There are several types of BBQ smokers but they can be mainly divided into five categories: electric smokers, gas smokers, charcoal smokers, wood fuelled smokers, and stovetop smokers.
I have owned a propane smoker for twelve years and an electric smoker for two years. These gadgets have always met and exceeded my expectations. However, though I have a bias toward my gas smoker, I’ve had the chance to try out many other types of smokers; which is why I can readily compare and contrast them for you.
In this article, I will explain how each type of smoker functions, its merits, and demerits as well as who should consider buying it. This exhaustive review should help you make a concise choice of the smoker you should buy. Let’s get started.
Smokers can be divided into five main categories based on the fuel source they require. They are electric smokers, gas smokers, charcoal smokers, wood-powered smokers, and stovetop smokers.
Type of Smoker
Natural Gas, Propane Gas
Propane Smokers, Natural Gas Smokers
Lump Charcoal, Briquettes
Offset Smokers, Vertical Charcoal Smokers, Gravity-feed Smokers, Kettle Grills
Wood Fuelled Smokers
Wood Pellets, Logs
Pellet smokers, wood-fired ovens
Can Be Placed on a Gas Burner, Charcoal, or Wood Fires
Electric smokers are the easiest smokers to operate. They only require you to pop in your meats, set your preferred temperature and wait for the meat to get cooked to perfection.
Electric smokers are hugely preferred because of their hands-off approach to cooking as well as the fact that they don’t produce any smoke or ash debris, unlike the other types of smokers.
Electric smokers are built as vertical chambers containing horizontal food racks on which you place the food. At the bottom region of the electric cooker, there is an electric heating element that provides the heat needed for smoking.
The heat is automatically regulated to keep it at a constant level throughout the cooking process, which means you don’t have to keep checking on your electric smoker.
A water pan is placed in the cooking chamber to create the necessary moisture that will prevent the meat from drying out and losing its succulence. If you want, you can also place some wet wood chips in the chip tray. When they smolder, they will infuse a lovely smoke flavor into the food.
Beginners and those who want a clean, easy, and hands-free way to slow-cook meat. I recommend the Char-Broil Standard Electric Smoker
Gas smokers use natural gas or propane gas for fuel. The terms gas and propane tend to be used interchangeably. However, most propane smokers use propane gas specifically, and can’t use natural gas as a substitute without the necessary conversion equipment.
Natural gas smokers can be retrofitted into the kitchen. They utilize the gas line in your home while propane smokers use propane gas tanks that are ported along with the smoker.
Propane smokers are very popular and easy to use. Gas smokers as a whole may require some more manual input compared to the electric smoker but the end product is far superior.
A gas smoker has a similar build to electric smokers but the fuel source is propane gas supplied via a gas line from a propane tank. The propane is ignited at the burner located at the bottom of the cooking chamber.
A level above the burner is a wood chip tray and a water pan. The wood chips smolder creating smoke for additional flavor while the water maintains a moist atmosphere to prevent the meat from drying out.
Unlike electric smokers, most gas smokers do not come with automated temperature control. The Masterbuilt Thermotemp Propane Smoker which I would highly recommend even for a novice barbecue cook comes with automated temperature regulation making it a superior piece of equipment.
Most gas smokers, however, will take some getting used to. You need to regulate the temperature yourself by periodically checking on your cooking to ensure the temperature remains at optimal range.
If you enjoy the art of cooking and handling meat directly, you should go for a propane or gas smoker. You need some skill when handling a smoker, though you don’t have to be a pitmaster to operate a gas smoker. Consider buying a Broil King Propane Smoker.
Wood-fuelled smokers produce some of the tastiest barbecues. Depending on the type of wood you choose for your barbecue, you could end up with a strong or subtle wood flavor coupled with a lovely smoke ring and tender smoked meat.
Wood-fuelled smokers include pellet smokers and wood-fired ovens. Let’s take a look at each one. First off:
Pellet smokers have gained popularity in the last decade or so. They are, in my view, the best combination of a high-tech electric smoker and a regular wood or propane smoker.
With a pellet smoker, you get to enjoy the benefits of actual fire combustion as well as the hands-free convenience that comes with automation.
The controls of a pellet smoker are electric but the food is cooked using wood pellets. The temperature is held steady using a controller that’s built into the cooking chamber. There is a smaller, separate compartment called a pellet hopper that you have to feed with wood pellets.
