Meat smoking is growing more popular, but with so many meat smokers to choose from, how do you decide which one to buy?

There are gas smokers, electric smokers, pellet smokers, ceramic smokers, offset smokers, vertical-bullet smokers, and more.

Meat smokers that use gas or electricity take less work than charcoal smokers, which are more labor-intensive. Load the meat smoker with wood chips or pellets to make smoke, and the heat will remain steady as long as it is connected to either electricity or gas.

Meat smokers that employ charcoal as a heat source, such as ceramic, offset, or bullet smokers, take more effort to keep a consistent heat temperature and smoke. Cooking with charcoal, on the other hand, produces a more natural result.

Below is a more detailed explanation of how each type of meat smoker works, which should make your decision on which meat smoker to buy a little easier.

What is a smoker?

A smoker, often known as a BBQ smoker, is an outdoor cooking apparatus that can keep temperatures low for long periods while generating smoke and holding it around the meat for absorption. Box smokers, offset smokers, kamado grills, and pellet grills are among the many types of smokers available, and they can be fueled by gas, charcoal, electricity, or wood pellets.

What makes a smoker different?

The ability to cook low and slow over a flavorful heat source isn’t the only difference between a gas grill, charcoal grill, and smoker.

Here’s a simple breakdown of their differences:

  • Gas grill: Low to high heat, no smoke flavor, easy to maintain temperature.
  • Charcoal grill: Low to medium heat, heavy smoke flavor, temperature control varies significantly depending on the model.
  • Smoker: Low to medium heat, heavy smoke flavor, temperature control varies significantly depending on the model.

Gas grills do not produce the same rich tastes as smoke or charcoal grills. The smoking part offers a new flavor profile, especially since you can choose what type of wood you want to smoke.

Oakwood, cherry wood, and mesquite wood produce three distinct flavors, none of which can be found on a charcoal grill.

The 7 most common types of smoker

Gas smokers

How do they work?

Gas smokers or propane smoker, like electric smokers, do not naturally emit smoke. Hence wood chips are added to provide the smokey flavor.

To modify the flame, these have ignition and a heat control knob. They are easy to operate, and the temperature is controlled in the same way that a standard gas BBQ or oven is. They also have a temperature sensor on the front so you can monitor the inside temperature of your smoker. While gas smokers are typically narrow, they contain many racks at varying heights, making them ideal for cooking smaller portions of meat or hanging sausages.

A wood chip basin rests on top of the gas burner at the bottom of the smoker. The heat from the burner heats the chips or pellets in the bowl, causing them to smolder and smoke. A water pan sits above the wood chip basin and serves two purposes. The addition of water to the water pan aids in regulating the temperature of the meat smoker. It also collects all of the drips from the cooking meat and prevents fat from dropping on top of the gas burner.

The advantage of a gas smoker is that if you’re satisfied with the quantity of smoke in your meat after an hour or two of smoking, you may choose not to top up the wood chips or pellets at any time and use the smoker to continue cooking rather than smoking.

Pros

  • Set and forget
  • Gas smokers are just as easy to use as electric smokers, and propane is a widely available fuel.
  • The temperature of a gas smoker is easy to control, and changing the heat is much easier than with a charcoal or pellet burner.
  • A gas grill can be started considerably faster than a charcoal grill. If you are pressed for time, you can go from cold to cooking in about 15 minutes.

Cons

  • Lacks real experience
  • Is limited to larger portions of meat
  • While gas produces more combustion chemicals and hence more flavor than an electric grill, some people say that it makes everything taste like bacon
  • To be cautious, you’ll probably need two gas bottles, just in case a half-filled one runs out of gas. If your tank is going low, you should check it every 30 minutes or risk coming out to find your smoker has died.

Who should buy one?

Gas smokers are ideal for pitmasters who want a little more flavor-enhancing combustion chemicals than an electric smoker but without the mess of charcoal smokers or the cost of a pellet smoker.

A gas smoker would also suit someone seeking something they could take camping or cookouts because their gas bottle fuel source is relatively portable, and the smokers themselves tend to be quite light.

Our number one pick for best gas/propane smoker

Masterbuilt MB20051316 Propane Smoker with Thermostat Control, 40 inch, Black
  • Temperature sensor controls burner to maintain desired temperature
  • Safety valve shuts off burner if flame is extinguished
  • Tank fuel level gauge indicates the amount of propane in the tank

Charcoal smokers

Charcoal smokers

How do they work?

When wood is superheated to temperatures above 1,000°F, most non-carbon organic constituents are burned off, and the resulting ‘char’ burns cleanly and produces little smoke. This char is then shaped into small briquettes known as charcoal.

