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February 14, 2016 Comments (2) Smoking Meat

Choosing The Best Smoker: A 15000 Words Buying Guide

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Table Of Content

Why Did We Write This Guide About Smokers?

Who Is This Guide For?

Buying a Smoker: Our Infographics

The Art Of Smoking Meat

4 Reasons Why You Should Get a Smoker

Choose Your Style: Horizontal or Vertical Smoker?

Choose Your Type: Charcoal, Gas, Electric, Wood Pellet…

Wood/Charcoal Smokers: The Real Smokey Flavor

“What’s so great about wood?”

Our Top 3 Picks for Wood/Charcoal Smokers

1. Weber Smokey Mountain Series

2. Napoleon Apollo AS300K 3-in-1 Smoker

3. Brinkmann 810-5301-V Smoke’N Grill Charcoal Smoker

Final Words on Wood/Charcoal Smokers

Gas Smokers: Easy To Use Units

No Pain with Propane Smokers

Propane’s Main Banes…

Gas Smokers: The Big Three Reviewed

1. Masterbuilt Cookmaster Propane Smoker

2. Camp Chef Smoke Vault

3. Outdoor Leisure 34168G Smoke Hollow Propane-Gas Smoker

Some Last Words on Propane Smokers…

Pellet Smokers: Automatic and Precise

The Traeger Story

How To Become A Pellet Zealot…

Building A Better Mouse-Trap….

Reviews Of Our 3 Favorite Pellet Smokers

1. Rec Tec Model 680 Wood Pellet Grill

2. Traeger Elite Model

3. Traeger BBQ155.01 Junior

Electric Smokers: Set-and-Forget

Our Recommended Electric Smokers

1. Masterbuilt 40” Stainless Steel Digital Electric Smokehouse

2. Smokin It Model 2 Electric Smoker

3. Masterbuilt 20078215 GEN II 30” Electric Smoker

Offset Smokers: Versatile Units

A Star Is Born….

What is an offset smoker?

Why An Offset Smoker?

Char-Griller 1224 Smokin Pro Review

Making It Yours: How To Modify Your Offset Smoker

Conclusion: Choose The Right Smoker For You

Why Did We Write This Guide About Smokers?

We have put this guide together to remove all the mystery and hype about smokers.
There is a ton of information on smoking meats and vegetables on the internet. So much, in fact, that it is easy to slip into information overload. How is one to dig through the mountain of information to sift out the actual data you might need? Have no fear. We will give you tips, buying guides, detailed information, and more. This is the most up-to-date, comprehensive guide on smokers that you will find.

Who Is This Guide For?

This guide is for anyone who is thinking of getting a smoker. We’ll help you find the best one for you.
Whether you are contemplating buying your very first smoker, or maybe upgrading your existing unit, the information you will need is right here. We will give you basic information on how to smoke meats and vegetables, as well as descriptions of each type of smoker, and what they are best for. We will help you determine what smoker is right for you.

We will take all of the guesswork out of selecting a smoker, setting it up, and enjoying the wonderful tastes and smells of real smoked food.

Our Recommended SmokersBrandFuelType
Weber Smokey Mountain
Weber
WeberCharcoalVertical
Rec Tec Smoker
rec tec
Rec TecPellet
Horizontal
Char-Griller 1224 Smokin Pro
char griller
Char-GrillerCharcoalHorizontal
Masterbuilt 20075315
masterbuilt
MasterbuiltElectricVertical
Smoke Hollow Propane Smoker 38202G
smoke hollow
Smoke HollowPropaneVertical

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Buying a Smoker: Our Infographics

To make it easy for you, we’ve created this image that summarizes our guide:

best smoker infographics
Share The Infographics – Copy and Paste This Code!

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The Art Of Smoking Meat

smoked meat

Aren’t you drooling yet?

The process of smoking meat is so old that no one knows exactly when it started.
We do know that it wasn’t long after humans learned how to make fires and cook food that they discovered you could dry meat and fish near a fire to preserve it. At some point, someone obviously left a piece of fish, or meat too close to the fire, and instead of just drying it, it became smoked, and one of life’s great pleasures was born. Every primitive culture that has ever existed has smoked meat. The ancient Carib tribes of the Caribbean went one step further, and invented a special smoking technique that led to the invention of barbecue: Barbacoa. It originated centuries ago in Barbados, a Caribbean island. The word “barbados” comes from “Los Barbadoes” that means “the ones with beards”. It was given by the Portuguese explorers that arrived on the island on the 16th century, because of the big bearded fig plants that covered the islands.

Since then, we have learned how to smoke just about everything from vegetables, and cheeses, to sausages, bacon, and hams.

It is widely believed the West Indies native Taino people, a subgroup of the South American Arawaks, first used green, fire-resistant bearded fig branches for cooking. They marinated foods in tropical herbs and spices to enhance natural flavors and preserve them after cooking. The Tainos called their preparations “barabicu,” or “sacred firepit,” that over time became “barbecue.” These cooking methods were superb at keeping their foods from prematurely spoiling.

No other technology or knowledge was ever shared as freely, and as rapidly as the art of smoking.
It transcended tribal rivalries, wars, politics, continents and oceans. Every country on earth has it’s own method of smoking meat. It is so universal that one might get the idea that there is really something wonderful about it. And, you’d be right. Smoked meat is satisfying on a very primitive level. Nothing is as good properly smoked as meat, with it’s subtle woody overtones, and slightly charred textured that compliments the natural tastes. And the aroma of smoking meat, which can be detected at considerable distances when the wind is right, can drive you insane. Smoked foods feed the soul as well as the body. Another universal aspect is that smoking food is a social event. The very concept of cookouts and feasts began with the invention of smoking. It has always been a communal activity, and it remains so to this very day.

It’s time to consider the single most important tool you will use to create your bits of culinary heaven.

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4 Reasons Why You Should Get a Smoker

meat

The aroma of smoked meat will make your neighbors jealous.

If you are going to smoke meat, you really need a smoker. Of course, you can build your own, but why bother? There are great smokers to fit any price range. In fact, good used smokers can even be found in yard sales and flea markets for as little as $15.00. So there is really no good reason not to have a smoker, unless you really plan to never smoke your own meat. It’s been my experience that if someone has a smoker, they will use it, at least occasionally.

So, why would you want to smoke meat?

  • 1. Flavor. nothing on earth tastes like real smoked meat. It is satisfying on a primal level, appealing to the cave man (or woman) in all of us. It harkens to ancient times, when people were strong, life was simple, and food was big… Artificial short-cuts will always come up short once you have partaken of real smoked meat. Leave the Liquid Smoke on the shelf, and live a little.

    smoked food and vegetables

    It doesn’t get any tastier.

  • 2. Slow-Cooking. smoked meat is so tender that it requires little chewing. Even tough cuts like brisket will melt in your mouth after 12 -16 hours of smoking. Indoor crock pots do not break down the tough connective tissues like real smoking does.
  • 3. Preservation. smoked meat resists spoilage, and freezes better than meat prepared by other cooking methods. You can enjoy smoked salmon, smoked chicken salad, long after the fires have been extinguished. You can even make your own hams, bacon and smoked sausages, which will be far superior to their store-bought cousins.
  • 4. Well-Being. smoking your own meat instills a sense of empowerment, and self-sufficiency. Food tastes better when you know that you processed it yourself, and you can survive with minimal outside support. Also, for the health-conscious, depending on how you acquire your meat and vegetables, you know everything that is in it. You can eliminate such vile things as msg, dyes, excessive salts and sugars, and other questionable additives. Smoked meat is healthier than fried foods, tastes better than baked food, retains more nutrition than baked foods, and keeps better than all of them. Smoked food feeds the soul as well as the body, and is an outstanding and wholesome hobby for the whole family. It engenders a sense of togetherness and community.

We need to distinguish between a smoker and a grill. A grill cooks food at higher temperatures, and much faster. With some grills, it is possible to also use them as a smoker by placing the heat source on one end, the food on the other, and carefully controlling the temperature. But you will be limited to smoking small amounts of food this way. Smokers are set up to be used as smokers, but almost all smokers also make great grills. And, there are combination units that have an offset smoke-box, to give you the best of both worlds.

“What smoker should I buy?” Keep reading to find it out!

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Choose Your Style: Horizontal or Vertical Smoker?

There are two basic styles of smokers. The vertical smoker, which resembles a barrel or box standing on it’s end, and the horizontal smoker, which looks like a barrel or box laying on it’s side. Both styles can be either round, or square.

Vertical smokers. In my opinion, the vertical style is more efficient and versatile. Vertical smokers take up much less space than a horizontal smoker, and they make it much easier to maintain the proper temperatures because they have excellent air circulation. They also allow more smoke to circulate around the meat because the design takes advantage of the smokes natural tendency to rise. And lastly, they can also be used as a great Hibachi-style grill. They are some of the least expensive smokers you can buy. Most electric smokers are vertical smokers. The only drawbacks to vertical smokers is if you plan on smoking very large amounts of meat. If you are going to smoke whole hogs or goats, ¼ or ½ sides of beef, ½ sides of deer, or large quantities of fish, you may want to consider a horizontal smoker.

smoked meat flavor

Let’s get smokey.

