When it’s time to hang out and relax, nothing beats a good backyard BBQ. The best smoker for the money lets you be your own pit master. With it, you can cook whatever you want, the way you want it.
Whether you like ribs, brisket or turkey, you’ll be able to enjoy smokehouse flavor at home.
In this article, we go in depth into the different types of smokers you can choose from. We explain how each works, how they differ and what features to look for.
This will let you make an informative decision on the best smoker to get for you.
Our Top Picks: BBQ Smokers for Different Needs
Below is a breakdown of our top picks per type of smoker.
- Weber 721001 Smokey Mountain Cooker 18-Inch Charcoal Smoker – Overall Top Pick
- Smoke Hollow 38202G 38-Inch 2-Door Propane Gas Smoker
- Masterbuilt 20051311 GS30D 2-Door Propane Smoker
What Is A Smoker?
A smoker is a cooking device that designed to cook at low, controlled temperatures. Often, this is somewhere between 225°F and 275°F. In contrast to grills which cook with direct heat, smokers use indirect heat to do so. This means that food cooks for several hours.
While smokers do take more patience and work, the longer cooking process allows the food to absorb more flavor and smokiness. It also makes them very tender, often ready to fall off the bone.
Smoking is often used for tougher cuts of meat. The long, low temperature cooking process is able to break down tough connective tissues. This makes them tender and juicy.
Meat like ribs, brisket and pork shoulder are among the most popular foods to smoke. Though you can smoke almost anything including poultry, fish and vegetables.
Grilling vs. Smoking vs. Barbecuing
What’s the difference between grilling, smoking and BBQ?
Many people use these 3 words interchangeably. Smoking and BBQ are often meant to mean the same. Technically though, there’s a difference between the 3 cooking methods.
- Grilling: is cooking of high, direct heat. In most cases, the meat or food is placed on grates that sit just above the fire. This results in the fire directly getting to the food. As a result, it gives you the nice sear and grill marks. Grilling is a faster way to cook because of this. Often, under 10 minutes. You can use electricity, gas or coals to do so. Grilling temperatures range from medium low heat of around 325°F to high heat of 650°F.
- BBQ or barbecuing: When barbecuing, you’re going a step down from grilling in terms of heat. BBQ uses a lower and slower indirect heat to cook food over a long time. This often means using medium temperatures to cook meats. BBQ takes around 4 to 6 hours, giving you food that’s tender and juicy. Because the definition of BBQ lies in between grilling and smoking, most people will use it to refer to either grilling or smoking.
- Smoking: For most BBQ enthusiasts, smoking is the same as BBQ. Technically, it is cooking longer at lower temperatures than barbecuing. This means using smoke from indirect heat to cook food. Often, you’ll be using temperatures between 225°F and 275°F. Smoking also takes much longer, a lot of the time over 10 hours.
Essentially, the 3 cooking methods refer to the same thing. Using fire to cook food. Their main difference is the level of heat and time in doing so. Both of which affect the final product.
Smokers vs. Grills: What’s the Difference?
Now that we know the difference between the cooking methods, it’s time to understand how the different cooking appliances work.
With a grill, food is placed on a grate that’s directly over a heat source. This can be fire as in the case of charcoal and gas grills, or electric.
Grills use high temperatures for cooking, up to 650°F or more. This lets them sear meat to lock in the juices. They also create grill marks that everyone loves. Like a stove, the close proximity of the heat to the food lets it cook quickly.
This is why tender cuts of meat and poultry that can cook fast are often used. Keeping them too long on high heat leaves you with charred food that’s burnt.
Marinating food before placing them on the grill not only adds flavor but also keeps them moist.
Smokers are built differently. The heat source isn’t positioned directly underneath the grates but off to the side. As such, they don’t use the flame or heating element to cook the food directly.
Instead, smokers burn wood to create smoke. The combination of low heat, smoke and moisture in the smoker are what cook your food.
As you’d guess, it takes a lot longer to cook. That’s because this process uses lower temperature, often around 225°F.
Cooking longer at low temperature allows smoking to impart flavor from the wood into your food. It also helps to break down tough connective tissues to make bigger cuts of meat tender, without burning the outside.
In case you’re wondering, the answer is yes. You can smoke on a grill. But, you do need to make a few adjustments. And, not all grills are designed to accommodate this. If you’re looking for an inexpensive grill that will let you smoke BBQ, check out Weber’s Kettle grills.
