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I grew up in Minnesota, but I had the opportunity to move to Louisiana right after college. While I didn’t stay in the state for long, it’s where I got to experience true smoked meats in small-town restaurants and roadside barbecue shacks for the first time. After growing up on a diet largely comprised of well-prepared – but somewhat bland – meats and potatoes, with the occasional wild game and fish, the flavor I experienced from true Southern barbecue was a life-changing experience for my palate.
When I returned to the Upper Midwest, I struggled to find barbecue that was like the Southern type I’d experienced. If I found myself in larger cities, I usually sought out local barbecue restaurants, and I noticed regional differences in taste and preparation. I decided that if I wanted to add smoked meats to my own family’s menu, I’d have to understand the process and learn to make them myself.
While it’s possible to make ribs and even brisket in your kitchen oven, I realized I needed to find a smoker to get the true smoked flavor of Southern-style barbecue. I started to research the different types of grills and smokers, and I was amazed by the number of different styles and fuel types that are available.
Understanding the Smoking Process
To decide which type of smoker to purchase, it’s important to first understand what’s involved in the meat-smoking process. Smoking is an ancient practice that was used to prepare and preserve meats that would otherwise spoil without a way to stay cold for long periods of time. Smoking, and then drying and salting meats, allowed our early ancestors to keep a stable food source, regardless of season or weather conditions. Evidence of early forms of modern smokers can be found from more than 3,000 years ago in China, where clay urns or pots were used to prepare meats over a bed of charcoal wood.
Smoking, or barbecue, can be summed up as the process of taking cuts of meat that have more fat and leaner muscle and cooking them slowly at lower temperatures for longer periods of time. Meats such as pork shoulder, beef brisket, or ribs become flavorful and tender as their fat is reduced, which also marinates the meat, while the smoke adds additional flavor. While smokers are most associated with meats, they’re also an excellent choice for cooking fish and other seafood, and vegetables. There are also stand-alone smokers that can make homemade pizza to rival pizza made in expensive wood-fired pizza ovens. Wood chip varieties, such as apple, cherry, alder, hickory, and oak, enhance the flavor of the meat or fish being smoked.
Fueling the Smoker
If you’ve ever been to a barbecue cooking contest, then you’ve probably seen the large, traditional pit-style cookers that are fueled by either wood or lump charcoal. Some of these smokers can be 10 feet or longer and produce massive quantities of smoked meat. However, if you aren’t planning to take your smoking talents on the road or open your own restaurant, you can choose from a variety of styles that use different fuel sources. Each fuel source has its benefits and considerations based on your specific needs.
Here are some of the most common types of smokers:
Wood, briquettes, or lump charcoal – or a combination of them – are used to heat this smoker. Charcoal has been around forever, it’s affordable, and it can be found everywhere. It’s also the preferred fuel source of grill masters and meat-smoking enthusiasts because of its ability to heat at both low and high temperatures. Although charcoal has the benefit of adding its natural wood smoke to food, additional varieties of wood chips can be added to achieve different flavors, depending on the type of food being smoked. That being said, charcoal smokers tend to have less precision in their temperature control; involve the placement and lighting of the charcoal, and may require more work to clean after the smoking is completed.
Electric smokers rely on the heating of an electric coil, which is usually located on the bottom of the smoker. A box that’s used to hold wood is normally situated right above the burner, allowing you to add either wood chips or chunks to prolong the amount of smoke produced throughout the cooking process. Electric smokers come in a variety of styles and sizes, but they generally can’t produce the high temperatures needed for some recipes. Additionally, they rely on an electrical outlet to power the unit, which can limit their mobility.
Propane or natural gas smokers
Using a propane or natural gas smoker is a great choice for your first smoker, as they’re easy to use and, in most cases, allow for more precise heat control than charcoal or electric smokers. Gas smokers use the same type of smoker box as electric smokers do to hold the type of wood chips suited for the food being smoked. While propane and natural gas are widely available, unless you have a spare tank in reserve, you’ll have to be cognizant of how much fuel you have based on the length of time you’ll be smoking your food. Some foods can require up to 12 hours or more in the smoker, and having to stop the smoking process to replenish a tank of propane may greatly affect the quality of your food – or even ruin it.
