Looking for the best type of smoker to buy? Read our guide to find out the different types of smokers, their pros and cons, and which one will be right for you.
How do the famous barbeque pit bosses get that perfect juicy smoky flavored meat? They smoke it. Here we investigate the six different types of smokers for meat (and other foods) and their pros and cons. We will also offer our three favorite make and models for each smoker type.
Types of Smokers
Below we will explore the different types of smokers. We will investigate the wonders of the stick, gas, electric and charcoal smokers. We will also check out what makes pellet smokers so unique and find out how to use a kettle grill for smoking.
1. Stick Burner
The stick burner is the old original authentic style of smoker. It uses wood as its fuel and smoke source. The taste is as good as it gets. There are both direct and offset stick burner smokers. Real pit bosses use an offset smoker.
How it is used
A fire is lit in the firebox and wood added until a bed of hot ash and wood coals has formed. More wood is then added during the smoking process. This maintains the temperature and the smoke level. Check out this masterclass from the great Aaron Franklin himself on how to barbeque with a stick burner.
Some like the KBQ smoker are unusual and use a top-down burn design. You can see how the KBQ BBQ Smoker is used here.
This is the true authentic smoker taste. Nothing beats it. These smokers are also only reliant on having wood to fuel them. There is no running out of gas or pellets halfway through a smoke.
Using wood as a fuel source can be challenging. It is the most variable of fuels and the hardest to control when it comes to temperatures and smoke levels. It takes effort and practice to become proficient in smoking with a stick smoker.
These smokers also need constant looking after. The wood burns at a fast rate and you need to check it every half an hour or so to maintain temperatures.
There are more details on offset smokers in our article here.
2. Gas Smokers
The gas smoker is probably the easiest smoker for a novice or seasoned pro pit boss to use. A gas burner provides the heat. This enables super easy and almost immediate temperature control.
The smoke is generated by special wood pellets that are held in a pan above the burner. Most models have an additional water pan above the pellet pan. This to make sure meat stays moist and succulent. These smokers can be set at a certain temperature and left to run for hours unsupervised.
How it is used
Follow the instructions to set up the smoker with all the correct racks and pans. Connect the gas bottle, turn on the gas and light the burner.
Wait until the smoker reaches the desired temperature. Add the wood pellets and the water to the appropriate pans. Position the meat on the racks and close the door.
Check the progress every thirty minutes. You may need to refill the water or pellet pans a few times during the smoke. Remember to turn off the smoker and disconnect the bottle when not in use.
- Easy to set and maintain the correct temperature.
- They need little attention once running and produce magnificent consistent smoky flavored food.
- Gas smokers offer value for money.
- They are ideal for the amateur pit boss or for the seasoned pro who wants a “fire and forget” type smoker.
- There are several different flavored pellets available.
- You cannot use charcoal in a gas smoker.
- They give a distinctly different taste compared to a wood or charcoal-fired smoker.
- The gas could run out during a smoke, so you need a backup cylinder.
- Same for the pellets, you need to keep a bag in reserve.
- They do not look or perform the same as a traditional stick or charcoal smoker.
3. Charcoal Smokers
Charcoal smokers come in all shapes and sizes. They are second in taste and authenticity only to the stick smokers. Charcoal is used as a heat source and wood chips or pellets add smoke flavor.
How it is used
You fill the grate or “coal chamber” with a good lot of charcoal. You make a hole in the middle of the coals to help light them. BBQ Briquettes are idea for sustaining the long hours needed for smoking. Find out more about charcoal here. You add the hardwood lumps, chips, or pellets to the top of the charcoal.
The coals are lit by using a little newspaper in a charcoal starter chimney. Wait until the coals are glowing red and are covered in white ash. Drop them into the hole you made in the bed of charcoal. The fire will spread through the bed of coals giving a long-lasting consistent heat.
With the coals lit, you reassemble the smoker as per instructions. If your smoker has a water pan, then fill it now. Open the vents at the bottom of the firebox holding the coal chamber. Close the smoker door and wait for it to reach the desired temperature.
You will need to adjust the airflow through the smoker to get a constant temperature. The temperature takes about 15 mins to change and remain constant. Add the meat. Start at the bottom of the smoker and add more grates as needed. You need to check water, smoke, temperature, and charcoal levels about every hour.
- They give a truly authentic tasty smoky flavor.
- They require less refueling, care and attention than a stick burner.
- Charcoal briquettes give a slow low consistent heat ideal for smoking.
- They also give that charcoal-fired taste.
