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.
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.
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.
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 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.
They are relatively inexpensive to purchase.
They are relatively inexpensive to operate.
They can operate from low to high temperatures.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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