At the bottom of the pellet hopper, there is an auger that feeds food-grade wood chunks or pellets into the firebox below the cooking chamber. A hot rod ignites the pellets and a fan keeps the fire going while also distributing the heat and smoke produced evenly into the cooking chamber above.
From here, the food cooks slowly without any further attention. The temperature controls detect a low temperature and activates the auger to release more pellets into the firebox to keep the flame going. Pellet grills are perfect for low and slow cooking which is what smoking a barbecue is all about.
Novices or beginners, and anyone who enjoys a richer flavor but doesn’t want to get their hands dirty or handle meat. I fall firmly within this group, so I plan to get a Traeger Pro Series 22 pellet grill myself.
Wood-fired ovens are pretty rare today and are not even designed to be smokers. They can, however, be used to smoke a steak rather well.
Light the charcoal or briquettes and let them burn down to hot coals. Move them to the back of the oven and place wood chips against them. Place the meat on a pan and keep the pan in the oven next to the coals.
Close the oven door to reduce the amount of air in the chamber effectively lowering the temperatures. You can also block the chimney to create a low-temperature environment.
Open and close the door of the oven depending on whether you want to raise or reduce the temperature. It’s that simple.
Traditional wood-fired ovens are rare and other types of smokers may be more convenient to buy. That said, anyone who fancies this kind of oven should just purchase one.
Charcoal smokers are kings in the flavor department and are the favorite smokers of choice for diehard barbecue pitmasters. There are different types of charcoal smokers, including offset smokers, vertical charcoal smokers, gravity-feed smokers, and kettle grills.
They are also called horizontal offset smokers, barrel smokers, stick burners, or pipe smokers. This is the smoker any BBQ pitmaster wants to own. They have a simple design that originated in Texas.
The first offset smokers were made from old propane tanks and scrap metal. The food chamber would be constructed, complete with food grates and a door. A separate chamber or the firebox would be welded against the food chamber and a smokestack would be affixed to the food chamber to release smoke.
Operating them takes some expertise. The modern version of the offset smoker is not much different from the traditional models but it’s of sturdier construction and uses better materials.
The firebox is filled with wood lump charcoal or briquettes and ignited. The heat and smoke produced are drawn into the cooking chamber and across the food smoking it slowly. It’s that simple!
The smoke then escapes through the chimney and the process goes on until your meat is fully done. You have to handle and turn the food as well as control the temperature yourself. There are standard offset smokers and reverse flow smokers which can be differentiated by the placement of the smokestack.
A standard offset smoker has its smokestack on one side of the cooking barrel while the firebox is on the other side of the cooking chamber. With a reverse flow offset smoker, the smokestack is on the same side as the firebox, almost directly above it.
The reverse flow system uses baffle plates inside the cooking chamber to draw the smoke and heat to the opposite end of the chamber. Then, it’s drawn back over the food and out through the chimney.
This allows the smoke to get infused into the food before escaping through the chimney. The result is a more evenly cooked and fully-flavored meal.
A skilled barbecue lover can comfortably operate this smoker. If you have been using a propane smoker you should consider graduating to offset smokers. I recommend the Royal Gourmet offset smoker.
Vertical charcoal smokers are more of a collective term that includes charcoal grills, water smokers, Weber Smokey Mountain bullet smokers, ugly drum smokers, vertical smokers, or box smokers.
All these smokers may look different externally. However, they all function the same way and have the same internal structure which is why they are classified together.
Firstly, they all run on charcoal and wood chunks as a fuel source. The firebox or charcoal pan is located at the bottom of the smoker on top of a base. The base also has an intake damper to control how much air is let into the firebox to either increase the heat or restrict it.
Wood chips are also added here to smolder and produce a rich smoke flavor.
Above this is a water pan which provides the necessary moist cooking environment to keep the meat from drying out, as well as to keep the temperatures from getting out of control. Above the water pan are the food grates. Usually, they are two but they could be more in a larger smoker.
There is a lid at the very top that has an exhaust damper to release smoke and a temperature gauge to keep you informed.
Barbecue diehards should consider buying a vertical charcoal smoker if the flavor profile is something they want. A charcoal smoker such as Weber 18-inch Smokey Mountain won’t disappoint.
Gravity-feed smokers are high-tech charcoal-fuelled smokers designed to be ‘set it and forget it’ smokers. They are a breeze to operate and they deliver a treat. BBQ pitmasters have designated gravity-feed smokers as possibly the best smoker in terms of both function and aesthetics.
