So, you’re ready to take the plunge and get a dedicated smoker.
Congratulations – great decision! Now the questions begin. What kind of smoker should you buy? There are 5 types to choose from: Wood, Pellet, Charcoal, Gas, and Electric. Which one provides the best flavor? The
lowest cost? The least amount of hassle? The best bang for your buck? The answer to those questions and more are 5 types of meat smokers covered right here in our guide to helping you choose what kind of smoker you should buy.
First things first, what are your goals for this smoker? Do you have a budget? How much time and effort do you want to put into smoking? Before you invest in a smoker, these are a few factors to consider before deciding which type is the best smoker for you. Remember that each type has a wide range in terms of price and durability. Buying the best smoker for under $200, or $300 may be what you’re after. Then again, price may be no object for you. If you make the wrong choice now, you are likely to be shopping again in a year or two!
So rather than start with pellet smokers vs. wood smokers, or electric smokers vs. charcoal smokers, we’ll start by describing the strengths and weaknesses for each of the five types of smokers out there. You may note something that’s a deal maker or a deal breaker which will help to narrow things down a bit.
Once you’ve narrowed it down to one type of smoker, you can start to look at your options in more detail. Therefore, let’s look at the types of smokers available and cover their strengths and weaknesses.
Offset wood smokers – the holy grail of meat smokers
AKA “stick-burners” like the ones you see on TV being used by Aaron Franklin and numerous other BBQ gurus, an offset wood smoker is the classic type of smoker folks are thinking of when they think Texas BBQ. It’s been said that these types of smokers originated in the oilfields Oklahoma and Texas. I suppose it makes sense. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. I can imagine the 55-gallon drums and oil pipe lying around inspiring Wayne Whitworth to start building barbecue pits to keep his idle employees busy. He ended up founding Pitt’s and Spitt’s where you can find charcoal grills for $1000 and smokers for $2000 and up.
The basic offset design originated with the traditional brick barbecue pits found all over Texas. The fire is built in one chamber and the smoke and heat cross the food in another chamber.
- Genuine smoke flavor and smoke ring – it doesn’t get any more authentic than this
- Cool factor (if that’s important to you). Your doing it the “right” way – the way it’s meant to be done etc.
- Cost to buy – they start at a few hundred dollars but a usable one will set you back more than $1000
- Cost to run – wood costs money and these use lots of wood. Depending on efficiency, each smoke could easily run you $20 or more
- Hassle – you have to light and tend the fire throughout your cook. A cook can last 12+ hours. It sounds fun at first but doing that every single time you want to use your smoker can lead to not using it at all.
- Maintenance – they need to be cleaned after each use – not just the grates, but the firebox, etc. Some say they should be steam cleaned while hot each time. Find and buy cords of wood.
The learn more about how wood smokers compare to electric, check out electric vs. wood smokers.
Pellet smokers/grills – smoking meat for the elite
These are primarily the Traegers you’ve probably seen advertised, but there are other brands. Essentially wood pellets are automatically fed onto an electric element to burn – creating heat and smoke. Pellet smokers are incredibly popular for several good reasons. They are high-technology, automated, accurate, and produce excellent results. When it comes to smoking meat and making great barbecue, nothing beats burning wood. Pellet grills burn wood. If you’re unclear how they work, it’s a simple concept. Much like an electric smoker, they measure and regulate temperature. The difference being that temp is regulated by controlling the amount of wood pellets being burned in the fire box at any given time. The pellets are forced into the fire box via an auger that winds them into the chamber and they are ignited by the existing flame or initially via an igniter (surprise). These igniters are typically just electric elements similar to those used in an electric smoker. The pellets are the fuel. Superior results are achieved because your’re burning wood. These are wonderful pieces of technology, equipment, and in some cases art. If you have the money to spend and want the best possible results without managing a fire, a pellet grill is the way to go.
- Genuine smoke flavor and ring – as with the offset stick burners above
- Automatic – set the temp and walk away
- Simple to use – fill the hopper with pellets – turn it on and load the meat
- Cool – very slick to use – can make a statement
- Maintenance – similar to offset and charcoal – buy fuel, clean grates, dump ashes
- Cost to buy – they start around $800 and go up from there. Good ones are well over $1000.
- Cost to run – pellets aren’t cheap – Traeger estimates anywhere from 1/2-2lbs/hr. Pellets run about $1/lb. As a result, that 10 hr. brisket smoke costs you an additional $10-$20 plus electricity.
- They’re smokers not grills – unless you buy a sear plate or sear box, you can’t sear steaks or anything else
- Maintenance – empty the ashes and refill the hopper. Buy pellets – 100 8 hr. cooks is 800 lbs of pellets!
To learn more about how pellet smokers compare to electric smokers, check out electric vs. pellet smokers.
