Buying a new smoker can be stressful. There are a ton of options available and to be quite honest, many of them are junk. Just because a smoker looks good coming out of the box doesn’t mean it will work worth a dang or last more than a few seasons.
This guide was written to help you find the best smoker for your backyard. Not everyone has the same needs and preferences in a smoker so I have split things out into ten different options.
Three Steps to Buying the Perfect Smoker
Step 1. The first thing you have to decide upon is your choice of fuel. There are very different options available depending upon whether you want to use charcoal, pellets, natural gas, propane or electricity. Personally I would recommend buying a charcoal smoker but I realize that is not an option for some people.
Step 2. The next step in buying the perfect smoker is to commit to buying one that is large enough to smoke a full slab of ribs and a whole packer brisket. If you are going to get serious about barbecue then at some point you are going to want to master these two fundamental cuts. If your smoker is too small then you will have to cut your ribs in half and you will only be able to smoke brisket flats.
There are MANY, MANY people who have bought cheap, small “starter smokers” only to realize a few months later that they needed something bigger. Don’t be that person.
Step 3. Commit to paying for quality. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about power tools, work boots or barbecues the standard wisdom still holds true, “Buying good equipment only hurts once. Buying cheap equipment hurts every time you use it.”
So, now that we have the introduction out of the way let’s take a look and see what cookers made the list!
Top Ten Smokers
- Weber Smokey Mountain (Charcoal)
- Pit Barrel Cooker (Charcoal)
- Backwoods Chubby 3400 (Charcoal)
- Camp Chef (Pellets)
- Green Mountain (Pellets)
- Oklahoma Joe’s Reverse Flow (Stick Burner)
- Camp Chef Smoke Vault 22 (Natural Gas)
- Masterbuilt 44 (Propane)
- Masterbuilt Portable (Propane)
- Masterbuilt 40 (Electric)
The ceramic, kamado style cookers like the Big Green Egg, Primo, Kamado Joe, etc did not make this list based on price. If you got one of these that was large enough to handle a brisket, then by the time you bought the cooker, place setter, stand and pay for shipping you will be over the $1,000 mark.
The Three Best Charcoal Smokers
- Weber Smokey Mountain
- Backwoods Chubby
- Pit Barrel Cooker
You have three amazing choices when it comes to quality charcoal smokers. All of these pits can be used to turn out killer authentic barbecue. Let me walk you through the pros and cons of each style.
Weber Smokey Mountain
The Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) comes in three sizes with diameters of 14.5, 18.5 and 22.5 inches. The WSM style of cooker is often referred to as a “Bullet Smoker” based on it’s shape. Many people believe that these are the best charcoal smokers ever made.
Here is an introductory video from Weber that gives a nice overview of what the cooker looks like and how to use it.
For decades the only WSM available was the 18.5 inch diameter version. That cooker became famous due to the ability to run low and slow unattended for 10-12 hours on a single load of charcoal. With traditional offset smokers you need to manage the fire every hour or so. While tending a fire might sound like fun the reality is that it gets old real fast. This is especially true at four in the morning when all you really want to be doing is sleeping.
Once you figure out how to adjust the vents and bring the temperature up slowly, the WSM is just about as easy to use as it gets. You can also spend a few more bucks and get an aftermarket temperature controller that will pretty much dial in and maintain whatever temperature you want by controlling the amount of air that flows through the dampers.
One of the nice things about owning a WSM is that you will have a tremendous wealth of knowledge available to you from the fanatical fan base over at The Virtual Weber Bullet. That group is willing to answer any question you have about how to get the most use out of these amazing cookers and will be delighted to add you to the community.
I absolutely LOVE the WSM.
The WSM does have a few problems worth discussing. In fact, these problems were significant enough that I stopped using my WSM and eventually sold it….and yes, I still love the thing!
The WSM is a hassle to move.