Horizontal smokers. As a rule, they are large, heavy and stable. The wood and propane types usually have at least one set of wheels and they can be wheeled into the back of a truck, on a flatbed trailer, or some even come with a built-in trailer hitch to be pulled behind a vehicle. There are very large permanent stationary smokers that can smoke a complete side of beef at one time. Some horizontal smokers are capable of smoking several hundred pounds of meat at a time, and are the best choice if you plan on smoking at large get-togethers, conventions, cook-offs, or even commercially. These are the choice of professionals. Smaller versions are made, but they are still very heavy and solid. They have offset smoke-boxes, and the fires can be kept smoldering for days and days. They are wonderful for smoking a lot of meat, but are somewhat impractical for smaller, family-size amounts. This is why most serious smokers have both types. The drawback to horizontal smokers is that they are a lot more work to clean. The only way I can get mine really clean is to take it to the car wash, with the high-pressure hot water and degreasers.

Horizontal or Vertical? It depends on your needs. But whatever smoker you choose, it is important that it has an accurate thermometer. A broken or inaccurate thermometer can be replaced for under $25.00. The thermometer probe is inserted though a small hole drilled through the smoker lid, and is retained by a nut on the inside. Replacing a thermometer takes less than 5 minutes and only requires a wrench. A good thermometer is necessary to make sure you are maintaining the correct temperatures, and is critical if you plan on making smoked and/or fermented sausages. A thermometer is also needed if you plan on drying fish, or making jerky in your smoker.

Once you decide on a style, you need to figure out what type of smoker you want. The types are based on the heat source. The choices are wood/charcoal, gas/propane, electric, and wood pellet. What type you need depends mostly on how much hands-on control you want. We’ll address each type.

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Choose Your Type: Charcoal, Gas, Electric, Wood Pellet

type of smoker

Wood/Charcoal. these are the simplest, least expensive, and many will say (myself included), the only real smokers. They have no moving parts, save for the access doors, and vents, no small parts to break (although some thermometers can be delicate), require no gas or electricity, and can be used just about anywhere but in the house.

They are simply a box, or barrel that you build a fire in, add your smoke wood, and let it smoke. I am especially fond of the verticalfire and meat wood style. They have a metal bowl at the bottom to build a small fire in, which makes more efficient use of your wood or charcoal, and above that, a drip pan which keeps juice from dripping onto your coals and either putting them out, or making them flame up. Also, water, wine, beer or other liquids can be added to the drip pan to keep everything moist, and provide extra flavors. Above that, there are two or more racks that hold a surprisingly large amount of food, up to 50 lbs or more. They are made from light aluminum and can easily be taken to the lake, or out camping with you.

There are no moving parts to break, and all the parts are very easy to clean. The temperature is controlled by judicious use of vents that control the air-flow. The horizontal type has an off-set smoke-box. This lends itself to many types of smoking. Wood smokers are the purest way to smoke food. Your food will have no flavors of propane, no sterile electrical feel, and you don’t have to depend on commercial fuels like pellets. You are cooking over a real fire, and real coals. Nothing but fire, smoke, and meat (or cheeses, veggies, etc…), working together in perfect harmony, as nature intended. The disadvantages:

  • There is a slight learning curve (you have to learn how to build a fire….not a bad thing to learn in any case….).
  • You may need a little practice using the vents to keep the correct temperatures.
  • Wood/Charcoal smokers are all manual. You have to do everything.
  • Clean up is a job, compared to all other types of smokers.

Gas Smokers. these are best for those with a ‘set it, and forget it‘ mentality. They are easy to use, and are preferred by many. A lot of restaurants use gas smokers because of their simplicity. You don’t have to start a fire. All you have to do is light the burner. The best models are the vertical ‘cabinet’ types. These allow the smoke to circulate freely around the meat. All gas smokers are powered by propane. Combustion of the gas is used to burn the smoke wood. Since the flame level is easily controlled by a valve, it is much easier to maintain precise temperature control, than with wood smokers. Other than the gas, they work just like wood smokers. The Cons are:

  • They are more expensive than wood smokers. but still not bad, at around $200.00 or less.meat 3
  • The vapors from the burned propane mix with the water, and create a perfume-like overtone to the food. Some (myself included) find undesirable. Others swear they do not notice it, so it’s a matter of taste.
  • You have to leave the top vent fully open at all times. Otherwise the gas can deposit soot on your food.
  • Gas smokers never come with propane tanks, so you will have to buy two separate tanks. You need two because a half-empty tank will run out of fuel in the middle of your smoking operations.
  • propane is a hydrocarbon. If you are environmentally conscious, even though it is touted as burning clean, it still releases chemicals into the environment.
  • Propane is obviously flammable. A punctured tank can ignite.
  • The biggest complaint about gas smokers is that none of them are wide enough for a whole rack of ribs. You have to cut them in half, or hang them.

In spite of all these drawbacks, gas smokers have a following. If ease of use is your primary concern, then a gas smoker may be just the thing for you.

Electric Smokers. there is no question that electric smokers are the easiest to use. All you have to do is add a little smoke wood, usually an oz or less. set the temperature and time, and forget about it. It will shut itself off when it is done.

They work by using an electric heating element, just like an electric stove. Your smoke wood and water go above the element, or elements. A rheostat (on cheaper models) or thermostat controls the temperature.

You just set it, add food, and go about your business. There is no building a fire, no checking the fuel every hour or so, and no soot, or char build-up. And since they have a thermostat that maintains a steady temperature, these are ideal for fish, peppers, and other temperature-sensitive foods. They are very easy to clean, cheap to operate, and seem to hold up well. Sounds perfect, right? Well…maybe not so much. Again, it depends on your personal preference.

meat

  • Foods cooked in electric smokers lack the character of foods cooked in a wood, or even gas smokers. There is no replacement for real fire.
  • Electric smokers have no combustion. The wood just smolders, rather than slow-burns, so you don’t get all the chemical reactions you do with other types of smokers.
  • Electric smokers will not give you a wonderful crunchy crust, or the ‘smoke-ring’ on your food. The pink layer of meat on the outside that says, “I have been genuinely smoked…”
  • Electric smokers can be expensive. ome can run $500.00 or more.
  • Electric smokers are prohibited at most cook-offs.

But, most people that have electric smokers absolutely love them, so I can’t really knock them too much. Again, it’s what you want that counts.

Pellet SmokersOutwardly, they resemble a typical wood smoker, but the resemblance ends there. These are super high-tech units. Comparing a wood smoker to a pellet smoker is like comparing the Wright Brothers first airplane to the Space Shuttle. These are digitally controlled, with an automatic pellet feed, igniter, and circulation fan. They have computer-controlled thermostats that can even be programmed to smoke at a certain temperature for a specified period of time, then raise or lower the heat for another time period. Some even have ‘leave-in‘ meat probes that will lower the temperature to a warm holding level when the internal temperature of the meat reaches the target value.pieces of smoked meat

They really are ‘load, set, and forget’ units. The way they work is that you load a hopper with the wood pellets, and an auger feed system automatically feeds the correct amount of pellets into the beer-can sized burn-pot, which also contains and igniter. The igniter is a simple heating element, just like in an electric oven. You set the time and temperature, and the igniter will light the wood pellets, causing them to smolder slowly. The igniter, fan and feeder will keep feeding and burning wood pellets, and supplying air to maintain whatever temperature you select, for the time you set. The system is basically an indirect convection oven. Since you are smoking with real heat, the meat will taste just like wood smoked meat.

The only drawback I can think of to these units is cost. They run from $500.00 to well over $1000.00. But you get what you pay for. You want high-tech, it’s going to cost you high dollars. Also, you can only use pellets in them. So if you have a fallen hickory tree on your property, you can’t use it in these smokers. The other drawback is that they really can’t be used as a grill. The only heat source is indirect, so you can’t properly sear meat as soon as it hits the grill. Other than that, they are wonderful smoking machines. If you can afford one, they are a great addition to your culinary arsenal.

You now have a basic working knowledge of smokers. It’s time to get more in-depth.

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Wood/Charcoal Smokers: The Real Smokey Flavor

Most experts will agree that if you want authentic smoked meat, you have to have real smoke from a real fire. This means a wood/charcoal smoker. Sure, it’s more work than the other types, but you get out what you put in. If you want genuine, mouth-watering, fall-off-the-bone tender smoked meat, you’re going to have to work for it. You’ll need to learn how to build a fire (not a bad thing to learn, anyway….), learn about the different characteristics of various types of smoke-woods, and develop an instinct on how to time the food.

burning charcoal

The smokey flavor that charcoal gives is unmatchable.

A wood/charcoal smoker is just a container for food and fire. There’s a bowl in the bottom to build a fire in, and grates above it that hold the food. Other than the thermometer, there are no mechanically moving parts to break. The only parts that move are the lid, with a simple hinge, the vents, which just pivot around a simple rivet, and the grills, which are removable. You have to build a real fire in the firebox, by hand, and adjust the temperature by the size of the fire, and using the vents. This is the way it has been done for thousands of years.

If a Bronze Age peasant can do it, you should be able to as well. As long as you keep your wood smoker clean and dry, and protect it from the elements between uses, it will last a very long time. One of my brothers still has a smoker that belonged to my dad. He made it from a surplus 55 gal oil drum, and an oven thermometer from the USS Duane, in 1945 when he came home from WW-II. It still works and looks like new. With any luck, my nephews children will be cooking on it after long I have passed on. Neither gas, nor electric smokers have this kind of durability, because they have mechanical parts that will eventually wear out and fail.

The most expensive wood smoker you can buy will not last long at all unless proper maintenance is done. Your smoker needs to be cleaned and dried completely after use, the grills removed and scrubbed clean, and all the vents need to be cleaned. The fire-bowl needs to be completely emptied, wiped out and dried. I always wipe the insides and grills down with a thin coating of vegetable oil. Always keep your smoker covered with a tarp when not in use, even if it is in the garage. This will keep your smoker fresh and clean for a very long time.

