Best Charcoal Smokers Reviewed and Rated
Smoking and barbecuing are as American as apple pie. It’s a style of cooking that‘s become synonymous with the United States, and particularly Texas and the South. For those with little understanding of just how complex it can be, a barbecue is nothing more than throwing some meat on a grill and waiting for it to cook. Anyone who does that is not doing a great service to the cut of meat, or whoever is going to eat it. It’s most likely going to turn out dry and leathery, and lacking in any flavor other than the burned bits, or the bought barbecue sauce from a bottle.
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What is barbecuing and smoking?
Whereas with grilling we are cooking tender meat fast with a high heat to keep in the flavor and to seal the goodness inside. Tender steaks take just a few minutes each side on a hot grill to cook. On the other hand barbecuing and smoking use the cheaper and less tender cuts of beef, pork, or mutton, and to make them soft and succulent they’re cooked for a long time over a slow heat. With the use of smoldering wood as part of the cooking process, the smoke from the wood imparts a deep woody flavor to the food, leaving it moist, juicy and tender. Smoking and barbecuing is best for large cuts of meat, such as a pork butt, brisket, a rack of ribs, or a whole chicken. The purists of the barbecue world will say you can only properly smoke using charcoal and wood chips. Until recently there was very little choice, but today one can buy smokers and grills powered by electricity and gas, as well as traditional charcoal. For this article, we are going to concentrate on charcoal smokers and barbecue grills as the two are often one and the same thing. If you only want to smoke meat, then you can buy a stand alone charcoal smoker, but as barbecuing on a grill, and smoking are so very similar, most people opt for a barbecue grill and smoker. In that way, you can get the best of both worlds, a fast cooking grill for steaks, and a slow barbecue smoker for those bigger joints of meat. When grilling most people do it over an open fire, so they can keep an eye on the meat and turn it into the flames once one side is done to get an even cook. With a barbecue smoker, it‘s all about keeping the heat in, and the burning charcoal covered. In a smoker, its smoldering, not burning that keeps the temperature constant and cooks the best.
What is the barbecue belt?
The origins of our modern day barbecue smoking come from the rich history of the southern United States. That is where you find what is known as the barbecue belt, the part of the country where different meat and styles of smoking have grown up over the centuries. If you were to look at a map, the barbecue belt starts in the west on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and moves eastward to Kansas City, on to Memphis, and ending up at the Atlantic Coast in Carolina. In these four distinct areas, there is considerable controversy of what makes up real barbecue. If you ask a man from Carolina, he’ll tell you that the beef-based barbecue of Texas and the mutton-based smoking in Kentucky are not authentic at all, it‘s the pork barbecue from North Carolina that’s the real deal. You’ll get a similar response about the other smoking styles from locals all along the barbecue belt. The argument that pork is the traditional barbecue meat goes back to the original colonialists who relied on the cheap, low-maintenance nature of farming pigs. Pigs were often let loose to fend and feed themselves, thus when it came to being slaughtered the meat was very lean, which meant that the barbecue style of cooking lent itself to tenderizing the meat to eat.
Before the US Civil War, Americans were eating five times as much pork as beef. But the various styles of cooking found across the barbecue belt are not just down to the type of meat used but is also due to the outside influences on the people and the land. The original style of barbecue cooking is thought to have come from the British colonialists in the eastern states, which is typified by the ‘whole hog’ barbecue found in North Carolina and Virgina. This style relies on basting with sauces to keep the meat moist. The basting sauces are often vinegar-based and are a reminder of the British love of tartness. Where colonialists were predominately from France or Germany mustard based sauces were popular. The movement of German migrants westward saw this style of barbecue brought to the cattle-rich state of Texas. The Mississippi River had its influence over the style of smoking barbecue in Memphis. The river as a trading route meant the availability of tomatoes made its barbecue sauce sweeter, along with the addition of a variety of other ingredients including molasses. Whereas the barbecue in Memphis was pork based, the offshoot a short distance away in Kansas City saw the use of the same sweet sauces but with other meats such as beef. If have the time and the appetite and want to take a pilgrimage to the barbecue belt. The Ultimate BBQ Road Trip guidebook will show you the way, spanning 5,160 miles, and 60 of the best barbecue restaurants in the country.
