A BBQ smoker differs from a BBQ grill in two important respects. A smoker cooks with indirect heat at a much lower temperature than a conventional grill, and it needs a lot more wood, usually in the form of chips or chunks, to produce a steady supply of smoke over the long cooking process. There are several different styles of BBQ smokers, and what you should buy depends on your budget and what capacity you need.
There are several styles of smoker. Let's describe them, beginning with the least expensive:
- I started with a cheap smoker. It is about 20" in diameter and a little over three feet tall. It has a domed top with a temperature gauge that just says cold, warm or hot. Inside, it has two porcelain pans, one for charcoal, one for water, plus it has a grill. It is made of heavy stamped sheet metal. It is adequate for use as a smoker. The charcoal supplies heat and produces significant smoke when loaded with wood chunks on top of the charcoal. You can fill the hanging porcelain pan with water and put wine, herbs, or other flavorings in it. It will serve as a drip pan and will produce high humidity, a desirable feature in a smoker. Its major drawback is its low capacity, but you can smoke a 20-pound turkey in it if you start very, very early in the morning and keep feeding it charcoal to keep it hot. The cost is around $40-$50.
- The next type of smoker is a combination grill and smoker. It is usually a little smaller than a 55-gallon drum, but made of heavier gauge metal. It has an optional firebox at one end and a chimney at the opposite end. Without the attached firebox, it is more a grill than a smoker. It has two racks for food: one that covers the lower half and a second that is hinged and attached to the upper half of the grill body. This is my favorite smoker because it is also my favorite grill. If I am smoking, I just put charcoal in the firebox. If I am smoking something really large, like a turkey, I will put charcoal in both the firebox and in the bottom of the grill. I will need the extra heat to cook a big turkey all the way through. And, of course, it is an excellent grill for any size meal, including a big meal for a big family. It has a temperature in the top that shows actual temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. Cost? Around Central Texas (where I live) you will pay about $100 for the grill part and an extra $30 for the firebox. They may cost more in your area if BBQ is not a religion like it is here.
- The biggest smoker with the highest capacity will have a big square or rectangular smoking box with several wire shelves, plus a large firebox that will handle a lot of charcoal or a few medium-sized logs. The capacity is enough to supply a medium-sized party with 20 or so guests. One of these smokers can cost several hundred dollars, depending on what gauge metal you choose and the overall capacity. This type of smoker is for the serious BBQ aficionado only.
- Here in Texas you can even find a smoker with wheels and a tongue to tow it behind a pickup. The biggest and best of these monsters will have a canopy so that you can run your smoker in the full sun or in just about any kind of weather. You can feed dozens to hundreds of people, and it will cost you a few thousand dollars. Only the professionals go for these.
- One type of smoker I have not covered is the gas smoker. This kind of smoker is a viable alternative to the traditional smoker that uses charcoal and/or wood. You can get a fairly large capacity for relatively little money. I have seen models with family-size capacity (three shelves) for under $130.
- And the last type of smoker I will mention is the stovetop smoker. I am afraid I would set off a smoke detector with one. My exhaust fan is not so efficient that I am comfortable with using such a contraption, but it may work for you. In my opinion, these are overpriced and not very useful, but if you are stuck in an apartment and have a good exhaust, you may want to lay down the $50 or so to have smoked meat or vegetables at home.
There is no substitute for smoked meats: turkey, chicken, pork, beef and sausage. The flavor is out of this world. Slow-cooked meats are also fall-off-the-bone tender and juicy when prepared correctly. Visit your local BBQ grill dealer or any variety store that carries grills. Do some shopping around for the capacity you need at the best price. And happy smoking!
I have provided a few links so you can compare grill styles before going shopping. This is not an endorsement of those products, just a pointer to models of smokers and grills that are typically available.