If you’d like to take the next step toward grilling enlightenment, fall is a good time to do it. Along with back-to-school promotions, many retailers are anxious to reduce their inventories of grilling hardware, meaning potential deep discounts for you. (A few years ago, my assistant, Nancy Loseke, scored a Weber Ranch for half price.)
The first step is to select the right smoker for you. There are dozens of types and hundreds of individual models.
The right smoker depends on your experience, goals, budget, and how many people you usually cook for—collectively called your smoker personality.
Beginner: You want a smoker that’s affordable, easy to operate, and that doesn’t take up a lot of space. Good bets include: a kettle-style charcoal grill (maybe you own one already) or other grill with a tall lid; a water smoker; a ceramic cooker; and an upright barrel smoker.
Grilling enthusiast who wants to explore smoking: Grilling is your first love, but you want to do smoking, too. Check out a kettle grill or front-loading charcoal grill; a wood-burning grill; a ceramic cooker; or an offset smoker with a firebox that comes with a grate (so you can grill directly in the firebox).
Process-oriented smoker: You embrace not just the results, but the process of smoking—building and maintaining a fire, adjusting the air vents, and so on. A water smoker or an offset smoker would be right for you.
Smoked food addict: You love smoked and barbecued foods—the smoker, the better. An offset smoker, water smoker, or even a home-built smokehouse would be a good match.
Competition or commercial barbecue: Your TV is tuned to BBQ Pitmasters and you want to compete against other barbecue fanatics. You often cook for a crowd and dream of opening a catering company, restaurant, or food truck. Look for a big rig offset smoker (preferably on a trailer) or a carousel-style commercial smoker.
As mentioned above, if you own a charcoal grill, you already have a smoker. Charcoal is the easiest fuel to smoke with—a lot easier than a propane or natural gas grill. Simply set up the grill for indirect grilling, add wood chips or chunks to the coals, and you’re in business. Note: You need a charcoal grill with a tight-fitting lid, upper and lower vents to control the heat, and ideally, enough clearance between the grill grate and the lid to smoke something as large as a turkey or beef shoulder clod. This is one of the least expensive options in the smoker marketplace, with potential to be one of the most long-lasting.
Gaining in popularity with weekend warriors are drum smokers, also called upright barrel smokers. Fabricated from steel drums, these homely cookers start as an upright steel drum. A charcoal basket fits in the bottom. The food can be cooked on a conventional grill grate; more often, it is cooked vertically (ribs are an example), suspended on hooks from rebar rods. Smoke is generated by wood chips or chunks added to the charcoal. The heat is both radiant and convective, so food smokes faster in an upright barrel smoker. Three hundred dollars will put one in your outdoor kitchen.
The water smoker delivers big performance in a small space at an affordable price. Constructed of several sections, charcoal and wood chips or chunks go in the bottom. The smoke chamber goes on next, followed by the water pan. (Though I don’t always fill it, the water pan helps stabilize heat and moisture in the cook chamber.) The grill grate(s) and lid get added last. Smoking temperatures of 225 to 275 degrees are easy to maintain by adjusting the top and bottom vents. Some models are not large enough to accommodate whole racks of pork ribs. But a rib rack easily solves that problem.
Nothing says you mean business like an offset barrel smoker (aka “stick burner”). For years, these macho-looking, hardcore smokers have dominated the competition barbecue circuit. Now, mass market models sold in big box stores bring their own cool factor to American backyards. First popularized in Texas and Oklahoma where they were built from surplus oil pipes, these smokers, which burn wood or charcoal, have a distinctive profile: a lidded horizontal barrel-shaped cooking chamber flanked by a firebox (usually lower than the cooking chamber) and topped with a vented chimney. Depending on their size and construction, these bad boys can weigh several hundred pounds and cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousand. Previous experience in building and maintaining a lower-temperature fire will serve you well.
