Once you’ve hosted a smoked meat party or event, it will never feel complete again without serving some mouthwatering slow-smoked meat from an excellent smoker. Everyone has their taste and preference, whether it’s turkey breast, ribs, or brisket. How you smoke the meat and what smoker you use is also a matter of personal choice. Determining the best smoker for beginners was a challenge. I mean, I’m not you. So, I decided to uncover the pros and cons and then offer my personal opinion on which smokers rank in the best category for a beginner.
First, let’s take a look at the kinds of smokers available, their differences, and what to look for. Teach a man to fish, as they say, and you’ll feed him for life. That’s the idea…
At the end of this article, you’ll have a nice idea of how to determine a good quality smoker, along with the pros and cons of each type, so you can be a little better prepared before buying.
What’s the best smoker for a perfect outdoor grilling or meat smoking experience? It often boils down to preference. There are many styles to choose from. Different designs present different approaches to how the meat is smoked and cooked. Let’s start with the basic smoker types. You know the result you want, but getting there can be confusing at first, so let’s unwrap the differences.
Types Of Smokers
- Offset Smokers
- Pellet Smokers
- Electric Smokers
- Propane Smokers
- Kamado Grills
- Kettle Grills
- Charcoal Smokers
- Drum Smokers
Crazy, huh? Notice that there are two types of smokers listed that are actually grills. The reason I listed them is because you can still smoke meat with them and get great results.
Where To Begin
Let’s start with the end in mind. Do you like having a deep, rich, smoky flavor? What about the smoke ring? Is it important? What about cook times? Are you willing to put in the time to get that low and slow tenderness? Some smokers cook meat faster than others with higher heat. Do you have limitations for size or weight? What about the smell of smoke? Are you in an area where billowing smoke could be problematic? All these things should be part of your consideration.
Let’s say you live in an apartment, and you plan to smoke meat out on a balcony. Can you do that? Sure. But there will be limitations to the kind, size, and weight of the smoker you choose.
And on it goes.
Let’s break down types of smokers and see what’s good and maybe not-so-good about each one.
Offset smokers are the ultimate, cool-looking smokers that can provide all the things you want out of smoked meat. They operate using charcoal or wood in a firebox situated next to a smoking chamber, where the food goes. Heat and smoke travel from the firebox through the smoking chamber and out of a smokestack. This is slow-and-low cooking at its very best. Most serious pit chefs have a keen eye on their choice of offset smokers as the ultimate in smoking meat.
So the problem with offset smokers is that temperature control can be problematic for beginners. A little practice and determination can easily overcome temperature control challenges, though. That really isn’t a significant challenge and shouldn’t deter you from getting an offset smoker if that’s what you really want. Just be aware of it. My first smoker and favorite type of smoker is an offset smoker. The one pictured below is my old New Braunfels Smoker. I loved that smoker.
An offset smoker may be the best smoker for a beginner if you already know what you want!
New Braunfels smokers aren’t made any longer, though. The company was purchased by Char-Broil, which makes Oklahoma Joe’s line of smokers. Oklahoma Joe’s smokers are the equivalent to New Braunfels in quality and price. I sold my New Braunfels smoker years ago and still miss it dearly! The Oklahoma Joe Smoker may be slightly better built but still quite reasonably priced. I found this forum thread referring to New Braunfels, Char-Broil, and the buy-out. It isn’t much, but it’s all I could find on the subject.
The downside of an offset smoker is that you will be making a significant commitment right off the bat. There is a learning curve to using them efficiently and correctly. They require added maintenance, they’re cumbersome, and they may be more than you really need.
What About Pellet Smokers for Starting Out?
Pellet smokers can be a good choice if you want to ease into fire-tending. Once they are lit and get going, an electrically powered screw-type mechanism can be set to feed the fire continuously. Auto-feeding the fire dramatically reduces the need to tend to it.
The main drawbacks to pellet smokers are that they rely on electricity and pellets to keep them fed. Pellets are basically compressed sawdust. If your local supplier runs out of smoker pellets, you’ll be left high and dry. If you still like the idea of a pellet smoker, make sure you always have a supply of fuel on hand. Also, they rely on electricity to keep the feeder moving.
Pellet smokers have been gaining popularity among beginner smokers as of late. They aren’t traditional, but the ease of use may be why people are drawn to them.
A Propane Smoker is a Great Smoker For Beginners, if…
Propane is easy to keep and store and can be purchased everywhere. Propane can be an excellent option for beginners since a constant fire, and even temperature can easily be achieved and maintained. Remember Hank Hill? The cartoon guy! He was a propane salesman and always promoted gas as the top choice for cooking meat. He’s just a cartoon, but there are plenty of people with this same belief. It is, of course, a matter of opinion.
I think a propane-powered smoker is an excellent choice for many people. The main drawback to me is the lack of charcoal-smoked flavor. That’s just my opinion. If you don’t care about charcoal smoked flavors, then a propane smoker may be right for you.
What Are Kamado Grills?
Kamado Grills go back thousands of years. Kamado is Japanese for “stove.” Commercially made Kamado grills like the one pictured here are typically made of thick ceramic material, which can retain high amounts of heat. Constant heat is maintained with top and bottom vents, much like you see on a typical kettle grill.
Kamado Grills can be used for smoking as well. Although, because they aren’t ideal for smoking, they may limit you if you dedicate one for smoking meat.
Here’s something to think about: Kamado grills are so efficient that you can even use them as a pizza oven! Temperatures can get as high as 750 degrees inside a kamado grill, and that’s hot! Suppose you like the idea of stacked heating and high temperatures. Maybe even the idea of making pizzas! In that case, the best beginner smoker for you may be a kamado grill.
