Different Types of Barbecue Smokers
Barbecue smoking is arguably one of the most challenging ways to cook. It takes a special kind of skill and panache to master the craft. But just like with all things, an extraordinary effort brings with it an extraordinary reward.
Modern smokers, however, are built for convenience and precision. You no longer have to hover over the machine for hours-on-end constantly checking on the state of the meat, spritzing it from time to time with a “secret moisture-enhancer” (read water), monitoring the temperature, adding wood, shoveling coal, adjusting the dampers, and so on. With the right smoker can get your meat on the table with the least amount of effort without worrying about it getting overcooked or undercooked.
This guide explores the different types of smokers you can use to get the best results.
What Is Smoking – A Brief Overview
Normally when you’re barbecuing, food is placed directly above the heat source, which could either be natural/propane gas, charcoal, or wood. You have to stand guard to closely monitor it, keep dubbing some marinade on it to prevent it from drying out and flip it over occasionally.
If you use a charcoal grill, the smoky flavor that gets infused into the meat is second to none and cannot be replicated using any other barbecue technique. If you thought the smoked flavor you get from charcoal grilling is amazing, smoking meat takes it to a whole new level.
With smoking, instead of placing the meat directly above the heat source, you put it on the side to allow hot smoke to slowly pass over it, through it, and around it, completely engulfing until it is cooked all the way through. Smoking temperature is quite low compared to conventional grilling. So, it’s a very slow cooking process. Did we mention that it’s slow? You get the drift…
It takes at least two to three hours, depending on the size and the cut of the meat, although it’s not uncommon to leave it cooking overnight or all day. That’s part of the “low and slow” appeal.
This technique of cooking allows the meat to not only retain moisture but also become so soft that it practically falls off the bone. Not to mention the fact that you get to revel in the smokiest tastiest meat you’ll ever have in your life. The flavor is simply out of this world.
Different Types of Smokers
Smokers are different from grills and are most appropriate for cooking meat. While you can grill vegetables like corn, or plant-based foods like tofu, they won’t survive the slow-cook of a smoker. The rule of thumb when it comes to choosing which foods to smoke is to always cook meat, fish, or poultry in a smoker. Veggies are a no-go zone.
With that said, the wonderful world of smokers is rich and diverse with so many ways to smoke low and slow depending on your budget, how much effort you want to put into the whole process, and the kind of barbecue you want to smoke. This section explores all the different types of smokers that are hot on the market right now as well as the pros and cons of each.
1. Offset Smokers
Also known as horizontal smokers, these were the original southern-style low and slow cookers. They are designed to cook food at low temperatures, which is essential if you’re chasing after an authentic barbecue flavor for your meat. The smoke penetrates the food leaving it crispy and flavorful on the outside, and moist and delicious on the inside.
How They Work
An offset smoker has a firebox mounted on the side just a few inches lower than the main cooking chamber where the food is placed. Smoke slowly filters out of this firebox and into the main cooking chamber to engulf the food and give it that characteristic smoky flavor that everyone loves in barbecued food.
Most models also double as grills allowing you to smoke some foods on one side while flame-grilling others on the other side. Some are also configured to hold charcoal lumps in the main cooking chamber, essentially turning it into one huge charcoal grill.
Regardless of the brand of offset smoker you use, they are all designed to hold both charcoal and wood. This is one of the defining attributes of an authentic smoker. So if a sumptuous smoky flavor is what you’re after, an offset smoker will deliver all that and then some.
- They come in a variety of sizes. Some of the smallest units can cook up to eight 10-pound pork shoulders – which is a lot for a “small” grill
- If you buy a great unit with durable body construction and look after it well, it will serve you for many years to come
- A unit that’s made from thicker material can retain heat quite well providing the ideal environment for slow and low cooking
- Being part of the old-school category of smokers, the learning curve can be quite steep. It requires a lot of patience to master how to use it properly
- Their horizontal set up can prove to be a bit of a challenge for those foods cooking furthest away from the firebox. You’ll have to rotate them frequently to ensure that they’re not undercooked
- You have to learn how to not only build but also maintain a fire for long durations. Remember the learning curve we mentioned earlier…?
