If your only experience with BBQ smokers is your dad’s old offset model, then we’ve got some news for you. This has become a massive category of products, with newer smokers adopting advanced cooking systems and modern features like automatic fuel feed and digital thermostats. The extreme diversity of products is hard enough to wrap your head around, but there are also fierce debates about the best way to smoke meat. Throw in the burning passion and competitive nature of barbecue smoker culture, and getting into the game can be intimidating.
With our experts on your side, though, buying a BBQ smoker is as easy as dialing in temperatures on a pellet or electric smoker (more on that in a bit). There are certainly some niche options out there, but today we’ll provide you with an overview of the many types of smokers available and the main differences among them. All you have to do is make a few key decisions along the way. Nope, no smoke and mirrors here! Well, maybe a little smoke.
Choose Your Smoker’s Fuel Type
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.
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 in 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. Either way, the coil creates smoke by burning wood chips in a nearby smoker box. With no temperature to manage or fuel to reload mid-cook, all you have to worry about is maintaining the proper amount of smoke and airflow (plus a bit of extra wattage on your electric bill). Smoke and airflow are especially important in electric smokers — when you combine their large smoker boxes with a relatively low rate of airflow, it’s easy to oversmoke food. That being said, minimal airflow is a huge benefit for dishes like smoked chicken or turkey where moisture retention is necessary for juicy and tender results.
Charcoal BBQ Smokers
Charcoal smokers behave similarly to their wood-burning brethren, which are probably what most people call to mind when they think of smokers. The main benefit of this live-fire combustion is smoky flavor, though charcoal models can be difficult to use and have a steeper learning curve than other smoker types. We consider the trade-off of effort for flavor to be well worth it, especially if you have a smoker temperature controller to adjust airflow. You’ll still 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. You can also add wood directly on top of your lump charcoal in the fire box, be it chips for quick bursts of smoke or chunks for sustained smoke over time. This category also includes kamados, but we’ve created a completely separate article detailing how to buy kamado grills.
Gas BBQ Smokers
Just like electric models, gas BBQ smokers are incredibly easy to use. They’re also similarly constructed: usually vertically, with a gas burner in place of an electric coil at the bottom of the smoking chamber. Gas burners generate perfectly stable heat to light wood chips or chunks, an efficient ignition method that also makes it far easier to control temperature and smoke than what you’d experience with wood or charcoal smokers. When such guesswork is out of the way, your only concerns are time and your food’s internal temperature (so pick up a good remote thermometer). Don’t worry, these models don’t sacrifice much in the way of flavor — meat barbecued on a gas smoker still comes out tender and smoky with a perfect crust. If your gas smoker has air vents to control airflow, we highly recommend keeping them open while in use to prevent soot from building up inside the cooking chamber.
Pellet BBQ Smokers
We’ve already touched on easy-to-use smokers a few times, but pellet smokers are the simplest of all. They literally do everything for you, from managing fuel and heat levels to regulating smoke and airflow. Some, like Cookshack Fast Eddy’s pellet smoker, even have programmable cooking cycles that consistently deliver perfect BBQ with the push of a button. Because wood pellets create their own flavored smoke, you don’t even need to use wood chips or chunks! The resulting mild and subtle flavors make it very hard to oversmoke food, adding to the beginner-friendliness of pellet smokers. It’s helpful to remember that the hotter your fire, the less smoke is produced; conversely, the lower the temperature, the more the fire will smolder and smoke. You can use this to your advantage with pellet BBQ smokers by selecting “smoke mode,” which lowers the heat to create a rush of mild smoke.
Choose Your BBQ Smoker Type
As we hinted at up top, the modern barbecue smoke selection is extremely varied in more ways than one. Just as you have your choice of fuel type (it’s OK if you haven’t made it yet), there are a few body types for you to pick from. So, will it be the classic offset build, the space-saving construction of vertical models, or the eye-catching aesthetic of unconventional smokers? Keep reading to find which style suits you best.
This term refers to a unit whose fire box (or heat source) is set off of the main chamber, usually horizontally. Generally, offset BBQ smokers have horizontal barrel-shaped bodies and use charcoal or wood to produce heat and smoke, which waft from the fire box into the cooking chamber. They’re the most popular models among barbecue purists and competitors despite the great deal of attention and effort required. Tending the fire becomes easier with the help of a temperature controller that handles heat and airflow, but you’re still responsible for monitoring fuel and smoke production. Though offset barrel smokers will have some temperature variance across the cooking surface because of the way heat moves, new features like large heat baffles and reverse-flow air intakes help heat stay even.
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. This design makes temperatures more even and easier to manage because heat and smoke naturally rise up toward your food. Most electric smokers are vertical, though many charcoal, pellet, and gas models also take this shape. Budget-friendly Gateway Drum Smokers, for instance, fit the vertical type. No matter the fuel, make sure your vertical BBQ smoker has easy access to the fire box to refuel when necessary (most have doors or sliding trays to easily top off). And we’d be remiss not to mention that vertical smokers can easily be built into a BBQ island.
