Imagine you’re gardening in your yard or relaxing on your deck, and there is a delicious smell wafting in the air. It just may be the smoked pork, ribs, chicken or brisket cooking slowly on your neighbor’s smoker that is causing you to salivate. And it will go on for hours—count on that!
If you want to step up your backyard grilling game, a smoker grill is a great upgrade. For anyone who enjoys the delicious flavor of smoked meat, a smoker is probably for you. Smoking meat provides a more awesome flavor, tenderness and total deliciousness, say fans of this cooking method. The flavor is stronger because the smoker captures and holds the smoke more efficiently than, let’s say, a standard gas or charcoal grill.
Unlike a regular gas grill, which is designed to reach high temperatures and cook meat quickly, smokers are designed to cook meat slowly at lower temperatures over a long period of time. The end result is usually a moister, tastier meat than other ways of cooking.
Types of smokers
Smokers can be fueled by charcoal, electricity, wood pellets or propane gas. Each one has its pros and cons. Plus, they come in many shapes and sizes—from portable tailgate models, to a large capacity smokers for serious pitmasters.
- Charcoal Smokers— One of the most popular types is the charcoal smoker. Fans of this type insist the flavor is stronger than some of the other methods. A ceramic cooker is a charcoal smoker that can double as a grill and so much more. The ceramic material retains heat better than metal. Many agree that this versatile ceramic kamado-style charcoal grill is worth the investment with its ability to grill, roast, smoke, bake and sear. The ceramic kamado-style charcoal smokers are growing increasingly more popular as they have recently dropped in price.
- Electric Smokers—Convenient to plug it in and let it go! Add mesquite chips or other flavored wood chips to the water pan, and you’ll get a new layer of flavor. Electric smokers have thermostats, which will mean less monitoring. Either way, it’s always good to check on the progress, regardless of the smoker type. With some non-electric models, you may have to check temps and water levels more frequently. Electric may be a great option for a novice who wants the great flavor of smoked meat without babysitting the smoker all day.
- Pellet Smokers—Electrically-powered, pellet smokers burn wood pellets to provide heat and smoke. This is a great option for being easy to operate but adding the flavor of the best charcoal/hardwood smokers. Keeping tabs on your smoker may not be as cumbersome as you think—especially if it’s football Sunday where you can easily check it during commercial breaks. Regardless, you do need to keep adding pellets throughout the process because they are burning, which can involve more work.
- Propane Gas Smokers—Powered by a propane tank, propane smokers heat faster and easier than electric smokers and are still easy to use. They are more portable, but you need to watch propane levels to be sure you don’t run out mid-smoke —and who hasn’t done that before with the regular propane grill? Same rules apply. If you run out, it’s a quick trip to get a refill or you can heat up the broiler. Gas smokers produce great flavor and are fairly easy to set and forget, and they are cheap. Best to keep an extra propane tank on reserve if need be. Some gas smokers also have the capability to switch to regular grilling, if you want to have the best of both worlds. If you go this route, prepare to spend a lot more on a good grill that does both well. (Typically they are good for one and not so much for the other.)
Things to consider
How much do you need or want to spend on a good smoker? It depends on the size and type. Prices range from $100 for cheap charcoal cookers up to $10,000 for smoker/grill combos. Generally, you can get a nice gas unit for under $200 or a good charcoal unit for $400; a pellet smoker can range from $600 to $1,000. Electric smokers range from $200—$800, depending on size. Ceramic egg smokers start at around $900 and can go as high as $2,000, depending on size and brand. Ultimately, the size, material and brand name of the smoker will be the biggest pricing factors.
Once you decide, you’ll need to consider how to pay for it. Whichever you choose, it may not be out of your reach. Don’t despair! Be sure to check out Tower’s Personal Loans or our Mastercard® offerings to move you in this direction.
- Size and capacity
How do you plan to use your smoker? Even some of the smallest smokers can make enough food for a crowd of 20 people. The largest smokers can produce enough food to cater a party all day long. As a general rule of thumb, you need one pound of raw meat per person. A small smoker may be perfect for your family. If you’re catering for big crowds, parties or otherwise, best to go big or go home.
How about extras? Do you want your smoker to be able to accommodate a turkey as well? It’s a delicious option, and if you want to do this, you need to make sure the smoker is tall enough to accommodate this and any future uses you can imagine. An adequately sized unit with adjustable shelves, a wide temperature range, and the ability to control the heat are necessities. A model that’s easy to clean will end up being more desirable to use. Consider also whether the smoker provides easy access to add pellets or charcoal.
Temperature control is one of the most important things to look for when choosing a smoker. The electric smoker leads the way with even temperature control—set it and forget it. More babysitting is required with pellet or charcoal smokers, although some high-end pellet smokers include a thermostat.
Charcoal smokers can be easier to control temperature if you add a thermostat. Because flames are fed by oxygen, the temperature settings on a gas smoker can be controlled by the dampers which affect airflow. Again, there’s more work involved with different types of smokers.
According to the experts, not only are electric smokers healthier than other types of smokers, but they’re safer too. They reduce heat and smoke leakage and eliminate the possibility of unsafe flare-ups from open flames and smoke, as well as reduce the overall smoking time. With the pellet type smokers, carcinogenic substances form when fat and juices from the meat drip onto a fire (much like grilling) causing flames to coat the food with potentially harmful smoke.
Is it ever safe to leave an electric smoker or any smoker unattended? While you can smoke meat overnight, you still need to monitor it. There are, however, wireless thermometers on the market that can speak directly to your smartphone if you leave the premises for a short time to keep you updated on the status of your smoking project. Rest assured, technology is on top of everything!
Whichever smoker you choose, consider that this could actually become a hobby for you and your family. Die-hard smoking geeks swear on the precision they take covering their meat with flavors, marinating overnight, putting great spicy rubs on, injecting the meat with additional flavorings and generally taking the whole thing very seriously. The end result? Delicious food, a happy family and very envious neighbors.
Resources: Bestreviews.com, Thespruceeats.com, Amazingribs.com, Smokingmeatgeeks.com, Burningbrisket.com, The Home Depot, NBC News