Buying a new smoker can elevate your outdoor cooking game like never before. Smokers allow you to cook low and slow at controlled temperatures, imparting a delicious smoky flavor into your food. But, with so many types of smokers available today—from large offset smokers to portable smokers you can take to your next tailgate—it can be hard to decide which one you should get.
Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. Some types of smokers use more direct heat while others use more indirect heat. It just depends on how they are set up. Neither is necessarily better than the other. It is just a matter of being able to keep a consistent temperature and ensuring there is enough space between your meat and the heat source.
In this article, we’ll break down the different types of smokers to help you decide which one is right for you. Let’s take a look:
Charcoal smokers are the most commonly used types of smokers by backyard BBQ enthusiasts and even some competition cookers. Vertical charcoal smokers, sometimes referred to as vertical water smokers or “bullet smokers”, are one of several types of charcoal smokers.
These smokers have a bottom compartment (firebox) that holds the charcoal/fire, then above that a water pan that deflects the direct heat and provides a moist cooking environment, then the smoking chamber with the grates your meat will go on. The amount of heat in the smoker is controlled by air intake vents at the bottom near the coals. Many models of vertical smokers then have exhaust dampers/vents at the top that help control the flow of smoke, though some do not.
You can also add wood chunks or chips to your charcoal for extra flavor in your meat.
The key to being successful with these smokers, and any charcoal smoker, is being able to effectively control the flow of air and smoke. (Keep in mind: cheaper models without adjustable vents will make this more difficult)
Vertical charcoal smokers have quickly become some of the most popular available on the market. This is mainly because they are often the least expensive choice when it comes to smokers, some models only costing a couple hundred dollars. They are also smaller in size and weight compared to other types of smokers, which makes them a good choice for someone looking for something that can still be portable.
A popular higher-end and higher quality choice in vertical charcoal smokers is the Weber Smokey Mountain.
Another type of charcoal-fired grill is the Kamado grill. You may not have ever heard the term “Kamado” but you’ve probably heard of one of the brands of Kamado grills, Big Green Egg.
These oval-shaped smokers, made of ceramic, are based on Japanese rice-cookers used over 3,000 years ago. Acting somewhat as an oven, the shape and thickness of the clay walls aid in heat and moisture retention.
Similar to the way the vertical smokers work, you’ll have the fire at the bottom and the food and water pan are placed on the grates above the heat. The vents at the top and bottom are then used to control the amount of heat, though you will have less airflow compared to other types of smokers. The shape of these smokers directs the smoke and heat over the food, allowing you to get a great smoky flavor and keep the meat moist.
One of the great things about Kamado smokers is their versatility. Because of the thick ceramic walls, it can also be used to grill, bake, and even cook a pizza like in an old-school pizza oven. The thickness of the walls and level of heat insulation also make these a great option for smokers that will do well when smoking in cold climates.
Though they often make it easier to maintain consistent temperatures, Kamado grills will be more expensive compared to other charcoal smokers. Some top of the line models, like those from Big Green Egg and Kamado Joe, will be over $1500.
Drum smokers have become a fairly popular option when it comes to types of smokers. This is largely due to the inexpensive, build-your-own kits for what are called “ugly drum smokers” or UDS. These kits, often less than $200, come with everything you need to turn a 55-gallon drum into a large basic smoker. You’ll end up with a smoker similar in size to a 22.5-inch vertical bullet smoker.
These smokers normally consist of simply a firebox in the bottom and a cooking rack at the top, with a lid that helps seal in the smoke. You’ll then use the vents to control the temperature. Drum smokers are still fairly lightweight, making them an option if you are looking for something portable.
Most of the time, with a UDS, you will be cooking over charcoal without a water pan, relying on direct smoking and radiant heat. (Unless of course, a modification has been included to add one.) This can make it tough to ensure you don’t dry out your meat so it can take some mastering.
To up the ante on drum smokers, there are higher-quality ones like those from Short Rib Drum Smokers that are pre-made, fully assembled, and ready to go. They also look much better than a traditional 55-gallon drum.
If you are looking for a large smoker with enough room to smoke multiple pieces of meat together, an offset smoker is a great option. These are definitely for serious pitmasters. Offset smokers take practice to master and are far from a “set it and forget it” cooker.
Offset smokers were originally created from unused oil drums that were turned on their side. Many offset smokers today still resemble this barrel shape. They are called “offset” because of the fact that the firebox is offset to the side and below the main cooking chamber. The chimney is then usually situated on the opposite side of the firebox. This draws the smoke and heat across the food and out of the chimney.
In many offset smokers, you can use either wood or charcoal as your fuel source, depending on the flavors you want to achieve.
Make sure to avoid cheap offset smokers. The poor construction in these will result in bad heat retention, leaking smoke, and dry food. If you are going to cook on an offset smoker, spending the money on a good quality one will always pay off. Quality offset smokers start around $800.
Source: Green Mountain Grills
A pellet smoker (also called pellet grill) is a high-tech cross between a smoker and an oven. These cookers combine the delicious smoky flavor you get from burning wood with the convenience of an electric smoker.