Time to fire up the smoker
So what do we need to get our meat smoking? Well, first of all, we will need a smoker or grill smoker, and we will be looking at the ten best in just a little while. They all basically do the same job in sometimes different ways. The charcoal is burned to heat the grill, and the wood chips which provide the smoke. The use of air vents regulates the temperature inside the smoker, and how quickly the charcoal burns. Some smokers need to be replenished during a cook; others can go for hours on one load of charcoal. All you have to do is remember ‘where there’s smoke, there’s flavor!’
Unlike grilling, this style of cooking called smoking, or smoke roasting, requires the heat to be as far as possible from food, as it‘s all about using indirect heat. If you are using a vertical smoker, the fire is right at the bottom, and the meat can be at the very top. In a horizontal setup, you have the firebox with the burning coals, and a separate compartment for the food to be cooked, with water and a smoke generating chamber between. The trick is to keep the temperature low, for a long slow cook, and keep the smoke coming to add a deep flavor to the food you are cooking.
The ups and downs of charcoal smoking
First, let‘s start with the plus points of smoking food with charcoal. Using good quality lump charcoal will provide and clean and efficient burn. The almost pure carbon burns completely and leaves little ash, and with a good smoker can be controlled with practice. There is also no need for extra smoking equipment, as pre-soaked wood chips can be placed onto the fire to generate the smoke needed. There is something primal about using fire to cook, it suggests going back to earlier times, and something we may have lost in the modern world. The negative points of using charcoal are more prosaic. Getting the heat right in a charcoal smoker is something that has to be learned with practice. That means working out the draft of air between the bottom and top vents on the smoker. There is also a lag between the action and the result which means that a charcoal smoker needs more tending. It’s important to keep the heat in the smoker within a relatively small range, and without careful tending, it can shoot up of fall off within a matter of minutes ruining the cook. Also, there is a cleanup of the ash at the end of a smoke, which you wouldn’t have with a gas or electric smoker.
Top tips to smoke meat
If you want your meat to be moist and juicy, the atmosphere inside the smoker has to be kept as humid as possible, and should not become too dry a heat. Most seasoned barbecue cooks recommend a tray of water in the smoker, which should be topped up regularly during the cook. You can also use fruit juices such as apple or pineapple, or even beer instead of water in the pan. To give an extra flavor boost, you can add herbs and spices to the water to provide a subtle hint to the cook.
Start out with a handful of pre-soaked wood chips or one big chunk at the start of your smoke, and see how it goes. You will probably have to add more during the cook, but it is best to experiment and see what is best for your smoker.
Write everything down. It’s best to have a smoking notebook where you make notes on each and every cook to see how things work. Take a note of the quantities used, the smoking times, and the different wood and spices used.
Large lean cuts of meat, such as chicken and turkey will smoke better if they are brined for at least a couple of hours or preferably overnight before cooking. A good brine for smoking would include salt, sugar, rosemary, thyme and black pepper. For chicken and turkey you can add a little vinegar to get the full flavor from the meat when smoking.
Well marbled meats, such as brisket should be trimmed of excess fat, leaving just enough to keep it moist when smoking. It is best rubbed with a mixture of salt and spices and left in the refridgerator overnight to add to the flavor when smoking. Remember to smoke your meat fat side up.
If you’re cooking ribs remember to remove the skin from the bone side to allow more of your spice rub to penetrate into the meat. It’s best to get something under the skin, and slowly pry it away from the bone and meat.
