By: Robert Brown
Why Did We Write This Guide?
There is a ton of information on smoking meats on the internet.
So much, in fact, that it is easy to slip into information overload. How is one to dig through the mountain of information to sift out the actual data you might need? Have no fear. We have put this guide together to remove all the mystery and hype about smokers, including accessories, tools and other equipment. We will give you tips, buying guides, detailed information, and more. This is the most up-to-date, comprehensive guide to smokers that you will find. Choosing the Best Smoker has never been easier.
Who Is This Guide For?
This guide is for anyone who is thinking of getting a smoker.
Whether you are a beginner contemplating buying your very first smoker, or maybe upgrading your existing unit, the information you will need is right here. We will give you basic information on how to smoke meats and vegetables, as well as descriptions of each type of smoker, and what they are best for. We will help you determine what smoker is right for you. We will take all of the guesswork out of selecting a smoker, setting it up, and enjoying the wonderful tastes and smells of real smoked food.
The Art Of Smoking Meat
The process of smoking meat is so old that no one knows exactly when it started. We do know that it wasn’t long after humans learned how to make fires and cook food that they discovered you could dry meat and fish near a fire to preserve it. At some point, someone obviously left a piece of fish, or meat too close to the fire, and instead of just drying it, it became smoked, and one of life’s great pleasures was born. Every primitive culture that has ever existed has smoked meat. The ancient Carib tribes of the Caribbean went one step further, and invented a special smoking technique that led to the invention of barbecue. In fact, their setup called “barbacoa” (this is where the word “barbecue” comes from) was made up of a rack over a fire. Since then, we have learned how to smoke just about everything from vegetables, and cheeses, to sausages, bacon, and hams.
No other technology or knowledge was ever shared as freely, and as rapidly as the art of smoking. It transcended tribal rivalries, wars, politics, continents and oceans. Every country on earth has it’s own method of smoking meat. It is so universal that one might get the idea that there is really something wonderful about it. And, you’d be right. Smoked meat (and other foods as well) is satisfying on a very primitive level. Nothing is as good properly smoked as meat, with it’s subtle woody overtones, and slightly charred textured that compliments the natural tastes. And the aroma of smoking meat, which can be detected at considerable distances when the wind is right, can drive you insane. Smoked foods feed the soul as well as the body. Learning how to smoke food can change your life….. Another universal aspect is that smoking food is a social event. The very concept of cookouts and feasts began with the invention of smoking. It has always been a communal activity, and it remains so to this very day.
Take a look at the books we’ve listed here if you want to know a little more about smoking and barbecue in general.
It may seem mysterious and very technical, but I am going to tell you the little secret that most self-styled smoking gurus would rather you didn’t know. Smoking meat is very easy, and can be done with minimal equipment. When you stop to think about it, if the most primitive cave people were able to figure it out, how hard can it be? Basically, for meat, all you have to do is place it in an enclosed area and apply heat, with smoke wood, for meat, poultry and game between 225°F – 270°F for 30 minutes per pound, and for fish and veggies, 140° – 160°F for at least 5 hours. That’s really all there is to it. Just think, “Low and Slow…”. The times and temperatures do not have to be precise, within reason. Too hot, and the meat will begin to cook, rather than smoke. Too low, and the meat may begin to spoil. Of course, there are tools to take the guesswork out of it, such as meat thermometers, and such, but you really can smoke meat with a minimum of equipment. Another ‘secret’ is to always brine your meat for at least 24 hours prior to smoking. It keeps it from drying out, as well as adding flavors to it. Rubs are great, too, but not a necessity.
Now you know the basics. It’s time to consider the single most important tool you will use to create your bits of culinary heaven.
Why Should I Get A Smoker?
If you are going to smoke meat, you really need a smoker. Of course, you can build your own, but why bother? There are great smokers to fit any price range. In fact, good used smokers can even be found in yard sales and flea markets for as little as $15.00. So there is really no good reason not to have a smoker, unless you really plan to never smoke your own meat. It’s been my experience that if someone has a smoker, they will use it, at least occasionally. So, why would you want to smoke meat?
- Flavor. nothing on earth tastes like real smoked meat. It is satisfying on a primal level, appealing to the cave man (or woman) in all of us. It harkens to ancient times, when people were strong, life was simple, and food was big…. Artificial short-cuts will always come up short once you have partaken of real smoked meat. Leave the Liquid Smoke on the shelf, and live a little.
- Slow-Cooking. smoked meat is so tender that it requires little chewing. Even tough cuts like brisket will melt in your mouth after 12 -16 hours of smoking. Indoor crock pots do not break down the tough connective tissues like real smoking does.
- Preservation. smoked meat resists spoilage, and freezes better than meat prepared by other cooking methods. You can enjoy smoked salmon, smoked chicken salad, long after the fires have been extinguished. You can even make your own hams, bacon and smoked sausages, which will be far superior to their store-bought cousins. Overall, it’s a great way to preserve food.
