In some respects a smoked meat is only as good as the smoker it's prepared in.
Be it a brisket or sausage, the quality of the meat's smokiness and savorability ultimately depends on the smoker used to prepare it.
Whether you're getting your first smoker or making an upgrade/addition to your outdoor kitchen, choosing the right smoker for you is a big decision. After all, it's the cooking apparatus you'll prepare feasts of all sorts in.
Spend any time in the outdoors section of your favorite big-box retailer or run a quick Google search, and you'll see a diverse selection of smokers available -- all boasting a wide variety of functions.
How do you decide which smoker is the right one for you?
It starts with understanding the difference between smokers through a smoker comparison.
Smoker Comparison | Clearing the Air for What's on the Market
The meat smoker market can appear ... a bit crowded. There's a smoker type for all skill levels or meat preparation intentions. Each smoker type offers its own unique temperature control and flavor characteristics and helps the user prepare bragging rights-worthy meat.
Wondering, "What kind of smoker should I buy?"
To help you narrow down your choices, let's take a look at the most common types of meat smokers available. They include:
Considered the easiest entry point to meat smoking, electric smokers are a great option for those who want convenience and user-friendliness. Using an electric heating element that burns wood chips, this type of smoker allows for effortless temperature control and a more hands-off smoking process.
However, some argue that electric smokers provide a weaker smoky flavor compared to charcoal or wood smokers because of their heating source. What's more, electric smokers can be more expensive than other types of smokers.
Gas smokers are a popular choice for smoking meat, especially for beginners.
They’re also easy to use and require minimal maintenance -- an important consideration for a beginner who's testing the waters. Like a gas grill, a gas smoker is usually fueled by propane to burn wood chips.
One downside to using a gas smoker is that it can be difficult to maintain a consistent temperature, which can affect the overall flavor of the meat.
Because the internal temperatures react quickly as you adjust gas flow.
Additionally, some argue that gas smokers do not provide as strong a smoke flavor as other types of smokers.
Completing the trifecta of options for beginners, charcoal smokers are a go-to for smoking meat. Fueled by briquettes -- hardwood lump or charcoal -- they impart a strong, smoky flavor to meat and are relatively inexpensive compared to other types of smokers.
However, charcoal smokers require more maintenance and attention than gas smokers, as the temperature needs to be constantly monitored and controlled by adding or removing coals and tweaking airflow. Charcoal smokers also take longer to heat up before they can start smoking the meat.
A drum smoker is a type of smoker that uses a cylindrical container to smoke the meat. The container is typically fueled by charcoal or wood.
One benefit of using a drum smoker is that the meat is in close contact with the smoke, which means a more intense flavor. Additionally, drum smokers are often cheaper than other types of smokers. In many cases, drum smokers are a DIY project (aka ugly drum smoker), giving the smoke master absolute command over their setup. In addition, drum smokers often feature a wide variety of accessories and attachments, upgrading their versatility.
However, there are some drawbacks. For one, it can be difficult to control the temperature in a drum smoker. What's more, it can be tough to know when the meat is done smoking, as the internal temperature may not be as easy to monitor without an appropriate temperature gauge.
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Offset smokers (aka barrel smokers) use indirect heat and smoke to cook meat. In a certain respect, an offset smoker resembled a hybrid between a grill and a small vertical smoker. They have a separate firebox attached to the main cooking chamber, which allows for more control in regulating smoking temperatures.
Offset smokers are a popular choice for smoking meat because they provide an intense smokey flavor and can cook large cuts of meat.
During a smoke, offset smokers require extra attention to regulate the temperature and prevent flare-ups. They also tend to be more expensive than other types of smokers.
Pellet smokers are a type of electric smoker that use small wood pellets as the heating source. The pellets are fed into a burner, which ignites them and creates smoke.
Pellet smokers are known for their ease of use, as they maintain a consistent temperature and do not require much attention. Additionally, pellet smokers produce less ash than other types of smokers, making cleanup easier.
Pellet smokers can be more expensive than other types of smokers. Additionally, the flavor of the meat smoked in a pellet smoker is not as intense as in a charcoal or wood smoker.
Kettle smokers are metal pot-like containers to smoke meat. They are fueled by charcoal or wood and have a dome-shaped lid to capture smoke and heat.
Kettle smokers are relatively inexpensive, easy to use, and take up less space than other smokers. Some are even small enough to use inside your stove. They also provide an intense smoky flavor to the meat.
As a smaller smoker, kettle smokers do not offer as much space for smoking large cuts of meat. They also require the user to play a more active role in bringing up to temperature and maintaining a constant heat.
Kamado smokers are a type of ceramic smoker. At first glance, they look like a larger version of a kettle smoker.
Fueled by charcoal or wood, kamado smokers use a convection system to cook and smoke meat. Kamado smokers are known for their even heat distribution and ability to maintain a consistent temperature. Kamado smokers provide an intense smoky flavor to the meat.
Coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, kamado smokers are a versatile option for the smoker. Some models have the ability to smoke, bake, and grill, making them a one-stop shop for all your smoking needs.
However, kamado smokers can be expensive compared to other types of smokers -- they're often the most expensive option and are used more by seasoned smokers.
Contrary to its name, a cold smoker does smoke/cook food with heat -- just at lower temperatures. They're often used to smoke cheese, fish, and other delicate foods that require a much less intense smoking process.
Cold smokers typically use wood chips or pellets for fuel, although some models use electricity instead. They usually have a smaller cooking area than other types of smokers, which can make them difficult to use for larger items (you won't be smoking your Thanksgiving turkey in one). Additionally, because the temperature is so low, it can take quite a while to properly smoke food in a cold smoker.
3 Considerations for Choosing a Meat Smoker for the Meat’s Smoker
Choosing the best meat smoker for you also involves taking a look in the mirror. Every smoked meat virtuoso is different. Preparing smoked meats, you'll set standards which means having equipment that's not beyond you to use.
When pairing yourself with a meat smoker, consider your:
- Skill level -- If you're just starting out, making a big investment in a smoker might not be the most financially savvy idea. On the off-chance you'll decide the world of smoking meats isn't for you, you'll likely not recoup your investment. Also, some meat smokers are best used by an experienced chef. The last thing you want is to be in over your head with a smoker you can't use well.
- Frequency of use -- Along the same lines as your skill level, if you're only planning the occasional smoke, dropping a large amount of money on a smoker that's going to sit unused doesn't always make the most sense for your wallet.
- Maintenance availability -- All smokers require a level of maintenance -- some more than others. Cleaning out an electric smoker is less involved than cleaning out a kamado smoker.
Ultimately, the best smoker for you is one that meets your needs and matches your abilities and skillset.
Comparing Meat Smokers & The Right One for You
In the end, there's no one "best" meat smoker, though there are plenty of friendly arguments to be had on the matter.
Meat smokers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with different features and benefits. When choosing the best smoker for you, it's important to enter the decision with eyes wide open about available options and your comfort level with each.
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