There’s nothing quite like the taste of smoked ribs, pulled pork, or a nice, tender brisket. Achieving good results with a smoker can be a challenge, though, especially for those new to this type of cooking. A few bad attempts can quickly cause a newcomer to abandon their dreams of becoming a pitmaster, leaving their smoker relegated to a forgotten corner of the garage.
The key to a successful first or second smoke is purchasing the right smoker. A good entry-level smoker will maintain the consistent temperatures needed to successfully smoke meat with a minimal amount of skill and effort from the chef. Ahead, learn about what features to look for in a first smoker and find out why the models below are some of the best smokers for beginners.
- BEST OVERALL: Masterbuilt MB20071117 Digital Electric Smoker
- RUNNER-UP: Pit Barrel Cooker Co. 18-½ in. Classic Cooker Package
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Masterbuilt Charcoal/Wood Bullet Smoker
- BEST UPGRADE: Traeger Pro Series 22 Pellet Grill
- BEST FOR FLAVOR: Weber 18-inch Smokey Mountain Cooker
- BEST LOW MAINTENANCE: Z Grills ZPG-7002E 2020 Wood Pellet Grill & Smoker
- BEST PROPANE: Cuisinart COS-244 Vertical Propane Smoker
- BEST KAMADO: Char-Griller E16620 Akorn Kamado Charcoal Grill
- BEST PORTABLE: Smokehouse Products Big Chief Electric Smoker
Types of Smokers for Beginners
When first embarking on a search for a new smoker, it’s important to know the different types that are available, and what advantages and disadvantages they offer to budding pitmasters. Read on to learn about the various kinds of smokers.
Charcoal and Wood Smokers
Charcoal smokers are tall and narrow with two separate chambers: an upper cooking chamber, and a lower one that houses the charcoal and heats the upper chamber. Dampers on the lid and the base serve as the temperature controls, limiting the amount of oxygen flow to the charcoal in the pan below.
Charcoal smokers produce the smokiest flavors and are the best way to achieve the sought-after crust and smoke ring so beloved in smoked meats. The downside is they can also be the most challenging to use. Lighting the coals requires more effort than other fuel types, and charcoal smokers require constant attention to ensure the temperature inside the cooking chamber stays constant.
A pellet smoker looks similar to a standard gas grill, only it has a hopper attached to it that holds hardwood pellets. An auger slowly feeds pellets from the hopper to an igniter under the cooking chamber that lights the pellets, causing them to create heat and smoke. An electric controller regulates the speed of the auger to feed pellets to the igniter at a rate that will maintain the set temperature.
Pellet grills are popular because they can self-maintain the temperature in the cooking chamber, eliminating the need for the chef to continually monitor the smoker. Some pellet smokers are also capable of reaching very high temperatures, allowing them to double as a standard grill. Pellet smokers also create a smoky flavor since they burn hardwood, though they don’t create the same crust and smoke ring as charcoal. They are also considerably more expensive than other smoker types.
Electric smokers have a tower shape with a cooking box that typically holds three to five racks for food. The firebox under the racks uses an electric heating element to warm the cooking box. A rack that sits just above the heating element houses a water bowl that adds humidity to the firebox and a tray for flavor chips.
Electric grills are among the easiest to use, making them popular for beginners. Simply load up the smoker, set the thermostat to the desired temperature, and return in 7 or 8 hours to harvest the meat. Since the smoker uses a constant supply of electricity for fuel, there’s no need to add charcoal or pellets. Electric smokers are also among the most affordable smokers on the market, typically several hundred dollars cheaper than charcoal or pellet smokers. The downside is they don’t create nearly as much smoky flavor as pellet or charcoal smokers.
Gas and Propane Smokers
Gas and propane smokers are very similar to electric smokers, only they use a gas burner to supply heat rather than an electric element. This type of smoker also has a tower shape with a burner located at the bottom of the unit, a cooking chamber in the top section, and a dish for water and tray for wood chips in the middle. Like electric smokers, gas smokers allow the user to set the temperature then leave the smoker to its own devices until supper time.
Gas smokers have an advantage over electric smokers in that they allow the operator to make precise temperature adjustments. As with electric models, a propane or gas smoker isn’t able to achieve the sought-after smoke ring and flavoring that pellet or charcoal smokers can produce.