“What’s so great about wood?”

The simple answer is that wood produces real heat, and real smoke. Recently, a test was conducted between wood and gas smokers, using hamburgers and steaks. In blindfolded tests, no one could tell the difference between the burgers, but the difference in the steaks was like night and day.
The differences are most apparent in thicker cuts of meat, and longer cooking times. Hamburgers are thin, and cook quickly, so they are not really suited for smoking in the first place. They cook too rapidly for the smoke to be able to penetrate them. Food cooked in a wood smoker absorbs the character of the wood, burning woodbecause burning wood produces heat and smoke. As the food absorbs the heat, it also draws in the smoke. Gas smokers do not supply enough smoke from the wood, so the food is less ‘smoked‘, and electric smokers are hardly better than if you just threw some wood chips in your kitchen stove along with a turkey.

Also, you will be smoking for several hours, and using propane will put a ton of fumes around your food, which is why it will taste different than wood-smoked food. When they say that propane is a ‘clean‘ burning fuel, they just mean clean compared to raw coal, or diesel fuel. The main fumes are water vapor and carbon monoxide. Just as in your blood, carbon monoxide binds to the molecules in your food 200 times easier than oxygen, which is why your food tastes different in a gas smoker. Your food has been oxygen-starved, or suffocated. The carbon monoxide also effects the ability of the food to absorb the smoke. While this won’t render your food inedible, it won’t have the character and nuances of wood-smoked food. Likewise with electric smokers. Since they do not create actual combustion, the amount of character and nuances imparted to the food from the wood is greatly reduced.

There are 7 features that are good to have on a charcoal/wood smoker:

  1. A good thermometer is almost a necessity. Most units come with a cheap thermometer, which which is usuallycharcoal fire startinaccurate. Check your smoker thermometer readings with a set-in oven thermometer that you trust, and upgrade the smoker thermometer if necessary.
  2. The vents should be attached firmly, but pivot freely, and stay in place where you want them. The grills should fit snugly, but not too tight. Remember, they will expand during smoking.
  3. The grills should sit solidly on the supports. so there is no danger of them falling when when loaded with a lot of heavy meat.
  4. The portal between the smoke-box and the main chamber should be large enough. So that a lot of smoke can circulate through.
  5. The smoke-box should have a large side-door so it will be easy to add more wood, and charcoal when needed, and make it easier to clean afterwords.
  6. If it has a water bowl, there should be easy access to it during cooking. So you can refill if if it dries out during smoking.
  7. A large wood smoker should have wheels, to make it easier to move around.

Our Top 3 Picks for Wood/Charcoal Smokers

With all of this in mind, we’ve selected (in our opinion) the top 3 wood/charcoal smokers, based on our experience, price, users needs, and other relevant factors. They are:

1. Weber Smokey Mountain Series

weber smokey 2

The Weber Smokey Mountain is my favorite smoker.

Weber, which is actually Weber Stephens, is one of the first families of smoking and grilling. They’ve been in business since 1893, and invented many parts that are standard equipment on most modern grills, as well as producing the first commercially produced round kettle grill. They are one of the most trusted names in the smoker and grilling world.

We rated their Smokey Mountain Smoker/Grills as the #1  Charcoal Smoker on the market. The Smokey Mountain Series are vertical wood/charcoal smokers, and they are available in 3 sizes, 14.5”, 18.5”, and 22.5”. These measurements are the diameters. These ultra-reliable units are outstanding for large roasts, huge turkeys, hams, briskets, and similar cuts. The 22.5” size easily smokes 2 30+ lb turkeys, or large roasts, hams, etc…at a time. In addition, it makes a great hibachi-style grill. By moving the fire bowl to the 1st grate tier, placing lava rocks on the coals, and setting a grate directly on top of the fire bowl, it even makes a wonderful brazier. They are very easy to clean and maintain, and light enough to easily take with you to the lake, river, or grandmas house for the holidays. The only con I can think of for this cooker is that it’s cooking area is too small for a large racks of ribs (unless you cut them), a side of beef, a whole hog, spreading out fish, sausages, cheeses, and such. For these, you’d need a Texas-style horizontal smoker, which is a lot heavier and harder to move around. No smoker will do everything. But for a family, this comes as close to a perfect smoker as you can get.

wsm

Available in 3 sizes, depending on your needs.

The Smokey Mountain Series features:

  • Porcelain enameled steel construction, with 2 premium nickel-plated grates.
  • A premium-grade ultra-accurate thermometer, that will not need to be upgraded.
  • A Heavy-Duty aluminum water pan
  • Individual vents on both the lid and the bowl for easy access during smoking and grilling.
  • Nylon, heat-resistant handle on the lid.
  • A bottom heat-shield, to protect whatever surface it is setting on.
  • Comes with a premium-grade cover, to keep it clean between uses.
  • 10-year warranty, and backed by Weber’s outstanding Customer Service.
  • Dimensions: (For the 22.5”): 48.5” high x 23” wide x 24” long. It provides a full 726 square inches for cooking area. Empty Weight < 20 lbs.

The 3 sizes allow you to choose the one that best suits your needs. The 14.5” is ideal for a single person, or someone who lives in an apartment, subdivision, or other limited space area. It is also small enough to easily take with you when you go to the lake, camping, cook-outs, or as a back-up for your larger smoker/grill. The 18.5” is a compromise between the large and small sizes, large enough for respectable-sized turkeys and roasts, but still small enough to be convenient. The 22.5” size is perfect for family gatherings, and smoking larger amounts of food at one time. It is still small and light enough to be easily portable.

I own this model, in the 22.5” size. The construction is first-rate. All the welds are neat and well-done. The rivets are tight and even. The lid fits snugly and the vent doors close completely. The handle is robust, and firmly attached. I still have the original thermometer in the lid, and when I tested it (with boiling water), It was high by only 1 degree. There is little heat leakage from anywhere. The cover keeps water out of the unit, even when sprayed directly with a garden hose. All-in-all, this is a solid, well-made smoker.

Most reviews give this series a resounding 5 out of 5 straight across the board. Price is fair, this smoker is a bargain in anyone’s book.

2. Napoleon Apollo AS300K 3-in-1 Smoker

napoleon smoker

Our second choice.

Napoleon is a Canadian company that specializes in the manufacture of wood and gas fireplaces, inserts, heating systems, smokers and grills. They have been in business since 1976. We rated their Apollo AS300K #2 for several reasons. First, Napoleon has been in business for a much shorter time than Weber. Weber only makes smokers, grills and accessories, where as for Napoleon, it seems more of a sideline.

The Apollo AS300K, a vertical wood/charcoal smoker/grill similar to Weber’s Smokey Mountain Series, is a great example of the fact that there are many possible solutions for any single problem, in this case, how to stack grates to hold more food for smoking. Weber uses retaining tabs set at different levels. Napoleon decided to go with a modular approach. The basic unit is simply a kettle grill. By adding one or more of the modular sections, attached with metal clips, it converts to a smoker of two possible cooking volumes. Great idea, in theory at least. More about that later. It is made from steel sheet, but much thinner sheets than the Weber. But it does have something the Weber doesn’t….5 meat hooks in the lid to hang pieces of meat for smoking. Other features include:

  • Multi-vents for temperature control.
  • Cooking gates, each section contains a 20” cooking grate.
  • Temperature eyelet holes at each level for inserting a thermometer probe.
  • Dimensions: (with all three sections): 20” x 20” x 47”. Weight, when fully assembled: < 30 pounds.

First, the good. The Apollo’s modular design lends itself to a lot of situations, from a tail-gate hibachi to a full-size smoker. The meat hooks add to it’s versatility. The temperature probe holes let you check the temperature at different levels.

Now, the bad. Compared to the Weber, there are construction issues. While fully functional, the quality of construction is considerably below that of the Weber. The riveting appears a little sloppy in places. The steel is much thinner. The vent doors are made more cheaply,. The handles are cheaply made, but since they are bolted on, they could be upgraded. Heat leaks out between the sections because the metal clips do not make an airtight seal, and since they are riveted, replacement would be difficult, if not impossible. Heat also leaks out from the vent doors. All of the welded seams seem a little sloppy. There is no heat shield, so you will have to be very careful where you set the unit to use it. And lastly, it does not come with a cover. One can be purchased separately for around $30.00. However, when I tested the cover, water came in around the mesh bottom and pooled in the fire bowl. This would eventually rust out the bottom, so the unit must be stored indoors, even with the cover. These reasons are probably why the unit is only warranted for one year, vs the Weber’s 10-year warranty. Also, when I tested the thermometer in the cover (by putting the probe in boiling water…at my elevation, water boils at 205°F), it was off by 25°F.

While none of these issues would keep the until from working, for a while at least, I would expect more from a unit that costs around $350.00. It smokes meat acceptably, and is still better than a gas, or electric smoker. And it does work better than some other models in it’s price range. Because of this, the Apollo gets the #2 spot, right behind the Weber Smokey Mountain Series.

3. Brinkmann 810-5301-V Smoke’N Grill Charcoal Smoker

brinkmann

It’s not the best smoker, but good for the price.

Brinkmann, a division of the Remington Corporation, is a Texas-based company that imports and manufactures a lot of outdoor products, such as grills, smokers, flashlights, spotlights, knives, and more. They have been in business as Brinkmann for around 30 years. Brinkmann products are well-known due to being sold through large outlets such as Walmart, Home Depot, and others.

