Undeniably, barbecue smoking is one of the most difficult ways to cook meat. It requires a special level of skill and dedication in order to fully master the task. Though, just like anything, if you put in enough effort, you’ll yield the desired results. Fortunately, modern smokers are designed for both accuracy and convenience. With these models, gone are the days of hovering over the device for hours to check on the meat, give it the occasional spritz of water, monitor the temperature, shovel coal, add wood, make adjustments, and much more.
Selecting the right smoker means that you’ll be able to have meat prepared with as little the amount of effort as possible, and no risk of it being over or undercooked. There are a number of smokers on the market to choose from. Generally speaking, there are nine main options: offset smokers, box smokers, bullet smokers, drum smokers, kamado grills, pellet smokers, kettle grills, electric smokers, and smoker ovens. Each type of smoker comes with its own unique characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages.
Continue reading for our comprehensive guide on the different types of smokers. The information outlined below will help you make an informed decision on which smoker will suit you best and help you achieve the greatest results.
Table of Contents
- What is Barbecue Smoking?
- Types of Smokers
- 1. Offset Smokers
- 2. Box Smokers
- 3. Bullet Smokers
- 4. Drum Smokers
- 5. Kamado Grills
- 6. Pellet Smokers
- 7. Electric Smokers
- 8. Smoker Ovens
- 9. Kettle Grills
What is Barbecue Smoking?
Traditional barbecuing involves the food being placed right over the heat source, whether it be wood, charcoal, or natural/propane gas. With this method, you must stay nearby to monitor the cooking process, occasionally dabbing on an additional marinade to retain moisture, and also flipping it every so often.
If you’re a big fan of charcoal grills, you know that they infuse a smoky flavor into the food you are cooking. This flavor is second to none and cannot be replicated with any other barbecuing method. Though, smoking meat takes that incredible smoky flavor that you get with charcoal grilling to an entirely new level.
Instead of placing the meat over the heat source, smoking involves putting the meat on the side. This allows the hot smoke to slowly distribute itself over, through, and around it – completely submerging the food in smoke until it is cooked all the way through. When compared to conventional grilling, the temperature of smoking is much lower. Think of it like a crockpot, as it is a much slower cooking process.
Depending on the cut and size of the meat that you are smoking, it’ll take between two and three hours at least. Though, it’s not uncommon to have meat cooking overnight or all day inside of a barbecue smoker. This only adds to the low and slow appeal of these machines.
The major benefit to smoking is that it allows the food to retain moisture, yielding meat that is so tender and basically falls off of the bone. Not to mention, you’ll get to enjoy some of the tastiest and smokiest meat that you’ve ever had. The flavor that you get from smoking meat is truly unmatched.
Types of Smokers
Generally speaking, smokers are best suited for cooking meat and are much different from traditional grills. While you can definitely grill vegetables and plant-based meat substitutes like tofu and veggie burgers, they are not appropriate for the slow cooking method of a smoker. When it comes to choosing which types of food that are suitable for smoking, always go for poultry, fish, and meat. Vegetables, or anything plant-based for that matter, should be avoided.
With that said, the world of smoking is rich and varied, offering many different ways to cook meat low and slow depending on your particular budget, the amount of effort you want to put in, and the type of barbecue you’re looking to smoke. Let’s take a look at the most popular types of smokers on the market, along with their individual pros and cons.
1. Offset Smokers
Also referred to as horizontal smokers, or horizontal offset smokers, these were initially created from unused oil drums and are the original southern-style low and slow cooker. They are characterized by their big, bulky, barrel-like shape and have the capacity to cook enough food to feed an entire city block. Offset smokers are specially designed to cook meat at low temperatures, which is crucial for those looking to achieve that authentic barbecue flavor.
This type of smoker features a firebox on the side, a couple of inches below where the food is placed in the main cooking chamber. When charcoal or wood are burnt inside the firebox, smoke slowly exits the firebox and enters into the cooking chamber, fully engulfing the food, then out the chimney.
In a traditional offset smoker, the chimney is located on the opposite side of the firebox. Some of these smokers use a ‘reverse flow’ system, meaning the smoke and heat are forced under and over the meat suing baffles. In this type of offset smoker, you’ll find the chimney mounted on top. Most offset smokers also double as grills, which allows you to smoke on one side and grill on the other.
