Master the Art of Barbecue with One of These Best Smokers
There are more choices than ever when it comes to smokers, and the options can seem overwhelming. Which type of fuel do you want to run on? Which configuration will best suit your purposes?
“If you’re going to smoke, an offset—the traditional Texas-style smoker—makes the best food,” says Jess Pryles, live-fire cooking expert and author of Hardcore Carnivore. “Offset is the purest way. It forces you to learn how to run the fire. With an offset smoker, the only way to control the temperature is the air intake. So, if you really want to learn barbecue craft, go offset.”
Well, that’s great, if smoking food is your passion and mastery of the smoker is your goal. But not everyone has the time to spend learning—a lot of folks just want to make some delicious food. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, we’ve tested many smokers to select the best options for everyone, from the beginners to the seasoned pros.
What You Need to Know About Smokers
The traditional offset Texas-style smoker has been the standard for quite a while, but newer technologies are slowly gaining ground. Electric, propane, and pellet smokers are all capable of producing great results, while digital control systems to manage temperature and airflow help flatten the learning curve to produce excellent smoked foods with little experience. Understanding the effort and knowledge required for each type of smoker and fuel will help narrow down which is right or you.
Types of Fuel
Wood: The traditional fuel, wood is what gives food that smoky flavor everyone is after. Different species of wood produce various degrees or notes of smokiness. Wood fires produce more ash than charcoal.
Charcoal: Lump charcoal is made by burning wood in a very low-oxygen environment where most of the volatile compounds like water, hydrogen, and methane are released, leaving almost pure carbon. The charcoal produces nearly no smoke and burns without flames and at a higher temperature than the wood it was made from. Charcoal also produces less ash than wood. Charcoal grillers will typically add wood chips to get the desired amount of smokiness.
Charcoal briquettes are generally made from sawdust and other wood byproducts that have been processed into charcoal, mixed with binders, and compressed into the shape we’re all familiar with. Briquettes may contain chemicals to bind them or make them easier to light. It’s common to add wood chips with these too to get that smoke.
Propane: Liquid petroleum gas (LPG), commonly known as propane, is a gas that’s compressed and stored as a liquid. As it’s released from its storage tank, it turns back to a gas. Wood chips need to be placed near enough to the propane burner to burn slowly and provide the desired amount of smoke. A lot of people choose propane because it makes the heat easier to manage and it’s cleaner, with only the ash from the wood chips to clean up.
Pellets: Wood pellets are made by processing wood waste down to a uniform sawdust-like consistency and then forcing it through dies at high pressure. Since pellets are made from wood, there’s no need to add wood chips to produce smoke. Bonus: Pellets produce very little ash.
Electric: Electric smokers have a heating element much like an electric oven. This element provides the heat to both cook the food and slowly burn wood chips that provide the smoke. Electric smokers leave very little to clean up without much ash from the wood chips.
Types of Smokers
Offset: Offset smokers have two compartments, a smaller one usually to the right or left of a larger one. The fire is stoked in the smaller compartment, and the grill vents the smoke and heat from it into the larger compartment containing the food. Offset smokers typically burn wood, or charcoal with wood chips added. This type of smoker requires more attention to the fire, and it helps to have some experience for getting everything perfect. Per Pryles’s sentiment above, experts regard offset smokers as one of the best ways to smoke food.
Vertical or Bullet: Vertical smokers are tall, narrow, and sometimes called bullet smokers because of their shape. The bottom of the unit houses a charcoal fire, a propane burner, or an electric element, and the heat from that travels up to the top and the racks holding the food. Generally, these grills open at the top for loading food inside, although some have doors on the side. Wood chips usually go on or directly above the fire or heat source. Sometimes vertical smokers are also called water smokers because they have a bowl or pan filled with water between the heat source and the food. Similar to an offset smoker, this helps shield the food from direct heat so that it cooks more slowly. The size of the fire (or heat setting on an electric element) controls the heat and the smoke, limiting airflow at the bottom and exhaust at the top. This type of smoker also requires attention and experience.
