Nov 19, 2017

Want to start smoking meat? What kind of Smoker should you get.

Did you know that smoking meat is one of the fastest growing culinary hobbies? There is good reason, it is easy and it makes great food! Obviously, you need a smoker. The problem is there are several different kinds and all have their strengths and weaknesses. It really depends on what kind of smoking do you want to do and what features do you want. I will walk through the basic types of smokers and give you my humble opinion about their benefits and limitations.
Electric Smokers:
These usually look like a small cabinet. They have an electric heating element and either use wood chips that are smoldered by the element or wood pucks that drop to a smoking element.
Pros:
  • They are reasonably inexpensive.
  • They are inexpensive to run.
  • Some come with thermostats that let you set and forget them.
  • You can operate them at low temperatures.
Cons:
  • They are usually smaller and it may be difficult to fit a large turkey or piece of meat in.
  • If they use wood chips, you have to reload often.
  • They won't heat up to higher temperatures.
  • They usually don't give a smoke ring to meat.
Electric smokers are great for any kind of low and slow cooking like ribs, pulled pork or brisket. They are perfect for cooking homemade sausages at low temperatures. They are not good for cooking chicken or roasts at higher temperatures to get crisp skin or a well browned surface.
Bullet Smokers:
Bullet smokers are tube shaped with a dome top. They usually operate by filling a pan with lit charcoal and another pan with water. Smoke is generated by wood chips in a pan or by chunks of wood on the coals. The temperature in the smoker is controlled by the amount of charcoal that is lit and opening and closing draft plates to control airflow.
Pros:
  • They are relatively inexpensive to purchase.
  • They are relatively inexpensive to operate.
  • They can operate from low to high temperatures.
Cons:
  • A poorly made inexpensive bullet smoker is not well sealed and is very difficult to control temperatures on. This does not apply to higher quality models.
  • It takes practice to get the temperatures right and they unit needs to be monitored to keep the temperatures constant.
  • They aren't very big and it may be difficult to fit items like full racks of ribs in the smoker.
  • You have to work with and light charcoal manually.
Bullet smokers are great for all kinds of smoking but are finicky and must be watched when trying to do very low temperatures which makes smoking temperature sensitive items like home made sausage difficult. They do a great job of typical low and slow items like pulled pork and brisket. You can also get enough heat for crisp skinned chicken and well browned meat.
Pellet Smokers:
Most pellet smokers look like a barrel lying on its side with a box attached at one end. The smoker operates by burning hardwood pellets to generate heat. The pellets are put in a box and an auger pushes them into a fire box. Most modern pellet smokers have automatic igniters and thermostatic control of the auger so you can set a temperature and let the unit run without frequent supervision.
Pros:
  • They are almost as easy to use as your oven. You turn it on and set the temperature. You just have to keep the hopper full of pellets.
  • They will operate at very high temperatures for searing meat.
  • The temperature control is good enough to do some baking in the smoker.
  • They have lots of room for large cuts of meat.
Cons:
  • They are among the most expensive of the units to buy.
  • The pellets are one of the most expensive methods of generating heat.
  • The smoker does not operate at low temperatures making low temperature sausage smoking difficult.
  • As the pellet smoker burns pellets for heat, you get less smoke than you would from smoldering chips or chunks. At lower temperatures, the smoke is adequate, but there is less smoke at higher temperatures.
The good temperature control of pellet smokers makes them a good choice for all kinds of smoking. The one exception is very low temperatures so low temperature smoking of sausages is a problem.
Stick Burners:
Stick burners are usually a barrel shape on its side with a box or smaller barrel on one side. A fire is built in the small box and allowed to burn down. The heat and smoke is drawn through the larger barrel. Heat is controlled by the amount of fuel and using draft plates to control air flow.
Pros:
  • There is a cool factor to using a stick burner. Some consider it to be the only real smoking.
  • Operate from low to high temperatures.
  • They have lots of room for large cuts of meat.
Cons:
  • A decent unit is quite expensive. There are cheaper units but don't buy one. If the unit is not well built, it will not allow proper air control and temperature control. Also, cheaper units have significant hot and cold spots in the chamber.
  • Finding hardwood to burn in the unit can be difficult and expensive.
  • You have to learn how to start the firebox and control it. You need to monitor the smoke.
Stick burners are good for regular low and slow smokes and can be fired up to higher temperatures. They are more difficult to operate at really low temperatures but can do so with practice.