The heat is provided by charcoal, and the chemicals produced, such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide, enhance the meal’s flavor. Additional smoke is produced by using wood chips, which are often placed above the smoldering charcoal.

The quantity of heat produced is controlled by air intakes located near the coals. The more air that enters the firebox, the hotter the charcoal burns.

Most charcoal smokers hang the food above the coals, using a chimney and air dampers at the top to draw heat and smoke across the food.

Controlling the passage of air and smoke is essential when smoking with charcoal. If there is too much air, the meal will be dry and tough; the smoke and ash will make the food bitter without enough air.

Charcoal smokers come in various forms and sizes, ranging from the sturdy Weber Smokey Mountain to the eye-catching ceramic kamado ovens such as the Kamado Joe.

Charcoal is a close second to wood pellets in terms of the fuel that adds the most flavor. The cost of this added flavor is that charcoal smokers are more labor-intensive than electric or gas smokers, necessitating more set-up, babysitting, and cleaning.

Pros

  • Charcoal smokers are regarded as the gold standard when it comes to achieving that deep smokey flavor.
  • They come in various sizes and styles, making finding one that fits your available space easier.
  • Charcoal actively adds to the taste of the food you’re cooking, and the nitrogen oxide it emits is essential for achieving an authentic smoke ring.

Cons

  • Compared to electric or gas grills, charcoal grills require a lot more babysitting as well as a little more practice and know-how. If you want to light the charcoal and let it ash before adding it to the smoker, you’ll have more luck with an electric smoker.
  • It may take some time to start smoking because you’ll need to light the charcoal and let it ash before putting it in the smoker.
  • Because of the ash and particle matter produced by charcoal, there is a lot more cleaning up to do once you’ve finished smoking.

Who should buy one?

If you’re serious about smoking food, a charcoal smoker is a way to go.

Their designs can be as simple or complex as you desire (you can construct one out of an old oil drum), and while it may take some time and work to achieve consistent results, it is well worth it.

Our number one pick for best charcoal smoker

Weber 18-inch Smokey Mountain Cooker, Charcoal Smoker
  • Material Type: Steel
  • The Weber Smokey Mountain charcoal smoker helps you achieve an authentic smokehouse flavor at home
  • It can accommodate a whole turkey and an entire ham at the same time. Item weight- 39.1 pounds

Offset smokers

Offset smokers

Offset smokers were originally made from discarded oil drums, and their barrel-like shape reflects this.

Owning one of these atrocities is on most pitmasters’ bucket lists. They’re big, hefty, and have enough room to fill an entire city block with expertly smoked food.

How do they work?

The term “offset smoker” refers to the firebox being offset to the side and under the main cooking chamber. When wood or charcoal is burned in the firebox, smoke and heat are pulled across the food in the cooking chamber and exit out a chimney.

The chimney of a typical offset smoker is located opposite the firebox.

Some offset smokers have a reverse flow’ system, which uses baffles to force smoke and heat to travel under and over the food. Reverse flow offset smokers are easy to identify since the chimney is situated above, rather than the opposite, the firebox.

Pros

  • The offset smoker’s large barrel cooking chamber makes it easy to cook large amounts of food.
  • Some models include a grill plate that can be attached above the firebox, making it a two-in-one griller and smoker.
  • Because the firebox is completely separate from the cooking chamber, you can add more fuel to the fire without letting out the heat and smoke.

Cons

  • Cheap offset smokers are not worth the money. Poor building means poor heat retention, leaks, and dry food. It may cost a bit more, but top-quality offset smokers are always worth the extra money in the long run.
  • Starting up an offset smoker is a time-consuming process. Expect it to take an hour to get it up to temperature and ready to cook. 
  • It’s also not a ‘set it and forget it’ method like an electric smoker. Getting the most out of an offset smoker requires a lot of practice to learn how to use it properly, but once you do, you can expect to cook some excellent cuisine.

Who should buy one?

Offset smokers are a terrific purchase for someone willing to put in the time and effort to get the most out of a fantastic yet difficult to use smoker.

Offset smoking is an art and a science, but if you have the patience, it can yield a vast amount of great food. Just make sure you have enough space in your yard before purchasing one. They are not insignificant!

