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Buying A BBQ Smoker

There are so many different types of products and features within the barbecue smoker category that you might not even know where to start. In addition to all the smoker options, there are also tons of techniques for smoking meat.

We know the barbecue smoker world can be intimidating, but we’re here to make it as easy as possible for you to get started. This buying guide will talk you through the main features of smokers so you can decide what type of model will be best for your meat smoking journey.

Smoker Fuel Type - Electric, Charcoal, Gas, or Pellet

First, you have to decide how you’d like to fuel your smoker. Believe it or not, there are more choices than just wood and charcoal!

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Electric BBQ smokers

One option is an electric BBQ smoker, which works in a way that is similar to an indoor oven. Most use thermostats to control the temperature, but the lower-end models use rheostats to adjust the electrical flow to the heat-source coil. The coil then burns wood chips in a smoker box to produce the smoke. The nice thing about an electric smoker is you only have to focus on the airflow and the amount of smoke instead of constantly worrying about the temperature or adding fuel while cooking. That said, the amount of smoke and airflow are crucial to pay attention to. It can be easy to oversmoke food in an electric smoker because of the combination of large smoker boxes and lower rates of airflow, but having less airflow can be beneficial when you want to retain moisture for juicier and more tender meats. Of course, you’ll also have to consider that this type of BBQ smoker will raise your electric bill some.

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Charcoal BBQ smokers

Charcoal barbecue smokers can be trickier to learn and use than some of the other options. But, when you master it, you’ll love the results. Even though it’s going to take some more effort, you’ll find the resulting flavor to be the biggest benefit of a charcoal smoker. A smoker temperature controller can help regulate airflow. You’ll still have to monitor the levels, but at least some of the guesswork and pressure will be taken off of you. Another plus of a charcoal smoker is that you can put wood chips or chunks directly on top of the lump charcoal in the fire box to affect the smoke. Chips are going to result in little bursts of smoke, and chunks will provide smoke over time. Kamado grills also fall into this category.

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Gas BBQ smokers

Another option is a gas BBQ smoker. You’ll find this to be very easy to use as its build is similar to an electric smoker. The difference is that there’s a gas burner at the bottom of the smoking chamber instead of an electric coil that lights wood chips or chunks. It’s also much easier to control your temperature and amount of smoke than with a wood or charcoal smoker. This means you can spend your time worrying about your food’s internal temperature and how long you smoke it for. You’re still going to have tender and smoky meat from a gas smoker. Keep in mind that if you can open your air vents to control airflow, opening them can prevent soot from collecting inside your cooking chamber.

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Pellet BBQ smokers

The last option you have is a pellet smoker. These are the easiest to use because they manage everything for you, including fuel and heat levels and smoke and airflow. You also won’t need wood chips or chunks because wood pellets actually make their own flavored smoke, giving your food subtle, mild flavors. This might seem backwards at first, but hotter fires produce less smoke than fires with lower temperatures. Some pellet smokers even have programmable cooking cycles. If you choose “smoke mode,” your pellet smoker will lower the heat to give you more smoke. These are definitely fun for the beginning smoker to play with!

Smoker Body Type - Offset, Vertical, or Unconventional

There are different pros and cons to each BBQ smoker’s body type. Read on to see if an offset, vertical, or unconventional smoker fits your smoking goals best.

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Offset Smokers

The horizontal barrel-shaped body of an offset smoker has a fire box/heat source usually set horizontally off of the cooking chamber. BBQ smokers in this classic style waft heat and smoke created with charcoal or wood from the fire box into the main chamber. The temperature across the cooking surface does vary some in an offset smoker because of the way the heat moves through the unit. That said, reverse-flow air intakes and large heat baffles are some of the newer features that can help keep your heat more even. Offset smokers tend to require more effort and attention, making them popular among the competitive and traditionalist barbecuing crowds. Temperature controllers that handle heat and airflow can make your job a little easier, but you’ll still have to watch the smoke production and fuel.

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Vertical Smokers

Another difference between charcoal grills and kamados is that kamados don't allow for much airflow while charcoal grills have plenty of airflow. More airflow is unfortunately going to result in you using more fuel, so a kamado is going to be much more fuel-efficient than a standard charcoal grill. Kamados tend to have better insulation and can retain moisture better, so meats prepared in one of these units will be juicier and much more tender. If you're looking to experiment more with cooking styles, a kamado grill might be the better way for you to go.

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Unconventional Smokers

Another difference between charcoal grills and kamados is that kamados don't allow for much airflow while charcoal grills have plenty of airflow. More airflow is unfortunately going to result in you using more fuel, so a kamado is going to be much more fuel-efficient than a standard charcoal grill. Kamados tend to have better insulation and can retain moisture better, so meats prepared in one of these units will be juicier and much more tender. If you're looking to experiment more with cooking styles, a kamado grill might be the better way for you to go.

Smoker Structure: Built-in or freestanding?

The next thing you’ll need to think about is whether you’d rather have a built-in or freestanding smoker. This mostly affects where you’ll place your smoker and whether or not it’s movable, but we’ll break down the differences below.

