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Smoker Grills Shopping Guide
An evenly cooked, perfectly smoked pork chop brings out the best taste of summer. Add an inflatable pool, good friends, and some beers to the mix and you’ve got yourself a bona fide backyard barbecue that everyone will be talking about. Sure, you can throw some patties on the grill and call it a day, but for the true chefs out there who enjoy the added deliciousness of smoked meats, that just won’t be good enough.
Smoker grills add another notch to your culinary belt, so if you’re in the market for a solid addition to your chef repertoire, you’ll want the best smoker that your money can buy. Smoker grills already require patience to achieve the perfect flavor, so you don’t want to spend much more time researching the differences between electric and charcoal or steel vs. cast iron grates. We’ve broken down the things to look out for as you’re buying your next smoker — you can use this to take a look at our top picks and see which one is the best for your backyard.
How a Smoker Works
A smoker specializes in evenly cooking a slab of meat at a consistent temperature over several hours in a day. As you burn certain materials, a smoker traps that smoke in with the meat that you want to cook. By doing this, you get to experience new flavors and experiment with a true “smoky” taste brought on by its namesake: smoke. Depending on the smoker, you’ll see heat created by burning wood, pellets, charcoal, propane, natural gas, and electricity. Each of these gives your food a specific flavor and provides different maintenance to give you that exact flavor you’re looking for.
Because of how easy an electric smoker is to use, this can be the simplest option for a new or beginner chef. Cooking with an electric smoker reduces the number of mistakes you can make — since most electric smokers offer a digital pad that reads out temperature, cook time, and sometimes offers a remote, you don’t need to worry about messing with charcoal or igniting the propane.
A heating coil runs along the bottom of an electric smoker, heating up wood chips that are in a dedicated wood chip pan. To avoid having to open up the entire smoker just to mess with the wood chips, you’ll want to keep an eye out for wood chip compartments that can be adjusted separately from the smoker itself.
Along with the wood, you just add water to the water pan to add some moisture to what you’re cooking, set your numbers, and then sit back and relax. The digital control pad has everything dialed in, including the consistent temperature that you want to cook your food with.
An electric smoker can cook meat faster if necessary, but you might have to sacrifice that smoky flavor that you’ve been craving. You’ll need an outlet nearby to plug your smoker into, making it much less portable than its competitors.
As far as convenience goes, charcoal smokers are at the opposite end of the spectrum from electric smokers. For seasoned chefs who really want to play around with the flavors of their food, a charcoal smoker can really add to their afternoon barbecue. Charcoal smokers require a bit more oversight as you cook, so you can’t entirely lay around when you’re the chef behind the charcoal.
Maintaining an ideal temperature isn’t just a light-it-and-go process with charcoal. With a charcoal smoker, you might see a chimney included, which allows you to pre-heat your charcoal before adding it to the smoker.
To regulate the temperature, you’ll need to open and close the vents of the smoker according to the thermometer. If you need increased temperatures, you’ll just add more charcoal in. To lower the temperature, you can close the vent to limit air flow within the smoker.
Temperature variation is both an advantage and a disadvantage to a charcoal smoker. For more hands-on chefs, this can be the perfect way to really control the flavor and texture of your food. For anyone who wants a hands-off experience while still enjoying smoked meat, you might want to choose a different smoker style.
Luckily, charcoal smokers can be easily moved around to campsites, a neighbor’s backyard, or more without needing a connection. All you need is your coals, food, water, and maybe some wood chips to add a little flavor.
A more portable version of electric smokers, propane smokers make it easy to transition from a backyard grill to a smoker. Bring a propane tank with you, connect it to the smoker, and you’ve got yourself some smoked meats and veggies that your friends will rave about. Propane smokers typically come with internal thermometers to make your life easier. Instead of stoking charcoal, you can increase and decrease heat just at the turn of a knob.
Propane smokers still have all the convenience of flavoring meat exactly how you want it, only you won’t get the smoky taste that charcoal gives off.
Just like an electric smoker, propane is used to light a burner at the bottom of the smoker. Wood chips are placed in a pan above that burner — without these, the fire burning in the smoker will provide no added flavor. This can be a huge disservice to you and your food’s flavoring.
