The Most Common Types of Smokers – And Which One You Should Buy
Today we’re talking about cooking with one of the coolest appliances on the market – the smoker. A smoker is a tool utilized by many amateur and professional chefs to prepare meals that are (you guessed it) smoked! Smoking is a really delicious way to prepare food, and we’re going to tell you all about it.
This article is all about the different types of smokers that you may encounter when trying to purchase one of these magnificent machines. There are many methods by which food can be smoked, and as a result there are many different smokers on the market. We’re helping you to bypass this confusion by outlining all the major types.
What is a Smoker?
First thing’s first, since this article is about the basics of smokers, let’s first outline what a smoker is.
“Smoking” food is the method of preparing food by which you brown, flavor, or cook through exposure to smoke. This smoke is the result of a smoldering/burning material (most often wood or charcoal). Common foods which are smoked are fish, meat, vegetables, and more.
A “smoker” is any appliance where the primary purpose is to smoke food. As you might imagine, there are many possible ways to create smoke to cook food. And as a result, there are many variants of smoker available on the market today. Our goal in this article is to help you understand the differences between these offerings, so that you can choose the best one that suits your home-cooking needs.
After all, the “best” smoker on the market is really just the one that works best for you. So read on to discover all about these smokers, and pick the best way to achieve that delicious, smoky taste at home.
Why Get a Smoker?
If you’ve ever tasted smoked meat, you can probably guess the appeal that a smoker holds to so many people. The common term applied to smoking meats is “low and slow”. This is in reference to cooking the food at a low heat for a long period of time. The result is an extremely tender piece of food (usually meat or fish), with a rich, smoky flavour.
Of course, this is really just the tip of the iceberg with smoked foods. There are so many different recipes, and methods of perfectly smoking and cooking your food, that it is too much to even get into them all in this article. Just know that if you buy a smoker you are entering flavour country. You’ll have a great time learning new, exciting, and delicious methods to cook food.
Definitely the most popular type of foods to smoke are red meat, chicken (or any other poultry), fish, and pork. A smoker is excellent for any of these proteins. They all have different methods of cooking, seasoning, and temperatures at which it is best to smoke them. Popular dishes include beef brisket, pulled pork, smoked sausage, smoked back ribs, and much, much more.
But we could go on for this entire article about all the delicious creations you could make with a smoker. But our focus is on the types of smoker, so let’s get back on track. Firstly, there are two major categories of smoker:
Broad Categories – Direct and Indirect
Basically every type of smoker on the market falls into one of two broader categories – direct and indirect. Understanding the distinction between these categories will help you understand not only how your smoker works, but how you can work your smoker in order to create some of the most delicious meals possible.
A direct smoker is a smoker in which the heat source comes directly from below. The food is placed above the source, and the smoke directly makes contact from beneath. In contrast, an indirect smoker is where the heat source is located somewhere else, typically off to the side. The smoke is then able to flow through the smoker. One example is the offset smoker, which we will explain in more detail below.
Basically, each of these general categories have stark differences in the way that the meat is cooked, and also in the way that the end result will taste. To better understand these differences, it is best to evaluate each type of smoker in turn.
Most Common Types of Smoker
In this section, we’re running down all of the most popular types of smokers on the market. These are generally available for purchase, although some can even be home made with things you might have lying around.
Keep in mind when you are reading this list what you are actually looking for. Each of these have distinct advantages which we will note, and it is up to you whether it is the best smoker for your personal situation. After all, the “best” smoker is really just the one that is best for you. Let’s get started with one of the most popular smokers on the market:
The propane smoker, gas smoker, or “vertical” gas smoker, is one of the most popular variants of smoker for household use. These things are very popular because they are easy to set up and easy to use. The smoke is created more or less automatically, and you have a great deal of control over the temperature and heat. These are a great addition to any patio.
Most of these smokers are built vertically, as you can see in the picture below. It is similar to a cabinet, in which the meat is placed on shelves, and the heat source is located at the bottom of the smoker. The burner and the vents are located at the bottom of the smoker, and there is a chimney at the top.
Basically, the gas hookup (either with a propane tank or a direct line) lights a fire at the very bottom of the smoker. You can typically control the intensity of this fire with a knob. This heats up a tray of wood chips, which is responsibly for the smoky flavour.
