My first smoker was a red electric Brinkmann bullet smoker. The smoker had a simple dial thermostat, dual grates and came with a water pan and lava rocks.
I loved that cheap little smoker for a few months until I figured out that it was actually a piece of junk 🙂
All electric smokers, whether you are looking at a high end Masterbuilt 40 Electric Smoker or a low end Smoke Hollow Smoker, have are some pros and cons that you ought to be aware of.
Reasons That You Will Love an Electric Smoker
You will finally get started.
Electric smokers are a typical entry point for people who want to start learning to smoke meats. Beginners see these smokers as a way to skip the step of learning how to build and manage a fire in a traditional smoker. Ideally you can just “flip a switch” and you are ready to smoke some ribs.
As we will see later on, there is a flaw in this logic but the important thing is that if this is the push you need to finally get started learning how to barbecue then go for it!
Set It and Forget It
Electric smokers offer the possibility of continuous unattended operation. I love the idea of putting a pork butt on the smoker in the morning, going to work and then coming home to a platter of perfectly smoked pulled pork.
Let’s be clear, most manufactures will tell you to NEVER leave your electric smoker unattended due to the possibility of a grease or electrical fire. That is probably good advice 🙂
In reality though, many folks do buy an electric smoker for just this reason.
Many folks would love to have a massive Oklahoma Joe traditional offset smoker but simply do not have the space or are not allowed to have a fire burning barbecue at their apartment or condo.
Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches and make the most of your situation. If this describes you then go ahead and get a nice electric smoker. You will learn how to deal with it’s quirks and will be able to turn out some nice barbecue on a consistent basis.
Lower and Slower
One of the best reasons to buy an electric smoker is the ability to smoke at lower temperatures than are easily attainable with traditional smokers.
If you buy a digitally controlled electric smoker then you will have the perfect piece of equipment for smoking jerky and Summer Sausage. These meats are ideally smoked at around 150F and those are temps that are almost impossible to hold with something like an Oklahoma Joe’s Highland smoker. This is an EASY temperature for a high quality electric smoker.
You can get an extremely nice electric smoker for around $300. While some folks want to find the best electric smoker for under $200 I really suggest you spend a little more and get one with a little insulation and digital controls.
That being said, getting a nice smoker for $300 is an easy way to jump into the barbecue game without breaking the bank.
Reasons That You Will Hate an Electric Smoker
When things get cold outside it is really hard for cheap electric smokers to get to the right temperature. The heating elements on these things can only put out so much heat…and remember, these are designed for Low and Slow. If you want these smokers to suddenly turn into High Heat generators to compensate for freezing outside temperatures then you will will be disappointed.
Cheap electric smokers will also struggle under extremely windy conditions. A cold wind will suck the heat out of these smokers like nobody’s business.
Think twice before you plan on cooking your Christmas turkey on a thin, inexpensive electric smoker. Many folks have found out the hard way that this is an easy route to ruining a holiday meal.
You can get around this problem by buying a model that is well insulated. The insulation and ability to perform in cold conditions is one reason that I recommend the Masterbuilt products.
Watch Out for Rain
Another enemy of an electric smoker is rain. Simply put, electricity and water are not a good combination and many times a slight drizzle will cause these smokers to trip a GFCI or throw a breaker.
This was the final straw that made me throw away my Brinkmann. The smoker tripped a GFCI and I didn’t know until three hours later. I had to throw away a big pile of meat that day and I swore that would never happen again.
You are going to be hard pressed to get a decent smoke ring of any kind using an electric smoker. Getting a smoke ring requires the combustion of fuel and the smoldering wood chips in an electric smoker will not make a difference. You can get a decent smoke flavor with an electric smoker but not a decent smoke ring.
Most electric smokers are designed to be affordable and easy but are not designed for large capacity cooks. Some of the most popular electric smokers like the Masterbuilt 30 inch are great for sausages, jerky and chicken but are not large enough for a full slab of ribs without cutting them in half.
If you want to smoke whole slabs of ribs or a full packer brisket then make sure you get a 40 inch electric smoker or you will not be able to manage large scale cooks.
What to Look For When Buying An Electric Smoker?
You will need to spend at least $250 or else you will be wasting your money. When you are shopping you are going to see a lot of options in the $125-$150 range and they are going to tempt you. Don’t fall for it!
