Smokers deliver that slow, low-temperature cooking that leaves all types of meat with deep, smoky flavor and juicy tenderness that’s hard to capture on a traditional grill. Smokers can also bake pizza or other foods, which make them very a versatile cooking tool.
So how can you pick the right smoker to start with when there are so many styles on the market?
Read this guide, where I explain what to look for before buying a smoker, what a smoker does, different types of smokers, the fuel they use, and some must-have features. I also review the best smokers for beginners so you, too, can enjoy the delectable meat only a smoker can deliver.
What To Look For When Buying a Smoker
You need to look at the following features before buying a smoker:
Size and Style
Smokers have a variety of sizes and shapes. Determine how much space is available where you’ll be using your smoker and how many people you expect to feed.
There are a few different styles of smokers – grills, kamado, pit barrel, and box.
Thermometer and Cooking Temperature Range
Look for a smoker with a wide temperature cooking range for more cooking options. Smoking meat is optimal at temperatures around 160 degrees while you may want the heat at 500 degrees for steaks. The larger the range, the more versatile your smoker will be.
Temperature monitoring is very important with smoking. Having a built-in thermometers makes it easy to check at a glance that the heat level is correct. So check if a model that interests you has one. If not, you’ll likely want to purchase an digital meat thermometer that you can use while cooking. There are many on the market, like the iGrill2 which is used mostly for Weber grills. You can also purchase a wifi meat thermometer for smokers which allows you to measure and sometimes manage the smoker’s temperature remotely.
The type of fuel that runs a smoker determines the time and effort you must put into operating the unit. Smokers can operate on:
- Wood Pellets
Wood and charcoal will be more difficult to operate since you’ll need to ensure a consistent temperature. But they will leave your food with the distinct “grill” flavor that you may desire.
Wood pellets will give the smokey flavor with the ease of of a propane gas or electric smoker. These work similar to pellet stoves where a steady flow of pellets is fed into the grill to keep it going.
Gas and electric smokers are more convenient. They deliver a more consistent temperature so there is less tending to the smoker. But if you use these they don’t impart as much flavor into the meat.
With most of these options, wood chips are necessary to add the smokey flavor that smoked meat is known form. They come in a variety of special flavors to amp up the smoky taste.
Smokers need to hold up to high-temperature cooking as well as exposure to the elements. Look for durable construction and heat and weather-resistant coatings.
Smokers should be able to both smoke and grill food, but some models are much more functional and let you also roast, braise, and bake. Look for a smoker most relevant to your cooking style.
Smoke and heat control
Look for a smoker with thick metal, and tight-fitting lids and doors so the heat and smoke stay inside. There should be dampers in convenient locations to control smoke and temperature.
Adding fuel to the smoker should be safe easy. Is the door to your fuel compartment difficult to reach? Must you lean over a hot surface? Do a “test run” of these scenarios before you buy.
While you get what you pay for is true, meat smoking beginners may want to start slow. You can get great smoked meat from an entry level smoker. Some of the more advanced smokers can put you back a few hundred dollars to over a grand. But you’ll find that some of the more affordable options will still produce great, delicious results.
What does a Smoker Do?
A smoker is a unit that simmers meat at a low temperature through exposure to smoke and indirect heat. This method of cooking leaves meat fall-of-the-bone tender while adding a delicious, smoky flavor.
Smoker grills utilize a design that allows the meat to sit near the heat source and not contact it directly. The smoke surrounds and absorbs into the meat, adding flavor.
Smoke leaves that tell-tale layer of pink under the outer crust of meat that means its been oh-so-slowly cooked.
Types of Smokers
Smokers come in an array of styles and sizes. In this section, I go over the difference between the types of smokers available.
Charcoal smokers deliver a classic flavor and use inexpensive and readily available charcoal as fuel. Most people use charcoal smokers with wood like cherry or mesquite to add extra flavor.
Using charcoal can be a bit messy and takes more time to get the smoker ready for cooking.
Gas smokers run typically on propane and have an igniter button, which is a convenient and mess-free way to start cooking. These smokers consist of a gas burner at the bottom with a tray above it to place wood chips. Above that are the grates to hold the meat.
Propane burns cleanly, so you rarely see sooty deposits on your meat. But, don’t expect that same smoky flavor found when using more traditional charcoal or pellet smokers.
Pellet smokers use small, high-energy wood pellets as fuel. Most have a digital controller, thermostat, and automatic pellet feeder to keep cooking temperatures consistent.
Pellet smokers deliver a great woody flavor with less monitoring of the temperature. Pellet smokers have a broad temperature range, which means they can bake, smoke, barbecue, roast, grill, or braise food.
Pellet smokers need electricity to run, so they are not as portable as other units. These types of smokers typically look like grills.
Kamado smokers have an oval design similar to traditional Indian or Chinese cookers. Most Kamado grills can handle grilling, baking, roasting, and smoking. Most use charcoal as the fuel source.
Kamado smokers are typically ceramic or coated steel that holds and radiates heat very efficiently without constant monitoring. Kamado-style smokers work well in cold climates, and the shape takes up less space.
The bottom of the smoker holds the firebox, with cooking grates near the top. The lid has a vent to control smoke and heat. The curvature of the cover returns the heat onto the cooking grates.
Kamado smokers tend to be heavy, a bit hard to move about, and take some time to reach cooking temperature due to the use of charcoal as the fuel source.
