There’s nothing like the taste of smoked brisket, sausages, or even a whole turkey, especially when you cook it yourself. Smoking your own meat can be as rewarding as it is tasty, and it’s even better with the right charcoal smoker.
Charcoal smokers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from the classic offset barrel smoker to vertical smokers to exotic kamado models. The best smokers on the market range in size from large models that boast 1,400 square inches of cooking space and weigh nearly 200 pounds to smaller portable smokers that weigh less than 40 pounds.
With so many types, sizes, and brands to choose from, it can be difficult to make the right choice. This guide can help make the selection process easier by examining which factors are important when shopping for one of these backyard appliances. Some of the top models on the market appear here.
- BEST OVERALL: Weber 22-inch Smokey Mountain Cooker
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Realcook Vertical 17 Inch Steel Charcoal Smoker
- BEST OFFSET: Dyna-Glo Signature Series Charcoal Smoker
- BEST CABINET: Dyna-Glo DGX780BDC-D 36″ Vertical Charcoal Smoker
- BEST LIGHTWEIGHT: Cuisinart COS-118 Vertical 18″ Charcoal Smoker
- BEST PORTABLE: PK Grills PKO-GCAS-X Grill
- ALSO CONSIDER: Masterbuilt Gravity Series Charcoal Grill + Smoker
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Charcoal Smoker
While choosing the right type of smoker, consider build quality, cooking capacity, and portability. Ahead, learn about these and the other important attributes of these backyard cooking appliances.
Charcoal smokers are available in four main types: kamado, offset, vertical, and cabinet. The right smoker depends on cooking style, the amount of food that will be smoked, and the available space.
- Kamado grills are vertical smokers that are cylindrical in shape. The design, which comes from ancient Japan, features a tapered bottom with a broad top. Instead of sheet metal, kamado smokers use thick ceramic, which provides much better insulation than metal. This design makes kamado smokers one of the most efficient types of smokers.
- Offset smokers consist of two compartments: a large main compartment and a smaller one. The charcoal burns in the smaller compartment, sending smoke and heat into the larger compartment that houses the food. More demanding to use and typically requiring more work than other smokers, these are the choice of pros because of their high capacity and ability to handle large pieces of meat.
- Vertical smokers, sometimes called “drum,” “barrel,” or “bullet” smokers, are tall and narrow. The fire is built at the bottom of the unit, allowing heat to travel up to the cooking area near the top of the smoker. Charcoal is loaded at the bottom with the wood chips above, while the food sits on the racks at the top. Vertical smokers are typically around 4 feet tall and have a smaller footprint at around 20 inches by 20 inches.
- Cabinet smokers, also known as “box” smokers, differ from other types in that they have a front door that opens to load food onto a series of racks. Similar to a vertical smoker, the charcoal is located at the bottom of the unit with a tray above it for wood chips. This design often is easier to use.
Build Quality and Materials
Smokers, like other outdoor cooking appliances, must hold up to the heat and smoke on their inside while also enduring the elements on the outside. And while they don’t need to endure the same high temperatures as a standard barbecue grill, they operate for many hours at a time. To withstand this harsh environment, a smoker must be made of durable materials.
A smoker’s firebox usually consists of thicker steel sheet metal. The cooking area is typically stainless steel, which is easier to clean than regular steel and won’t rust or corrode. Thicker steel better insulates the smoker, making it less susceptible to temperature changes. Some smokers feature aluminum construction. Aluminum is significantly lighter than steel and has natural corrosion-resistant qualities, but it doesn’t insulate well.
Smokers often differ widely in the amount of cooking area they offer. A charcoal smoker’s capacity is defined by the square inches of cooking space it offers. Smaller portable models may have between 300 and 500 square inches of cooking space, while large offset smokers may offer 1,400 square inches or more of cooking space.
Since smoking meat is a process that takes many hours, users can’t rotate food on and off the smoker’s grates to cook for a large group as with a traditional grill. The cooking area dictates how much food a smoker can cook in a single session.
A smoker should have at least two cooking grates and a warming grate. Grates typically are made of stainless steel, porcelain, or cast iron. Higher quality smokers have thicker walls that better insulate the grill, resulting in a more stable internal temperature that makes cooking easier.
- Cast iron grates retain heat better than other materials, but they require cleaning and oiling to prevent rust from forming.
- Porcelain-coated racks are easy to clean, but they are susceptible to cracking.
- Stainless steel is easy to clean and resists corrosion and rust, but it doesn’t retain heat as well as cast iron or porcelain racks.
Temperature Control and Range
Since charcoal smokers use burning coals to create heat instead of an adjustable gas flame or heating element, controlling temperature in a charcoal smoker is more challenging. Gas and electric smokers have knobs to control the temperature, but on a charcoal smoker, the user must open and close the vents and baffles to adjust the heat level of the burning charcoal.
A quality charcoal smoker usually contains numerous vents that make it easier for the user to control temperature. These vents usually are positioned near the base of the smoker and on the lid for maximum control.