When you have your charcoal lit, keep a close eye on the temperature inside the smoker. For ideal smoking it should be between 200-300F (95-150C). Only put food into the smoker when that temperature has been reached and stabilized. When you first start out with a smoker it is very easy to let the internal temperature climb too high, getting it back down to a smoking temperature is not easy.
Don’t keep opening the lid of your smoker to see how things are getting on. Old hands at smoking will tell you.. “if you’re lookin’ it ain’t cookin’.” For one thing, opening your smoker loses heat, and it will take time to get back that perfect cooking temperature extending your cook time. So it‘s best to plan ahead when you are going to open your smoker oven, and try and do more than one job, like adding smoking wood, or water and check the food temperature.
Use a meat rack in a pan to allow the smoke to circulate all around the food, a bit like a smoke bath. The pan allows you to collect the juices to make a gravy or sauce to have with your meat afterwards.
Don’t apply any sauces to the meat until the last 15-30 minutes of the cook otherwise the sugars inside the sauces tend to brown and burn, and give a decidely burnt flavor to the food.
After smoking wrap the meat or poultry in aluminum foil and let it rest for at least 15 minutes to all the meat to rest, and then it will be ready to carve and serve.
What we looked for in reviewing the charcoal smokers
Charcoal smokers come in all shapes and sizes and can be big enough to feed the family or an army. So we have looked at a range of options from large to small. We have also looked at the three distinct styles of smoker, the vertical, horizontal, and the popular ‘kamado’ ceramic smoker. Some have the option of dual–fuel, using either charcoal or gas, but most are pure charcoal smokers. In reviewing the charcoal grills, we have looked at how easy it is to set them up and get cooking, and the results of the smoking, and how good the food tastes. We have also looked at the versatility of the smoker and grill, and how well they have been made. In checking out the different brands, we have been aware of the after sales service provided, and any warranty. Last, but not least, we have considered all of the featured grills for their value for money.
10 Best Charcoal Smokers
1. Weber 721001
Great quality of smoking
Front door delicate and can be bent out of shape
2. Pit Barrel
Because you are using something the size of an oil barrel, there is lots of room inside to smoke; enough for up to eight racks of ribs, or a couple of turkeys. The package also includes a grate so it can be also used as a
grill. The Pit Barrel does not have the same air damper systems of other grills and smokers, and some users have complained about the ability to maintain a steady temperature for consistent smoking.
Value for money
Can take large quantities of meat
Simple to operate
- Difficult to maintain stable heat
3. Dyna-Glo DGO1176BDC-D
Simple to use
Liable to heat loss
4. Char-Broil Vertical
Two access doors
Good heat control
Relative lightweight construction
5. Dyna-Glo DGN576DNC-D
Quality cast iron construction
Difficult temperature control
6. Weber 16401001
Easy to move around
Good cooking surface area
Lid could be stronger
7. Old Smokey
Easy to use
Without legs the cooking surface is 14" above the ground
8. RiverGrille SC2162901-RG
Huge cooking area
Just like the pros use
Only for those who need to feed a lot of people
9. Masterbuilt 20060416
Compact size for portablilty
Easy to operate
Awkward to tend the charcoal
10. Primo Ceramic
Versatile and flexible
Economic with charcoal
Barbecuing On A Budget
Whether you have charcoal, gas, or wood burning barbecue, like everyone else you’ll always be looking for good meat at a good price to feed the family.
The more tender meat is usually the most expensive. It can be cooked quickly, which makes expensive steaks like fillet and sirloin, ideal for grilling on a barbecue. However, a barbecue gives you the opportunity to use cheaper cuts that turn out just as juicy and tender as the most expensive steaks.