- Well-Being. Smoking your own meat instills a sense of empowerment, and self-sufficiency. Food tastes better when you know that you processed it yourself, and you can survive with minimal outside support. Also, for the health-conscious, depending on how you acquire your meat and vegetables, you know everything that is in it. You can eliminate such vile things as msg, dyes, excessive salts and sugars, and other questionable additives. Smoked meat is healthier than fried foods, tastes better than baked food, retains more nutrition than baked foods, and keeps better than all of them. Smoked food feeds the soul as well as the body, and is an outstanding and wholesome hobby for the whole family. It engenders a sense of togetherness and community.
We need to distinguish between a smoker and a grill. A grill cooks food at higher temperatures, and much faster. With some grills, it is possible to also use them as a smoker by placing the heat source on one end, the food on the other, and carefully controlling the temperature. But you will be limited to smoking small amounts of food this way. Smokers are set up to be used as smokers, but almost all smokers also make great grills. And, there are combination units that have an offset smoke-box, to give you the best of both worlds.
Vertical vs Offset
There are 2 basic styles of smokers.
The vertical smoker, which resembles a barrel or box standing on it’s end, and the horizontal (offset) smoker, which looks like a barrel or box laying on it’s side. Both styles can be either round, or square.
In my opinion, the vertical style is more efficient and versatile. Vertical smokers take up much less space than a horizontal smoker, and they make it much easier to maintain the proper temperatures because they have excellent air circulation. They also allow more smoke to circulate around the meat because the design takes advantage of the smokes natural tendency to rise. And lastly, they can also be used as a great Hibachi-style grill. They are some of the least expensive smokers you can buy. Most electric smokers are vertical smokers. The only drawbacks to vertical smokers is if you plan on smoking very large amounts of meat. If you are going to smoke whole hogs or goats, ¼ or ½ sides of beef, ½ sides of deer, or large quantities of fish, you may want to consider a horizontal smoker.
Horizontal smokers, as a rule, are large, heavy and stable. The wood and propane types usually have at least one set of wheels and they can be wheeled into the back of a truck, on a flatbed trailer, or some even come with a built-in trailer hitch to be pulled behind a vehicle. There are very large permanent stationary smokers that can smoke a complete side of beef at one time. Some horizontal smokers are capable of smoking several hundred pounds of meat at a time, and are the best choice if you plan on smoking at large get-togethers, conventions, cook-offs, or even commercially. These are the choice of professionals. Smaller versions are made, but they are still very heavy and solid. They have offset smoke-boxes, and the fires can be kept smoldering for days and days. They are wonderful for smoking a lot of meat, but are somewhat impractical for smaller, family-size amounts. This is why most serious smokers have both types. The drawback to horizontal smokers is that they are a lot more work to clean. The only way I can get mine really clean is to take it to the car wash, with the high-pressure hot water and degreasers (be sure to remove the thermometer before using high-pressure water on your unit).
Whatever smoker you choose, it is important that it has an accurate thermometer. A broken or inaccurate thermometer can be replaced for under $25.00,. The thermometer probe is inserted though a small hole drilled through the smoker lid, and is retained by a nut on the inside. Replacing a thermometer takes less than 5 minutes and only requires a wrench. A good thermometer is necessary to make sure you are maintaining the correct temperatures, and is critical if you plan on making smoked and/or fermented sausages. A thermometer is also needed if you plan on drying fish, or making jerky in your smoker.
Once you decide on a style, you need to figure out what type of smoker you want. The types are based on the heat source.
The choices are 4:
- wood pellet
What type you need depends mostly on how much hands-on control you want. We’ll address each type.
these are the simplest, least expensive, and many will say (myself included), the only real smokers.
They have no moving parts, save for the access doors, and vents, no small parts to break (although some thermometers can be delicate), require no gas or electricity, and can be used just about anywhere but in the house. They are simply a box, or barrel that you build a fire in, add your smoke wood, and let it smoke. I only use wood/charcoal smokers. I am especially fond of the vertical style. They have a metal bowl at the bottom to build a small fire in, which makes more efficient use of your wood or charcoal, and above that, a drip pan which keeps juice from dripping onto your coals and either putting them out, or making them flame up.
Also, water, wine, beer or other liquids can be added to the drip pan to keep everything moist, and provide extra flavors. Above that, there are two or more racks that hold a surprisingly large amount of food, up to 50 lbs or more. They are made from light aluminum and can easily be taken to the lake, or out camping with you. There are no moving parts to break, and all the parts are very easy to clean. The temperature is controlled by judicious use of vents that control the air-flow. The horizontal type has an off-set smoke-box. This lends itself to many types of smoking.
Charcoal/Wood smokers are the purest way to smoke food. Your food will have no flavors of propane, no sterile electrical feel, and you don’t have to depend on commercial fuels like pellets. You are cooking over a real fire, and real coals. Nothing but fire, smoke, and meat (or cheeses, veggies, etc….), working together in perfect harmony, as nature intended.
- There is a slight learning curve (you have to learn how to build a fire….not a bad thing to learn in any case….).
- You may need a little practice using the vents to keep the correct temperatures.
- Wood/Charcoal smokers are all manual. You have to do everything.
- Clean up is a job, compared to all other types of smokers.