A few features make cooking with a charcoal smoker easier. For example, a built-in thermostat allows the user to easily monitor the temperature without having to open the chamber or invest in a wireless digital thermometer. Other features include insulated cooking compartments, which help maintain consistent temperatures in the cooking chamber, and cool-touch handles, which allow the user to open and close the smoker’s compartments without getting burned.
Some higher-end models offer advanced controls such as gravity-fed cooking chambers, digitally controlled fans, and thermostats that allow the smokers to maintain a preset temperature automatically. A few even have Bluetooth connectivity to allow the user to monitor the temperature remotely.
Some people keep their smoker in a permanent spot on the patio, while others store it in a garage or shed when not in use. Still others take their smokers to campsites. Consider how often the smoker must be moved and which size and weight will make that process manageable.
Large smokers can weigh 150 to 200 pounds. Some models have wheels that allow the user to maneuver them around a patio. Smaller smokers weigh between 35 and 50 pounds, which is usually light enough for one person to take it to another location or to the car for transport.
Care and Maintenance Tips for Charcoal Smokers
The key to keeping a smoker in good working condition is to clean the smoker after each session. To clean a smoker, first make sure to remove the ash because it can retain moisture that can rust the inside of the smoker.
Next, remove any meat juices or marinades with a damp cloth, and brush off the grates using a nylon brush. Use a putty knife to scrape off any stubborn residue from the cooking chamber. Remove rust spots with steel wool, and reseason the areas with cooking oil.
- Remove ash after each use.
- Clean meat juices and marinades after use.
- Remove stuck-on food with a putty knife.
- Clean and reseason rust spots before the rust can grow larger.
Our Top Picks
To narrow the field to some of the top smokers by size and type on the market, this list considers cooking space, build quality, cost, additional features, and other factors. The list includes smokers with large capacities as well as smaller portable models from some of the best-known names in grills.
Weber’s charcoal smokers have some excellent qualities, including the ability to control the temperature. Monitor cooking temperature via the temperature gauge on the lid of the cooker, and control it with the adjustable dampers.
With a 22-inch diameter, this model is the largest of Weber’s line of smokers, offering 726 square inches of cooking space divided over two large grates. With porcelain construction instead of metal, this smoker retains heat well, resulting in more stable temperatures throughout the cooking process. At more than 4 feet tall, this smoker is a bit too large to make it a portable option. However, Weber also offers smaller 18- and 14-inch versions to take the smoker on the road.
- Cooking Area: 726 square inches
- Max Temperature: 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- Weight: 68 pounds
- Porcelain components retain heat
- Steel construction
- Numerous vents
- Built-in lid thermometer
- Too large and heavy for portable use
- Hard to maintain low temperatures
At a fraction of the price of other smokers, Realcook’s vertical steel charcoal smoker is one of the best charcoal grill smoker options for those on a budget. Though not as large as other models, it offers 453 square inches of cooking space on two grates with two hangers inside the lid for additional capacity.
Two access doors allow the user to add fuel without disrupting the temperature in the separate cooking chamber, while dampers and a temperature gauge on the lid enable temperature adjustment. With its ability to come apart in three pieces, this cooker can also function as a barbecue grill or even a fire pit.
- Cooking Area: 453 square inches
- Max Temperature: 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- Weight: 19 pounds
- Affordable price
- Designed to also operate as a barbecue
- Built-in thermometer
- Lightweight and portable
- Small cooking area
- More challenging to control the temperature
This offset smoker from Dyna-Glo is well suited for serious smokers or those hosting a large backyard barbecue. With nearly 1,400 square inches of cooking space, the cooker’s large cooking area is divided over five grates, each large enough to hold a large slab of meat. The cooking area also includes several hooks at the chamber’s top to hang sausages.
Though the smoker is constructed of a thinner-gauge steel sheet metal, a durable coating protects it from rust. At 124 pounds, this smoker is not portable. However, it has two large wheels for maneuvering it around the backyard. Cool-touch handles allow the user to open and close the cooking chamber and firebox without a glove.
- Cooking Area: 1,382 square inches
- Max Temperature: Not available
- Weight: 124 pounds
- Nearly 1,400 square inches of cooking space
- Five racks
- Can be used as a traditional grill
- Wheels help maneuver the smoker
- Thin sheet metal construction
- Very heavy and difficult to move
With 784 square inches of cooking space, this vertical cabinet-style charcoal smoker from Dyna-Glo offers a large cooking surface area without taking up a lot of real estate. This smoker measures just over 4 feet with a footprint of 21 inches by 21 inches.
The cooking box consists of four cooking grates above a charcoal cooking box. Two separate doors allow the user to access the firebox’s cooking area independently, and a large vent allows for temperature control. Other thoughtful features include an ash management system, cool-touch handles on both doors, and a stainless temperature gauge. At 56 pounds, this smoker stores fairly easily.
- Cooking Area: 784 square inches
- Max Temperature: Not available
- Weight: 56 pounds
- Affordably priced
- Separate doors for cooking area and firebox
- Four racks for cooking
- No wheels for maneuvering
- Challenging to control temperature
At just 37 pounds, this smoker from Cuisinart is one of the lightest on the market. This smoker is just 23 inches tall and 20.5 inches in diameter, but it offers more than 500 square inches of cooking space on two 18-inch stainless steel racks. Vents on the top and bottom allow for temperature control, while a large door allows easy access to the cooking area.