Summary
This is not an exhaustive list, just a general guide. Use it to get an idea of which kind of unit you would like and then go to manufacturer's sites and smoking forums to get details on different units before you commit to a smoker.
The Old Fat Guy
My food blog: http://oldfatguy.ca
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I can't ENTIRELY agree w/ the characterizations of the various smokers from the OP, but he makes some good points.

I started with one of the cheap, 'bullet' type smokers years ago (non-electric) and found it completely inadequate; the temps would vary widely & wildly. Then I added an 'Alton Brown style) electric plate & wood chips at the bottom, and got decent results, but again the temps were not consistent and it requires attention. That's OK for a pork butt, but much more problematic for ribs or esp (hot-smoked) salmon. A couple years ago I got an electric 'box' type smoker from Masterbuilt. Works great, hold a LOT of meat, holds temps very well. The main limitation is that it can't 'cold smoke' well.

I've owned 2 Komado's and these are really technically ceramic ovens [great for 1 constant temp]. They are remarkably fuel efficient, hold temps evenly enough to bake bread loaves(!!!) and can reach high steak-house searing temps. KOMADOs ARE NOT ADEQUATE SMOKERS. They can impart a *little* smokiness by use if a metal box wood-chip holder. I wouldn't think of grilling steaks or lamb w/o the komado, and the summer pizzas w/ a smokey edge are fantastic, BUT I would never consider cooking a slow smoked pork butt or salmon in a komado They just don't hold low temps well, not are they particularly good at generating smoke, and there is too much radiant heat. Komados do OK w/ ribs, but frankly I still prefer the Masterbuilt for everything ribs, except the hot finish. There are temp/air-blower controllers for Komados that likely address some of my temperaure objections but I just don't see komados in the role of convenient smoker. [If you find the BGE & Visions Komado prices off-putting, then look into the Akorn/Char-Griller alternatives for $150-$300. They are IMO 90% of the value for ~25% of the price.].

Now if you could combine a komado, with a temp controller and a cold-smoke generator - that could rule.
steveja
I have friends who have Komados and say pretty much what you say. Same for the bullet smokers except the high end ones. I have buddies who use a WSM with great results.
TheOldFatGuy
Seems a LOT of ppl make a religion (as in all faith and no reliance on evidence, "I posses the one-true-smoker, everything else is junk" theology.) wrt smokers & BBQ. I have no doubt that WSM makes a great smoker, but Masterbuilt can do very well well too. BTW yes, you can get great rings in an electric, tho' it's a pointless exercise IMO . In any case a good smoker needs enough racks to hold a good deal of meat. It's pretty silly to waste all that time & wood on one bird or a couple racks of ribs Unless you have oodles of free time, some sort of electric control system is highly desirable, almost a necessity IMO.

As long a I'm busting statues (iconoclasm), I might as well get my pet peeve in the table. I'm a "modernist cuisine" type. I believe we need more science in cooking. . Anyway the common folklore about "marinades" is 100% wrong. Salt (as in brining or curing) has an impact on meat, and acids have an impact on meat (often undesirable), phosphates for commercial use too - and VERY FEW other things have even the least impact. Slathering on (most) spices, sugar & oil for a long marinade is a total waste of time. Those things simply do not penetrate meat. You can add then 5 minutes before you cook. It's provable in your own backyard/kitchen.