Above the wood chips there is a water tray, which heats up to evaporate and produce a smoky flavored “smoke”. It is worth noting that the smoke isn’t the pure smoke you might get out of other smokers. Much of the smoke is just the evaporated water that has been “flavored” by the wood chips. It isn’t natural “smoke”, but it does have the smoky flavour of wood chips.
Pros and Cons of a Propane Smoker:
In order to properly make your decision as to which type of smoker is best for you, we’ll be doing a pros & cons list for each type of smoker.
The pros of a gas smoker are all about the usability and functionality. It is so easy to turn on and control the temperature. As opposed to other types of smoker, you can get it started and producing smoke almost immediately. Definitely a much easier choice than many other types of smokers.
As for cons, this one is typically not the choice of smoking “purists”. As we explained above, the “smoke” in this smoker is partly just evaporated water which has been “filtered” through wood chips. Although the wood chips do let off smoke as well, it is not always the type of smoke that smoking traditionalists might swear by.
We’d definitely recommend a gas smoker to most types of at-home chefs! These smokers are renowned for their usability. Smoking is a pretty complex method of cooking. From controlling the heat, to controlling the amount of smoke, to keeping it consistent all day, it can be a pretty huge headache sometimes. This type of smoker simplifies it as much as possible, and makes smoking accessible to the average person.
As long as you are okay with the fact that this is a less “traditional” type of smoking, then you should be fine. Gas smokers still produce incredibly delicious meals! A quick Internet search will yield thousands of fun smoking recipes for you to experiment with!
Electric smokers are perhaps the simplest options on our entire list.
The main thing that turns many people off about smoking is the complexity of it all. From burning wood, to managing the amount of smoke, to keeping the temperature consistent, it can all be a bit complicated for the amateur chef. Electric smokers do away with these concerns almost entirely!
Electric smokers work using a heating element. The heating element is placed beneath wood chips, which are responsible for the “smoky” flavour of the smoke. Above the wood chips is a water pan. The water evaporates, which adds vapor to the smoke, helping to enhance the “smokiness” inside the machine. Additionally, the water pan also shelters the meat from the direct heat, which lowers the temperature overall, so that slow cooking can be achieved.
Essentially, these work in a similar manner to the propane smoker above, but the heating comes from the electrical element instead. This also saves you the trouble of having to restock propane to run your smoker.
Pros and Cons:
The pros and cons of an electric smoker essentially boil down to convenience vs. tradition.
It’s hard to deny that these are one of the most convenient smokers on the market. Simply fill the wood chip tray and the water tray, set the temperature, and you’re cooking! None of the worries that are traditionally associated with smoking, like keeping the fire stocked, and keeping the smoke and temperature consistent. Some electric smokers allow you to switch up the temperature through bluetooth!
The cons are mostly that this isn’t considered a “traditional” method of smoking meats. The reasons for this are pretty obvious. Traditional barbecue involves a fire that you stock yourself, to create your own heat and your own smoke. Chances are, this won’t matter too much to most people. But if you are looking to become a traditional pit master, then this probably won’t make the cut. Electric smokers still produce meat that is very smoky and very delicious.
Once again, it really comes down to how much of a “purist” you are looking to be. If you want to learn to BBQ the traditional way, then this might not be for you. If all you’re looking for is an easy cooking experience that will result in some delicious smoked meats, then an electric smoker is just fine for your needs!
Electric smokers can get quite expensive as well, so be sure that you are really interested in smoking meats before you put down your money on one of these units.
You probably recognize Kamado Grills, as they have been made quite popular by the Big Green Egg brand. While they might seem relatively new, they actually use technology that dates back thousands of years! The design is actually based on old clay ovens.
A Kamado Grill uses thick, ceramic walls to keep the heat in. The Kamado grill is built similarly to a traditional BBQ. The food is placed on a grate, and the heat comes from below. The Kamado burns wood chips to produce the smoke, and there is a water tray placed above the chips to add additional moisture and control the smoke levels. The smoke is also managed by vents on the top of the grill.
Kamados often have dual functionality as well, and are able to be used as a traditional home barbecue.
Kamado Grills definitely owe their vast popularity to the Big Green Egg, but there are actually many other brands available.
Pros and Cons:
Unlike the two smokers we mentioned above, Kamado Grills are closer to the “traditional smoking” experience. You have to add wood chips, and the smoke is more difficult to manage. There can be quite a learning curve if you expect to master this grill. From keeping a consistent amount of smoke, to keeping a consistent temperature, to managing it all with the vents on top of the grill. This is quite a complex grill, but the results are more than worth it.