The #3 spot goes to the 810-5301-V Smoke’N Grill Charcoal Smoker. This is an entry-level vertical wood/charcoal smoker, with few bells and whistles. Remember, we rated these using price vs value as one of the criteria. This unit is a straight smoker/grill that can hold up to 50 lbs of meat at a time. At a retail price of $65.00 or less, it is by-far the least expensive smoker we reviewed. It is made in China, and the workmanship is adequate. Not great, but adequate. You get what you pay for. The unit features:

  • It has 2 cheaply made chrome-plated grates, but they do work.
  • It has a thermometer in the lid (sort of…)
  • Sturdy wooden handles that are surprisingly well-made.
  • The hinged aluminum front door is firmly attached and closes well.
  • Porcelain-covered water and fire pans.
  • Cover included
  • 1-year warranty

The best features of this unit is that it is great for a beginner, or as a back-up smoker. It doesn’t have a lot of things to have to fiddle with. It does exactly what it was intended to do…smoke meat. And it does this well.

Now for the bad. It’s a Chinese-made unit, so it is cheaply made, but fully functional for it’s intended purpose. There are no controllable vents, and no vent holes in the fire-pan, so it can clog up with ash. However, this is easily corrected by drilling 5 or 6 small holes in the bottom of the firebox, to allow more air circulation. The lid is not a snug fit, but tight enough to smoke. The access door is a little narrow, making it harder to add wood/charcoal, but still doable. The temperature gauge is a joke. It doesn’t even have any numbers on it. Just a dial of ranges that say, ” Warm, Ideal, and Hot”. I didn’t even bother testing it. The first thing I would do with this unit is replace the thermometer with a good numerical one. The cover is adequate, and kept the unit dry when tested. The worst thing is that Brinkmann Customer Service is non-existent. It is impossible to defeat their computer answering system to reach a live person. You have to leave a call-back number, which almost never results in a call-back. However, Walmart, and Home Depot both have good return policies if there is something wrong with your smoker.

Is this the best choice out there? Far from it. Are there better ones for under $80.00 new? Not at all. This smoker does what it is supposed to do, and for the $65.00, it represents a good value. With a few inexpensive modifications, it can be a very good smoker.

Final Words on Wood/Charcoal Smokers

These three smokers represent our idea of the 3 best buys for a charcoal/wood smoker. As you can see, there is a great deal of difference between the different models. They will serve you well in the years to come. They are not the most expensive, nor the cheapest, but the best value compared to the prices.
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Gas Smokers: Easy To Use Units

A gas smoker is very similar to a wood smoker, but instead of charcoal or wood as fuel, it uses propane to supply heat. Small amounts of smoke-wood are added for the smoke. While some grills are fueled by natural gas, all commercially-made gas smokers use propane. Some people have converted them over to natural gas, but this is inadvisable. Natural gas burns much hotter than propane. For smoking, you want a steady temperature of around 225°F, or less. Natural gas can make temperature control problematic for a smoker. Propane is readily available at most hardware stores, convenience stores, and other handy locations. It is relatively expensive and burns clean compared to other similar fuels.

No Pain with Propane Smokers

There are some advantages to using gas smokers:meat 1

  • The entire operation is much cleaner. You don’t have to fool-around with messy charcoal.
  • Controlling the temperature is much easier, mostly just turning a knob and watching the thermometer.
  • Propane burns cleaner than charcoal or wood, but this is a double-edged sword, as you will read about in the next section.
  • Gas smokers heat up quicker, usually within 10 minutes or so.
  • Gas smokers maintain more even temperature over time. Charcoal and wood get cooler as they burn down, so the temperature inside the smoker goes up and down a lot. It’s not really a problem, but it does mean you have to monitor the temperature closely, where as with gas, you just need to check your fuel tank periodically, and change tanks when necessary. The heat source is at a constant temperature as long as the gas is flowing.
  • Gas smokers are more convenient. Just turn on the gas, ignite the burner, apply smoke-wood, add food, close ‘er up and let it do it’s thing.

Propane’s Main Banes…

As handy as propane is, there are some drawbacks to using it in a smoker:

meat on grill

Tasty.

  • Your food will not have the signature ‘smoked’ flavor, because a lot of the character of smoked food comes from the combustion of wood. Something will be missing, but if you have never eaten food from a wood burner, you won’t notice. You have to almost taste them side-by-side to tell, as it is a very subtle difference. Propane produces less smoke, more water vapor, and more carbon monoxide, which inhibits the absorption of the smokey nuances. The food will still taste great, just not the same as in a wood-burner.
  • You won’t get the same crispy skin (called the ‘bark’), or the same reddish ‘smoke-ring’ on your food as you would with a woody. They will still be there, just a little different.
  • A gas-burner will not get as hot as a wood smoker. This doesn’t really matter much when smoking, because you only need around 225°F, but for grilling, you need to sear the meat as soon as it hits the grill, requiring temperatures of 800°F, or higher. A gas grill/smoker won’t make it that high.
  • There is a slightly higher possibility of mishaps, due to the flammable nature of propane gas. Propane is rated as a Class 2.1 Hazardous Material. While perfectly safe under most conditions, freak accidents have happened. Always store your tanks outside the house, even when you think they are empty..
  • You have make sure none of your vents are facing directly into the wind. A sudden gust could blow out the burner, and the regulator will still keep spraying propane, which will build-up in the smoker. The only other thing needed for a disaster is for an unwary cook to check on the smoker with a lit cigarette, cigar, pipe, or cause a static spark, and KABOOM! You’ll be scrapping your turkey off the side of your house for hours.
  • Propane is odorless, so the law requires that a chemical is added to make it smell, so that gas leaks can be detected. This can impart a ‘unique’ flavor to your food. Many have described it as “bacon-ish”. Others say they do not detect it.
  • Propane costs more than wood or charcoal, which for those of us who live in the boonies, is often free.
  • You have to have at least 2 propane tanks, because they have a habit of running out when you are in the middle of smoking something. Most gas smokers do not come with a propane tank.
  • Gas smokers are not allowed in most competitions and cook-offs.

As you can see, there are both advantages, and disadvantages to gas smokers. Thousands of people successfully smoke food in gas smokers every day. Whether or not a gas smoker is right for you…only you can decide. Do you want to be a ‘purist’, or do you want convenience? There is room in the smoking world for both.

Gas Smokers: The Big Three Reviewed

We’ve selected our favorite 3 gas smokers, based on our experience, price, users needs, etc…. They are:

1. Masterbuilt Cookmaster Propane Smoker

masterbuild 1

Solid and well-built, it’s my favorite gas smoker.

There is no question, Masterbuilt is the King of gas and electric smokers. The company began in 1976 as M & M Welding, changing the name to Masterbuilt in 1982 (it’s a long story…). The company makes outdoor cookers, and after-market automobile accessories. Some of their many innovations were creating the first electric Turkey Fryer, the first Electric Smoker, and the first indoor Turkey Fryer.

All of Masterbuilts smokers are built like tanks. They are solid, and feel very well-built. Nothing on them looks, or feels cheap. These are the Cadillac of propane smokers. You will find Masterbuilt smokers in some of the finest BBQ restaurants, steakhouses, and resorts in the world. Professional cooks appreciate the consistency and time-saving convenience of these smokers. Masterbuilt’s Propane Smoker easily captured the #1 spot in our reviews.

Here’s why:

  • Two sizes to choose from: a 30” and a 40”masterbuild
  • 4 heavy-duty chrome smoking racks, with 717 sq. inches of cooking space for the 30”, and over 1300 Sq. inches for the 40”.
  • They come with a Type 1 regulator and hose, with a spark igniter, and a gas control knob.
  • A porcelain-coated drip/water bowl and wood chip tray.
  • A super-accurate thermometer in the door, and a push-button igniter.
  • A 15,400 BTU stainless steel burner.
  • A cool-touch handle, to lock the main door.
  • Insulated for better heat retention.

The 30” model is large enough for most multi-family functions, but for those who think they may need to smoke a whole mastadon, or a medium-sized dinosaur in the future, the 40” has enough room to smoke just about anything that walks, climbs, swims, or flies (cut into manageable pieces, of course). The insulation stretches your propane supply, giving about 24 hours of smoking time per tank. And if you are not sure whether you want a wood/charcoal smoker, or a gas smoker, you’re in luck. Both sizes of the Cookmasters can also be used as wood smokers, and you can still use the propane to start the charcoal. The doors seal good, and there is little leakage of heat or smoke. The thermometer on the unit tested to +/- 5°F, which is good in anyone’s book.

The only drawbacks I could see in this unit is that it does not come with a cover. Also, the water pan is a little small for this size smoker, so I would recommend replacing it with one of those $1.00 larger aluminum ones. The only other thing I can think of is to add a beer bottle opener on the side, and you’re good to go…

Considering the prices, these smokers are a bargain, anyway you slice it.

2. Camp Chef Smoke Vault

smoke vault

The 24” size is big enough for all my smoking needs.

Camp Chef is based in the Cache Valley, Utah, within sight of the breathtaking Bear River Mountain Range. What better place for making outdoor supplies? And make it they do, since 1990. Camp Chef specializes in high-end outdoor cookers, and cooking supplies. Their Smoke Vault Propane Smoker was good enough to earn the #2 spot in our review.