In recent years, these smokers have seen a surge in popularity. Some of the allure is that they can be dual-purpose, used for both smoking and grilling. They’re powered by electricity and fueled by compressed hardwood that’s dried, ground into sawdust, and formed into pellets. The pellets, which come in a variety of wood types and flavors, are loaded into a hopper on the smoker, which is then augured to a cooking chamber that ignites the pellets, creating heat and smoke. Fans inside the smoker then direct the heat up and around the cooking area. Pellet smokers are the most high-tech of all the smokers, and they have precise heat control. They can also come equipped with sensors that connect to your phone and allow you to program the type of meat you’re smoking, and then walk away until you’re notified the food is done. They’re electric, so their mobility is limited to the closest outlet – if there’s no power, there’s no smoking. They also tend to be the costliest of the introductory smokers.
I’ve included grills because a lot of people already own one. The main difference between grilling and smoking is that grills are typically used to cook foods at higher temperatures for shorter periods of time, while smokers rely on keeping consistently lower temperatures over longer periods of time. Dedicated smokers are the most efficient way to smoke foods. However, if you already own a gas or electric grill, you can incorporate add-ons or after-market attachments to burn wood chips or chunks on your grill. These attachments usually consist of a metal smoker box that can be placed on or over the heat source. (And if you want to make a smoker attachment of your own for your existing grill, you can read how in Grit’s sister publication Mother Earth News Meat Smoker Plans.)
Some major grill manufacturers have even incorporated built-in smoker boxes on their high-end products. While these grills can produce smoke early in the process, they tend to be limited in the amount of wood chips that the boxes can hold, and adding additional chips during the cooking process is cumbersome and may require removing the food and grates to gain access to the smoker box.
Smoker Styles and Sizes
Once you’ve settled on a fuel type, the next step is deciding which style of smoker best fits your needs. You can choose from kettle-style smokers, vertical smokers, barrel-style smokers, and more. All have their benefits, but the right one for you will ultimately come down to personal preference. Talk with friends or relatives who already have smokers, and ask them what they use and why they like it. Go to your local hardware store or big-box retailer and browse their smokers. Ask the salespeople their opinions on the different styles of smokers and their dependability.
Along with all the various styles of smokers, the other major consideration is size. Are you just planning on smoking for your family, or do you need a smoker big enough to prepare food for a large gathering or a family reunion? How much room do you have to accommodate a smoker? If you have a small deck or patio, some styles of smokers occupy a small footprint and would work out fine. If space isn’t a consideration, you’ll have many options for both style and capacity to choose from.
Of course, with any style or size of smoker, price is also a factor. Entry-level charcoal smokers can start around $75 and top out at $1,500 or more for the higher-end Kamado-style ceramic grills or smokers. Entry-level gas or electric smokers start at about $150, but can easily exceed $1,000. The popular pellet smokers are the most expensive entry-level smoker, with prices starting around $500 and topping out around $2,000.
Regardless of which style or size of smoker you decide on, here are some general considerations to keep in mind:
Is it made of heavy steel, or lighter material that’ll lose heat and burn more fuel? Hinges, gaskets, and the door should be high-quality to avoid loss of heat and smoke.
Is the paint a high-quality kind that’ll last and not rust or scratch off easily? Is the fit and finish smooth? And if it has wheels, are they made well?
If it’s gas or electric, can it produce heats low enough – and also high enough – to meet your needs? Good heating elements produce consistent temperatures throughout the smoking process.
Does the unit have a good thermometer that can accurately read internal temperatures? Accurate temperatures are the key to smoking foods, and critical for ensuring a good end product.
Charcoal smokers rely on airflow, and dampers control temperature and fuel consumption. Dampers that are easy to control and operate are crucial when working with wood or charcoal.
If you invest money in a good smoker, will the manufacturer stand behind the product? Will there be support if it needs to be assembled? Is there local support and replacement?
If you’re interested in taking your outdoor cooking skills to another level, consider adding a quality smoker to your backyard tool set. Preparing slow-smoked meats, fish and other seafood, and vegetables is both rewarding and a great addition to your family’s dining repertoire.
Tim Nephew writes on a variety of topics and is Grit’s equipment specialist. He lives in rural Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres of wildlife habitat.