Buying your first smoker can be overwhelming given the number of choices you have. As a beginner you need to balance ease of operation with cost and performance while realizing that you might be upgrading equipment after a while.
I am going to give you five great options to choose from and walk you through the pros and cons of each of them. I will also share what I believe is the worst smoker for beginners so you can avoid starting off on the wrong foot.
There are absolutely ZERO affiliate links on this page. I am not trying to get you to buy anything.
What to Look for in Your First Smoker
Before we jump into looking at specific smokers let’s take a minute to figure out what you need to look for when buying your first smoker. The two most important considerations are:
- Easy Temperature Control
- Flavor Profile
Secondary considerations include:
- Ease of Cleaning
There is not a single bbq pit that gets perfect scores on all of these criteria but the ones in this list strike the best balance.
In order to cook great barbecue you need to be able to control the temperature of your smoker.
You will get the best temperature control with a pellet grill or an electric smoker which have the ability to dial in an exact temperature. There are some drum type smokers on this list that will hold temperatures extremely steady once you have the dampers adjusted properly.
The type of smoker you purchase is going to have a tremendous factor in what your barbecue tastes like. Different style cookers use different fuels to generate heat and the smoke that flavors your meat.
You will get the most authentic barbecue flavor when you cook on a smoker fueled by charcoal and wood chunks. You will get the least amount of barbecue flavor when you cook on a smoker powered by an electric heating element that smolders wood chips.
The Five Best Smokers for Beginners
Here are five great smokers that I completely recommend for anyone just starting out on their adventure of learning how to barbecue. All of these options are affordable, easy to learn to operate and can create amazing barbecue.
- Masterbuilt 30 inch Digital Electric Smoker
- Z Grills Pellet Smoker
- Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco Drum Smoker
- Weber Smokey Mountain, 22 inch
- Masterbuilt 560 Digital Gravity Fed Smoker
Let’s take a look at each option in more detail to see which one is right for you.
Masterbuilt 30 inch Digital Electric Smoker
- Dial In Temperature Control
- Low smoke flavor
- Requires Electricity
I believe that more people have started their barbecue journey with a Masterbuilt electric smoker than with any other type of bbq pit. This smoker makes the list of beginner friendly smokers because it is so easy to operate and extremely budget friendly.
The digital control panel lets you can program the exact temperature you want (up to 275F) and the side mounted sliding wood chip tray lets you add wood during your cook without losing heat.
The biggest downside of this smoker is that, like any electric smoker, the smoke flavor pales in comparison to what you get by cooking over charcoal. Other issues are that you have to have a source of electricity and the overall capacity of the smoker is limited.
You can have a lot of fun with the Masterbuilt digital electric smoker and turn out some okay barbecue but there really are some better choices on this list.
Z Grills Pellet Smoker
- Dial In Temperature Control
- Large Capacity
- Decent Smoke Flavor
- Requires Electricity
Pellet smokers are just about as easy to operate as electric smokers, usually have a wider temperature range and produce much better barbecue. Pellet cookers generate both their heat and smoke by burning compressed wood pellets.
The smoke flavor from a pellet grill will always be better than what you can achieve with an electric smoker and less than what you can achieve with a charcoal smoker.
There are a lot of choices when it comes to pellet cookers. If you have plenty of money to spend then you could invest in a Traeger Pro or Ironwood. Personally I think that Traeger’s are fine cookers but are way overpriced compared to what you get with other high end grills like the Rec Tec (see Rec Tec vs Traeger for more information).
I recommend Z Grills as great entry level pellet smokers.
Z Grills are based upon the original Traeger design and are extremely affordable. I currently cooking on a Z Grills and am extremely satisfied. I have owned a 700 Series and 1000 Series from Z Grills and, while I liked both of them, I like the 1000 Series better. See Z Grills 700 vs 1000 Series for more information.
Here is a quick video I made after my first couple of cooks on my Z Grills.
There are a few disadvantages of cooking on any pellet grill.
Pellet grills have several moving parts and an electronic control panel that, at some point, are going to fail. After a few years of use the control panel will blow a fuse, the blower fan will eventually lose a blade, etc. These grills are usually pretty easy to repair so fixing them isn’t a big deal.
The other disadvantage of pellet smokers is that they require electricity to power the control panel and turn the auger. This means that you will have to run an extension cord across your deck and you probably wont want to use them in the rain.
Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco Drum Smoker (18 inch)
- Budget Friendly
- Great Smoke Flavor
- Easy to Use
- Mid Cook Charcoal Addition
The Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco drum smoker is a charcoal fueled cooker that allows you to have precision temperature control. The Bronco has a single, adjustable air inlet and a single, adjustable air outlet. The Bronco is built extremely tight and the lid has a sealing gasket which makes all of the air and smoke exit through the top vent and not through cracks in the smoker body.
Once you learn how to use this cooker, which wont take you very long, dialing in an exact temperature is pretty easy.
Here is a quick video I made after my first few cooks on the Bronco.
One of the few drawbacks to this smoker is that the charcoal basket only holds about eight pounds of briquettes and there is no easy way to add more charcoal or wood to the smoker in the middle of the cook. If you light the charcoal like most people do, in the middle of the bed, then you are only going to get about 6-8 hours of burn time before you have to take everything apart and add more fuel.
Don’t let the small charcoal basket worry you though. It turns out that if you stack the coals properly and light them on the side then you can get up to 15 hours of burn time from a single load of charcoal. Here is another video I shot showing you how to get long burn times on a Bronco.
The only other potential problem with the Bronco is that it is an 18 inch smoker which, while plenty big, does not have massive capacity. You can upgrade to the 22 inch Professional version if you need to smoke multiple briskets at once.
