There’s no question that you can produce delicious smoked meat using your charcoal or gas grill. But if you want to taste the best quality ribs, bacon, pulled pork, etc., you’ll definitely want a dedicated smoker. What is a smoker? Well, a smoker is a barbecue grill that can maintain a stable low temperature (between 225 F to 275 F) for long periods of time, producing both heat and smoke to slow cook food. There are several types of smokers to choose from, depending on the fuel you use: charcoal, gas, wood, and electric. And just like the other types of grills, smokers also come in various shapes and sizes.
If you already have a grill in your backyard, you’re probably wondering why would you even consider getting a smoker? There are several benefits to buying a specialized smoker:
- Smoked meat is more tender and juicy (a.k.a. succulent) because of its slow cooking time.
- Smoked meat is also more flavorful because the smoke has been absorbed for a lengthier period of time.
- Using a specialized smoker means less work – no need to keep watch over the temperature while the meat cooks for hours, moving the meat around whenever you add more coal/wood, or fiddling around with the vents. Most smokers operate on the set-it-and-forget-it philosophy. Cook your meat while you take watch TV, take a nap, or even a good night’s sleep.
What are the drawbacks then?
- The main drawback of a specialized smoker is the fact that it generally costs more – buying it and using it. Because smoked meat requires an extended amount of time to cook, you’ll definitely be using more fuel to keep your smoker running.
Types of Smokers based on design
As mentioned before, there are several types of smokers, depending on the design and the fuel you use. Let’s discuss a bit about each type along with their pros and cons.
Horizontal Offset Smokers
An offset smoker is made of two parts. There’s the cooking chamber which looks like a barrel grill with a smokestack. The second part is the firebox which is attached to one end of the cooking chamber. The firebox has it’s own access door along with an adjustable vent. The heat and smoke from the firebox flows into the cooking chamber through a small hole between the two parts.
The problem with an offset smoker is that the smoke and heat tend to go upwards, not sideways. This means that the side closer to the firebox can get a great deal hotter than the side farthest from it IF the smoker isn’t engineered well. For those who are interested in an offset, you need to be prepared to invest around $500 or more because these are the ones that have thick metal (better insulation and more even heat distribution) as well as tight sealing lids/doors.
Also called UDS (Ugly Drum Smoker), this one is built from a steel drum and is usually inexpensive especially if you create one yourself. Like a cabinet/box smoker, the firebox is placed at the bottom and the cooking rack on top. You can opt to have a water pan fitted inside the drum. The lid and the base of the barrel have vents for temperature control. The lid locks into place to seal in the smoke and heat. The UDS is a good choice because it is very easy to use, has a large capacity, and very portable. The only drawback to this DIY smoker is that you are limited to charcoal or wood as your fuel choice.
Vertical Water Smokers
Like the name implies, this type of smoker is vertical (standing up) and is made up of three parts. The bottom part is where the heat source is placed which can be charcoal, a heating element (electric), or a gas burner. The second part is where the water pan is located. It deflects the direct heat from the meat which is in the smoking chamber (the top part) as well as stabilizes the heat. The water also ensures that the air remains moist so the meat doesn’t dry out while cooking.
Advantages: The main advantage of this type of smoker is that they’re relatively small. Small in size means that they don’t take up a lot of space AND they don’t use up as much fuel as larger smokers do because it takes less time to heat up. You might want to take note that these are generally the cheapest smokers in the market.
As for disadvantages, there are several you should take note of. Limited temperature control is a problem with this type of design either because of leaks or a lack of adjustable vents. The size of vertical water smokers can also be a disadvantage for if you want to cook large slabs of meat. Accessibility is another drawback. A lot of these smokers have two racks, one on top of the other; you’ll need to remove the top rack in order to access the lower one. Accessing the water pan can also be a bit tricky in some. Lastly, lifting the lid will result in the loss of a lot of heat in the smoker. Although you store heat in the water pan, it takes awhile before you get back to the temperature you need.
Also called a cabinet smoker, a box smoker is a big standing box that opens in the front (like a cabinet or a refrigerator) with your heat source at the bottom and your racks on top. If well-built (thick steel, tightly closing door), this type of smoker is very easy to use and produces really delicious smoked meat. However, the good ones don’t come cheap so be prepared to shell out a lot. Another benefit to a box smoker is that it doesn’t take up as much space as an offset which is considerably wider.
Based on Source Energy
As the BBQ purists would say, charcoal is the way. The flavor produced from charcoal smokers really can’t be beat. And these generally cost less than smokers that use the other types of fuel. However, there are drawbacks to this type of fuel. Charcoal is messy and requires a great deal more labor than the other types of fuel. It takes a while to get your fire going and for the heat to reach the target temperature. You’ll also need to master how to control air flow with the vents in order to regulate your temperature. Also, you’ll need to watch your fuel consumption more carefully compared to electric or pellet smokers.
There’s no question that pellet smokers are a great innovation in the world of backyard barbecue. They’re easy to use. These are true set-it-and-forget-it smokers because there’s no need to watch fuel consumption or the thermostat. There’s a digital controller that will ensure that the temperature stays on target and there’s an auger that will regularly feed pellets into your fire box to keep that heat and smoke going. Another great thing about pellet grills is that you can customize your own smoky flavor based on the mixture of pellets you use. One other benefit to owning a pellet smoker is versatility. Pellet smokers can function as grills or ovens, enabling you to roast, braise, or bake with them.