Regardless of the brand or model that you choose, all offset smokers are designed to work with both wood and charcoal. This is one of the main characteristics of a true smoker. Therefore, if your reason for purchasing a smoker is to achieve that quintessential smoky flavor, an offset smoker is an excellent choice!
Pros of Offset Smokers
- They are available in a wide array of sizes. Some of the smallest models can cook upwards of eight 10-pound pork shoulders – which is considered a lot for a “small” grill.
- Opting for a model with a durable construction and performing necessary maintenance will ensure that your smoker lasts many years.
- Since the firebox is mounted separately from the main cooking chamber, you can add more fuel without causing the heat or smoke to escape.
- Offset smokers with thicker materials retain heat very well, which is ideal for low and slow cooking.
Cons of Offset Smokers
- Offset smokers that are poorly constructed and on the cheaper end are simply not worth the money. They offer poor heat retention, potential for leaks, and can lead to dry meat.
- Since they are considered an old-school type of smoker, there’s quite a steep learning curve and they require more patience to master than other options.
- These are one of the most hands-on types of smokers. You will have to do quite a bit of monitoring to ensure that the meat doesn’t get overcooked.
2. Box Smokers
Whether a smoker is a box (vertical) or offset (horizontal) all depends on the location of the heat source. With box smokers, the source of heat and smoke is right underneath the main cooking chamber, unlike being mounted on the side as it is with offset smokers. This location allows the meat to cook faster, which is a factor you’ll want to strongly consider if you want to cook meat that tends to require a longer cooking time.
Box smokers consist of three compartments. The bottom chamber holds the heat source, which can be either charcoal or wood. There are some models that can use electricity or gas and tend to cook food even faster. Though, if you want an authentic smoky flavor, it’s always best to go with wood and charcoal. For more smoke, you can always burn wood underneath the charcoal in the firebox.
Above the heat source is a chamber with a water pan for regulating the heat inside the main cooking chamber. It does this by deflecting the heat as it radiates from the bottom chamber. By delivering a moist cooking environment, this chamber also prevents the meat in the cooking chamber from drying out. The third, and topmost, chamber is the cooking chamber where the meat is placed for smoking.
Pros of Box Smokers
- Box smokers are often large enough to feed numerous amounts of people.
- Since they are vertical, they won’t take up much space in your backyard or on your patio.
- Their configuration makes them more energy-efficient than other alternatives.
- Their sturdy design is built to last, typically lasting several years.
- For those with a tight budget, box smokers are one of the best options.
Cons of Box Smokers
- Their large cooking chambers means it often takes a while for them to reach the desired temperature.
- They don’t double as grills, but depending on the model they may be used to making pizza.
- Some models have a problem with point-of-access, as you can only add and remove food going in one direction.
3. Bullet Smokers
Also known as vertical water smokers, bullet smokers are configured like conventional vertical (box) smokers but are much smaller, sleeker, and more compact. They are specially designed to take up very little space, making them ideal for small patios or balconies. As their name suggests, they are bullet-shaped and don’t have any mechanical or electrical parts. This makes them easy to operate and one of the best options for beginners.
The primary heat source used for bullet smokers is charcoal and wood chunks, which are placed in the smoker’s bottommost chamber. Like box smokers, a water pan sits above the heat source to serve as a buffer helping to evenly spread the heat throughout the main cooking chamber above. The pan also retains moisture and catches any grease that may drip off of the meat. The cooking chamber features racks upon which the meat is placed.
Vents at the top and bottom of the chamber can be closed or opened to help regulate the airflow in the unit. These vents are what help to keep the temperature inside at a consistent level. Although bullet smokers come in a range of sizes, they are most suitable for feeding a small family or small gathering of friends.
Pros of Bullet Smokers
- Bullet smokers are small and compact, meaning they won’t take up much space on your patio.
- These units are portable and can be easily disassembled and placed in your car for transport.
- They are relatively simple to operate, which makes them an excellent choice for those who are just getting into barbecue smoking.
Cons of Bullet Smokers
- Due to their small size, bullet smokers are not meant for smoking large quantities of food.
- After each smoking season, you’ll have to remove, empty, and clean the water pan.
- Since bullets smokers are dedicated smokers, they cannot double as grills.