Pellet smokers get their name from the food-grade compressed wood sawdust pellets that they use for their fuel. When cooking, these pellets are in a hopper on the side of the smoker and an auger drill feeds the pellets into the firebox. A heated metal rod inside the firebox causes the pellets to combust, creating both heat and smoke in the cooking chamber.
The “set it and forget” feature is the fact that pellet smokers use built-in thermometers to keep the temperature stable and heat consistent. Based on what the temperature is reading, the smoker will automatically change the airflow and amount of pellets that are being fed into the firebox.
Also, like Kamado grills, pellet smokers are versatile and can actually be used as a smoker, grill, and oven.
All of the main components of these smokers are run by electricity so you will need an outlet nearby. Keep in mind that if a mechanical problem happens, this can also mean expensive repairs if not covered under warranty.
When looking at buying a pellet smoker, make sure to do your research and select a good quality smoker from a brand that stands behind their products with a warranty. One source for high-quality pellet smokers/grills is Green Mountain Grills, whose smokers start at $499.
Sometimes called box smokers, these vertical cabinet-style smokers run on either propane or natural gas. Most of the time this gas will come from refillable gas tanks unless you have a gas hookup on your home.
These smokers basically have a burner and vents at the bottom, the cooking chamber above that, and the chimney and exhaust dampers at the top. The gas flows from the bottle (or home hookup) through a manifold and down to the burner section. Here, as it flows out of the burner valves, it is ignited to produce the heat to cook. Because these smokers don’t naturally produce smoke on their own you can use wood chips near the burner to produce the smoky flavor.
It is much easier to control the temperature in these smokers compared to charcoal or pellet smokers. They are also usually pretty light, so these are another option if you are looking for a portable smoker.
The thing that will differentiate good gas box smokers from bad ones is the amount of insulation (or lack thereof). If you get a good box smoker that has good insulation and a door that seals well, you can produce great barbecue in an easy-to-use controlled environment. The price ranges greatly between cheap thin box smokers and high-quality ones.
Sometimes referred to as smoker ovens, electric smokers are very similar to propane vertical/box smokers. The main difference is that they are controlled by electric power versus gas. In electric smokers, an electric heating element is what is used to control the heat and temperature. They are technically a large appliance used to cook and smoke meat.
Most electric smokers have the heating element at the bottom, then the wood and water pans where wood chips smolder to create the smoke and the water creates the internal moisture. Above these pans, a funneled piece of metal blocks direct radiant heat and collects drippings to prevent flare-up fires and keep the heating element clean. Then above that, you’ll find the food grates where you put the meat and hook up the meat temperature probes.
These smokers are the ultimate set it and forget it option. Using an electric smoker means setting the temperature, potentially from a Bluetooth app with some higher-end models, setting a time, and sitting back and waiting. The smoker’s computer will then automatically control the temperature and cook your meat to the desired temperature. It can then drop it to a holding temperature mode to keep it perfect until you are ready to eat.
Like many other types of smokers, you get what you pay for. So if you’re going to go for an electric smoker, make sure to get a good quality one that will last. There are some great quality digital electric options from Masterbuilt that run between $230 and $400.
Keep in mind, to make your electric smoker last, you have to remember it is an electrical appliance. It has to be used outdoors because of the smoke but it cannot stay outside in the elements all the time. Between cooks, it should be stored in a garage or other protected area.
Source: Weber Grills
Though not technically a type of smoker, chances are you probably have a traditional, cheap kettle grill around. If you are not quite ready to pull the trigger on buying your new smoker or you won’t be smoking meat often, you can turn your round kettle grill into a smoker with some modifications.
The easiest way to do this is to arrange the coals in the bottom so that they are all in one half of the grill, creating a two-zone grill. Then you place some wood chunks or chips on top of the coals so that they will smolder and create the smoky flavor you are looking for. You then set a water pan on the grill grate above the coals. Your meat then goes on the opposite side of the grill grate over the indirect heat side. Then place the lid on so that the air vent is above the meat.
The vent in the base of the grill then draws air in, over the coals, wood chips, and water, causing the smoke and moisture to flow over the food on the way out of the lid vent.
Because it can be hard to control the airflow and temperature and get consistent results, this is best used as a temporary option when it comes to types of smokers. Or for someone who only wants to smoke meat occasionally.
As you can see, there are quite a few different types of smokers. All of them, when used properly, have the capability of smoking some great-tasting meat. Hopefully, after reading this article, it’s now a little easier to narrow down which type would be the best smoker for you.
The things you need to consider revolve around what kind of meat you’ll be smoking and how much you want to put into it, both money and effort.
Once you’ve decided on the type of smoker you want and you are ready to truly take your meat-smoking game to the next level, get started on our online BBQ cooking classes here at BBQ Champs Academy. Champion Pitmasters and Grillmasters will take you step-by-step through competition BBQ cooking techniques and secrets and help you master your smoker. Elevate your outdoor cooking game like never before.
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Thank you for sharing this. Can you tell me which is the best one for outdoor camping?
Hey Jon! Glad you liked the article. To answer your question, vertical smokers (both charcoal and propane) and drum smokers are usually going to be the most portable options, as they are usually pretty light. You could of course use a traditional kettle grill converted into a smoker, which are also light and portable.