I kept my WSM in the garage and moved it into the driveway when I wanted to use it. However, the WSM has a three piece design which meant I had to make three trips to the garage just to set it up. This wasn’t that bad when I was setting it up but was a major pain in the butt when I was done cooking and had to put it away. In addition to the three sections I also had to deal with a greasy water pan full of hot gunk that quite often would slip into the charcoal ashes.
My WSM worked GREAT but sometimes I found myself deciding that I wasn’t going to smoke ribs because I just didn’t feel like lugging that smoker around piece by piece. That was when I knew I had to get a different smoker.
The WSM has a Goldilocks problem
The 18.5 inch WSM has amazing temperature control and can easily go low and slow for 10-12 hours. But the 18.5 inch diameter grate is a little small. If you want to smoke a bunch of ribs then you have to start rolling them up, cut them into sections or use rib racks. It is hard to get a brisket larger than 12-14 pounds to easily fit.
The 22.5 inch WSM has all of the size that you need and because of the increased capacity was welcomed with thunderous applause when it was introduced a few years ago. The downside of the 22.5 inch cooker is that it has a larger charcoal ring which makes it burn a little hotter and not quite as long as the 18.5 inch smoker. when you get the 22.5 WSM you gain capacity but lose some performance.
The 14.5 WSM is cute but tiny. The 14.5 is great for smoking a chuck roast or some pork chops but, in my opinion, is not large enough to use as a primary smoker.
Pit Barrel Cooker
The Pit Barrel Cooker has been around since 2010 and has developed a cult following. Even though the company is fairly new the smoker itself is almost a “throwback” design the the old drum cookers that used to populate the South.
Here is an overview of what the Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC) looks like and how to use it.
The thing that makes the Pit Barrel Cooker great is the sheer simplicity of use. You fill up the charcoal basket and light the charcoal. In 15-20 minutes put you meat on the pit and close the lid. There is just a single air damper to adjust. There is no temperature gauge to fret over. The PBC cooks at a steady temperature (around 300F) using both radiant and convection heat and it works amazingly well.
PBC or WSM?
The Pit Barrel Cooker has an 18.5 inch diameter and usually costs the exact same amount as the 18.5 WSM (about $300).
Ease of Use: Without question the PBC is the easier smoker to operate. There is almost no learning curve. You will be making great barbecue the same day it shows up at your house.
With the WSM there is a learning curve that you are going to have to work through. It will probably take you four or five cooks to figure out your vent settings and another year or two to figure out how to utilize the water pan. Once you get past the learning curve the WSM is SIMPLE to use but don’t expect to hit a home run on day one.
Functionality: The same thing that makes the PBC so easy to use also limit its functionality. The PBC gives you one temperature range to work with while you can dial in any temperature you want with a WSM. Lots of pitmasters have published incredible books and if you want to follow their recipes then you have to be able to adjust your temperature.
You want to run at 225F for Mike Mills baby back ribs? No problem with a WSM. Big problem with a PBC.
Vertical vs Horizontal: You use the PBC by hanging your meat vertically in the smoker. I think this looks cool as heck and it reminds me of traditional smokehouses. That being said, some folks don’t want to mess with running hooks through their meat and would rather just lay it down flat on a grate like the WSM.
Companies: PBC is a small family run, and veteran owned, company based in Prospect, Kentucky. I have talked with the owner, Noah, a couple times and think he is a nice guy. Weber is a massive global powerhouse with amazing customer service.
Here is a good video showing these two cookers Head to Head.
Backwoods Chubby 3400
The Backwoods Chubby is a different style of smoker than the WSM and PBC. The Backwood smokers are true Reverse Flow cookers. Reverse Flow cookers use dampers and vents to pull the heat and smoke from the firebox across the entire cooking chamber for extremely even cooking.
The Backwoods is a serious high end smoker. It comes with double wall construction, an inch of insulation, stainless steel internals (cooking racks are nickel plated) and, weighing in at 130 pounds, is built like a tank. These smokers keep steady temps, are easy to use and will last for YEARS.
