Finding the best small bbq smokers for the money isn’t hard, you just need to identify exactly what your needs are and find a good small bbq meat smoker that fits those needs perfectly. Whether you want a small bbq smoker because your space is limited or perhaps you want a portable bbq smoker the features you should look for are the same, the only real difference would be the type of fuel it uses (electric isn’t really portable). So, in this article we’ll go over some of the features you should look for and then we’ll find the best small bbq smoker in each fuel category that has the best features for the price.
What features are common to the best small bbq smokers?
Well, for a smoker to be a smoker it needs to be able to get to a low temperature and stay there without much temperature fluctuation. In addition it should be quite airtight, after all, you want to smoke the meat, not smoke out your neighbors. Considering the fact that even the smallest smoker cooking something as simple as a rack of ribs will need to cook for at least 4 hours (baby backs) it should be fuel efficient, especially if it’s a charcoal fueled smoker.
So, considering the above requirements you should look for…
- Good thick steel or coated porcelain walls to hold the heat.
- Quality nearly airtight construction to keep the smoke in and extra air out.
- Ability to cook for many hours with little fuel and easy to refuel for extra long smoke sessions.
There really isn’t much to finding a good quality small bbq smoker as the requirements are few. Keep in mind though that even the best barbecue GRILL fails at all three of these requirements, which is why nobody should barbecue meat on a grill.
Now let’s take a quick look at the different barbecue fuels available out there…
What are the different fuel choices for a good small bbq meat smoker?
There’s only three, but if you need a portable smoker it makes a difference.
First off there’s the old favorite, charcoal/wood. Barbecue vets will say this is the only way to smoke meat and get the true barbecue flavor. While this might be true, it’s also the most difficult way to bbq. You’ll need to tend to the smoker nearly constantly to get the temperature right and keep it there. These kinds of smokers are also very fickle on a windy day as any errant wind will stoke the fire and cause flareups (see point #2 above). In addition you’ll need to refuel every few hours. This type of smoker is best left for the barbecue purist who doesn’t mind the work. Before you go for a charcoal smoker consider this.. A 12 pound pork shoulder (for pulled pork) takes about 18 hours to cook. That means if you want it ready for Sunday dinner you’ll need to put it in the smoker at about 11pm on Saturday and you’ll need to watch it all night (probably two refuels also). Keep in mind cleanup takes a bit of work too. On the plus side a good small charcoal bbq smoker is very portable.
Next is propane. A small bbq smoker that uses propane is also quite portable. For very long smokes you’ll want an extra tank on standby since you can’t really run to the corner store for a refill (at least not here in NY). A good thing about propane smokers is that they heat quickly, can get up to high temperatures for grilling if necessary and aren’t really bothered by wind. Is it real bbq though? This is for the hands off guy who just wants some ribs once in a while.
Finally we have electric, a relative new comer to the bbq arena. These are definitely NOT portable at all. On the plus side you’ll never run out of fuel, unless you don’t pay your electric bill. There are some real drawbacks with an electric smoker however. The normally can’t get to high temperatures for grilling and can take quite a while to get to bbq temperature (225 degrees), in addition, they really can’t be used when it’s wet outside (rain or snow). What are they good for you ask? Cleanup is almost non-existent, just turn it off. You can also do very long cooks without the need to refuel.
Now that we know what features are required and what fuel types are out there let’s put these together to arrive at the best small bbq smoker in each category.
What are the three best small bbq smokers out there?
My criteria for this is simple. We’re looking for the best small bbq meat smokers, not the mediocre ones, so I’m looking for 4 stars or better consumer ratings. I’m also putting the price cap at about $300.
First up is the charcoal category, the clear winner here is the Weber Smokey Mountain. In fact this small bbq smoker is so good it’s a common sight at barbecue competitions. The shape is what’s known as a bullet, and as such it’ll hold heat remarkably well, in fact it’s common to get 8 or more hours cook time out of one load of lump charcoal, it’s that airtight and thick walled. This is great for it’s portability as well.
Next up we have the electric category. In my opinion the top small electric bbq smoker is the Bradley (pictured above under electric fuel type). Why? It’s ridiculously well sealed and thus gets to cooking temp and stays there, rock solid. Look at the seal on your refrigerator, that’s exactly how the Bradley door is made, like a refrigerator. In addition, all you ‘top chefs’ out there will love the wood hopper system on the left side, you can mix and match bbq wood pucks to your own desired flavor profile. Another great thing is the Bradley is able to do cold smoking, great for cheese or jerky, practically no other smoker can do this. This smoker has an unnatural capacity, I’ve done 2 pork butts and 4 racks of ribs at one time in mine. Cleanup takes about 10 minutes, which mostly consists of cleaning the drip tray and water pan. This isn’t portable but rocks for very long (pork butt/brisket) cooks.
Finally we have the propane category. The best choice here would be the Camp Chef 24″ smoker. Good thick steel walls and airtight construction. It’s even smaller than the Bradley. It can hit some high temperatures and is fairly easy to maintain at your desired temp. This one has great capacity and you can cook an unimaginable amount of food in it. A good second choice is the Bradley propane smoker, it’s biggest point is it’s ultra portable as it uses the small 1 pound propane tanks and a few batteries, this one has some temperature issues in very warm weather though, but if portability is your concern check it out.
Here’s a link to the Bradley propane smoker, it’s worth checking out if portability is what you want most.
I want to point out that I actually own the Weber and the Bradley. I use my WSM for ribs and other short smoke sessions, or when I go camping. The Bradley I use for very long cooks on the weekend and for making quick smoked meals during the week, where the cleanup time isn’t an issue. Try smoked meatloaf and you’ll be hooked. Also, I must say, the Weber and Camp Chef get very hot to the touch, a consideration if children or pets are near, the Bradley stays cool to the touch just like your refrigerator.
I hope this wasn’t too much information to digest, the choice really depends on how portable you need the small smoker to be as well as how ‘hands on” you want the cooking to be. If you can answer those questions finding the best small bbq meat smoker will be quite easy.