Choosing your First Serious Smoker By Donna Fong, Butchers Daughter BBQ
Buying your first serious smoker is much like buying a piece of Le Creuset cookware. You don’t really need one but it sure makes you feel good to use it on those special occasions. Most people start out buying a $199 cookie cutter offset at Home Depot, cook on it a few times and leave it in the rain to rust. By the time you get back to it, you’ve lost interest or the energy to make an off-set work.
But maybe you’re ready to dive a little deeper into BBQ and were wondering what to buy next. It’s a tough decision. A smoker is a very personal choice. For most of us, BBQ is a hobby and as such, we like to express ourselves. However, we are also bounded by practical matters like cost, the size of our backyard or what our family will allow. The most thorough assessment of factors to consider when buying a smoker is written by Meathead Goldwyn on his website, AmazingRibs.com. He considers all possible factors you should make when purchasing a smoker, the most important being price. And he’s right to a point.
My argument is that hobbies are passions. And as such, they are expressions of who we are as individuals. If you feel that you are a practical person, then by all means choose the most practical smoker possible. Buy the smoker within your budget, which can cook to the capacity you need, without too much effort, with the footprint your backyard will allow and please your spouse if you have one.
If you are a romantic, not bounded by economy or space, then you are fortunate indeed. You will buy that smoker that ignites your heart. Admit it. You’ve seen smokers that made you melt. If you only had the money, time or the space, boy that baby would be yours. But you don’t. There’s gotta be a happy medium. So here is my attempt to describe the personalities and quirks of various types of smokers. Consider this a Match.com for you and smokers. Why not? It is a relationship you might have for the rest of your life. What smoker/fuel would be most compatible for you and your life?
Keep in mind that this is not a complete list of smokers available. But it is meant to give you an idea of what is out there and what types of fuel you’d be confined to using because of the smoker design. There is some flexibility in fuel source but not with pellet smokers.
Gas Smokers – fuel: propane gas – Char-Broil Vertical Gas Smoker, Landmann, Meadow Creek, Southern Pride and Ole Hickory
Gas smokers come in a variety of shapes, sizes and configuration. They differ only in that their source of fuel is propane. Some smokers give you the option of using gas instead of a traditional fuel source. Many restaurants will use large gas smokers for convenience though they may not produce the smoke flavor that professional circuit cooks may desire. They run efficiently and do not create the ashen mess that wood products leave. This is a good smoker for the practically minded person with more important hobbies than BBQ. Avoid this smoker if you plan on becoming a BBQ addict because it will leave you wanting for more.
Vertical Water Smokers – fuel: briquettes and wood: Meco, Brinkmann, Weber Smokey Mountain
This is the Margaret Thatcher of smokers. Vertical water smokers run with efficiency, economically priced, maintain a small footprint and are workhorses. You won’t impress anyone at a contest if you show up with one these but history will prove you’ve got a good chance of winning with it. They are also perfect for the small home or apartment. There are no bells and whistles on these models. So you have to be willing to work a little to make up for the lack of features. The main challenges with water smokers is that you need to remove the top rack in order to get to the bottom rack, the lid needs to be set down somewhere, and the top rack drips onto the bottom rack. After-market temperature controllers like the Guru and Stoker are popular add-ons to increase ease of use. Also the graphical output appeals to software engineers and other propeller heads. They only come in black or silver and leave almost no room for self-expression. It is perfect for the penny-pinching school teacher, engineer or accountant.
Ceramic Smokers – fuel: lump, briquettes and wood Meteor Comet, Broil King, Grill Dome, Saffire, Vision Kamado, Kamado Joe, Primo, Bayou Classic, Kamado Rocket, Big Green Egg, and Komodo Kamado.
This is the Lady Gaga of smokers. The ceramics come in all colors, sizes and price ranges. As you can tell by the number of players in this market, the offerings are endless. These smokers originated in Asia and many are still made there. The granddaddies of them all are the Big Green Egg and the Komodo Kamado. Both are rightly classified as grills but can be modified into smokers by the addition of a ceramic deflector below the grill. The Big Green Egg has been around since 1974 and offers numerous accessories and support. The Komodo Kamado is the over-engineered Tesla of the group. Conceived by Dennis Linkletter and made in Indonesia, these instruments are opulent and beautiful. Though not commonly used, after-market temperature controllers can be added.
The ceramics have thick walls that heat up slowly but also hold heat consistently once it gets there. Also, these smokers are generally pretty tight and perform well in wind, unlike the un-insulated WSMs. The walls make for a heavy smoker. Most will buy a metal rack with wheels to make the ceramic easier to move. They have the advantage of a lid that will hold in place upon lifting. The more money you spend, the more likely you are to get a counter-balanced lid. The main disadvantages about the ceramics is that they are low capacity, difficult to refill with fuel, and when they over-heat, they are hard to bring down. And of course, they are very heavy. I love to cook chicken in ceramics. The gentle heat produces an amazing looking turn-in box. This is a common smoker for home cooks who want versatility and ease of use. It is perfect for small families that like to entertain on weekends for ball games at home.
