A Guide to the different types of smokers

Smokers are not created equally. Each has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. A gas or charcoal grill for example can be used as a smoker, but it is entirely different from a pellet smoker, upright smoker or an off-set smoker.

Main types of Smokers:

  • Ceramic Kamado
  • Pellet Smoker
  • Offset Smoker
  • Kettle Grill
  • Electric Smoker
  • Vertical Charcoal Smoker (Bullet or Drum)

Ceramic Kamado

There are quite a few brands of kamado on the market, which all follow the same basic principles and construction.    The distinctive egg or oval shape of the Kamado grill is much more than just a stylistic choice.  Based on ancient clay ovens, the shape and the thickness of the ceramic walls aids in heat and moisture retention. 

Fire produces heat at the bottom of the cooking chamber, and the food is placed on a grill grate above it. The amount of heat produced is controlled by vents at the top and bottom of the grill.

Most models feature a deflector plate that sits just above the fire and reflects some of the heat.  The smoke and heat rise up over the food and are directed back onto it by the shape of the grill.

Positives

The kamado, by design is extremely fuel efficient, a full basket of quality charcoal can last for an overnight cook for a low and slow smoke.

Additionally, because of its very high heat retention, plus top and bottom air vents, temperature control can be extremely accurate, and once set can remain constant for long durations.

The decreased airflow inside a Kamado means there is less chance of your food drying out, so you can expect your meat to stay moist and juicy.

Kamados are very multi-purpose and, alongside working as a smoker, can also grill, bake, and even double as a pizza oven. Plus, quite often you can have a two-zone set up whereby you can direct heat grill on one side and slow cook on the other.

If you live in a colder climate where standard grills and smokers struggle with heat retention in the winter months, then the thick walls of the Kamado grill are a great way to ensure a consistent temperature

Negatives

Great as they are, Kamado grills are not cheap. Expect to pay upwards of £1000 for a top-end model.

Even though the temperature in a kamado can be accurately controlled, one of the first things that have to be mastered is keeping the temperature low when required.  It is easy for a kamado to overshoot your desired temperature if not managed correctly and it is more difficult to bring the temperature down than it is to raise it.

Pellet Smoker

Pellet smokers are a comparatively high-tech combination of oven and smoker. They combine the extra smoky flavour of actual combustion from the wood pellets with the supreme convenience of an electric smoker. 

Pellet smokers use sawdust compressed into pellets, which come in a variety of wood flavours.  These pellets sit in a hopper on the side of the smoker and are fed into a firebox automatically. Inside the firebox is a heated metal rod which causes the pellets to combust, creating both smoke and heat in the cooking chamber above.

Pellet smokers use built-in thermometers to keep the temperature stable, changing the airflow and number of pellets being fed into the firebox to create a consistent heat. 

Positives

Pellet smokers combine the flavour enhancement of actual wood smoke.  The automation of the grill feeding system ensures that the right amount of smoke is given off throughout the duration of your cook.

Quite often the pellet grills have Bluetooth or WIFI capabilities, allowing you to monitor and control your cook from your phone without the need to stand over it for the duration.

Most pellet smoking models are very versatile, acting as a smoker, grill, and oven all rolled into one.

Plus, the wood pellets burn down to nearly nothing, meaning there isn’t much cleanup beyond emptying the, firebox

Negatives

All of the features and control that the pellet smokers have comes at a cost.  Expect to pay at least £600 for an entry-level smoker than is actually worth having. 

The heating rod that ignites the pellets, the fans, and the drill all run on electricity, so you’ll need a socket nearby

You are more restricted when it comes to fuel source with a pellet grill as opposed to most charcoal and wood fuelled smokers.  Though there are quite a few brands available on line and quite a few wood flavour options available.

If you are reasonably serious about smoking but want a high-tech solution that will let you actually burn wood without the babysitting of a charcoal smoker, then the pellet grill is a great option. 

Offset Smoker

The Offset smoker is named as such due to the face that the fire box or heat source is contained in a separate unit, alongside the smoking chamber.  When wood or charcoal is burnt in the firebox, the smoke and heat are drawn across the food in the cooking chamber and out of a chimney. 

In a standard offset smoker, the chimney is situated opposite the firebox.

Some offset smokers use a ‘reverse flow’ system, which uses baffles to force the smoke and heat to travel both under and over the food. Reverse flow offset smokers are relatively easy to spot as they have the chimney mounted above, not opposite, from the firebox.

Positives

The big barrel cooking chamber of an offset smoker makes it easy to cook up massive amounts of food.

Because the firebox is separate from the cooking chamber, you can add more fuel to the fire without letting out the heat and smoke.