Cheap smokers are inexpensive because they do not have Digital Temperature Control and Insulation.
A very common mistake people make is to buy a cheap smoker because it will be their first smoker. They don’t want to invest a lot of money in case they decide they don’t like smoking meat or can’t figure out how to barbecue.
I get it.
The problem is that whether you are talking about power tools, vehicles, or just about anything for that matter, buying cheap equipment makes the job harder. Quality costs money. Always has and always will.
Do not start your barbecue journey with one hand tied behind your back due to a crappy smoker.
Buy something nice. If, later on, you decide that making barbecue and jerky isn’t for you then you can always sell your smoker on Craigslist or Facebook and get most of your money back.
Digital Temperature Control
You absolutely want a smoker with a digital temperature controller for several reasons.
Smokers with a digital controller will work to maintain the set temperature by varying the amount of electricity running through the heating element. When your smoker maintains a consistent temperature you are able to actually follow recipes that have instructions like, “smoke the ribs at 225F for three hours”.
Smokers with manual analog controls have significant temperature variations. The temperature for these smokers are controlled by a rheostat that allows a set amount of electricity to reach the heating element. The rheostat does not compensate for changing conditions inside or outside the smoker. Changes happen all the time (smoker is loaded with cold meat, water pans run dry, cold wind starts to blow, etc) and the temperature inside the smoker is going to have wild swings.
Another great reason to have a digital controller is that you will be able to see if your smoker trips a ground fault circuit and shuts down. If you see that the display panel is not lit up then you know you have a problem and can deal with it. Smokers with a manual analog controller don’t have a display and you could lose power and never know.
At a minimum you will want a smoker with double walled construction. Ideally there will be some insulation between the two steel layers. Double walled and insulated construction makes it easy for a good electric smoker to operate in cold weather.
Here is a look at the Troubleshooting section from the Owner’s manual from an inexpensive Smoke Hollow smoker that lacks good insulation. Notice that when the temperature drops below 65F the smoker will struggle.
The capacity of an electric smoker can be measured a couple of different ways and figuring out the right size for you is truly an individual preference. That being said, here are some things to be aware of.
There are three general size ranges for these products:
- Small and Portable
- Medium (26 and 30 inch models)
- Large (40 and 44 inch models)
The Medium sized smokers, historically the most popular, are great for medium sized items like chicken, sausage, pork butts, chuck roasts and pork chops. However, the cooking grates are not wide enough to fit a full slab of spare ribs or a 15 pound packer brisket. If you buy a medium sized smoker then you will probably end up cutting your ribs and briskets in half just to get them onto the grates.
The Large smokers have plenty of room to accommodate big cuts of meat and will never leave you feeling frustrated for lack of space.
I have talked with many owners of Medium sized smokers that love their cooker but wished they had bought the bigger one.
What Are The Best Electric Smokers?
I think Masterbuilt builds great electric smokers and I make them my top recommendation. Masterbuilt has quite a few excellent choices that vary in size and features. There are 30 and 40 inch models, models with viewing windows and models with Bluetooth connectivity and control. Any of the Masterbuilt insulated smokers with digital controls are fine choices.
Masterbuilt is consistently the highest rated electric smoker manufacturer.
One of the features that make Masterbuilt smokers a top choice is the side loading wood tray. This design lets you add more wood chips during the cook without opening the front door and letting out all of the heat. Here is a quick video from Masterbulit showing the side loading wood tray in action.
An electric smoker can be a easy way to get started learning to barbecue but make sure you get one that has digital controls with insulated double wall construction.and is large enough to meet your needs
Chuck Bissler says
I have a Masterbuilt 30 and have used it for the last six years. I have an outside shed that doubles for smoke building. I have smoked everything from pork shoulders to eight slabs of ribs in all types of temperatures. Believe me, I’m from a Cleveland suburb, and it gets downright cold here. I have never had a problem regulating the temperature, or have I experienced a smoking failure. This smoker is the last I’ll ever own. I have used all types from charcoal to propane, this is the best.
Thanks for the insights, Chuck! I will need to go back and clarify the article…the lower end electric smokers will struggle in cold temps but the insulated ones do much better. Hope you are staying warm this winter!