Our number one pick for best offset smoker

Oklahoma Joe's Highland Reverse Flow Smoker
  • 900 total Square inch cooking surface- 619 Square inches in main chamber, 281 Square inches in firebox chamber
  • Reverse-flow smoker employs a Series of 4 baffles to guide heat and smoke through the main chamber delivering an even and delicious result
  • Removable baffles and optional smokestack locations for a customizable setup

Pellet smokers

Pellet smokers

Pellet smokers are a rather high-tech hybrid of an oven and a smoker. They combine the additional smokey flavor of real combustion with the convenience of an electronic smoker.

One of the many advantages of a pellet smoker is that it can be used as a grill, oven, and smoker, making it an all-in-one cooking solution.

How do they work?

Pellet smokers make use of compressed sawdust that resembles chicken feed.

An auger drill feeds these pellets into a firebox from a hopper on the side of the smoker. A heated metal rod inside the firebox causes the pellets to combust, producing both heat and smoke in the cooking chamber above.

Pellet smokers use built-in thermometers to maintain a consistent temperature by adjusting the airflow and amount of pellets put into the firebox.

Pros

  • Pellet smokers combine the taste improvement of real wood smoke with a cooking technique that you can set and forget.
  • They are flexible, working as a smoker, grill, and oven all in one.
  • The wood pellets burn down to almost nothing, so there isn’t much maintenance other than emptying the firebox, which is typically detachable.

Cons

  • They are not cheap!
  • The heating rod that ignites the pellets, the fans, and the drill all run on electricity, so you’ll need a socket nearby
  • Wood pellets aren’t nearly as easy to get as charcoal or gas, so you’ll need a stockpile just in case

Who should buy a pellet smoker?

If you enjoy smoking but want a high-tech solution that allows you to burn wood without the supervision of a charcoal smoker, the pellet grill is an excellent choice.

It’s also attractive and versatile. If you have space for cooking equipment, then it should be one that can cook, smoke, and grill.

Our number one pick for best pellet smoker

Traeger Grills Pro Series 575 Wood Pellet Grill and Smoker, Bronze
  • NEVER USE GAS OR CHARCOAL AGAIN: Traeger created the original wood-pellet grill as the ultimate way to achieve wood-fired taste; The Pro 575 takes it to the next level with precise temperature control. 500 °F Max Temp
  • CONNECTED HOME TECHNOLOGY: WiFIRE technology connects your grill to home WiFi and the Traeger app allows the user to control the grill from anywhere; Alexa technology allows you to do it all by voice
  • VERSATILE BARBECUE COOKING: The Pro 575 pellet grill offers 6-in-1 versatility to grill, smoke, bake, roast, braise, and BBQ all on the same grill; The Porcelain grill grates makes clean up a breeze

Electric smokers

electric smoker

How do they work?

Electric smokers generate heat using a heating element rather than a combustible fuel. Because there is no actual combustion, the smoke is produced by wood chips hung above the heating element. The heating element is often located at the bottom of most electric smokers, with the wood and water pans sandwiched between it and the food racks.

Electric meat smokers will have an on/off button and adjustable temperature control, allowing you to control the amount of heat generated by the electric element. They have adjustable racks, similar to gas smokers. The height makes them ideal for hanging sausages, but the width and depth may be limited. Again, you could struggle to fit a huge brisket, but you’d be able to fit a lot of chicken, fish, ribs, pork belly, and smaller briskets.

A wood chip bowl rests on top of the electric element at the bottom of the smoker, and as the wood chips or wood pellets heat up from the electric element, they begin to smoke.

Like gas meat smokers, they have a water bowl that collects all of the drips from the meat and protects the electric element. The water bowl also aids with temperature regulation and allows you to add apple juice, wine, and other flavors to your smoke.

Pros

  • Set and forget
  • Electric smokers are easy to use, making them a great first smoker for someone who has never used one before.
  • You don’t need an additional fuel source, such as gas, pellets, or charcoal, which reduces your costs and the amount of stuff you must store when your smoker isn’t in use.
  • Good quality electric smokers can be relied on to maintain a consistent temperature and don’t run out of fuel. This eliminates the need to babysit them, allowing you to focus on other duties while periodically returning to replenish the water bowl.

Cons

  • Lacks real experience
  • Is limited to larger portions of meat
  • Is more expensive to run
  • The flavor produced by an electric smoker differs from that of other smokers due to a lack of actual combustion and the low smolder temperature of the wood chips used to produce the smoke.
  • The absence of combustion gasses means your meat will not form a smoke ring, which is attributed to the presence of carbon monoxide and nitric oxide.

Who should buy an electric smoker?

Electric smokers are ideal for persons who do not have access to wood, gas, or charcoal burners. They also suit folks who would rather place food in a smoker, set a timer, and walk away, confident that their food will not spoil because they aren’t continuously checking on it.

