8 Types Of Smokers & How To Choose

Types of smokers

When I first got into smoking, I was so overwhelmed at all the different options of smokers on the market. I also didn’t quite understand the differences between the different types of smokers, further complicating my search for one. Needless to say, I had no clue where to start or which smoker was right for me.

Now that I have a good amount of smoking experience under my belt and have smoked on almost every type of smoker, I have decided to create this resource for those who are in the same place I was in when I first started.

The first step in choosing a smoker is figuring out which type of smoker is best for you. This article will not only show you the 8 different types of smokers on the market, but also help you determine which type of smoker is right for you.

What Is A Smoker?

Before getting into the different types of smokers, it is first important to know exactly what a smoker is and what differentiates a smoker from other cooking devices.

A smoker is a cooking device that cooks meat at low temperatures (225° – 275° Fahrenheit) over indirect heat for extended periods of time. Smokers also use the chemical compounds produced from the burning of wood to flavor the meat.

With that said, 3 things make a meat smoker a smoker, indirect heat, low temperatures, and smoke from burning wood. How these 3 things are achieved is different for each type of smoker.

Pellet Smokers

Pit boss pellet smoker

Pellet smokers, also known as pellet grills, look much like a grill, but don’t be fooled as this is no grill. Attached to the side of this grill is a hopper that gets filled with wood cooking pellets. An automated auger transfers these pellets into a fire pot located in the center of the smoker where they are burned creating heat and smoke.

That heat and smoke then travels into the smoking chamber above where a series of convection fans circulate the air and smoke, cooking your meat. Pellet smokers are a true set it and forget it type smoker. They are controlled by a computer so once you set your desired temperature, the smoker will do all the work. Pellet smokers operate much like an oven.

Pros of Pellet SmokersCons of Pellet Smokers
Easy to useMore expensive
Set it and forget it type smokerCheaper pellet smokers aren’t well insulated
Can be used to grill, smoke & bakeMechanical issues & breaks happen
Lots of cooking areaGood smoke flavor but subpar to other types of smokers
Some models allow you to control it from your phoneCan be difficult to clean out ashes and pellets
Most come with built in thermometer probes for meat

Price Range: $400-$2,500

Popular Options: Traeger, Pit Boss, Z Grills, Grilla Grills, Recteq, Green Mountain Grills, Camp Chef

Charcoal Smokers

Charcoal Smoker

Charcoal smokers as the name suggests are meat smokers that use charcoal as their fuel source. There are a few different styles of charcoal smokers, but they all work the same way.

Lit charcoal is placed in a fire box along with wood chunks. As the charcoal and wood chunks burn, they create heat and smoke. This heat and smoke is then captured and transported to the cooking chamber where your meat slowly cooks and absorbs the smoke.

Charcoal smokers achieve their indirect low heat one of two ways. Charcoal smokers, like the Weber Smokey Mountain have a heat shield that separates the fire box and the cooking chamber. Other charcoal smokers have their fire box in a completely separate chamber off to the side. In both instances, the meat is receiving the heat and smoke in an indirect manner.

Pros of Charcoal SmokersCons of Charcoal Smokers
Moderate/Easy to useHave to build and maintain a live fire
Good smoke flavorMore time consuming to get the smoker started
Can be used anywhereYou have to manually control your smoker’s temperatures
Simple clean upLimited pool of brands
Cheaper to buy than most smokers
Usually well built

Price Range: $200-$900

Popular Options: Weber Smokey Mountain, Masterbuilt, Dyna Glo

Drum Smokers

Drum Smoker

Like charcoal smokers, drum smokers also run off charcoal and wood chunks; however, the design of drum smokers is much different than charcoal smokers. Unlike charcoal smokers, drum smokers don’t have a barrier between the fire and the cooking chamber. The food cooks directly over the fire, however, the cooking grates are placed high enough above the fire to prevent your food from burning.

Drum smokers are usually created from 55-gallon drums and consist of a fire box at the very bottom and a cooking grate at the top. You also have the option to hang your meat from hooks instead of leaving it on the cooking grate. This design is about as simple as a smoker gets.

Pros of Drum SmokersCons of Drum Smokers
Moderate/Easy to useHave to build and maintain a live fire
Great smoke flavorLack of temperature control
Can build your ownOn the expensive side if you don’t build your own
Can hang meat from hooks On the smaller size in terms of cooking capacity
Well insulated

Price Range: $300-$1,200

Popular Options: Build your own, Pit Barrel, Oklahoma Joes, Gateway

Kamado Style Grills/Smokers

Kamado Style Grill

Kamado style grills are also going to be powered by charcoal and wood chunks; however, because of their unique design, they also deserve their own category. Kamado style cookers are technically grills that double as a smoker. They are made of ceramic and hold their temperatures extremely well. They are most for their egg like shape.

At the bottom of the Kamado style grills sits your fire. On top of that sits your cooking grate for grilling just like a standard charcoal grill. To use the Kamado as a smoker, you simply add the provided heat deflector in between your fire and your cooking grate. This will disperse the heat and allow you to cook meat over indirect heat.

