BBQ Smoker Types and Functions

  • 01 of 08

    Smokers - What Is a Smoker and Why Do You Need One?

    Pork Butt with Smoke
    Regarding BBQ, Inc.

    To understand what a smoker is, we need to first discuss what barbecue is. Barbecue is a loaded term that has many meanings, but when we are talking about smokers, we are talking about true barbecue.


    What Is Barbecue? 


    In this context, barbecue is a method of cooking tough cuts of meat (typically beef or pork) slowly over a low heat with smoke. This low and slow cooking process allows the tough connective tissues in these meats to break down, turning to sugar and water. At the same time, fats are...MORE slowly melted, providing moisture that prevents the meat from drying out. So what do we mean by low and slow? Smoking barbecue is done at temperatures between 225 F and 275 F (110 C to 135 C). Many purists will say that the lower the temperature the better the barbecue, but in recent years, many barbecue competitors have moved to higher temperatures, partly because the technology of modern smokers makes this possible. Since barbecue is cooked at such low temperatures, the cooking times are very long. Cooking times can be between 45 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes per pound. This means that a 10-pound beef brisket can easily take 10 hours to smoke. The smoke provides flavor, color, and aids in the breakdown of connective tissues (collagen) and fats.


    What Is A Smoker?


    In this context, a smoker is an outdoor cooking appliance that can maintain low cooking temperatures for extended periods of time while producing smoke and holding it around the meat for absorption. A good smoker does all this efficiently and provides the space necessary to produce the amount of barbecue needed.


    Can I Smoke on a Grill?


    The simple answer is yes. The real answer is maybe. Gas grills are designed to pump heat through the cooking chamber. This is how they reach high temperatures; by brute force. Because of the high airflow in most gas grills, they are not good at capturing smoke and can cause foods to dry out over long periods of time. Gas grills do not make good smokers. Charcoal grills, on the other hand, can make good smokers. Charcoal grills burn charcoal, produce smoke, and if they have a lid and a good design, can hold low temperatures for long periods of time. The trick to smoking on a charcoal grill is to have a grill large enough to place the meat away from the direct heat of the charcoal fire. This is done either by cooking indirectly or by using some kind of baffle (more on this later). The limits of charcoal grills smoking are the size. Most charcoal grills are too small to produce a lot of barbecue, so if you want to smoke more than two racks of ribs or a pork roast, then you will need something larger, or in other words, a smoker.


    Which Smoker Is Right for Me?


    There are many ways to smoke low and slow and there are many kinds of smokers and smoker/grills on the market. In the following pages we'll explore all the different kinds of smokers in detail, but for now let's just say that you can buy wood smokers, charcoal smokers, gas smokers, electric smokers, and pellet smokers. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but the most important factor is you, what kind of barbecue you want to smoke, and how much effort (and money) you want to put into it.


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  • 02 of 08

    Vertical Water Smokers

    Brinkmann Gourmet Charcoal Smoker & Grill
    Brinkmann Gourmet Charcoal Smoker & Grill. The Brinkmann Corporation

    Vertical water smokers, like the Brinkmann Gourmet Charcoal Smoker pictured, are the most popular smokers on the market. This is largely due to the fact that they are the least expensive. At the top range of the vertical water smokers is the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker (referred to online as the WSM). 


    How They Work


    A vertical water smoker is broken into three compartments. At the bottom is the heat source. In smokers like the Brinkmann and Weber, that heat source is charcoal. Other smokers have...MORE gas burners or an electric heating element. Above the heat source is a water pan. It is this water pan that makes the system work. The water pan stores and regulates the heat of the smoker, while deflecting the direct heat from the source and providing a moist cooking environment that keeps the meats from drying out. Above the water pan is the smoking chamber. To operate this, all you need to do is build a fire, fill the water pan, and throw on the meat.


