So you’ve decided to buy your first smoker but your head is starting to spin just thinking about all the options out there.
This guide will help you find the best beginner smoker for your situation. You’ll also learn all about the different types of smokers. Each type of smoker has it’s own pros and cons so read on to avoid the frustration of buying a crappy smoker.
Best charcoal smoker for beginners – Weber Smokey Mountain 18-Inch
For the price you cannot beat the Weber Smokey Mountain for your first smoker. The build quality is excellent. These things last FOREVER. You can choose from three sizes starting at 14 then going up to 18 and 22 inches.
We selected the 18 inch model for this guide because we find it easier to hold a stable temperature than the 22″ which can run a bit hotter. The 18″ can easily feed groups of 4-8. Even though it looks pretty slim, you get two cooking racks which doubles your cooking area.
Some of the other reasons the WSM makes a perfect beginner smoke include:
- The design with a water pan helps keep your meat moist and temperature control is very straight forward
- It’s super versatile. While it makes a great first smoker, lots of more experienced cooks upgrade to the Smokey Mountain after they are sick of screwing around on a cheap offset smoker.
- It’s used by many competition barbecue teams who go up against smokers costing $15,000+ and can still win awards and thousands of dollars in prize money
If you can commit to buying a charcoal smoker the decision isn’t really what smoker to buy. Most people spend their time agonising over what size Smokey Mountain to buy instead.
Best charcoal alternative to the Weber Smokey Mountain – Pit Barrel Cooker
There really isn’t a lot of competition out there in the $200-$400 price range that gives the Weber a run for it’s money in the charcoal smoker family.
If you go for something under $100 like the Char-Broil Vertical Smoker then you either need to modify it yourself, or be prepared for a poorly insulated, difficult to use smoker.
That’s where the Pit Barrel Cooker comes in. A variation on the Ugly Drum Smoker, it uses hooks to hang everything instead of the usual rack you would find inside a smoker.
The meat hanging method provides excellent capacity (you can easily fit 8 racks of ribs). The hanging method also causes the meat to heat more evenly as there are no hot conduction points from the meat lying on a grate. For the same price as the 18″ Smokey Mountain you get these features:
- As set it and forget it as you can get for a charcoal smokey
- Lightweight and easy to move
- Quick and easy setup
Check out the video below to see exactly how it works or get the check out our full review.
Best electric smoker for beginners – Bradley Smokers Original Smoker
If you’re looking for an easy learning curve and simple temperature control then the Bradley is a decent starting point. While you won’t get the coveted smoke ring (that only comes from a nitrogen dioxide reaction caused by burning wood above a certain temperature), you can still produce consistent, tasty barbecue.
The Bradley uses their own wood briquettes or “pucks” which you can easily stock up on on Amazon. The thought of having to keep buying these puts some people off. But the cost is comparable to buying charcoal.
A possible downside is that the Bradley really has to be used as a dedicated smoker. Unlike other types of smoker which can work OK in a pinch, an electric smoker like this cannot achieve the higher heats needed to get crisp skin roasting a chicken or grilling meat.
You’re also likely to suffer if you’re trying to smoke in low temperatures on the Bradley. There are some ways to improve it’s cold weather performance, like this cover.
If you’re OK with giving up a little bit of flavor for a little bit more convenience then the Bradley is a good smoker to learn on.
Best affordable electric smoker – Masterbuilt 30-Inch Digital Electric Smoker
For under $200 the Masterbuilt digital smoker is a great entry point for someone just getting started smoking meat. The built in digital thermometer allows you to select your preferred temperature without worrying about maintaining charcoal.
- Unlike some other cheap smokers the Masterbuilt is reasonably well insulated and should perform OK in colder weather.
- The 30 inch digital model comes with a generous 730 sq inches of cooking space, almost the same as the largest 22″ Smokey Mountain.
- Some models come with a front window which sounds like it would be useful, but in our experience it just gets dirty. The window is also a bit pointless as the only safe way to know if your food is cooked is with a good temperature probe setup.
- The all black 30 Inch Electric looks way more bad ass in our opinion anyway).
Unlike the Bradley reviewed above, you can buy any kind of wood chip from your local hardware store, or order different types form Amazon including apple, cherry, hickory and pecan. While the effect of different types of wood chips are up for debate, it’s fun to see how tweaking small elements can effect the flavor.
The Masterbuilt isn’t a perfect smoker, and it definitely wouldn’t impress a traditionalist. But if you want to eat barbecue without the fuss it’s a good cheap option to get started.
Best gas / propane smoker for beginners – Camp Chef 18-Inch Smoke Vault
The 18″ is a fantastic, versatile little smoker. While you can spend a little extra and go for the 24″ model, the 18″ comes with enough room to fit a whole turkey on a single shelf.