This brings us to the pros. Simply put, these things make fantastic meals when you learn to use them properly. The thick wall keep moisture and heat inside the grill, which results in some delicious, juicy cuts of slow-cooked meat. So long as you take the time to learn how to use the grill properly, you will be rewarded for your efforts.
However, this quality comes at a price. These grills are not cheap. Specifically, the Big Green Egg brand will cost well over $1000 for some models. Be sure that this is something you are interested in learning how to use properly. Think of it as an investment.
We would definitely recommend this smoker to someone looking to learn a more traditional BBQ experience. These grills have the pit master seal of approval. They make excellent, high-quality smoked meats, and it’s all because of their functional, heavy-duty design. Be prepared for a learning curve, but also be prepared for some of the most delicious smoked meats you’ve had in your life.
Here’s a real back-to-basics approach. The drum smoker is about the simplest type of smoker on our list, but you can definitely make some very delicious cuts of meat with one of these. A drum smoker got its name because it utilizes a big steel drum. This means that a lot of home pit masters will make their own!
Basically, it is a very simple design. It utilizes a large steel drum, with a firebox in the bottom, and a cooking grill at the top. There are vents at the bottom near the firebox, and in the lid, which allow you to adjust the smoke manually. Unlike many of the other smokers on our list, this one doesn’t have a water tray. This means that the smoke comes directly from the firebox onto the meat. This makes it a bit more of an intense heat, and also makes it a bit more difficult to manage all of the smoke.
The firebox is typically filled with charcoal. So although it is quite difficult to use, it produces some pretty delicious, smoky meat if you learn to use it properly.
Pros and Cons:
The pros and cons of this smoker essentially boil down to expense vs. usability. This is one of the most basic, simple smokers on the market. Many come in DIY kits and can be assembled at home. This means that it is quite cost-efficient to build your own and start smoking meat.
The cons are mostly based around the complexity. Unlike many smokers on our list, these don’t manage the smoke for you. They are so simple, but you basically have to do everything yourself. You need to load the firebox, heat the coals, and manage the smoke. There is not even a water tray to shelter some of the intensity of the heat.
However, it also forces you to learn the ins-and-outs of smoking meats. You will become quite adept because you will need to manage everything yourself. Drum smokers are often the starting point for many experienced pit masters. They offer an extra level of control over the process, and you can make some pretty delicious creations if you do it right.
We’d recommend this smoker to anyone looking to learn the process of smoking meats from start to finish. It is an inexpensive way to get a crash course in the fine art of “low and slow”. You might not nail it right away, but with practice and patience, a drum smoker can make you quite a meat connoisseur.
Charcoal smokers are among the most popular smokers on the market. This is due to the fact that they are relatively easy to use, and there are some inexpensive options available.
Charcoal is the result of wood that is superheated so that much of the components burn off, leaving “char”, which is formed into small briquettes and sold as charcoal. Charcoal is so popular because it burns cleanly for a long period of time, and leaves a strong smoky flavour.
A charcoal smoker is typically designed vertically. The pan at the bottom houses the coal. The amount of smoke is largely controlled by vents at the base, which allow more or less oxygen onto the charcoal, effecting both the rate of the burn and the amount of smoke. Above the charcoal pan will typically sit a water pan. This adds moisture to the cooking environment, and keeps the meat nice and juicy. Additionally, the water deflects the direct heat of the charcoal, keeping it “low and slow”.
The meat is placed on a grate above the water tray. The lid of the smoker also has vents which help to control the amount of smoke, as well as the internal temperature.
Pros and Cons:
The pros and cons of a charcoal smoker have to do primarily with ease-of-use vs. function.
These smokers are typically great, inexpensive options for home smoking. They produce great, natural smoke, and charcoal adds that delicious smoky flavour to all sorts of different cuts of meat. If you are looking for a traditional kind of smoking, then it’s hard to get more traditional than this.
The cons are typically associated with the complexity of the machines. Unlike gas and electric smokers above, you have to largely control the smoke yourself with the different vents, and control the rate of the burn. This adds an extra layer of complexity to the process, but also an extra layer of control. For true BBQ “purists”, they may actually prefer this. But these mahines are definitely more difficult to learn and to master.
Once again, our recommendation really depends on what you are looking for. If you want a “set it and forget it” type of smoker, then this definitely isn’t for you. This is the kind of smoker that you have to monitor, and keep constantly adjusting the smoke and internal temperature. Definitely more of an “experience” than a simple preparation.