Chuck or Braizing Steak
The chuck steak cut comes from the shoulder of a cow. It is one of the less expensive steaks available and has more connective tissue marbled through the meat. It is often used for pot roasts and stews, as longer cooking times help to break down the collagen to give a soft consistency. It’s often used by butcher’s to make ground or minced beef. For the barbecue, we recommend the Chuck Eye, which is the part of the chuck steak from the center of the roll. This is often sold as Chuck Tender Steak. To help in grilling, it’s a good idea to marinade the Chuck Eye for some hours before cooking. Best to prepare the steak the night before cooking, and marinade overnight in the refrigerator. The salt in the marinade will help tenderize the meat ready for the barbecue. The Chuck Eye is best cooked medium rare, as the steak will retain a juicy and tender consistency. Cooking beyond medium to well done will only give a very tough steak that will not be enjoyable to eat.
Chicken is a favorite staple of every barbecue and one of the cheapest meats to cook on your outside grill. Most supermarkets and butchers have handy packs of prepared chicken legs, thighs, or breasts which make preparation easy. If you want to save some extra money, why not buy whole chickens and cut the up yourself. A little practice can save you a lot of cash. Again it’s a good idea to marinade the chicken before cooking.
Chicken needs to be properly prepared for safety reasons and should have an internal temperature of about 165F/75C to be certain it has perfect to eat. Boneless chicken can usually be cooked over direct heat within a few minutes, turning occasionally. However, if you are cooking boned chicken legs, thighs, or breast, it is best to use indirect heat on your grill, and cook for up to 50 minutes depending on the size of the pieces. Using a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature is useful in getting the cooking time right.
A backyard cookout is usually a family affair, and most of the food featured is adult fare, so it’s wise to think about the kids too, and hot dogs grilled on the barbecue are the perfect solution. They are also cheap. For most children, a couple of hot dogs are a meal in themselves. There is such a wide range of hot dogs, frankfurter, or other sausages to choose from these days with prices varying according to the quality. Whatever hot dog you want for your barbecue there are some simple rules on grilling that will mean you end up with a delicious juicy hot dog, and not some burned, split and shriveled up lump. If the heat of the grill is too high, it is likely to burn the hot dogs, and cause them to split open letting the essential juices inside that keeps the sausage moist escape. At the start of cooking put them over the flames, and stay with them, occasionally turning until sear marks from the grill appear on the skins. Once the hot dogs start to expand a little, that is usually a sign they are done. The hot dog sausages can be moved to a cooler part of the grill while you toast the buns. If your hot dogs have an internal temperature of 140F/60C you know, they will be safe to eat.
An outdoor barbecue would not be complete without hamburgers. The humble beef pattie can be one of the cheapest and easiest dishes to prepare, and they are always popular. The butcher and supermarket now have ground beef with different levels of fat content. In some respects the cheaper the ground beef, the better it is for a hamburger. The more expensive extra lean ground beef has a low-fat content and tends to grill tough and dry, so go for something with at least a 20% fat content. That will provide all the necessary juices to keep the hamburger moist and juicy when grilling. If you do prefer extra lean mince, consider adding olive oil to increase the fat and moisture in the mix to aid grilling. You may also want to add herbs and spices to the ground beef to add a little extra flavor.
We always like to add a little garlic along with salt and pepper to bring out the flavor of the meat. When it come to grilling, it’s best to regard a hamburger just like a steak and cook it accordingly. Best not to make the patties too thick as they will take longer to grill, and you don’t want a crowd hovering over the grill waiting. The USDA recommends an internal temperature of 145F/65C for a safe and well-cooked burger. However, if you are one of those who prefers your hamburger rare, just make sure you are using fresh ground beef from a reputable source, and you can have it any way you like.
This is the name applied to three of the cheaper steaks, the Flank, Skirt and Hanger Steak. Like the Chuck steak earlier they are often used by butchers to make ground beef but have become popular on their own, especially if you like Mexican dishes. Like the Chuck steak, they are tougher cuts of meat and require a good marinade before grilling. The longer the marinade, the better, as it helps tenderize the cheaper cuts and helps with the grilling. If the steaks have been cut thinly, then they should not take very long to cook on the barbecue, and once ready can be sliced and used as a filling for tacos or served as fajitas along with pasta or rice. Slicing up the steaks makes the meat go that little bit further and makes more of a smaller cut of meat.