Our number one pick for best electric smoker

Masterbuilt MB20071117 Digital Electric Smoker, 30", Black
  • Digital panel controls on/off, cooking temperature and time
  • Electric Smoker dimensions – 20.47" W x 19.88" L x 33.26" H | Max temperature setting – 275ᵒ F | Inside capacity – 2 Turkeys, 4 Pork Butts, 4 Racks of Ribs, 6 Chickens
  • Patented side wood chip loading system allows you to add wood chips without opening door

Kamado grills

Classic Joe III

When we say Kamado grills are old school, we mean they’ve been around for about 3000 years. Most people won’t recognize the name Kamado right away, but they will remember the omnipresent Big Green Egg!

While the Kamado Joe and Big Green Egg is the most well-known brand of Kamado grill, it is far from the only one available. There are numerous great brands to choose from, and they make excellent smokes.

How do kamado grills work?

The Kamado grill’s unusual egg form is more than just a fashion statement. The shape and thickness of the ceramic walls, based on traditional clay ovens, aid in heat and moisture retention.

The food is put on a grill grate above the fire, which provides heat at the bottom of the cooking chamber. Vents at the top and bottom of the grill regulate the amount of heat produced.

In general, if you’re smoking on a Kamado grill, you’ll be using wood chips and a water dish. Some types include a heat-reflecting deflector plate that sits immediately above the fire and reflects some heat.

The grill’s design causes smoke and heat to rise above the food and be directed back onto it.

Pros

  • Because there is less airflow inside a Kamado, there is less chance of your food drying out, so you can expect your meat to stay moist and juicy
  • Kamados are very multi-purpose and, in addition to working as a smoker, can also grill, bake, and even double as a pizza oven
  • If you live in a colder climate where smokers and standard grills struggle with heat retention in the winter months, the thick walls of the Kamado grill are

Cons

  • As wonderful as they are, Kamado grills are not inexpensive. Expect to pay roughly $1000 for a high-end model.
  • Because they only have two vents, temperature adjustment might be difficult.
  • Because the fire is underneath the food, adding extra fuel and collecting ash can be difficult.

Who should buy a kamado grill?

It takes some time to learn how to operate Kamado grills properly, but once you do, they are a great and versatile cooking system. This is the grill for you if you want to bake the bread for your sandwich while also smoking the meat that goes in it.

If you live somewhere cold and struggle with heat retention, a Kamado grill can help you to address that problem because of its superb insulation.

Our number one pick for best kamado smoker

Kamado Joe KJ23RHCI-A, Classic Joe III Charcoal Grill
  • Premium 18″ ceramic grill with heavy-duty galvanized steel rolling cart with locking wheels.
  • Patent pending SlōRoller Hyperbolic Smoke Chamber - The first of its kind, the revolutionary SlōRoller leverages Harvard science that transforms a Kamado Joe into one of the world’s most optimal smokers. By distributing smoke and heat in rolling, recirculating waves, the SlōRoller surrounds food in clouds of delicious smoke while evenly distributing heat—resulting in enhanced flavor and significantly reduced hot spots.
  • 3-Tier Divide & Conquer - Divide & Conquer Flexible Cooking System transforms the humble grill grate into the most powerful cooking tool in your arsenal. The revolutionary multi-level, half-moon design frees you to cook different foods in different styles at different temperatures—all at the same time.

Kettle grills

best Kettle grills

While a kettle grill is not strictly a smoker, it is one of the most commonly owned pieces of live-fire cooking equipment and can easily be used to smoke modest amounts of food. These are inexpensive and widely available, making them one of our favorite types of grill smoker combos.

If you happen to have one of these lying around in your garage right now, it can be an easy method to start smoking food.

How do kettle grills work?

A kettle grill can be converted into a smoker by rearranging the charcoal within, adding wood chips, and a water pan.

The Snake method is one of several innovative methods for smoking on a kettle grill.

Unlit coals are arranged in a “C” shape, two briquettes deep and two high (precise arrangement varies).

Image by Weber

Then you light a few hot briquettes and set them at the start of the Snake.

The burning coals will gradually fire the unlit ones, keeping the temperature low and longer burn time.

To create smoke, wood chunks are placed on top of lighted coals, and a water pan is laid on the grill grate above them. The additional water serves to reflect heat and add moisture to the inside of the grill.

The smoked food is then placed on the opposite side of the banked coals, and the grill cover is set so that the air vent on the lid is above the meal.

