When you start looking into the best type of smoker or what type of smoker should I buy, the info you’ll get will be a bit overwhelming to say the least. From UDS’s (ugly drum smokers), to propane box smokers, offset smokers, kamado smokers, portable smokers and electric varieties, there’s enough choice to make your head spin and keep your backyard empty.
The reality is that it’s all about finding the best type of smoker for YOU and your needs. Your experience level, how much time you want to spend smoking, your preferred fuel type and how much space you’ve got to house it are all factors you should consider before shopping further.
So, in this article, you’ll find an outline of the major types of smokers along with the pros and cons of each to help you make an informed choice. We’ve also included links to our best of reviews and a direct line to shop our favorite smokers of each type.
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What is an Offset Smoker?
An offset smoker is simple, two-piece smoker that originated from the Texas oil fields and is commonly thought of as the most traditional type of smoker. You’ll also hear them being called barrel smokers, horizontal smokers, pipe smokers or stick burners. They’re all the same thing.
With a basic set-up where a smaller pipe or box houses the fire and feeds smoke through holes into a larger cooking pipe or box, offset smokers use indirect heat and smoke to cook almost anything low-and-slow to perfection.
Offset smokers are a top weapon of choice on the competitive barbecue circuit. They run off charcoal and/or real wood, and, although they do take a bit of practice to master, there’s no reason you can’t be your own backyard pit master on one of these baby’s.
Grilling on an Offset Smoker
While you can’t grill well on a lot of smokers, the setup of an offset smoker allows this as an added bonus. Simply open the firebox and grill directly over the flames while you smoke. Or, fill the cooking chamber with charcoal and/or wood to make yourself a large grilling pit.
Pros of Using an Offset Smoker:
- Makes hands-down, incredible, authentic smoked meat
- Can be used for grilling too
- Usually has a large cooking chamber suitable for big cuts of meat or the whole fam
- Because you build and maintain the fire, you have total control over the temperature and/or smoke levels
- The separate firebox means that you won’t disrupt the temperature and smoke in the cooking chamber when you add more fuel
- There’s nothing electronic to break
- A quality offset smoker can last a lifetime with proper TLC
Cons of Using an Offset Smoker:
- It takes practice to get used to where to position the meat and how big/how often to fuel the fire to keep the temperature where you want it
- Cheaper offset smokers made from thinner metal don’t retain the heat well for cooking in cooler climates
- Horizontal offset smokers take up quite a bit of space in your backyard
- It takes a good 30 minutes to get the fire started and heat up the cooking chamber
- They’re NOT a set and forget smoker! – You will need to tend to it regularly throughout the cook
- They are susceptible to smoke leakages
- Heavier, non-portable design that you won’t want to move too often
Who Should Buy an Offset Smoker?
Offset smokers are the ideal barbecue for anyone who wants versatility and mouthwatering results but doesn’t mind spending the extra time and effort required to get them.
Learn More About and Shop the Best Offset Smokers
What is a Pellet Smoker?
If you like the traditional wood-smoked taste but aren’t too keen on the dedication that an offset smoker demands, a pellet smoker is the answer to your prayers!
Using one of these innovative machines is a true set and forget smoking experience. And, although the results aren’t exactly the same as you’d get on a stick burner, pellet smokers are being used more and more often on the competitive circuit simply because they’re top-notch.
Although a pellet smoker looks very similar to an offset smoker, they work quite differently. While both have two separate chambers, the smaller of the two on a pellet smoker is actually the pellet hopper. This holds compressed hardwood sawdust that is fed into the bottom of the cooking chamber by an auger. The pellets are then lit by a hot rod and a fan helps to keep the fire going while also distributing heat and smoke evenly around the cooking chamber, much like a regular oven works.
There’s a drip tray that sits over the pellet fire to diffuse direct heat and prevent flare-ups that naturally tarnish the flavor of your ‘cue.
All of this is automated by an electronic temperature monitoring system so you can watch the game, chat with the boys, or, even clean up the yard if you really must.