When you have the time to barbecue, then there is nothing better than a rack of ribs cooked low and slow. It doesn’t matter if the ribs are beef or pork, both give you tender meat with a great flavor. When you visit the butcher look for ribs with lots of meat, and a relatively small amount of fat. The fat is needed to keep the meat moist during the slow cooking, but you don’t want too much.
Try and pick out a rack with as few bones as possible, as you are paying for the bone as well as the meat. With all of the tougher meats, it is always a good idea to marinade before grilling. If you can prepare the meat the day before you intend to cook it, and leave it in the fridge to marinade overnight all the better. My advice would be to bring the meat out of the refrigerator, and then go about lighting your barbecue. That means the meat will have time to reach room temperature ready to be put on the grill when it has reached its optimal cooking heat. To smoke or barbecue, your ribs look for grill temperature of about 225F/110C and expect them to take at least 3-4 hours to become tender and juicy.
Another barbecue favorite is pork shoulder, or as it is sometimes called Boston butt, and it is also one of the least expensive cuts of pork. Like cooking ribs, a pork shoulder needs to be barbecued low and slow, so it is tender and has the best flavor. As with all barbecue grill joints of meat, a good marinade beforehand helps with the cooking and the tenderizing of the meat. Some grillmasters like to inject apple juice into pork during the slow barbecuing to keep the meat moist and add flavor to the final product. Adding wood chips or chunks to the charcoal fire of a barbecue will give the meat a fantastic smokey taste, and give the meat a distinctive red smoke ring around the edge. Once cooked, a pork shoulder can be shredded to become barbecue pulled pork and served piled high on a white bread bun as a delicious sandwich.
This is probably the epitome of Southern American barbecue, from Texas to the Carolinas. Beef brisket is one of the cheapest cuts of beef you can buy. To cook this properly, you need a grill that can work as a smoker, give a low heat for a long time, and the chance for smoldering wood chips and chunks to add their smokey flavor to the meat.
A good beef brisket needs a layer of fat as it is vital in the cooking process, but it needs not to be too thick. Before cooking it’s a very good idea to rub in a mixture of salt, pepper, herbs and spices to add to the flavor, and coat with a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil. The high smoke temperature of olive oil means that it will never affect the taste of the barbecue during the slow cooking process. Smoking beef brisket is slow and painstaking and can take many hours depending on the size of the joint. Expect a cook to last at least 6 hours for a medium-sized beef brisket.
It used to be a treat for just the holidays, but turkey is affordable and available all year round. If you are looking to feed a lot of people, it is very economical. As with chicken, the supermarkets now have pre-prepared turkey legs and breasts available, or you could cut up a turkey yourself and save more money. When the turkey is overcooked it often becomes dry, so why not brine the turkey before cooking to increase the liquid within the meat to try and stop this happening. For a special treat, you could barbecue smoke the turkey whole over a low heat with wood chips. This gives a great flavor to the turkey meat, which normally some people describe as being bland.
You may be surprised to know that lamb can also be a cheap alternative to the barbecue. Usually, lamb can be one of the more expensive meats at the butchers. However, the lamb breast is from the ribs and is a tougher cut of meat. Much tougher than the prized rack of lamb. To make this work on a barbecue grill, it needs a good marinade which included lemon juice, to act as an acid and cut through the strong flavor of the lamb. Once again, it’s best to marinade for as long as possible. If the lamb breast is thinly sliced, then cook hot and fast over the heat, being careful not to overcook. If the breast is thicker, then take it slower, and grill indirectly for a perfect result.
What is a smoke ring?
