THE BLOG
05/21/2013 07:36 pm ET | Updated Jul 21, 2013

Buying A Smoker: Top 10 List

Meathead

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How to buy a smoker. A checklist of things to look for before you make your selection.

What fuel is right for you? The pros and cons of logs, wood pellets, charcoal, gas, and electric.

Charcoal and wood smokers. Tip top flavors, some are super easy to use, and others are a pain.

Egg, ceramic, and other kamado-style smokers. Heavily insulated, these are very efficient smokers. Not ideal for steaks.

Pellet smokers. Thermostat control, and you're cooking with wood. Amazing tools, b ut not good for searing.

Gas smokers. No messy charcoal, steady temps, good flavor, and cheap.

Electric smokers. Set it and forget it simplicity. Alas, flavor is inferior.

Stovetop smokers. Smoke indoors or on camping trips.

Digital thermometer guide. You just cannot trust the dial thermometers on any grill or smoker.

You can make damned good smoked meats on an all-purpose charcoal grill (click here for tips) or gas grill (click here for tips), but to make the most amazing ribs, salmon, bacon, pulled pork, turkey, you need a smoker. What to buy? Ohhh, there are sooooo many choices!

With a high quality modern barbecue smoker you no longer need to hover over your machine for hours, constantly monitoring the temp, fiddling with the dampers, shoveling coal, adding wood chips, and spritzing your meat with a mist of secret moisturizer. A good smoker means that you can win the battle against creosote, soot, and ash. With a good smoker you can get your food on the table on time and not fear that it is over- or under-cooked.

At AmazingRibs.com Max Good and I have created a huge Equipment Reviews section with a searchable database of hundreds of reviews and ratings of smokers and grills. Here is our list of our Top Ten Backyard Smokers Under $2,000. There are an unprecedented number of great cookers out there, and some categories, like ceramics and pellet smokers are growing rapidly. In making our selections we tried to cover a wide range of designs and prices and pick the best of breed. Although it was not a criteria for our selection process, interestingly most of the Top 10 are made in the USA.

2013 AmazingRibs.com Top 10 Backyard Smokers Under $2,000


Listed in order of manufacturer's suggested retail price. Click the links for detailed reviews as well as links to suppliers.

2013-05-21-smokenator20.jpgSmokenator $70. This simple piece of bent metal, overpriced at $70, is still an amazing value if you already own a basic 22.5" Weber Kettle, which is a heckuva a grill for only $89. Put the two together and it will perform as well as a standalone smoker for twice the price. Even if you don't have a Kettle, the combo gives you the best of both worlds, grilling and smoking. It corrals the charcoal all on one side better than the Weber branded charcoal basket, holds more charcoal, and the solid metal face makes an extremely efficient indirect heater. We know a competition team in Texas that wins money with theirs. Best of all, the flavor it produces is superb.

2013-05-21-charbroil_vertical_gas_smoker_300pix.jpgChar-Broil Vertical Gas Smoker. Yes, it is cheaply built and unless you take care of it, it will probably start falling apart in five years, but by then you can save up for a really good smoker. It is narrow so you have to cut rib slabs in half, but it can hold a lot of food. Once you get the hang of it, it can hold temps pretty steadily and it doesn't require nursing. But you absolutely must replace the temperature indicator (it is not a thermometer no matter what they call it) with a good digital thermometer. Foods cooked on a gasser taste wonderful, although they taste slightly different from charcoal or wood, and a lot better than food cooked on an electric smoker.

2013-05-21-big_poppas_drum_smoker_kit_300pix_0.jpgBig Poppa's Drum Smoker Kit $140. We know you lust after one of those macho looking sideways offset barrel smokers for under $200 at the big box store. Please don't do it. It is an unbelievable pain to operate, you'll spend hours trying to modify it, and by the end of the summer it will be in the garbage. If you need to look kewl, build an "Ugly Drum Smoker" with this cleverly designed kit. Food grade drums can easily be found for as little as $20, so for well under $200 you can have a fine smoker. This kit significantly reduces the cost, time required, and probability of error. And the results can cook competition worthy meat. Really.

