Smoking meat is a demanding task and quite frankly it is not for everyone. The amount of patience required to do this thing would be enough to fill 37 Olympic size swimming pools or some remotely relevant figure of speech so to speak.
But it becomes an even more problematic work when the type of smoker you’ve selected isn’t in line with your specifications for your cooking style. Because not all smoker grills function in the same way, your smoked meat might not be as what you’ve anticipated it to be.
This is why it’s so important to also choose the right smoker grill than just simply relying on your smoking skills.
Why Choosing the Wrong Smoker can Affect the Taste of the Meat
Smoker grills such as offset barrel smokers, horizontal smokers, or pipe smokers, gives you total control over the smoking process. Technically there aren’t any real “bad” or “wrong” smoker grills, although there are poor quality brands that you might want to avoid.
There are things to consider when using a vertical or horizontal smoker. Things like fuel (charcoal, wood, gas, infrared or electric heating source) also factor in how well the meat is smoked at a given amount of time.
How you smoke the meat relative to the type of smoker you’ve selected to smoke them in is probably the most crucial factor that can either create the best-smoked meat or ruin it. But before we go into that discussion, let us first find out what the different kinds of smoker grills that are available in the market.
Different Kinds of Smoker Grills (Advantages and Disadvantages)
There 8 different kinds of smoker grills available in the market and they come in all shapes and sizes, as well as different price tags. It’s difficult to tell you which smoker grill is the best, so we’ve created a list explaining each type of smoker and what their pros and cons are.
Read through them in order to find out which smoker is most suited to your requirements.
1.) Vertical Water Smokers (Orientation: Vertical)
Vertical water smokers are easy to use with a simple design following the laws of physics regarding heat transfer and the water cycle. Aside from this, they are also the cheapest type of smoker grills in the market.
- How They Work
A vertical water smoker is made up of 3 parts which are actually compartments with the bottom section serves as a heat source. This part can be a compartment that holds the charcoal fuel, or wood, gas or even a large steel hotplate coil for electric smokers and they all generate heat. The next compartment which is just above the heat source is the water pan. The water pan is necessary in order to moisturize the air inside the smoker instead of just using dry heat to smoke the meat. This way the meat becomes soft and tender as you smoke the meat using low temperatures and slowly do it for days or weeks.
Next is the smoking chamber or smoking compartment and this is where the meat is placed on top of a stainless steel grate. Like we’ve stated above the vertical water smoker is very easy to operate and all you have to do is to build a fire, fill the water pan, and throw on the meat (check thermostat on the lid to adjust temperature or you can also use a digital thermometer controller for automation).
The small size of vertical water smokers makes them efficient compared to larger smokers. They also require lesser fuel or power to operate and, of course, they are cheaper to own. Newbie smokers and grillers should opt to buy this kind of smoker grill.
What most people complain about vertical water smokers is that they lose a lot of heat which is necessary to cook the meat each time they open the lid to check on the meat (this has been addressed by the use of the digital thermometer controller above, but most people also don’t know that this technology exist). The small space in the smoker means that you can only smoke a limited volume of meat in it.
Then there’s also the point-of-access issue, because of the way the smoker is designed, you can only put in or extract food out in one direction. Unfortunately, the vertical smoker has only 2 layers of grates where you can put the meat onto and in order to access the lower rack you’d have to remove the upper grate first, which causes more heat to escape the chamber.
2.) Offset Smokers (Orientation: Horizontal)
I have to say, although an offset smoker is much larger than the vertical smoker, by comparison, the offset smoker has a much simpler design of the two. It consists of two parts, the firebox where the heat source is created via a gas, charcoal or small chopped wood.
The other part is the cooking chamber where the meat is smoked and it usually has a long barrel or box design with a lift or slide door and a smokestack for the smoke and heat to escape through.
Both contraptions are connected so that heat from the firebox will enter the cooking chamber and can be controlled by an air intake valve.
- How They Work
Everything starts at the firebox where you light up the fuel (i.e. gas, charcoal or wood) to create the heat source. The heat will then travel to the cooking chamber via the small hole that links the firebox and the cooking chamber and heats up the meat. The heat and smoke escape through the smokestack. Some offset smokers are designed with a reverse flow thermal circulation configuration where a sheet of metal is placed in the bottom of the cooking chamber. What this does is it equalizes the temperature distribution throughout the chamber and the heat travels back to the firebox (some of it escapes through the smokestack that has been relocated closer to the firebox as well). This design is considered more efficient than the standard ones and it solves the uneven heating which spoils the meat.
With a high-quality design offset smoker, especially one that has the reverse flow thermal circulation configuration in it, you should be able to smoke meat almost perfectly and almost all the time – practice is mandatory if you want to get perfection of course. The cooking chamber has a huge cooking space and even larger volume so that you can also hang and skewer meat all over it and cook them at the same time. A good offset smoker will also help you save on energy thereby cutting some of the costs to operate the machine.
