There’s nothing wrong with choosing a smoker for beginners. Whether you’re just getting started, you don’t want to deal with the hassle of a complex smoker, or you want an additional tool that you can use to get your family members involved in your hobby, a high-quality, simple, and inexpensive smoker will make a great addition to your backyard toolkit.
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Sure, you might not be able to perform every barbecue trick on your newbie-friendly smoker, but it’ll make your life a whole heck of a lot simpler while you use it.
Charcoal and Wood – The Old Stuff Is Still Great
When it comes to smoking meat (and other food), you want to get everything just right. The first (and most important) thing you’ll want to manage is heat. Smoked foods are cooked slow and low, often for several hours at 225 F.
While this is achievable with wood and charcoal with a bit of practice, it’s not where they shine. You’ll get easier, more consistent heat out of gas and electric smokers.
What makes wood and charcoal fuel so great is the flavor they add.
When you’re smoking foods, you’re not just going for tender, juicy results. You’re also trying to imbue the meat (or other food) with a rich, complex flavor from the smoke itself. Hardwoods usually give the tastiest “smoke,” with charcoal coming in close second.
When you smoke foods with other fuel sources you usually have to resort to things like liquid smoke or adding special wood chips to actually get your food to taste “smoky.”
Smoking a brisket is all about maintaining a perfectly boring, even temperature for several hours. While the right smoker can make this task much more manageable, you don’t need to do everything by hand. Pellet smokers, like this Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett, manage your air and fuel levels automatically in order to keep the interior temperature exactly where you want it.
That’s not the only advantage that pellet smokers have over their charcoal-fueled counterparts. They also give you a lot more control over the smoky flavor that ends up in your food. Instead of charcoal, pellet smokers burn special pellets of compressed hardwoods. This means you can use hickory, maple, cherry, or applewood smoke to give your barbecue the exact flavor that you want.
No matter which pellets you use, since you’re only burning hardwood, you’ll get lots of flavor. It’s not objectively better than the alternatives – you can make some pretty mean ribs on a charcoal smoker with just a few pieces of wood for flavor– but it is certainly different.
Hardwood pellets are actually less processed than charcoal.
At the time of this article, they’re cheaper per pound than charcoal briquettes by a fairly large margin. They don’t burn at the same rate, however, so be aware that your rate of pellet consumption may be a bit higher than you expect.
Still, you’re not going to break the bank on fuel. Instead, you’ll find it surprisingly inexpensive to get a huge supply of hardwood pellets in a wide variety of flavors so you can try them all.
The Davy Crockett features an advanced electronic controller that regulates the speed at which fuel and air enter the firebox. The modern features don’t stop there, however. It’s also got an integrated temperature probe and even a wi-fi connection. This is a huge feature, since it lets you check on your smoker from inside the house (and adjust it, if you’d like!).
The Green Mountain will even alert you should any mishaps or jams happen while it’s smoking your food. It runs on both regular home power and 12V, letting you easily throw it on your tailgate for an outdoor gathering.
These features are quite nice, especially in a budget-friendly pellet smoker. You’ll find much more expensive offerings from top brands that don’t have wifi or meat probes. Many of them even have basic “Hi / Med / Lo” temperature settings instead of a fancy thermostat that will keep your food within a few degrees of the temperature you dial.
For the price of the Davy Crockett, these features are absolutely crazy.
While I would strongly recommend the Davy Crockett to any barbecue beginner, it’s worth going over the handful of downsides to this at-home smoker before you buy. First, it’s pretty small. It has 219 square inches of cooking space, which is not a lot. It’s enough to cook a rack of ribs or a brisket, sure, but you won’t be able to make a feast for the whole neighborhood on this unit.
More importantly, the small size poses some pretty gnarly engineering challenges. Green Mountain has mitigated several heat-related issues with careful design and quality materials, but the Davy Crockett does not heat as evenly as a larger smoker.
Newer models supposedly mitigate this issue even further, but you may have to flip your meat around once or twice during the cooking process. It’s not a big difference in temperature, so you can simply put the thinner end on the colder side of the smoker in many cases.
The other big downside has to do with the workings of the firebox. The motor, auger, and temperature controller work quite well most of the time, but every once in awhile a pellet will get caught in the auger or the fire will flare up due to unforeseen circumstances.
The wifi functionality of the Crockett is a huge help here since the smoker will tell you immediately that something is up. Still, it seems to suffer slightly more issues in these departments than a larger smoker. It’s a very set-and-forget smoker overall, but you may find yourself clearing a jam or two every once in a while.
