Barbecue meat smokers come in all shapes and sizes with different power sources and when I first tried to understand the differences between the many makes and models - well frankly it was a blur.
This section of my site is here to help you clear the fog, answer these questions and make an informed decision about which smoker is right for you.
There are two important points to make before you read any further:-
There’s a lot made out of the charcoal or gas debate when grilling but when thinking about meat smokers the questions you need to ask yourself are:
To some extent all three of these points are interlinked so to start I'll explain the pink smoke ring and then move onto how each fuel affects the ring.
Slice into a piece of competition barbecue meat and under the outer crust (bark) of the meat you'll find a 5-10mm layer of pink colour before your get to the core of the cooked meat.
It runs all the way around the perimeter of the meat hence the term "ring" and to the uninitiated it can be confused with the appearance of being under cooked, in fact it is not.
This pink smoke ring revered and in the eyes of most competition judges is regarded as a sign of good barbecue. From a flavour perspective it contributes nothing but (because of what I'm about to explain) it signifies low and slow cooking with lots of tender loving care.
The pink smoke ring develops through gaseous nitrogen oxide dissolving on the moist flesh of raw / lightly cooked meat. A chemical reaction is taking place between the myoglobin in the meat and the dissolved nitrogen oxide.
So to quickly cut to the chase, in order for your barbecue to develop the pink smoke ring you need three things:-
1. Nitrogen Oxide
This gas is released when wood (and charcoal to a lesser extent) is burned at high temperature. Your choice of equipment affects this because in gas and electric smokers the wood only smoulders so little nitrogen oxide is released.
2. Uncooked meat
You will get a smoke ring when cooking "low and slow" and not when running at higher temperatures. The nitrogen oxide reacts only with the raw meat so as soon as the meat starts to brown on the outside, your opportunity for a pink smoke ring diminishes. Gas smokers have a tendency to run at higher temperatures even on their lowest setting so they don't score highly in this area.
3. Humid environment
A water bath or basting helps the pink process along.
Hopefully now you can see that the choice of fuel to power your smoker affects your ability to produce barbecue with a pink smoke ring around the meat. Your choice of fuel affects other factors too so which is best for you?
Wood is the "Mother Earth" method in that it is the oldest and most traditional but as with any fire it needs tending to keep it burning for the long cooking times used in low and slow cooking methods.
Wood fired smokers tend to be (but are not exclusively) offset smokers. This refers to the firebox sitting to the side of the cooking chamber as shown below.
These dudes are a whole lot of fun, they are for the enthusiast (or the show off!) but they are unforgiving and need tender loving care.
To be fair you can run them on charcoal but I've never found it to be satisfactory as you get through a whole heap of charcoal to keep a good fire going.
Temperature control is driven by the strength of your fire and this is regulated by the airflow between the vents on the firebox and the flue damper.
Pink smoke ring capability - ★★★★★
Charcoal meat smokers take various shapes and forms but essentially the smoking method is the same. The heat is produced by a charcoal fire in the bottom of the smoker. Wood chips are placed directly onto the charcoal fire to create the smoke. Above the fire you may have a water bath with the food racks further above that.
Differing shapes and sizes mean that some charcoal smokers are more portable than others and this can be advantageous but conversely cooking capacity is then smaller.
regulation is by controlling the flow of air through the charcoal fire.
The more air, the hotter and faster the fire burns. A charcoal smoker
will have air vents top and bottom that need monitoring regularly but
they are more forgiving than wood fired offset smokers.
Pink smoke ring capability - ★★★★☆
The best meat smokers for portability and convenience. A propane gas tank feeds a burner in the bottom of the unit above which sits a tray for the smouldering of wood chips. Then we have the water bath and finally the food chamber.
Thermal regulation is by the gas flow so you can pretty much "set and forget" provided you have enough gas in the tank. Your only intervention maybe to add more wood chips. There's no need for a bottom vent, just a flue for smoke and gases to escape at the top.
There has been some discussion that gas smokers produce a bad taste because of the smell of gas. Gas is odour-less, the only reason you can smell it is because that odour is added for safety so that you can smell a gas leak - it doesn't take part in the combustion process. I think the taste is slightly different but it's not a bad taste...just different and it's certainly not related to the smell of raw gas.
Pink smoke ring capability - ★★☆☆☆
The ultimate in set and forget. Electric smokers not only have a continuous supply of energy for heat, this generally also applies to the smoke which is created either from wool chip bisquettes or pellets.
So thermal control is on point and smoke control is pretty much there, the downside is that there's a cable attached to the wall for the electricity supply so they're not really portable. They are also more complicated internally which generally means more expensive to buy and less reliable in the long term.
Size can vary too with really large meat smokers in abundance for commercial restaurant kitchens. It's this environment where I believe electricity works best but if you want smoke flavour with ease of control then maybe electricity is for you?
Pink smoke ring capability - ★☆☆☆☆
In particular the size of the cooking surface. Consider how you are going to use your smoker, if it’s for a small family then 300 - 500 sq inches (0.3 sq metres) will probably be sufficient but if you have a large family or are into big party cookouts then look for a larger cooking area, say 700 sq inches (0.45 sq metres).
When getting into cooking big hunks of meat for pulled pork then a charcoal smoker is going to limit you to one or two hunks. If you want to cook any more at one time then you're going to be looking at a larger wood fired offset smoker.
Another way to ask this question is how portable do you want your smoker to be? Most smokers will sit out in the back yard, on a patio or deck but you may be short on space or indeed want to take it on holiday with you and in this case a free standing “bullet” shaped charcoal or gas smoker could be the way to go.
A robust offset smoker or a kamado clearly isn't going to be portable but if you’re looking for a more permanent solution then there’s plenty of choice, many of which are on wheels but how far you go is up to you.
It isn’t a cliché, you pay for what you get and I recommend that you get the best you can afford. The secret of smoking is about slow cooking so the quality of materials and design are really important. For example, the thicker the metal the better the thermal retention. Also look for a multi-year warranty, after all, you don’t want to be buying a new smoker every year.
If you're thinking of spending less than $300 or £200 then keep your hard earned cash in your pocket.
Cheap offset meat smokers are a waste of time and money. They are generally made in China from thin steel, they are unforgiving and you'll probably burn a hole in the firebox in a couple of years. So if you really want an offset smoker and don't want to burn a hole in your firebox, be prepared to burn a hole in your wallet.
A bullet shaped gas or charcoal smoker is a good entry level. If you want to spend little more then a ceramic kamado smoker will give you a lifetime of fun together with supreme versatility. Electric pellet smokers offer set and forget convenience but top of the pops for the purist has to be a big heavy wood fired offset smoker.
Below you'll find links to each category of smoker where you can read more.