Types of Smokers

Types of Smokers

As you consider getting into this hobby, it is helpful to consider some different types of smokers. I use an electric smoker, but I don’t consider it the ‘right’ answer. I prefer it for my reasons (which you’ll read), but at the end of the day, you need to pick the kind of smoker you’ll enjoy using the most. Period. Don’t let a forum or a website tell you that electric, propane, or whatever isn’t ‘real’ BBQ. It just doesn’t matter. Do you enjoy the food you cook? Does your family? Do your friends? If yes, nothing else matters. So, here is a general overview of some of the types of smokers out there, as well as what you can expect to get out of each price tier.

One of the big questions one must answer before buying a meat smoker is what kind of fuel you will be burning. There are a few types of smokers available, but I’ll talk through four of them: electric, charcoal, pellet, and propane. So, how do you pick? I’ll present some of the pros and cons of each type of smoker, as well as the reason I chose the type of smoker I did. 

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First of all, every single type of smoker can yield great results. There is just no way around that fact. Because of that, propane smokers can be a great option. Quite obviously they run off a propane tank just like a gas grill will. I’ve been very pleased with the results I’ve gotten from my propane smokers. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Like an electric smoker, propane heating is pretty much set the temp and walk away. There aren’t a lot of fluxuations in the heating process, so propane is just as easy to use. 
  2. You can run out of fuel. If you’ve ever used a gas grill, you know what this is all about. You start cooking only to run out before the meal is done. Because smoking can take so long, its worth checking your fuel level before each smoke. Having used a propane smoker for a little while now, I’ve found that this isn’t as big of a frustration as I feared. I will say that I have a lot more propane takes around the house than I ever have. If you use a gas grill regularly enough, a gas smoker will be no issue at all. I run my full tanks on the smoker for a few loads, then when I’m not sure if it will last me a whole smoke, I switch it over to the grill. Now I’m never sunk when my grill runs out of gas. Running out of fuel isn’t a huge issue, but one to keep in mind. A simple fix would be to pick up a propane meter like this. I have one on my grill and it is extremely helpful. 
  3. Parts can break. This is actually a selling point for a propane smoker. Just about every hardware store has the pieces you’ll need to replace a hose or burner that is fueled by propane. Many electric smoker manufacturers make it difficult to buy a replacement heating element. Some don’t sell them, some sell them for half the cost of the unit, or worse yet, some sell them integrated into some of the circuitry used to run the smoker. Propane smokers are less likely to need a repair that costs you an arm and a leg.
  4. Portability. One fantastic feature that a propane smoker offers is the ability to be used anywhere. If you like to go camping, a propane smoker would be a great addition to the camp site. Many propane units can get up to higher temps than most smokers would need (some even tout upwards of 450º). This makes the unit very flexible as an oven as well. 
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Electric smoking, similar to propane smoking, is often considered ‘cheating’ by meat smoking purists. But again, the results speak for themselves. A few points about electric:

  1. Easy to maintain a constant temperature (just like propane). This isn’t the case on the very cheap units (Brinkmann, for example, simply plugs in and heats to 225. No control), but there are many starter units that are well insulated to allow you the flexibility to smoke in various types of weather.
  2. You need electricity. I know, I know, more earth shattering information from fattybombatty. But just to be fair, if running out of propane is a disadvantage, so also is losing power.
  3. Parts can break. Just like propane, electric units can have failures that charcoal smokers just won’t have. Part of this issue can be resolved with a quality unit, and a good warranty, but it is something else to keep in mind. As a note, I previously recommended the Masterbuilt Electric Smokehouse. Unfortunatly, parts breaking prevents me from recommending them as a quality unit anymore. I’ve heard too many stories directly from friends who have had their units break, and have read too many stories online to make me think that the units are built well enough to withstand much more than a year of use. If you have a unit that is performing well, awesome. But for those considering jumping in, I’d have to steer you away. I recognize theCookshack units are a bit steep for someone starting out in meat smoking, but they really are worth every penny. If budget simply won’t go that high, I’ve heard really good things about Smokin’-It smokers. I’ve not used one personally, but consider them in your search. 
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Pellet smokers have had my attention lately, and seem to be making a surge in the smoking world. Here are a few reasons why, as well as some downsides:

  1. Easy to maintain a consistant temperature. Pellet smokers use an auger system to feed compressed wood pellets into a little stove of sort. This mechanism is controlled by a thermostat which informs the auger system when to drop more pellets in. This puts it about even with electric and propane in terms of ease of use. 
  2.  A big bonus is that 100% of the heat used to cook your food is from wood. So you can say the food you produce was smoked over 100% hardwood. Nice.
  3. Like the others mentioned, parts can break. Auger mechanisms can jam/fail, and the auger requires electricity to function. Nothing overly dramatic here, simply pointing out that the same potential issues can arise with these units that can with gas and electric. I have heard a lot of horror stories with issues like this. A friend’s parents were having a large party at their house and the auger system malfunctioned. It has had problems several times in the short life of the unit. Not good.
  4. One other downside that is worth noting is cost. While every other type of smoker has at least one option under $100, the pellet smokers tend to float around $600 for the smallest units. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth considering, just something to keep in mind. 
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Charcoal

Ahh charcoal. The purist’s fuel. Every meat smoker and BBQ’er will tell you that charcoal produces the best flavor. I wouldn’t disagree. There is a flavor that electric and gas just simply can’t match. A few things about charcoal.

  1. Starting a fire can be a pain. Lighting briquettes can be a hassle, and just takes time. This will add about 30-45 minutes to the start of the process. 
  2. Maintaining a fire can be a hassle. When you grill with charcoal, you are talking about a relatively short period of time with food being cooked. With smoking, you need to maintain a low, slow, and consistent heat for the entire time of the smoke. This can be quite cumbersome if you are smoking a cut of meat for 15 hours. There are times where the temperature gets too hot while you are warming things up, and it can be a bear to get it back down. It is quite possible to master the art, but it can be a steep learning curve.
  3. The flavor can’t be beat. I won’t challenge the fact that the best darn tasting BBQ you’ll have comes from cooking with charcoal. Heck, some people don’t consider it BBQ if you cook it any other way!
  4. Charcoal cost money too. One of my hesitations about purchasing a propane smoker was the cost of fuel. But charcoal isn’t cheap either. If I had to price them out, pellets and charcoal would be on the high end, with propane slightly below that, and electricity at the bottom of the list. 

Conclusion

So, whats the right answer? There isn’t one! Like I said in the intro, each of these methods of meat smoking can produce amazing food that your friends and family will rave about. Consider what you want out of this hobby. Are you looking for the traditional BBQ event where you spend much of the day outside tending to the food? If so, charcoal might be right for you. Are you looking for an easy solution that you can let cook overnight? If so, propane or electric are great options. Are you looking to eventually dabble in competitions? If so, charcoal is the only option for you. More than anything, I would say choose the type of smoker that works best with how you live.

My decision

I figured I would share why I chose an electric smoker for myself. First off, I was afraid of how hard maintaining a fire sounded with charcoal. I don’t want to be a slave to my meal. I want to be able to put something in the smoker and find it finished several hours later - without babysitting. Its the same reason I have a gas grill. When my wife says she wants steak for dinner, I can easily pull that off after work. With the added time of prepping a fire when using charcoal, it makes me not want to grill as much. I’m more than happy to grill with charcoal over the weekend, or for special events, but it is too much work for me to do regularly. Similarly with smoking, I want something that allows me the flexibility to live my life, but still enjoy great food. I won’t claim its better than meat smoked over charcoal because I don’t think it is. But I do know its dang good, and everyone who has had it loves it. I can’t really ask for much more than that. Interestingly enough, I am actually starting to dabble in charcoal grilling and smoking as of late, and I am excited to apply my knowledge of smoking learned through electric smoking to charcoal based smoking. Like I said, there is no right answer, and each option has its own benefits and drawbacks. I do know this, good food is good food, no matter how its cooked!

I’ve also jumped into the world of propane smoking. My electric smoker just didn’t put out the volume I needed for some large events I cooked for. After using a propane smoker several times, I’d not hesitate to suggest that as a reasonable starting point for someone interested in meat smoking as well. It presents different challenges than the other forms, but the results have been outstanding.