The Smoke Vault comes in two sizes, 18” and 24”. Both models have fully adjustable heat controls, an accurate door thermometer, a heavy gauge steel wood chip tray, and water pan, and lots of accessories are available, such as patio covers, beer can roaster racks, turkey cannons, rib racks, and more…. Some of the great features are:

  • Comes with 2 adjustable smoking racks and 1 jerky racksmoke vault 24
  • You can remove the porcelain base tray for easy clean-up
  • 3 damper vents for good temperature control and circulation
  • matchless ignition
  • a protected burner drum for excellent heat-control
  • Dimensions (for 24”model): 24″ W x 16″ D x 30″ H.
  • Total Height (with legs): 44”.
  • 18,000 BTU/hr
  • Weight: 75 lbs.

This is a serious piece of cooking equipment. It is solid, and well built. The 24” is big enough to easily smoke 2 large turkeys at once. All of the door hinges, and vents feel secure. In the event that something does go wrong, Camp Chef has excellent Customer Service.

One really nice characteristic about this smoker is that it is stingy with propane. You can easily get 24 hours or longer out of a regular tank of propane, at normal smoking temperatures. It holds heat well, so if you do run out of propane in the middle of smoking, the temperature will stay steady for the few minutes it takes to switch out the tanks. The Smoke Vault requires very little babysitting. Another great feature is that you can get it hot enough to actually bake in it at temperatures up to 500°F, which means that outdoor pizzas, and other baked goods are possible. The two sizes make it easy for you to find the right smoker for your situation. The 18” is great for anyone with limited space, or just really doesn’t want the huge space of the 24” model. Even the 18” has enough cooking area to do a large turkey, or a large amount of food at one time, more than enough for most family get-togethers. Other than size and weight, the two models are identical.

The downsides? Well….there really aren’t any. It was a tough choice giving this the #2 spot, and it was a very close contest. We rated it as number two only because it is not really set-up to be able to also use it as a charcoal smoker, like the Masterbuilt, and it only comes with a 90-day warranty, vs the Masterbuilt’s 10-year one. Also, it was a little more expensive than the Masterbuilt. If you want a gas smoker, this one will absolutely do the job for you, and do it very well, with a minimum of fuss.

3. Outdoor Leisure 34168G Smoke Hollow Propane-Gas Smoker

smoke hollow

Smaller and easier to bring around, if needed.

Outdoor Leisure products is very difficult to get any real information from. They were incorporated in Texas around 40 years ago, but that incorporation is now inactive. It could be another company with the same name. The current address for the company is in Neosho, Mo. Their website supplies no useful information about the company, basically just a list of officers, and a contact number. The Better Business Bureau has no information on them. Calling the phone number gets you to an automated system for leaving a call-back number. And, a big shocker…no call-back as of the time of this article. This makes me suspect that they are just a sub-division of a large import company that brings products in from China, and other overseas locations to market to Walmart, Home Depot, and other large retailers. All of their smokers are made in China.

This is by far the smallest gas smoker we examined. It measures 16” x 13” x 34”, and weighs about 60 lbs. It is small enough to put in the trunk of some cars (with a little help, maybe…). Some of its features are:

  • a push-button ignition
  • 3 adjustable cooking racks
  • porcelain-coated wood chip tray and water pan
  • cast brass burner
  • temperature control knob
  • magnetic door closure
  • 2 side-handles for easy and convenient transport
  • temperature gauge

I examined one of these units at a local feed store. From other reviews I’d read, I was prepared to deal with some issues. They had one in the box, and I volunteered to assemble it for their display. The outward appearance was similar to the Masterbuilt, but appearances can be deceiving. The unit felt solid. But the bolts and nuts were really cheap pot metal. The nuts were all press-fit, and the bolts will strip in a heartbeat, so extra care must be taken when assembling the unit. Also, I noticed that the regulator was permanently attached to the hose, which is not a good thing if you ever need to change the jet.

When I tried to attach the smoker housing to the burner housing, I noticed the holes for the screws did not line up, no matter what I did. Upon closer examination, I noticed the corners of both the smoker and burner housings were very sloppily welded, some with as much as a 1/4” gap. This made it impossible to continue with the assembly. The store had 4 more in boxes, and by going through all of them, I was able to mix and match enough parts to get one put together. Many of them had the powder coat damaged, and were missing pieces. All-in-all, the workmanship of all the parts is pretty shoddy. The door handle is press-fitted, and it promptly came off in my hand the first time I pulled on it. The thermometer was off by 35° (I tested it with boiling water), so I replaced it with a Weber model SKU 2269, that tested +/- 3°.

After assembly, I tested the smoker in operation. They planned on using this unit for their week-end barbecues and the street dance (I live in a very small, rural community…), so they said it was OK to put it through it’s paces. I coated the inside with olive oil to season it. I hooked it up to a 5-gallon propane tank, and….the push-button starter did not work. I had to go through two of the other units before I found one that worked. Once I got the burner going, I set the temperature to Low. The smoker heated up to 300°F very quickly, which was OK for seasoning it, but much too hot for smoking. I let it season at that temperature for about an hour, then tried to lower the temperature. The only way I could get the temperature to the 180° to 250°F range was by turning the knob past High, and starting it at Low, again. This seemed to remedy the problem.

We threw in some mesquite chips, and loaded it with a brisket, a pork roast, and 2 chickens, all unseasoned. After 12 hours, the meat was perfectly smoked, with a nice thick smoke-ring, beautiful bark, and a mouth-watering natural taste. The brisket was so tender that it hardly required chewing. This smoker is very good on propane. We only used a little less than half of a 5-gallon tank in 13 hours.

The bottom line is that if you are willing to go through a little hassle, these can be good units. At an average retail price of $209.00, it seems a little over-priced, considering the poor workmanship. They rate well below the other two we reviewed, but they can be made to work. This one got a #3 rating because I could only rate 3 smokers. From what I hear from other professional grillers, this one is the best of the Chinese smokers, so the others must be a lot worse. This smoker will eventually work well for you, but be prepared to return a few before you get one that does what it should.

Some Last Words on Propane Smokers…

As you can see, price is not always a good indicator of quality. You should check any unit you are thinking of buying very well. And remember, the ones in the store were mostly likely assembled by a clerk that had other things to do, so they may not be assembled all that good in the store. It’s best to get one in the box, examine it at the store, then assemble it yourself at home. Propane smokers can be your gateway top a whole new world of culinary delights. Keep reading to see the other options.
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Pellet Smokers: Automatic and Precise

In this part of the guide, we’ll be talking about the newest type of smoker on the market, wood pellet smokers. Purists will tell you that the only way to get the true smoked food taste and character is with a charcoal/wood smoker, pretty much just like our paleolithic chef de cuisine ancestors did. But, charcoal/wood smoking involves a good bit of work, and planning. So the quest was on to find an easier way to smoke food. Propane worked, and was much easier, but it did change the taste of the food slightly. Once Nikola Tesla perfected the AC generator, it was a logical step to apply it to cooking, more specifically, to smokers. Electric smokers were (and still are) incredibly easy to use, but again, the food still is a little different. So the problem was to find a way to get the real smoked taste of charcoal and wood chips, with the convenience of propane and electricity.

The Traeger Story

In 1982, Traeger designed a heating unit that used pellet as fuel.  They eventually figured out that this system would also work well as a grill/smoker. By adding a fan, they designed a smoker/grill that operated much like a convection oven. And history was made. It wasn’t long before other companies were marketing their own versions of wood pellet smokers, and now there is one available to fit just about any situation.

How To Become A Pellet Zealot…

Pellet smokers are truly the best of all worlds. They are as easy to use as any electric smoker, but since they smoke, and cook with a real fire, and real wood, the food has the same taste profile and characteristics as a charcoal/wood smoker provides. The only drawback is that they can only use wood pellets as fuel, but why would you want to use anything else, anyway? Pellets may seem to be a little more expensive than charcoal, at an average of $1.00 per pound vs .50-.75 cents per lb for charcoal, but wood pellets are as cheap, or cheaper than charcoal plus your wood chips, which can be pricey depending on what wood you want.

pellet burning

Burning pellets.

Building A Better Mouse-Trap….

Wood pellet smokers are the easiest smokers to use of all the types. They have a precise thermostat controlled temperature setting, so all you do is dial in your desired temperature. Then, you just load your wood pellets in the hopper, fill the drip pan, load your food, turn it on, and forget about it until the food is done. That’s all there is to it. The smoker automatically feeds the wood pellets and maintains the selected temperature. So, in a nutshell:

Pros:

  • Everything is automatic. Except for loading the food, wood pellets, setting the temperature, and cleaning.
  • Maintains precise control without monitoring.
  • Food has the signature smoked flavor profile.

Cons:

  • Can only use wood pellets.
  • They have to be plugged in to a 100v electrical power source.
  • Price. Wood pellet smokers cost a little more than other smokers, on average
  • Your friends, relatives, and neighbors will be stopping by a lot to see what’s cooking…

Reviews Of Our 3 Favorite Pellet Smokers

We’ve selected the top 3 wood pellet smokers, based on our experience, customer needs, price, features, and more… They are:

1. Rec Tec Model 680 Wood Pellet Grill

rec tec 1

The king of pellet smokers. You can’t go wrong with this smoker.

