Before being introduced to the world of competitive barbecuing by Fine Cooking contributor and barbecue champion Paul Kirk, I’d have thought a smoker was a specialized piece of equipment used to smoke ham, bacon, and salmon. I’ve since learned that a smoker, called a “cooker” by barbecue aficionados, does all that, but it’s also used to make real barbecue: tangy pulled pork, tender ribs, smoky brisket—foods that make your mouth water and your heart sing. At competitions, you’ll see giant customized cookers, built to hold ten briskets, ten whole chickens, and a dozen racks of ribs—all at one time. But that’s far from the only option in smokers. There are many models that are easy to use and suitably sized—and priced—for the backyard or rooftop.
Things to consider before you buy
Barbecuing means cooking food long and slow over indirect heat (as opposed to grilling, which means cooking directly over high heat for a short time). You can barbecue just about anything—I’ve seen recipes for rice, sea scallops, even olives—but the heart of the matter lies with meat. When barbecued, cuts of meat—generally the less expensive but more flavorful cuts, like shoulder and butt—render their fat, absorb the flavor of the smoke, and become fall-off-the-bone tender. “You can use a covered grill,” says Bill Jamison, who with his wife, Cheryl, wrote Smoke & Spice and Sublime Smoke (see below for more on how to barbecue with a kettle grill). But if you really love barbecue, “the best thing to do is to get a dedicated smoker.”
There are basically three styles of smoker: water smokers, charcoal grills and ovens, and log pits. Most barbecue pros prefer log pits, but there are fans of each style. As Paul Kirk notes, “Any pit you can control the temperature on is a good pit.” The illustrations and text below show you how the different styles work and suggest things to consider when buying that style of smoker.
Some topics to consider as you narrow the field:
How serious are you about barbecue? (Translation: how much do you want to spend?) If you already cook outside a lot and love the smoky flavor of real barbecue, you’ll likely use a smoker often. Most folks get their feet wet with an inexpensive water smoker, like those made by Brinkmann and Coleman (800-527-0717), which cost under $50. As they find they want to barbecue larger quantities of food with better control, they upgrade either to a pricier, better-built water smoker, like Weber’s Smokey Mountain Cooker, or to a log pit.
How much food do you want to barbecue at one time? Think about how many people you cook for and how often you entertain. Most people err on the side of buying a smoker that’s too small; remember that the smoke needs room to circulate, so you can’t pack the cooking area too full.
Do you enjoy tending a fire? For many people, tending to a fire is what barbecue is all about. To suggest an alternate heat source amounts to blasphemy. And certainly the best smoke comes from wood. All that aside, you may want to consider an electric smoker, which keeps the heat steady with minimal attention. A style not illustrated here, for example, is Cookshack’s electric oven, which has racks for the food and an electrically heated wood box; you turn it on and don’t touch it again until the food’s done (home models start at $475). Inexpensive water smokers also come in electric models—the wood chips go on or near the electric element. An electric smoker may cost a bit more initially, but electricity is a cheaper fuel source than charcoal over the long run.
If you want to do more general research before buying a smoker, here are some good sources: Smoke & Spice and Sublime Smoke, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison; both books include more detail about the various smoker styles, as well as source information and many recipes. For a great overview of how log pits and water smokers work, check out www.barbecuen.com. For an in-depth look at various brands and models, visit www.eaglequest.com/~bbq.
How they work: Charcoal, gas, or electric heat source located at the bottom. Aromatic woods placed on or near the heat source produce smoke. Water pan directly above the heat source keeps temperature low, adds moisture, and catches fat and juices to keep them from burning. Food rests on grate above water pan. Many models can fit a turkey and a roast at the same time.
Price range: $40 to $80 for low-end models; $160 to $180 for premium models.
Things to look for: Ample air vents for temperature control; rustproof water pan; sturdy legs; stay-cool handles. Premium models should be made from heavy-gauge steel, come with a side fuel door to make adding fuel easier, and have heavy cooking grates.
Pros: Generally inexpensive, easy to set up, often come in easy to-use electric models, easily portable. Can also be used to steam foods, and some models double as grills.
Cons: Can’t use whole logs, which provide best smoke. Increased cooking time compared to log pits. Water in water pan can unintentionally steam food and may not provide a crisp finish (but you can cook without the water or remove it toward the end of cooking).
Charcoal grills and ovens
How they work: For a kettle-style grill, small charcoal fire and water pan on bottom grate. Wood chips or chunks go on coals to provide aromatic smoke. Food goes on opposite side of fire on top grate for indirect cooking. Temperature controlled by opening or closing top and bottom vents.
Price range: $100 and up for large kettle grills.
What to look for: Good construction, ample vents.
Pros: If you already own one, a low-cost introduction to smoking. Cons: Kettle grills as smokers offer very limited space for cooking. Need to lift lid to replenish coals and wood, which can drop temperature and increase cooking time.
Note: The Hasty-Bake Charcoal Oven, which acts as both a grill and a smoker, features a separate, adjustable firebox below the grill with a full-width door for easy access to the fire. A crank handle raises and lowers the firebox depending on whether you’re grilling or smoking. Prices begin at $800.
Log pits with offset firebox
How they work: Wood or charcoal contained in a separate fire chamber, away from food. Vented smokestack draws heat and smoke through the cooking chamber. Premium smokers designed to use whole logs as heat source; lower-end models generally use charcoal or wood chunks.
Price range: $180 to $200 for discountstore models, such as some New Braunfels (800/232-3398); $700 and up (way up) for heavy-duty or custom-made models, such as Oklahoma Joe’s (800/232-3398), Pitts & Spitts, and BBQ Pits by Klose
What to look for: The thickest metal and sturdiest construction you can afford. All parts should fit together without gaps and holes; avoid sharp edges and unwelded corners. Look for adjustable controls on the firebox (for controlling temperature). On premium models, look for thick (at least 1/4-inch) heavy-gauge metal, especially on the firebox; a smoke baffle between the firebox and cooking chamber for good smoke and heat distribution; an accurate industrial thermometer; a water reservoir with a drain; a pullout ash pan; and plenty of shelf and table space.
Pros: Can barbecue large quantities of food at one time and on a single level. Separate firebox makes tending the fire easier and more efficient. Height is more comfortable than most water smokers. Premium models can use whole logs in firebox and can last a lifetime.
Cons: Can be very expensive. Not as portable as smaller smokers. Can look big and bulky, depending on the size and style.