- Because of their configuration, these are one of the most hands-on models out there. You’d have to do a lot of babysitting to ensure your meat doesn’t end up overcooked or undercooked. Overnight smoking is out of the question for offset smokers
2. Vertical / Box Smokers
What makes a smoker vertical or offset (horizontal) has everything to do with the location of the heat source. Unlike offset smokers that have a firebox mounted on the side, the heat and smoke source for vertical smokers is directly beneath the cooking chamber. This location means that food cooks faster, which is something you need to consider if the meat you’re smoking requires longer cooking times.
How They Work
Vertical smokers have three compartments. The bottommost chamber holds the heat source and is typically designed to use charcoal and wood. However, other models can use gas and electricity, which cook food faster than charcoal and wood.
But if you want an authentic smoky flavor, then charcoal and wood is the only way to do it. It takes longer, but it’s certainly worth it.
If you want to take things a notch higher and generate more smoke, you can burn wood below the charcoal for more smoke. The chamber above the heat source has a water pan that regulates the heat inside the cooking chamber by deflecting it as it radiates from the chamber below.
It also prevents the meat in the cooking chamber above from drying out by providing a moist cooking environment throughout. Finally, there’s the chamber above it, which is the cooking chamber. This is where you place the actual meat that you want to smoke.
- They are typically large enough to feed hordes of people
- Because they are vertical, you don’t have to worry about them taking up too much space on your patio or backyard
- Their configuration also makes them more energy-efficient than other models
- They have a sturdy design and are built to last for years. Anyone with a vertical smoker will tell you that they’ve had theirs for a while
- If you have a tight budget to work with, then these units are one of your best options
- Modern units like the Pit Boss Copperhead 7 Series are versatile allowing you to bake, roast and make pizzas
- Because they have large cooking chambers, it takes a while for them to reach the desired temperature
- They are not very versatile since you can’t use them for grilling. Nevertheless, you can use them to bake, roast and make pizzas
- Some models have a point-of-access issue since you can only add and remove food in one direction. This can be challenging when you need to reach the foods that are further back on the rack
3. Bullet Smokers
Sometimes referred to as vertical water smokers, these units have the general configuration of conventional vertical smokers except that they are small, sleek, and compact. They are designed to leave a small footprint so they can fit on even the smallest patio or balcony.
They are bullet-shaped and have no electrical or mechanical components making them easy to use. If you’re dipping your toe into the smoking pool, this is the best unit for beginners.
How They Work
Bullet smokers use wood chunks and charcoal as their primary heat sources. These are placed in the bottom chamber of the smoker. A water pan sits directly above it acting as a buffer to help heat spread evenly throughout the cooking chamber above. It also works to catch dripping grease from the meat cooking above and helps keep it moist as it cooks.
The cooking chamber has racks where meat is placed, and the vents at the very top and bottom can be opened or closed to help regulate the rate and amount of airflow in the chambers. This is what keeps the temperature inside at the desired level.
While bullet smokers come in different sizes, they are ideal for feeding a small family or an intimate gathering of friends.
- They are small and compact, so they won’t leave a large footprint on your patio
- They are also portable, so you can disassemble them and transport them in the trunk of your car
- They are easy to use making them ideal for smoker beginners who are just starting out
- They are pocket-friendly as well
- Because of their small size, they are not ideal for smoking large quantities of meat
- You have to empty and wash the water pan after every smoking session
- They can’t be used for grilling since they are dedicated smokers
4. Drum Smokers
As far as simple easy-to-use charcoal smokers go, it doesn’t get any better than drum smokers or Ugly Drum Smokers (UDS) as they are commonly called. They are essentially steel barrels like the kind used for shipping bulk cargo but have been retrofitted with grilling racks, a charcoal basket, meat hooks, air-vents, and a chimney.
If you’re up to it, you can buy a kit and embark on a fun DIY project to make one for yourself. If that doesn’t feel like something you want to get involved in, you can simply buy one that’s already assembled and get to smoking! Whether you buy the kit fully assembled or not, drum smokers are lightweight compared to other smokers and easy on the pocket too!