Kamado Grill and Smoker Combos
These acorn-shaped grills/smokers have a single circular grill surface set above a firebox that burns charcoal. An adjustable flue in the lid works in tandem with a draft door at the base to control air flow and, hence, the temperature inside the smoker.
Kamado grills are traditionally made from ceramic, which gives them excellent heat-retention qualities, allowing them to maintain the low temperatures needed for smoking. This material also makes them one of the most expensive smokers on the market. There are, however, some Kamado smokers that use multiple layers of metal to achieve the same insulating effect for a more affordable price. One advantage of Kamado grills is their ability to reach both very high temperatures as well as maintain low temperatures, making them suitable for use as both a smoker or standard grill.
The smoker of pros, an offset smoker consists of a barrel-shaped cooking chamber attached to a smaller barrel-shaped firebox. The firebox burns either wood or charcoal, sending the heat and smoke through an opening into the cooking chamber before venting out of a flue damper.
This type of smoker is ideal for cooking a lot of meat and is one of the most effective ways of infusing meat with smoky flavor. However, it’s very difficult to maintain a steady temperature in offset smokers, making them a better option for the experienced smoker.
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Smoker for Beginners
In addition to the smoker type, it’s also crucial to pay attention to the smoker’s construction and the amount of cooking space it offers. Read on to learn more about these and other important characteristics of smokers.
Material and Build Quality
The smoker should be able to maintain a consistent temperature for an entire day. For this to happen, it must be made of high-quality materials. Most smokers are made of steel with a thick powder-coat finish that protects it from rust.
The smoker should also fit together tightly without any noticeable seams that can allow heat to escape. Lids and doors should have no gaps around the opening where heat can potentially escape. Charcoal and pellet smokers should also have multiple flues that allow the user to control the temperature by opening and closing them to regulate the flow of oxygen to the firebox.
Size and Cooking Space
Smokers come in a variety of shapes and sizes that affect not only how much cooking space they offer but also how much real estate they’ll take up on a deck or patio. Bullet and vertical smokers create the smallest footprints since they have a tower shape. Expect this type of smoker to measure about 20 inches wide by 20 inches deep and have between 500 and 700 square inches of cooking surface.
Pellet smokers are wider and shorter, giving them the ability to hold longer slabs of meat. Entry-level pellet smokers measure about 41 inches long and 22 inches deep, with around 60 square inches of cooking surface.
Full-size smokers weigh between 50 and 100 pounds and are bulky in size. As such, most are not portable and require a permanent position on the back deck or patio. There are smaller smokers that weigh less than 20 pounds, tiny enough to fit into the trunk of a car, making them ideal for toting along to a tailgating event.
Heat Retention and Distribution
Since meat is best smoked at a temperature range between 200 and 220 degrees, most smokers are designed to cover this range. Wood pellet and charcoal smokers have vents that allow the user to adjust airflow through the firebox to alter the temperature of the cooking chamber.
Smokers have thermometers mounted to the top of the cooking chamber that allow the user to monitor temperature. However, these thermometers aren’t known to be very accurate. Most experienced smokers will use an aftermarket digital thermometer that sits inside the cooking chamber to get more accurate temperature readings.
Types of Food
There’s a long list of foods that one can cook in a smoker. The most common options are brisket, pork butts, whole chickens, and turkey, as well as racks of ribs. Less commonly smoked foods include fish and vegetables. Smaller foods require racks for smoking, while hooks are ideal for ribs and whole chickens. Keep in mind that smoking an entire brisket or rack of ribs may require a wider smoker that can handle these larger cuts of meat.
Our Top Picks
The list below narrows the field of smokers to those best equipped to help newcomers to this type of backyard cooking achieve a successful first smoke. This list is comprehensive, including various types of smokers in a broad range of shapes and sizes.
This Masterbuilt model is well suited for newcomers to the world of smoking meat. It’s one of the more affordable smokers on the market, ideal for someone just getting their feet wet in a hobby that may or may not take. It’s also electric, so there’s no need to fool around with pellets, gas, or charcoal, and getting the temperature right is as simple as setting the thermostat to the desired number.