Some people criticize pellet smokers because they’re too darn easy. But we love em’! What’s wrong with using a bit of technology to make smoking easier and your results better?!?
Grilling on a Pellet Smoker
Because pellet smokers are usually set up with a heat diffusing plate and a convection fan to circulate even heat, they’re usually not suitable for grilling on.
But, there are some pellet smokers that have grilling features built into them. If you want to grill on your pellet smoker too, look for a model like the Memphis Grills Pro, that has a sliding plate to allow you to grill directly over the pellet fire. Or, the Camp Chef SmokePro has a propane operated side sear box that lets you grill without disturbing the rest of your setup.
Pros of Using a Pellet Smoker:
- True set and forget smoker
- Easy to use
- Consistently great results
- True wood smoked flavor
- Uses a natural fuel
- Fuel efficient as exactly the right amount of pellets are automatically fed into the fire to maintain your required temperature
- Large cooking capacity
- Some models an be used for grilling as well
- Many models have integrated internal meat temperature monitoring with smartphone WiFi apps that give you precise control over your cook
Cons of Using a Pellet Smoker:
- The flavor of your meat is directly tied to the type of pellets you use – you can’t just throw some different wood chips in with your charcoal
- Some people find the taste too smoky while others find it not smoky enough for their liking
- It’s not a traditional smoking experience
- Most models can’t be used for grilling as well – they’re dedicated low and slow smokers
- You need to have access to power to run the temperature control center, auger and fan
Who Should Use a Pellet Smoker?
Pellet smokers are perfect for anyone who wants competition-worthy barbecue in their backyard without having to spend hours slaving over it.
Learn More About and Shop the Best Pellet Smokers
Kamado Grills and Smokers
What is a Kamado Grill?
A kamado grill or kamado smoker is a modern take on a clay dome-style oven that was used more than 3,000 years ago in many early civilizations. During WWII, Ed Fisher, the man behind the Big Green Egg, brought the concept back to the States and it became the glazed ceramic oval shaped backyard grill and smoker that it’s known as today.
While most kamado’s are still made from thick ceramic that’s so good at holding the heat that it doesn’t use much fuel, some are made from lighter materials such as insulated double walled stainless steel.
Kamado grills run on charcoal lumps or briquettes that are placed in the bottom half of the kamado. The heat and smoke can either be used to grill directly over. Or, a diffuser plate can be inserted to distribute the heat for a low and slow smoke. Kamado grills are extremely versatile. There’s not much that you can’t cook on one.
Smoking on a Kamado Grill
While a kamado grill’s primary job is to grill over direct heat, they’re also excellent backyard smokers. Simply insert a heat deflector plate over your fire and you’ll have a perfect smoky space to slow cook a brisket, pork butt or a chicken.
Just note – Not all kamado grills come with a heat deflecting plate. Some brands and packages include them as standard. Others don’t so it’s an optional extra you’ll have to add on.
Pros of Using a Kamado Grill:
- They’re extremely versatile – you can grill, smoke, sear and bake all on the one barbecue
- Relatively easy to use
- Oval-shaped design absorbs heat and radiates it back onto your food for a 360 degree cooking environment
- Fuel efficient
- Suitable for cooler climates due to excellent heat retention
- Takes up less room than offset style smokers
- Can be built into an outdoor kitchen
Cons of Using a Kamado Grill:
- Offers a smaller cooking capacity than other smokers
- It takes a while for the thick ceramic walls to heat up and be ready to cook
- You need to be careful not to overshoot your target temperature as the ceramic walls take a while to cool down
- They’re heavy and difficult to move
- Ceramic material is susceptible to cracking if it’s too hot
- Can create dangerous flashbacks by having the lid and vents closed, starving the fire of oxygen and then opening the lid suddenly
Who Should Use a Kamado Grill?
If you’re looking for a barbecue that’s versatile, easy to use, doesn’t take up much space and will keep going for years, a kamado grill is the ‘cue for you.
Learn More About and Shop the Best Kamado Grills
What is an Electric Smoker?