The air is then drawn up through the grill’s base vent, over the coals, wood chips, and water pan. This produces smoke and moisture, which runs over the food as it exits the lid vent, seasoning it while the indirect heat of the coals cooks it.

Pros

  • You don’t need to buy a smoker if you have a kettle grill on hand.
  • Wood chips and a water pan are quite easy to come by, and you don’t need to make any structural alterations to your kettle grill to use it as a smoker.

Cons

  • Because it isn’t designed to be used as a smoker, it can be difficult to control the airflow correctly, and thus the quantity of smoke and heat in a kettle grill, making it tough to achieve consistent results.
  • You’re still using charcoal, so there will always be some cleanup to do.

Who should buy a kettle grill?

The nicest part about using a kettle grill as a smoker is that you almost certainly already own one!

Kettle grills make excellent jery-rigged charcoal smokers and would be ideal for someone who mostly likes to grill but also wants the option to smoke food on occasion.

Our number one pick for best kettle smoker

Weber 441001 Original Kettle 18 in Charcoal Grill, Black
  • Holds up to nine burgers made with a Weber burger press. Dimensions - Lid Closed (inches) : 36"H x 18.5"W x 23"D
  • One-Touch cleaning system provides hassle-free ash cleanup
  • Porcelain-enameled lid and bowl retain heat, and won’t rust or peel

Things to keep in mind before buying a smoker

What is your budget?

The type of smoker you should buy will be determined by the quantity of money you have available.

If you have a budget of less than $500, you should probably avoid an offset smoker because everything in that price range will be crudely manufactured and difficult to work with.

You’ll also be locked in the price range for pellet grills, where quality isn’t always great.

Between $200 and $500, there are many excellent alternatives in the charcoal, propane, and electric families.

Finally, if you have more than $1,000, you can look at the best brands of offset smokers like Yoder, a quality Kamado like the Kamado Joe, or a huge high-tech pellet smoker.

Type of fuel

Your budget limits your selections, but you must still choose which fuel source or type of smoker to use. We go through this at great length above, as well as in our buying guides.

As a general rule, I recommend a charcoal smoker to anyone interested in learning the art of barbecue, a pellet smoker to anyone who wants great food and is willing to spend some money, and a propane smoker to anyone who doesn’t have much money but wants the set-and-forget convenience of a pellet smoker.

I recommend deferring the offset until your second or third smoker, and a Kamado is a wonderful alternative if you have a reasonable budget and want a grill/smoker combo.

How many people will you be cooking for?

All types of smokers come in a variety of sizes. However, some, like electric/propane, tend to be huge.

You can usually compare the cooking area size in square inches, and many manufacturers will provide helpful recommendations on how many birds or burgers you can accommodate.

Keep in mind that just because a smoker has a specific number of square inches doesn’t imply you can put everything you want to cook in it.

Many folks were dissatisfied when they discovered that their “large” electric smoker couldn’t fit a full packer brisket or rack of ribs without trimming it.

Do you need it to be portable?

Smokers aren’t the most portable of devices. Several manufacturers do make good devices for camping or tailgating.

These are almost always small enough to fit easily in your trunk, so you will have to make room for this feature.

Charcoal and pellet grills are two terrific portable options.

Temperature & airflow

It’s nearly impossible to achieve a fantastic BBQ if you can’t easily control the temperature. This is especially true for smokers, so you should take the time to learn about the temperature-control features of the model you eventually buy.

Charcoal and kamado smokers use just dampers (or vents) to control airflow into the cooking chamber, which affects the fire and internal temperature.

Even gas and electric smokers may have a damper mechanism to allow for more precise temperature control.

So, what does this have to do with you?

Check that the dampers are conveniently accessible, easy to operate, and built of rust-resistant materials (a rusted damper will be stuck in place, as will your airflow and temperature).

FAQs

How does a smoker work?

These machines operate at a considerably lower temperature than a typical grill to produce their unique smoke. Whereas a grill cooks food at temperatures ranging from 400 to 500°F, smokers cook at temperatures ranging from 180 to 220°F. As a result, the wood chips smolder rather than burn, filling the cooking space with smoke.

This indirect heat cooks your food and imparts a delightful smoky taste, but the process takes much longer than a standard grill—smoking meat typically takes 6-8 hours, but it can take up to 22 hours for huge portions of meat like brisket.

Is it necessary to clean my smoker after each use?

Your smoker, like your grill, requires regular maintenance if you want it to produce the best results and last for years. After each usage, clean out the ashes, grease, and food buildup, and you may need to re-season the smoker to retain its protective covering.

Last update on 2021-12-04 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API