Types of Smokers
As with grills, smokers come in many varieties. To help you understand them better, we’ve split them up into 3 categories: fuel source, style and orientation.
By Fuel Source
- Charcoal and Wood Smokers: These are the most popular among BBQ purists. Technically, you can split charcoal and wood since some pit masters prefer using one or the other. But, when speaking of smokers, you can use the same smoker for charcoal or wood. These smokers offer the best in terms of flavor. They do require more work since you need to light the fire, watch it, adjust the temperature and clean up afterwards. Controlling temperature isn’t easy. And, it takes a lot of practice and experience to get good at it.
- Electric Smokers: Electric smokers are the easiest to use. You do need electricity to operate them. This means they’re not as portable. These smokers come with electronics that lets you light them and control temperature with buttons and knobs. As such, you are able to get more consistent temps when cooking. There’s also less cleaning involved. Since it uses electricity, you need to be careful when cooking with it outdoors, especially when it rains. Their downside is, they give you the least amount of flavor. If you use an electric smoker, you’ll want to add wood to enhance flavor.
- Propane Smokers: Gas smokers are much like electric smokers. But, instead of electricity they use propane as their fuel source. These are just about as easy to use as electric smokers. And, they give you more flavor. They don’t match up to the flavor of charcoal or wood though. Propane smokers come with controls as well. This makes temperature regulation and adjustment quick and easy. Their downside is that you can run out of gas while cooking.
- Pellet Grills/Smokers: Pellet smokers are a more recent development. They use a combination of electricity and wood. This gives you the convenience of electric smoking and the flavor or wood smoking. Pellet smokers come with electronics. This allows you to ignite the fire and set the temperature digitally. From there, the smoker handles temperature monitoring and regulation by adding more wood pellets when needed.
Besides the kind of fuel you use for your smoker, there’s also the issue of style. This refers to the shape, size and design of the cooker. Since smoking uses indirect heat, the shape of the vessel matters a lot. It determines how much smoke there is and how air circulates within the cooking chamber.
- Bullet Smoker: These look like a small pellet standing vertically. That’s why they’re called bullet smokers. They’re basically small barrels with rounded tops and bottoms. Compact and affordable, they’re a good choice for reliable BBQ. The most popular among these smokers is Weber’s Smokey Mountain.
- Drum Smoker: If you’re starting out, this is a good choice. They’re not the prettiest. But, they’re the easiest to cook with and the cheapest. Plus, they give you a lot of cooking space. You’ll be able to get one for under $100. Or, you can make one yourself. Essentially, this is a steel drum with a firebox at the bottom. The cooking grates are set at the top. For temperature control, there are vents on the lid and bottom of the unit.
- Offset Smoker: These are what the pros use. BBQ pit masters like these because it lets them control everything. Unfortunately they’re also among the most difficult to learn to use well. Quality can also be a concern since there’s a bit more complexity when it comes to offset smokers. With offset smokers, we recommend skipping the cheap ones. Offset smokers look often use a horizontal barrel design with the top half serving as a flip open lid. They also come with a firebox to the side.
- Cabinet Smoker: Also called box smokers, these look like the fridge in your kitchen. They come in a cabinet shape with one or two doors much like your refrigerator. The doors give you access to the cooking chamber on top and the heating element at the bottom. The cabinet design is often found with propane and electric smokers. One of their advantages is they’re very easy to use.
- Kamado Grills/Ceramic Smokers: These are large and heavy egg shaped cookers. They are made with insulated material and are sealed well. This makes them very good at holding steady temperature even during cold weather. Kamado grills are versatile cookers because they not only smoke but also grill, bake and roast among others. They’re able to get to high temperatures as well which lets them sear food.
Best Smoker Reviews
- Weber 721001 Smokey Mountain Cooker 18-Inch Charcoal Smoker – Overall Top Pick
- Smoke Hollow 38202G 38-Inch 2-Door Propane Gas Smoker
- Masterbuilt 20051311 GS30D 2-Door Propane Smoker
Among the things we like about it is that it comes with high quality materials and construction. You can use them for barbecuing at home or competition.
They hold heat very well. And more importantly, are great at keeping steady temperatures for long periods of time. This lets you slow cook your pork shoulder for hours without the temp being inconsistent.
Temperature control is also made easy. The aluminum dampers on the lid and bottom of the smoker makes this easy. If you add more wood or charcoal to the fire, there’s an easy access fuel door to the side of this vertical bullet smoker.
Built with a nice and steady exterior, you get two 18 inch diameter cooking grids to BBQ. This lets you cook large birds as well as entire roasts in it.