This is also a charcoal smoker but unlike other types, this has a coal chute at the side of the smoker instead of a firebox beneath the cooking chamber.
The chute is efficiently insulated to prevent heat from escaping and the coal burns in a low-oxygen environment that facilitates a long slow burn.
The heat and smoke are drawn into the cooking chamber through the smoke stack, over the food and out of the smoker. This can take many hours until the food is done to perfection.
Anyone who enjoys a good barbecue but doesn’t want the hassle of handling the food at any point during cooking. A top pick is the Masterbuilt Gravity Series.
Kettle grills most commonly referred to as Weber kettles are not dedicated smokers but can be used for low and slow cooking all the same. They come in handy when you want to smoke a small amount of meat for the family.
Given that most homes likely have a kettle grill, it would be nice to know just how to use this grill to smoke a mean brisket.
Using a kettle grill to smoke meat is pretty straightforward. What you need to do is keep a steady low temperature environment that will cook your meat over many hours. Line a row of briquettes along one half of the dome and place some wet wood chips on these briquettes.
Light the briquettes on one end. The briquettes will ignite one by one as the cooking progresses and smolder the wood chips as well. Place a water pan in the space left. You can place some more wood chips in the pan. Place the grill grate over the coals and the pan as you would when grilling.
Arrange your meat as evenly as possible in a single layer on the grill grate and cover the food. Your job will be to regulate the temperature by opening and closing the bottom air vent. Try to keep the temperature at 225 degrees Fahrenheit for a nice slow cook.
For smoking meat? No one. The only reason to smoke food on a kettle grill is that you already have one.
Kamado grills have been used in one form or another for at least 3000 years. If the name is unfamiliar to you, think of the Big Green Egg which is the modern version of an ancient cooking apparatus.
Kamado grills are ceramic egg-shaped domes that contain the briquette or charcoal containment, a grill grate above it, and a lid.
The ceramic material used to make a Kamado grill offers superb insulation creating a heat chamber that can reach temperatures of 700 degrees Fahrenheit. This is not what we want for smoking our meat, though.
The ideal smoking meat smoking temperature should maintain at 225 degrees Fahrenheit, never exceeding 250 degrees Fahrenheit. It is difficult to maintain such lows consistently for hours in a Kamado grill even with expert manipulation of the vents and dampers.
Unlike kettle grills which are simple grills that you have to improvise for smoking, Kamado grills come with a deflector plate for precisely this job.
Most, if not all Kamado grills now will come with this deflector plate, which is placed between the firebox and the grill grate when smoking a brisket. This creates a low and slow heating environment which is what smoking food is all about.
You will have to regulate the heat by opening and closing the vents to feed the flames or deprive them of air.
If you like having novel items and don’t mind the work that comes with smoking meat, go ahead and buy one. The Vessils Kamado Charcoal Grill is especially good.
A stovetop smoker is the epitome of practicality. Just like electric smokers, the heat is distributed through a heating element built into the smoker. These are designed to do basic smoking and are ideal for people who live in apartment buildings and tight spaces.
They are a compact item where the food sits on a grate that is placed on a pan containing wood chips and water. The pan is placed inside a smoker that has a heating element beneath it. The smoker is placed on your stove and the burner is ignited.
When the wood chips have smoldered to your satisfaction, you can put the unit in a regular oven to finish cooking.
Anyone living in a confined space where the other smoker grills are not an option.
While that will depend on a few factors, I find that ease of use is the most critical factor to consider. If you have never smoked meat before, you will need to pick a smoker that’s easy to use before moving on to the more challenging ones.
An electric or pellet smoker is a great choice while an offset smoker would simply overwhelm you. You may end up storing it away and never using it again. Even for experienced barbecue lovers like me, the lack of experience using one smoker over the other can be intimidating and off-putting.
That said, all learning requires patience and practice. If you want to get a more challenging smoker, try smoking a brisket on it a few times. After a number of tries, the knack for barbequing meat will develop naturally.
On the other hand, an offset smoker has such a large barrel that it’s the best option for people who like to host large parties. You get to smoke large quantities of meat in one go.
For anyone living in an apartment building where smoke and ash would be problematic, go for smokers that don’t produce any, such as electric smokers. A stovetop smoker might also be a good idea if you don’t care for the nuances of using larger smokers.
Decide which factors matter most to you and what you can execute flawlessly. Use these tips to figure out which smoker best fits your circumstances. If and when your skills improve, you are more than welcome to shift to a different type of smoker.