The Rec Tec Model 680 easily made the #1 spot on our list. With features like heavy-duty stainless steel construction, locking caster wheels, stainless steel firebox, and more…it could hardly miss. More features include:

  • Rec Tec’s proprietary Smart Grill Controller technologyrec tec 2
  • proprietary PID algorithm, maintaining precise automatic temperature control throughout the entire cooking process.
  • attractive High-Temp powder coat finish
  • 4 tool hooks
  • hopper holds 2 large (20 lb) bags of pellets, enough for several long smoking sessions
  • grill/grates made from solid 1/4” stainless steel
  • 10 gauge stainless steel firepot
  • 12 gauge stainless steel heat deflector and drip pan
  • modular construction for easy replacement of parts
  • Even heat, from 180°F-500°F
  • a full 19” x 38” cooking area for 680 cubic inches of smoking space, with over 9” of headroom
  • side and bottom shelves
  • pellet loader doubles as a warmer
  • interior light for night-smoking and grilling
  • 6-year warranty with first-class Customer Service 

Never having used one of these before, I was a little apprehensive. I may be a great chef, but I am famous locally for being mechanically inept. My stepson is a manager at the local Ace Hardware store. I am so bad with tools that if I go in there without my wife, they page him and make him escort me through the store. They will not sell me anything without a note from my wife. I heard a rumor once that the City Council had entertained a motion to declare any tool in my possession as a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Nevertheless, I managed to acquire a new Model 680 to assemble and test. One reason I never used one before was that I regarded them as a new-fangled gadget for people that didn’t know how to smoke food the right way. Boy, was I ever wrong……

pellets for smoker

pellets.

Assembly was surprisingly easy, even for me. It took me about 1-1/2 hours. A good handy-person could probably do it in 25 minutes or so. If I can do it, anybody can. All the parts were well-made, the welds neat, and all the joints were true. Rec Tec’s Customer Service Dept. assured me that, although some of the parts are fabricated in China, the electronics, assembly and Quality Control are done here in the US, mostly at their facility in Augusta, Ga. I was very impressed with the quality of the all the parts. The grill was made from solid 340 stainless, not the cheaper 400 stainless steel common in a lot of other units. Assembled, the unit feels as solid as an M-1 Abrams tank, and just as powerful. The wheels rolled smoothly, and locked solidly. All the doors and hinges worked smooth as well. The electrical cord was long enough, without being so long as to be getting in the way. The smoker weighs over 200 lbs, but it is so well balanced that it was fairly easy to roll around, even in the grass.

I loaded it with 20 lbs of Woodmaster blended pellets (cherry, maple and hickory), filled the water pan, and seasoned the smoker at 420ºF for 20 minutes. All I had to do was set the temperature and punch a button. It only took 17 minutes to reach the temperature, and the thermometer was dead-on. It didn’t even have to reload any pellets during the break-in.

Next, I loaded it with a large ham, 2 large Perdue chickens, a feral hog loin, and a deer tenderloin. It would have held more, but that’s all I had thawed out. The timer goes all the way to 24 hours, so I set the timer for 14.5 hours at 210°F, and let it do it’s thing. It felt really weird not having to ever check on things, and I was constantly walking out just to see if it had blown up, caught fire, or some other catastrophe. At no time did the temperature ever vary more than 3°F. There was no need to check on it. It was happily smoking along, using around ½ lb of pellets per hour. It only used a little more than 7 lbs. of pellets during the entire smoking process. My Weber would’ve used at least 20 pounds or more of charcoal, + wood chips, during the same period of time.

All of the meat came out texbook perfect. The flavor was at least as good, if not maybe a bit more refined, than in my charcoal smokers. All of my friends and neighbors agreed. I would rate this as a professional-quality unit.

2. Traeger Elite Model

traeger elite

My second choice for pellet smokers.

From the creators of the original wood pellet smoker, a smaller kinder smoker. Under normal circumstances, Tragers would’ve been a shoe-in for the #1 spot, but alas, as of two years ago, 2 things happened to cause them to lose ground. They started outsourcing to China, and their marketing director, Bruce Bjorkman left the company, and now works at USA-made Mak Grills. As expected, the quality and workmanship has suffered a little. But they are still good enough to take our #2 spot with their Lil Texas Elite.

The Lil Texas Elite is a re-worked version of their popular Lil Texas smoker. The Elite has upgraded wheels, and an upgraded multi-position thermostat. The Lil Texas Series was designed to be a small smoker for people with limited space, or need a more portable smoker. It is supposed to be capable of putting out a maximum of 20,000 BTUs. It features:

  • 418 sq. inches of cooking space. It will hold approximately 20 lbs of food.
  • Dimensions: 41” x 22” x 24”
  • Weight: 127 lbs
  • powder-coat finish
  • comes with a cover

The assembly instructions were a little hard to figure out, but I was finally able to fit everything together with the correct fasteners. When assembled, it felt sturdy, and looked like a standard Texas-Style charcoal grill/smoker, only a lot smaller. The hood was a little sticky on opening, but a little Break-Free on the outside of the hinges fixed it fine. The wheels were also a bit sticky, and the left rear one had a habittraeger elite 1 of hanging up every so often. The grate was a standard chrome one that you see on all of the other retail Made-In-China brands. The drip pan seemed to be thin aluminum, and I thought there might have been a tiny pinhole in it. I didn’t trust it, so I lined it with aluminum.

It only heats up to 375°, which is just barely enough to season it, but I loaded it with pellets, water, and started it up, anyway. I let it go for around 1 hour. To my surprise, it is a hungry little unit, digesting 1.5 pounds of pellets. The thermostat was off by -17 degrees, so it was actually 392°F. Not a deal-breaker, but again, a little disappointing. I wanted to smoke some carp in it, but I could never get the temperature down to the 160°F range I needed for slow-smoking. 210°F was the lowest it would go, so I did 2 chickens instead. I smoked them for 4 hours at 220°, and they came out fine. I did some hamburgers on the grill at 320°F and they were fantastic.

This would be an OK smoker for a small patio. It is one of the better Made-In China pellet smokers you will find. It works pretty much as it should. It’s not going to give you professional results, but more than adequate for family get-togethers and such. Actually, as a grill, it works very well.  For the money, it’s not bad. There are better pellet smokers out there, but not in this price range.

3. Traeger BBQ155.01 Junior

traeger pellet

Smaller but really good.

If you are looking for a pint-sized pellet smoker for easy portability, or limited space, this may be just the unit for you. The Traeger Junior Elite made # 3 on out list because for it’s size and price, it represents a good value. It features:

  • digital thermostat-controlled heat
  • porcelain-coated grate,
  • auto-start ignition
  • 20” x 15” grate, allowing 300 sq. inches of cooking space
  • Dimensions: 38” x 36” x 16”
  • Weight: 69 lbs

Assembly was easy, and all the parts fit reasonably well for an Asian-made product. Assembly took me around 1 hour.traeger

When assembled, the smoker feels sturdy. The wheels rolled smoothly, and all the vents and the lid moved freely. One of the grate spacers was a little mis-aligned, but I was able to bend it by hand to where the grate would fit on it. The drip pan was aluminum, and the firebox is thin steel. The body is made from thin 20-gauge steel with no insulation, so smoking in winter could be a problem if you live where it gets really cold.

I seasoned it at 375°F (that’s as hot as I could get it, but it did heat up quickly…) for 30 minutes. When I checked the thermometer, it was off by -25°F, so it was actually at 400°F. I was able to fit 2 whole racks of ribs in it, and I loaded it with hickory pellets, water and hit the start button. Allowing for the thermostat differential, I set it for 190°F for 5 hours. When I checked it an hour later, the temperature was actually 217°F…just right. It maintained that temperature for the whole cooking time, within +/- 2°F…not bad at all.

The ribs came out wonderfully. The unit used 5 pounds of pellets, which isn’t bad. The drip bucket and heat shield cleaned up easily, as did the grill. All-in-all, a nice experience.

A few suggestions:

  • I would replace the small wheels on this with lawn mower wheels. It should be an easy switch.
  • You really need a cover if you store this outside.
  • Get the add-on shelves for it. They will come in handy.
  • Get the add-on pellet hopper extension, because the hopper only holds a few pounds of pellets at a time.

For a single person, or maybe even a small family, or if you have limited space, this smoker will do you a good job. It is light for this type of smoker, and easily portable. At around $300.00 retail, it represents a very good bargain for what it does.
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Electric Smokers: Set-and-Forget

Electric smokers have the advantage of you not having to fool with messy wood and charcoal, or smoker racksflammable gas. Electricity is safe and relatively cheap. Since most electricity is generated by hydroelectric dams, nuclear power-plants, and even wind, electricity is clean, and environmentally friendly. To make them even more convenient, many even come with remote controls. Some also come with accurate digital thermometers.

There are 2 main drawbacks to using an electric smoker:

  • Your food will be missing some subtle nuances. As we’ve already mentioned,  but not really enough to make much of a difference to the average person.
  • The heating elements. These are the weakest part of the unit, and can go bad without warning. Replacement is easy for the models that are replaceable. Otherwise, you’ll need to replace the entire element and housing, which can run as high as $60.00. As a rule, elements last about as long as the ones in an electric kitchen stove.

We’ve selected the top three electric smokers available, based on our experience, user needs, and other factors. They are:

1. Masterbuilt 40” Stainless Steel Digital Electric Smokehouse

masterbuilt electric smoker

My all-time favorite electric smoker, featuring a large front window.

It’s not really much of a surprise that Masterbuilt made the #1 spot for consumer electric smokers. This is in my opinion the best electric smoker out there: Ultra-reliable, extremely well-built with top quality workmanship, it’s easy to see why you will find Masterbuilt smokers on a lot of patios.