These are best for those with a ‘set it, and forget it’ mentality. They are easy to use, and are preferred by many. A lot of restaurants use gas smokers because of their simplicity. You don’t have to start a fire. All you have to do is light the burner. The best models are the vertical ‘cabinet’ types. These allow the smoke to circulate freely around the meat. All gas smokers are powered by propane. Combustion of the gas is used to burn the smoke wood. Since the flame level is easily controlled by a valve, it is much easier to maintain precise temperature control, than with wood smokers. Other than the gas, they work just like wood smokers.
The Cons are:
- They are more expensive than wood smokers, but still not bad, at around $200.00 or less.
- The vapors from the burned propane mix with the water, and create a perfume-like overtone to the food that some (myself included) find undesirable. Others swear they do not notice it, so it’s a matter of taste.
- You have to leave the top vent fully open at all times, or the gas can deposit soot on your food.
- Gas smokers never come with propane tanks, so you will have to buy two separate tanks. You need two because a half-empty tank will run out of fuel in the middle of your smoking operations.
- If you are environmentally conscious, propane is a hydrocarbon, and even though it is touted as burning clean, it still releases chemicals into the environment.
- Propane is obviously flammable, and a punctured tank can ignite.
- The biggest complaint about gas smokers is that none of them are wide enough for a whole rack of ribs. You have to cut them in half, or hang them.
In spite of all these drawbacks, gas smokers have a following. If ease of use is your primary concern, then a gas smoker may be just the thing for you.
there is no question that electric smokers are the easiest to use. All you have to do is add a little smoke wood, usually an oz. Or less, set the temperature and time, and forget about it. It will shut itself off when it is done. They work by using an electric heating element, just like an electric stove. Your smoke wood and water go above the element, or elements. A rheostat (on cheaper models) or thermostat controls the temperature. You just set it, add food, and go about your business. There is no building a fire, no checking the fuel every hour or so, and no soot, or char build-up. And since they have a thermostat that maintains a steady temperature, these are ideal for fish, peppers, and other temperature-sensitive foods. They are very easy to clean, cheap to operate, and seem to hold up well. Sounds perfect, right? Well…maybe not so much. Again, it depends on your personal preference.
- Foods cooked in electric smokers lack the character of foods cooked in a wood, or even gas smokers. There is no replacement for real fire.
- Electric smokers have no combustion. The wood just smolders, rather than slow-burns, so you don’t get all the chemical reactions you do with other types of smokers.
- Electric smokers will not give you a wonderful crunchy crust, or the ‘smoke-ring’ (the pink layer of meat on the outside that says, “I have been genuinely smoked…”) on your food.
- Electric smokers are expensive….some can run $500.00 or more.
- Electric smokers are prohibited at most cook-offs.
But, most people that have electric smokers absolutely love them, so I can’t really knock them too much. Again, it’s what you want that counts.
in 1982, a heating unit company called Traeger patented a revolutionary home heating system that used pellets made from compressed sawdust, a by-product of the lumber industry, to heat homes with. It fed the pellets to the heat source automatically, and both the feeder system and fan were computer-controlled.
They were very successful, and it wasn’t a big stretch for them to design a smoker that worked the same way, and thus, the Traeger Pellet Smoker was born.
It is still the #1 selling pellet smoker on the market. Since the 1980s, many companies have made pellet smokers, but they all work in a similar fashion.
Outwardly, they resemble a typical wood smoker, but the resemblance ends there. These are super high-tech units.
Comparing a wood smoker to a pellet smoker is like comparing the Wright Brothers first airplane to the Space Shuttle. These are digitally controlled, with an automatic pellet feed, igniter, and circulation fan. They have computer-controlled thermostats that can even be programmed to smoke at a certain temperature for a specified period of time, then raise or lower the heat for another time period. Some even have ‘leave-in’ meat probes that will lower the temperature to a warm holding level when the internal temperature of the meat reaches the target value.
They really are ‘load, set, and forget‘ units. The way they work is that you load a hopper with the wood pellets, and an auger feed system automatically feeds the correct amount of pellets into the beer-can sized burn-pot, which also contains and igniter. The igniter is a simple heating element, just like in an electric oven. You set the time and temperature, and the igniter will light the wood pellets, causing them to smolder slowly. The igniter, fan and feeder will keep feeding and burning wood pellets, and supplying air to maintain whatever temperature you select, for the time you set. The system is basically an indirect convection oven. Since you are smoking with real heat, the meat will taste just like wood smoked meat. The only drawbacks I can think of to these units is cost.
They run from $500.00 to well over $1000.00. But you get what you pay for. You want high-tech, it’s going to cost you high dollars. Also, you can only use pellets in them. So if you have a fallen hickory tree on your property, you can’t use it in these smokers. The other drawback is that they really can’t be used as a grill. The only heat source is indirect, so you can’t properly sear meat as soon as it hits the grill. Other than that, they are wonderful smoking machines. If you can afford one, they are a great addition to your culinary arsenal.
Your Turn: The Best Smoker For You
When you find the kind of smoker you want, follow the links to the in-depth buyers guides for that type, which will include reviews, tips and tricks.
We hope this guide will help you select the top smoker for your needs. If you need help, contact us or feel free to leave a comment below.