    Advantages


    Vertical water smokers are small so they don't take up a lot of space. Because they are small they tend to be more efficient than larger smokers, so they won't need as much fuel or power to run them. They are also amongst the least expensive smokers on the market. All of this makes a vertical water smoker the perfect starter smoker for the person who wants to give it a try but doesn't want to make a big investment.


    Disadvantages


    Many vertical water smokers have limited temperature control. The Brinkmann has no adjustable vents. It is designed to work in the ideal smoking temperature range, but it can be difficult to control until you really get the hang of it. The small size can also be limiting. Most of these smokers come with two racks, one in the middle of the barrel and one on top. To access the lower rack you have to remove the top one. If that rack has food on it, this can be tricky. Because they are generally small, it cannot smoke a lot of food. A couple racks of ribs, maybe two briskets, or a pair of pork roasts. While this will certainly serve most families it doesn't provide for a lot of barbecue and considering that you may be cooking all day, it is generally worth it to plan on leftovers. One of the biggest disadvantages of the vertical smokers is that every time you lift the lid you lose almost all of the heat in the smoker. While the water pan can store heat, it does take time for the temperature to recover.


    The Weber Difference


    The Weber Smokey Mountain really is the exception to these disadvantages. Even the smaller version is larger than most and the 22.5-inch smoker is downright huge, larger than most people will need. The Weber also has three control vents in the base and one in the lid. This gives excellent temperature control and is the reason why the Weber is the only vertical water smoker used heavily on the barbecue competition circuit.


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  • 03 of 08

    Horizontal Offset Smokers

    Char-Broil Silver Smoker
    Char-Broil Silver Smoker. Char-Broil LLC.

    A vertical offset smoker (commonly called an offset) is a two-part smoker. The main cooking chamber is typically a long grated, metal barrel or box with a long lift door and a smokestack. Attached to one end of the cooking chamber is the firebox which has a top or side access door and an adjustable vent. Heat and smoke created in the firebox enters the cooking chamber through a small hole between it and the firebox. Smoke then travels out through the smoke stack, typically on the other end of...MORE the cooking chamber.


    Good Vs. Bad


    Unfortunately, for the consumer, the best way to tell a good offset smoker from a bad one is to fire it up, and you've probably already made the purchase at that point. A bad offset leaks smoke through the doors and the connection between the firebox and the smoking chamber. The only place smoke should be seen coming from an offset smoker is from the smokestack. The second problem with offset smokers is uneven heating. Temperatures near the firebox in poorly designed offsets can be 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) more than the temperature on the other end. The simple truth is that there are a number of inexpensive offset smokers on the market that are not engineered well enough to be classified in the good category and this leads to modifications. Many inexpensive offset smokers need to be modified to work effectively. This has led some people to dismiss the offset smoker entirely and that would be a shame since some of the best smokers on the market are offset smokers.


    The Better Offset


    A better option has doors and seams that seal tightly. This not only keeps the smoke where you need it but improves the airflow of the smoker making it more efficient. To solve the problem of uneven heating and eliminate that nasty radiant (infrared) heat from the firebox, the better offset uses reverse flow. This modifies the basic design by placing a sheet of metal in the bottom of the cooking chamber. Now heat and smoke travel from the firebox, under this sheet to the opposite side of the cooking chamber before rising to the food and traveling back towards the firebox where the smokestack should be placed. Reverse flow heats the cooking chamber indirectly and allows a cooler smoke to flavor the meat. Look for an offset smoker with the smokestack near the firebox.


    Getting What You Pay For


    Because inexpensive offset smokers can be so difficult to operate, if you are not willing to make the investment, you probably shouldn't be buying an offset smoker. Instead, stick with the ​vertical water smoker. If you do have the money, there are some really great offset smokers, and they still dominate the competitive barbecue world. Smokers by Lang and Jambo are well built, produce great and large amounts of barbecue and are just plain nice to look at.