Masterbuilt’s electric smoker has enough insulation to work in colder weather and includes a wood-chip tray that’s effective at adding smoky flavor to meat. The cabinet shape also gives it ample room for experimenting with a variety of meats in a single cook. The space is a bit narrow, so it won’t fit larger racks of ribs.
- Cooking Surface: 730 square inches
- Dimensions: 20.5 inches wide by 20 inches long by 33 inches high
- Fuel: Electric
- Ample cooking space for experimenting
- Easy set-it-and-forget-it thermostat
- Large tray for wood chips
- Won’t instill as much smoky flavor as charcoal or pellets
Get the Masterbuilt electric smoker on Amazon.
This classic-looking barrel smoker’s easy setup coupled with a design that’s simple to use makes this model one of the best options for those just learning how to smoke meat. Upon arrival, the smoker requires no assembly. Simply put the grates in place. The charcoal grate holds enough for a full 8-hour smoke, eliminating the need to add fuel mid-smoke.
Unlike other grills that use mainly racks, Pit Barrel uses a single rack with numerous hooks for hanging slabs of meat. This allows one to get a lot of meat into just a 21-inch-diameter smoker. Expect to fit several pork butts, a few full racks of ribs, or a couple of good-size turkeys in one smoking. The chef can even throw some veggies or a slab of salmon on the cooking grate for good measure.
- Cooking Surface: N/A
- Dimensions: 21 inches in diameter by 31 inches high
- Fuel: Charcoal
- Hanging-meat design ideal for smoking a lot of meat
- No assembly required
- Can complete a full smoke on one load of fuel
- Small footprint
- Does not include an ash tray
Get the Pit Barrel Cooker Co. smoker on Amazon or at The Home Depot.
It can be hard to justify spending hundreds of dollars on a smoker, especially for a newcomer who may not be sure if smoking meat is for them. That’s why this Masterbuilt smoker is such a great option. It costs a fraction of other smokers, making it less of a loss if it ends up gathering dust, plus it’s simple to use. It holds enough fuel for a full smoke and maintains a constant temperature fairly easily despite the fact that it only has one vent in the lid. The large door makes it easy to add fuel mid-smoke without dramatically impacting the internal temperature.
And with its porcelain-coated construction, this model lasts a long time—especially for a budget-priced smoker. While not the largest smoker, its nearly 400 square inches of cooking surface is enough for a beginner to try different meat types in a single smoke.
- Cooking Surface: 395 square inches
- Dimensions: 21 inches in diameter by 31.5 inches high
- Fuel: Charcoal
- Costs far less than other smokers
- Durable porcelain-coated steel construction
- Easy to operate
- Small capacity
- No bottom vent
Get the Masterbuilt bullet smoker on Amazon or at Ace Hardware.
Pellet smokers are one of the easier-to-use devices for smoking meat, and Traeger makes some of the best. With a digital hopper that automatically loads pellets to maintain a set temperature, it’s a great option for beginners who don’t want to spend the day monitoring the smoker. Traeger’s Pro Series 22 can hold enough pellets in its 18-pound hopper for a full day’s smoking. And with Traeger’s Advanced Grilling Logic controls, it can keep internal temperatures within 15 degrees of the set temp.
The grill’s 572 inches of cooking surface is ample space for smoking a variety of meats at once. The Pro Series 22 also features durable construction with a powder-coated steel body and porcelain-coated steel grates. Traeger grills are an investment, but the increased price is worth it for those who are serious about making smoking meat their new favorite pastime.
- Cooking Surface: 572 square inches
- Dimensions: 41 inches wide by 27 inches deep by 49 inches high
- Fuel: Pellets
- Digital controls make it easier to control and maintain temperature
- Plenty of cooking surface for smoked meats
- High-quality materials in its construction
- An expensive first smoker for beginners
Get the Traeger pellet grill at The Home Depot, at Ace Hardware, or on Amazon.
Though charcoal may require more attention than other types of smokers, Weber’s Smokey Mountain Cooker makes it easier than most to achieve the smoky flavor and crusty texture that only charcoal can produce. This 18-inch model does an excellent job of maintaining a consistent internal temperature and makes adjusting heat levels easy with its two-damper system. Weber also puts its water bowl between the coals and cooking grates, which allows it to maintain constant heat while keeping the humidity in the grill at an optimal level.
