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.
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.
- Z Grills Pellet Smoker
- Pit Barrel Cooker
- Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco
- Weber Smokey Mountain, 22 inch
- Weber 26 inch Kettle
Let’s take a look at each option in more detail to see which one is right for you.
Z Grills Pellet Smoker
This list used to include an electric smoker but after a few years of using a pellet smoker I can’t see any reason why anyone should buy an electric smoker anymore.
Pellet smokers are just about as easy to operate as electric smokers, usually have a wider temperature range and produce much better barbecue than electric smokers. Electric smokers generate heat via an electric heating element and generate smoke via smoldering wood chips. 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.
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, are highly reliable and 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.
The only drawback with a Z Grills is that they do not have fancy features like WiFi/Bluetooth connectivity, etc. but this really isn’t something you need, especially when you are first starting out. I believe that a Z Grills pellet cooker is one of the best Traeger alternatives available.
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.
Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco Drum Smoker
A strong alternative to the Pit Barrel is the Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco Drum Smoker. There are many similarities between the two cookers as they have similar capacity and you can hang meat in both of them.
The massive difference between a Pit Barrel Cooker and an OKJ Bronco is that the Bronco 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.
Here is another video I did with the Bronco showing you how to stack and light the charcoal to get 15 hours of burn time on a single load.
There are two versions of the Bronco, Regular and Professional. The only significant difference between the models is that the Professional is larger. Personally I think the Regular version is large enough and is a tremendous bargain.
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.
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.
Weber 26 Inch Kettle
After I got rid of my WSM I spent a couple of years doing almost all of my meat smoking on a standard Weber 22 inch kettle.
Using a 22 inch Weber 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.
One of my few complaints about cooking on a 22 inch kettle is that sometimes it simply wasn’t large enough. If I wanted to do three slabs of ribs or two briskets then I was out of luck.
This is where the 26 inch kettle comes into play. You won’t find the 26 inch kettle in any of the big box stores but you can get them directly from Amazon or Weber and in some speciality grill stores. At first glance the difference between a 22 inch and a 26 inch grill might not sound like much but when you do the math you find that the 26 inch grill gives you 40% more grill space. Here is a look at four racks of spare ribs on a 26 inch kettle. Check out all of that room!
The beauty of using a kettle as a smoker is if you eventually decide that you need something different then you will still want to keep the kettle because it is the best charcoal grill ever invented.
What Not to Buy
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 an electric or propane smoker 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!