How to Buy A Smoker, Part 2
If you own a charcoal grill with a tight-fitting lid, you already have a smoker. Simply set it up for indirect grilling, add wood chips or chunks to the coals, and you’re in business. (If you own a gas grill, you can add subtle smoke flavor to your food by using a smoking pouch or smoking box, but the grill’s rear vents will allow most of the smoke to escape.) There are some drawbacks, however. Because kettle grills are designed for grilling, it’s difficult to maintain an even heat at lower temperatures. And the relatively small size of the grill grate limits the amount of food you can smoke at one time.
You’ve identified your own smoker personality using the guidelines I suggested in Part 1 of this blog and familiarized yourself with the various styles of smokers on the market. You’re now more convinced than ever that a dedicated smoker is the next step in improving your barbecuing game.
Here are a few questions to help you sort out your options.
What is your budget?
Most purchasing decisions in life are circumscribed by how much you are willing and able to spend, and smokers are no different. You can spend $300 on a very serviceable drum smoker, or drop more than $10,000 on a stainless steel showpiece.
Pellet smokers and kamado-style ceramic cookers usually start at $1000. And a heavy duty offset smoker that will last a lifetime if well cared for can be had for about $2500. Establishing a budget will help you narrow the field.
If you’re as addicted to smoke as I am, consider a wood burning grill or an offset smoker (a.k.a. stick burner), like a Horizon—that slow smokes pork shoulders, ribs, and briskets with nothing more than wood smoke. Personally, I think food smoked or grilled over wood has an incomparable flavor. If chopping or hauling wood sounds like a chore, you might investigate gas or electric cabinet-type smokers such as a Bradley, or pellet grills, like a Memphis Wood Fire Grill. All three types get extra points for convenience and ease of use. Precise temperature control is a plus, too.
How much space do I have for a smoker?
Upright water smokers and drum-type smokers have a relatively small footprint, making them good choices for people with limited patio space. Depending on their size, offset barrel smokers typically take up quite a few square feet of real estate. Be sure to factor any additional square footage needed to distance your smoker from the house, fences, overhangs, etc. Know what kind of space you can afford before you go shopping. You might want to take a tape measure with you.
How many people do I plan to cook for?
Let’s say you routinely cook for 2 to 4 people—the immediate family or a couple of guests. But are there occasions when you might be preparing food for many more, say, the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving? Don’t hobble yourself by buying a cooker that’s too small. It’s better to have extra space you can grow into.
What foods am I likely to smoke?
If you aspire to nothing more than the occasional brisket or pork shoulder, than a smaller grill grate might work for you. But if a whole hog or even multiple racks of ribs are on your bucket list, then take a tape measure with you when you go shopping. Many smokers—some kamado-style cookers and gas and electric cabinet smokers—can only accommodate half racks of ribs. (They work well for fish fillets, though.) And one more thing: Gas and electric smokers sometimes top out at a temperature of 275 degrees—not high enough to render the fat in turkey or chicken skin; have you noticed that smoked poultry skin is almost always rubbery? For that, you’ll need to be able to increase the heat of the smoker to at least 325 degrees.
Do you value portability?
America’s tailgating culture has spawned many smokers and grills that can be set up in parking lots, campgrounds, and at the lake cabin. Many manufacturers include smaller cookers in their product line-ups, including Weber, Coleman, and Big Green Egg. Weight and the type of fuel used will be considerations if you’re in the market for something portable. If the grill is substantial enough to include wheels, make sure they are sturdy and roll easily.
Are you a year-round smoker/griller?
If you routinely barbecue in the winter (and don’t live in Miami, like me), you’ll want a smoker that functions well even in cold weather. You know how you can gauge the quality of a car by the way the door sounds and feels when you close it? Same with a smoker. Raise and lower the lid. Does it feel heavy and solid? Does it fit tightly? Though you’ll pay more, heavier gauge steel will be better at holding in the heat than thinner metal.
How important is construction?
A smoker’s construction will determine how efficiently it does its job. If it’s made of thin metal (see above), it will swiftly lose heat in windy, damp, or cold conditions, meaning you’ll be struggling to maintain consistent smoking temperatures (usually 225 to 275). Do the welds look strong? Will the wheels fall off the first time you try to move it? Do the screws and other hardware look like they’ll rust after a season or two? Generally speaking, the length of the warranty is a good indicator of how long the manufacturer expects the smoker to last. If it’s one year, expect to replace the cooker in the not-so-distant future.
Missed Part 1 of How to Buy A Smoker? Use it to determine your smoker personality and find the smoker or grill that is right for you.