The Chubby 3400 is the first smoker that Backwoods has made for retail customers. Traditionally Backwoods made smokers for the competition barbecue circuit. Competition teams love these smokers because the compact design makes them easy to transport and the double walled insulated construction lets them hit their exact target temperature regardless of what the weather throws at them.
Here is a look at the Backwoods Chubby 3400.
Most of the Backwood smokers cost several thousand dollars but the Chubby 3400 comes in at just $800. The lower price of the Chubby 3400 reflects the smaller size of this cooker compared to standard Backwood cookers. The Chubby 3400 can handle a brisket, a couple slabs of ribs and two pork butts in a single cook. While this is plenty of room for most backyard cooks it pales in comparison to the $9,000 pig cookers these guys make.
The biggest drawback of the Chubby 3400 is the price. The cost of the Chubby is completely reasonable given the quality of the building material, ease of use and rock solid performance. However, there are a lot of folks that just don’t want to spend $800 on a smoker.
Best Offset Smoker
This is a tough call to make because the BEST offset smokers will cost you over $1,000. Of the offset smokers that are under $1,000 the ones I like the most are from Old Country and Oklahoma Joe. The Old Country smokers are better than Oklahoma Joe but are hard to find. You can sometimes find them at Academy Sports. You can learn more about Old Country BBQ pits here.
In the OJ product line the best ones are the Oklahoma Joe Reverse Flows. Oklahoma Joe has two sizes of reverse flow offset smokers. The smaller one is the Longhorn and the larger is the Highland.
While you can use charcoal in an offset smoker these are traditionally used with splits of seasoned oak as the fuel source.
Offset smokers are pretty to look at and have tons of space. If you decide to get an offset smoker then make sure it has the baffles inside the cook chamber that create the reverse flow effect. Watch the video below to see what the baffles look like and understand how they are used to direct the heat and smoke over all of the cooking surface.
I included the Oklahoma Joe smokers in this list because a lot of folks want an offset smoker and I thought they should know to get the ones with the Reverse Flow baffles.
That being said I would try to talk you out of buying one of these. I understand exactly why you might want an offset. I bought one many years ago for all of the same reasons. I love the capacity and it is a real, traditional, big boy barbecue pit.
I ended up throwing away my offset smoker because:
- Tending the firebox every 45-60 minutes was a massive pain in the butt.
- Cleaning the grease out of the cook chamber was a massive pain in the butt.
- After two years of use the rust was getting crazy.
To get around these problems you really need to spend over $1,000 and get a heavier duty model. If you have the cash and really want the best then here are two options for you:
If you do decide to go with the Oklahoma Joe (and I understand if you do!) then go ahead and get the high heat gasket material to make the smoker a little more air tight.
Best Pellet Smokers
The market for pellet smokers is really taking off and there are some nice options to choose from. These smokers burn small wood pellets for heat and smoke and have precision digital controls for the temperature. The result is that you get the real wood smoke and flavor from a traditional smoker with the ease of operation of an electric smoker.
Pellet smokers are incredibly efficient in their fuel usage. The wood pellets burn hot and clean which makes the smoke profile more subtle than you get with a charcoal smoker. There is a HUGE selection of wood pellets (oak, hickory, cherry, etc) available which makes it easy to experiment with flavor profiles.
Another nice feature of pellet smokers is that, with some models, you can get the temperature up to 500F and use them as a grill for steaks and burgers.
The two pellet smokers that I recommend are:
- Camp Chef Woodwind with Sear Box
- Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett
Camp Chef Woodwind with Sear Box
For years the only player in the pellet grill market was a company named Traeger. Traeger held the patent on pellet grill technology and got fat and lazy since they didn’t have any competition.
Once the Traeger patents expired other companies jumped into the market and made pellet smokers that fixed all of the problems that Traeger ignored. In my opinion, the company that has done the best job of making an affordable pellet smoker that works great is Camp Chef.
Below is a video review of the Camp Chef Woodwind Pellet Smoker with a Sear Box. The Sear Box is a bit of a cheat in that it is actually a beefed up, propane powered, side grill. This is a great configuration for slow smoking steaks then giving them a quick sear.