4. Drum Smokers
When it comes to easy-to-use charcoal smokers, nothing quite matches up to drum smokers, or Ugly Drum Smokers (UDS) as they are often referred to as. These types of smokers are basically steel barrels that have been outfitted with racks for grilling, meat hooks, a charcoal basket, a chimney, and air vents. Drum smokers can be purchases as assembled units or as a DIY kit to make one yourself. Whether you buy a kit or a full unit, drum smokers tend to be very lightweight and affordable.
The firebox is located at the bottom of the drum, which is typically filled with wood chunks and charcoal. A grill grate is positioned roughly a foot above the firebox, with a lid over the top of the barrel to provide a tight seal. Both the base and lid of a drum smoker features air vents, allowing you to control how hot the drum gets. The compact construction of these smokers limits the air-flow inside, meaning you can smoke for up to 12 hours without having to add more fuel to the fire.
When it comes to capacity, a large drum smoker can hold about four 10-pound pork shoulders. This makes it a wonderful choice if you consistently barbecue for your family.
Pros of Drum Smokers
- Drum smokers are relatively compact, making them a great option for those with limited space on their patio.
- They are easy to operate and don’t require much monitoring since they can hold a consistent temperature for a long period of time.
- They offer versatility, since they double as grills.
- Drum smokers are very cost-effective. If you want to cut down costs, even more, you can purchase a kit and customize your smoker yourself.
Cons of Drum Smokers
- While they are considered a compact option, given their size, you’d think that they would be able to hold much more meat than they do.
- Drum smokers aren’t one of the most visually appealing options.
5. Kamado Grills
Also commonly referred to as ceramic smokers, Kamado grills first gained popularity back in the 1970s. Nowadays, they are considered one of the most preferred smokers on the market. Both their configuration and shape make Kamado grills an excellent choice for low and slow cooking. Though, it’s important to mention that not all Kamado grills are the same. They all have the same general operational mechanism, but come in a range of sizes, shapes, and materials.
Most Kamado grills are constructed out of ceramic and are built to last, which contributes to their high price tag. Ceramic is notorious for being highly insulating, meaning that once it has been heated to the desired temperature it will maintain it for a long duration. Its insulating properties also make this smoker able to reach temperatures up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, which is perfect for pizzas or steakhouse-quality meats.
Operating a Kamado grill is relatively simple. The firebox is loaded with high-quality wood chunks and lump charcoal. Above the firebox is a removable heat deflector plate that can be removed if you want to use it for grilling and cook your meat right over the heat source. Though, for low and slow cooking, the heat deflectors keep the flames from hitting the food and also prevent grease from dripping into the fire.
Pros of Kamado Grills
- Kamado grills are incredibly versatile and can be used for baking, grilling, roasting, searing, and making pizzas.
- They are very durable and will last you many years, if properly maintained.
- Since they can hold a consistent temperature for a long period of time, Kamado grills offer nearly effortless cooking.
- They are relatively compact and won’t take up much space in your backyard or on your patio.
Cons of Kamado Grills
- Kamado grills are considered one of the more expensive smoker options out there.
- Although they are durable, their ceramic construction makes them fragile. In turn, they should be handled with care as they can crack if knocked over.
- It can take a long time for the temperature inside to come back down, so overshooting the desired temperature should be avoided.
6. Pellet Smokers
Upon first glance, pellet smokers look somewhat similar to their offset counterparts. Though, pellet smokers have a much more high-tech design. This type of smoker is the ideal choice if you don’t want to have to babysit the unit for hours on end to enjoy perfectly smoked meat. Pellet smokers operate on both electricity and firepower. Inside the main cooking chamber, there is a temperature gauge and an electronic thermostat.
This type of smoker functions very much like an oven, as all you need to do is set the desired temperature with the thermostat, sit back, and watch it work. Instead of a firebox on the side of the cooking chamber, pellet smokers have what is known as a hopper. The hopper is filled with wood pellets, which are made out of compressed sawdust. A mechanism called an auger is what feeds the pellets to a firebox inside of the cooking chamber.
The thermostat will regulate the speed at which the auger moves the pellets into the firebox, thus maintaining the desired temperature. Smoke that is created from the burning wood pellets is what engulfs the meat and gives it that wonderful smoky taste.
Pros of Pellet Smokers
- Pellet smokers are available in many different sizes, depending on how much meat you want to cook at a given time.
- They are pretty simple to operate, require minimal effort, and can basically be left alone once set up.
Cons of Pellet Smokers
- Pellet smokers are typically one of the most expensive options out there.