Assembly is straight forward and most importantly it holds a low temperature steady for hours while still being able to crank up to 400⁰.
With 3 adjustable damper valves you have a lot of control over the temperature. You do have to be careful here though as even slight adjustments can drop the temperature significantly.
- With a lot of cheaply made propane smokers out there, it’s nice to see Camp Chef put some effort into the build quality.
- You can use LP or a stand alone gas, which makes this a great portable smoker to take camping or tailgating.
If we had to single out any issues with the Smoke Vault it would that the racks feel cheaply made and the metal is on the thin side so smoking in extreme weather should be done with caution. Other than that this is a great beginner smoker and is usually available for under $200.
Best budget gas / propane smoker for bargain hunters – Char-Broil Vertical Gas Smoker
While at full price we think you can get better value with other smokers, the Vertical Gas Smoker from Char-Broil often goes on special (unlike Weber). If you can grab it at 20-40% off then this is a good first smoker.
- At 595 square inches of cooking surface you get somewhere between the 18″ Smokey Mountain and the 22″ to work with.
- That figure is a bit deceptive though. This is a relatively compact smoker width wise, you can struggle to hold a full slab of ribs so definitely consider what you plan on smoking.
- Unit is heavy so not the most portable if you plan on travelling with it.
In terms of quality you’re getting decent steel and reasonable insulation. On the other hand the thermometer is even worse than normal for built in thermometers, so definitely make sure you get a proper thermometer setup.
We’re also not totally sold on the water tray design with space for wood in the middle. Unless you’re careful you can end up with a wet mess inside your smoker.
For the price it’s hard to fault the Char-Broil smoker too much though. Especially if you can get it on special. Check the latest price.
Best pellet smoker for beginners – Traeger Pellet BBQ
While slightly more expensive than the Smokey Mountain, this unit gives you all of the “set it and forget it” advantages of a pellet cooker for under $500.
At 292 square inches of cooking surface this isn’t the largest smoker on our list. If you need to cook for a large group (or make enough for leftovers) then we suggest consider another option.
For a lot of people this will be more than large enough though.
The main issue we have with the Traeger is that the legs could use some more stabilisation, so be careful if you plan on moving it.
While it’s not a knock against the Traeger smoker, pellets can be hard to find and unlike charcoal you can’t always find them at your local hardware store or gas station.
That said it’s easy to stock up online on a variety of different types of wood pellets. You can also choose from a variety of different types of wood if you feel like experimenting with different flavors.
Best portable pellet smoker – REC TEC Mini Portable Pellet Grill
Don’t let the word “mini” in the title put you off. This is a great little smoker that can easily handle a turkey or three full slabs of ribs. If you’re looking for a portable smoker that can still feed a crowd of people then give this pellet smoker a try.
For a portable smoker you get excellent stable temperature control. The internal temperature usually stays exactly as you set it or within 2-4 degrees.
- Legs fold up and you can roll the smoker around like airport luggage. It’s still built solid weighing in at 99 pounds so you’ll need a little bit of muscle to lift it into the trailer if you’re going camping.
- The hopper holds 15lbs of pellets which can easily run the grill for 12 hours without refilling
- While we don’t think it will help the taste of your barbecue, the red lid and horned handles are sure to turn heads at the camp site or if you take it tailgating.
Pellet smokers like the REC TEC can get pretty hot as well, boasting a temperature max of over 550 degrees. So you can use it to grill steaks or roast chicken as well as smoke.
You can also start cooking FAST. Expect to hit 225 degrees within 4 minutes of starting it up.
If your into your traditional smokey barbecue taste, the end result from this smoker might leave you a little disappointed. Although this is generally an issue with pellet smokers in general and won’t be an issue for lots of people.
You can always try using a Pellet Tube smoker as well to get additional smoke.
The only other issue we’ve noticed is that the wheels are on the small size, and can be a bit tricky so be careful when moving the unit over gravel or rough ground.
Otherwise the combination of size, weight, portability and build quality make the REC TEC Pellet Grill a solid first smoker. Get the latest price.
How to choose your first smoker
Step 1: Determine your budget
Since this is your first smoker, budget is likely one of your top concerns. Some of you may already have a price point in mind.
When it comes to budgeting for your first smoker there are two schools of thought.
Option 1 – Buy a cheap smoker to learn on then upgrade later
You could go down to your local hardware store and pick up a cheap smoker for $50-$100. If you’re still using it and having fun after a season, then you can invest in a better quality smoker.
The problem with doing this is that cheap smokers kind of suck. A lot. In fact with a cheap smoker you’re going to spend more time struggling with fire management due to poor heat retention and bad fire control options.