Camp Chef makes other fine pellet smokers that do not come with a Sear Box if you want to keep your costs down.
Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett
I wanted to put the Davy Crockett pellet smoker from Green Mountain Grills in front of you for a couple reasons. The Davy Crockett is a portable pellet smoker that is still large enough to smoke a couple slabs of baby backs and can even handle a small packer brisket (9-11 pounds max).
Here is the promotional video from Green Mountain Grills to introduce this cool smoker.
The technology on the Green Mountain Grills is truly Best in Class and if you are looking for a portable smoker then this absolutely deserves your consideration.
If you would like to learn more about either of these products then check out this article on the Best Traeger Alternatives.
Best Gas Smokers
Gas smokers are nice because you still get to play with fire but they are easier to control than charcoal or offset smokers. Gas powered smokers are usually pretty inexpensive so there is no excuse to not buy a large one. There are multiple propane smoker to chose from but only one powered by natural gas.
There are at least 100 different propane smokers available but the best propane smoker is the black 44 inch Masterbuilt with the glass window. Here is the promotional video to get introduced to this great smoker.
Masterbuilt has two other propane smokers in this size range but I do not recommend them. I do want to talk about them just in case you see them and are tempted to make a mistake.
Tempting Mistake #1. The Masterbuilt 40 inch propane smoker costs about $100 less than the 44 inch model. While the savings are tempting the 40 inch is an inferior smoker. The 40 inch model has a single burner compared to dual burners on the 44. The dual burner configuration makes it easier to dial in the exact temperature you want. Another big difference is that you can access and refill the water pan and smoker box on the 44 inch smoker by opening the lower door which is separated from the primary cooking chamber. On the 40 inch smoker you have to open the primary cooking chamber to refill the smoker box and when you do you have to let all of the heat and smoke out of the cooker.
Tempting Mistake #2. The Masterbuilt ThermoTemp is being pushed hard by Masterbuilt. This smoker is marketed as having a thermostat control that lets you set a temperature that teh smoker will maintain on its own through electronic controls. The concept is perfect but the execution has been flawed. The ThermoTemp control is a great idea but there are still a LOT of bugs that Masterbuilt needs to work out before they have a truly reliable system.
Masterbuilt Portable Propane Smoker
Even though I keep saying to get a big smoker I know that some folks are going to buy a small one. They either want something to take camping or they are looking for something inexpensive to try out before making a major purchase.
If this describes you then the Masterbuilt portable propane smoker will be your best friend. Check out the video below to see this little guy in action!
Even though that smoker is small I have to confess that every time I watch that video it makes me want to buy one!
The Smoke Vault from Camp Chef is the only smoker that I know of that can be powered by propane or natural gas. Don’t worry though, despite the fact that is the only natural gas option it is still an incredible smoker that you will love.
Here is the video to give you an introduction to this cooker.
The Smoke Vault comes in two sizes, the 18 and the 24. Please buy the bigger one!
The natural gas conversion kit for the Smoke Vault does not come with the smoker and must be purchased separately.
Here is the link to get the Smoke Vault Natural Gas Conversion Kit
The downside of using a gas smoker, either propane or natural gas, is that the smoke flavor will never be as deep as you get with a smoker using charcoal or wood.
Best Electric Smoker
The electric smoker market is littered with bad ideas. Most electric smokers are cheap gimmicks that are too small and poorly insulated.
The only electric smoker that I can recommend in good faith is the Masterbuilt 40 inch Electric Smokehouse.
This smoker is fully insulated and is large enough to be useful. I am only recommending the smoker that has the RF remote as shown in the video. Masterbuilt makes a similar smoker that is controlled by a Bluetooth connection but the controls are NOT reliable. Please avoid the Bluetooth enabled model and stick with the one that has the RF remote.
Another nice benefit of the Masterbuilt electric smoker is that there is a cold smoker attachment available (sold separately) that is excellent for smoking cheese, nuts, etc.
So now that you have a few smokers to explore the next question is, “What are you going to do once you get it?”