Most people are very familiar with kettle grills. My dad had one, and I ate countless hamburgers and hot dogs from off his grill. But he never smoked a single time with it. Why? Likely, he didn’t even realize he could. There are several techniques, like a snake fire or half-half techniques for smoking in a kettle grill. Simply, you can get delicious smoked meat from a kettle grill.
If you opt for a kettle grill, you’ll likely be wanting to grill most of the time and occasionally smoke a few things here and there. That’s okay! A kettle grill may be right for you.
For smoking on a kettle grill, just remember that you’ll need to work out the best smoking technique for you. If smoking meat is your ultimate goal, and you’re sure of it, you’ll probably want something more dedicated to smoking meat than a kettle grill.
Charcoal cooking provides the best tasting meat, IMHO. Charcoal offers the classic flavor I’m looking for, and wood chips can be added for taste and getting the smoke ring you want. You don’t have to buy a traditional charcoal smoker to use charcoal.
If you are a purist, you may want to use lump charcoal instead of briquettes. Briquettes contain additives that can influence the flavor of the meat you cook with it. Lump charcoal burns cleaner and leaves very little ash. On the other hand, briquettes burn more evenly.
You don’t need a charcoal smoker to use charcoal. I always used briquettes as a fire source in my offset smoker and added a few wood chips for smoke flavoring. I was unaware of the additives in briquettes, and it never occurred to me to be bothered by it. I will likely be using lump charcoal in the future.
Charcoal smokers are a good beginner smoker choice due to it’s even and constant temperatures, familiarity to a kettle grill, and ease of use. It can also be used as a grill.
Are Drum Smokers Okay For Beginners?
Drum smokers are a peculiar type of smoker. It seems since I never had one, that they likely burn hotter than other types of smokers but smoke and cook the meat pretty evenly due to the “stacked” design. According to one source, they generally “like” to operate at between 275 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit:
They appear to be slightly more challenging to work with and have lots of optional accessories that can increase the overall price dramatically. You can utilize hooks to hang meat or use racks in a more conventional way. In my observation, Drum Smokers are best suited for dedicated meat smoking. If you’re thinking “low and slow”, then drum smokers are definitely not the best smoker to start with!
Considerations When Buying a Good Quality Beginner Smoker
Okay, let’s just get the price out of the way now. If you’re willing to spend at least a couple hundred bucks, you can find a decent machine to smoke meat with. Of course, you can spend well into the thousands of dollars, but if you just want to get yourself going and need to know how much to spend, you can stay well under $500 to get started and do quite well.
The better the construction of a smoker, the higher the price as well. Make sure whatever you get can take extended periods of heat over and over for years. Thin metal parts will not last. This may not be a serious consideration for your first smoker, though.
Temperature Control, Heat Retention, and Distribution
This one is a bit tricky because you can get a decent smoker with air leaks all over the place. That being said, you must understand the time involved in each type of meat and smoking technique. That way, you can understand how cooking times will change based on how well your smoker retains and distributes heat. Less expensive offset smokers are often not sealed very well.
My New Braunfels offset smoker had a leaky chamber cover. I used a perfectly shaped piece of mesquite that I found in my chips bag that I used to wedge it shut with. A big part of the problem was solved. Once I was able to close the lid tightly, I could estimate my cooking times much better. It may not have been ideal, but it worked, and I could repeat it.
The point is, there are things you can do to improve the quality of a less expensive smoker. You can get great products from Lavalock that seal doors, connectors, and everything else. It’s an excellent investment in your smoker and cheaper than buying an expensive one.
You’ll definitely want to have a thermometer. Many smokers have them built-in. Keep the probe clean, and you’ll always have a reasonably accurate measure. You should consider a small in-chamber thermometer as well for checking how heat is distributed throughout your smoker. Having to rotate the meat while smoking is not uncommon in offset smokers.
Number Of People You’re Cooking For
If you plan to smoke a lot of meat at once, you’ll need to prepare for that. Because of extended cooking times, smoking meat is done all at once and not in batches. If you want to entertain 10 people, you’ll probably want a little more than a small smoker or kettle grill.
If you are a renter or live in an apartment, you probably won’t want a heavy smoker that causes issues every fall when you want to store it. Or, you may choose to roll it into a garage or shed. Some smokers stay put once they’re in place due to how heavy they are.
What About Essential Smoker Accessories?
Some accessories are needed right away, and some can wait. Here’s my laundry list:
What You Need Immediately (Buy with the smoker):
- Cooking Utensils
- Cleaning Tools and supplies
What You’ll Want To Get Very Soon:
- Storage bins for fuel & wood chips
- Toolbox or kit
- Charcoal Chimney
Cleaning and Maintenance of Your New Smoker
Cleaning and maintaining your smoker is an essential consideration for all beginner smokers. Smoke leaves a residue, meat drips, and grease builds up on grates. It’s all part of the deal, and you probably want to know what’s involved going in.
On my offset smoker, I had a drip can hanging under it to catch drippings. I’d empty that regularly, clean out ashes from the firebox, and then scrub all the grates after each use. Then every few uses, I’d take everything out of it and clean everything, including the inside walls of the smoker itself. After cleaning, I’d apply peanut oil over all the internal parts to protect everything from rust and make the next cleanup easier. That was my routine, and it worked really well. After 10 years of use, it still looked and worked great.
Versatility and The Art of Smoking Meat
In your pursuit of the best smoker for beginners, you may want to start small and get the hang of things. In the end, I would recommend a good-quality kettle grill as the best smoker for beginners. Why? Because they can both grill and smoke meat, they are very portable, they clean up quickly, and a good one can last for years.
Later on, if you like what you’re able to do and want to build on your new skills, you can upgrade to a dedicated smoker. It’s my suggestion for those who want to get started before committing all-in.