- While they are a wonderful hands-free choice, the smoker will run out of pellets eventually.
- If pellets are left in the hopper during humid conditions, they will absorb moisture and it’ll be more difficult to fire them up and keep them lit.
- The fact that pellet grills consist of a lot of electrical and mechanical components means that carry a high possibility of failing.
- Obtaining replacement parts for these smokers can be difficult.
7. Electric Smokers
Electric smokers are the perfect option if you’re looking for a unit that you can set and forget. With this type of smoker, you don’t have to worry about burning wood or charcoal, refilling your propane cylinder, or dealing with a lot of clean-up after you’re done cooking. Operating an electric smoker is as easy as setting your desired temperature – oftentimes through an app on your phone with some higher-end models – setting a time, and then walking away until the smoking is done for you.
Instead of combustible fuel, electric smokers a heating element to generate heat. Since there is no combustion involved, the smoke actually comes from wood chips, which are placed above the heating element. In most cases, electric smokers are designed vertically with the heating element at the bottom and the wood chips and water pans sitting between it and the racks of food.
The water pan in an electric smoker has two main purposes. First, it creates water vapor which enhances the smoky flavor of the meat. Second, it yields an indirect cooking environment by shielding the food from some of the direct heat from the heating element. This helps to maintain the temperate, moisture, and a low and slow cooking time.
Pros of Electric Smokers
- Electric smokers are one of the easiest types to use, making them ideal for beginners.
- The fact that they don’t require an additional fuel source means that you can cut down on the costs involved with smoking meat.
- Good quality electric smokers will retain the desired temperature and seldom run out of fuel. They are, arguably, the best hands-off type of smoker there is.
Cons of Electric Smokers
- The flavor that electric smokers produce is very different from conventional smokers, because of the lack of actual combustion.
- Without combustion gasses, the meat won’t form a smoke ring.
- The moist environment in an electric smoker is great for cooking delicate food, but can make it difficult to achieve a crispy outer crust on ribs or chicken.
8. Smoker Ovens
Smoker ovens look like they are meant to be used indoors, but this could not be farther from the truth. They are designed for exterior use, especially because of the large amount of smoke that they produce. These types of smokers look and operate like traditional ovens, but are specially designed for smoking.
The way that smoker ovens operate is pretty straightforward, and is pretty much the same as all other types of electric smokers. A plate sits atop the electric heating element at the base of the oven. Wood chips are placed onto this plate and, which heated, will cause the wood to burn and create smoke. A funneled piece of metal rests between the heating element and the meat to act as a flame tamer, collecting grease and deflecting radiant heat.
Like most other smokers, there are low-end and high-end models. High-end smoker ovens will have a thermostat inside to automatically regulate heat. Lower-end models, on the other hand, typically feature a dial that must be adjusted manually to maintain the desired temperature.
Pros of Smoker Ovens
- Smoker ovens are available in a range of sizes, based on your cooking needs.
- Even the small models have a relatively large capacity.
- They are relatively easy to operate, only requiring you to place the wood inside and press start.
Cons of Smoker Ovens
- Since they are electric, they must be stored inside when not in use, or at least have a waterproof cover. If the electric components come into contact with water, they will get damaged.
- Some smoker ovens are designed exclusively as smokers, which can be a disadvantage for those wanting versatility out of their smoker.
9. Kettle Grills
While kettle grills aren’t technically a type of smoker, they are one of the most common cooking apparatuses’ owned by homeowners and can be used to easily smoke a small amount of food. Kettle grills are affordable and widely available, which makes them an excellent solution for those wanting a unit that serves as both a grill and a smoker. If you happen to have one of these grills in your backyard, there’s a very easy and quick way to convert it to a smoker.
To transform your kettle grill into a smoker, you’ll need some additional wood chips, a water pan, and to do a little bit of rearranging of the charcoal. While there are many different methods for using a kettle grill as a smoker, the Snake method is one of the best. Simply arrange coals into a “C” shape, two lumps high and two deep. Then, light up a couple of lumps and place them at the beginning of the “snake.”
These coals will slowly light the unlit ones, keeping the temperature low and increasing the burning time. Wood chunks are then placed on top of the lit coals to produce smoke, and a water pan is placed on the grill grate above. Finally, the food that you intend to smoke is put on the opposite side of your snake of coals and the lid is placed on top.