Ugly Drum Smokers – fuel: lump, briquettes and wood – Pit Barrel Cooker, Big Poppa UDS kit
If you think all you need to survive in the woods are a Swiss Army Knife, a roll of duct tape and your wits, then the Ugly Drum Smoker is for you. UDS smokers are food grade barrels converted into smokers. They aren’t sold anywhere (except for Pit Barrel which sells a smaller than traditional one). You have to buy the drum, accessories, design the unit, and drill yourself a smoker. Other than the Big Poppa Smoker seen here, they aren’t pretty but they can produce amazing BBQ. The reason is that the UDS smokers do not rely on indirect cooking. Rather, the fat and gelatin from your meat directly drip down onto the coals 3-4 feet below. This produces a small flare of smoke that enhances the smoky flavor of your meat. If you are a cult follower, this is the smoker for you. These are also popular smokers for police and firemen.
Insulated Smokers – lump, briquettes, gas and wood
Backwoods, Stumps, Bradley, Pitmaker (Texas), Deep South, Southern Q Smokers, American Barbecue Systems, Assassin’s Smokers, Superior, Ole Hickory, Meadow Creek, Southern Pride.
This is the Lexus and Mercedes of smokers. If you earn enough income, this has few flaws, runs efficiently and can be personalized with a design on the exterior. Because the walls are insulated, the exterior is not hot to touch so you don’t need special paints to make it reflect your personality.
These smokers are beauties to behold (polished and sleek). It is easy on the body because you’re never reaching in to dig a meat out from the bottom and there is no lid to lift or need to put it down. It opens like a refrigerator. Additionally, depending on the model, it can take any source of fuel and it easy to clean up. The footprint is compact for the capacity it can hold. However, the racks are stacked and meats on top will drip on meats below so you have to be smart about how you cook. Consider buying one of these if you are a doctor, lawyer or CEO.
Front-Back Offset smokers – Good One, American Barbecue Systems
There are two schools of thought when it comes to temperature variation in a smoker. Either variation is good or it is bad. Traditional off-set smokers have a heat source on one side and the exit point for the smoke on the other. This means that meat closest to the fire will be the hottest with a gradation as you exit the box. This is good if you plan on cooking meats at different temperatures and want to do this in one unit. But if you want to cook at only one temperature, then uniformity matters. The Front-Back Offset smokers are a smart re-design of side to side offsets. The temperature gradient is reduced since the firebox runs the entire length of the cooker, though some gradients can exist.
ABS created versions that include rotating shelves which improve uniformity and accessibility further but you have to put up with some noise. I cooked with an ABS and though the smoker put out a gorgeous pork butt crust, the motor sounded like a cell phone ringing for the next 9 hours. The Good One is a nice system with some thoughtful nods to grilling and ease of use but it will take up some space in your backyard. And if you want to move these units, you’ll need to know that they can be heavy. These are great smokers to have if you live in rural areas with plenty of space and want to keep them in your yard. They are easy on the back and give you plenty of space for larger cooks.
Pellet Smokers – fuel: pellets – Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack, MAK Pellet grills, REC TEC Grills, Traeger, Green Mountain Grills, Good One, and Yoder
One of the most popular models to buy is a pellet smoker. The smoker uses compressed wood products that look like rabbit food called pellets. Pitmasters are affectionately called Pelletheads. To run a pellet cooker, an instrument must have a source of electricity to run the alger that feeds the pellets into the firebox. A user interface controls the temperature and when it runs low, a blower will turn on to increase airflow.
Besides using a gas smoker, pellet cookers are as close to cooking in your home oven as it gets. If you like ease of use, this is the cooker for you. Just set it and forget it. The main disadvantages can be a large of smoke output upon startup, hotspots in the cooker, the noise factor from the blower and some complain that pellet cookers don’t produce enough smoke flavor. I find myself rotating meat more than I enjoy and the blower to be a bit too harsh on smoking meats.
Stick Burners – fuel: wood – Meadow Creek, Lang, Gator Pit of Texas, Klose, Jambo,
This is the holy grail of all smokers. If you drive up with one of these, no one will question your ability to cook BBQ, whether or not you know how to cook. They are big, beautiful and unquestionably the quintessential BBQ smoker. If you like to smoke Cuban cigars, ride your Harley to Sturgis and wrestle with polar bears, this is your smoker. Anything short of this behemoth will impair your need to rule the BBQ world. It is the opposite of a pellet smoker. You have to put in lots of effort to even get them going. They need attention, understanding and lots of wood. Treat them right, and you can produce a Texas style brisket that will make your friends and enemies cry.
Many have reverse flow designs where the heat must flow in opposing directions before exiting. This creates a more even distribution of heat and smoke. Lang is strictly reverse flow and from Georgia. Meadow Creek pits are from Pennsylvania and the Gators, Klose and Jambos are from Texas. Include the smoker on your will and list it as a contestable asset if you divorce. Your former spouse will fight you for the smoker.
Well, that’s my totally unscientific take on commercial smokers and their personalities. Of course, this is America and it is common for many pitmasters to build their own customized pits with grills, deep fryers, sinks and flat screen TVs. The possibilities are endless. But no matter what you decide to buy, remember to buy a smoker that you will love and appreciate. After all, BBQ is a hobby, not a job. Buy with your heart as much as with your mind.