As previously mentioned, for some people BBQ is just a loose term used for outdoor cooking. On the other hand, there is a group of people that looks at BBQ as a saintly way of cooking meat at low temperatures over long periods of time.
If you are considering the purchase of a smoker, which one should you buy? What are the main features that you would look for in a good smoker? What are the differences between the different smokers available in the market?
Should you purchase a gas, electric, charcoal, wood-fired, digital, vertical or dry smoker? Although there are many different varieties and options, BBQ smokers can be classified into two basic categories:
Vertical Water Smokers
Dry Smokers or Barbecue Pits
The offset BBQ smoker is the most predominately-dominantly used smoker, especially at competitions; however, both types of smokers are capable of producing delicious meats.
Vertical Water Smoker
The vertical, water Smoker is the simplest smoker to use. It has a heat source at the bottom and water pan above the heat source. The meat racks are located in the top of the smoker above the water tray. The heat source causes the water to steam thus heating the meat and also providing moisture to prevent the meat from drying. The Vertical Water Smoker is a very economical piece of equipment and it is sometimes referred to as a bullet smoker. You can purchase electric, propane or charcoal/wood burning Vertical Smokers.
Some of the least expensive vertical smokers use lightweight materials and have a small pan for the charcoal/wood. Although these smokers are easy to use and relatively inexpensive (big box home supply stores have them as low as $40 each), the disadvantage for a low cost vertical charcoal water smoker is that it can be challenging to maintain a constant temperature for a long period of time. Additional charcoal/wood may need to be added. Furthermore, in extremely cold temperatures it can be difficult to achieve the needed smoking temperatures (225 to 250 degrees) due to the thin metal used in the construction and small heat source pans.
Higher quality vertical smokers can be purchased to help alleviate some of these issues. You can find some vertical smokers in the $300 to $400 price range. Other varieties of these smokers include propane and electric versions that make it easier to maintain the temperature. You will just need to have plenty of propane on hand or an electric source. Also, for the electric model, it is obviously not as portable as the charcoal or propane versions.
The electric vertical smokers are very simple to use. Just plug them in. Personally, I have not had very good luck with the electric vertical smokers. I have owned two and the electrical heating element burned out in each in less than 1 year.
An insulated/ceramic Water Smoker is an improvement to the standard vertical smoker. Since the material is ceramic, it acts as an insulator and is able to maintain temperatures for longer periods of time. Some of these Smokers can be used for 15-16 hours continuously. One other consideration for water smokers is that smoking times are longer than dry offset smokers. Some estimates are 4x longer cooking times. From my personal use, I have experienced at least 2x longer cook times using a Vertical Water Smoker.
With availability in the $40 to less than $200 range, these Smokers make a good choice for the beginner. The lower cost minimizes your “out-of-pocket” cost in case you decide later that smoking is not something you want to actively pursue.
Offset Dry Smokers
A Dry smoker or barbecue pit is a time-honored smoker when compared to a vertical water smoker. These are the smokers you see being trailered down the road by a truck. They typically feature (although not always) an offset fire box on one side, a cooking chamber on the other side, some racks and a chimney. The heat source comes from split logs and/or charcoal, which are burned in the firebox. The vent or chimney sucks heat and smoke from the fire-box and sends it across the chamber. It also allows heat to escape, so that you can maintain the necessary low temperature.
Starting costs for Dry Smokers are anywhere between $200-$500, depending on the size. You can easily spend a few thousand dollars for a high quality, trailerable Offset Smoker.
Dry Smokers are the choice by BBQ Professionals. These professionals believe that dry smokers provide a more intense smoky flavor. These smokers have significantly larger cooking areas. Many of these Dry Smokers have the capacity to cook several briskets, pork shoulders and chickens all at the same time. It is more important to mop or baste the meat when using a dry smoker (as compared to a Vertical Wet Smoker) due to the totally dry heat. The main disadvantage in this type of BBQ Smoker is the effort required to retain a good, steady fire for a long time. With that said, many people that swear by these smokers enjoy the effort and resulting meats. The increased cost is also a consideration for some.
Electric Smokers are the newest addition to the smoker market. These are clearly the easiest to use. Electric Smokers start as low as $80 and work their way up to $2,500. You can get a very nice Electric Smoker for $300 to $400. This includes multiple racks, digital display and a remote control.
Some nice features of Electric Smokers are: specify exact temperature and the temperature is automatically maintained, many have glass fronts so you can view your meats while smoking and many have external, side wood chip loaders so you do not have to open the door to add wood chips. This prevents the temperature from dropping and shortens smoke times.
Some Electric Smokers have remote controls where you can monitor Smoker Temperature as well as the internal temperature of your meat without opening the door. Easy to use. Quick to get to temperature, 20 minutes or less to bring an Electric Smoker to 200 degrees.
Electric Smokers are excellent choices for those looking for easy, low-maintenance smoking. They require minimal space, have room for several different pieces of meat and are easy to use.