How They Work
The firebox, which is located at the bottom of the drum, is filled up with charcoal and wood chunks. There’s a grill grate that sits about a foot above the firebox and lid that goes over the barrel for a tight seal to prevent smoke leaks.
The lid and the base of this smoker are designed with air vents to control how hot the drum gets. Its compact design limits the air-flow inside, which means that you can smoke meat for up to 12 hours without having to add any charcoal.
As far as capacity goes, a large UDS can easily smoke four 10-pound pork shoulders at a go. So, it’s the perfect companion to have if you regularly barbecue for your family at home.
- They are compact, so they won’t take up a lot of space on the patio
- They are easy to use and require minimal babysitting since they can maintain the desired temperature for long durations
- They are highly affordable, and if you like, you can cut costs further by purchasing the kit and customizing it into a smoker yourself
- They are versatile since they also double up as grills
- It’s not called “ugly” for nothing
- Given how bulky they look, you would think that they hold more food than they do. They can fit four 10-pound pork shoulders at a go – which is a lot, but given its size, it should be able to hold more
5. Electric Smoker Ovens
Smoker ovens may look a lot like indoor appliances but make no mistake about it. They are meant to be used outdoors because of the massive amount of smoke they produce. Smoker ovens look and function like conventional ovens but are specially built for smoking.
How They Work
Their mode operation is pretty straightforward. They have a plate that sits on an electric heating element at the bottom of the oven. Wood chips are plated over this plate, which, when heated, causes the chips to smolder and produce smoke.
There is also a funneled piece of metal that sits between the heating element and the food. It functions as a flame tamer to collect grease drippings from the meat above to prevent the possibility of a flare-up. It also deflects direct radiant heat that would otherwise dry-out the meat.
As is the case with all smokers and grills, there are high-end and lower-end units. Higher-end smokers have a thermostat inside the oven that regulates the heat automatically. Lower-end units, on the other hand, have a dial that you have to manually adjust to maintain the desired temperature.
Either way, these units provide the perfect solution for people who love smoking their meat but want a more hands-off approach to the whole process.
- They come in different sizes so you can choose one based on your smoking needs
- Even the smaller units have a large capacity. They can hold up to four 10-pound pork shoulders
- They are easy to use since all you need to do is place wood on the electric plate and push to start
- Since they are electric-powered, they have to be stored inside or, at the very least, covered with a waterproof cover. Electrical components can get damaged if they come into contact with water
- Some are designed as exclusive smokers
6. Kamado Grills
Kamado grills, or ceramic smokers as they are often called, gained popularity in the 1970s to become one of the most preferred smoking equipment to date. Their shape and configuration make them perfect for slow and low cooking.
It’s important to point out that not all Kamado grills are created equal. They come in all shapes and sizes but have the same general working mechanism.
The majority of Kamado grills are made of ceramic and are designed to last a lifetime. This is partly why they are so expensive. Ceramic is highly insulating, and once preheated it to the desired temperature, it can steadily hold low heat for a very long time.
Its insulating properties also allow it to achieve searing hot temperatures of up to a whopping 700 °F, which makes them ideal for making pizzas and getting a steakhouse-quality sear right in the comfort of your home.
How They Work
Smoking in a Kamado grill is pretty easy. All you have to do is load up the firebox with high-quality lump charcoal and wood chunks to get the desired smoky flavor you want and fire it up.
There’s a removable heat deflector plate that sits between the firebox below and the grill grate above. If you want to cook your meat directly over the open flame and have your Kamado function like an ordinary grill, simply remove the heat deflectors. But for low and slow cooking, insert the heat deflectors to block the flames from reaching your food, to have the Kamado function as a smoker.
The heat deflectors also work well to prevent grease and other drippings from falling directly onto the fire. This eliminates the risk of flare-ups, which would leave your food with an acrid taste.
