A simple recipe and a good smoker can transform even the toughest cuts of meat into the most tender and flavorful meal ever.
I still remember the first time I ever tasted meat that had been cooked to perfection in a smoker. It was my daughter’s birthday and we were having a birthday party for her in the backyard.
I was grilling up some cheeseburgers, hot dogs, chicken kabobs, and boatload of veggies when my buddy showed up with his own contribution to the meal: the most amazing smoked sausage and chicken wings.
The meat just fell right off the bone and the intense smokiness exploded in my mouth. I was instantly hooked!
We spent the rest of the day celebrating my daughter’s birthday, mingling with friends, and enjoying good food and drink. And of course, a bunch of us dads had a group discussion on which was the best smoker for beginners looking to take their backyard grilling up a notch.
Through all of my research and discussions with my fellow dads who purchased different types of smokers, I’ve learned that there is no one best smoker for everyone.
But there is a best smoker for you. When choosing a smoker you need to consider how hands-on you want to be,
So let’s get started!
In this article you’ll get all the info you need to decide which type of smoker to buy (because there are some big differences) and I’ll also tell you which is the best smoker in each category.
- Best Electric Smoker: Masterbuilt MES 130B Digital Electric Smoker
- Best Propane Smoker: Cuisinart Vertical 36-inch Propane Smoker
- Best Pellet Smoker: Traeger Renegade Pro Wood Pellet Grill TFB38TOD
- Best Offset Smoker: Oklahoma Joe’s Highland Reverse Flow Offset Smoker
- Best Vertical Smoker: Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker 18 Inch Smoker
- Best Barrel/Drum Smoker: 18-1/2 in. Classic Pit Barrel Cooker Package
- Best Portable Smoker: Cuisinart COS-116 Vertical Charcoal Smoker
- Best Kamado Smoker: Kamado Joe KJ23RHC Classic II Charcoal Grill
Here are the main categories of smokers and our pick of best smoker for each :
Electric smokers are a great option for beginners because they are usually less expensive than other types of smokers. They’re also very easy to use and require minimum effort to set up a smoking session and clean up afterwards.
Just plug them in, set the desired temperature, add your favorite wood chips and let it do its thing. No need to mess around with charcoal or ashes. It’s about as “Set it and forget it” as you can get.
On the other hand, using an electric smoker doesn’t give you the full smoking experience, and while the food it produces is delicious it just can’t match what you get with other types of smokers.
Something else to consider:
While they generally have a lower upfront cost, electric grills can send your electricity bill through the roof. Be prepared!
Our Top Pick for Best Electric Smoker
If convenience is key, or if you live somewhere that prohibits gas or charcoal, go with the Masterbuilt MES 130B Digital Electric Smoker.
The digital display allows you to set and monitor the temperature and you can even set a timer so it will turn off after a certain amount of time. That’s about as “set it and forget it” as you can get.
Thanks to the side-loading wood ship system, you can easily add a handful of wood chips without opening the main cooking chamber and throwing off the temperature.
With 4 large cooking racks you’ll have a ridiculous 730 squares inches of cooking space. That gives you plenty of room to smoke up to 6 chickens, 2 turkeys, 4 racks of ribs or 4 pork butts. You could feed an army!
Checking out the reviews on Amazon, most people agree it is easy to operate and love that they can enjoy a generally “hands-free” smoking session.
A number of people did mention that they weren’t happy with the amount of smoke the unit generated. That is a common complaint with electric smokers in general.
Pros: Easy to use temperature control, side-loading wood chip system, almost no assembly required
Cons: May not produce enough smoke
Gas smokers are super convenient and easy to use. They offer the convenience of electric smokers and they can actually be taken on the road too since they don’t require an outlet for electricity.
Just hook up your propane tank to the smoker and you’re good to go. Of course, you need to make sure you have plenty of gas on hand. The last thing you want is to run out of gas in the middle of a smoking session!
Our Top Pick for Best Propane Smoker
The Cuisinart Vertical 36-inch Propane Smoker gives you all the cooking space you’ll ever need. Its four stainless steel shelves provide 784 square inches of cooking space so you can smoke enough meat for the entire neighborhood.
It comes with a water tray to keep your food from drying out and a 40 inch hose and regulator which makes it easy to set it up even in tight quarters.
With over 500 reviews on Amazon, the Cuisinart Vertical Smoker has received an average of 3.8 stars. One customer says, “For the price, you really can’t beat it” but others complain that the seal around the doors sometimes leaks smoke.