- Cooking Area: 510 square inches
- Max Temperature: Not available
- Weight: 37 pounds
- Compact and lightweight
- Dual air vents on top and bottom
- Stainless steel cooking racks
- Smaller cooking area
- No separate door for firebox
Unlike other smokers that use steel in their construction, PK Grills builds its smoker out of aluminum, which makes it substantially lighter than its steel counterparts. While other smokers can weigh upwards of 200 pounds, this PK Grills smoker weighs just 49 pounds. Its lighter weight coupled with a design that allows it to be detached from the stand makes this smoker quite portable.
In addition to making it lightweight, the aluminum construction also makes it one of the more durable smokers on the market because it won’t rust like steel. This grill, which is about 3 feet wide, 190 inches deep, and 3 feet tall, offers 310 square inches of cooking surface and uses a two-zone cooking system with vents for controlling the temperature.
- Cooking Area: 310 square inches
- Max Temperature: Not available
- Weight: 49 pounds
- Lightweight aluminum construction
- Detachable base
- Two-zone cooking system
- Aluminum doesn’t provide great insulation
- Pricey for size
With versatile performance and digital controls, this charcoal smoker from Masterbuilt offers 560 square inches of cooking surface. A great option for those who like a “set-it-and-forget-it” approach to smoking meat, this smoker uses an offset design. Its gravity-fed firebox holds enough charcoal to burn for 15 hours. The feeder works with a fan, digital controller, and thermostat to automatically maintain the desired temperature inside the smoker.
The smoker also allows the user to connect to it via Bluetooth to monitor the temperature. Like other offset smokers, this model also doubles as a charcoal grill.
- Cooking Area: 560 square inches
- Max Temperature: 700 degrees Fahrenheit
- Weight: 147 pounds
- Set-it-and-forget-it design
- Bluetooth connectivity
- Gravity-fed firebox
- Smaller cooking surface
- More complicated system than other top products
With an ample cooking area and high-quality construction, Weber’s Smokey Mountain Cooker is an excellent charcoal smoker for pros and newbies alike. Those in search of a more affordable option may want to consider the Realcook Steel Charcoal Smoker.
How We Chose the Best Charcoal Smokers
When selecting the products for this list of the best charcoal smokers, we considered several factors, including the quality of the build, cost, cooking space, and ease of use. In assessing the quality of the build, we scored grills with thicker walls and numerous vents higher, because both features make it easier to manage the temperature inside the smoker. Since smoking is a process that takes many hours with no opportunity for cycling food on and off, smokers with multiple racks and more cooking surface ranked higher than those with less space.
In addition to these factors, we also considered weight and portability for our portable and lightweight categories. Finally, since cost is an important factor as well, we included smokers that provide quality at an affordable price. These sometimes rated higher than pricier options with similar build quality, cooking space, and features.
Now that you know more about charcoal smokers, questions may still remain as to how to start your new smoker or the health risks of using a smoker. Read on for answers to these and other commonly asked questions about this outdoor appliance.
Q. Is charcoal smoke bad for your health?
Always be aware of health risks when using charcoal briquettes or a charcoal smoker. When burning, charcoal briquettes emit carbon monoxide, which is toxic. If allowed to build up indoors, carbon monoxide can result in poisoning or even death. Smoke created by meat juices dripping into charcoal can also create chemicals that have been linked to cancer.
Q: What is the difference between a smoker and a standard grill?
The two major differences between the two types of cooking involve cooking time. When grilling, you cook food directly over high heat for a relatively short period of time. However, when smoking, you cook meat over low indirect heat for hours or even days.
Q. How do I start a charcoal smoker?
Either stack the charcoal in the smoker’s firebox in a pyramid shape or use a charcoal starter. Once the charcoal is in place, use lighter fluid or a fire starter to light the charcoal. Once lit, the charcoal should begin to form a white ash around the edges and, eventually, will emit a yellow-orange glow.
Q. Can I use wood in a charcoal smoker?
Yes, in fact, it’s a good idea to use wood in a charcoal smoker. Using different types of wood, such as hickory or cherry, creates different flavors in the meat. Just make sure to mix the wood with the best charcoal for smoking instead of adding wood alone to ensure a long burn time.
Q: How long does charcoal burn in a smoker?
When used in a smoker, charcoal burns slowly for a long time. A 15-pound bag of charcoal can burn for up to 15 hours inside the firebox, which is usually plenty of time to smoke most meats.
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Tony Carrick is a freelance writer specializing in home improvement, landscaping, and design. A recipient of a degree in journalism and a Master of Arts in English, he spent ten years writing for a variety of local newspapers and business publications before becoming an English teacher. Mr. Carrick now works as a freelance writer from his home in North Carolina. When he isn’t furiously typing away on his laptop or working on his latest home improvement project, he enjoys spending time with his family and cycling through the beautiful North Carolina countryside.