I think you should start smoking. Sure, it can get expensive, it involves going outside more than you normally would, and it can make your shirt kind of smelly - but if you’re like me, and your appetite for barbecue is a pit whose depths have never seen sunlight, you might want to start smoking your own meat.
Barbecue is a tightrope walk. If your fire is too hot, then whatever you’re smoking will start to dry out before the connective tissue between the muscle fibers has a chance to break down (which is what gives your meat that fall apart texture.) If your fire isn’t hot enough, then that connective tissue won’t break down either - plus, your guests will be upset that they had to wait over 20 hours for some brisket.
But if you’re up to the task and have the outdoor space, there are a few smokers out there that can make the learning curve a little more forgiving. Each type comes with its own pros and cons, and, at the end of the day, you’ll just have to decide which one makes the most sense for you. Here’s a rundown on the four main kinds, followed by my top beginner smoker picks as well as everything else you’ll need to get started, including some wood, a thermometer system, a good pair of gloves, and butcher paper.
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Which Smoker Is Right For You?
Offset smokers are widely considered to be the best. They use indirect heat, and their shapes allow for superior air (and smoke) flow. This is what the pros and barbecue spots usually use, but they’re very hard master, and if you want a good one you’re going to have to spend some serious cash - so if you’re just starting out, you probably don’t want to do that.
Electric smokers are the most user-friendly. Most of them involve setting a temperature and a timer, adding some wood chips and water, and hanging out on a hammock waiting for your barbecue to be ready. They use coils instead of an open flame to produce heat and bring your wood chips to a smoke point, so you do lose some of that authentic smokiness. Electric smokers usually don’t produce knock-your-socks-off barbecue. That said, they’re fun to use, relatively cheap, and might be a good place to start. Keep in mind that you’ll need to have a power outlet handy.
Pellet smokers use... you guessed it: pellets. Pellets are basically sawdust that’s compressed into cute little tic tac looking pieces. These smokers use an electric thermostat to regulate temperature, and a motor that feeds pellets into your cooking chamber where they can combust and produce smoke. Much like an electric smoker, pellet smokers do most of the work for you, but they may not offer that authentic barbecue flavor you’re looking for. They are, however, extremely versatile, as their electric temperature control allows for not only smoking but also grilling, baking, or pretty much whatever you want to do. With these, you’ll need to have an outlet handy too.
Charcoal smokers use an open flame at the base of your smoker to produce direct heat that travels upward toward your meat. These occupy a fun middle ground between really-hard-to-master and “set it and forget it.” If you take the time to learn how to use one of these, they might be your best option for beginner backyard barbecue.
The Best Beginner Charcoal Smoker
The Weber Smokey Mountain is an excellent “bullet-style” charcoal smoker, and it’s my absolute favorite smoker in general. (The Smokey Mountain is basically a Weber Kettle that’s built for cooking things low and slow.) It allows for fine tuned smoke regulation through the use of its three dampeners. Plus, it features great temperature consistency, a moist cooking environment (courtesy of its water dish), and a door that allows you to add some more wood or coal to the fire without popping the lid off - because as the old barbecue adage goes, “if you’re lookin’ you ain’t cookin.”
I’d pick the WSM over comparably priced vertical smokers like the Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco or the Pit Barrel Cooker for two reasons: versatility and build quality. If you just want to grill up some burgers or dogs or you’re going on a camping trip, you can simply remove the middle section of the smoker and use it as a grill. If you’re looking to use it as a hanging-style drum smoker, you can remove its water dish and rig it to do that too. As for build quality, it’s made by Weber so you know you’re getting a great quality product (and the 10 year rust warranty on metal components doesn’t hurt either).
The Best Beginner Electric Smoker
As far as electric smokers go, it’s hard to beat what you get for the money with the Masterbuilt 30”. It has a nice amount of space in the cooking chamber (although it’s not the deepest, so large cuts like briskets will need to be cut in half) as well as a special chip loader that allows you to add more wood without opening the smoker door. It looks pretty sleek too.
The Best Beginner Pellet Smoker
The Z GRILLS ZPG-450A is relatively affordable, well-built, and will do the job if you want to smoke some meat this summer. It’ll also allow you to grill some meat or do fun food experiments in your backyard. Smoked chocolate cake anyone?
If money were no object, a pellet smoker from Traeger would be the obvious choice - they make the best ones out there, but they’re pretty pricey. Other companies, like Oklahoma Joe’s, make some pellet smokers that are comparably priced to the ZPG-450A, but (like Traeger) Z Grills exclusively focuses on making pellet smokers, and theirs are the best you can get for under $500.
Which Wood Should You Use?
Depending on which smoker you choose, you’ll need wood chunks, chips, or pellets. Some people insist on using certain woods for certain meats, but there are barbecue places out there that just use the same wood for everything and produce incredible results. Do you want an intense smoke flavor? Try mesquite. Looking for something milder? Go with pecan. Getting rid of an old bed frame? Use some of the slats. (Just kidding, please don’t do that last one.) Anyway, experiment or mix woods to see what you’re into. Here are some suggestions.
This is what you’ll need for a vertical smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain. Just a few pieces on top of your coal should give you all the smoke you need for an extended cook. You should, however, keep an eye on the wood to make sure it’s smoldering, not on fire.
Wood chips are pretty versatile in their potential applications. Electric smokers like the Masterbuilt require unsoaked chips to be placed in the chamber periodically, but you can also soak chips in water and make tin foil packets that can be used to create a smoky environment in a charcoal or even a gas grill.
These are the cute tic tac looking things I was talking about earlier, and they’re what you want for your pellet smoker. You can technically use them the same way you’d use wood chips, but their smoke won’t be quite as clean or flavorful, so I’d opt for the real thing if you can.
The Little Extras
It’s always a good idea to know what’s going on inside your smoker and inside your meat which is why you need a thermometer system. This one from Inkbird is my favorite and comes with four probes - which means you can situate one on the grill itself, and then use the other three for different meats you’re smoking. It also comes with an app that allows you to check on your meat remotely, which means less time in the heat and more time in the AC.
Burning your hands is bad. Make sure you get a good pair of gloves to keep that from happening. I love these gloves from Artisan Griller because they’re waterproof, come up high on your arm, and are resistant to 500ºF.
You probably recognize this stuff from every time you’ve been handed a heaping tray of meat at a barbecue shop. You can use it for serving, but it also comes in handy if you want to wrap your meat mid-way through a cook to preserve moisture or pack up a brisket for a party where you will arrive both smoky and triumphant.