Think about it like this. Is there any point buying the cheapest guitar to learn on, when even Santana himself couldn’t make it sound good.
We don’t think so. That’s why we haven’t recommended any cheap smokers. The good news is that if your budget absolutely can’t stretch, then you can still get a high quality Weber Kettle and use it as a combo smoker / grill.
Option 2: Spend a little bit extra to start with
If your budget can stretch past $200 then your options for a good first smoker open way up. Now you can buy a smoker to learn on that will come with decent temperature control.
Step 2: Determine your main source of heat
By now you should have at least a rough idea how much you would like to spend on your new smoker. The next step is to work out what kind of smoker is going to work best for you.
Maybe it’s because barbecue attracts a lot of old school types, but there’s some silly notions out there that unless you’re slaving over an offset barrel smoker for 16+ hours using aged hickory logs, then you’re not cooking “real barbecue”.
Let’s get something straight.
All kinds of smokers can produce delicious barbecue. Charcoal, electric, gas and pallets are all just sources of heat. There’s really no such thing as the best type of smoker for a beginner. Each has it’s own pros and cons.
We’ve outlined the main types of smoker below.
Charcoal, electric, gas and pallets are all just sources of heat. There’s really no such thing as the best type of smoker for a beginner.
Think about how involved you want to be in the smoking process. A lot of people (including us) love the interactive nature of charcoal. From the ritual of filling up your chimney starter, to controlling the oxygen and managing the temperature you are more involved in the cooking process.
- It’s practically accepted wisdom that charcoal gives the best flavour
- Cooking with charcoal is the best way to achieve a great bark or crust, and can produce the best smoke ring out of any method
- Get to have fun being outdoors
- Requires more attention and effort than using an electric, gas or pellet smoker
- Requires some effort up front to light the charcoal
- Cost of buying charcoal can add up
Smoking with charcoal doesn’t have to be an epic task either. A good water smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain can hold a steady temperature for hours and will only require minimum attention.
Cooking low and slow is all about taking the time to do things properly. Buying a charcoal smoker is a great way to learn everything there is to know about barbecue.
Electric smokers take a lot of the hassle out of smoking meat. They are a great option for long smokes like brisket than can take well over 12 hours, and generally keep your meat moist and temperature stable.
- Electric smokers fall into the “set it and forget it type of smoker” which can be a pro or a con depending on what you enjoy and what you hate about barbecuing
- Great at other types of smoking like fish, sausage, bacon and cheese
- If the thought of monitoring your barbecue over a 14 hour smoke fills you with dread, you might want to consider an electric although you do still have to add wood every so often
- You’ll need a readily available power outlet or weatherproof extension cord
- Unlike more conventional smokers, electrics rely on electronics. When they go bad they can leave you with expensive repairs
- Issues are even more likely if you’re buying a cheap electric smoker
- You won’t get a smoke ring which can be a deal breaker for many people (although there are some hacks out there for getting a smoke ring on an electric smoker)
- While perfectly capable of making delicious food, other types of smokers can get an even better result
They are also kind of boring. Switch em on, and then go do something else doesn’t sound like much fun to us. You don’t get any of the joy of firing up charcoal, tinkering with air flow or perfecting your smoke ring. If the end product is all that’s important to you then go ahead and consider an electric for your first smoker.
Just know that it’s not going to impress any of your friends. You can learn more in our guide to the best electric smokers.
Gas / propane smokers
Just like with electric smokers, gas aka propane smokers fall into the “set it and forget it” family of smokers. They’re easy to use and very consistent.
- Easier to manage than charcoal
- High degree of control over temperature
- One tank of propane can easily last for a 15 hour smoke
- Similar to electric, you won’t get a great smoke ring or generate as rich a bark
- Some models can be too narrow to fit a full rack of ribs or large brisket or turkey. You’ll either need to portion your meat or cook smaller cuts.
- Cheaper models with poor build quality can leak smoke and do not hold temperature in cold weather
You can easily run out of fuel during a long cook so make sure you start with a full tank. And it doesn’t hurt to have a back-up. This is true for charcoal as well though so we wouldn’t consider this a con. Learn more in our guide to the best gas smokers.
If you’ve been doing your research you probably noticed a huge uptick in people talking about pellet smokers. It seems like in 2016 everyone is either thinking about or has just bought a pellet smoker.
Falling directly into the “set it and forget it” variety of smokers it’s easy to see they are becoming so people with new smokers. There’s also a great community of “pelletheads” online so you can always get tips and advice.
- Thermostatically controlled which means you can select your desired temperature and the controller handles the rest for you by feeding wood pellets into the fire.
- You don’t have to worry about temperature control or fire management, as the smoker automatically feeds the right amount of pellets.
