Between tailgating, camping, or enjoying a day out on the deck, smoked meat is a slow-cooked meal worth waiting for. Smoking cuts of meat at about 275 degrees for at least four hours creates a flavorful, juicy flavor profile unlike any other method of cooking.
While all smokers can produce that juicy, smoky flavor in meats, they don’t all achieve it the same way. Fuel type, size, temperature control, safety, and capacity are all important factors to consider when shopping for the best smoker for you.
- BEST OVERALL: Masterbuilt MB20073519 Bluetooth Digital Electric Smoker
- UPGRADE PICK: Char-Griller 06620 Kamado Charcoal Grill and Smoker
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Z Grills ZPG-450A 2020 Upgrade Wood Pellet Grill
- BEST OFFSET: Dyna-Glo Signature Series DGSS1382VCS-D Heavy-Duty
- BEST PORTABLE: Weber 14-Inch Smokey Mountain Cooker
- BEST FOR BEGINNERS: Masterbuilt Smoke Hollow SH19079518 Electric Smoker
- BEST CHARCOAL: Dyna-Glo DGO1890BDC-D Wide Body Vertical Offset
Types of Smokers
“Low and slow” is the mantra of meat-smoking aficionados. All meat smokers work essentially the same way: creating a low heat between 225 and 275 degrees which slowly cooks your meat over the course of several hours.
While the process is essentially the same, smokers achieve that juicy, fall-off-the-bone consistency that barbecue lovers covet in different ways. Read on to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of the different kinds of meat smokers, so you’ll be able to choose the right smoker for your needs.
Dedicated smoking enthusiasts swear by charcoal smokers. As a fuel source, charcoal produces more smoke than gas or electric, resulting in meat that is marinated in smoky deliciousness.
Charcoal smokers are relatively simple to operate: light a pile of charcoal in the fire chamber, adjust the vents, and monitor that temperature until your meat is ready to eat. The downside of charcoal smokers is that they can build up creosote and other byproducts.
It takes a little getting used to charcoal smokers to attain perfectly smoked meat. Charcoal smokers require the operator to keep a constant eye on the meat because you’re only using vents for temperature control. It may take some trial and error to get the proper fire, vent regulation, and fuel-adding process down. Charcoal smokers are a top choice for those who want hands-on control over every aspect of their smoke.
Gas smokers create low, slow heat with propane or natural gas. Lighting a gas smoker is as easy as pressing a button, and controlling their temperature is as simple as turning a knob to adjust the burner flame. Because these smokers attach to propane tanks, they also take the onus of adding fuel off of the operator. Like charcoal smokers, gas smokers need to be monitored during the smoking process because their temperatures can change very quickly.
Gas smokers come in many sizes, but tend to be smaller than other kinds of smokers. Because they have a smaller capacity, they aren’t suggested if you’re cooking for an army or having a banquet in your backyard. On the upside, their smaller footprint and gas fuel source makes them good choices for aspiring smokers who have minimal outdoor space or live in areas where there are restrictions on charcoal use.
Because electric smokers create heat via a heating element inside the smoker, they require an external power source. For this reason, electrical smokers aren’t always optimal for those who plan on using the smoker at a tailgate or while camping. Also, you don’t want electrical cords and plugs to get wet, so it’s not a good idea to use these smokers in bad weather.
What electric smokers lack in portability, they make up for in convenience. They’re popular among novice smoking enthusiasts because they have an automatic internal thermostat, which allows for unparalleled control over temperature. Some electric smokers are even Bluetooth compatible and can be controlled by apps that facilitate remote adjustment and monitoring, making them the right choice if you want succulent meat without putting in a lot of work.
Also known as cabinet or box smokers, vertical smokers have the heat sources under, rather than next to, the cooking chamber. Vertical smokers’ simple design makes them relatively durable and easy to maintain.
The advantage of vertical smokers is they have a small footprint but can hold a lot of meat, thanks to multiple food trays stacked in the cooking chamber. Vertical smokers also have two doors, one to the cooking chamber and one to the fuel chamber. Adding fuel to the fire without sacrificing heat is an advantage that vertical smokers have that many others don’t.
Pellet smokers are the ultimate in set-it-and-forget-it smoking. Pellet smokers are powered by recycled, compressed wood pellets via a digitally-controlled auger. The operator simply enters the desired temperature into the digital control panel. Automated fans, vents, and the auger work in concert to keep the temperature exactly where you want it.
One benefit of pellet smokers is that they can also roast and bake meats in addition to smoking them. On the downside, pellet smokers require external power, so they’re not so portable. Though these smokers are super convenient, they are made up of lots of complex gadgets and parts, meaning if they break down, repairing them could be costly.