Pros: Doesn’t take up too much space, four cooking racks provide plenty of space for food
Cons: Inefficient seals may leak smoke and affect cooking
Pellet smokers have been around for decades but in recent years their popularity has exploded. Instead of charcoal or wood chips, pellet smokers use small, high energy wood pellets to generate smoke.
They have digital controls that monitor the temperature inside the cooking chamber and automatically feeds more pellets into the fire to maintain the desired temperature.
Pellet smokers are extremely easy to use and they are great at producing a classic wood-smoked flavor without all the muss and fuss.
Our Top Pick for Best Pellet Smoker
Traeger built the very first pellet grill 30 years ago and they’ve been building quality grills and smokers ever since.
The Traeger Renegade Pro Wood Pellet Grill is the ultimate in pellet smoking technology.
Some people think that pellet grills are complicated and difficult to use, but that couldn’t be further than the truth with the Traeger Renegade Pro Wood Pellet Grill. Just fill up the hopper with pellets, set the temperature, and open up a beer to enjoy while you wait for some perfectly smoked meat or fish to be ready.
One thing you have to keep in mind when using a pellet grill is that you’ll have to buy plenty of pellets. They usually cost about $1 a pound and you can expect to go through at least a few pounds during each smoking session. The longer you smoke, the more pellets you’ll burn through.
On the upside, there is a great variety of wood pellets available including alder, apple, cherry, hickory, maple, mesquite, oak, and pecan. By mixing different types of wood pellets together you can infuse an almost infinite number of flavor combinations into your food.
It currently has 4.1 stars on Amazon and one user describes it as the “easiest smoker I have owned.”
Pros: Digital temperature controls, infinite flavor combination, easy “set and forget” smoking
Cons: Expensive, need to purchase Traeger wood pellets, can use a lot of electricity
Close your eyes and imagine you’re at a professional barbecue competition. I bet the smoker you imagine all the pros using is an offset smoker.
Offset smokers (sometimes called horizontal smokers, stick-burners, or pipe smokers) look cool and they’re probably the most difficult type of smoker to master. But adding one of these to your backyard will give you some serious street cred with your grilling buddies.
Offset smokers work like this:
You add wood or charcoal to a firebox that sits next to and a little lower than the main cooking chamber. The heat and smoke travel through a small hole in the firebox, across the cooking chamber, and out a chimney on the other side.
Sounds simple enough, but maintaining an even temperature and getting your meat to cook uniformly can be a challenge if you’re using a cheapo offset.
Because the heat source is only on one side of the cooking chamber, the food placed on that side will cook faster than the other side. You need to keep a close eye on the temperature and move things around periodically so everything cooks at the same rate. It’s not the end of the world, but it can be a bit of pain.
Higher end models use reverse flow technology to ensure that everything cooks uniformly. That sounds fancy but it really just means that it is set up so the heat flows from the firebox to the other side of the cooking chamber and then back to the firebox side before exiting the chimney.
Reverse flow smokers cost more but it could mean the difference between a brisket that is all dried out and one that is smoked to perfection.
Our Top Pick for Best Offset Smoker
If you’re ready to take off the training wheels and do some serious smoking, Oklahoma Joe’s Highland Reverse Flow Offset Smoker is your best bet.
Some cheaper smokers feel flimsy and lightweight, but this one checks in at 180 pounds of heavy-gauge all steel construction. You can feel the quality in your hand when you lift the lid of the cooking chamber.
It utilizes cutting edge reverse flow technology to ensure an even and delicious result every time.
You’ll have plenty of cooking room too, with a total of 900 square inches of cooking surface (619 in the main chamber and another 281 in the firebox which can be used for direct grilling).
Pros: Reverse flow engineering, heavy duty construction, lots of cooking space
Cons: Pricey, has a tendency to leak smoke if not properly maintained
While offset smokers are perhaps the toughest to master, vertical smokers are perfect for beginners.
While some look like big blocks or rectangles, the most common type is the bullet smoker which you can see in the picture of our top pick below. It looks just like a bullet.
Vertical charcoal smokers are super popular, easy to use, and provide a consistent cooking temperature every time. This is because the fire is at the bottom and the the heat and smoke are distributed evenly throughout the cooking chamber.
Our Top Pick for Best Vertical Smoker
This one was an easy choice. The Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker 18 Inch Smoker is a top choice for both experienced smokers and those just starting out.
The Weber Smokey Mountain has been around for decades and it’s more popular than ever. The heavy duty construction is outstanding and you can expect this baby to last many years. If you take good care of it you can hand it down to your kids!
The WSM actually comes in 3 sizes. The 14 inch model is a little small and the 22 incher is a bit large for most home smokers. The 18 inch model is just right.
And it looks like a relative of R2-D2, which is pretty awesome!
