I started to seriously look at Masterbuilt electric smokers today and my head almost exploded.
(If you want to skip all of the details and only care about which are the best then scroll to the bottom and you can see my two favorites.)
I hopped over to Amazon to see what they had available. The first smoker I looked at was an Amazon Best Seller, the Masterbuilt 30 inch digital electric smoker.
…and then I saw that Masterbuilt had five different versions of their 30 inch smoker.
…and then I saw that Masterbuilt had three different versions of their 40 inch smoker.
….and then I saw that Masterbuilt had a portable smoker and a bullet smoker.
So, I went over to the Masterbuilt website to get some clarity on the different models.
It only got worse.
It turns out that Masterbuilt has their standard products (sold on Amazon), a Pro Series (sold at Home Depot), a Sportsman Elite Series (sold at Bass Pro Shops, Cabellas, etc) and a Signature Series (sold at Lowes).
All told it looks like Masterbuilt offers at least 15 different versions of their electric smokers.
Okay…so let’s cut through all the noise and figure out what are the real differences between these products.
Full Disclaimer: I am reviewing the Masterbuilt electric smokers that are being made today (Summer, 2017). I am not going to spend ANY time talking about historical versions of these smokers.
Digital versus Analog
A major difference between these smokers is whether the temperature control is Digital or Analog.
Although these products are marketed as “analog” and “digital” the real terms are “rheostat controlled” and “thermostat controlled”.
There are pros and cons of each type of controller. Let’s walk through them.
Rheostat Controlled Smokers (Analog)
A rheostat is a device that restricts how much electricity can flow to the heating element. These are often called “Low Medium High” controllers and are the same thing you will find on electric frying pans.
You can think of a rheostat like a window in your house.
- The window can be closed and no breeze will come in.
- The window can be wide open for maximum wind flow.
- The window can be at any position in between depending upon how much breeze you want.
- The window position can influence but not CONTROL the temperature in your house.
You cannot set a temperature with a rheostat. You can only control how much electricity goes to a heating element which in turn influences the temperature inside the smoker.
Benefits of a Rheostat Controller
Cost: Rheostats are significantly cheaper than thermostats and this is reflected in the price of the smoker.
Reliability: Rheostats are simple devices. Because they are so simple they hardly ever break. This is a major advantage over some thermostats.
Drawbacks of a Rheostat Controller
A rheostat does not know or care about the temperature inside your smoker. The only thing it is doing is providing a set amount of electricity to a heating element.
The temperature inside a rheostat controlled smoker is determined by:
- How much electricity is going through the rheostat to the heating element.
- How much meat is in the smoker.
- Outside temperature and wind conditions.
If you try smoking two 12 pound turkeys on a warm day and then a 5 pound chuck roast on a cold and windy day you will have extremely different temperatures inside your smoker even with the rheostat on the EXACT SAME SETTING.
It takes a long time to really master using a rheostat to “dial in” the exact temperature you want.
Thermostat Controlled Smokers (Digital)
A thermostat is fundamentally different from a rheostat in that a thermostat knows exactly how hot it is inside your smoker and adjusts the electricity flow to the heating element to reach and maintain a set target temperature.
Benefits of a Thermostat Controller
Easy: Thermostats provide “set it and forget it” control for a smoker. You can set the controller to 225F and in 30-40 minutes your smoker will be pretty dang close to the target temperature.
Drawbacks of a Thermostat Controller
Cost: The additional electronics required for the thermostat drives up the cost of the smoker.
Reliability: Manufacturers are sensitive about cost so they often use the cheapest electronics available. Combine this with the fact that these smokers often get stored under less than ideal conditions (outdoors, wet) and you end up with smokers with inoperable controls.
Accuracy: If you are obsessive about temperature then you will be disappointed with most low end thermostats. Many thermostats are crude devices. They wait until the temperature drops about ten degrees below the see point and then they turn the heating element to full blast to bring it back up. After the smoker overshoots the target temperature by 10 degrees the thermostat will turn the heating element off so the smoker can cool.
Wood Chip Addition (Analog vs Digital)
Another difference between the analog and digital smokers is how you add wood chips to the smokers. It really has nothing to do with how the controllers function but is simply a design choice made by Masterbuilt.
The Digital smokers have a sliding side access chute that lets you add more smoking wood WITHOUT OPENING the smoker. This is a nice feature since you don’t lose all of your heat every time you add wood.
The Analog smokers have the more traditional wood chip box inside the smoker. You have to open up the Analog smokers if you want to add more wood.
Masterbuilt has three Analog smokers:
- The Portable Smoker
- The Bullet Smoker
- The 30 inch Black Analog Smoker
I went down to one of my local grill stores and checked out the electric bullet smoker.
Here is the “label shot”.
I was pretty underwhelmed by the electric bullet smoker.
- It isn’t very big.
- It isn’t really portable.
- It looks like something designed to remind you of those horrible old Brinkmann smokers and the fact that it isn’t a Weber Smokey Mountain.
I also looked into the 30 inch smokers and, as I rant about below, do not like their size.
The analog smoker that I really like is Masterbuilt’s Portable Electric Smoker.
I like this smoker for the same reason that I love the Weber Jumbo Joe. The portable electric smoker is an honest small smoker that works.
At under $100 the price is more than fair.
I found this video on YouTube with the CEO of Masterbuilt, John McLemore, showing off the versatility of this little smoker for QVC.
Yes, it is a sales video but they did it up right so you can see exactly what you will get in terms of capacity, portability and functionality.