This Weber model is not the largest smoker on the market, but with its two levels, it’s capable of holding two full racks of ribs. This is also a good smoker for those with limited space, as the small footprint created by its bullet shape—measuring just 19 inches in diameter—won’t take up much room on the back patio. And, like all Weber grills, this one is durable thanks to its porcelain-enameled steel construction. Expect to be smoking with it for a long, long time.
- Cooking Surface: 481 square inches
- Dimensions: 21 by 19 by 41 inches
- Fuel: Charcoal
- Easy to maintain a constant temperature
- Durable Weber construction
- Ample cooking surface for beginners
- Built-in thermometer isn’t very accurate
Get the Weber 18-inch smoker on Amazon, at The Home Depot, and at Ace Hardware.
The Z Grills grill and smoker creates smoky flavor in food, and it’s easier to use than other types of smokers thanks to its digital controls. Simply dial in the desired temperature, load up the hopper, and let the grill do the work of maintaining a consistent temperature. With its 20-pound-capacity hopper, there’s no need to repeatedly add fuel to maintain temperature.
This smoker also has a whopping 700 square inches of cooking surface, making it capable of smoking lots of meat at one time. The device may take up a significant chunk of real estate, but it also functions as a standard grill capable of reaching temperatures of up to 450 degrees, eliminating the need to create space for two cooking appliances on the patio.
- Cooking Surface: 700 square inches
- Dimensions: 48 inches long by 22 inches deep by 51 inches high
- Fuel: Pellets
- Easy to maintain temperature thanks to digital controls
- Large capacity hopper eliminates the need for repeated refilling
- Doubles as a standard grill
- More of an investment than other types of smokers
Get the Z Grills Wood grill and smoker on Amazon.
The most challenging aspect of smoking meat is getting that darned temperature to stay constant. Few fuels allow you to regulate temperature as well as a gas burner, which is why this Cuisinart is such a great option for beginners. The knob on the front, similar to controls found on a standard gas grill, allows the user to make micro adjustments to the flame size, ideal when trying to get the grill to reach that optimal internal temp for smoking meat.
This cabinet-style smoker also uses two doors, granting the chef access to the water dish and wood chips without having to mess with the temperature of the main cooking area. Four stainless steel shelves provide 784 inches of cooking service, plenty of space for smoking various types of meat at once.
- Cooking Surface: 784 square inches
- Dimensions: 19.3 inches long by 18 inches deep by 38.6 inches high
- Fuel: Propane gas
- Analog knob ensures easy temperature adjustments
- Separate door for wood-chip tray
- Twist-lock handles keep doors tightly closed
- Temperature gauge isn’t very accurate
Get the Cuisinart smoker on Amazon or at The Home Depot.
Kamado grills are some of the most expensive grill types on the market, which prices them out of most beginners’ budgets. This model from Char-Griller is an exception. Though not made from the traditional (and expensive) ceramic that other kamado grills use, it incorporates the same egg-shaped design, only with a more affordable triple-steel wall. The result is a kamado-style grill that does an excellent job of retaining heat and maintaining low temperature.
The Akorn can also reach searing hot temperatures—up to 750 degrees—making the Akorn ideal for both smoking and direct grilling. Its total cooking space of 447 square inches is smaller than other grill types, but it’s ideal for those who alternate between grilling and smoking meat.
- Cooking Surface: 447 square inches
- Dimensions: 45 inches long by 31 inches deep by 57 inches high
- Fuel: Propane gas
- Affordable price for a Kamado-style smoker
- Can function as either a smoker or grill
- Triple-wall insulation keeps temperature consistent
- Smaller cooking surface than other smokers.
Get the Char-Griller smoker on Amazon or at The Home Depot.
For those who want a smoker to take to the next tailgating event or who simply don’t want to give up a permanent place on the patio for one, the Big Chief is a high-quality portable smoker. It weighs less than 18 pounds and measures just 12.8 inches wide, 12 inches deep, and 27 inches high, making it easy to throw in the back of a trunk or store in the garage when not in use.
There’s also no need to fuss with temperature controls—because there are none. When plugged in, the Big Chief delivers a continuous 165 degrees, making it one of the simplest smokers for beginners to use. Even with its compact size, it offers five cooking racks, which is ample space for various meats and vegetables.