Kamado grills have dampers at the bottom and at the top to regulate the airflow. This, in turn, helps to maintain and regulate the desired temperature. A small 18-inch diameter Kamado grill can cook around three 10-pound pork shoulders. Larger grills can hold more food.
- They are multipurpose units that can be set up for grilling, baking, searing, roasting and even making pizzas
- They are durable and can last many years if maintained well
- They provide effortless cooking since they can hold a constant temperature for long durations
- They are pretty compact, so you don’t have to worry about them taking up too much space on the patio
- Their prices are on the higher end of the spectrum
- Even though they are durable, they are made of ceramic, which makes them fragile. They need to be handled with care since they can crack if they’re knocked over
- If you overshoot the desired temperature while preheating them, it can take a long time to bring it back down
The Kamado Joe Classic
While there may very well be hundreds of Kamado grills out there, there is only one Big Joe, and that’s Kamado Joe Classic II. This grill is arguably the most versatile Kamado grill you'll ever come across. It's a one-stop-shop for everything. You can grill, bake, sear, roast, and if you’re hankering for a home-made pizza, Big Joe’s got you covered.
Perhaps one of the most interesting features about the Kamado Joe range of grills is their Divide and Conquer system. You can set up grilling racks at staggered heights and use the heat deflectors to create distinct heating zones for simultaneous direct and indirect cooking! So you can smoke and flame-grill at the same time, something you wouldn’t think is possible given its peculiar shape.
Therefore, unlike many other grills that are typically set up for grilling only or smoking only, Kamado Joe brings something a little different to the table. It’s a great grill and smoker for newbies and veterans alike.
7. Pellet Smokers
At first glance, pellet grills and smokers look a lot like their offset counterparts discussed in the earlier section. The difference between the two, however, is that pellet smokers are super high-tech!
If you want to enjoy the mouthwatering goodness of charcoal-grilled or smoked meat without having to hover over it for hours on end just to make sure everything is going right, then a pellet grill is just what the doctor ordered. No more babysitting your food as it cooks.
How They Work
Pellet smokers run on both electricity and firepower. They also have an electronic thermostat and a temperature gauge inside the cooking chamber. All you have to do is set it to the desired temperature and let it work its magic. It functions a lot like an oven.
In pellet smokers, the firebox that you would otherwise find attached to the side of the cooking chambers in offsets is replaced by a hopper. This gets filled with wood pellets that are made from compressed sawdust. An auger feeds these pellets to a firebox located inside the cooking chamber.
The electronic thermostat regulates the speed at which the auger feeds the pellets to maintain the desired temperature in the cooking chamber. The smoke from the burning pellets in the firebox engulfs the food to flavor the meat beautifully.
- They come in different sizes. Larger units can comfortably cook more than 10 pork shoulders at a go
- They are easy to use and don’t require a lot of effort to operate. Simply set the desired settings, fill the hopper with wood pellets and you can go attend to something else
- Pellet smokers don’t come cheap. They are no doubt one of the most expensive pieces of equipment you’ll come across
- While it’s certainly a great hands-free option, it’s still possible for the smoker to run out of wood pellets especially in cold and/or windy weather while you’re in the middle of cooking
- If the wood pellets are left in the hopper in humid conditions, they absorb moisture which makes it difficult for them to fire up and stay lit as they should
- Pellet grills have a lot of mechanical parts and electrical components which have the potential to fail
- Getting replacement parts for these components can be difficult
- Most units are typically designed for exclusive smoking. However, others like the Twin Eagles Wood Fired Pellet Smoker also doubles up as a grill
Infuse a Little Flavor Into Your Life
The flavor you get from smoking your meat is unrivaled. Once you’ve mastered this unique skill, you’ll get to revel in the finest food you’ve ever tasted. One way to do this would be to make sure that you have the right equipment, and this involves getting a barbecue smoker.
With so many different types of smokers in the market to choose from, picking the right one can get pretty overwhelming. Ultimately, the decision rests on the size of your budget and how important convenience is to you. We hope this guide makes things a little easier.
Are you trying to decide on the right wood for your smoker? Check out the smoking wood chart on our blog to gain a little insight.