Kamado style grills are known for their versatility and can be used many ways. They can be used to grill, bake, smoke, sear, braise, and can even be used as a pizza oven!

Pros of Kamado SmokersCons of Kamado Smokers
Moderate/Easy to useHave to build and maintain a live fire
Great smoke flavorHeavy and fragile
Very durable and well insulatedExpensive
Can use in any weather conditionsOn the smaller size in terms of cooking capacity
Can be used to bake, grill, sear, smoke, or as a pizza ovenTakes a while to cool down after using it
Hold temperatures very well

Price Range: $400-$2,000

Offset Smokers

Offset smoker

Offset smokers are the cream of the crop when it comes to smoking meat. Most authentic BBQ restaurants use offset smokers because they are the traditional smoker. Offset smokers are going to give off the best and most authentic smoke flavor because they use wood splits as their heat and smoke source. Can’t get more authentic than cooking over a true fire.

Offset smokers are comprised of two sections, your cooking chamber, and your fire box which is set off to the side of the smoker, hence the name offset. Heat and smoke produced from the fire box, then travels through the smoking chamber and out the exhaust stack on the other side of the smoker.

Pros of Offset SmokersCons of Offset Smokers
Best smoke flavorHardest to learn and use
Largest cooking capacityTakes up a lot of room
Well insulatedExpensive for a quality offset smoker
Fun to use Cheaper offset smokers are poorly insulted
Have to actively manage a fire

Price Range: $300-$15,000 (A quality offset will cost upwards of $1,000)

Popular Options: Oklahoma Joe’s, Char Griller, Yoder

Gas/Propane Smoker

propane smoker

Propane smokers, as the name suggests, are smokers powered by propane. They look a lot like cabinets and are often know as cabinet smokers. A burner at the bottom of the smoker heats the air inside the smoker while convection style fans move the air around. A dial on the front of the smoker allows you to adjust the temperature.

Inside your smoker you will have two trays, one for water and one for wood chips. The water help stabilize the smoker temperature and add moisture to the cooking chamber, while the wood chips will provide the smoke flavor. Meat is placed on a series of racks in the middle of the smoker where it cooks low and slow!

Pros of Gas/Propane SmokersCons of Gas/Propane Smokers
Easy to useTend to be on the smaller size in cooking area
Set it and forget it type smokerNot going to get much smoke flavor
Cheaper to use than other smokersCan be hard to control temperature
Lower price range than most smokersWood chips burn too fast
Multiple racks for meatSome require special wood disks for smoke flavor
Can be used anywhere

Price Range: $100-$600

Electric Smokers

electric smoker

Electric smokers are nearly the same as a propane smoker. The only real difference, they are powered by electricity and not propane. As far as the set up, you will find the same components inside an electric smoker. Electric smokers are also operated the same way you would a propane smoker.

Pros of Electric SmokersCons of Electric Smokers
Easy to useTend to be on the smaller size in cooking area
Set it and forget it type smokerNot going to get much smoke flavor
Low operation cost Needs a power outlet nearby to use
Doesn’t take up a lot of roomWood chips burn too fast
Multiple racks for meatThe “microwaves” of smokers

Price Range: $100-$700

Weber Kettle

Weber kettle

Lastly, we have the Weber Kettle, and while technically not a smoker, this all-time fan favorite has to be on the list because it can be used as a smoker. The Weber Kettle is one of the most popular, if not most popular, charcoal grills on the market.

The great thing about these grills are they can easily be transformed into a makeshift smoker using the 2-zone cooking method. Simply place lit charcoal on one side of the kettle, place a water pan directly above the charcoal, and cook your meat on the other side of the grill. Because we are not cooking directly over the coals, you can smoke meat without burning it.

The reason that I included the Weber Kettle on this list is because it is a great starting point for people to get into smoking meat. Smokers can be really expensive and with so many smokers on the market, it can be hard to determine which smoker is best for you at the start.

The Weber Kettle is a great way to get into smoking meat and learn the process without spending a bunch of money. It also lets you determine what you want in a smoker before buying one.

Pros of the Weber KettleCons of the Weber Kettle
Easy to useSmaller cooking capacity when using 2 zone method
Cheapest optionNot a true smoker
Can be used as a grill
Quality brand
Durable and portable
Good smoke flavor

Price Range: $100-$300

Which Type Of Smoker Is Best For Me?

You’re probably still feeling overwhelmed, and that’s completely normal! You don’t necessarily need to understand each type of smoker in detail when making your decision. Instead focus on answering the following questions. The answers to these questions will tell you which type of smoker is best for you!

How Easy Do You Want It To Be?

One of the biggest deciding factors when choosing which type of smoker to get is how easy do you want it to be, not only learning to cook on the smoker, but also while operating the smoker.

The first questions to ask yourself are what is your experience level and how willing are you to learn something new. Are you just starting out? Have you ever used charcoal before? Can you build a fire for cooking? Learning to cook on a smoker is something new to most people, and that’s normal. It isn’t hard to learn; however, there are certain types of smokers that are easier to learn on.