In the early 1980s, hungry oil workers developed the original offset smokers with spare 55-gallon drums and a little ingenuity. Offset smokers get their name because the wood- or charcoal-fueled fire is in an external firebox that is located next to, and often set a little lower than, the cooking chamber.
Offset smokers tend to be heavier and larger than other smokers and can accommodate several racks of meat in one cook session. Because they’re so bulky, many offset smokers have wheels so they can be moved and stored easily. Offset smokers are ideal for feeding large groups of people, but take longer to heat up than electric, pellet, or charcoal smokers.
Drum smokers take the offset-smoker concept and turn it on its head. These smokers look like vertical oil drums that are rigged with cooking grates and a charcoal burner. You can use drum smokers to grill and even make pizzas. They are easy to assemble and operate, offer excellent temperature control, and have small footprints because of their vertical design.
A high-quality drum smoker is not likely to require a ton of maintenance or repair. The tradeoff for their simplicity is that most don’t come with the bells and whistles associated with higher-tech smokers. A drum smoker is the right choice for someone who wants an easy entry into the world of smoking meats.
What to Look for When Choosing a Smoker
Once you’ve determined what sort of meat smoker fits your needs and lifestyle, fine-tune your search by thinking about which features you want your smoker to have. Temperature control, insulation, durability, venting, safety, and size significantly impact the smoking experience.
The key to smoking meat is low and slow. Smokers operate at low temperatures over a long period—that’s how the perfect smoky consistency is achieved.
Smokers use myriad methods to regulate temperature, but airflow is key. Most smokers come equipped with adjustable vents, or dampers, allowing operators to control the smoker’s temperature by adjusting oxygen flow through the smoker via these vents.
If your model doesn’t come equipped with one, consider investing in a temperature-control unit for your smoker. These units work by measuring the smoker’s temperature, then blowing air to adjust it to the desired heat.
Manipulating the environment inside the smoker is what makes your meat so delicious, but it’s also crucial to keep conditions outside the smoker optimal for smoking.
Because meat smokers are used outdoors, the temperature and humidity levels of the surrounding air influence the environment inside the smoker. This is why some barbecue enthusiasts invest in external insulation blankets to supplement their smoker’s built-in insulation.
Smokers are used outside, and not everyone has the space to store them inside when they are not in use. As is the case with any gear that is used outside, make sure the smoker you’re buying is durable and can withstand the elements.
The most durable smokers are those that are built with high-grade construction materials like 304 stainless steel, which reduces corrosion and wear. Also look for quality door seals, which keep heat and smoke in—and rain and snow out. Well-made smokers that are constructed from durable materials are key to a long, productive life of smoking.
Dampers are the primary way to control temperature. Like a fireplace, dampers allow the air inside the smoker to escape, but most smokers also come equipped with an intake damper. Adjusting these two changes the airflow through the smoker.
Air comes in through the intake damper and circulates through the firebox. The exhaust damper creates a vacuum effect in the smoker, drawing the smoke past the meat in the cook chamber and back outside. Adjusting the damper openings is the most straightforward way to keep meat at the perfect temperature.
Safety is a major concern whenever high temperatures are involved. Though smokers’ temperatures are not as high as that of grills, 225 degrees Fahrenheit is still plenty hot to cause injury. Smokers also emit carbon monoxide, and can spit hot grease at their operators.
It’s important to operate a meat smoker well away from structures or overhangs, and always keep a fire extinguisher at the ready when you’re using it. Be sure to clean your smoker carefully after each use to mitigate the possibility of a grease fire within. Finally, consider investing in a good pair of insulated gloves to protect yourself from burns.
Meat smokers come in a variety of sizes. Some are the size of a small gas grill, while some professional smokers are so large they need to be towed behind a truck. Smoking enthusiasts who are just cooking for their own families will probably be happy with a small, portable unit.
The size of the smoker itself isn’t the only measurement to consider. Those who are shopping for meat smokers should also consider how much outdoor space you have to maneuver around the unit. The advantage of vertical smokers is that they pack multiple levels of cooking space into a small footprint; horizontal designs take up more space on the deck.
Our Top Picks
We’ve spent hours researching the best meat smokers on the market today. Bearing size, fuel type, and other key features in mind, here are our picks for the best smokers for outdoor cooking.
This electric smoker from Masterbilt takes all of the guesswork out of smoking. A built-in probe thermometer helps ensure perfectly smoked meat every time, but that’s just one of its bells and whistles. This electric smoker also has Bluetooth technology that allows the operator to adjust temperature, lighting, power, and even check the meat temperature from his or her phone.
This smoker’s electric power source makes ignition and maintaining precise temperatures a cinch, and its side-loading wood chip reservoir makes it easy to refuel without losing heat. The downside is that it should not be used in wet conditions. The bottom line is this smoker is a terrific pick if you’re using it close to home, in fair weather, and want succulent meat with no hassle.