The Davy Crockett is not small. Weighing in at 57 lbs, it’s very awkward to lift on your own. Luckily, Green Mountain Grills has included a set of legs that allow you to stick it down just about anywhere. This is a pretty big deal if you plan to take this smoker to any sort of outdoor event.
Overall, I think that the Davy Crockett is one of the best options in smokers, period. It’s an incredibly affordable smoker that’s nearly automatic in operation. This means that it’s incredibly beginner friendly. It’s as close to set-and-forget as they come, letting you focus on the rest of your meal instead of babysitting a charcoal fire for hours.
That said, smoking food is not the same as vacuuming your house. This is not some chore that should automatically be relegated to some sort of round robot. Instead, it can be a labor of love, with your skill at manipulating a live charcoal (or wood) fire forming the core part of an artistic preparation of some of your favorite foods.
If you’d like something a bit more hands-on, consider the Weber Smokey Mountain. This vertical charcoal smokeruses simple physics to make smoking as easy as possible.
Because heat rises, it places two roomy cooking racks above a carefully constructed chamber that holds a charcoal fire. A series of adjustable vents allow you to regulate the flow of air to the coals, letting you adjust the heat of your fire and therefore the temperature of your food inside.
There are a few other advantages to the Weber Smokey Mountain, of course. For one, it’s simple. This is not a fancy machine that will be rendered obsolete in a decade.
You’ll never have to call Weber and see if you can replace the digital controller under your warranty (Green Mountain, the makers of the pellet smoker above, have AMAZING customer service, by the way). Instead, you get up to 68 lbs of nearly pure metal that will last for many, many years.
The Weber Smokey Mountain is available in a variety of sizes.
Remember that the cooking area is cut in half over two cylindrical grates, so you may need to get one that’s a bit bigger than you might expect to fit a full rack of ribs. In general, the 14” is enough to cook for a family of 4, the 18” lets you cook for small gatherings, and the 22” is well suited for larger events.
With smokers like this, you’re primarily interested in two things: airflow and build quality. The Smokey Mountain does a very good job of providing both for a reasonable price. It’s sealed up pretty well, with foolproof vents are easy to adjust. The exterior is insulated enough to allow operation in the freezing cold, tool.
As far as build quality, one measure I like to use is the length of the warranty. Weber gives you a 10 year limited warranty by default when you purchase one of these smokers. That means that they’re confident in their product lasting for at least a decade, if not more.
Now, the Smokey Mountain is not perfect.
The included thermometer is quite poor, for example, and you don’t necessarily have quick access to all of your food while it’s cooking. You usually don’t need immediate, hands-on access to your smoked meats, but you will have to do a bit of disassembly to get at anything you place in the lower rack.
The experts say things like “if you’re looking, you’re not cooking,” but they also tend to have fancy wireless thermometers that prevent them from needing to access their meat regularly.
The Weber Smokey Mountain is the choice of many professional barbecue teams around the country. It’s cheap to purchase, incredibly durable, effective, and easy to modify. Many serious barbecue enthusiasts will attach electronic airflow controllers, aftermarket thermometers, and other simple additions to their smokers. As is, this smoker is incredible.
With a few modifications, it can compete with the best smokers in the business.
I’m convinced that the Weber Smokey Mountain is the best beginner analog smoker around. It’s affordable, durable, and reliable, with simple construction and effective airflow controls.
If you don’t believe me, look at its popularity among competition chefs or read the list of competitions won by pit teams using Weber Smokey Mountains as their smokers of choice. It’s not automatic, but with a bit of practice (or an aftermarket intake controller) you’ll be able to make some of the best barbecue you’ve ever had.
Gas vs Electric Smokers – What’s The Big Difference, Anyway?
Electric and gas smokers produce heat, not smoke. A gas smoker works similarly to a gas grill, with one important difference: it’s designed to produce indirect heat.
This means that instead of letting the temperature below the food get really high, a gas smoker tries to produce totally even heat over the whole cooking compartment. This might include putting dampeners or baffles in between the heating element and your food.
It’s worth noting that gas and charcoal smoker combo units aren’t always the greatest, especially towards the cheaper end of the market. Sticking your barrel smoker (or Weber Smokey Mountain) on top of a propane heating source is pretty darn effective and works brilliantly.
Sticking a gas and charcoal offset box on either end of a combo grill does not. Heat rises, so you want a vertical smoker. I’d recommend picking up a solid smoker first and worrying about fancy combo units later.