2013-05-21-weber_smokey_mountain_cooker_18.5_inch_300pix.jpgWeber Smokey Mountain Cooker 18.5" $349. Good old Weber has been making this indestructible charcoal fired "bullet" for years and has made only minor tweaks, although there are minor tweaks yet to be made (for example the thermometer is not accurate). The body is the same enamelized steel as the Weber Kettle and mine is 15 years old and going strong. There is also a larger model, but we prefer this one because it is easier to keep the temp low, and that's crucial to great smoker, although a full slab of ribs barely fits. It can also be used as a grill, but you have to get on your knees to do it. Most parts on this smoker are made in the USA.

2013-05-21-primo_oval_junior_300pix.jpgPrimo Oval Junior $832. Ceramic smokers based on an ancient Japanese "kamado" design are all the rage, with the Big Green Egg the most popular of the breed. Ceramics are very efficient, holding heat and using very little charcoal. They can also be used as grills, but the cone shape of most of them doesn't make them ideal for two-zone cooking, a technique we consider vital for grilling. There are two exceptions, however, the two Primo models, which are oval shaped and can be easily set up with two zones for great grilling. There is even a larger model, the XL. We like them better than the Egg. Made in the USA.

2013-05-21-backwoods_smoker_chubby_300pix.jpgBackwoods Smoker Chubby $970. This little baby looks like a dorm fridge and it shares a lot in common with it. The walls are well insulated, the door latches tight, there's a clever reverse flow heat and smoke transit system, temp control is incredibly simple, and it can hold standard hotel pans. A water pan between the charcoal and the food keeps the cooking chamber moist. There are larger sizes that are popular among the professional competition teams. I have the next size up, the Party, and it is truly impressive. Made in the USA.

2013-05-21-rec_tec_pellet_smoker_300pix.jpgREC TEC Grills $995. We are in love with the new generation of pellet smokers. These clever designs burn wood pellets that look like pencils broken into 1/2" sections. The pellets are made from hardwood sawdust scrap from sawmills and furniture manufacturers. A digital thermostat system controls the better models by controlling the flow of pellets and air into the burner. They are truly set-it-forget-it easy and hold the temp rock solid. They cook by hot air and smoke circulating, so most pellet burners are not good at direct heat grilling. Pellet grills need electricity to run the controller so you'll not be hauling them to the beach, and the smoke flavor is delicate and elegant, but not as aggressive and deep as charcoal and wood. We know that a model by Traeger is by far the more popular and widely distributed, but we think this is a lot better chiefly because we like the controller better. And it is a lot better looking, especially with the metal bulls horns for handles.

2013-05-21-mak_silver_1_star_pellet_smoker_300pix.jpgMAK 1 Star General Pellet Grill $1,299. Another pellet grill like the REC TEC above, but the slightly higher price buys a number of bells and whistles, including our favorite digital controller. Built entirely in the USA, it is solid with a heavy duty powder coat. The hood is a roll top, meaning it does not need a lot of rear clearance like some of its competitors, and there is plenty of room inside. We recommend you buy the optional upper level racks. My only criticism is that it looks like a WWI tank. Made in the USA.

2013-05-21-fast_eddys_by_cookshack_pg500_pellet_smoker_300pix.jpgFast Eddy's by Cookshack PG500 $1,595. The innovation here is that the cooking surface is divided into two sections, one is much like all the other pellet smokers, strictly indirect convection air cooking, but the other, smaller section exposes the meat to direct radiant heat so you can get a good dark sear when you want to high heat grill. And there is a 30-day money back guarantee! Made in the USA.

2013-05-21-horizon_20_inch_rd_special_300pix.jpgHorizon 20" RD Special $1,825. If you're Jonesing for the pro look, if you want to burn logs and/or charcoal, this is what you have to spend if you also want quality. As I explained above, the cheapo offsets in the hardware stores suck. But the Horizon is built to cook and to last. Made of 1/4" thick steel, when it heats up the mass retains heat and holds temp. You still have to practice to get control over the vents to control heat and it's a good idea to sit nearby to watch it, but that's why lounge chairs and beer were invented. If you get one, make sure it has the convection plate. It helps distribute the heat more evenly. And the capacious cooking chamber can be loaded with charcoal if the entire Little League is coming over and you need to grill up 43 burgers at once. Made in the USA.

All text and photos are Copyright (c) 2013 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved. For more of Meathead's writing, photos, recipes, and barbecue tips & technique, please visit his website AmazingRibs.com and subscribe to his email newsletter, Smoke Signals.

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