With the Weber Smokey Mountain, you do get to choose between the 14, 18 and 22 inch models. Do note that a full rack of ribs isn’t going to fit in the 14 inch. And, it barely does so in the 18 inch.
Overall, we like this smoker because it performs very well. It is also very solidly built making it durable. It is great in producing moist cuts of meat that are tender.
It is up there with propane smokers as far as ease of use is concerned. Though we feel that electric units are easier to handle. For one, there’s no worrying about running out of propane in the middle of a long cooking session.
Compared to the Weber Smokey Mountain this Masterbuilt BBQ smoker is completely different. It serves the same purpose. But, its cabinet design and fuel source aren’t the same. This makes both the cooking and eating experiences vary.
We like that you get a large cooking area with this unit. In total, there are 4 racks you can arrange. The inside looks like a refrigerator. This lets you decide how to stack the racks and meats you’re cooking.
In total the 30 inch model offers 730 square inches for food. If you need more rack space, a 40 inch model is also available.
The unit uses a swing open door that seals well. This keeps the heat in. An 800 watt heating element provides the “fire”. And you get digital timer and temperature control. The unit also comes with a damper on top to let you control airflow.
Overall, this is an easy to use BBQ smoker. It is affordable. What we like most is its convenience. Cooking and controlling the heat is so much easier than charcoal or wood. Cleaning is also simpler with less mess. On the downside, you do sacrifice on the flavor. The good news is that you can negate a bit of that by using wood chips.
This unit runs on standard LP tank. For some it’s more convenient to use propane with an outdoor smoker. This saves you the worry of running long extension cords that may get wet.
The unit works similar to the Masterbuilt electric smoker above. It has a slightly bigger size though a portion of that is taken up by the bottom door.
To explain, the inside of this vertical smoker is 38 inches high. And, you get a space that’s 20 inches wide by 14 inches deep. The thing is, it uses 2 doors instead of just one. This cuts down the overall cooking area.
The good news is, by separating the doors, it lets you get a more consistent temperature. The bottom door lets you add wood chips and water when needed. You can do so without opening the main door. This eliminates the possibility of losing heat each time you do so.
The unit runs on 20,000 BTU. It comes with a built-in door temperature gauge and damper on top for heat control. The temperature control knob is located at the bottom of the smoker. This lets you turn up or lower the internal temperature more easily than charcoal smokers.
From one of the biggest names in pellet grills, we have the Lil’Tex Elite Grill. Traeger is the pioneer of pellet smokers. As mentioned above, these smokers can both grill and smoke BBQ among other things.
They also offer the best of both worlds. That is, the convenience of propane and the flavor of charcoal. We like this Traeger grill because it cooks very well. And, it makes cooking easy.
The unit comes with a good sized 22 inch by 19 inch grilling area. This totals around 418 square inches. This gives you enough space to cook 16 burgers or 5 full racks of ribs at the same time.
On the left side of the unit, you have the pellet hopper. This is where you load the wood pellets. After that all you need to do is turn the smoker on and set it to the temperature. The hopper’s auger will automatically feed enough pellets to keep the temperature where you want it.
Do note that this is an electric unit. Electricity is needed for the digital controller.
Overall, this is a great choice for convenience and flavor. You get the flavor from the wood pellet, which come in a variety of flavors by the way. And, operating it is much simpler than charcoal or wood thanks to the digital controls.
Choosing the Best Smoker for BBQ: Buying Guide
Here a checklist you can go through when buying a smoker. We go through the different things and features to consider in this buyer’s guide.
1. Do You Want a Charcoal/Wood, Propane, Electric or Pellet Smoker?
The kind of smoker you decide on will determine some of the features. Often, it also affects price. We discussed the different types of smokers above, please refer to that for their differences.
In brief, here are quick considerations for each.
- Charcoal and wood smokers: If flavor is your main concern.
- Electric smoker: Ease and convenience is your primary goal. Plus, you have access to an electric outlet.
- Propane smokers: You want great flavor. But, without the hassle of cooking with wood or charcoal. These are cheaper than electric smokers.
- Pellet smokers: You want the best of both worlds. Something easy to cook with that gives you excellent smoky flavor. They are more expensive though because of all the electronics.
With smokers price can vary a lot. Cheap smokers go for around $100, with some even less than that. Expensive smokers meanwhile can cost over $10,000. These are customized commercial units that pit masters use for competition.
Depending on the type of smoker you get, price varies quite a bit too.