- The hardwood lumps, chips or pellets give the perfect flavor.
- A water pan ensures juicy succulence.
- Charcoal smokers require patience and practice to perfect.
- They can be inherently fiddly to get to maintain temperature.
- Variables such as weather, charcoal type and even wind direction can affect the burn.
4. Electric Smokers
Looking like a small fridge, the electric smoker is the easiest smoker to use. It has an electric element as the heat source and uses wood chips or pellets as a source of smoke flavor.
Most of the newer models have a glass door so you can easily monitor progress. Temperature is controlled easily with a thermostat. A timer can be set to turn the smoker off at the desired time.
How it is used
These smokers are simple to use. You plug the unit in, turn it on and let it heat up. Preheating can take up to one hour as the electric heating elements do not get excessively hot.
Wood chips or pellets are added. No need to soak the pellets in water as the electric element does not get hot enough to burn them properly if they are wet. The pellets are added into a feed tube that is pushed into the feed tube slot. The smoker automatically adds the pellets or chips to the heating element.
A water pan can be added to the bottom tray of the smoker to increase succulence and juiciness of the meat. A drip tray should be added above the water bath to collect fat and make cleaning the unit out easier.
You then shut the door and let the heat and smoke build-up and then add the meat, fish, and vegetables. The timer is set to turn the smoker off at the right time. You need to check the pellet or chip-level, make sure the water is topped up and check the temperature every hour or so.
- Electric smokers are easy to use.
- They are almost as simple as a normal oven.
- Once set up you can switch them on, preheat, add the pellets and water, slam in the food and almost fire and forget it.
- They are super easy for the novice or
- Electric smokers are not overly smoky.
- The electric element sometimes struggles to heat up enough to generate a lot of smoke.
- They also take a long time to heat up.
- The capacity is not as large as some of the charcoal and stick burners.
- You also do not get the full authentic taste as you would with a stick or charcoal smoker.
5. Kettle Grills
Hang on, surely this should be in the barbeque grill section? Surprisingly, your normal kettle grill can be used as a remarkably proficient smoker. But it does take some practice.
How it is used
Your grill does need to be of sufficient size and to have a snug-fitting lid. You fire the grill in the normal way by creating a bed of charcoal. When the dome is up to temperature, you rake the coals over to one side, so you have a less direct heat in the cooking area.
Add the wood pellets or chips you want to use to give smoke and flavor. Place the meat or veg over to the opposite side of the grill and close the lid. You can also add a water bath next to the charcoal bed to increase the succulence if needed. You will want to check the temperature, add more charcoal, or wood and maybe refill the water every thirty minutes or so.
- You may already have a suitable grill. If you do not, then check out our post on the best grills here.
- You will save space by using the same appliance for two different jobs.
- Grills are not designed to be used as a smoker.
- The heat inside can be difficult to maintain over many hours.
- You need to check the fuel and wood pellets regularly.
- The lids on some grills are not sealed very well and you lose smoke and heat.
- You cannot smoke and grill at the same time.
- Most people who try smoking on a grill end up buying a real smoker after one or two attempts.
- They keep the grill for grilling.
6. Pellet Smokers
Pellet smokers are a newer idea and form the latest generation of smoking. All the previous smokers are different due to the source of heat.
These smokers are defined by the source of the smoke. They use many different heat sources, but all use compressed wood pellets as a source of the smoke.
How it is used
Operation of these smokers varies from type to type depending on the heat source. The pellets are usually fed to the coal chamber or heating element by either gravity or a worm screw.
- The pellets are uniform in size and ensure an even burn rate and smoke density.
- Pellets are easier to use than wood chips or lumps.
- There are many more flavors available.
- They are conveniently packaged to allow them to be delivered by mail order over the internet.
- Pellet smokers normally have built-in thermostat and an automatic pellet feed system. This makes them easy to use.
- Wood pellets are expensive compared to wood chips or lumps.
- Pellet smokers can only be used with pellets.
- Wood chips or lumps cannot be used.
- It is important to use the correct pellet size otherwise the pellet feed system may block or jam.
Which is the Best Type of Smoker?
We can see there are many different types and designs of smokers. There is no one best model or design. Each type has its place depending on the desired use and skill level of the user. The pro pit boss is likely to go for the charcoal or stick burner to get that true authentic smoker flavor. The less frequent user or beginner may be better choosing an electric or gas smoker.
Personally, I would love to have the time to spend perfecting the art of using a stick smoker. Realistically I am normally a little rushed so compromise with a gas smoker and some great tasting wood pellets.
Which one are you going for?