Smoker Buying Guide
So you are thinking about buying a grill or smoker. There are a lot of smokers out there so you better know what you are getting yourself into before you start pulling out your money. Just to make sure we are on the same page here, the smoker I am taking about is the hot, cooking smoker used to make true barbecue as well as foods like pastrami, smoked turkey and other items. These hot smokers come in many shapes and sizes and can be powered by a wide range of fuels. So if you want to make some good barbecue then you need a smoker.
Smokers can be had for as little as about $50USD of for $10,000 or more. If you are not sure you want to do a lot of smoking and don’t want to invest a lot of money before you find out then I recommend getting a small, vertical water smoker. These are the least expensive smokers you can buy and will let you know whether you want to invest more later or not. You can do good barbecue in these smokers and for many it is the only smoker you would ever need. However, there is a lot more to smokers than these simply units. I have recommendations of the best smokers broken down between the lower priced units and the more expensive:
Fuel for Smokers
Smokers can be fueled by charcoal, hardwood, electricity, wood pellets and propane. There are advantages (and some disadvantages) to these different fuels. Charcoal and wood smokers are more traditional and typically provide a more authentic flavor to your cooking. The cheapest smokers on the market at usually charcoal, but some of the most expensive use charcoal as well. Electric smokers are the most convenient smokers but many lack authentic flavor. There are computer controlled electric smokers that allow you to set up the smoker and let it run until the food is ready (like the Cookshack Amerique).
Pellet smokers (like Traeger) are electrically powered but burn wood pellets to provide heat and smoke. These units can be as convenient as any electric smoker, but give you the flavor of the best charcoal/hardwood smokers. Propane smokers typically heat faster and easier than electric smokers but are still easy to use. Depending on the price you can get a smoker that gives great barbecue with very little effort. One question you want to answer is how involved do you want to be in the process. Barbecue is a long and noble tradition of people sitting by the fire making great food. So, do you want to set it and forget it or do you want to take an active part in the food you cook.
The smallest smokers can produce enough food for a large family (maybe as many as 20 people). The largest smokers make enough barbecue to cater a party all day long. It is important that you consider how much barbecue you want to make before you buy.
If you are only going to be smoking for the family on the weekend then a small unit will be enough. If you want to be able to smoke for the company party then you will need a lot more space. Most smokers will tell you how much food you can prepare. As a general rule of thumb you need 1 pound of meat (raw) per person. That can mean a lot of food.
There are a number of units on the market that can smoke and grill. If you want to be able to have the best of both worlds then these are the units for you. Charcoal units, like the Big Green Egg are the most common of this kind of multipurpose smoker. While many of the lower prices units will promise this feature be aware that take a great design to be both a good smoker and a good grill. Most of the lower prices do one or the other well but not both.
Smoker Name Brands
While you may not recognize the names stamped on many smokers I do recommend that you look into the company that produces the smoker you want to buy. There are a number of “generic” units available these days that come from brand names that are simply store brands.
These units offer no future of service or support. When you find a smoker that looks good to you, put that name into your browser search engine and see what others have to say about it. I have some smoker reviews that might help you find the smoker you want.
Before You Buy a Smoker
Smokers come in all shapes, sizes and prices. When looking to buy a smoker you need to decide on a price range and then determine the fuel you want to use. Smokers can be gas, wood, charcoal or electric. The truer the barbecue the more time you will spend tending to fires and watching temperatures. If that doesn’t sound good you should move towards gas or electric smokers. Otherwise go with charcoal or wood smokers. There are a lot of units out there and I’ve tried to find the best.
Smokers under $400
If you are new to smoking or on a budget you should aim towards a lower priced smoker. These units have all the variety but no the big price tags. Any one of these would be good to start out with. If you don’t think you have the patience to tend a fire then choose a gas or electric smoker that will meet you needs. If you really get hooked on barbecue then you can always buy a bigger and better smoker later, but these units are the best in their price range.
Smokers over $400
If you have the cash to spend, these are the best smokers on the market. Prices can easily go well over $1,000 but you will get the ability to smoke lots of food at once and have the best equipment to do it with. These units represent the full range of smokers from electric to hardwood so you can find a smoker that not only meets your needs but also you desire to tend fires. Many of these units are used on the competition circuits to make award winning barbecue.
Smokers are amongst the most diverse products you can buy. Partly because of the number of fuels or energy sources they can use and partly because smoking can mean anything from traditional barbecue cooked around 225 degrees F to cold smoking for things like fish, cheese or jerky that can be done as low or lower than 60 degrees F.
Most electric smokers try to do it all and this can be their strength or their weakness. The great strength, however, of a good electric smoker is its automation. Most good, and generally more expensive, electric smokers let you select a temperature, and even a time and you load it up and turn it on. They are nearly as easy to use as a microwave.