- Gas smokers are more affordable. With $200, you’ll be able to get good ones.
- A good charcoal smoker costs a bit more around $300 or so.
- Pellet smokers easily cost over $500.
3. Material and Construction
Because smoking entails keeping heat and smoke inside the box for long periods of time, it is important to get a cooker that’s well constructed.
This means you want something that has:
- Thick metal
- Good insulation
- Well sealed
This allows you to keep heat inside. The thick metal also helps distribute it evenly within the chamber. Tight seals prevent smoke and heat from escaping. A leaky smoker makes it more difficult to maintain proper temperature. Plus, you lose flavor as well.
4. Does it Distribute Heat Evenly?
In addition to being able to keep heat within the cooking chamber, a good smoker is also able to distribute it evenly. This lets you cook food across different areas of the grate evenly.
Some smokers will have warmer areas and cooler areas. This isn’t good if you want everything to cook evenly. This is also one reason why it’s harder to use offset smokers. Their horizontal design can cause varying temperatures on opposite sides of the smoker with the side near the firebox being much hotter.
For vertical smokers, having the heating element at the bottom can also cause the lower shelves to be hotter than the top shelves.
5. Temperature Range
Smokers are designed to cook at low temperatures. Some smokers have a limited range. Others let you go lower than the 200°F or higher than 325°F.
Depending on what you want to cook, this may matter.
If you’re going with a wood or charcoal unit, you’ll want to have at least 2 dampers. These let you control temperature by varying the amount of airflow though the intake. Increase the oxygen helps fuel the flame to get the temp up in the cooking chamber. You can likewise reduce the air to bring down the fire when needed.
7. Access to the Fuel and Wood
Throughout the long cooking process, you’ll be making adjustments to get your cooker’s temperature and smoke right.
In order to do so, you’ll need access to the fuel source if you’re using a charcoal or wood smoker. This will let you add or move the wood or charcoal as needed.
If you’re using an electric or gas smoker, having access to the wood chips lets you add more when needed. Ideally, without having to open the cooking chamber and let heat out.
How big a smoker you get will depend on how much you food you cook on it. If you cook for guests or have a big family, you’ll want to get a bigger unit. Unlike grilling, you won’t have time to cook a second batch.
In addition to how much you’re cooking, you’ll want to consider what you’re cooking. Will you be smoking whole turkey, or a full slab or ribs? This will mean having enough space vertically or horizontally to do so.
Finally, with size comes footprint. If you don’t’ have a lot of space, a vertical smoker takes up less room. Horizontal smokers require more area because of their orientation.
9. Adjustable Shelves
This is related to the previous point. When cooking different types of food, including turkey or pork, you may need to adjust shelf height.
Having movable shelves gives you the freedom to adjust the shelf configuration according to your cooking needs.
Shelves that can be removed from the cooker also make cleaning easier.
Almost all smokers come with built-in thermometer. The difference is some are reliable and others aren’t.
Whichever the case, you’ll need to buy an extra thermometer or two. This will let you stick the probes at the exact places you want to get readings from.
For offset smokers, you’ll need more than one. The two will monitor each side of the smoker since they’ll have varying temperatures.
11. Do You Want to Be Able to Grill on It?
Grill. Some offsets have a rack that allow you to use the firebox as a grill like the Char-Broil Bandera shown here. Some bullets can be easily converted to a grill by removing the water pan and the center section. This is a nice feature. If there is a grill, can you control the heat? Can you move the fire closer to or away from the meat or move the meat closer to or further from the fire?
12. Pans for Water, Wood Chips and Drippings
These pans let you add water for moisture, wood chips or chunks for flavor and catch drippings. The first two help give you better results in terms of temperature, humidity and taste. The latter aids in getting rid of drippings so you do less cleaning later on.
13. Easy to Clean
After cooking, you’ll need to clean your smoker. Making sure that you clean your smoker’s interior keeps it in good condition. You’ll want to get every speck of fat, seasoning and drippings that are in there.
If you don’t, its cooking chamber quickly becomes dirty and susceptible to bacteria. This will deter you from using it again.
In addition to the chamber, everything else needs cleaning. These include the racks, pans and grates.
If you experience four seasons, chances are you may need to move your smoker during winter. Wheels make moving these large cookers easier. In addition to wheels, you’ll want something that is stable and sturdy.
If your smoker doesn’t come with wheels, you’ll want it to at least be movable. This lets you bring it from one area of your home to another whenever the need arises.