What do I Need?
Do I need a yard?
To smoke safely, you will need an uncovered and well ventilated area. If you use a live fire smoker (using wood and charcoal), you will want a clearance of a few feet to prevent any heat damage to surrounding structures/objects. Live fire smokers tend to put off more smoke than electric smokers as they are generating heat by consuming fuel. It would not be recommended to use the unit too close to an open door or window.
Some electric smokers put off no external heat as they are well insulated, therefore could function in a slightly smaller space. They also produce less smoke as the heat is generated by an electric element rather than charcoal. The wood still produces smoke, so very tight spaces would still be problematic if near open windows or doors.
Ultimately, you would have to make the decision based on the smoker and the surrounding environment.
What basics do I need to get started with meat smoking (and how cheaply can I do it right)?
When I started smoking, I was given a sub-$100 electric smoker as a gift, and that was all I had. I used a BBQ thermometer to test the internal temperature, wood chips purchased from the store, and used a basic rub to prep the meat. So, technically you can start experimenting for around $100. Having learned a lot since the time I started, I’ll list some things to consider when jumping into meat smoking.
If you haven’t already, check out the ‘I’m In!’ page. In it, I explain some of the differences between the various ‘tiers’ of smokers. As I mentioned, I started with a low end Brinkman smoker. And while it produced some great food, I quickly outgrew it. The heating element also failed after a few months, and the customer service was poor. They offered me the opportunity to buy a replacement part that was 50% of the units cost! With that experience, I would suggest about $225 for a smoker. Masterbuilt’s electric smokehouse is an unreliable option from my experience, so I’d suggest a Smokin-It smoker if you want to go electric, or aWeber Smokey Mountain if you want to go charcoal. The Masterbuilt Extra Wide Propane Smoker is a fantastic propane unit that is only available at Bass Pro Shops, but a solid option if you want to go with propane. I own two of these units and am trilled with them. They offer a ton of capacity (which isn’t a bad thing), but may require some minor modification to work for you (this video explains it). If that is too high of a price tag for the smoker, check Craigslist or yard sales. I’ve seen a few fantastic units listed, so you can score a great deal. Smoker: $225
The only accessory that I’ve found absolutely crucial for the beginner meat smoker is a remote thermometer. There are both wired and wireless units available. Something I learned after using my BBQ thermometer was that every time you open the smoker door to check temperature, you add about an hour to the cooking time. Because of that, a unit that shows you the temperature without having to open the door is fantastic. I bought two for under $25 each, but we’ll aim high. Thermometer: $25
There are different nuances with using wood in different smokers, but overall, chunks are better than chips. Chunks allow you to generate smoke longer and more consistently than wood chips, as they tend to burn up quickly (even when soaked in water). It is not a good idea to use random pieces of wood found around your house as it is important that no chemicals have touched the wood. If you buy a good quality smoker, they will typically include a few pounds of wood to get you started. If not, there are a variety of online shops that sell a variety of woods, and the supply found in most local hardware super stores has gotten dramatically better over the years. If you have a smoker like the Masterbuilt that requires chips, you can easily cut chunks into thick chips with a hatchet. They will longer burn times than a bag of chips, and you’ll have a lot of flexibility. Amazonalso sells wood chunks of various types of wood at great prices. And, as mentioned before, the local hardware superstore will have some of the basics (typically hickory, apple, and mesquite) Wood Chunks: $15
If you go electric, the only cost is kilowatts (which end up being very insignificant). If you do charcoal, there will be the cost of fuel which I would guess is about $10 for a good bag of non-chemical compressed hardwood briquettes. If you decide to go with a propane smoker, you’ll have the propane to factor in as well. A new tank can run around $50 bucks, while a refill is around $20. I’ll add $15 to consider some fuel cost, but you can decide based on the fuel you choose to use. Fuel: $15
The other costs that you will need to factor in are more in the grocery category of the budget. Sauces, rubs, and of course, the meat itself. Different cuts vary dramatically in cost, so putting a number on this stuff is very difficult. There are numerous resources online for finding sauces and rubs. Currently, I use the rub that came with my smoker, made by Cookshack, and I use a home made sauce. If you prefer to buy sauce (as I did for several years), you can typically find a bottle of good stuff for under $4.00 per bottle. The last thing you will need is some heavy duty foil. I use it to line the bottom of my smoker (and I would suggest the same for the refrigerator looking electric smokers) to make clean up easy.
When all is said and done, you can get a very good quality smoking setup for under $300. You can go lower if you buy the lowest end smoker available, but I personally don’t think saving the extra $150 is worth it considering how much more you get. Not to mention durability is likely one of the things cut to get the price lower. Again, you can find much of this stuff used as well. If $300 is too much to start getting into the hobby, search some used listings in your area and pick up a Smokin’ deal. And yes, that pun was intended.
When buying equipment and supplies, where are the places I should try to save money vs. spending more to buy the highest quality?
When considering getting into meat smoking and supplies, really the only place I would advise you to go for quality instead of saving money is with the smoker itself. You don’t need a fancy thermometer, or some super high end wood. You also don’t need all the accessories that you could buy. For example, cheese. My smoker, the Cookshack SM 008, has a baffle available to help with smoking cheese. It sits on the bottom rack to help keep the chamber cool (otherwise the cheese will melt). Well, rather than drop the $50 that it costs to buy it, I just wrapped a tray in foil and accomplished the same thing. Many of the accessories available are nice, and might make things more convenient, but I tend to like finding my own solutions for less. The less money I spend on accessories, the more I can spend on stuff to actually smoke.
When you first jump in, just buy the smoker itself. Once you figure out if you enjoy the hobby, it will be a lot easier to spread out the additional accessories. If you love ribs, then eventually you might want a rib rack to let you fit more in your smoker. If you love smoking birds, there are accessories for that. Remember, there is nothing you can’t cook in your smoker when you get it. All these accessories just make it a bit easier. Find what you like smoking before you buy everything you can.