Box or Cabinet: Box smokers function similarly to vertical smokers, except they typically have front-load doors for both the food and the fire box. From bottom to top, they have the fire or heat source, something to hold wood chips, a water pan or bowl, and then racks for food. Managing the fire, airflow to it, and exhaust out the top is essential to controlling heat, much like with a vertical smoker. Note that pellet-fueled box smokers, which include smokers that look like traditional grills, typically have a hopper to the side and an electric control system.
Due to the rising popularity of pellet grills and smokers, control systems are becoming more common. These typically have a digital thermostat and a fan to manage the fire and temperatures. In the case of pellet-fueled devices, they also have an auger to feed the pellets to the fire. Some units may also have Wi-Fi connectivity and apps that pair with the system for remote monitoring or control. These systems can handle a lot of the work associated with smoking and long, slow cooking by keeping temperatures and smoke levels consistent.
We regard digital thermometers as required equipment, especially when getting started smoking food. Temperature is critical to getting the results you want and being sure that meat is cooked enough to safely consume. If your smoker doesn’t come with probes to monitor the internal temp, we recommend getting a digital thermometer. There are many options out there, but you don’t need anything fancy. Throughout our testing, we used a TP-20 model from ThermoPro. It’s wireless, with two probes and multiple settings for different types of meats. Wireless units will give you some freedom from being tied to the smoker. Some of the briskets we smoked took over six hours, so it was great to be able work on other tests we had going at the same time. More importantly, it helped us avoid serving overcooked or undercooked meats.
Masterbuilt Gravity Series 560 Digital
While not strictly a smoker, the Masterbuilt 560 has an innovative method of burning charcoal, making it a multi-purpose backyard cooker. A gravity-fed vertical hopper on the end of the grill stores the charcoal, which is burned from the bottom with the flames. The grill then pulls the heat from that into a large diffuser; the heat then rises to the grates. A digital thermostat sets the temperature and controls the fan that feeds the fire. Masterbuilt has an app that pairs with the grill to set and monitor cooking remotely. The grill comes with one temperature probe but has ports for three more. Smoking in the 560 is as easy as setting the temperature and a timer. Using lump charcoal will provide a great smoky flavor. And if you need more smoke, there’s an ash bucket that holds wood chips, which will burn slowly as embers fall on them. Our first cook—a small brisket we had on for almost six hours at 220 degrees Fahrenheit that developed a fantastic crust—was so easy and so tasty. And we were able to get results like this every time we cooked on the 560. If cleaning up ash has held you back from using charcoal, Masterbuilt managed to do away with that hassle. Because of the vertical hopper, the charcoal flows down as it burns, with the ash simply falling into a bucket at the bottom. Just open a door and empty the bucket—it’s that easy.
―BEST VERTICAL SMOKER―
Weber Smokey Mountain
The 18-inch Smokey Mountain from Weber is a standard water smoker. Like many similar models, it has a bottom rack and a retaining ring for the charcoal, a large bowl for water, and two racks for smoking food on. But it differs from others in that it’s made from heavier porcelain-enameled steel, has a heat shield on the bottom to protect your deck or lawn, and comes with a fitted cover. When we first fired it up to season the smoker, we took the opportunity to get familiar with setting the three air vents around the bottom, as well as the top vent, to hold a temperature. We were able to keep the temperature in the 200 to 275 degree “smoking” range by monitoring the thermometer in the lid. Smoking beef jerky, we wanted to keep the temperature on the lower side at around 200, which was a little challenging—the temp kept creeping up, so we watched it closely and adjusted the vents as needed. In the end, the jerky smoked a bit faster than we intended because of this. In hindsight, we got a little too much charcoal burning before we started smoking, which generated more heat than we needed. We managed the heat better when smoking the brisket and were able to hold close to 225 for the five hours it took to smoke our smallish cut of meat. On longer smoking sessions, we appreciated the large door to add fuel and wood chips. The Smokey Mountain is a basic smoker that will require a little experience to use effectively but will ultimately be worth the time and produce great results.