Ceramic cookers, collectively known as Kamado-style smokers, is a traditional Japanese cook stove. (Kamado literally means, “place for the cauldron.”) Most famously represented in North American by the Big Green Egg, these distinctive-looking cookers have taken the barbecue world by storm. Charcoal, enhanced by wood chips or chunks, goes into the bottom. Heat is controlled by opening or closing the large vents at the bottom and on top of the lid. Very heat retentive, fuel efficient, and well suited for long cooks. Though cheaper models are available, many ceramic cookers are on the high end of the price spectrum with all but the smaller units starting at $1000 or more. They can also weigh several hundred pounds, a problem if portability is important to you.
Propane-fueled smokers, aka box smokers, offer the convenience of push-button ignition and turn-of-a-dial temperature control for a modest investment—sometimes, as little as $200. Of course, you can spend more than that, too. There is a heating element at the bottom surmounted by a metal pan or tray to hold sawdust, wood chips, or chunks. The smoke flavor is more subtle than that produced by an offset smoker, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Multiple metal grid trays ensure plenty of smoking real estate (although a whole rack of ribs will have to be cut in half to fit), and the footprint of the cooker is relatively small. (You do, however, have to include the space taken up by an LP tank; some models run on 14-ounce canisters.) This is a good option if you routinely smoke fish or jerky.
Electric smokers (not including pellet grills; see below) is not for the process-oriented pit master who enjoys splitting logs and building fires. Fueled by sawdust, compressed sawdust disks (called bisquettes by one manufacturer), or wood shavings, some models let you program the temperature and length of the smoke session and even track the progress of the cook on your smartphone. They’re almost too easy! Limited internal airflow discourages the formation of bark on ribs or brisket, and also keeps smoke flavor on the mild side. Like the propane smoker above, this unit works great for fish and jerky. A limited temperature range means smoked poultry will not develop crisp skin, but you can always direct grill on a charcoal or gas grill to render the fat.
Pellet grills/smokers represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the electric smoker market. It’s hard to beat their versatility: you can barbecue, bake, smoke, roast, braise, and even sear on some models when the heat diffuser plate is removed. Smoke flavor comes from cylindrical wood pellets which go into a side-mounted hopper and are delivered to a chamber under the grill grate via an augur. (A heating rod ignites the pellets, but switches off once its job is done.) A fan regulates temperature, which ranges from 180 to 500 degrees or more, depending on the model. Entry level pellet grills retail for several hundred dollars with higher-end units selling for $2000 or more.
Don’t despair if you can’t smoke outdoors for whatever reason—indoor stovetop smokers to the rescue. You can use a wok with a tight-fitting lid in a pinch (I did as a student traveler in Europe) or even a lidded metal cake pan. But an indoor smoker like Camerons or the Nordic Ware 365 Kettle Smoker will have you smoking in no time. (Of course, you may want to temporarily disable your smoke detectors.) These units are great for shrimp, scallops, hot-smoked salmon, chicken pieces, and other small foods. Hardwood sawdust or other smoking mixtures (such as loose leaf tea and rice) provide the smoke flavor. Cost? Less than $100.
If you’ve watched my show Project Smoke on American Public Television, you may have seen me use a handheld smoker to infuse whipped cream, cocktails, or even ice cream with smoke flavors. One device, called a Smoking Gun, resembles a blow dryer. You load the smoke chamber with fine sawdust, light it, then switch the fan motor on to propel the smoke through a rubber tube. Insert the tube into a plastic-wrapped bowl or pitcher, let the vessel fill with smoke, then re-cover and let sit for several minutes. For more smoke flavor, repeat. It’s too small to smoke larger cuts of meat, but is great for salads, soups, shrimp, condiments like mayonnaise or mustard, and other unusual foods you never dreamed could be smoked.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of How to Buy a Smoker, where I’ll share specific tips.
Before you buy your grill or smoker, here are 8 Questions to Ask Yourself.
Learn more about your smoker personality by exploring your type.