Electric smokers work in a similar way to your regular oven. Electricity powers a heating element that’s housed inside an insulated box along with your cooking area.
Because there’s no fire, any smoky flavor you want has to be created by adding wood chips to a tray above the heating element. Being so close to the heat makes them smoulder and release fragrance that’s then imparted in the meat.
Even though electric smokers are like an oven, most are for outdoor use only. This means you’ll need access to power on your patio. Or, portable models can be connected to your car and/or battery via an inverter.
If you’re wondering about the results you can get in an electric smoker vs. using a smoker with a real flame, no, don’t expect the same level of greatness. Electric smokers can’t create the same sort of smoke ring or crispy bark that are bi-products of the natural combustion process. That being said, if you live in an apartment or condo where you’re not allowed to have an open flame, or, you simply want the convenience of plug and play, electric smokers are still an excellent option that are quite capable of producing delicious meals.
Grilling on an Electric Smoker
Electric smokers are designed to keep the temperature low and slow. That means that they’re dedicated smokers and you CAN’T grill on them as well.
Pros of Using an Electric Smoker:
- No hassle of trying to light a fire
- Cheap to run
- You don’t need to have fuel handy (well apart from having access to power)
- They’re suitable for using in apartments and other residential areas where fires aren’t permitted
- Many double as a portable smoker as well
- Temperature control is automated
- Easy to use
- There are some great commercial and semi-pro electric smokers you can use at home
Cons of Using an Electric Smoker:
- Doesn’t taste the same as meat smoked over a real fire
- It’s very difficult/impossible to create a smoke ring and perfect bark
- Not suitable for grilling
- Can’t set up multiple heat zones as the temperature is regulated throughout
- Must have access to power
- Many have small water and wood chip trays that require you to add more fuel reasonably frequently
Who Should Use an Electric Smoker?
Electric smokers are an ideal, and often the only option for people who want to smoke meat on an apartment balcony or patio where open flames aren’t permitted.
Learn More About and Shop the Best Kamado Grills
What is a Gas Smoker?
Gas smokers make use of a vertical, cabinet-style design with a gas bottle connected to a burner at the bottom of the cooking chamber. Above that sits a tray or two trays; one for some water and the other for wood chips to add that smoky flavor to your food.
Because they’re run off propane, gas smokers are portable. But, you might want to opt for a smaller model if you’re planning on taking it camping.
Unlike electric smokers, most gas smokers don’t do automatic temperature regulation. Instead, you need to give it enough gas to heat and maintain the temperature you’d like and make any adjustments necessary throughout the cook e.g. bump it up if the weather cools down while you’re cooking. Some newer models such as the Masterbuilt ThermoTemp Propane Smoker do regulate the temperature throughout the cook for you for a complete set and forget experience.
And, if you’re dreaming of hooking up your gas smoker to the mains at home, just be aware that most gas smokers are set up for propane only. The exception to this is the Camp Chef Smoke Vault which has an optional natural gas conversion kit you can use to tap into the mains.
Grilling on a Gas Smoker
Although it would be nice if your gas smoker could double as a gas grill, most don’t. Because the burner is situated at the bottom of the cooking chamber, inside the cabinet, it’s not easy to just whip the trays out and cook up a steak.
But, because you’ll already be set up with propane bottles, you could just invest in a separate gas grill as well.
Pros of Using a Gas Smoker:
- Easy to use
- Fast to set up and reach a good cooking temperature
- Small footprint for a large cooking capacity
- Fuel efficient
- Clean burning which reduces soot deposits on your food
Cons of Using a Gas Smoker:
- Most require manual setting of the temperature
- Most propane smokers can’t use natural gas as well
- Most don’t work as a gas grill as well
- Cheaper models are made of thin metal and often don’t seal well which means they’re not very efficient in cooler climates
- You might need to swap tanks of gas during long cooks
Who Should Use a Gas Smoker?