―BEST PELLET SMOKER―
Pitt Boss Copperhead 5-Series
We pulled the best brisket of this test off the Copperhead 5-Series, which accomplishes the rare feat of making smoking simple. The glass door is a nice feature, allowing you to monitor things without opening it and losing heat. It is a double-edged sword, though, because we had to clean it after each use to see what was going on inside. The first meat we put in the smoker was that brisket, going for 9.5 hours at 225 degrees Fahrenheit. As it fed in pellets, the unit visibly produced a lot smoke, something we found quite reassuring. After the brisket was done, we noted the amount of ash the grill produced and decided to clean out the fire pot and bottom of the smoke chamber once it cooled. Doing that was a simple process and should take you just a few minutes if you use a shop vac. We also smoked chicken leg quarters at 350 F, followed by beef jerky at 175 F, and were pleased with the results in both cases.
―BEST PROPANE SMOKER―
Dyna-Glo Dual Door
The Dual Door 36-inch gas smoker from Dyna-Glo boasts a large 784-square inch cooking area. Despite that generous space, the unit takes up only a 19 x 19-inch patch on your deck or patio, thanks to the cooking surface being divided between four stacked, adjustable shelves. We found two advantages to the Dual-Door using propane as fuel: One is the ease of adjusting temperatures (it isn’t as reliant on vent adjustments), and the other is not having to add fuel, like charcoal, in the middle of a smoking session. Purists will probably want to forego the convenience, but we appreciated it. The top door provides access to the smoking racks, while the bottom door opens to the water tray and wood chip box above the 15,000-BTU burner. When we smoked a brisket, we used the door-mounted thermometer to monitor heat, aiming to keep it around 225 degrees Fahrenheit, which was relatively easy. However, we weren’t getting as much smoke as we would have liked, so we turned up the burner and opened up the bottom vents to let more air in, as well as the top chimney vent to let more heat out. This helped quite a bit. We smoked beef jerky, trying to keep the temp at closer to 200, which was just a little more of a challenge to keep the wood chips smoking enough for our taste. We found using a thin layer of smaller chips worked best, adding more when the smoke started to thin. When everything was said and done, we couldn’t notice a significant difference in flavor between the jerky smoked over propane from any of the others.
―BEST ELECTRIC SMOKER―
Smokehouse Products Big Chief Front Load
Smokehouse Products has been making the Big Chief in the U.S. since the early 1980s. The design has remained mostly unchanged, an example of the age-old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Quite honestly, we found its retro, utilitarian appearance charming. Its boxy shape does exactly what it needs to do, and when smoking is done, it’s easy to stow away in the shed or garage without taking up a lot of space. Originally designed for smoking salmon and trout, the Big Chief has seen broader use as smoking has become more popular. It is particularly good at maintaining a steady temperature—it reliably held about 165 degrees Fahrenheit during testing—which means that you’ll have consistent results. We ran several batches of beef jerky through the Big Chief, and now we don’t want to buy the commercial kind anymore. It takes about three and a half hours and two to three pans of wood chips to smoke a batch. The front-load unit has a small door to pull out the pan, so you won’t have to let all the heat out to add more chips. Use it to smoke sausage, boneless chicken, bacon, steaks, fish, fruit, cheese, and more. Citrus-marinated chicken cutlets were particularly good. But if you smoke bigger, thicker meats, like chicken on the bone or brisket, you’ll want to move to an oven or grill after smoking thoroughly to cook to the target internal temperature.
―BEST COMBINATION GRILL/SMOKER―
Oklahoma Joe’s Rider 900 Grill & Smoker
The Rider 900 has a few significant differences from other smokers we tested. To start, it has a three-piece, porcelain-coated, cast-iron grate that has more mass and helps maintain a steady temperature. Unlike other pellet grills and smokers we tested, the Rider comes with two surfaces/shelves that provide plenty of space to work. However, they don’t fold down when not in use, so they can get in the way when during storage. And the Rider has unusual controls, in that it has smoke and grill settings in two different scales on the same dial, with temperature listed up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit for smoking, then low, medium, and high above that for grilling. We smoked brisket in the lower range and grilled chicken in the low end of the grilling range. The unconventional control was odd but delivered delicious results, proving the Rider to be equally good at both smoking and grilling.
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