While inexpensive offset smokers may sound appealing they can be so difficult to operate and will undermine your cooking abilities. The unfortunate thing is that it’s hard to tell the difference between a good smoker and a bad smoker, although the reverse flow thermal circulation design is a very good indicator that it is a pretty good smoker grill and you should buy it.
Temperatures near the firebox in poorly designed offsets are on average 38° Celsius more than the cooking chamber and heat transfer is not guaranteed, moreover, the materials used for these kinds of smokers are thin metal sheets which makes it easy for heat to dissipate. Nevermind the money you spent on fuel consumption but what’s worse is that it creates an uneven heating and will not cook the meat properly.
3.) Box Smokers (Orientation: Vertical)
Box smokers also called vault smokers, cabinet smokers and block smokers are less complicated machines that you can find that’s also very useful. Their design essentially conserves heat just like vertical smokers, which means you can cook more food in its cooking chamber and spend a lot less on fuel for creating the heat.
With good insulation, a box smoker can cook your food really well and they are spacious enough to feed up to 6 people at a time.
- How They Work
Box smokers work very similarly to vertical water smoker and, in fact, they also need water to smoke the meat just like a vertical smoker does. They basically follow the laws of physics too and if you heat the air at the bottom in the firebox, then it will rise up and heat up the water in the water pan as well. The hot moist air will smoke the meat over time until it will be ready to consume.
Just like the vertical water smoker, the box smoker is also easy to use and very dependable even for barbecue or smoking competition. High-quality brands use good materials like 1/4-inch stainless steel which helps retain the heat in the box and they also use thick insulation to keep the core hot enough and cook the meat in the chamber thoroughly. They are bigger than a vertical water smoker and therefore can cook more food at a time.
Some brands sell poorly constructed products with thin metal sheets for the box and even worse it has poor insulating materials too! Low-quality materials also cause the box to lose heat very fast and on cold or rainy weather you would not be able to smoke meat properly as these things need to be placed outdoors due to the smoke they produce.
4.) Drum Smokers (Orientation: Vertical)
Perhaps the more advantageous smoker compared to the other smokers in this list is the drum smoker AKA the ugly drum smoker (USD). You can actually create this smoker in your garage with just a couple of tools such as a blow torch, welding equipment, paint, and some other steel plates and 3mm diameter stainless steel rods for the grates.
There is also a DIY (do-it-yourself) option where you can purchase a drum smoker kit and you just assemble it once it’s delivered, or even purchase it fully assembled. This blog post says that you can build your own drum smoker for only $133! How’s that for affordability?
- How They Work
The drum smoker is a type of vertical smoker, but it works fairly simple and like other vertical smokers it too follows the laws of physics and thermodynamics. It has air vents at the bottom side of the drum, a firebox which is located at the center bottom as well, a water pan to moisturize the air that’s placed on top of the fire and heat diffuser and 2 or more cooking racks in the midsection and on the upper part of it. It also has an adjustable air dampener on the lid.
Typically drum smokers sold online or at your local store are sealed tight with insulating materials. This is done in order to seal the heat in which has 2 main benefits and those are a) to conserve heat and b) to use that heat to smoke the meat thoroughly.
They are cheap to acquire and even cheaper to build on your own. Another advantage of the drum smoker is that they have a significantly bigger cooking space and volume which allows you to cook different kinds of meat at the same time. They are easy to operate, durable and very reliable.
The drum smoker as it appears seems to only have a few disadvantages and that is like most vertical smokers the heat is lost every time you open the lid to check the meat. They are not easy to move around and are also susceptible to bad weather.
5.) Smoker Ovens (Orientation: Vertical)
This smoker grill is more on the high-tech side of smoker grills and as an example, the Cookshack Amerique actually has computer controls and temperature probes that lets you smoke a brisket while you enjoy your leisure time.
They are very similar to your household microwave oven with the exception that the heat/cook much larger food than what you are accustomed to. Most restaurants use this type of smoker grill as it partially automates their jobs, which gives the staff more time to attend to other important things.
- How They Work
Smoker ovens work similarly to other vertical smokers, but they are heavily insulated box with an electric heating element in the bottom and their doors have rubber seals that make the box air-tight. Its heat source is from a steel hotplate coil that is electrically induced to produce heat. The smoldering heat will ignite the wood chips in the pan just above the heating apparatus, then above wood chips pan there is a funneled piece of metal that deflects radiant heat from the pan and the heat source and at the same time collects the drippings (melted animal fat from the meat) which prevents flare-ups.
Easy to operate and can even be left to smoke meat on its own provided it has advanced electronic controls. Can cook meat much faster than conventional smoker grills and is great for novices in the barbecue arena. Spacious cooking racks which mean that you can cook more meat per pound than a regular vertical water smoker. Lightweight and safe.
Expensive and could cost from $500 and upwards, basically if you want a quality smoker oven, then you’ll have to pay more for it. Needs to be sheltered to prevent it from being exposed to the elements and have problems later on.