Weber Smokey Mountain (22 Inch)
- Large Capacity
- Great Smoke Flavor
- Precision Temperature Control
- Learning Curve
- Annoying to Move
This smoker makes the Top Five list because there is a strong case to be made that you ought to start learning on the best equipment available. People will argue about what is the absolute best smoker available but what they will all agree on is that in any discussion about the best smoker that this guy is on the list.
Here is a look at the Weber Smokey Mountain.
The biggest reason why a beginner should get a WSM is because once you learn how to dial in the temperature cooking on this smoker is a dream come true.
A WSM will easily hold steady Low and Slow barbecue temperatures for 10 hours without you needing to make any adjustments to the dampers or adding more fuel. Many WSM owners are perfectly comfortable walking away and leaving these smokers unattended for hours on end as they slowly work their barbecue magic.
Many of the top barbecue competition teams cook exclusively on WSMs and there is an amazing online community of owners over at the Virtual Weber Bullet who are always eager to share tips on how to get the best performance out of this incredible smoker.
I cooked on a WSM for about five years before I eventually moved on to different equipment. The biggest reason that I got rid of my WSM was that I got tired of moving it to and from my garage. The WSM comes in three sections and, when you include a water pan full of greasy water, it would typically take me four trips to move the smoker. If you have a dedicated location where you will both use and store your WSM then this shouldn’t be an issue for you.
Masterbuilt 560 Digital Gravity Fed Charcoal Smoker
- Dial In Temperature Control
- Great Smoke Flavor
- Incredible Temperature Range
- Construction Quality
- Needs Electricity
The Masterbuilt 560 almost seems too good to be true. This is a smoker that burns charcoal and wood and comes with a digital temperature control. You get the great flavor of a charcoal smoker with the ease of operation of an electric smoker.
What is even better is that the temperature on the 560 can be cranked up to 700F. You can use this cooker to slow smoke a brisket at 250F for 12 hours or crank it up to 700F and put the perfect sear on a ribeye steak.
Here is a video showing how the 560 works its magic.
The only complaints I have seen about this grill is that the build quality could be better. Some folks have peeling paint and their grills are starting to rust.
The other minor issue with this grill is, like a pellet grill, you still need electricity to run the control panel and blower fan.
Honorable Mention: Pit Barrel Cooker
The Pit Barrel Cooker is great for beginners because it is the easiest charcoal smoker to operate. Here is a nice video to introduce you to this smoker.
How easy is that? Take the smoker out of the, fill up the charcoal baskets, light the charcoal and start cooking in 20 minutes.
This smoker is great for beginners because you get to cook with live fire but don’t have to worry about fire management. Meats get done faster in this cooker because it runs hotter than most traditional smokers and benefits from conductive heating.
Go check out some reviews on Amazon or do a quick internet search and you will see that the Pit Barrel Cooker has a fanatical fan base and is one of the best charcoal smokers that you can find.
The downside about this smoker is the same as its strong point, you really don’t have much control over the temperature and you are restricted to high heat smoking. If you ever wanted to try a recipe for slow smoking ribs at 225F for six hours you will not be able to do that with this cooker.
If you eventually decide that you want to move on and get a smoker that lets you go Low and Slow you will still want to keep your Pit Barrel Cooker if for no other reason than cooking chickens. This might be the best chicken cooker I have come across as it the high heat smoking gets the skin just right while keeping the chicken juicy. Plus it is fun as heck to hang meat 🙂
Pit Barrel is a veteran owned small business. I have had the pleasure of meeting the owner and his family and can let you know that if you buy a Pit Barrel then you will be helping out some nice people.
Smokers That Are Bad for Beginners
I think the sexiest looking smokers in existence are offset barrel smokers like the Old Country BBQ Pits.
These smokers look rugged, manly and, perhaps most importantly, like what a smoker ought to look like. While these smokers are beautiful to look at they are NOT appropriate for beginners.
If you start with an offset smoker then you will be fighting two learning curves. You will have to spend a lot of time learning fire management while simultaneously learning the nuances or brisket ribs and pork butts. It will be like trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time.
Think of a pit like this like a 1972 Mustang Mach 1. Cool as heck, fun to tinker with, but not something that you want as a daily driver or what you want to learn to drive on. I am not hating on offsets….just saying that they are not a good idea for beginners.
You will be tempted by cheap ($200) versions of the offset at Big Box stores. Do NOT buy these. The cheaper they are the worse they hold heat and the more they will waste your time and money.
The heat distribution in any offset smoker under $500 is AWFUL. These smokers are leaky at the seals which results in excessive fuel consumption. You will spend all of your time just trying to manage the fire, temperature and smoke on a pit like this and you will not be able to appreciate the nuances of what is happening with your meat.
If you really, really want to start with an offset smoker then let me suggest the Oklahoma Joe’s Highland. You will still have a steep learning curve with this offset but the smoker is extremely popular and there are lots of folks online who can give you tips on how to get started.
My second smoker was a cheap offset smoker and I wasted a year of my learning curve fighting the thing. Learn from an old fat man and take a pass on these.
What Else Would You Like to Know?
I suspect many of you have been looking at either some propane smokers and would like more information on them. I seriously believe that a pellet smoker is a much better choice but if you want to learn more then check out my article on Propane vs Electric Smokers.
I suspect another bunch of you are curious about getting a Big Green Egg or other kamado style cooker. I am not recommending this style of cooker for a beginner because a good one is going to cost you over $1,000 and that is, in my opinion, too steep of a price point to get started in a hobby. If you get hooked on smoking and grilling then you can always sell your current equipment on Facebook or Craigslist and upgrade to a kamado later. If you do go with a kamado then skip the Egg and get a Kamado Joe.
I realize that I have only scratched the surface of the types of smokers that are available and you probably have some more questions. Please drop your questions in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them!