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Smoke Break: Let's Talk About All The Different Types Of Smokers There Are And Why They're All Great

The other day Traeger released their new Timberline grill series which honestly looks like the closest thing we'll ever get to a rocket ship in the world of barbecue. It's a smoker that you can control from your phone, smoke a rack of ribs, cook a pizza, and sear a steak on the side induction burner. Obviously you can do a bunch more on it but the fact that you can do all those things on the same machine is wild. 

And now here we are. The calendar has flipped over to April and we are just a few months away from the start of summer. Over these next few weeks and months, I figure there are going to be a to be a ton of people who fall in love with cooking outside for the first time. People who fall in love with the idea of smoking up a beautiful platter of BBQ for their friends and family this summer, but just don't know what type of smoker would be best for them to use. Or maybe you've already fallen in love with cooking outdoors but you're looking to change things up this summer with a new set up. Either way, there are so many different types of smokers and all of them are great for their own reasons. But at the same time, not all of them are meant for everybody. So with that being the case, I think it's a good time to talk about each type of smoker and why they would or wouldn't be best for you. (I'll make each category bold so you can just scroll through to whatever type of smoker you're interested in the most) 

We'll start off with the smoker that I'm the most comfortable with since it's the one I use the most. 

Horizontal Offset 

I'm going to be a little biased here but an offset smoker is what I feel "true BBQ" should be. Let me just make something clear right off the bat here. I'm not saying that any other smoker isn't real bbq. I'm just saying that the offset can't beat it. It's wood, it's fire, it's smoke, it's meat, it's barbecue. 

So first off let's talk about the basics here. With a horizontal offset, you are burning whole splits of wood down in the firebox (smaller chamber on the left of the picture above). There aren't any gadgets to help you control the fire and the heat besides a shovel to manage your fire. The smoke then rises up from the firebox and moves horizontally across the cooking chamber (in this situation, the giant repurposed propane tank above) which is where the majority of the flavor of your BBQ is coming from. You can use as many rubs or injections as you want, but very few things are better than the flavor you're getting from that smoke. The smoke then leaves out of that giant chimney and if you're running your fire the right way, you'll hardly notice any smoke leaving at all. 

Like everything, there are pros and cons when it comes to the offset smoker. When you're working with a smoker like this, you are constantly adding wood to the fire to make sure you keep an even temperature throughout a cook. You can sneak little 20-30 minute naps in here and there. But if you let the fire die down and your coal bed goes out, you're done. So if you're someone who doesn't have 13 hours to sit out by a smoker to cook a brisket, this might not be the smoker for you. But if you're someone who 1) loves to play with fire and 2) has the time available to be up through all hours of the night to keep the fire going, then you'll be able to achieve the best possible product in the end. 

Also, not every offset smoker has to be that big. You could head over to your closest Home Depot or Lowe's to pick up something like an Oklahoma Joe smoker for a few hundred dollars which fits perfectly in your backyard like any other bbq grill. 

Or you could go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum and get something massive like this double 1000 gallon custom built smoker from Cen-Tex Smokers. 

Good lord she's a beauty. Obviously you're going to get significantly better quality from one of those as opposed to the others. But I just don't want it to seem like you can't get an offset smoker that fits neatly on your back patio. 

Reverse Flow Smoker

A reverse flow smoker is also an offset smoker. The only major difference is that you'll see the smokestack (chimney) is on the same side of the smoker as the firebox. That's because the smoke first travels from the smokebox across the cooking chamber underneath a plate that deflects the heat, and then the smoke wraps around from the other side and back out through the smokestack. I don't know if I explained that well but the smoke just travels under the meat at first, then hits it on its way back out. The main idea there is the plate that goes underneath the meat to deflect the smoke gets piping hot. The fat that then renders off the meat hits that deflector plate, sizzles up and then that's how you can add more flavor to your meat. As far as fire management goes, it's very similar to a horizontal offset smoker where you're using actual splits of wood as your main heat source. You're just getting more flavor from the fat that hits that baffle plate. 

Pellet Cookers

Alright so now we're moving on to the pellet smokers. The most popular brand of pellet smoker is going to be Traeger, but there are a bunch of different companies who have all managed to make smokers that make cooking some high quality bbq much more convenient for the backyard cook. The biggest difference when we get to pellet smokers is that we're no longer dealing with full splits of wood as the main heat source. Instead they use pellets which have been compressed from sawdust to get fed into the smoker, and lit underneath in a burn pot to give off real wood smoke, just without dealing with splits of wood. Again, it's hard to explain these things through text so for the more visual learners out there, here's what it looks like. 

The great thing about pellet smokers is that they are automated. So you can set the temperature you want to run the cooker at, and the machine will be able to feed the right amount of pellets through to the burn pot to control that temperature for you. There is so much technology now that you can control all of that from your phone over wi-fi. So instead of having to stand out at the smoker for 10 hours managing a fire to smoke your pork butt, you can just set the temperature here and the smoker will do all of that for you. 

Again, there are pros and cons to that but it's all personal preference. If you're somebody who doesn't have a ton of spare time but you still want to be able to cook some delicious BBQ for your friends and family, then this is perfect for you. If you are someone who just enjoys getting some sleep at night and doesn't want to be up for hours on end tending a brisket, this is perfect for you. You can't beat the convenience of being able to turn on the smoker on a summer morning, head to the beach for a few hours, and come back home to a rack of ribs which are ready to eat right away. Now do I think you can achieve a quality of BBQ that belongs in the Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ Joints on a pellet smoker? No, not at all. But I also hate when people act like you can't make real BBQ on a pellet smoker just because you're not managing the heat. I'm a firm believer that the best smoker anybody can use is the one that they are the most comfortable with. 