Electric smokers are pretty similar to straight propane smokers. Instead of using a propane or natural gas flame, they use electric heating elements to produce the heat that cooks your food. Both electric and gas smokers rely on bits of wood and other flavorings to produce the signature smoky taste of the food you smoke in them.
This 2 door gas smoker is effectively a simple, insulated cupboard with a special heat source in the bottom. The smoker is designed to spread the heat from the flame out and contain it. Adjustable air vents allow you to control the flow of heat through the smoker, while a series of racks and hangars makes it easy to smoke all kinds of food.
The big advantage of a propane smoker like this Smoke Hollow is the fact that the heat source is predictable. A propane flame at any given level will emit a pretty consistent level of heat.
As long as your tank doesn’t run dry, you don’t have to worry about adding fuel, adjusting vents, or doing pretty much anything. All you need to do is check on your smoker every once in a while to make sure nothing crazy has happened.
While the Smoke Hollow 38-inch propane smoker has two doors, they’re not side by side. Instead, you get a door on the bottom for access to your wood chips and water pan as well as a door on the top for access to your food.
This sort of system allows you to refresh your water tray or change out your wood chips without letting out all of the valuable heat you’ve built up around your meat.
Propane smokers like this one tend to have an operational life of five to ten years.
They’re not going to last forever like a Smokey Mountain, but they’re also pretty simple as far as parts go. Without a thermostat or electric controller of any sort, you don’t have to worry about capacitors dying or shorts working their way into key cables.
Like the Weber Smokey Mountain, you’ll almost certainly want to get a wireless digital thermometer to supplement this in order to have remote access to the internal temperature of the smoker and the temperature of the meat you’ve got inside of it.
With that single addition, however, this inexpensive gas smoker proves to be both reliable and effective. It’s not the biggest model, sure, but the oversized propane burner gives it impressive top end heat, while the solid chambers and controllable vents let you keep the interior temperature right where you need it.
Overall, I would strongly recommend this as a smoker for someone who doesn’t want to fiddle with charcoal or wood pellets. Propane smokers add a lot more flavor than electric smokers, making them ideal for people where convenience and flavor are valued in equal amounts. This particular smoker is affordable, roomy, and easy to use.
While they both look a little bit like refrigerators, there’s a pretty big difference between this svelte electric Masterbuilt and the propane Smoke Hollow above.
The Masterbuilt here has an electronic temperature controller that governs the output from an internal array of heating coils, keeping the inside of the chamber at any temperature between 100 and 275 F. The propane Smoke Hollow, on the other hand, has a colossal 20,000 BTU propane burner that can propel the inside of the unit to temperatures of 400 F or more with ease.
If you’d like to smoke poultry outside in a cold climate, this might actually be a problem. The Masterbuilt 30” electric smoker is somewhat underpowered. If you’re not trying to achieve high temperatures in freezing weather, however, the accurate internal thermometer, precise digital controller, and included remote control make it even easier to use. All you have to do is add food and wood chips.
As far as heat is concerned, the electric coils in this Masterbuilt are steady and reliable.
It’s incredibly good at staying at the exact temperature you select for hours. When it comes to flavor, however, you might find that it lags somewhat behind the other units. Even with the addition of plenty of wood chips, you might find yourself lacking the smoky punch you can get from other types of smokers.
This particular smoker is pretty cheap, making it a perfect unit to get started on. It’s somewhat less reliable than the other smokers on this page, however, so you may want to review your warranty options before you purchase it. Even with a beefed up warranty, I don’t think I would expect to get more than a few years out of this smoker.
Still, for the cost, it’s pretty good. You get plenty of room, an incredibly reliable hands-free heating source, and you don’t have to worry about fuel at all. It’s a brilliant tool, especially if you’re planning to focus more on low-temperature smoking.
Top Smokers For Beginners to Smoking Like A Pro …
If you’re trying to break into the world of slow cooked meats, the four smokers above are excellent tools for your first forays into serious barbecue.
Whether you want a fancy device that automatically feeds wood pellets into a fire, a simple smoker that puts you in control of a charcoal fire, a propane-powered smoker with lots of extra heat, or a basic electric smoker with easy temperature control, you’ll find the right device for your backyard on this page.
Think about your goals and how much time you’ll be able to devote to babysitting your smoker when making a decision. Don’t stress out too much, however! With a bit of practice, all of the machines above can produce incredible smoked meats of near-competition quality.