But if you are willing to put in the time to learn the ins-and-outs of a charcoal smoker, then you will be rewarded with delicious, smoky cuts of meats that rival even top-quality smokers. This is the choice of a pit master in the making.
Pellet smokers are given their name for the unique type of cooking fuel that they use – pellets. Pellets are made of sawdust, and compressed into a pellet shape. These smokers also function in a truly unique way, and combine the benefits of an electric smoker with the smoky taste of more traditional smokers.
Basically, the pellets sit in a box which is located to the side of the grill. A “firerod” inside the firebox cause the pellets to combust, which produces smoke and heats the grill. These grills are actually quite sophisticated, and internal thermometers will maintain the smoke and regulate the heat automatically. They combine the natural smokiness of a genuine smoker with the simplicity of an electric smoker.
Pros and Cons:
The pros of this grill are quite self evident. They produce that real, smoky flavour, and are quite easy to use. In fact, they are definitely a “set it and forget it” type of grill. They do a great job of monitoring their own heat, and you don’t have to worry about struggling to maintain an internal temperature or optimal amount of smoke. Additionally, the pellets burn to a crisp, which means there’s minimal clean up.
Of course, as is often the case, these high-tech, high-convenience machines don’t come cheap! Expect to pay at least a few hundred dollars, with some costing much more than that. Additionally, wood pellets are sometimes a bit hard to locate, as these smokers are far less common than wood, charcoal, and gas.
If you’re looking for the most advanced in smoker technology, then the pellet smoker might be for you. They combine the benefits of a traditional smoker with the ease and convenience of an electric one. You can achieve that rich smoky flavour with the convenience of a smoker that monitors its own temperature and smoke levels. Of course, the main hesitation will be the price tag. If you’re ready to invest into a premium smoker, then this might be exactly what you are looking for.
An offset smoker stands in stark contrast to many of the vertical smokers on our list. The first thing you will notice is that the heat source is to the side of the actual grill (thus being “offset”). This type of grill produces indirect heat and smoke.
The heat box is located to the side of the grill, and the smoke travels through the grill and is released by a chimney on the other side. This design allows the smoke to travel across all of the food. This means you could potentially have a very large grill surface, which can make these smokers very ideal for efficiently cooking pretty massive quantities of meats.
Pros vs. Cons
The pros and cons of these smokers are largely dependent on the quality of smoker that you purchase. Due to their design, they need to be built very well or else they will face quite a few common problems. The first problem is that, because the fire box is located on one side of the grill, that side tends to be a lot hotter. There can be problems with uneven heating and with smoke distribution. Quality offset smokers can eliminate this problem by being air-tight, to eliminate any lost smoke and evenly heat the entire grill area. Of course, these do tend to cost a lot more.
An offset smoker is quite a bit easier to use. The simple design makes it easier to monitor and adjust the firebox, thereby adjusting the smoke and the heat. They also produce real smoke, which can result in some very tasty creations. These are a favourite among pit bosses who are looking to make a lot of high quality meat at once.
These are certainly quality smokers if they are done correctly. However, in order to ensure quality, you’ll probably need to buy one of the higher end models. Without splurging on these grills, you might end up with a smoker that faces a lot of issues with heat distribution. But if you are willing to invest into one of these, you can expect a grill that is relatively simple to learn, and one that is great for feeding large gatherings of people.
Choosing A Smoker
Before we wrap up our guide, we thought we’d give you a quick buyer’s guide so that you can make the perfect choice out of all the smokers on our list. After all, the best smoker is really just the best smoker for you.
As you can probably see by now, there is a lot to choose from when it comes to smokers. We recommend you make your decision based on how invested you would actually like to get into the smoker experience.
Many of the smokers on our list are quite a bit more difficult to use than others. The main differentiating factor is how well they actually monitor their own smoke and heat levels. Some are very hands-on, and require you to monitor the smoke and heat on your own. These include drum smokers, offset smokers, and even Kamado Grills.
On the other side of things, some smokers are very user-friendly, and do a good job at keeping their own temperature, and keeping a good amount of smoke for an even cook. These smokers include gas smokers, electric smokers, and pellet grills.
You should consider which type of smoking experience is best for you, and then browse through the options on our list to find a price point that works for you. We are sure that there is a smoker on our list that will suit your needs perfectly, but you first need to decide what these needs are!
Regardless, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most tender, most flavorful meats you’ve ever had!