Propane smokers are ideal for anyone who wants a fuel efficient smoker that’s easy to use and does double as a portable unit. They’re also great for anyone who’s already got a gas grill and wants to use their propane bottles in a dedicated smoker as well.
Learn More About and Shop the Best Kamado Grills
Vertical Charcoal Smokers
What is a Vertical Charcoal Smoker?
In addition to electric and propane smokers that have a vertical design, there are also these more basic vertical charcoal smokers that offer a true open fired smoking experience in a convenient upright design.
Vertical charcoal smokers are therefore a catch-all term for all of the other vertical smokers on the market. This includes ugly drum smokers (UDS), charcoal cabinet smokers and water smokers.
But, whatever the outside looks like, what’s going on inside any of these barbecues is pretty much the same. At the bottom of the pit, there’s space for a charcoal fire. Get this going and hang or set your meat out above it on racks. Some vertical charcoal smokers have a water tray and/or tray for wood chips as well. Others don’t.
Regardless, they’re well designed smokers that are usually very affordable and do a good job at turning out delicious smoked meat.
Grilling on a Vertical Charcoal Smoker
You could technically grill on a vertical charcoal smoker. After all, it is just a fire with a grate over it. But, because of their vertical design and placement of the fire well below the cooking racks to create that indirect heat needed for smoking, it is a bit tricky.
Basically, we wouldn’t recommend it but you could if you were desperate. Buying a simple kettle barbecue in addition to your dedicated vertical charcoal smoker would be a better solution for those who want to smoke and grill.
Pros of Using a Vertical Smoker:
- Simple to use
- Small footprint
- Decent cooking capacity
- Technically portable although this will depend on how big your vertical smoker is and what you’re transporting it on
- Capable of producing competition-quality meats
Cons of Using a Vertical Smoker:
- If your vertical smoker doesn’t have a separate fuel door, it can be hard to add coals mid-smoker
- You might need to clear ash mid-cook as it can pile up and cause the temperature to drop
- Depending on your meat arrangement, you might benefit from investing in some long sleeved high-heat gloves so you don’t burn yourself getting meat out
- Can be prone to smoke leakages
Who Should Use a Vertical Charcoal Smoker?
If you’re looking for a dedicated smoker that’s not going to break the budget, don’t mind that they’re a little more hands on and don’t want any fancy features then a vertical charcoal smoker is an excellent addition to your backyard.
Learn More About and Shop the Best Vertical Grills
What is a Kettle Barbecue?
Now, don’t get us wrong, a kettle barbecue IS NOT really a smoker. But, we’ve included them in this article about the best type of smokers because you can turn out some pretty good low and slow cooked meals on them.
A kettle barbecue is a basic dome-shaped dish with a lid. When you think kettle barbecue, you probably think Weber because they’re the brand behind the world’s most iconic kettle barbecues.
And, there’s a reason that they’re so popular. The simple design of a kettle barbecue makes them inexpensive, easy to use, portable and versatile. They’re technically designed for simple grilling over a charcoal fire. But, by arranging the coals in the right place, you can smoke quite well on the one ‘cue which makes these barbecues a favorite for so many people.
Smoking on a Kettle Barbecue
Learning to smoke on a kettle barbecue does take a bit of practice. But, it’s also not that hard. And, you can turn out some pretty darn good smoked meats on one of these basic units, especially if you’ve got a larger one.
For a complete run-down of how to smoke on a kettle barbecue, click on the link.
Pros of Using a Kettle Barbecue:
- They’re cheap
- Can be used for grilling and smoking
- Easy to use
- Don’t take up much room
Cons of Using a Kettle Barbecue:
- Takes a bit of practice to perfect the art of how to smoke on a kettle barbecue
- Smaller cooking capacity than some other smokers
- In most kettle barbecues you’ll have to lift the cooking grate to add more fuel below which is annoying if it’s full of meat
Who Should Use a Kettle Barbecue?
Kettle barbecues are an awesome choice for anyone who wants a durable and inexpensive grill that doesn’t take up a lot of space and has the added bonus of doubling as a smoker.