If you have never used charcoal or built a fire for cooking and you aren’t interested in learning how to do that or would rather start with something easier, then choosing a smoker that doesn’t use charcoal would be better for you. Pellet smokers, electric smokers, and propane smokers are going to be your more beginner friendly type smokers to learn on. They allow you to learn how to smoke meat without worrying about maintaining a fire.

Now just because you don’t have experience using charcoal or maintaining a cooking fire, doesn’t mean you can’t jump right in. In fact, I had never used charcoal, nor had I ever smoked meat before, and I jumped right into a charcoal smoker. It is not hard to learn how to use a charcoal smoker or and offset smoker, it just takes a little more effort to learn.

Pork Shoulder

How Active Do You Want To Be In The Smoking Process?

This question is directly related to the ease-of-use question above. Certain types of smokers are going to take more work to operate than others. Are you looking for something that you can set the meat on and walk away until the meat is done, or are you ok with putting in a little more work?

Pellet smokers, electric smokers, and your propane smokers are going to be the easiest types of smokers to use. You simply set the temperature, place the meat inside, and the smoker does the rest. These three types of smokers are your true “set it and forget it” type smokers and are very hands off.

Stepping up to charcoal smokers, drum smokers, kamado style grills, and the Weber Kettle, these are all going to take a little more effort. Because they are using charcoal as their source of heat, you have to start and attend to the fire. Unlike the smokers above, you have to control the smoker’s temperature; however, once you get the temperature set, it can run for hours with only minor adjustments.

Lastly, stepping up to your offset smokers, these smokers are going to require the most attention. Like the 4 types of charcoal smokers above, offsets require you to build and maintain a fire for heat and smoke; however, unlike the 4 charcoal smokers above, offset smokers can’t run for hours on end without your input.

Offset smokers are typically fueled by wood splits, not charcoal. Because wood splits will burn much faster than charcoal, you are constantly having to feed your offset smoker with more wood. Offset smokers generally require your constant attention throughout the entire smoke making them the most hands on.

Fire starter cubes

How Important Is Getting The Best Flavor To You?

While ease of use is definitely an important deciding factor when it comes to choosing a type of smoker, it is only part of the equation. Like most things, you are going to sacrifice something in order to get something else. In this case, you are going to sacrifice flavor if you decide to go for ease of use.

When smoking meat, putting in that extra work is going to give you better flavor. Cooking with a real fire is going to give you a much better smoke flavor than cooking using gas or electricity.

There is a of debate as to why there is a difference in flavor between the different fuel sources and that is out of the scope of this article; however, it is important for you to know which smokers are going to give better smoke flavors. I like to think of the flavor and ease of use on a scale.

Types of smoker comparison

Your electric and gas smokers are going to be the easiest smokers to use but are also going to give you the least flavor. Stepping up from there pellet smokers are going to give better flavor while still remaining easy to use. Another step up in flavor brings us to the charcoal smokers, drum smokers, kamado style and Weber Kettle. Lastly offset smokers are going to give the best flavor possible.

And just so I don’t lead anyone astray, you can create great BBQ on any type of smoker. Just because a pellet smoker doesn’t produce the flavor an offset can, doesn’t mean you can’t create great BBQ still. A good cook will make better BBQ on a pellet smoker than a bad cook on an offset smoker.

But the question to ask yourself is, which factor is more important to you. Ease of use or flavor output?

Pork Butt

How Versatile Do You Want Your Smoker To Be?

Are you looking for a smoker that can do more than just smoke? There are smokers on the market that can also grill, braise, bake, etc. You can even use them as a pizza oven! The table above shows you which types of smokers can do more than just smoke.

What Is Your Budget?

Smoker prices are highly variable. You have smokers going for thousands of dollars and other smokers for a couple hundred. This means that regardless of your budget, everyone can find a smoker. The table above gives you a quick view of the price ranges for each type of smoker.

What Is The Best Type Of Smoker For Beginners?

In general, pellet smokers, charcoal smoker, drum smokers, and kamado style smokers are all great types of smokers for beginners. They all offer good flavor and are easy to learn and operate, pellet smokers being the easiest of the 4. Anyone regardless of skill level can jump right into any of these smokers.

Smoked Chicken

What Is The Best Smoker For The Best Price?

If you are looking for the best bang for your buck smoker, you should look at the Weber Smokey Mountain or WSM for short. From its great flavor, easy use, quality build, and low price point, the Weber Smokey Mountain is one of the best smokers dollar for dollar.

For an in depth look at the WSM, check out my recent review of the Weber Smokey Mountain.

Michael W.

Half of my family lives in Texas and we would visit them often. As a food lover, naturally I fell in love with smoked meat. Smoked brisket and peach cobbler is a staple around where my family grew up and quickly became a favorite of mine. Unfortunately we didn't have good BBQ where I grew up. After enough years, I finally decided to get a smoker so I didn't have to wait for good BBQ until I went to Texas. Getting into a new hobby can be overwhelming. When I first started smoking meat, there was so much conflicting information and so many different styles and techniques that I didn't know where to start. I started this website to help people BBQ better and learn the ropes by sharing my knowledge and experiences.

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