Different Styles of Barbecue Smokers

The type of Smoker that works for you can depend on a few factors

  • Budget
  • Fuel Source
  • Maintenance
  • Appearance
  • Space

The first thing to consider is if you live in a very close community, such as a condo, you may run into issues because true to their name, they produce smoke. A lot more than your average grill. It is not the kind of thing that you would want to leave your windows open if you have it close to your house. Because of this, you may want to check to see if you are allowed to have a smoker in your community.

Now that you have decided to get an outdoor barbecue smoker, consider how much time and effort you are looking to put into this effort. Some smokers require charcoal and wood and if you are doing a 12 hour cook, then you may need to be very dedicated to keeping temperature consistent (manually) and tending to the charcoal.

There are other types of smokers, electric for example, that will keep the temperature even throughout the day and there is very little needed in the way of adding pellets or chips.

What Smoker is Right for You?

As we go through the different types of smokers below, I will describe features and benefits and even a few cautionary notes. I have owned a few different styles and been around enough others to have developed a true appreciation for pretty much all of them.

This post is not about the best kind, but more about what works well for different people and their preferences.

Porcelain Smokers

kamado joe porcelain smoker grill
Photo Courtesy of Ryan Terrigan

I need to admit up front, I at this time own two of these. It is not to say this is the best style, but it works perfectly for me.

First of all, I will tout how great a smoker this is. It is versatile as a low heat smoker but I can remove the ceramic plates and use it as a grill as well. I have gotten the temperature over 700°.

This is a charcoal unit so that means more space is needed for fuel, otherwise you will be making trips more often to the store. You’ll also find them to be a lot heavier than expected since they are thick porcelain. That being one of the reasons you don’t wan to have to move it around often. The other is that it is porcelain and therefore more fragile than others.

But the thick walls holds heat so well and for reasons I can’t exactly explain, I find the meat holds moisture better than any other type that I have used.

My wife also likes it, not just because she likes the way her food turns out, (She is an avid smoker herself) but because it looks nice on the deck. A bit more expensive than many of the others, I find it to be worth the investment if you are really committed to the craft.

I personally have a Kamado. I liked it so much, I bought 2 different sizes. But you will find Primo and Big Green Egg make quality products as well.

Electric Smokers

It really doesn’t get easier than this. I think most people jumping into barbecue start out here. The cost is usually around $200, so this makes a lot of people happy.

What you really end up appreciating is the consistent temperature. it is basically an electric oven that you add wood pellets to for the smoke. As long as mine was plugged in, the only thing I had to check on was that I didn’t run out of fuel for smoke in the first few hours and later periodically checking the internal temp of the meat.

But I knew if I set at 220°, it would stay there. This is often tedious work with charcoal and wood especially for a long cook. If you get one of the rectangular box types you can be assured you will have plenty of room for multiple types of meat if you choose to do so. I have personally had a chicken, pork butt and pork belly strips all at one time.

It is also recommended you try to have it under a covering if possible. It is electric after all. Probably my biggest downside is I found it dries meat out. Thin metal with lots of ventilation and dry heat will do that.

This is not to say you can’t work with it. Just be prepared to inject the meat and be sure to wrap in tinfoil after the smoke is done. I recommend these because there is no charcoal to deal with or ash.

Bullet Smokers

bullet bbq smoker
Photo Courtesy of James Dennis

I have no gripes against these little gems. Some people don’t appreciate what they offer. If you smoke once in a while and have less room to work with including storage, then this can be a solution. You’ll find they come as electric, propane or charcoal.

Similar to electric smokers, you need to be mindful of drying out your food. If you go with charcoal, you may need to tend to temperature more often. and because of its’ size, if you cook often, you will always feel like you need more room on the grate.

But small, affordable and easy to transport. Kind of like fishing, you can never have enough tackle. If you like to barbecue, you may wan to have one of these on hand for who knows what occasion.

Propane Smokers

People that use these smoker grills are often dedicated to this type. Often times they consider the seasoning of the grill enough to pass on the flavor without adding wood for smoke.

Stick Burners

If you are going to be a part of the BBQ community, you are going to need to know everyone has their preference. And people who love stick burners are dedicated. Offset are the most common style of these. This is where the fuel is off to the side of the grill in a different compartment. so there is no direct heat of any kind.

The fuel is often just wood (hence, stick burner) but sometimes with some charcoal. This makes it a little more challenging to regulate temperature since you are almost dealing with fuel that needs to be refilled more often and is more of a fire rather than smoldering coals.

Pellet Smokers

pellet smoker
Photo Courtesy of Christopher Hussey

Let’s get one thing straight. No matter how you smoke, it shouldn’t matter what you use. I say this because the online forums and Facebook groups like to give people a hard time about pellet smoker grills.

Pellets are processed wood compressed into pellets to allow for the natural smoke to permeate the grill. The pellets and the grill are heated by an electric coil. Because of this, the heat can be maintained. The use of fuel (the pellets) is minimal and is very easy to clean and use.

If you are going to do a long cook, perhaps even overnight, this is definitely the easiest way. The cost is usually very affordable as well. They come in some of the shapes and sizes described above, but it is always a good idea to get our terminology down.

Gravity Fed Smokers

Let me very straightforward, gravity fed is not usually the first purchase someone makes. Mostly because of the cost. For the most part, these are larger, much heavier smokers. The concept is that you load up wood to the point where it burns at the bottom and as it turns to ash, the wood higher up falls down to take its place keeping a perpetual fire going.

Wood takes up more room, the grills tend to be larger so this is for the truly committed.I have seen smaller versions but generally speaking, this is for people that like to cook many items at a time as they usually have plenty of space inside.

Since it is wood falling into a fire, it has to be monitored ongoing by regulating the amount of oxygen getting to the embers.

But for a true smoke, this is hard to beat.