Which smoker is best for beginners?
Smoking food can be a lot of work, which is why it’s important to start with thoughtfully designed equipment that’s built to last. It’s also important to consider the different categories of smokers to make sure you get one that satisfies your needs.
The best smoker for most beginners is the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker. It’s widely hailed as one of the best vertical smokers available and offers just about the most consistent, leak-free, long-lasting design out there.
What to know before you buy a smoker for beginners
Do you need a smoker?
To be clear, you might not need a smoker if you only smoke foods occasionally. In that case, you can impart moderate smoky flavor with a simple smoker box, which holds your favorite wood chips close to the flame on a gas grill and slowly roasts them. For that matter, you can simply wrap wood chips in heavy duty aluminum foil and rest that near your grill’s coals, and even that will be somewhat effective.
However, keep in mind that frequently smoking with your main grill will leave it covered in sticky and smoke residue that’s hard to clean and not good for most standard grills. So if you’ll be smoking a lot, you’ll want a dedicated piece of equipment.
The different types of smokers
The vertical charcoal smoker is the most straightforward style, and it comes in a few different designs built around the same basic principle. The coals go in the bottom, the wood chips just above them and the food in a large compartment above that. Well-made vertical smokers can be quite effective at imparting flavor.
Related to vertical smokers, offset smokers separate the heat and smoke source from the cooking space, instead relying on convection to flood the food with heat and smoke. They do an even better job at imparting flavor than vertical smokers, but they’re usually large and expensive and call for a more experienced touch than vertical smokers. So, they’re not recommended for most novices.
Electric smokers come in cold and hot varieties. Cold smokers like the Big Chief Electric Smoker are excellent for smoking foods like cheese and fish that are sensitive to high temperatures. However, cold smokers don’t actually cook the food, so you’ll need to finish any meat or fish on the grill or in the oven. Electric hot smokers, on the other hand, are designed to fully cook food using only wood pellets and electricity. The problem is that they can be maintenance nightmares, so they’re usually a poor choice if you’re just getting started. The same is often true of gas smokers.
Then there are pellet smokers. Instead of fussing over exact temperatures, number of wood chips and amount of airflow, you simply turn a pellet grill on and it does much of the precision work. If you know you love smoking foods but don’t want to stand on the patio watching it all day, a pellet smoker is the way to go. The only drawback to most is while they look like traditional grills, they don’t share the same high-heat capabilities and you will have to use a different appliance for searing.
What to look for in a quality smoker for beginners
Durable, precise construction
If a smoker has thin walls, low-quality hinges, loose seals and poor welds, it will leak smoke from the start, have trouble maintaining temperature and probably not last very long. One tip for finding the most durable model is to stick with reputable brands and avoid generic knock-offs.
Consider how much food you’ll want to smoke at once. Smokers increase considerably in price as they go up in the size of its cooking area. Keep in mind that while you do want the dimensions to accommodate large cuts like brisket, you might not need the same number of square inches as you’d want on a traditional grill. Additionally, bigger smokers take longer to get up to temperature.
Gas vs. charcoal vs. electric heat
The majority of basic smokers use charcoal as a heat source, and most chefs agree that charcoal is the best way to get started and learn your way around smoking. This is largely because having to train yourself to regulate heat and smoke levels without over-adjusting or opening the smoker too much goes a long way to making the whole process second nature.
There’s a decent variety of gas smokers and, while they can be quite effective, they can also be hit and miss in terms of build quality and design, which can be frustrating for a beginner who isn’t comfortable with making many modifications. Many electric hot smokers have the same story. Pellet grills, on the other hand, are often more reliable and easier to configure and maintain than traditional gas or electric smokers.
How much you can expect to spend on a smoker for beginners
The most basic beginner smokers are kettle grills that start around $100. While you can spend thousands on a premium model, most beginner and intermediate home chefs should cap their budget around $600 for a really nice smoker.
Smoker for beginners FAQ
Can you smoke foods beside meat?
A. Absolutely. Cheese, vegetables, mushrooms and even grains meant for cooking or brewing beer can benefit from an hour or more in the smoker.
Is smoked meat bad for you?
A. There are chemicals in wood smoke classified as carcinogenic, and indeed eating any processed meat (smoked or not) is associated with higher rates of some cancers. In general, though, eating smoked meat, cheese or vegetables occasionally is very likely not a health risk. Always maintain a balanced diet including plenty of fiber and nutrient-rich plant-based foods, and you shouldn’t have to worry about the health effects of smoked meat much.
What’s the best smoker to buy for beginners?
Top smoker for beginners
What you need to know: It’s one of the most popular and straightforward smokers on the market.
What you’ll love: Its vertical design means it doesn’t take up much real estate but can still fit plenty of food. Thanks to its reliable, precise construction, it works great out of the box without any modifications, unlike the many off brands that try to copy it. When it comes to reaching and maintaining temperature, it’s hard to beat, and it comes in sizes up to 22 inches wide.
What you should consider: It isn’t particularly cheap, but at least it’s designed to last for years with proper care.
Top smoker for beginners for the money
What you need to know: While technically just a standard grill, it’s a great addition to your patio and will help you to learn the intricacies of the smoking process.
What you’ll love: Smoking in a Weber Kettle will give you the hands-on experience needed to hit your target temperature quickly and maintain the right volume of smoke. In addition, this Weber classic is perfect for a huge range of other grilling tasks. If you like the concept but want something a little more solid with a few more advanced features, the Weber Kettle Premium is also an excellent choice.
What you should consider: It does have a slightly higher learning curve than many other options.
Worth checking out
What you need to know: This smoker is the perfect introduction to precise pellet smoking with an electronic management system.
What you’ll love: If you’re tried your hand with traditional smokers and had a hard time getting the temperatures and smoke levels right, a pellet grill like this one from Camp Chef might be just what you need. It requires considerably less attention than other styles thanks to a digitally regulated thermostat and smoke density supported by automatic pellet feeding and heat shutoff.
What you should consider: It’s not cheap, plus it weighs nearly 150 pounds and takes up a decent amount of space.
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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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