Electric smokers – Lazy-Q at it’s best
Absolutely the simplest way to consistently make tender and juicy BBQ ribs, pulled pork, and smoked beef brisket. Others may produce more smoke flavor, but we have produced some fine tasting ‘Que from our electric smokers. And for things like smoked salmon, smoked cheese, and smoked nuts, and electric smoker is really your only choice. Essentially an electric element that provides heat, with some method of introducing smoke via wood chips/chunks. You put the meat, or fish or cheese, inside,set the temp and come back when done. It doesn’t get any easier than this. The most popular ones are between $200-$300 but there are some really nice ones, commercial quality electric smokers for $500 and up. For that price you get great insulation, a PID controller, and some great tasting food. Don’t be afraid of getting one of these. You’ll make some fantastic meals and recipes. We love pulled pork and the ribs from the Smokin-It Model 3. In retrospect, I think the Model 2 would have been enough. We never used more than 50% of the room available. I’d probably skip the Auber PID as well. It’s a personal choice kind of thing. The Auber WSD-1200GPH does exactly what it’s intended to do, it’s just that I didn’t end up needing those things. Or more accurately, I didn’t think they were worth the added expense of the Auber PID.
- Cost to buy – cheap ones start under $200, and work OK. Very good ones can run $500 and more.
- Cost to run – just the cost of electricity and a few ounces of wood chunks or chips – maybe $2 per cook total
- Hassle – none – put the meat and wood in, turn it on and walk away…Lazy-Q!
- Maintenance – virtually none – change out the aluminum foil, wipe it down and you are go to go. One box of wood chunks lasts 100 8 hr. cooks
- No smoke ring. Long story on the science here but the smoke ring is a visual element, not a flavor thing.
- Some claim you cannot get good bark, good heat, good crispiness – not true in my experience
- Capacity – some of these are pretty small – requiring you to cut racks of ribs and briskets down to size.
To learn more about electric smokers and which are the best, check out the best electric smoker under $300.
Propane/Gas smokers – better taste than electric?
These aren’t quite as popular – pretty much the same as the electrics with propane or natural gas as the heat source and chips/chunks for smoke. Gas smokers are rumored to provide a bit more flavor than electric smokers. We’ve tried them and to be honest, found them to be more trouble than they’re worth. Unless you have a gas line in your backyard, we think the maintenance hassle outweighs any of the flavor benefits the gas may provide. From here we’d recommend either going electric or moving to charcoal. Charcoal provide the best bang for your buck in this price range. Stepping up to a pellet grill from here will cost you at least $500 and as much…as you want to spend. So be careful with this one. You will be so happy you took a careful look at the options and passed on going with a gas smoker. Charcoal is far superior for the same of less money. It was an easy choice. Most of the gas smokers are cheaply built as well. Whereas you can find really nice electrics, an elite gas smoker doesn’t seem to exist.
- Cost to buy – cheap ones are under $200 and work OK. I’m not aware of any good ones.
- Some say you get better bark and flavor than with electric – not in my experience
- Portability – take it with you for tailgating , camping etc.
- Maintenance – virtually none – clean out the wood chips/chunks and tin foil, wipe down and done
- Cost to run – propane is expensive – figure 1 lb./hr and the hassle of refilling the tank – converting to natural gas can be done for about $50 if you have it available.
- Hassle – refiling and paying for propane gets old quick – imagine using your gas grill for 12 hr cooks a couple times a week.
Charcoal smokers – best bang for buck!
These are primarily barrel drum smokers or drum smokers. A popular version that we own and love is the Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC). These have been reviewed all over the internet and on YouTube. Most folks love them for the results they produce. Some folks find them to be a little bit too non-traditional or perhaps less refined than what they are looking for. For a more refined, and expensive version of the same concept, Weber makes a variety of models using a similar design called the Smokey Mountain Cooker and you can also find kits and plans to make your own barrel-type meat smoker. All of these run the same – like a charcoal grill you light charcoal and add wood for smoke. Their strengths are going to be solid flavors and simplicity to use.
- Cost to buy – Starting under $200 and maxing out around $300
- Simple to run – add charcoal, light it, add meat
- Good bark and flavor – it’s charcoal and wood which produce the right gases
- Simple to maintain – clean the grate, empty the ashes, refill.
- Value – great results vs. cost to buy and run – better tasting meat than gas smoker or electric smoker for the same price
- Some Hassle – same as a charcoal grill – buy charcoal – light charcoal, add wood, start smoking.
- Limited horizontal space – basically the capacity of a Weber kettle grill although you can hang a few racks of ribs or a turkey
- Non-traditional – neither an offset nor a fancy pellet grill – it just gets the job done
As you can see, what kind of smoker you should buy depends on a number of factors – initial cost to buy, durability, cost to use, hassle, and maintenance. Are you new to smoking, do you own a grill, do you want something that will last or impress your friends? All of these factors come into play. If your priority is flavor then – from least to most expensive – go with either a charcoal barrel type smoker, a pellet smoker, or an offset smoker. If simplicity is critical, an electric may be the right choice. In the end, whatever you choose will begin a great learning experience and many fantastic meals with family and friends. The most important thing about your decision is that you actually make one, order a smoker and start making great BBQ!