- Add a brisket and then jump into bed, knowing that by the time you wake up delicious barbecue will only be a few hours away.
- You’ll have to pay a bit more for the convenience, even average pellet smokers will cost more than a great quality charcoal smoker like the Smokey Mountain.
- While a great “lazy mans” barbecue, you will struggle to achieve the same level for bark, smoke ring and flavour you get from charcoal.
While most products use the word grill in the name, they are really dedicated smokers with some limited grilling ability.
Other types of smoker
What about offset or barrel smokers? While these can use charcoal or wood, we’ve left them off this list for a good reason. They don’t make good smokers for beginners to learn on.
Step 3: Can you commit to a dedicated smoker or do need the versaitility of a grill and smoker combo
If you’re just getting into smoking meat then buying a dedicated smoker is a big commitment. We understand wanting something flexible that can double as a grill.
But for a beginners budget, we would urge you to consider a dedicated smoker.
While most smokers CAN be used to grill on in a pinch, a dedicated smoker will a hold a low temperature better, will be better insulated and give you more features.
If you’re just dipping your toes into smoking meat, your best option is a classic original Weber Kettle. This is a great inexpensive option, and will get you a great quality grill from one of the most respected brands in barbecue. The Kettle has a huge online community of enthusiasts, and you’ll find extensive guides for setting it up for smoking.
There are also several accessories you can buy to make your Kettle a more versatile smoker.
Other important factors
While your price point, type of fuel and dedicated smoker vs combo and the main factors that go into choosing the best first smoker, some other things to consider include:
- What type of foods do you think you’ll be cooking? Most enthusiasts focus on smoking pork butts, ribs, brisket and the occasional chicken or turkey. You need to make sure the smoker you decide on is large enough to fit the type of food you’ll be cooking.
- How many people do you typically cook for? Some of the smokers we recommend in this article like the Weber Smokey Mountain come in a range of sizes so you want to think about your typical usage, and then allow for a bit of extra room if you have friends over.
- Is portability important to you? If you want to take your new smoker camping or trailgating, you want a smoker that travels well. Size and easy setup will be an important consideration.
Since this is a guide for beginners we thought we should explain some of the basics of barbecue. We don’t want to confuse the bejesus out of you after all!
What’s the difference between smoking and grilling?
Smoking is all about low and slow. Think temps between 225 and 275 for long periods of time (from 3 hours up to 15+ hours) and involves using wood smoke to impart smokey flavors.
Grilling is higher temps (350ish) but shorter duration. May or may not include wood smoke depending on what you’re doing. May or may not involve closing the dome, once again, depending on what you’re cooking.
How does smoking work?
Old fashioned “low and slow” barbecue is simple to understand and hard to master. You start with a fuel source like charcoal, gas, wood pellets or electricity. Flavor is added to the meat by adding wood chips or wood chunks to the heat source to create smoke.
By controlling oxygen, you can achieve steady low temperatures which gives the cooking method it’s nick name “low and slow”.
Essential barbecue accessories
Other than the actual smoker there are only a few accessories you absolutely NEED before your first smoke. While some people love to obsess over the ideal smoking gear setup, when you are first starting out just focus on nailing the basics.
- You need to know how hot your smoker is running (in built thermometers are next to worthless), and what temperature you meat is so you know when to pull it of. Invest in a good dual probe wireless thermometer setup like the Maverick ET-733 reviewed here
- If you’re cooking with charcoal you’ll need some fuel. We recommend starting with natural lump charcoal. You’ll also need wood chunks or chips to provide the smoke.
- There are several other nice to have accessories like a good knives of slicing and trimming meat, BBQ gloves and maybe even some bear claws for pulling pork (and looking bad ass).
Check out this list of essential smoker accessories for more ideas. It’ll make your life a lot easier if you don’t try and handle charcoal with your bare hands. Trust us…
Tips for your first smoke
Smoking is all about having a go, experimenting and learning from your mistakes. Remember than even if you screw up a few things the end result will still taste better than pretty much anything else you would put in your mouth.
That said for your first smoke consider starting with a couple of pounds of cheap pork butt. The meat is pretty forgiving and great for learning the kinks of the smoker you decided on.
From there invest in several different types of rubs and barbecue sauce (or learn how to make your own). Lastly you might want to check out this list of beginner smoker mistakes to avoid (you can thank us later).
Remember that the key to really great BBQ is to have fun, enjoy the company of your friends and family, and make delicious food. You don’t need an expensive smoker or the latest gadgets to do that.
If this guide has helped take away some of the anxiety over buying your first smoker we would love it if you shared it around. If you’re a bit more experienced and you disagree with one of our selections, or think we’ve missed out a great smoker for beginners then let us know in the comments below.
Feature CC Image courtesy of Bruce Martin on Flickr