6.) Kamado Grills (Orientation: Vertical)
Kamado grills are adapted from ancient Japanese grills (of the same name) that were used for cooking rice and other Japanese delicacies. This type of grill is perfect for low and slow cooking which essentially also makes it a smoker grill.
The Kamado grill became famous in America after World War II when US servicemen came to Japan and learned some Japanese tradition.
The egg-shaped design of the grill, its convenience and efficiency quickly captured the hearts of most Americans and so it became an American classic that is well-known throughout the country.
- How They Work
Kamado grills work very similarly to other vertical smokers and you start it up by igniting the charcoal fuel on the bottom of the grill. Then you place the heat diffuser on top and cover the smoldering charcoal fuel beneath. Afterward you set the grill grates and racks and close the lid, then open the air vents in order to enable the heat source to keep producing heat for smoking the meat.
Kamado grills are excellent grills because of their ability to hit temperatures over 400° Celsius. They are quite durable because they’re made of ceramic materials and will not easily crumble even when exposed to the elements. Kamado smoker grills also have good insulation and as a result, they have a better temperature retention capacity than most other grills in the market.
The popularity of kamado grills also caused them to be more expensive than other grills, but the materials cost to manufacture each kamado grill is also a factor in its pricey nature. The ceramic body of the grill cannot handle impacts, therefore, you mustn’t drop it or accidentally hit it with something hard or it will break. They are quite heavy and requires 2 or more people to carry them, especially when you need to move them around.
7.) Pellet Grills (Orientation: Horizontal)
Pellet grills use wood pellets as fuel. The wood pellets are made from all natural hardwood sawdust compacted and extruded into small 0.25-inch round pieces.
Back in the day when people would still cook meat over split logs they really enjoyed the rare and unique taste of meat smoked over high-quality hardwood.
Burning hardwood now can be a hassle, especially if you live in the city, but if you had a pellet grill, then that wouldn’t be a problem and you can keep enjoying delicious meat cooked over high-quality wood – even if they’re made into pellets these days.
- How They Work
Pellet grills have 4 main parts and those are the hopper which is a storage bin where you put the wood pellets in. The auger which has a corkscrew design and slowly feeds the firebox with wood pellet fuel via a low-speed electric motor. The firebox will produce heat and will travel into the cooking chamber to smoke the meat. Some modern pellet grills have sophisticated computer control systems that allow you to control the heat inside the chamber. It even has a feature that reduces the grill’s heat to a holding temperature when the meat is done.
Pellet grills can be used for both grilling and smoking meat. Apparently, the smoke that hardwood pellets produce is of good quality that makes any meat very tasty. They are easy to operate, especially those that belong to the high-end brands that have advanced computer controls with them. They have a large cooking space that allows you to cook more meat at a time compared to other grills. They are also affordable with a price range between $250 – just over $1,000.
Because pellet grills have many moving parts they are susceptible to wear and tear, and once a moving part breaks down, then the whole machine will cease to function. To give you an example, the electric motor can malfunction via a shortcircuit failure and burn the coil wounds. Also if the warranty does not cover these kinds of problems, then you will be forced to pay out of pocket to repair your grill.
Another issue that pellet grills have is that not all of them have a smooth finish to their products like Treager does. In fact, half of them are made by small companies, who probably just assembled their products in their garage, and are not financially endowed to create aesthetically pleasing pellet grills. The maximum temperature that these grills produce is around 260° Kelvin and may not be ideal for barbecuing meat.
8.) Electric Smokers (Orientation: Vertical)
Electric smokers are essentially box smokers or vertical smokers with a steel hot plate for thermal generation. Because there is no burning, there is no cellulose, lignin, char, or even oxygen combusted, there are no combustion gases.
There is also no smoke flavor because there is no smoke. But some electric smokers though use chopped wood or wood pellets placed on a metal tray that has a lid to prevent flash fires (this is optional) to get that smoked flavor from the wood fire.
Electric smokers are affordable and they usually sell for $200 – $500 apiece. They are lightweight and easy to use and you can use them indoors as there is no need to worry about smoke because they don’t produce any. Some brands have advanced computer controls that takes off the cooking tasks of your hands and you can do other important things while you wait for the meat to be cooked.
The temperature does not get high enough to get that desired seared meat. You can’t use them outdoors, especially when it rains as its electrical components will be destroyed. No smoke ring and does not get that ideal taste of burnt meat. They have limited capacity due to the issue of heating problems.
There is no easy to way to tell you which smoker grill is better as they all have their advantages and disadvantages. So it may be best if you’ll read through the article and figure out which one is the best one for you.
Personally, I think they’re all good smoker grills provided you use them properly. Some meat types are good for a certain smoker grill while other meat types work well with other grills.
Essentially it all boils down to how much you’re willing to invest in these things, what kinds of meat you’ll be cooking, how frequent you’ll need to smoke meat and whether you will use the grill at home or for your business.