Grilling Guide

BBQ Smoker Buying Tips

Whether you want delicious smoked brisket, St. Louis-style ribs or a pulled pork shoulder, a BBQ smoker will produce tender, juicy results that are hard to beat.

Pick Your Fuel

It’s not all just wood and charcoal with modern BBQ smokers. Part of this category’s rapid expansion has been the introduction of alternative fuel types, such as electricity, wood pellets, and even gas. Each fuel comes with its own benefits and considerations in terms of usability, so this is a natural place to start on your journey to buy a barbecue smoker.

1. Electric BBQ Smokers

These set-it-and-forget it models do the work for you with thermostats that control temperature in your cooking chamber, much like an indoor oven. Lower-end electric smokers rely on rheostats, which merely adjust electrical flow to the heat-source coil instead of turning power on and off.

2. Charcoal BBQ Smokers

Charcoal smokers behave similarly to wood-burning smokers. The main benefit of this live-fire combustion is smoky flavor, though charcoal models can be more difficult to use and have a steeper learning curve than other smoker types. You’ll need to constantly monitor your fuel and smoke levels but getting a feel for tending charcoal generally takes only a few cooks and isn’t as intimidating as it seems.

3. Gas Grill Smokers

While BBQ purists will scoff at the idea of using a gas grill as a smoker, they are easy to use and similarly constructed to electric models. Gas burners generate perfectly stable heat to light wood chips or chunks.  An efficient ignition method makes it easier to control temperature and smoke than wood or charcoal smokers.

4. Pellet BBQ Smokers

Pellet smokers are the simplest of all. They do everything from managing fuel and heat levels to regulating smoke and airflow. Programmable cooking cycles consistently deliver perfect BBQ with the push of a button.  Wood pellets create their own flavored smoke, resulting in mild and subtle flavors. Select “smoke mode,” which lowers the heat and creates a rush of mild smoke.

5. Kamado-Style Smokers

The ceramic body of these kamados are inspired by centuries-old cooking techniques that have withstood the test of time. Ceramic kamado grills are hard to beat when it comes to retaining heat, locking in smoke, and creating moisture while smoking.  Natural lump charcoal, which is made of different charred hardwoods, allows you to pull huge flavor out of these kamado BBQ grills.

Pick Your Type

The modern barbecue smoke selection is extremely varied in more ways than one. Just as you have your choice of fuel type, there are body types to pick from.

1. Offset Smokers

The fire box (or heat source) is set off the main chamber. Offset BBQ smokers have horizontal barrel-shaped bodies and use charcoal or wood to produce heat and smoke. These are the most popular models among barbecue purists and competitors despite the great deal of attention and effort required. Tending the fire becomes easier with a temperature controller which handles heat and airflow. You are still responsible for monitoring fuel and smoke production.

2. Vertical Smokers

These models place the heat source directly below the main, cabinet-shaped cooking chamber. From bottom to top, vertical smokers are configured as such: heat source, wood shelf or smoker box, optional water pan, and cooking grates. Temperatures are more even and easier to manage because heat and smoke naturally rise toward the food.

Pick Your Configuration

This is all about placement and mobility — do you want something you can move around the backyard and bring to competitions. Or, would you rather have the smoker built into your outdoor kitchen?

1. Freestanding Barbecue Smokers

The mobility of these smokers makes them much easier to clean after a long day of smoking brisket. Some smokers require labor-intensive removal of ash and grease, which is much easier to do if you can move the cooker to clean it from all angles. Freestanding is the configuration of choice for traveling competition smokers. It’s also much easier to store for long periods of time. Just be sure the unit has sturdy wheels for support and a cover to protect your investment.

2. Built-In Barbecue Smokers

A great option for anyone looking to add versatility to your outdoor kitchen. Pair a BBQ smoker with a conventional gas grill, to offer a wider variety of food preparation for your backyard BBQ homegate party guests.

Pick Your Class

These four classes are based on quality, performance and features, which is the best way to measure a smoker’s value and fit for your lifestyle.

1. Luxury Barbecue Smokers

    • Mostly built entirely from 304 stainless steel for extreme longevity.
    • Lifetime warranties from trusted brands give you peace of mind.
    • Sealed cooking chambers and thick insulation keep the smoke in your smoker.
    • Versatile cooking systems and convenient features make for a luxury experience.

2. Premium Barbecue Smokers

    • Strongly built from stainless steel or powder-coated steel for years of use.
    • Solid warranties protect your investment for up to 10 years.
    • Dependable cooking systems and quality insulation provide consistently tasty BBQ.
    • Home to electric smokers with digital control centers that make smoking simple.

3. Practical Barbecue Smokers

    • Budget-friendly, easy-to-use vertical smokers in every fuel type.
    • Moderate warranties reflect the quality of mixed materials used in construction.
    • Fairly thick steel retains heat decently, and most have simple analog controls.
    • Unique cooking systems and helpful features distinguish these smokers from Economy models.

4. Economy Barbecue Smokers

    • Designed to meet a certain, low price point rather than a level of performance.
    • The Weber Grill Smokey Mountain stands above all other smokers in this class.
    • Thin materials of lower quality will break down sooner, as reflected by limited warranties.
    • Simple smokers that lack features to make cooking easier or more versatile.

Final Considerations

1. Look for a smoker with great insulation.

Heat and smoke retention are among the most important parts of low-and-slow smoking. Well-designed fiberglass mesh or felt gaskets, along with flanged lips, are among the features that contribute to insulation, especially when smoking in cold climates. Thick-gauge metal is better equipped to absorb and reradiate heat back toward your food. The ceramics used in kamado smokers are the best insulators around.

2. Airflow & Temperature

Achieving great barbecue is virtually impossible if you cannot easily regulate temperature. Understand the temperature-control systems of the model you ultimately choose. Charcoal and kamado smokers rely solely on dampers (or vents) to adjust airflow through the cooking chamber, which in turn influences the fire and internal temperature. Even electric and gas smokers may have a damper system to dial in temperature more accurately. Dampers should be easily accessible, easy to operate and made from durable materials that won’t rust.

3. Wood Chips & Chunks

Using different species of hardwood produces varied flavors in food, so experiment with multiple types. Use wood chips for heavy smoke flavor during a relatively short cook. Use wood chunks for a steady stream of smoke flavor over a longer cook. It’s possible to use a mixture of both as needed, depending on what you’re smoking. The only time it makes sense to soak wood is when you need to extend the length of your smoke session, in which case soak just half your stock. This allows the wet pieces to ignite as the dry bits start to burn out, essentially refueling your smoker without the hassle.

4. Water Pans & Water Smokers

The water pan creates high levels of humidity and aids in temperature stabilization. Humidity keeps food moist. Temperature stabilization is a result of the water pan acting as a deflector that absorbs and radiates heat upward to even everything out.  Water pans can hold other liquids like apple juice, cider vinegar, or beer that impart distinct flavors into food.

Benefits of BBQ Smokers

  1. Tender BBQ – Low and slow gives you juicy, smoky BBQ magic.
  2. Quick to Learn – Anyone can become a pitmaster!
  3. Great Flavor – Smoke equals flavor.
  4. It’s Fun – Some call this hobby an art.
Tailgater Magazine