Kamado Cookers

Alright so now we're really getting different here. The kamado cookers are going to be the things like your Big Green Egg or your Kamado Joe. They are generally going to be made out of ceramic and the way these work is you fill up the bottom of the smoker with charcoal, and then you get a convection heat from the smoke circling around off the dome of the lid. Most of the time there is going to be a plate you can put underneath of your grill grate to deflect any direct heat from your meat if you're going to be cooking low and slow. Now unlike the pellet smoker, most of these aren't going to be automated so you need to control the heat yourself through a vent system. There's a vent at the bottom of the cooker that controls how much air the smoker takes in, and then there's a vent at the top of the smoker which controls how much air to release. It takes a little while to learn how to finely tune your kamado through the vents but once you get that temperature locked in, the ceramic is amazing at maintaining that temperature for long periods of time. 

So you'll often hear the term "set it and forget it" when talking about smokers. For something like a pellet smoker, you can set the temperature and then just walk away and you'll be set for the whole cook without having to adjust anything. For something like an offset smoker, you can set the temperature and then have to keep coming back to the smoker every 20-30 minutes to throw a new split of wood on the fire. For something like a kamado, well it's right in the middle. You get the satisfaction of having to figure out and manage the heat yourself for a while. But after tinkering with the vents for a little while to achieve whatever temperature you're going for, you can get to the point where you can walk away from that smoker for hours and the temperature will remain within 5-10 degrees the whole time. I first learned how to cook bbq on a kamado cooker so maybe I'm partial to it. But I honestly feel like it's the best type of smoker to start off on because you get the best of both worlds there. 

The biggest downside to kamado cookers is you can't really get any actual wood flavored smoke taste out of it since you're mostly dealing with lump charcoal. You can throw wood chunks on there to add a little flavor but it's just not the same. But where a kamado loses points in the true smoke flavor department, you can also very easily just use your kamado cooker as a regular bbq grill and cook with direct heat. So it's got a ton of versatility to it. So let's just say for example you have a giant tomahawk steak you want to reverse sear. For the first part of the cook you can have the heat deflector plate in and cook that tomahawk low and slow to bring it up to temperature. Then you can take out the deflector plate, get that fire raging nice and hot, and then get that final delicious sear across the steak. Can't beat that. 

Weber Kettle/Smokey Mountain

You can also always use a Weber kettle grill as a smoker just the same way as you would with something like a Big Green Egg. You fill the smoker up with charcoal, control the vents to keep the temperatures nice and low in that 250 range, and let it rock. The only major difference between using a Weber as opposed to using a Big Green Egg is going to be how it maintains the temperature and how much charcoal it goes through. Little harder to maintain those temps and it'll go through a lot more charcoal. But as far as the price difference goes? That's an extremely fair trade off to make. 

There are also the Weber Smokey Mountains which are super popular. 

Very similar idea where you've got charcoal at the bottom of the grill and then the smoke comes up vertically to heat and flavor your meat. You're controlling the heat with a vent system. But with the Smokey Mountain you have a lot more room from the charcoal to your cooking grate to make sure you're not getting any direct heat, and it's easier to get to the charcoal to refuel with the door available. But the same thing with versatility applies here. You can either use this as a smoker or a regular grill. So that's why it's always such a popular option, especially for the price. 

Drum Smokers

I haven't actually ever used a drum smoker before, but I want to. I've heard a lot of great things about the type of BBQ you can get make with these things. Essentially it's the same idea as the Weber Smokey Mountain, maybe just packs a little more of a punch. If anybody follows along with Malcom Reed and HowToBBQRight, I'm pretty sure I heard him say that a whole bunch of competition guys have been winning with drum cookers lately. I'm not a competition guy but I'm still intrigued. So maybe that'll be my next move. 

Direct Heat Cookers

Again another type of cooker that I don't have any actual experience with using. But our good pal Bradley of Chuds BBQ has been making these Chud Boxes for a while now. You can either use charcoal or full splits of wood underneath as your main heat source. Then you can cook with direct heat however low or however hot you want to dial the cooker in at. It seems to be like the best way to do things like chicken and sausage if you're into those sort of things. 

Electric Smokers

I haven't used an electric smoker and don't think I ever will. But listen. If it's the only thing you have available at the moment, then that means that it's the smoker for you. Figure out how to make something great on it, and then you can move up from there. I'm not going to shit on electric smokers, I just don't have any personal interest in using one. 

And then obviously the grandaddy of them all…

I would love nothing more than to make my own cinderblock pit to cook a whole hog one of these days. It's going to happen, and it's going to be glorious. But I'll probably need some help if anybody is ever in the Philadelphia area. 

But yeah. There are all the different types of smokers that I could think of and that I think would be great for any backyard bbq enthusiast. Like I alluded to a few times throughout the blog, the best way to cook BBQ is the way that you like to do it. Don't ever think that you need a certain type of smoker or to use a certain type of rub to cook BBQ. Whatever you want to do and whatever you want to use is how you should do it. I just wanted to make sure that you have the right idea about what would be the best fit for you and your schedules this upcoming summer. Now go outside and get to cooking.