This particular model was the first digital electric smoker on the market, and is still one of their top-sellers. It comes in both a 30”, and a 40” size. Some great features are:

  • attractive stainless steel constructionsmoked brisket
  • a large front window so you can watch your food as it smokes
  • a remote controller
  • a built-in meat probe and ultra accurate digital thermometer, to take the guesswork out of temperature control
  • 4 large adjustable smoking racks. Large enough for just about anything you may want to smoke, except for whole hogs, or sides of beef
  • removable drip pan and rear-mounted grease trap.
  • Wood chip dispenser, so you don’t have to open the unit to add more wood chips
  • Dimensions (for the 40”): 25.6 x 19.3 x 41.3 inches. Weight: 65.7 pounds

A local store was kind enough to let me test-drive one of these smokers. I selected one in the box to assemble for a store display and employee use. The manual and assembly instructions were very easy to read and understand. This unit looks and feels just like what it is, a high-end smoker. It feels solid, the doors and vents work smoothly, and the rivets and joints are neat and well-done. All of the parts fit perfectly together, and nothing feels cheap, very surprising for a Chinese-made product. Even though I am horrible with tools. assembly only took around 20 minutes.

One of the really neat features on this smoker is the wood chip dispenser. It has a wood chip box that you can load with pre-soaked wood chips, and when you turn the handle on the dispenser, it loads exactly 1 cup of wood chips in the wood chip pan. You never have to open the smoker to add more wood chips. The water pan is large enough, and loads easily on it’s rack. The grills were solid feeling, with no give to them, even when loaded heavy. I was able to load the racks with more than 50 lbs of meat with no trouble at all.

Both the meat probe and the digital thermometer tested to +/- 1°F. The temperature control goes all the way down to 100°F for slow-smoking, and up to 275°F, which is more than enough for any type of smoking you may want to do.

I smoked a lot of meat for the store’s Anniversary Parking Lot Party. The food came out as perfect as possible from an electric smoker. The slight loss of flavor character is more than made-up for by the convenience and accuracy of the unit. The remote control was especially helpful, and worked flawlessly. The wood chip loader worked smoothly, and it was nice not having to manually load more wood. The briskets and ribs I smoked were the hit of the party.

Anyone should be able to use this smoker successfully, even if you can’t follow a recipe. I can’t imagine an easier smoker to use.

2. Smokin It Model 2 Electric Smoker

smokin it smoker 3

A solid performer.

The only reason this smoker made #2 on our list, instead of #1, is because it is a little smaller than most of the others, at only 27” tall with the included caster wheels, and it doesn’t have a lot of extras. There is a smaller version, and a larger version of this model available. However, this one big enough to easily smoke 35 pounds of food at a time, more than enough for most family functions.

Some of its great features are:

  • stainless steel constructionsmokin it smoker
  • well insulated to reduce heat-loss
  • easily replaceable 700-watt heating element
  • 4 adjustable smoking racks
  • 3” caster wheels to make moving it around a breeze
  • Dimensions: 17-1/4″ x21-1/2″ x 27 (including wheels). Weight: 79 lbs

One of the cool things about this smoker is that, except for the casters, it comes fully-assembled. Upon examining the unit, my first impression was that this is a fairly well-made, scaled-down Chinese copy of my beloved Cookshack commercial-grade smoker. I wasn’t far off the mark. This smoker is a cut above most of the other smokers of the Asian-persuasion. It looks and feels solid, with no sloppy welds, or cheaply-made components. Even the 4 smoking racks are stainless steel.

This smoker is made from 18-gauge stainless steel, and feels like it could survive a direct hit from a Howitzer. It is well-insulated. The wheels roll smoothly, and moving it around was easy (one caution: you want to be sure it is on fairly level ground, or it may take off without you….the two rear casters can be locked). The drip pan slides under the smoker, and can be refilled without opening the door. The smokin it 2wood box is very well-built. The door has good solid latches that do not hang-up, and the door swings freely. The 12’cord was long enough, without being so long that it gets in the way. When you are carrying a heavy tray of meat, the last thing you need is a lot of loose electrical cable underfoot. Since it has wheels, it is easy to move near the electrical source. The thermometer tested to +/- 4°F, which is outstanding. I tested the insulation by heating it to 250°F, then turning it off and letting it set with the door closed. The air temperature was 54°F that day. After 20 minutes, it had only lost 10°F, which is as good a job of insulation as a lot of coolers. The smoker comes with a small bag of hickory chips for you to season it with….a nice touch. And, Smokin It’s website has a forum with all kinds of great tips, tricks, add-ons, DIY modifications, and recipes….enough to keep even a die-hard smokinero happy.

It easily smoked a large rack of ribs and a brisket to as good as an electrical smoker can get. It’s a bit pricier than a lot of consumer-grade smokers, but usually, you get what you pay for. It may not have as many bells and whistles as some other models, but it is a solid performer, and Smokin It has a ton of accessories for it.

3. Masterbuilt 20078215 GEN II 30” Electric Smoker

masterbuilt electric

Another great smoker by Masterbuilt.

Another great offering from the folks at Masterbuilt. This is one of their newer designs, with a sleek top-mounted digital control station, with a cool-looking blue LED display. One of the drawbacks with earlier digital displays was that they were unreadable in direct sunlight. This one eliminates the problem. Other neat features include:

  • an air damper, for better smoke circulation
  • a drip deflector, to help keep the inside of the smoker cleaner
  • a drip/water pan with front access
  • digital thermostat controlled heating to maintain a constant even temperature throughout the smoking process.
  • 4 chrome smoking racks, with a total possible cooking space of 730 cubic inches
  • a wood-chip loading system with a side wood-chip loader
  • 90-day Limited Warranty
  • Dimensions: 20” x 17” x 33.5”. Weight: around 60 lbs.

Much like putting toys under the tree on Christmas Eve, the term, “Assembly Required” has a special meaning for many of us. This smoker is no different. Fresh from the box, all the parts were about what I expected, well-made, and solid. No sloppy joints or welds, and everything fit well. The only assembly issue I had was that the drain tube was cut a bit too long, making it catch on the grease trap drawer. A little grinding with a Dremel took care of the problem. Also, the water pan seemed to hang up on something at times. A quick inspection showed there was a small burr on the edge of the pan. A few seconds with the Dremel, and it was a thing of the past. Aside from these issues, assembly was uneventful. The manual was easy to understand, unlike many other Chinese-made products.

masterbuiltThe adjustable spacers for the racks were nice, and fit well. It was easy to adjust the smoker for different sizes and types of meat. It’s a shame they didn’t think to put some meat hooks for hanging sausage in the top, because removing the racks would give it plenty of hanging room. Oh, well…you can’t have everything. The digital thermometer was dead-on accurate, and the thermostat tested to +/- 3°F….plenty good enough for most smoking. The smoker heats up reasonably quick. It reached 225°F in around 18 minutes…not bad. The automatic cooking timer was short by 2 seconds, not a problem. The electronics seem to be very good quality. The unit is insulated good enough that it only lost 25 degrees in 20 minutes after it was shut-off, even though it was in the mid-40s that day.

Smoking a turkey was as easy as loading the bird, and setting the temperature and time. You can vary the amount of wood-chips for as much, or as little smoke as you want. The smoker was very judicious with the wood-chips. I only had to re-load wood-chips twice in 14 hours. The side-loader worked flawlessly. I never had to refill the water tray. It had only gone down by half.

Personally, I liked the fact that this smoker doesn’t have a front window. I don’t like windows on cookers of any kind, because they provide an avenue of escape for heat. But that’s just me. It’s been my experience that they quickly get too smeared and stained to really see anything anyway. I don’t know of anyone that sits there and watches food smoke. That’s in the same category as watching the grass grow to see when to mow it. Some hooks in the top would be a nice addition, and could probably be DIY’ed. But over-all, at an average retail price of around $200.00, this is a good smoker for the money. For most family uses, it will do exactly what it is supposed to do…smoke food with a minimum of fuss. There aren’t many smokers in this price-range that are better, but a lot that are a whole lot worse.

These are our top-three rated smokers, based on our experience, price, performance and features. We hope you find these reviews helpful, and that we are taking some of the mystery out of smoking.
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Offset Smokers: Versatile Units

Horizontal smoker, simply referred to as Offset smokers, have 2 advantages:crispy smoked brisket

  1. They also function as a grill with a very large cooking area.
  2. You can smoke a lot of stuff at one time. Some are big enough for a whole side of beef.

For large get-togethers, offset smokers are a standard feature. Many parks, camping areas, and recreation areas have permanent offset smokers for large groups to rent and have barbecues.

A Star Is Born….

The first offset smokers were designed and fabricated by hungry Texas oil field workers in the late 1960s. The rapid expansion of oil fields meant that these hard-workers had to spend long months in some pretty remote locations, far from restaurants. They began to make smokers based on BBQ pit designs, from surplus oil pipes (cleaned up, of course….) and oil barrels. They mounted these huge units on trailers so they could be towed behind a vehicle to wherever the workers were. Now, they could cook their own food wherever the job took them. The units worked so well, that in 1973, a Houston, Tx. businessman, Wayne Whitworth, began fabricating the units and selling them locally to the public. They became very popular, went national, and now make up a significant portion of all smoker sales.

What is an offset smoker?

basic offset smoker

A horizontal offset smoker is basically just a large steel tube, or box, with access doors cut into it, laid on its side and fitted with legs. with a separate firebox at one end, connecting to the main chamber so smoke and heat can travel the length of the unit. A thermometer is usually installed. It’s really a simple design, and it’s amazing that someone hadn’t thought of it sooner.