The Char-Griller doesn’t just smoke meat—it can also be used for roasting and grilling. Because it’s a charcoal smoker, the Kamado doesn’t offer much in the way of temperature control beyond a pair of vents and an external temperature gauge, so getting the perfect smoke might take a few tries, but that’s half the fun.
The Kamado’s porcelain-coated, 22-gauge steel body is lighter and more durable than comparable ceramic smokers. Though its grilling space is not as expansive as that of other smokers, it does have folding side shelves that’ll easily accommodate your plates and tongs. The Char-Griller’s insulated design keeps heat in and weather out, and its exterior stays cool to the touch for safe operation around children or pets. This is a versatile little grill overall, though its lack of automation and limited capacity won’t please everyone.
The Z Grills ZPG-450A does just about everything for aspiring smokers. In addition to its smoking capabilities, this machine can grill, bake, barbecue, roast, and braise. Its 450-square-inch grilling surface is spacious enough to prepare a lot of food at once. The automatic digital control board walks users through every step of the cooking process from ignition to temperature control. The ZPG-450A’s wood pellet fuel burns efficiently and cleanly without sacrificing smoky flavor.
This Z Grills pellet grill and smoker boasts a stainless steel construction that protects against the elements and has a convection fan system that regulates its temperature. This smoker is as close as it gets to a set-it-and-forget-it machine, which can be an advantage or a disadvantage, since those who seek a more hands-on smoking experience might be disappointed at how much the machine does by itself.
This vertical griller boasts a whopping 1,382-square-inch cooking surface for those big barbecue parties, and it has an offset firebox that allows the user to add fuel without sacrificing temperature. The Dyna-Glo can run on either charcoal or wood, and its vertical design provides for good air and smoke flow throughout the cooking chamber. As a bonus, the external temperature gauge allows you to monitor the temperature without opening the door.
This smoker is made of a lighter-gauge metal, however, which may make it more prone to wear. It is not insulated, but a little extra sealant around the gaps makes a good offset smoker with lots of upside.
The diminutive Weber is an excellent choice for smokers on the go. Its 14-inch diameter offers 286 square inches of grilling space. It is fueled by charcoal, so you won’t have to worry about external power sources while you’re on tailgating or camping adventures. It is easy to clean and made of heavy-gauge, porcelain-enameled steel.
The door on the Weber cooker is a little flimsy, which leads to some smoke leakage. Still, it does an admirable job keeping the heat inside. It is compatible with the iGrill2 remote thermometer system (not included) for those who want a high-tech component on a reliable, portable smoker.
Though it is only 33 inches tall, this electric smoker from Masterbuilt houses three chrome-coated racks in a fully-insulated body. A digital control panel and integrated thermostat offer precise, easy control over every aspect of your smoke. With this electric smoker’s 800-watt heating element, users can get consistent heat up to 275 degrees Fahrenheit without messing around with charcoal or pellets. The included water pan, removable drip tray, and accessible grease tray make for easy cleanup.
The novice smoker only has to press a button to get consistently smoked meat every time, making the Masterbuilt a good pick for the burgeoning smoker. Those who want a hands-on smoking experience might want to pass it by.
Dyna-Glo’s big boy smoker does one thing, and it does it well. With a whopping 1,890 square inches of grilling space, it is big enough to smoke enough meat for a king’s banquet. Six adjustable grates accommodate just about any flesh or fowl. This offset smoker includes a charcoal chamber, charcoal grate, and removable ash pan for cleaning.
The vertical design and porcelain-coated charcoal tray make for efficient operation. The offset design keeps the heat well away from the meat, while filling the cooking chamber with smoke. Its built-in stainless steel thermometer helps you gauge its interior temperature, but learning the perfect vent settings for your meat is up to you.
FAQ About Your New Smoker
Smoking is a fun way to cook, and the time you put into it pays off. But as with any new endeavor, novice smokers probably have a lot of questions. Peruse our frequently asked questions section to get the answers you need before purchasing a smoker.
Q. How do I use a smoker to cook meat?
Smokers use a variety of methods to generate a heat of about 275 degrees Fahrenheit. The juiciest, smokiest barbecued meats are achieved by cooking them over low heat for a long period of time.
Q. How do I season my smoker?
For best results, spray the inside of your smoker with cooking oil (grapeseed or canola oil work great), and heat at a high temperature for a few hours before you put your first cut of meat inside.
Q. Is smoked meat bad for you?
The word “smoke” sends up some alarm bells when it comes to health. Smoked meat shouldn’t be consumed for every meal, but enjoying the occasional barbecue doesn’t pose any greater risk than eating meat prepared in other ways.