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Buying a Smoker: What’s Your Type?

May is National Barbecue Month, a prelude to the annual frenzy of outdoor cooking that officially kicks off Memorial Day weekend. Nearly half of American adults surveyed by the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA) plan to acquire a new grill or smoker in 2016. (That’s all?) If you’re one of them, read on: Starting with smokers, here’s Part 1 of a multi-part series on how to make an informed—not impulsive—purchase that will give you years of great grilling and eating and great times.

There are more than a dozen types of smokers on the market and literally hundreds to choose from. Offset barrel smokers (aka “stick burners”), kamado-style cookers, gas smokers, electric smokers, pellet smokers, water smokers, cold smokers—the list goes on. They range in size from stovetop and handheld smokers to the colossal rigs used by restaurants and competition barbecuers. (The DIY versions, ingeniously featuring everything from garbage cans to propane tanks, deserve mention, too.)

Below are some of our recommendations in different price ranges, from modest, to medium-range, to deluxe. (I’ve included a couple of over-the-top smokers just for fun.)

In addition to considering how much you’re willing to spend, the maximum number of people you’ll be feeding, and available space, it’s helpful to first identify your smoking personality. What’s your type?

Steven Raichlen with Pit Barrel Cooker

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 or other grill with a tall lid; a water smoker; a small pellet grill; or an upright barrel smoker, sometimes called a drum smoker.

  • Weber 22-Inch Original Kettle Charcoal Grill, $149. There’s not much Weber’s iconic kettle grill can’t do, which is why I call it my “desert island grill.” Add a rotisserie kit and you can smoke-roast beer can chicken, turkey, and whole hams.

  • Camp Chef 24-Inch Smoke Vault, $249.99. Resembling nothing so much as a floor safe, this simple system (it runs on propane) features two smoking racks plus a dedicated jerky rack. It is capable of temperatures between 160 and 400 degrees. Lots of bang for the buck.

  • Pit Barrel Cooker Package, $299. Fairly priced, this dependable drum smoker (it can be used as a grill, too) has earned my respect over the past few years. Company founder Noah Glanville keeps making improvements to it. Maybe you’ve seen it on my show, Project Smoke. (Season 2 starts Memorial Day weekend. Go to projectsmoke.org for details.)

Smoking Gun

Apartment- or condo-bound smoker: You love the flavor of smoked food but live in an apartment or condo or in a dense urban environment where outdoor smoking is impractical or prohibited. A stovetop smoker or a handheld smoker are made for you. (My first smoker was improvised from a wok.)

  • Camerons Stovetop Smoker, $47.95. This lidded stainless steel device is simple, but produces big smoke flavors using fine wood chips; it works over any heat source.

  • Nordic Ware 365 Indoor/Outdoor Kettle Smoker, $67.99. We were impressed with this modestly-priced indoor/outdoor smoker on the set of Project Smoke, Season 2. The high dome allows you to smoke a variety of foods, including a whole chicken or turkey breast.

  • The Smoking Gun Portable Food Smoker, $99.95. Infuse ice cream, cocktails, and even coleslaw with one of the sexiest portable smokers on the market. The fine sawdust it uses to generate smoke comes in several different flavors.

Steven Raichlen with Big Green Egg

Grilling enthusiast who wants to explore smoking: Grilling is your first love, but you want to try smoking, too. (Hopefully, you’ve been inspired by my latest TV show on public television, Project Smoke. Season 2 launches Memorial Day weekend.) Check out a kettle grill or front-loading charcoal grill; a wood-burning grill; a ceramic kamado-style cooker; or an offset smoker with a firebox that comes with a grate.

  • Char-Broil CB940X Charcoal Grill, $423.13. Smoke or grill with this ambidextrous front-loading unit from Char-Broil. A lot of grill (190 pounds and 435 square inches of primary cooking space) for the money.

  • Big Green Egg XL, $1,199. Meet the kamado-style ceramic cooker that has famously devoted fans (“Eggheads”). Two vents enable you to achieve and maintain temperatures between 200 and 700. Great for long cooks.

  • Xtreme BBQ, 30-Inch Model, $1,199. Grill or smoke on this sturdy front-loading charcoal unit from one of the top barbecue retailers in the country, Smoke ’n’ Fire in Overland Park, Kansas.