How expensive are typical smokers?
Meat smokers range quite a bit in price. Staying in the range of a ‘backyard smoker’, you can get something for as little as $50 at your local hardware store, or spend well over $1000 for something with a larger capacity and more features. I’ll try to break down some of the different features you’ll get in each price range.

Low end ($50-125):
These smokers are what I would consider starter smokers. They allow you to slow cook meat, but don’t afford you a lot of the controls and features that a middle or high end smoker provide. One feature I see left out quite often is a thermometer to measure the temperature of the cooking chamber. This can be quite frustrating as smoking requires an even temperature. The problem is easily solved by purchasing a thermometer, its just a nice feature to have that this range doesn’t often come with.

Another thing to consider is build quality - especially if you plan to purchase an electric smoker. My first smoker was in this category and put out some fantastic food. What I quickly realized however, was that my ability to cook (and the quality of my food) was significantly influenced by the weather outside. On a hot day, food would cook too quickly, and on a cold evening, it wouldn’t cook at all! This was because the metal used wasn’t insulated, and the heating element was set to 225º at all times. Unfortunately the weather added or subtracted temperature.

Overall, these smokers are capable of producing a great product, but they tend not to last as long as the slightly more expensive smokers, and leave some features out that can make you frustrated. It is also worth noting that this category of smoker can be improved through modification. If you like to tinker and hack, this might actually be a good category for you because of that. A more expensive smoker doesn’t mean better food.

Medium end ($150-300):
This is a fantastic price range to buy a smoker in my opinion. You can get something that will last you a long time, but also provides you the tools you need to succeed in smoking meat. For the charcoal smoker, the Smokey Mountain Smoker (SMS) is a great option. I have read nothing but rave reviews for the thing, and if I decide to dabble in the live fire smoking world, this would be the unit I purchase. It tends to run around $300, but can be found for less.

If you are considering an electric smoker, this would be the price range that I would strongly encourage you start at. Because your heat is completely dependent on the quality of the heating element and the insulation of the unit, the low end units tend to make it quite a bit harder to get the results you are looking for. Masterbuilt is no longer recomended because of numerous reports of failures. Masterbuilt makes a quality smoker that can typically be found for around $200, though I’ve seen it for as little as $129. Though I haven’t used theSmokin-It smokers, their design is similar to the Cookshack, and the reviews have been great so far. Worth considering. The key feature to note for the electric smokers in this range is the insulation. Good insulation for an electric smoker means you have more control over the consistency of the cooking temperature, as well as the ability to smoke in various weather conditions.

If at all possible, I would suggest this range as the ideal starting point for someone interested in meat smoking. 

High end ($400+):
So, what do you get for the extra coin? For the charcoal smoker, you get a more space, and improved design. At its core, live fire smoking is all the same. Make a fire, add wood for smoke, and control the temperature. These higher end smokers are typically designed by people who have been smoking for years - often in competitions. They understand how smoking works, and they develop very effective units for controlling the temperatures.

On the electric smoker front, you get significantly improved build quality. That shows up in the build of the unit itself (how well the parts are welded together), the consistency of the heating unit, and the longevity of the unit. I own a Cookshack Smokette SM008 (no longer available - replaced by the Smokette) and absolutely love it. It is so well insulated that I can smoke meat through a 17º evening and get the same results as when I smoke on a 70º and if I were to smoke on a 115º day. Compared to the low end smokers, this feature is huge. And while many medium end smokers give you some flexibility, the high end smokers are exactly that - high end.

This is the range where you will start seeing pellet smokers as well. One nice benefit of the pellet smokers is that they double as grills. But considering their entry point, one could easily buy a very nice smoker and grill for around the same price, gaining some flexibility (grill burgers while some tri-tip is finishing in the smoker, for example).

Even though this is the price range where I ended up, I wouldn’t suggest this be a starting point. In a lot of ways, each smoker has certain features that he or she prizes over another. For example, I don’t want to tend to the smoker every 30-45 minutes to make sure the temperature is consistant. That’s why I chose to go with an electric smoker. By starting with a low to medium end unit, you begin to understand the basics of meat smoking so you can choose the best upgrade for you if you decide to stick with it.

To get an idea of what options are available above and below the $400 mark, check out this fantastic About.com article - it is how I found the smoker I currently use and love.