A smoker is the tool of choice for those who are serious about barbecue. A smoker provides a primal connection with our past, while infusing your food with true barbecue flavor. Smokers aren’t grills, though some can do double duty. Pronto’s Smoker Buying Guide will help you choose the smoker that’s right for you (see also Gas Grill Buying Guide).
The type of smoker you choose will determine how much effort it takes to cook. Gas and electric vertical smokers are the simplest to use. Wood-fired horizontal smokers are the choice of barbecue purists. Pellet smokers offer the best combination of grill and smoker.
Look for a smoker with dampers that move easily and hold their position. A smoker’s handles should be made of nonconductive materials, and lids, doors, and trays should move with a minimum of effort.
For wood-fired smokers, you need to be able to get at the fire. Look for horizontal smokers with firebox lids that expose the entire fire. For vertical smokers, make sure the firebox door is large enough for refueling.
Digital controls, insulation, and built-in thermometers make a smoker easier to use, but you’ll get the same results from a simpler smoker with a little extra effort.
Smokers must be cleaned regularly to keep residue from flavoring the food. Look for a smoker with nonstick surfaces and easy access to interior surfaces.
A removable compartment that holds moistened pieces of hardwood in a vertical smoker. The hardwood smolders, adding the smoke flavor to food.
A louvered opening in a smoker that regulates temperature by controlling the amount of air that reaches the fire.
A compartment on a smoker that holds burning wood, pellets, or charcoal.
A barbecue unit that resembles a barrel turned on its side, with a firebox set to one side and an exhaust chimney opposite the cooking surface.
A new type of barbecue that uses hardwood pieces the size of pet food as fuel. Most of the popular types of smoker woods can be purchased as pellets.
A barbecue that resembles a standing steel barrel, with a firebox at the bottom and a cooking surface at the top, separated by a water tray and chip tray.
A compartment that holds liquid in a vertical smoker, regulating the moisture while food cooks. Advanced chefs often substitute beer or wine for water in these trays.
Most backyard chefs begin with a grill, which is a hot, direct cooker designed for fast searing of meats. Smokers use low levels of indirect heat to slow-cook foods, imparting the flavor of the smoke as they work.
A smoker requires patience and experience to master. It can take up to eight hours for a smoker to cook, and whether you’ll need to tend to the smoker or to dinner party depends on the type of smoker you choose. Your efforts will not go unrewarded though, because even the smallest smokers have enough cooking surfaces to prepare large-scale dinners.
Vertical smokers are the least expensive and most flexible option. The simplest vertical smokers look like a steel barrel with a firebox at the bottom, a covered cooking surface at the top, and water and chip trays in the middle. The water tray keeps food moist while it cooks while the chip tray holds soaked pieces of hardwood that generate the smoke.
Barbecue purists favor wood-fueled horizontal smokers. These smokers look like a barrel turned on its side, with a firebox mounted on one side and a chimney opposite the cooking area. Instead of wood chips, these smokers use the smoke generated from split woods or wood charcoal to add flavor. Some horizontal smokers include a grill just above the firebox for quick cooking.
Pellet grills are the newest style of smoker. These are similar to horizontal smokers, but they use pre-made hardwood pellets fed through a hopper to maintain the right amount of temperature and smoke. Most types of hardwoods are available as pellets. Most of these smokers can also double as traditional grills.
For the best flavor and the most authentic barbecue experience, wood-fueled smokers are best. No other heating method can produce the same amount of natural smoke. Pellet smokers compare well to split-wood smokers, offering the next best thing for those who don’t want to work with split wood or charcoal.
A wood-fueled smoker is a demanding tool, requiring you to tend to the fire and maintain the right temperature while the smoker is working. If you’d rather focus on food than fire, electric and propane vertical smokers are better choices. These smokers let you set a temperature and require only occasional checks for accuracy. Electric smokers are available with standard or infrared heating elements.
Propane smokers offer the same convenience as electric smokers, with two drawbacks. First, propane smoke can flavor the food. Second, the smoker might run out of fuel in the midst of cooking. Propane smokers are a good choice if there’s no electricity nearby or you desire portability. When buying a propane smoker, make sure that there is good separation between the burners and the cooking surface. Too much direct heat will sear the food, and you won’t get that smoker flavor.
Spending more for a smoker will add convenience features, but your first priority should be performance. At any price point, you want a smoker with a heavy, airtight lid that is well-vented to allow excess heat and smoke to escape. Wood-fired smokers need dampers at the firebox and in the lid. These dampers should be easy to operate and should reliably hold any position that you set.
For gas and electric smokers, dampers in the lid are enough, because you can control the temperature with a thermostat. These smokers benefit from a built-in thermometer or digital controls that give you an accurate read of cooking temperature.
Look for stainless steel or porcelain-coated cooking surfaces that are easy to clean. For vertical smokers, water and chip trays should also be easy to clean and should slide in and out easily.
Access to the firebox is essential for wood-fueled smokers. A horizontal smoker with a removable firebox lid will give you the best access. Vertical smokers can be trickier because you can only reach the fire from the front. For these smokers, look for a large door that allows access to the back and enough height to add more split wood or charcoal.
Some smokers offer insulated interiors that maintain temperature and moisture. This takes some of the effort out of running the smoker and keeps the smoker’s exterior cooler, which is a benefit if you have children or hungry pets. If you’re just looking for performance, you’ll get the same results with a non-insulated smoker and a little extra effort.
Materials tell you a bit about the durability of a smoker. Most consumers gravitate toward stainless steel smokers, but there are different grades of stainless out there. A smoker made with 300 grade stainless steel offers the best corrosion resistance. Solid hinges are a sign of better construction. A smoker’s handles should be made of materials that don’t conduct heat, such as chrome or wood. A well-designed smoker will have a firebox door handle that keeps your hands away from hot surfaces.
Easy cleaning of interior surfaces is far more essential for smokers than for grills. A buildup of residue or unspent fuel will add an unpleasant flavor to foods. A smoker should have a corrosion-free firebox and interior that can be cleaned after each use without too much effort.
In general, vertical smokers are the hardest to clean and pellet smokers are the easiest, but materials make the difference. If you’re shopping for a pellet smoker, check the hopper to make sure its outlet can be cleaned and that it won’t clog.
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