Finding the best first barbecue smoker is actually quite easy, as long as you take the time to figure out exactly what your needs are and then finding the barbecue smoker that best fits your needs. In this article I’ll first help you figure out what your needs are, then I’ll explain the best features common to all smoker types and go into the different styles out there. In part 2 of this series I’ll go into the different fuel types and then compare the winners in each category. Once you understand the different types of barbecue smokers made and how they’re fueled finding the best 1st barbecue smoker that fits your needs perfectly should be very easy.
What’s the best first barbecue smoker for you?
We’re all different, some of us just want to make some ribs for our family, others want to host barbecue parties. Capacity is an important consideration. In this case bigger is definitely NOT better, too large a smoker and you’ll have difficulty maintaining temperature if it’s not fully loaded, too small and the food will be packed too tightly making it difficult to get up to the proper temperature and recover heat when the lid is opened. This should be your primary consideration.
What kind of heat source is best? Well you can get an electric, wood/charcoal or propane smoker. They have their advantages and disadvantages, basically what you’ll be cooking and how ‘hands on’ you want the bbq experience to be will guide your decision here.
Finally there’s cost. A great bbq smoker can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars up to thousands of dollars. Here’s a tip, don’t skimp, not using the right smoker for you can ruin a $50 hunk of meat, so if the difference is a hundred dollars or so, go for the better one, it’ll payoff in the long run.
Before deciding on what the best novice smoker to get you’ll need to understand what a smoker is.
What is a barbecue smoker?
Lets look at what makes a bbq smoker a smoker and not a grill. To make barbecue you need to cook at a low temperature for a long time, the phrase ‘low and slow’ is often used. On a grill, however, it’s fast and hot. Definitely not barbecue. By cooking meat slow you allow the internal temp to get to about 165 degrees and stay there for a long time. At this temperature the fat and connective tissue will break down making the meat tender and moist, the definition of good barbecue.
Now, a smoker needs to hit the right temperature, about 225 degrees and stay there. Too hot and the meat will burn on the outside and the fat and connective tissue won’t have enough time to break down. Too cool and the meat may never get hot enough to melt the fat or worse, it may enter the danger zone, under 140 degrees and you really don’t want to make you and your friends sick do you.
Now that we understand the temperature part lets look at smoke, after all they call it a smoker, not an oven. A smoker is designed to deliver smoke onto the meat, either by using wood logs, chips, chunks or even pellets. A grill on the other hand isn’t designed to do this, there are of course products on the market that will allow you to ‘smoke’ on a grill but there’s one difference that you can’t get around….
A grill is very ‘leaky’, it just isn’t designed to be airtight and this is a big problem, heat and smoke get out too easily making it difficult to keep a steady temperature or keep the smoke on the meat. A well made smoker can do both of these things quite well.
So, a smoker can hold temperature well and keep the smoke in, a grill just can’t do that well.
Now that we know what makes a barbecue smoker a smoker and not a grill or oven let’s take a look at some features that will make the difference between a good smoker and a great bbq smoker.
Features of a Great Barbecue Smoker
Common to all smokers is the need to maintain temperature regardless of environmental issues such as wind, cold or sunlight. It should also be able to recover from heat loss quickly and have some form of temperature control.
With this in mind you should look for a few common things…
A thick metal cabinet that is very airtight. A thick walled cabinet will hold the proper temperature incredibly well. One thing you’ll almost always find on a cheap barbecue smoker is a paper thin cabinet. A leaky cabinet will affect the temperature depending on the type of smoker; a wood or charcoal burning smoker will experience a temperature increase as the fire will burn hotter as the wind blows on it, propane or electric smokers will actually decrease in temperature. Either way, this isn’t good. Look for a good cover that closes tightly.
The heating element, especially if electric or propane should be appropriate for the size of the smoker, too small and it’ll take forever to get to cooking temperature and recover from heat loss. Not really an issue with wood/charcoal smokers since you can just stoke the fire a little or add wood/coals.
There should be vents on both the bottom and top (side if an offset smoker) to allow you to adjust the airflow to adjust the temperature. This is really a standard feature but just check and make sure they look sturdy and large enough. Cheap barbecue smokers often have very leaky vents.
The different types of barbecue smokers
The cabinet smoker
As you can see from the picture it looks just like a cabinet, a simple box with the fire below. This is a very basic smoker with the heat source below the meat, there’s nothing special here, just look for thick metal and a good airtight door.
- A cabinet smoker has great, even heat distribution and generally holds a large amount of meat for it’s size
- Can be difficult to refuel if it burns charcoal or wood, look for a system to refuel easily
- Opening the lid directly stokes the fire so on a wood or charcoal cabinet smoker the temperature will spike horribly
The offset smoker
The offset smoker is without a doubt the traditional barbecue smoker, almost exclusively wood or charcoal burning they produce what many consider the best barbecue flavor and experience. Truly the smoker of choice for experienced pitmasters.
- Great barbecue flavor
- Real barbecue experience
- Hot and Cool zones to work with if needed
- Opening the lid does not directly stoke the fire
- Easy to refuel without opening the lid and letting the heat and smoke out
- Very hands on, requires near constant attention to get to correct temperature
- Uneven heat zones, the area nearest the fire is much hotter than the other end of the smoker, this may be an advantage depending on what you’re cooking
- Smallest overall capacity compared to the smokers actual size
- The best quality offset smokers can be very expensive, watch out for super thin metal at those big box stores
The bullet smoker
The bullet smoker is the best of both worlds, tightly enclosed and even heating they are a great choice as a first smoker. They hold the heat extremely well and are quite easy to refuel during long cooks. A great choice as a first barbecue smoker. The hands down winner in this category is the Weber Smokey Mountain, rock solid temperature control and can easily get 12 hours of cook time on just one load of charcoal.
- Compact size makes it great for the backyard, can easily be transported for camping trips
- Rock solid temperature
- Easy to reload (not as easy as an ofset though)
- Nearly impervious to wind issues
- Can hold lots of meat for its size
- Difficult to access lower food grate, requires almost total dissassembly to move food around and thus you’ll suffer from nearly total temperature loss
- Upper food grate is slightly cooler than lower one
Continue to part 2 of this article, the different fuels available on barbecue smokers and how to find the best novice smoker for the money.