Offset smokers can be charcoal/wood, gas or pellet fueled. Whatever the fuel, fire is built in the smoke box with charcoal and smoke-wood (or gas and smoke-wood, or pellets, etc…). The heat dissipates oxygen in the firebox, causing a vacuum that pulls air from outside, through the vent. The temperature is adjusted by opening or closing the vents, allowing more, or less air to enter. The smoke from the wood then travels through the portal into the main chamber and circulates around the food, then flows out through the smokestack, which is also adjustable. The amount of smoke can be controlled by adjusting the exit vent, and smokestack vents for more, or less smoke.

inside offset

By building a fire in the main chamber, directly under the food, instead of in the fire-box, the unit also functions as a large grill, making it very versatile. That’s really all there is to them. Whether they are charcoal, gas, or pellet-fueled, they all work the same way.

Why An Offset Smoker?

There are lots of reasons for having an offset smoker. Vertical and offset smokers both have their defenders, and defend them they do…fiercely at times. As for me, I own both types. I use both types. I like both types. Each has it’s pros and cons. Which one I use depends on the situation. If I am smoking for just the Mrs. and myself, or 2 or 3 guests, I use the vertical smoker, mainly because it it easier to clean. I just take it to the car wash, hose it down with detergent and degreaser, scrape the grill, drip bowl and fire bowl with a brass brush, hose it down with hot water, dry it, and it’s good as new, ready to fire-up again. It takes about 10 minutes, and costs me .75¢. If I want to do 50 pounds of meat, a whole hog, ribs, or 5 turkeys…. I use the offset. To clean it, I have to use the garden hose, degreasers, brass brushes, and get really messy. About twice a year, I take the grates to a machine shop and have them sandblasted.

Advantages:

  • Large cooking area holds all the food you will ever want to smoke at one time. Even the small units can easily hold 50 lbs or more of food.
  • Few moving parts means there is not much that can go wrong. Mechanically, at least….
  • Plenty of room to spread out slow-smoking items. Like peppers, veggies, fish, chicken breasts, etc….
  • The only non-permanent way to efficiently cook for large numbers of hungry people. Such as neighborhood BBQs, Family Reunions, etc…
  • Easily modified and can be customized.

Disadvantages:

  • Very heavy and bulky. Takes some planning to transport.
  • They usually cost more than vertical smokers.
  • Cleaning these is a real job.
  • Large size means it takes more charcoal/gas/pellets to heat it up.
  • Poorly designed units often leak smoke. And have uneven heat and smoke circulation, although this can be easily fixed.

Char-Griller 1224 Smokin Pro Review

smokin pro

A few modifications can bring this smoker to a whole new level.

Here is a review of a typical lower-end offset smoker, the Char-Griller 1224 Smokin Pro:

The Char Griller 1224 Smokin Pro is a traditional barrel-designed smoker, made from heavy-gauge, powder-coated steel. Some of it’s features are:

  • Offset firebox is lower than the level of the main chamber, promoting good, even circulation of heat and smoke.
  • Heavy-duty, non-stick cast iron grates.
  • Removable Charcoal Drawer.
  • Dimensions: 62” x 29” x 52”.   Weight-146 lbs.

I was able to find one of these at a local hardware store, and they agreed to let me smoke some chickens in it, for their employees. It was already assembled, so I couldn’t review the assembly procedures, but I did talk to the person that assembled it for the store, and she said that the only difficult part was that it can be assembled with, or without the firebox. Attaching the firebox required hammering and punching horizontal smokerout a panel in the side, but she said it wasn’t really all that bad. All the parts fit correctly, all the welds were neat and well-done, and all the parts were there.

I seasoned it at 400°F (148.8°C) for 45 minutes. The thermometer was only off by 9 degrees, better than what I expected. Next, I loaded it with 6 large chickens, and some mesquite wood. I placed a stainless steel mixing bowl full of water at the near end of the main chamber. I smoked the chickens for 6 hours, and I don’t see how they could have come out more perfect. The staff agreed. Clean up was fairly easy for this type of smoker. I basically just had to hose it out with some dish-washing detergent, and rinse. The non-stick grill mostly just wiped off, with no need for a wire brush. The fire box drawers made clean-up much easier. I just dumped the box, and wiped out the compartment. I would’ve cleaned it up to like-new condition, but a customer bought it as-is after tasting some of the chicken. Cleaning was completed by helping him load it into the back of his truck.

Off-the-shelf, this smoker is good to go. There was only 20ºF (6.6ºC) difference from the firebox to the far end of the smoker, so a modification is not really necessary (but I would do it anyway…more on that in a minute). The smoker sealed just about air-tight, and no smoke leaked out. I think about all I would do to this smoker is maybe replace the thermometer with 2 more accurate ones, one at each end. At a retail price of around $150.00, this is one of the best Chinese-made smokers that I have ever reviewed. I was truly impressed. It’s a consumer-priced smoker with near-professional quality. I highly recommend this unit if you are in the market for an offset smoker, and don’t want to spend much more for a Yoder, Lang, Horizon, or other high-end professional unit.

Making It Yours: How To Modify Your Offset Smoker

One great thing about offset smokers is that they are easy to modify. With one exception, almost everything else on them can be improved. The exception is that some inexpensive smokers are made from very thin steel, resulting in uneven heat. There is a partial fix for this, but nothing that will completely eliminate it. But you can avoid this problem just by examining the smoker before you buy it, comparing it to other units. It is better to get a unit with the fire-box on the same side as the chimney, for better circulation, but this isn’t a deal-breaker. Even this can be overcome.

It is very possible to buy a relatively inexpensive smoker, and easily modify it to near-professional quality. If your on a short financial leash, the modifications can be done one-at-a-time. Here are some of my favorite mods to smokers:

  • The first thing I do with any smoker under $400.00 is to trash the thermometer. They are usually cheap and inaccurate. On an offset, the next thing I would do is plug the thermometer hole with Master Bond EP21NDFG Sealant. You need to be able to monitor the temperature at both ends of the smoker, so buy 2 new good thermometers. Next, drill 2 holes in the front facing of the smoker, about 8” from each end. Make the holes just big enough to be able to screw the new thermometers through the holes. Make the holes too big and you will have leakage. Install the thermometers. Now, you will have an accurate temperature reading on both ends of the smoker.
  • If your smoker gets a lot hotter near the firebox than at the far end, you need to install a deflector, convection plate, or a reverse-flow duct. There are several easy ways to do this. You can make a deflector plate that channels the heat and smoke under the food by cutting a flat metal panel to size, then attaching it at a downward angle above the opening from the fire-box, to the bottom of the main chamber. This forces the heat and smoke to flow under the food before going out the chimney. I have made these successfully from an old aluminum cookie sheet, and attached it with a small self-starting set-screws.
  • You can easily make a “poor-mans” reverse-flow duct system in your smoker by using the above method to fashion and attach a deflector plate, then just covering the grate with aluminum foil, and punching a lot of small holes in it. This forces the smoke under the grate. As the smoke and heat rise at the far end, the top is cooler than the bottom, forcing the heat and smoke to travel back towards the fire-box (it’s complicated physics…just trust me on this…it works…), then up towards the cooler air in the top, across and out the chimney. You can also fashion a duct system by cutting old cookie sheets to the correct width, bending them to shape, and attaching them with small set-screws. Here’s how the duct system looks:

convection modification

  • You can improve the circulation further by extending the chimney down further into the main chamber, forcing the heat and smoke to flow closer to the food. All you need is some aluminum flashing, available at just about any hardware store. Just roll it up, and insert it in the chimney from below. Now, heat the grill up and let the aluminum expand to fill the chimney. Once it has expanded, just grab the bottom end with pliers and pull it down 4 or 5”. Make sure the top does not extend beyond the top of the chimney, or it will interfere with the chimney vent. If the flashing won’t pull down below the chimney top, just cut it off flush.

chimney extention

  • Adding a water/drip pan is easy. Just use a disposable aluminum pan, fill it with water, and set it on the grate in the firebox, right above the charcoal grate.
  • Adding a charcoal grate. If your offset didn’t come with a charcoal grate (a secondary grate below the main one), you can make one easily by just buying a replacement grate the next size down from yours, and setting it underneath the main one.
  • Leaks can be sealed. You can use Master Bond EP21NDFG sealant, which is FDA approved for food-service use. It is rated to over 700ºF (371.1ºC)
  • If you have one of those smokers made of thin steel, you can do two things to maintain heat better. One is to wrap several bricks in aluminum foil, and place them in the bottom of the main chamber. It will take longer to heat up, but will hold heat longer, and more evenly. The other thing is to cover the main chamber with a welding blanket while smoking. This will absolutely insulate your main chamber.

With these modifications, you can turn any offset smoker into an almost pro-quality unit that will give you a lifetime of service. They are easy, cheap, and actually a lot of fun, especially if you are the kind of person that likes to tinker and fiddle with things. So don’t let your budget stop you from enjoying the great taste of food smoked in an offset smoker.

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Conclusion: Choose The Right Smoker For You

We hope you find our guide helpful, and that we are taking some of the mystery out of smoking meat. If you have questions, feel free to get in touch with us. If you like what you read, make sure to subscribe to TastyMeat’s email list.

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2 Responses to Choosing The Best Smoker: A 15000 Words Buying Guide

  1. Alexandre says:

    Had to save it and go through it in 3 different sessions. So informative (and helpful). Thanks

  2. Luth says:

    Reading your blog is pure pleasure! This post is super informative and helped me choose a great smoker. THANKS

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