The first step in buying a smoker is deciding upon a style. There are dizzying arrays of options available. For the most part, you get what you pay for. In general, avoid any inexpensive horizontal/offset smoker because these are fundamentally flawed in design (smoke and heat want to go up, not sideways). Instead, opt for a vertical, drum or cabinet-style smoker, as these styles cook food much more evenly and efficiently.
Many professionals swear by a pellet smoker, which operates similarly to a pellet stove. The smoker automatically dispenses the pellets with digital controls at a rate that results in the desired smoke level and temperature. It is precise, requires very little babysitting, is easy to clean and produces a superior end product. However, a pellet smoker isn’t cheap, and requires specific food-grade pellets that can be hard to find and cost more than traditional wood sources. This style also has fans, motors, digital sensors and other moving gizmos that may fail over time.
RECOMMENDED PELLET SMOKER
Traeger Timblerline 1300 Pellet Grill – $1999
The OTW Office grill has served up smoked fish, wings, and various other tasty vittles, and thanks to the grill’s WiFire technology, the OTW grillmaster of the week can control the grill right from their desk.
Many seasoned BBQ junkies still favor a traditional a charcoal smoker, which uses charcoal lumps or briquettes for the heat source. A charcoal smoker can produce very good results, but can also be fickle, making it harder to maintain a steady temperature without checking on it frequently.
RECOMMENDED CHARCOAL SMOKER
Weber Smokey Mountain – $349
Weber has been making this baby for many years. It’s a proven design with rugged construction.
A gas smoker is another option gaining in popularity, although many purists cringe at the thought of using propane as the heat source. If you have a modest budget and are looking for a smoker with set-it-andforget- it simplicity and good flavor, gas is a solid choice. One downside, though, is that this style tends to cook on the hot side, and it’s tough to get it to run under 250 degrees.
RECOMMENDED GAS SMOKER
Char-Broil Vertical Gas Smoker – $199
This cabinet-style smoker produces good results at a reasonable price. The thermometer is inferior, however, so plan for a backup.
The last option is an electric smoker. This version uses an electric coil to heat the wood chunks. The heat in gas, pellet, and charcoal cookers comes from combustion, which produces smoke and gases that impart a distinct flavor. The heat source in an electric smoker comes from a piece of metal. Smoke is created by putting wood above the heating element and letting it smolder. An electric smoker lacks combustion, so the flavor is slightly different. The plus side of an electric smoker is that it’s usually inexpensive, easy to use, and since it doesn’t have vents, excels at cooking foods (like fish) that need to retain moisture. However, an electric smoker is inferior if you are looking for things like crispy skin on chicken or nice crusty bark on a pork butt or brisket.
RECOMMENDED ELECTRIC SMOKER
Old Smokey Electric Smoker – $129
Manufactured since 1953, this time-tested smoker will get the job done, especially with fish, at an affordable cost.
Stay away from inexpensive offset smokers that are often encountered in big-box stores. While these may look cool and have inviting price tags, avoid them! While some higher-end models that cost over $400 use this design effectively, steer clear of the cheap ones because they are fundamentally flawed in their design and construction.