    More Than Just Barrel Smokers


    When people think of offset smokers, they typically think of a round, barrel design. It can be argued, however, that the Good-One Smoker, like the Good-One Open Range, are offset smokers. You have a separate cooking chamber and firebox and the same airflow, but the Good One has a square firebox that runs parallel to the cooking chamber. Good-One Smokers also have the key ingredient that makes a great offset: thick metal. Thin metal smokers can not hold heat.


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  • 04 of 08

    Box Smokers

    Fast Eddy's by Cookshack FEC100
    Fast Eddy's by Cookshack FEC100. Cookshack Inc.

    There are few things simpler than a box. Box smokers (also known as vault smokers, cabinet smokers, block smokers) are basically a box with a heat source in the bottom and cooking chamber on the top. Because the heat source is directly below, like in a vertical water smoker, the heat is conserved. The one issue that separates good box smokers from bad ones is in the insulation. While all box smokers have a lot of similarities, if you set a Pitmaker Vault next to a Stumps Vertical next to an...MORE FEC-100, you have smokers that look alike but operate very differently. On the low end of the scale, you have smokers like the Camp Chef Smoke Vault. What separates the former from the later? Insulation.


    A Bad Box


    There are a number of box smokers sold in big box stores that are simply worse than less expensive vertical water smokers. This is because they have no insulation, thin metal, and a poorly fitting door. Typically gas or electric, this type of box smoker is nothing more than a burner or heating element inside a metal box that you can put meat in with wood chips held over the heat to smolder. A little breeze or a light rain and these smokers lose heat. You would do better with the more efficient shape of a round smoker.


    A Good Box


    The better box smokers cost a lot more. Despite this, they produce large amounts of great barbecue in a highly controllable environment and if you need to smoke barbecue for a competition, catering, or a restaurant, these smokers can be the most dependable and easy to use smokers on the market.


    Case Study - The FEC-100


    Inventor-designer Ed "Fast Eddy" Maurin might not appreciate us referring to his competition staple as a box smoker, but look at the picture. The FEC-100 is a stainless steel pellet smoker with an airtight door, heavy insulation, and a computer controlled temperature control system. With the external pellet hopper and the meat probes, you can load this smoker up and not actually open the door until the temperature control systems tells you that the meat is done.


    Case Study - Stumps Vertical


    The Stumps Vertical Smoker is, like the other good box smokers, highly insulated. The standout feature on this smoker is the gravity feed charcoal system. Charcoal loaded into the back, feeds down into the combustion chamber allowing for long smoking times. It is the level of oxygen inside the smoker that regulates the charcoal consumption. Simple and brilliant. Stumps smokers, like the FEC, are popular with barbecue champions.


    Bottom Line


    If you are serious about barbecue and want to produce a lot of it, then one of these, large, better, and more expensive box smokers might be for you. The less expensive versions simply don't have the engineering to be serious about barbecue.


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  • 05 of 08

    Drum Smokers

    Big Drum Smoker Standard 2338-1
    Big Drum Smoker Standard 2338-1. Big Drum Smokers

    The drum smoker (commonly called an Ugly Drum Smoker or UDS) has become popular because it is the simplest smoker to use and because it is an inexpensive do-it-yourself project. Typically you can make one of these with a little skill and end up with a 22.5-inch smoker comparable in size to a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.


    How It Works


    The drum smoker is a very basic smoker. Made from a steel drum, a firebox goes ​in the bottom and a cooking rack on the top. The base and lid have vents for adjusting...MORE temperature, and the whole thing seals together to prevent smoke leaks. Since these don't have a water pan, this is direct smoking and the radiant energy from the burning charcoal will cook foods. This makes the drum smoker excellent for chicken, pretty good for ribs, but brisket and pork roasts can be more challenging. The secret is to wrap larger cuts in foil when the internal temperature hits 165 degrees F (74 degrees C), otherwise it will dry out. While this is always a good general rule, other smokers don't have that direct heat issue.