Steven Raichlen with digital smoker

Convenience- and results-oriented smoker: You love smoked and barbecued foods, but want the push-button convenience of a gas grill. Consider an electric or gas smoker or a pellet grill.

  • Bradley Digital 4-Rack Smoker, $368.32. Ridiculously easy to use. This cabinet-style electric smoker features separate digital controls for heat and smoke. Just set them and relax. Uses about 3 compressed sawdust “bisquettes” per hour of smoking.

  • Green Mountain Grills Daniel Boone Pellet Grill, WiFi Model, $759. Way more features than similarly priced pellet grills, including a WiFi-compatible controller (uses an iOS or Android app), ambient temperature sensor, and a venturi-style firebox for efficient combustion.

  • Memphis Grills Pro 28-Inch Pellet Grill on Cart, $3,299. Meet the “Cadillac” of pellet grills. Heavy-duty stainless steel construction assures reliable performance in all types of weather. The temperature range is 180 to 650 degrees, meaning you can sear on this baby.

Water smoker

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, ceramic cooker, wood-burning grill, or an offset barrel smoker would be a good fit for you.

  • Weber 22-Inch Smokey Mountain Charcoal Smoker, $399. This bullet-shaped water smoker (we call it “R2D2” at Barbecue University) is easy to use and produces authentic barbecue even if outdoor space is limited.

  • Yoder “The Wichita” Offset Barrel Smoker, $1,599. Love to feed a crowd? The brawny “Wichita” features over 1,000 square inches of cooking space; you can also grill in the firebox.

  • Gen IV 1000 Series Original Braten Grill, $2,826. This wood- and charcoal-burning grill, made in Illinois, combines the features of an Argentinean-style grill (flywheel adjustment of grill grate height) with an offset barrel smoker. The engineering is impressive in every detail.

Komodo Kamado

Smoked food addict: You love smoked and barbecued foods—the smokier the better. An offset barrel smoker, water smoker, a kamado-style cooker, high-end pellet smoker, or even a home-built smokehouse would satisfy your cravings.

  • Weber Summit Charcoal Grill, $1,699. Since its debut in April, this innovative grill (Weber’s take on a kamado-style cooker) has the barbecue community buzzing. Double-walled steel construction assures heat retention. The adjustable height charcoal grate, hinged lid, gas ignition, and 24-inch grill grate are all pluses.

  • Komodo Kamado 32-Inch “Big Bad”, $5,900. It’s flashy, fun, and functional. And yes, it will set you back a few Gs. (Financing is available.) Entrepreneur Dennis Linkletter—grandson of the late radio and television personality Art Linkletter—knows his tiled ceramic cookers, made in Indonesia, aren’t for everyone. They’re not supposed to be.

  • Kalamazoo K750HS Hybrid Fire Grill, $20,695. Hand-built in the USA, this stainless steel knock-out burns wood, charcoal, or gas. So ’luxe that its builders autograph the inside of the cabinet door. Its presence on your patio announces you’ve arrived.

Steven Raichlen with offset barrel smoker

Competition or commercial barbecuer: You idolize the high priests and priestesses of ’cue and want to devote your life (or at least long weekends) to competing against other acolytes. Maybe you even want to own your own catering business or restaurant. Big crowds and billowing blue smoke don’t intimidate you. Look for a big rig offset smoker or a wood- or pellet-burning commercial smoker.

  • BBQ Pits by Klose; custom pits from David Klose; prices vary. David Klose is one of the most highly respected custom smoker builders in the country, well known in competition barbecue circles. He has been fabricating smokers in Texas for more than 30 years, but still answers his own telephone.

  • Horizon 30-Inch Double Door Smoker Trailer, $7,200. If you’re taking your smoking to the competition or commercial level, this workhorse of a pit will lead you to victory. Two counterweighted doors service the commodious cook chamber. The fire box features a warming tray, heavy duty cooking grate, and LP lighter system.

  • Yoder “Frontiersman” Competition Smoker, $8,299. Picture 1-1/2 tons of “take no prisoners” smoking muscle. Yet, it’s mobile, making this smoker ideal for caterers or point-chasing pit masters. More than 2,000 square inches of cooking surface with an optional shelf adding 1,285 more.