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Freestanding BBQ smokers

Freestanding BBQ smokers tend to be the most commonly selected structure. Not only do you have the freedom to move your smoker around (or even bring it to competitions!), but the mobility also helps in cleaning your smoker. Let’s be honest, the leftover fat drippings and soot from your meal can make cleaning your smoker quite a chore. But if you have a freestanding smoker, you can clean it from more angles, just moving it around as needed. These units also have the benefit of being easier to store for longer lengths of time. If you choose a freestanding structure, make sure you have sturdy, supportive wheels and a smoker cover to safeguard your purchase.

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Built-in smokers

Built-in smokers are not as common, so they can give your outdoor kitchen a different aesthetic if you want to impress your friends. If you’re looking to add versatility to your kitchen, try pairing a BBQ smoker with a conventional gas grill. This gives you the freedom to make more types of foods (and more of them!). A good way to achieve this is to add a built-in kamado smoker to your BBQ island. Really, as long as you’re paying attention to your owner manual’s recommendations for proper ventilation and clearance, you have several options with your built-in smoker. You could also slide a vertical electric smoker on wheels into a counter cutout, again making sure you’re paying attention to the ventilation.

Smoker Classes

Another thing you’ll want to consider with your smoker is which classification is best for your needs. We’ve broken our BBQ smokers up into four categories (Luxury, Premium, Practical, and Economy) based on quality, features, and overall performance. Take a look at the four categories to decide which type is going to add the most value to your outdoor kitchen.

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Luxury BBQ smokers

Luxury BBQ smokers are top of the line. You’ll find our luxury smokers tend to have thicker insulation and well-sealed cooking chambers to keep the smoke where it belongs - in your smoker. You’ll find more versatility and convenience among luxury cooking systems. Most luxury smokers are built from 304 stainless steel, which means your smoker will be around for a very long time. But, they’re usually paired with a lifetime warranty, just in case.

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Premium BBQ smokers

Our premium BBQ smokers are also very dependable, built with powder-coated or stainless steel for long-lasting durability. They’ll also have warranties that cover your smoker for up to 10 years. Premium smokers have reliable cooking systems with quality insulation. Our premium smokers are going to consistently deliver simple and tasty barbecue..

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Practical BBQ smokers

Practical smokers will do a decent job for you, but they’re not as high end as luxury or premium smokers are. These smokers are nice to the pocketbook and easy to use, but with more features than economy units. Practical smokers don’t have as long of a warranty period as a luxury or premium model, but you’ll find that they will still retain heat well. Despite being made from a variety of materials, practical BBQ smokers still typically have fairly thick steel.

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Economy BBQ smokers

Smokers in the economy class are better for someone who cares more about having an affordable BBQ smoker than the quality of the smoker itself. Economy smokers are “just the basics” with simple features and lower quality materials. Unfortunately, with the thin materials, comes limited warranties and products that just don’t last as long.

Other Considerations

Now that we’ve covered the main aspects of a BBQ smoker, you’ll also want to pay attention to the following:

1. Insulation

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Quality insulation is a necessity when you’re using controlled heat and smoke retention to make your food! Look for units with fiberglass mesh or felt gaskets and thick-gauge metal if you really want to ensure great insulation. Ceramic kamado BBQ smokers are great insulators. Also, inspect your smoker for loose seals or gaskets. Letting all this smoke escape will affect your food’s flavor, and will require you to use extra fuel.

2. Dampers/Vents

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If applicable, you’ll want to look for a damper (vent) system that is made from quality materials and is easy to access and operate. Dampers adjust airflow and affect the temperature of the fire and within the cooking chamber.

3. Wood Chips or Wood Chunks?

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Any experienced barbecuer will tell you that part of the fun in smoking is playing around with different types of hardwood to produce different flavors for your food. But, when should you use wood chips, and when should you use wood chunks? In general, we recommend wood chips if you are looking for a heavy smoke flavor and aren’t cooking as long. If you have a longer cook and want a more steady amount of smoke, you might want to try wood chunks. Depending on what you’re preparing, you can even mix the two.

Some people firmly believe you should soak your wood chips or chunks. Honestly, though, all that really does is make it take longer to ignite your wood. This is pretty much only a useful strategy if you’re looking to smoke longer. In that case, you could soak half of your wood. As the dry pieces start to burn out, the wet bits will start to ignite, so your smoker is essentially refueling for you.

4. Water Pans

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It’s not mandatory to use a water pan to run your smoker, but it will certainly make smoking a lot easier for you. A water pan is where you can put various liquids to help flavor your food, including beer, apple juice, and cider vinegar. Of course, you can always just stick to water, too! The water pan is another way to stabilize your smoker’s temperature while adding humidity so your food will stay moist within the dry, hot smoker. It also serves as a deflector, absorbing and evenly distributing heat.

Questions?

We hope we’ve helped make your kamado charcoal cooker decision process easier, but if you’re still not sure how to make your dream outdoor kitchen come true, please reach out to us. We are more than happy to help you better understand kamado grills. We hope this guide has helped you pinpoint what features are most important to you in a BBQ smoker. If you still have questions, please feel free to contact us so we can help you better understand your options!

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