking area, but they can be hard to access.
The size that’s best for you also depends on what type of meat you want to cook. A turkey or a long rack of ribs require a larger smoker, for example.
Make sure to ‘cure’ electric smokers by seasoning all grates and surfaces with cooking oil and leaving it on for two hours. This will remove odors and residues.
Look for a smoker with wheels, so you can easily move it around the yard.
These make it easier to adjust for different sizes and cuts of meat.
Grease collects fast, and a smoker’s parts cannot be tossed in the dishwasher. Consider whether or not you’re ready to maintain a large smoker, which requires more maintenance. Stainless steel grates are the easiest to clean. Chrome-plated grates wear out over time and may rust.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Bradley Smoker Original Smoker
The Bradley Smokers Original Smoker features an automatic smoke generator that takes a lot of the guesswork out of smoking. It monitors the temperature and automatically adds a charcoal briquette every 20 minutes. Four racks give plenty of space for large quantities of meat. It can also be used as a slow-cooking outdoor oven. Note that the max temperature is 275°F. Meat temperature must be monitored manually. The non-stick racks and drip pan make it easy to clean, a definite bonus.
For $100 or less, you’ll find small smokers of various designs.
In this price range, smaller models perform better, since they aren’t trying to do the work of large smokers with lower-quality construction.
Insulation and temperature control aren’t as good in this price range.
If you’re cooking with wood chips, be aware that different kinds of wood produce different flavors. Apple, cherry, pecan, alder, and oak chips affect the taste and complement different meats.
Between $100 and $200 are smokers that are ideal for those who want to smoke meat periodically. Again, you’ll find smokers of various designs, but the key is to look for one with good seals and temperature control.
In the $300 to $400 range, the smokers get larger and the metal gets thicker, which means the insulation improves. If you’re looking to cook for a crowd, start looking at this price point.
Never use a smoker inside a house or in an enclosed space. The smoke emits carbon dioxide, which poses a serious health risk.
At $400 and above, you’ve entered the price range for serious chefs who smoke meat on a regular basis.
Smokers of all designs can be found in this price range.
These high-end smokers have better insulation, thicker metal, and tighter seals to keep heat and smoke trapped tight.
Q. I want to start smoking, but I’m not ready to make a big financial commitment. What kind of smoker should I start with?
A. A simple drum smoker is a good place to start. They are small, easy to use, and affordably priced. Another option is a basic horizontal water smoker with digital controls. They are easy to use, don’t take up a lot of space, and you don’t have to sit around feeding in charcoal or wood chips while the smoker works.
Q. What’s the best way to start charcoal for my smoker?
A. Be careful not to use charcoal with additives in your smoker. These additives can leave a strange taste in your food. You’ll have the same problem if you use lighter fluid. The best way to start a smoker is to use a charcoal chimney and something flammable like newspaper. Chimneys also allow you to light more charcoal at once.
Q. Do I need to clean my smoker?
A. Yes and no. A good smoker needs a layer of seasoning that can only be achieved with an initial coating and use. You don’t want to remove this protective layer. But you will get splatters of fat on your smoker. Running the empty smoker at a high temperature will burn off the residue you don’t want while maintaining the seasoning. You can clean out any noticeable deposits but don’t scrub with a brush. Do remove any racks and the drip pan or water pan and clean after each use.
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At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.