It appears that spiced w/ eugenol (like cloves) actually will penetrate meat a bit, but that's not a direction that interests me.
I started with a Weber Smokey Mountain, and never looked back. Took me three or four tries to dial it in, but two years on, it's amazing how many neighbors "drop by" when I'm smoking. I have a family of five, so I got the biggest WSM, and am glad I did. A smoker and a freezer make a very economical way to cook a lot of meat, and have quick, high quality meals when things are busy.
GunsOfBrixton
Every one I know with a Weber Smokey Mountain speaks highly of it! I'm not surprised neighbours drop by. By the way, what is your address?
TheOldFatGuy
Ha! Nicely done! Yeah, if you're willing to put in the effort to learn how to use it, the payoff with a WSM is well worth it.
I have a small electric smoker, its stainless steel and looks like a high end dorm refrigerator on wheels. I just plug it in, set the dial and add the wood. I wait 20 minutes or so and it is ready to go. I can leave it plugged in while I am away (outside obviously) or overnight. There is really no maintenance and no messing with it for the most part. It is big enough for a whole turkey or several racks of flatter things like ribs and brisket. I know some Smoking Snobs who turn their nose up a little at this but I have other things today besides tend a fire and monitor temps for 5-8 hours :). The results are not contest winning but as good as or better than the BBQ joints I would go to.
Flint73
Link to the smoker I decided to get, have had it for 4 years and no maintenance other than the initial 2 hours seasoning .
http://www.smokin-it.com/Smoker-p/smkmdl1.htm
Flint73
You get no argument from me. I used an electric cabinet smoker for years and made great food! Tell any snobs you will give their opinion the weight that is due, ignore them and put some more ribs in the smoker!
I see that you didn't include the ceramic smokers. We have a Big Green Egg, 5 to be exact and a reverse smoker, the cons of the egg, its expensive,and pros are you can smoke,bake,grill, and even smoke cheese and butter.
ernestina
Also great for cooking pizza, you can get the temperatures really high
Google the Alton Brown Hotplate smoker if you are on a budget and want to do DYI.

That design works great, and the only thing it is really bad at is low temp smoking.
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Rgconner
LOVE A.B.!
Rgconner
His smoked salmon is what got me into smoking meat in the first place. Now I've got pulled pork, ribs, and brisket on lockdown, and I'm starting to smoke cheese. AB/Good Eats is a cooking gateway drug.
I've got the Weber what's-its-name bullet-style smoker.
It's really quite easy to use and reliable, but definitely needs some monitoring and air flow adjustments to keep a more-or less constant temperature.

I usually add a chunk of hardwood to the charcoal, but just the charcoal already generates enough smoke to give flavour to your meat. So I'd say the wood is optional.

The construction is quite good. It feels sturdy and is reasonably practical to operate and clean up. It also has the advantage of having a much smaller footprint than most of the other non bullet options, which is nice if you don't have a big garden. It is also easily transportable. The capacity is still good enough thanks to the fact that mean can be put on two levels. Also, it comes in various sizes.

All in all, would definitely recommend it for someone looking for a first smoker.
Klikitiklak
The Webber Smokey Mountain series has a great well earned reputation. I know several people who use one and speak very highly of them. Even better, the food tastes great!
I bought a slow and sear for my Weber kettle and it will run 8 straight hours on a load of charcoal. Love it. Capacity isn't the biggest and switched to a 26' model, since I already had it not much of a layout. Heard great things about pit barrel cookers, also have to have a good set of thermometers, mine are from thermowerks.
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I haven't really tried below 225, that's with the top vent fully open and the bottom 1/4 open but find 225 to 250 pretty simple to hold it at. It works great imo. The water reservoir last about 4 hours, so adding water is needed unless you put an additional pan in, which I do. 8 hours is Max though, sometimes 7 depending. The sear is awesome, they have a bigger model for my 26, I use the 22 ' model because that's what I have. With the 26 there is more space away from the heat so it might be possible. I am trying an amazin smoker tray with pellets but haven't dialed it in instead of wood chunks in the charcoal. Also double 18lb bags at home Depot and Lowe's are available alot at 10 bucks occasionally through the year. Rant over
jmyers
That really sounds great! One the hardest thing to do in some smokers is to low and slow and then sear.

I use an A-Maze-N pellet smoker tray for light smoke and their tube for heavier smoke and higher heats. You will love it. I also use them to cold smoke cheese. So tasty.
Amen on the cost of the pellets. They do add up. As for your choice, be easy on yourself, do both!