The video is worth watching.
30 inches versus 40 inches
Just to make life easy for myself I am going to be calling these the MES 30 and MES 40 (Masterbuilt Electric Smoker)
This difference in size between the 30 and 40 inch smokers is important and surprised me.
“30 vs 40” refers to the HEIGHT of the smoker. However, both size smokers come with four smoking racks so the increased height doesn’t really gain you much capacity.
Masterbuilt says you can smoke 80 pounds of meat with the 30 inch smokers compared to 100 pounds of meat with the 40 inch smokers.
I do not like the way Masterbuilt presents these numbers.
These numbers makes it look like the MES 30 is a big smoker (80 pounds of meat!!) and that the MES 40 is even bigger!
The reality is that the MES 30 is a SMALL smoker.
The cooking racks on the MES 30 measure 12 inches front to back and 14 inches side to side.
Yes, you can put a lot of meat onto the four small grates and probably hit the advertised 80 pounds.
But do you know what you can’t do?
- You can’t smoke a full rack of ribs.
- You can’t smoke a whole packer brisket.
If you want to do ribs or brisket on a MES 30 then you have to cut them in half so they can fit on the grate.
In all fairness you could do a full rack of ribs by rolling them up but I hate that technique as much as cutting them in half. You could also probably get a 2 1/2 pound slab of baby backs on here if you place them diagonally on the grate.
But a full slab of spare ribs? Forget about it!!
Just because the MES 30 is small does not mean that it isn’t a good smoker.
The MES 30 would be a great product for folks that want to dry jerky, smoke salmon or just want to stick to pork butts, chicken and meatloaf.
I think it would be a big mistake to buy the MES 30 as a “starter smoker”.
A lot of folks buy the MES 30 as an inexpensive way to get started smoking meat and to see if they really like making barbecue. What they quickly find out is that they LOVE making barbecue and that the MES 30 is TOO SMALL for ribs and brisket.
They then end up buying a different smoker.
This brings us to the MES 40.
Although the MES 40 is ten inches taller than the MES 30 the real difference is in the size of the cooking grates.
The grates on the MES 40 measure 12 inches from front to back and 20 inches from side to side.
A 20 inch grate lets you cook whole packer briskets and full slabs of ribs.
A 14 inch grate on the MES 30 and a 20 inch grate on the MES 40 is the REAL difference between these smokers.
The other difference worth noting is that the heating element is 800 watts in the MES 30 and 1,200 watts in the MES 40. Both heating elements are appropriately sized for the respective smokers.
Solid Door versus Window Door
In the MES 30 product line two smokers have solid doors and three have a glass window.
In the MES 40 product line all of the smokers have a glass window on the door.
The type of door itself makes absolutely NO difference from a performance standpoint.
The real difference between units with and without windows is that the smokers with a window come with a built in meat thermometer AND a remote control for setting and monitoring temperatures and smoking times.
I am a huge fan of being able to remotely monitor internal meat temperatures. I also like the idea of being able to program how long I want something to smoke.
There is an extra level of detail when it comes to the remote control for these smokers.
Some smokers come with a standard remote that works off of radio frequencies (RF remote) while others are Bluetooth enabled and can be controlled by your phone.
Both remotes are fine and the choice between them depends upon what type of gadgets you like.
I have trouble with the Bluetooth functionality on my phone and would personally avoid getting a Bluetooth controlled smoker.
The products with windows also come with a rear mounted handle and wheels for easy transportation.
Top Control versus Front Control
Here is a subtle difference that took me a while to figure out.
For the digitally controlled smokers some of them have the controls mounted on the TOP of the smoker while some are mounted on the FRONT of the smoker.
Why is this important?
When the controls are mounted on the FRONT of the smoker you can use the TOP of the smoker as a work table. This comes in REALLY handy if you need to rotate racks or just need a place to put your utensils and barbecue sauce.
Earlier versions of the front mounted controlled smoker had the smoke exhaust vent on the SIDE of the smoker. Some people complained that the side vent resulted in uneven smoke generation.
The latest smokers on Masterbuilt’s website show ALL models now have a top vent.
I want to be able to use the top of the smoker as a work surface and would get a smoker with a front mounted control panel.
Pro, Signature and Sportsman Elite Series
These models drive me nuts.
Masterbuilt has worked with the major box stores to make sure that you cannot do direct price comparisons between these product lines.
The features and extra gadgets are different between the models but the core fundamentals concerning size and controls are the same.
None of the subtle differences between the Pro, Signature and Sportsman product lines change the fundamentally important aspects of the smokers.
Masterbuilt Electric Smoker Reviews: The Two Best
After looking at all of these different smokers there are two that I would recommend.
- If you want a small smoker then get the portable version.
- If you want a full sized smoker go with the 40 incher.
The 30 inch smoker, in my opinion, will leave you wishing that you had spent a few extra bucks to get what you had really wanted.
- Small but versatile smoker that can easily feed 4-8 people
- Collapsible legs and easy carry handles make this a transportable cooker
- No frills and fairly priced.
- Very reliable rheostat control.
- Check Price on Amazon (about $100)
- 40 inch smoker with 20 inch grates
- Large enough to smoke ribs and brisket
- Easy to move with rear mounted handle and wheels
- Front mounted Control Panel with RF remote control and built in meat thermometer
- Check Price on Amazon (about $350)
I hope you found this breakdown of these smokers useful. I’ll keep updating if I figure out any other important differences.