Steven Raichlen's Barbecue! Bible


A Guide to Vertical Gas/Propane Smokers

A Guide to Vertical Gas/Propane Smokers

A long night spent tending the fires might make you question your decision (not to mention your sanity) to go old-school—it sure seemed a good idea when you bought that wood- or charcoal-burning offset barrel smoker. Hey, what’s so wrong with the “set it and forget it” philosophy, you wonder as you grope to silence your 2 a.m. alarm?

If you desire a less demanding mistress (or a good night’s sleep) and have a couple hundred dollars to spend, consider a propane-fueled vertical smoker. These convenient, easy-to-use smokers deliver a lot of bang for the buck whether you’re new to smoking or have many long smoke sessions under your belt.

Camp Chef Smoke VaultThe typical cabinet-style gas smoker looks a bit like a small gym locker. Some models are squatter, reminiscent of vintage safes—the kind you see in old Westerns. (One company, Camp Chef, exploits the resemblance with its boxy Smoke Vault.)

Most gas smokers use same simple design. At the bottom is a gas burner connected to the propane tank, or in rare cases, to a natural gas line. (Most models are not natural gas line-compatible, although Camp Chef—see above—sells a conversion kit for the Smoke Vault.)

Above the burner is a tray or pan for the sawdust, smoking chips, or wood chunks.

Between that and the smoking chamber is a water pan to keep the atmosphere moist during long cooks.

One or more chimneys or adjustable dampers at the top of the unit vent the smoke.

If you are using your smoker for the first time, read the manufacturer’s instructions. (Just do it, okay?) Season it and burn off any manufacturing oils or residue by doing a “dry run” before piling food on the shelves. Then follow these simple steps:

  1. Fill the water pan with water, cider, or beer—you might want to line it with foil first for easier clean-up.
  2. Connect the propane tank to the smoker and open the valve. With the door open, light the burner following the manufacturer’s instructions. Note: If the burner doesn’t light immediately, turn it off and shut off the gas supply. Let the gas clear before making another attempt.
  3. Once the flame is established, set the controller to the desired temperature—usually 225 to 250 degrees for low and slow barbecuing. (The thermostats on some models might be calibrated to low, medium, and high. Check the manual that came with your smoker to see what temperatures the settings correspond to.)
  4. Preheat for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the temperature is steady, adjusting the vents or chimney damper as needed.
  5. Add the wood chunks, chips, or sawdust to the tray or pan above the burner. Continue preheating until smoke billows from the chimney or dampers.
  6. Arrange the food to be smoked on the shelves or hang from the hooks provided.
  7. Periodically replenish the water and wood as needed. Make sure the gas flame hasn’t gone out, or a dangerous gas build-up could occur.
  8. When the food is smoked to your liking, remove it. Turn off the flame and disconnect the gas tank. Clean once the smoker has cooled down.

Advantages of the vertical propane smoker:

  • Vertical propane smokers are relatively inexpensive, $250 or less, though more money—up to $500—will buy sturdier construction and more smoking capacity.
  • In theory, these smokers are portable due to their reliance on propane. They can be transported to campsites or fishing camps. Some even run on the 14-ounce canisters you use to fuel your blowtorch. If using a full-size propane tank, remember it will weigh 20 pounds when topped off.
  • Compared to offset barrel smokers, propane smokers have a small footprint—perfect if you have limited outdoor space.
  • Propane burns cleanly and efficiently, meaning you’ll avoid soot deposits on your food.
  • Smoking temperatures are easy to maintain, and with much less labor than what’s required by a wood- or charcoal-burning smoker.
  • Most models feature push-button ignition.

Drawbacks:

  • Some widely available brands are poorly constructed using thin-gauge metals. They leak smoke and do not perform well in cold or windy weather conditions due to a lack of insulation. Resourceful barbecuers have learned to seal gaps, adjust ill-fitting doors, and cover their smokers with welding blankets to conserve heat. (Even if buying locally, it’s wise to check customer reviews of specific products on Amazon.com or post a query on our Barbecue Board.)
  • Widthwise, some models are too narrow to accommodate a full rack of ribs or a large brisket or pork loin roast, meaning the meat might have to be halved or trimmed to fit.
  • Inevitably, you’ll sometimes have to switch out propane tanks during a long cook. Always start with a full one and have a back-up in reserve.

Even though propane smokers are modestly priced, you still want to get your money’s worth.

Buying considerations:

  • Assess the quality of construction, as smokers in the lower price ranges are often thin-gauge and flimsy. Decide what shortcomings you can live with or improve with modifications.
  • For stability, especially if wind is a factor, look for a smoker with sturdy, splayed legs (preferably with wheels attached, if portability is important).
  • Temperatures ranging from 100 to 500 degrees can be achieved in some propane smokers, giving them exceptional versatility: you can cold smoke salmon, dry jerky, braise lamb shanks, or roast a prime rib.
  • Separate doors for the lower part of the cooking cabinet and the cooking chamber enable you to easily check on the flame or replenish water or smoking fuel without losing smoke or heat. Make sure they seal tightly.
  • Buy the largest smoker you can afford if you routinely cook for crowds. Buy a smaller smoker if portability is important.
  • Adjustable height shelving is a plus, especially when smoking beef shoulder clod or a large turkey.
  • How much assembly is required? Are replacement parts available? What kind of a warranty does the unit have?
  • A front-loading design is usually more convenient than a top-loading unit.

Below are several widely available brands we recommend:

LEARN ABOUT OTHER POPULAR TYPES OF SMOKERS AND GRILLS:
Offset barrel smokers
Kamado cookers (Big Green Egg)
Charcoal water smokers
Pit Barrel Cookers
Home-built smokehouse

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