    To use a drum smoker, load the firebox with charcoal and light. When the charcoal is ready (not actively burning and white and ashy around the edges of the coals), put the food on the top rack. Put on the lid and lock it in place, then adjust the vents to your desired cooking temperature. Holding the unit at a low temperature will keep the oxygen flow low enough to keep drippings from causing flare-ups.


    Advantages


    Drum smokers are easy to use, inexpensive, and lightweight, making them portable.


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  • 06 of 08

    Smoker Ovens

    Cookshack AmeriQue Electric Smoker
    Cookshack AmeriQue Electric Smoker. Cookshack Inc.

    Smoker ovens are much more like an indoor appliance than any other smoker. While they must be used outdoors (because of the smoke production) these smokers look and work a lot like your oven, better in fact. Most of these smokers, like the Cookshack Amerique pictured above, have computer controls and temperature probes and let you smoke a brisket while you go to work. Smoker ovens like these are very similar to the ones used by many restaurants.


    How They Work


    Smoker ovens are a heavily insulated...MORE box with an electric heating element in the bottom. The heating element provides heat and causes wood chips in the pan above to smolder. Between the element and the food is a funneled piece of metal that eliminates direct radiant heat and collects drippings to prevent fires and keep the heating element clean. Meats are placed on the racks above and if the smoker oven has a meat probe, the ovens computer controls and cooks to the desired temperature then drops to a holding mode to keep it perfect until you are ready to eat. Smoker ovens are the perfect combination of technology and barbecue and are the perfect solution for the person who loves barbecue, but doesn't want to put a lot of work into it.


    There are a number of makers of these types of smokers, but the leader in the field, both for residential and commercial use is Cookshack. The SmokinTex smoker ovens are very similar to Cookshack but lower in price and quality.


    What You Pay For


    Electric smoker ovens are not inexpensive, or at least they shouldn't be too inexpensive. While you can get a smoker oven for as low as $500, it is the higher priced, more feature ladened versions that have the function that makes a great smoker oven. Lower-priced models are not just small but have limited controls. If you are looking to buy a smoker oven you want one that can be loaded up in the morning before work and have fully cooked barbecue that evening. The Cookshack Amerique pictured above is Cookshack's answer to the requests of their customers and has a great capacity and excellent controls.


    Sort of Outdoor


    These smoker ovens must be used outdoors because they produce smoke and carbon monoxide and are rated for outdoor use only unless specially vented. However, they are electric appliances and should not be left to the elements year round. I recommend that they are used in a sheltered, but open space and stored in a garage or other shelter to extend the lifespan. Smoker ovens are an investment and should be treated like an appliance.


    Advantages


    A smoker oven costs you the same to operate and takes the same effort to smoke a single rack of ribs or 50 pounds or brisket so these are perfect for the person who might occasionally need a larger capacity smoker but particularly wants to barbecue a rack of ribs frequently.


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  • 07 of 08

    Kamado Grills

    Big Green Egg - Large
    Big Green Egg - Large. Big Green Egg

    When U.S. servicemen arrived in Japan as part of the occupational force after the Second World War, they had to adapt to a new way of life. One of these adaptations was to convert a centuries old rice cooker into what we know as the Kamado cooker. Made of ceramic, these charcoal-fired grills slowly caught on in the United States and in the 1970s the Big Green Egg company was formed. Slowly but surely this style of grill became one of the most popular charcoal grills on the market and more than a...MORE dozen companies have jumped into the market space. What people quickly realized about this style of grill was that it was perfect for low and slow cooking. Because of the simple airflow design and efficient insulation of the ceramic shell, these grills make perfect smokers.


    A Simple Modification


    Before you can effectively smoke in most of these grills, you need something to block the direct heat. Big Green Egg calls this a plate setter. Other Kamado makers have similar products. This indirect baffle blocks the radiant heat of the burning charcoal and lets you grill indirectly. Adjust the vents to hold a low and slow temperature and you have a smoker worthy of use in barbecue competitions.