Negatives

As with most things, you get what you pay for.  Although there are plenty of cheap off-set smokers out there they are really false economy.    They are usually of poor construction which means bad heat retention, leaks, and dry food.  It might cost a little extra, but good quality offset smokers are always worth spending more in the long run

Starting up an offset smoker is a long process. Expect it to take an hour for you to get it up to temperature and start cooking. 

It’s also not a simple light and forget choice, like some other smokers. Getting the best from your offset smoker means a lot of practice to, but when you do get it right, you can expect to produce some excellent food.

Offset smokers are an excellent buy for someone who wants to put the time and effort into getting the best from a fantastic, but not easy to use and master the art of, smoker.

Offset smoking is as much an art form as a science, but if you’ve got the patience, it can produce massive volumes of fantastic food.

Kettle Grill

While a kettle grill isn’t technically a smoker, they are commonly owned charcoal grills and the better-quality models can be used to smoke small amounts of food fairly easily. These are relatively cheap, readily available and that makes them a popular and

easy way to start smoking food.

How do kettle grills work?

Turning a kettle grill into a smoker requires a little rearrangement of the charcoal inside, some additional wood chips, and a water pan.

There are several clever methods for arranging the charcoal for smoking on a Kettle grill, including the Snake method.  By having the charcoal fuel on one side of the kettle and the food on the upper rack of the other you are able to smoke your food with an indirect heat.

Air is then drawn up through the vent in the base of the grill, over the coals, wood chips, and water pan. This creates smoke and moisture which flows over the food on the way out of the lid vent, flavouring it while the indirect heat of coals cooks it.

Positives

If you have a kettle grill handy, you don’t have to go out and buy a smoker

Wood chips and water pan are reasonably easy to find, and you don’t have to make any structural changes to your kettle grill to use it as a smoker

Plus, you still have a grill for direct heat cooks when required.

Negatives

Because it’s not designed to be used as a smoker, it can be difficult to accurately control the airflow, and therefore the amount of smoke and heat in a kettle grill, so it’s hard to get consistent results

You’re still using charcoal, so there is always going to be some clean-up to do

Electric Cabinet Smoker

Electric smokers are the perfect ‘turn on, set and forget’ smoking solution. You don’t have to worry about burning wood or charcoal, or dealing with much of a clean up after you’ve used one.

Using an electric smoker means, loading the wood chips, setting the temperature, setting a time, and leaving it to do its job.

Electric cabinet smokers use a heating element, rather than some form of combustible fuel, to create heat.  Because there is no actual combustion involved, the smoke comes from wood chips, which are suspended above the heating element.

Electric cabinet smokers have the heating element at the bottom and the wood and water pans between it and the food racks. 

The water pan creates water vapor, which enhances the smokey flavor of the food.

Plus, it also creates an indirect cooking environment, shielding the meat from some of the direct heat of the element and keeping the temperature, and smoking time, ‘low and slow’.

Positives

Electric smokers are easy to use, which makes them a great intro smoker for someone who has never used a smoker before.

You don’t require an additional fuel source, like gas, pellets, or charcoal, which cuts down on your costs and the amount of stuff you have to store when your smoker isn’t being used

They aren’t the costliest option for a smoker, with prices starting from approximately £150

Negatives

The flavour produced by an electric smoker is quite different from other smokers due to the lack of actual combustion and the low smoulder temperature of the wood chips used to create the smoke.

The moist atmosphere inside an electric smoker, which is excellent for smoking delicate food like fish, cheese, vegetables, and sausages, makes it much harder to get a crisp crust on chicken skin or ribs

Vertical Charcoal Smoker (Bullet or Drum)

Bullet or Drum smokers are a popular type of charcoal smokers, they are nice and compact, have a small footprint so can fit onto the smallest of patios, have no mechanical or electrical parts and are relatively easy-to-use.

Sometimes also known as ‘vertical water smokers’, these are fuelled by charcoal and wood chunks in the bottom, a water pan sits above the charcoal to create an even distribution of heat, catch the dripping fat, and help create a moist cooking environment.

The meat would go on racks above the water pans and a lid would go on top. Vents on both top and bottom can be open and closed to regulate air flow and temperature.

While many different manufacturers make different size bullet smokers, they’re all relatively small and would best be used to feed family and friends.

A smoker this size would comfortably fit 2 – 4 10-pound pork shoulders or 8 – 10 racks of baby back ribs (with rib racks).

Positives

They are simple in design, therefore very little can go wrong with them.  Plus, they are relatively straight forward to use and a good way to begin learning how to smoke food with charcoal

Cost wise, they are a relatively cheap option for a smoker

They are also very versatile, due to their modular design they can quite easily be turned into a traditional grill and reduced in size to make more portable.

Negatives

Due to their design, they take up little space, though do have limitations when it comes to cooking space.

Quite a bit of cleaning up of the charcoal and the water pan will be required after each cook.