- Cooking Surface: 916 square inches
- Dimensions: 12.8 inches wide by 18 inches deep by 27 inches high
- Fuel: Electric
- Lightweight and compact
- Offers ample cooking space with five racks
- Easy to use
- Only one temperature setting
Get the Smokehouse Products smoker on Amazon or at The Home Depot.
With controls that make it easier to operate than other smoker types and a large total cooking surface of 730 square inches, the Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker is an ideal choice for novices. Those looking to try out smoking meat with a minimal investment should consider the Masterbuilt Charcoal Bullet Smoker, which is easy to use and offers plenty of cooking capacity at a fraction of the cost of other smokers.
How We Chose the Best Smokers for Beginners
We used several criteria to narrow down our search for the top smokers for beginners. First and foremost, a smoker should be easy to use for someone new to smoking food. As such, we chose models capable of maintaining the low temperatures needed for smoking meat with minimal moderating from the chef.
A beginner shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money to get into smoking, so we stuck with models that were affordable while still offering excellent durability and performance.
Finally, smoking food is a long process that typically takes an entire day to complete. With that in mind, we chose models that offered enough cooking space to allow newcomers to experiment with multiple types of foods in a single smoking session.
Tips for Your First Smoke
There are a few things to keep in mind when prepping for your first smoke. Make sure to cook slow and low. Smoking meat is a time-consuming process and should be done at temperatures between 200 and 220 degrees. Don’t try to speed it up by heating things up.
For more flavor, use wood chips, chunks, or barbecue pellets. These aromatic woods will infuse more smoky flavor into the food, creating deeper flavor. Don’t overdo it with the wood, though. Adding too much wood can create too much smoke, causing the food to have a bitter flavor.
Keep your water pan full. Hot air can dry out food. Keeping the water pan full prevents the food from drying out by increasing the humidity in the cooking chamber. The water bowl will also help stabilize temperatures inside the smoker. You can also mist your food with a solution of equal parts water and apple-cider vinegar to help it retain moisture.
- Use wood chips to infuse more flavor into the food.
- Cook slow and low for long periods of time.
- Keep the meat moist with a full water pan and an apple-cider vinegar mist.
If you’re wondering how smokers cook meat or what the difference is between smoking and grilling, then read on for answers to these and other common questions about these backyard cooking appliances.
Q: How do smokers work?
A smoker uses two chambers: a fire chamber that houses the heat source, and a larger cooking chamber that holds the food. The fire chamber heats the cooking chamber to a temperature of around 220 degrees, cooking the food over a long period. Smokers also have trays for wood chips and water bowls that help infuse flavor into the food while keeping it moist.
Q: Is a smoker easy to use?
A smoker’s ease of use depends on the type. Pellet grill smokers and electric and gas smokers are among the easiest to use as they can maintain a consistent temperature with minimal help from the chef. These types of smokers also don’t require adding fuel during the smoking process.
Q: Is it worth having a smoker?
If you’re a connoisseur of smoked meats, it makes sense to have a smoker. Smoking food requires a significant time commitment from the chef, so it only makes sense for those with a true love of smoked food to own one.
Q: How much do smokers cost?
Smokers vary in cost from the most inexpensive models, which are around $150, to high-end pellet smokers that sell for $2,000 or more. The average smoker is between $400 and $600.
Q: What can you cook in a smoker?
Smokers can cook a broad range of foods, including ribs, whole chickens, briskets, pork butts, and even whole turkeys. Other foods you can smoke include fish and even many vegetables.
Q: What is the easiest thing to smoke?
Pork butts, also referred to as pulled pork, are very easy to smoke. This cut of meat is the most forgiving when temperatures fluctuate during the smoking process, and it’s not as expensive as other types of meat.
Q: What is the difference between smoking and grilling?
Smoking involves slowly cooking food over the course of 5 to 12 hours, with indirect heat over low temperatures of around 220 degrees. Grilling involves cooking meat over direct heat at a much higher temperature range, between 350 to 500 degrees, for short periods of time.
Q: How long does a smoker last?
Most smoker grills will last between 5 and 10 years, depending on how well it’s maintained and the quality of the smoker. To extend the life of a smoker, make sure to clean it regularly and keep it covered to protect it from the elements when not in use.