    Advantages


    Because Kamado grills are capable of hitting temperatures over 750 degrees F (400 degrees C) they are excellent grills. Add to this the low and slow capabilities and you have the most versatile outdoor cooker on the market. Kamado grills tend to be very durable (unless you drop them) and are rather attractive.


    Disadvantages


    When compared with other charcoal grills, Kamado grills are considerably more expensive. Of course, when balanced with the advantages they can be worth the investment if you are a heavy user. The other disadvantage can be the size. While perfect for backyard barbecue, the space limitations of most Kamado grills doesn't give you the area to do a lot of barbecue, so while you will see these at barbecue competitions, the competitors typically bring several.


    Metal Alternative


    There is a metal version of the Kamado grill on the market called the Big Steel Keg (as opposed to Big Green Egg). This version uses high-temperature insulation sandwiched between an inner and outer metal skin. The Big Steel Keg actually has better insulation than the ceramics and a considerably better seal between the lid and the body than most of its competitors. It is, however, metal and needs care to prevent rusting, and is an 18.5-inch grill, like many of the other Kamado grills.


    Bottom Line


    If you want a single unit that gives both high-temperature grilling and low and slow barbecue capabilities then the Kamado grill is the best bet. There are a number of manufacturers on the market. It is best to purchase one of these from a reputable and specialized dealer who can provide assembly and delivery as well as support and accessories.


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  • 08 of 08

    Pellet Grills

    MAK Grill 2-Star General Pellet Grill
    MAK Grill 2-Star General Pellet Grill. MAK GRiLLS

    Wood pellets used in pellet grills are all natural hardwood sawdust, compacted and extruded into small 1/4-inch round pieces. Generally, wood pellets have a predictable BTU output and produce a clean burn with a light smoke flavor. Most wood pellets are used for heating and indoor stoves, but since the 1980s when Joe Traeger started up Traeger Grills, they have found themselves more and more used for outdoor cooking. Burning wood pellets in a grill or smoker produces a smoke and flavor as...MORE authentic as cooking on split logs of high-quality hardwood.


    How Pellet Grills Work


    The general design of a pellet grill consists of an external storage bin, called a hopper, that you fill with the wood pellets. An auger, basically a corkscrew, turned by a variable low-speed motor, draws the pellets from the hopper into an internal firepot where the pellets burn, creating heat and smoke. The auger speed is adjusted, either by the user in the less sophisticated models, or by a computer. The more technological pellet grills allow you to set specific cooking temperatures, can some have meat probes and will reduce the grill's heat to a holding temperature when the meat is done. Structurally pellet grills look like most gas grills and work similarly.


    Advantages


    Like the Kamado-style grills, pellet grills work both as a smoker and a grill. Because they burn hardwood pellets, pellet grills produce good smoke quantity for both styles of cooking and are particularly good at smoking. With the computer control system, pellet grills are about as easy to operate as a smoker oven, providing the ability to fire it up (on some units preheat time is less than 10 minutes), put on the meat, attach the meat probe, set the computer, and walk away.


    Disadvantages


    Pellet grills are not cheap. A major downside to pellet grills over the years is the machinery. Pellet grills have a number of moving parts and auger jams and motor failure can happen. At worst, this means some expensive repair bills if the warranty doesn't take care of the problem, and at the least, the unit will simply shut down, not cooking the barbecue. Another problem with pellet grills is that many of them look like they were made in someone's garage. While there are several manufacturers, most are small time companies that don't have the advantages of mass production to put a serious finish on their grills. While most pellet grills are excellent smokers, most are only mediocre grills, producing little more than 500 degrees F (260 degrees C). This will let you grill, but if you are looking for that intense sear on a steak then a pellet grill may not be the way to go.


    Bottom Line


    Pellet grills are generally good grills and very good smokers, but be selective in your purchasing. Less than 100,000 units are sold every year and there are a dozen companies making them, so do your research.