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.
The Five Best Smokers for Beginners
- Masterbuilt 40 inch Electric Smoker $$
- Pit Barrel Cooker $$
- Weber Smokey Mountain, 22 inch $$$
- Weber 22 inch kettle $
- Camp Chef SmokePro Pellet Smoker $$$$
What all five of these options have in common is that they are great pieces of equipment that produce fine barbecue and you will enjoy using them. Before we get into the best options I think it is useful to look at what are some bad options and why you need to avoid them.
The two biggest mistakes beginners make when buying a smoker are:
- Buying something because it looks good.
- Buying something because it is cheap.
Some folks, like me, made both mistakes when they were starting out!
Don’t Buy Based on Looks
I think the sexiest looking smokers in existence are offset barrel smokers like the Oklahoma Joe Longhorn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A seriously good offset smoker is going to cost you over a thousand bucks and will take you a few months to learn how to use. I am not hating on offsets….just saying that they are not a good idea for beginners.
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.
Don’t Buy Because it is Cheap
My very first smoker was a cheap, red Brinkman electric smoker. I bought the cheap unit because…well, why not? It was cheap and a smoker is a smoker, right??
I get it…you are just getting started and feeling out the waters. You don’t want to make a major investment in equipment….especially when you don’t have a strong basis for making a decision.
I bought this thing…I understand.
This cheap smoker cost me a year of learning, ruined about 70 pounds of meat and destroyed my confidence before I finally got smart and smashed the thing to pieces with a sledgehammer.
I don’t care whether you are talking about tools, work boots or smokers…if you buy cheap equipment it will bite you in the butt.
You do NOT have to spend a lot of money to have an amazing smoker. Just don’t buy a cheap piece of crap, okay?
So what should you get?
You should get a high quality piece of equipment that will serve you well for years and that you will be proud to own. You should get a piece of equipment that is easy to learn, makes great barbecue and will be something that you will want to hold onto even if you out grow it.
Let’s look at the good stuff!!
40 inch Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker with RF Remote
Electric smokers are the most popular smokers on the market and Masterbuilt makes the best. A quality electric smoker is great for a beginner because it let’s them focus on learning about meats, rubs, smoke, etc without having to spend their time trying to also learn fire management.
Masterbuilt digital electric smokers are extremely well insulated and can operate in cold, windy conditions with ease. There is a strong community of Masterbuilt users so it is pretty easy to get on the Internet and ask questions to people who will be using the exact same equipment as you.
I am also a big fan of the side access wood tray that lets you replenish the smoking wood without opening the main cooking chamber.
Why the 40 inch with RF Remote?
First let’s take a quick look at the smoker itself in this video.
The 40 inch smoker is actually large enough to handle whole slabs of ribs and full packer briskets. This is a MASSIVE difference compared to Masterbuilt’s 30 inch electrical smoker. A lot of folks buy the 30 inch smoker and end up regretting it because it is simply too small.
Electric smokers are not perfect and they do have some issues that you need to be aware of. You will not get a decent ring on your meats when you use an electric smoker and the bark does not fully develop.
A HUGE reason why this smoker made the top 5 list is that even if you eventually decide that you want to move on and buy a charcoal smoker you will still want to keep and use this one. The reason you will want to keep this even if you outgrow it as a smoker is because it is the PERFECT machine for making jerky.
You can dial the temperature of the Masterbuilt to 150-160F and have a perfect dehydrator for your jerky. No other smoker on this list will be able to maintain temperatures that low without some serious babysitting.
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.
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 🙂
Weber Smokey Mountain 22 Inch
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.
The one downside about a WSM is that it can be a hassle to move since it comes in three different sections.
Camp Chef SmokePro Pellet Smoker
Pellet smokers are gaining in popularity as they offer the benefits of cooking with wood combined with the ease a digital temperature control. A pellet smoker is perfect for a beginner as there is no fire management to learn. Just load the hopper up with wood pellets, dial in a temperature and start smoking!
Here is a look at the Camp Chef SmokePro pellet smoker.
A cool feature about the pellet smoker is that it can also be dialed up to 500F and used as a pretty nice grill. Pellet cookers are extremely versatile and are being used on the competition barbecue circuit with a lot of success.
The smoke flavor profile you will get with a pellet cooker is milder than you will get with a WSM but stronger than what comes out of an electric smoker. Some people like to add extra smoke to their pellet cookers with the addition of a smoke generator.
I am recommending the Camp Chef as I think it is one of the best pellet smokers for the money. Some folks get seduced by the less expensive Pit Boss pellet grills but I don’t like the fact that they only come with a one year warranty. Other folks want to buy Traeger pellet grills based on the brand name but I think they are overpriced in comparison to the Camp Chef.
Weber 22 Inch Kettle
Chances are that you already have one of these in your backyard. Even if you don’t you can pick up a new one for about $100 or get a used one off of Craigslist for $50.
Using a 22 inch kettle is a great way for a beginner to get started smoking meats because they are incredibly affordable and have a surprisingly large capacity. It is pretty straightforward to smoke two slabs of baby back ribs or even a 12-13 pound packer brisket on a kettle.
Here is a look at one EASY way of using a kettle as a smoker.
This is just one way of using a kettle as a smoker. You can also use a charcoal basket to maintain a small fire on one side of the grill or add a Slow n Sear for much longer cooks.
The beauty of using a kettle as a smoker is if you eventually decide that you need something bigger then you will still want to keep the kettle because it is the best charcoal grill ever invented.
Wrapping it up….
If you only take one thing away from reading all of this I hope it is that even though you are just a beginner that is no reason to buy a crappy smoker.
A thin, cheap smoker is going to waste your time and prevent you from learning how to smoke meats properly. Making an investment in quality equipment is ALWAYS the right decision.