If offset smokers are usually horizontal and vertical smokers are just what their name implies, then this category of smokers is somewhere in the middle. Unconventional barbecue smokers don’t fit neatly into either distinction — instead, they mimic the construction of a standard grill or are so unique that they simply can’t be labeled like other smokers. The Lynx Sonoma gas smoker, for example, comes in both built-in and freestanding configurations and has impressive technological features like LED-lit control knobs and smartphone connectivity. There’s also the Cajun Combeaux charcoal grill and smoker, which can function as charcoal grill and a vertical or offset smoker depending on where you position the charcoal basket inside the body. How's that for extreme versatility?
Choose Your Smoker’s Configuration
After determining your preferred fuel and smoker types, you’ll need to consider configuration. This is all about placement and mobility — do you want something you can move around the backyard (and bring to competitions, if you’re so inclined), or would you rather your smoker be built into your outdoor kitchen? Let’s dive into what you can expect from each configuration.
Freestanding Barbecue Smokers
Freestanding is the most common configuration by far. The mobility of these smokers is a big benefit in its own right, but this also makes them much easier to clean after a long day of smoking brisket — smoke creates soot, and meat makes mounds of fat drippings, so this convenience shouldn’t be overlooked. 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. As mentioned above, freestanding is also the configuration of choice for traveling competition smokers, plus these models are far easier to store for long periods of time. Just be sure yours has sturdy wheels for support, along with a smoker cover to protect your investment.
Built-In Barbecue Smokers
Who says you can’t build in a smoker? This is a great option for anyone looking to add versatility and an interesting aesthetic appeal to their outdoor kitchen. When you pair a BBQ smoker with a conventional gas grill, you’re able to offer a wider variety of food — and much more of it — to your guests. If you want to double down on versatility, a built-in kamado smoker sitting in a BBQ island cutout is the way to go. There are also vertical electric smokers on wheels, like those from Cookshack, that can slide directly into a counter cutout with proper ventilation. Even freestanding cabinet smokers have a place in island openings, as long as you allow for proper ventilation and clearance as recommended by your owner’s manual.
Choose Your BBQ Smoker Class
At this point, you should have a solid idea of what your ideal smoker looks like (sign us up for any and all, please). You’ve got one more decision to make, though, and it might be the biggest one of all — choosing which BBQ smoker class is right for you. We created these 4 classifications based on quality, performance, and features, which we deemed to be the best way to measure a smoker’s value and fit for a customer’s lifestyle. Read on to find out the key differences among Luxury, Premium, Practical, and Economy smokers.
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
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
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
Economy Barbecue Smokers
Generally designed to meet a certain, low price point rather than a level of performance
Weber 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 When Buying a Smoker
Before you go, we’ve got a few final wispy words of wisdom to keep you moving down the path toward your dream smoker. BBQ smoking is a science (just ask any competitor), so there are plenty of considerations that factor into the tender and juicy results everyone craves. We’ll cover the most pressing topics below so you can have a head start when you finally unbox your shiny new smoker.
Look for a smoker with great insulation.
Heat and smoke retention are among the most important parts of low-and-slow smoking, which makes great insulation a must. 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 also helps because it’s better equipped to absorb and reradiate heat back toward your food, while the ceramics used in kamado smokers are the best insulators around. It’s a good idea to pay attention to any seals or gaskets in the smoker body where smoke can escape — not only will your food miss out on all that flavor, but a leaky smoker also uses more fuel than one with tighter seals. In short, you should set your sights on a barbecue smoker constructed from quality materials and that comes with a good warranty from a customer service-oriented company.
Airflow & Temperature
If you can’t easily regulate temperature, then achieving great barbecue is virtually impossible. This is especially true for smokers, so you must take steps to 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 more accurately dial in temperature. So, what does this mean for you? Make sure the dampers are easily accessible, easy to operate, and made from durable materials that won’t rust (a rusted damper will be stuck in place, as will your airflow and temperature).
Wood Chips & Chunks
In many models, wood will be your main source of smoke. Using different species of hardwood produces varied flavors in your food, so don’t hesitate to experiment with multiple types. We’ve received many questions about wood chips and wood chunks, and we’re aware that there’s a good bit of misinformation out there about how they should be used. Here’s our stance:
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
There’s also the question of soaking wood chips, which warrants a more detailed explanation. Though many people swear by this practice, all you accomplish by soaking wood is increasing the amount of time it takes for your chips or chunks to ignite. The only time it makes sense to soak wood is when you need to extend the length of your smoke session, in which case you’d 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.
Water Pans & Water Smokers
We call them “water pans,” but they can actually hold other liquids like apple juice, cider vinegar, or beer that impart distinct flavors into your food. The choice is yours, but you really only need water to fulfill the function of a water pan. That function is twofold: creating high levels of humidity inside your smoker, and aiding in temperature stabilization. Humidity is important because it keeps your food moist even in the hot, dry air typically generated by smokers. Temperature stabilization, though? That’s a result of your water pan acting as a huge deflector that absorbs and radiates heat upward to even everything out. You technically don’t have to use a water pan to properly operate a smoker, but it’ll make the process a whole lot easier.
Still have burning questions about barbecue smokers? Our knowledgeable experts are standing by at 1-877-743-2269 to fill in the gaps, and our BBQ Smoker FAQ also has tons of additional information that could be of use to you. We won’t keep you any longer — there are briskets to smoke!