The smoke ring on barbecued meat has been described as the ‘red badge of courage.’ This ring of pinkened meat under the outer layer, or bark, of smoked meats, is highly prized. What is happening is that when the meat is being smoked the smoke is combining with proteins in the meat to stop them turning brown during the cooking process. Hence you get the pink ring around the inside of the meat. The deeper the smoke ring, the further the smoke has managed to penetrate during the smoking process, and that is due to the moisture in the meat. Therefore if you want a good smoke ring, it‘s best to make sure your smoker is nice and humid as well as smoky to keep the meat inside juicy and tender.
When is the smoke absorbed?
Usually during the first hours of smoking, most of the smoke is absorbed into the meat to create that beautiful smoke ring. As the juices inside the meat are lost, and it becomes a little drier the smoke can no longer penetrate, and the meat caramelizes. The key to a good smoke is to allow just enough smoke to circulate around the food in your smoker and not to stagnate. Smoke should be allowed to escape through the vents to maintain a smoke flow.
How long does it take to smoke meat?
The rule of thumb is generally an hour and a half for every pound of meat. It is best to start with a handful of wood chips, and keep topping up as the cook progresses. Remember to make sure there is water present so the meat does not dry out. Too much smoke can give an acrid flavor to meat, and some woods like cherry can soot food too, so best to stick to the golden rule of low and slow.
What woods are good for smoking?
The wood used in smoking can come in chips, chunks, pellets, or even dust. Each smoker manufacturer has their preferred wood size and shapes so check with the instructions that come with our appliance to see which is recommended. The traditional wood varieties used in smoking are hickory and mesquite. However, oak, alder, maple, and pecan are widely used, along with the wood of fruit trees such as cherry, peach, apple, and plum. You can even get wood chips made from old brandy or whiskey barrels to add another flavor to the mix. It’s best to experiment and see what tastes good to you.
Can you explain the 3-2-1 method of meat smoking?
It’s a simple formula for smoke the meat, wrap the meat, and then smoke again. For the first half of the smoking, process leave the meat bare inside the smoker. For the next third of the smoking process wrap the meat in foil, and for the remainder of the smoking time leave the meat bare again. The foil helps to keep the meat moist when it cooks, and results in tender, juicy meat, and is especially good for cooking ribs.
What is cold smoking?
This is a way of not only cooking food but preserving it too, and relies on a low heat of below 120F (50C) to do its job. It will enhance the flavor or meats and vegetables as well as cheeses. If you are going to cold smoke, for example, the meat needs to be salted in a brine bath for some time to prevent bacteria growth and improve the flavor. The process takes days, and sometimes weeks so it is not something the inexperience home smoker should really take on without expert guidance.
What are the safe smoked meat temperature?
It is recommended that you have a probe thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat you are smoking to make sure it is properly cooked at the end of a smoke. To do that you can measure the internal temperature of the meat. As a guide, most smoke masters would look for an internal temperature on beef, veal, lamb of around 145F (65C), and for pork and ground meats such as burgers slightly higher at 160F (70C). All poultry needs to reach an internal temperature of 175F (75C) for food safety reasons. Once the internal temperature is reached, one should stop smoking. And if the temperature has not been reached by end of the smoking time, keep going until it does.
How do I control the temperature of the smoker?
Virtually all smokers have air dampers, louvers that can be opened and closed to let more or less air into the firebox where the charcoal is burning. The amount of air or oxygen provided to the fire regulates the temperature. Getting that airflow just right takes a little practice. Most smokers will have an air damper near the bottom of the firebox so the fire can draw in cooler air to feed the flames. There will also be one or maybe two air dampers at the top of the smoker to provide a chimney effect allowing the hot air and smoke to be released. Getting the balance between these two air dampers right is the trick to a great smoke. The weather will have an effect, so on a cold day it may take longer for the smoker to reach an operating temperature, and more heat may be lost. On a hot day, it may be difficult to control a stable smoking temperature due to the warmer conditions. This is where experience and keeping careful notes of previous smokes will come in handy.