Pit Barrel Smokers
Pit barrel smokers resemble a large metal drum and have a design that allows the meat to hang by hooks or lay on a grate. The smoker has a charcoal tray at the bottom, which allows heat and smoke to rise through the meat above.
Pit barrels allow substantial amounts of meat to cook at once. Hanging the meat exposes more surface to the smoke and heat for a more consistent outcome. Most pit barrel smokers are steel with an enamel coating for durability.
The placement of the barrel smoker firebox makes it more difficult to tend to as you much reach inside the smoker to adjust the charcoal.
Which are Best for Beginners
I may have a bias since my first (and current) smoker is an electric pellet-style that I find to be very user-friendly for a beginner. Meats come out with wonderful flavor and texture, and my cornbread is moist, with little effort on my part.
I plug it in, dial in the temperature, and let it heat up. The smoke stays consistent as the pellets feed into the burner automatically. I can turn out a tender brisket just as easy as hot dogs. The only downfall is that pellet smokers are on the large side and must be plugged into an outlet to operate.
If you like charcoal grilling, the Kamado-style is another “best for beginners” smoker. The size is manageable to use, while still leaving behind the distinct charcoal-grilled flavor. While heavy, the smoker is portable and can go tailgating or camping.
Propane smokers are also easy for beginners since they are very portable and are simple to operate. Getting that consistent temperature is also easier.
Lastly, the pit barrel-style smokers are great for beginners that need to cook large portions of food at once. The design helps maintain a consistent temperature, so all your food cooks evenly.
What features are MUST haves
The features your smoker must have are:
1. A thermostat and temperature gauge to accurately read and control the temperature inside the smoker.
2. Ample space to hang or lay food without crowding. You want the smoke and heat to reach all parts of the meat evenly.
3. Quality construction. The smoker should have tight seals to prevent loss of smoke and heat during cooking. Hinges, dampers, handles, and wheels should operate smoothly.
Top Smokers for Beginners Reviews
Next, I review the top smokers ideal for beginners. The list includes charcoal, pellet, kamado, electric, and pit barrel smokers perfect for making delicious meals!
Weber 711001 Smokey Mountain Cooker 14-Inch Charcoal Smoker, Black
The Weber 711001 Smokey Mountain Cooker is a great choice due to its easy operation and affordable price tag which means you’ll be making amazing BBQ in no time.
This smoker is made of steel with a durable porcelain-enamel coating and features a heat-resistant handle and built-in thermometer.
1. Size is perfect for small patios
2. Removable fuel door makes adding charcoal and wood chips simple
3. Temperature stays consistent during the smoking process
1. Seal on smoker door may leak
2. Poor instructions/missing parts like washers
3. Lid may warp from high heat
Cuisinart CPG-4000 Wood BBQ Grill & Smoker Pellet Grill and Smoker
The Cuisinart Wood BBQ Grill and Smoker is a smart choice for those who want the option to grill, smoke, bake, roast, or braise all types of meat, seafood, pizza, or biscuits.
Two levels of cooking grates allow you to cook more food at once. This smoker also incorporates a folding shelf and a spigot to drain off hot grease.
1. Automatic pellet feed system with LED temperature display
2. All-terrain wheels for easy moving
3. Comes with weather-resistant grill cover
1. Some reports of faulty thermometer readings
2. Metal is a thinner gauge that may dent
Char-Griller E16620 Akorn Kamado Kooker Charcoal Barbecue Grill and Smoker, Black
The Char-Griller Akorn Kamado Kooker is a durable smoker with easy-to-use features like a heat gauge, warming rack, and folding side shelves. This smoker allows you to cook dishes with a quick, high heat or low and slow.
The smoker has a cast iron cooking surface, and the interior is steel with a porcelain finish. Locking casters on the front wheels keep the grill secure.
1. Ample amount of grilling surface
2. Adjustable damper and fuel-efficient design
3. Versatile cooking range/options
Cons: 1. Iron grate can crack
2. Paint may bubble or life from the heat
3. Hinges of poor quality
Masterbuilt 20071117 30″ Digital Electric Smoker
The Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker has a patented system to load wood chips without the need to open the smoker door which makes it safer for beginners to use. Four racks offer abundant space for meats and sides.
With a built-in thermostat and adjustable air damper to control the amount of smoke, this smoker is user-friendly. The smoker body is fully-insulated to maintain consistent temperatures.
2. Compact design with ample rack space
3. Electric – (no messy charcoal to handle)
1. Thermometer accuracy varies
2. Digital display is hard to read in daylight
3. Smoke cycle can end unexpectedly
Pit Barrel Cooker Co 18-1/2 in. Classic Pit Barrel Cooker Package
The Pit Barrel Cooker Co. Classic is a simple-to-operate and allows you to both hang and grill meat at the same time.
The coal basket fills to the correct amount to cook meats to perfection with little fuss. The vertical cooking design shortens cooking time and requires less smoke and temperature regulation.
1. Hanging cooking option
2. Minimal assembly time
3. Easy to use, with consistent results
1. Charcoal basket in an awkward location
2. Temperature range hard to manage for long-term cooking
3. Recessed lid design holds water
Step up your grill game by cooking outdoors with a smoker. Choose the right size, style, and type of smoker that best suits your needs and get grilling! Tender, juicy meats are within reach when you use any of the smokers for beginners in this guide.
Experience for yourself why master grillers love using a smoker. Whether you’re feeding just the family or entertaining a large group of friends, a smoker lets you deliver delicious, mouth-watering meals every time!