As great as pellet smokers are, they do have a few drawbacks. One, they are very expensive (really good ones can cost about a thousand dollars). The pellets aren’t cheap either. Two, pellet smokers aren’t portable because they run on electricity (unless you have a very long extension cord). Three, this type of smoker is high maintenance. They aren’t easy to clean or maintain.
Gas smokers are very convenient to use because they heat up fast and maintain the target temperature quite easily. You also get good flavor from wood chips, chunks, or pellets without the mess you get from charcoal. Gas smokers are also great because they are portable (only one brand offers a natural gas model). However, you need to check your fuel supply just like with charcoal. It’s easy to run out of gas especially if you use a half-empty tank during a very long cooking session. You always need to have a backup close at hand.
Compared to all the other fuel types, this is probably the easiest. Just plug it in, set the temperature, and forget all about it for a few hours. No firing up some charcoal, no need to worry about running out of fuel, no ash that needs to be cleaned, and no vents to be adjusted for temperature control. Plus, you don’t spend as much to fuel your cooking sessions. The cost of gas, charcoal, and pellets can add up to a lot over time. Electricity, not so much. Electric smokers seem perfect. So what’s the drawback? The biggest complaint about electric smokers is that they don’t give the same intense flavor as the other three types of smokers. The food produced is still delicious, of course. But the flavor is subtler, less intense than that produced by a gas smoker.
Things to look for while buying a smoker:
Have a budget prior shopping
Like almost anything in the market today, you get what you pay for. There are smokers that cost less than $100 but you might just end up working more just to get your barbecue cooked right. The good news is, you can find quality smokers for under $400 (depending on the fuel source). If you’ve got the extra cash, you can splurge for one of the popular pellet smokers that cost around $900 or more. But before you decide on your budget, you might want to also consider how much use your smoker will be getting. If smoking meat is going to be a regular thing in your house, you may want to invest in a top quality smoker that will last a long time.
The most important thing you need to look for when buying a smoker is temperature control because you need to able to maintain a constant low temperature to produce quality smoked meat. This means that whatever smoker you buy, you’ll need to make sure that it has a reliable thermostat so you know that the temperature is exactly where you want it. Another feature you want your smoker to have is adjustable vents which enable you to control the temperature within a smoker.
Capacity & Size
Like what was mentioned before, smokers come in various shapes and sizes. One of the things you’ll need to consider is what kind of meat do you plan on cooking and how much meat do you want to smoke at a time. Are you going to cook a large turkey? Then, you’ll need at least 12 inches between your rack and the lid. Are you planning on cooking long slabs of ribs? You might want to check how wide your potential smoker is. Some ribs are as long as 16 inches. Of course, you can opt to cut them in half to fit in your smoker but be prepared for the edges of the ribs to get a bit overcooked. Do you only cook for a family of 3 or 4 or are you hosting the annual 4th of July barbecue for your neighborhood? Another consideration is space. How much space is available for your smoker? You’ll need a decent amount of space around your smoker to avoid anything getting set on fire. You’ll also need that extra space for ventilation and air flow. Capacity wouldn’t matter as much if you don’t have enough space in your backyard, patio, or balcony for a large smoker anyway.
Why make it harder for yourself when you’re smoking meat? If you’re buying a wood or charcoal smoker, you need to make sure that the firebox is easily accessible. You need to be able to add fuel to your fire without having to do any acrobatics. If you’re buying a gas or electric smoker that uses pellets, chips, or chunk to produce smoke, you need to make sure that they’re also easily accessible. Last, but definitely not the least, you need to make sure that the food is also easily accessible especially if you want to move it around or check the temperature of the meat.
Material, Construction, & Durability
Smokers need to be made of material that provides good insulation. Thick steel is a good material for a smoker because it is able to absorb heat and radiate it back as well as distributing the heat evenly around the chamber. Aside from the material, you also need to check how well the smoker was made. The lids and vents should close tightly, keeping the heat and smoke inside the grill. Leaking smoke and heat will make it hard for you to control your temperature and flavor which can create unpredictable results. You’ll also have to check how sturdy the smoker is built. Does its legs wobble? If it has wheels, are they sturdy? Do they roll smoothly? Are the latches and hinges flimsy? Take note, heavier grills are usually better at insulation as well as durability.
Smokers are definitely a good investment if you want top quality barbecue. Now, if you’re looking to create variety in your outdoor cooking adventures, there’s one more tool you might want to check out – the outdoor fryer.
The outdoor fryer typically runs on propane and enables you to deep fry donuts, fries, fish, or even the Thanksgiving turkey. Usually, these appliances feature a basket or removable rack that can be dipped or lowered into preheated oil (just like how they cook fries in McDonald’s).
Now, why would you want to deep fry outside when you can do it in your kitchen? We’ve got several reasons:
- The mess
We all know that with deep frying, you also get sputtering oil which can be a pain to clean. Outside, you can ignore the new shine that your grass has or just hose it down if you can’t.
- The smell
We all love the deep fried smell at first. But smelling the ambient oil (and other fumes) days later can take its toll. Frying al fresco, on the other hand, enables you to enjoy a bit of the smell but you don’t get the olfactory reminder the day after.
- The heat
Even with your windows open, deep frying in your kitchen can make you feel overheated. Instead of slaving away over a hot stove, stay fresh and cool outdoors while creating delicious deep-fried treats.
There’s more to outdoor cooking than just the traditional grill. Whether you get a smoker, an outdoor deep fryer, or even both, you’ll definitely be taking your backyard barbecue to the next level.