Propane smokers can heat up quicker than electric smokers so that you and your guests don’t have to wait as long on your barbecue. With the added convenience of portability, you can take these anywhere you want, as long as you have a propane tank and connecting hose.
A unique and somewhat new style of smoker is the pellet smoker, which gives you a wide range of temperatures that you can choose from. Whether you want to cook at a slow and steady rate or turn the heat up for a high-temp sear, pellet smokers give you that added versatility.
Pellet smokers serve as a middle ground between propane/electric smokers and charcoal. They can be as hands-on as you’d like, or you can let the smoker do all the work for you. These smokers use heat combustion to heat the cooking chamber, infusing the unique flavor of smoke brought on by the burn of wood pellets.
The most maintenance you need to provide while smoking is ensuring that there are enough pellets in the smoker to complete the job. You’ll get a smokier flavor from pellets than you will an electric or propane smoker, but you still won’t match the level of smokiness that a charcoal smoker can offer.
What to Look for in Any Type of Smoker
Whatever fuel option you choose, you need to keep in mind a few key aspects as you choose your next smoker. Understand the size of smoker that you’ll need, including cooking surface area, whether it be in the form of different racks or more volume. You can predict that each person you invite to your party will eat 1 pound of meat, so obviously there will be a difference between cooking for a small family and a huge backyard barbecue.
You’ll also want to know how the smoker will fit and work in the space you’ll be cooking. For smaller outdoor areas, you might want a smoker with a smaller footprint, like a propane or electric smoker. These physical limitations can help you narrow down your search pretty easily.
For pricing, you’ll see that all different facets go into the prices of each smoker. First, determine the size of the smoker that you want or need, how complicated you want the cooking process to be, whether or not you want a portable or non-portable smoker, and then you can compare pricing between fuel types.
Charcoal smokers have been on the market the longest since they mirror the traditional grilling process. You’ll likely find the most luck with a tight budget with a charcoal smoker, but you also need to consider that charcoal will need to be reloaded, adding to the overall cost of the smoker.
Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel Grates
All smokers will have a cooking surface where the food is placed, and since this hard material is touching the food that you’ll be eating, you want to make sure you get the most ideal grate. Two grate materials set the standard for smokers of any fuel type: cast iron and stainless steel.
Cast iron takes a bit longer to warm up, but it retains heat longer than stainless steel, ensuring that your meats are properly cooked the way you want them. However, cast iron requires more maintenance as you use it, making this a feature that anyone wanting a simple smoker might want to overlook.
Stainless steel grates are the more common grates to have, mostly for their convenience and affordability. They don’t retain heat as long as cast iron, but they do allow for more even browning throughout its surface. The low maintenance quality of stainless steel makes this a winner for anyone who wants an easier smoker, but ultimate pitmasters might prefer the tried and true cast iron lines on their next chicken breast.
Must-Haves in a Smoker Grill
You want to make sure that your smoker lasts, and that will come down to the durability of the materials used. Look for a cooker body engineered with strong materials like stainless steel or high-grade aluminum.
For honest reviews that include real-life experiences, you should take a look at the reviews of your potential purchase to see any hidden surprises (good or bad) pitmasters might be dealing with on a regular basis with their smoker.
We’ve used these reviews as a basis on how to better rank our product recommendations. Along with performance, overall quality, and reputation, reviews serve as an honest testament to how a product functions day-to-day.
Sitting just at $250, our top pick for your next smoker is the Masterbuilt 30-Inch Electric Smoker. This sleek and stylish smoker gives you 730 square inches of cooking space divided between 4 racks.
The Masterbuilt provides consistent and dependent heat convection with a sealed and latched door as well as windowless and seamless seal. In order to retain the heat inside the smoker and avoid any air from entering the body of the smoker mid-use, the Masterbuilt provides a side loader for wood chips and a top air damper. By including these outside the main body of the smoker, your grill won’t be interrupted in the heating process with the opening of the door. Digitally controlled and energy efficient, the Masterbuilt is great for all cooking levels.
After you cook your first tender, smoky steak, you’re going to find yourself addicted to the art form of smoking your meals. Compare our top picks and use your newfound knowledge to find the best smoker for your household!
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