The Weber Smokey Mountain has three sections:
The lower level is the firebox where you burn your charcoal and wood chips. The center has a door for adding more charcoal/wood and also a water pan which sits between the firebox and cooking grates and this keeps your meat nice and moist. The top level has 2 cooking grates with a combined 481 square inches of cooking area, plenty for the average family.
Since it only weighs about 40 pounds, it’s perfectly portable. Just toss it in the back of your truck and bring it along for tailgating or camping.
The Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker 18 Inch Smoker has over 2,000 reviews on Amazon and an average rating of 4.7 stars. That’s tough to beat!
Pros: Built to last, consistent cooking temperature, easy to use, portable, looks like R2-D2
Cons: Not as much cooking space as other smokers
The barrel smoker, also known as the ugly drum smoker, started out as a DIY smoker hand built using an old steel drum. They work a lot like the Weber Smokey Mountain described above, but since they were usually hand made they came in many variations.
If you’re a do-it-yourself kind of guy looking for a challenge, you can still build your own drum smoker. But these days, there are also drum kits commercially available. These cool smokers are great for beginners and they look pretty damn cool too!
Our Top Pick for Best Barrel Smoker
The Pit Barrel Cooker was invented by company founder and veteran Noah Glanville. During his time stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, he and his fellow soldiers improvised an ingenious smoking system using empty oil drums. They built a fire at the bottom and used wire hangers to suspend meat above the fire for a deliciously slow cooked meal.
Upon his return to the United States, he developed his idea into a full time business with the creation of the Pit Barrel Cooker.
The Pit Barrel Cooker is one of the best smokers for beginners. It literally comes out of the box fully assembled and ready to go.
It consists of a 30 gallon steel drum and lid as well as 8 stainless steel hooks which are used to suspend your meat over the fire. This “hook and hang” method allows you to drop up to 8 racks of ribs or 2 pork butts right in the middle of the perfectly heated drum. As the meat hangs its juices drip onto the hot coals and create a smoke fog which gives your meat unmatched moisture and flavor.
The Pit Barrel Cooker also comes with a standard cooking grate for smoking burgers, steak, fish, and veggies.
The PBC is creating a rabid fan base because it’s well built, easy to use, and let’s face it…it looks cool as hell. It currently has over 800 reviews on Amazon and an amazing 4.8 star rating.
Pros: Perfect smoker for beginners, hook system provides plenty of cooking capacity, very consistent cooking temperatures
Cons: Simple design somewhat limits temperature control
Best Portable Smoker
Smoking at home is great, but sometimes you want to take your skills on the road. Whether you’re camping, tailgating, or just hanging out at a friend’s house, a portable smoker will be your ultimate road trip companion.
Our Top Pick for Best Portable Smoker
When you’re looking for a portable smoker you want three things: easy to transport, easy to use, and fantastic results. The Cuisinart COS-116 Vertical Charcoal Smoker gives you all three.
It’s basically the cheaper version of the Weber Smokey Mountain described above. It works basically the same but this model is a bit smaller and significantly cheaper.
Build a fire with charcoal and wood chunks at the bottom, fill up the water bowl, and enjoy some deliciously smoked food on two cooking grates with a surprising 402 square inches of cooking space.
And at just 23 pounds anyone can toss it in the trunk for a road trip.
Pros: Affordable, lightweight, efficient design produces flavorful meats
Cons: Quality doesn’t compare to pricier smokers
If you’re looking for versatility, the Kamado Smoker is tough to beat. They use an ancient Chinese clay-cooking design and have thick walls made of ceramic or steel which provide excellent insulation. Their ability to maintain consistent temperatures for a long time make them a great option for long smoking sessions.
With a wide temperature range of about 225 to 750 degrees, a kamado can be used for direct grilling, indirect grilling, smoking, searing, and even baking.
Our Top Pick for Best Kamado Smoker
Kamado grills are not cheap, and that goes for the Kamado Joe KJ23RHC Classic II Charcoal Grill too.
But if you buy one, it will likely be the last grill or smoker you ever need to buy.
Made of heavy duty ceramic, the Kamado Joe does an impressive job of maintaining internal temperature. Because it holds heat so well it doesn’t require as much charcoal as other smokers.
The downside to that is if you get the kamado too hot it can take awhile for it to cool down. It does have vents at both the top and bottom to assist with temperature control.
The other thing you should consider is that this is NOT a portable smoker by any means. It weighs a whopping 250 pounds! You certainly don’t want to be dragging it all over the place.
Pros: Extremely versatile, easy to use, consistent cooking temperatures, top notch build quality, eye-catching color
Cons: Expensive, heavy, reducing temperature takes time