Updated Jul 21, 2022 9:43 AM
Long before the best smokers, and well before the gift of fire, archaeologists say it’s likely that our early ancestors ate like chimps, getting most of their calories by chowing down on fruits, leaves, bark, flowers, and insects. And those big brains we grew from accessing the calorie-dense protein found in meat? They probably scavenged more than they hunted, scooping up the leftovers of an animal run down by big cats or other predators. Those early humans probably focused on what experts call inside bone nutrients, like the marrow and brain. These meats are tucked into bones where they’re more protected from bacteria and slower to spoil.
Cracking open a skull at the kitchen table is a bit much for most people these days, and we can thank one big innovation for not needing to do that: smoking. That cooking strategy made food safe, made it taste better, and preserved that food long-term. That made nutrient-dense foods more readily available so humans could focus on more than just finding their next meal and paved the way for complex food preparation techniques.
Today, the best smoker—whether it’s an electric smoker, charcoal smoker or pellet smoker—provides the same benefits that smoke brought early humans: delicious, safe food at your doorstep.
The Best Smoker Amps Up that Primordial Flavor
If you’ve ever stepped outside and caught a heady whiff from your neighbor’s cookout and started salivating, there’s a good reason.
The memory of smoke may be tied to your primordial memories because smoking is one of the first ways humans preserved foods. When smoking meat and other foods, the heat and smoke kill harmful microbes and dry out the surface of the food, which prevents bacteria and mold from growing on it later. Plus, wafting smoke deters insects so there are fewer bugs using your food as a place to hang out and lay eggs.
Humans don’t have taste receptors for smoke. It turns out that the amped up flavor of smoked foods actually comes from smelling the smoke. It wafts up your nostrils and travels to the olfactory bulb at the base of your brain, which is conveniently nestled up next to the amygdala and hippocampus—the brain centers that manage your emotions and memories. That proximity is why smells can trigger feelings and memories. It’s why one sniff of baking cookies can take you right back to your childhood with a sudden, visceral recollection—and why one whiff of meat in a smoker signals good food.
That’s why you don’t just want the best smoker. You need the best smoker.
When it comes to picking the best, there are four basic fuel options: propane, charcoal, wood pellets, and electricity. Sizes, shapes, and features differ too, but all do the same thing: cook food while heating wood chips such as hickory, apple, or mesquite that impart that excellent wood-smoke flavor to food. Here’s a rundown.
A single knob easily adjusts for a temperature range of 100 to 350 degrees, and you can see your food as it smokes. PIT BOSS
Why It Made the Cut: Vertical smokers give you more cooking space with less external space — this one clocking in with 884 square inches. That plus the ease of using propane make this a real winner.
- 884 square-inch smoking space
- 21.5 x 23 x 47-inch external size
- High cooking capacity with small footprint
- Viewing window
- Easy operation
- Full-length door loses a lot of heat when opened
Propane is a popular choice for cooking out in general because it tends to be less expensive and burns cleaner. The same is true for smokers. Propane smokers allow you to adjust the heat level easily so you can get the level of smoke and the internal temperature exactly to your liking.
Smoke a variety of foods on four porcelain-coated cooking racks for a whopping 884 square inches of smoking surface. The big viewing window of this propane smoker makes it simple to check progress without opening the fully sealed door. Push button ignition gets you cooking with gas without prep time.
The only con with the Pit Boss Vertical Smoker is a side effect of being a vertical smoker. Since the door encompasses the entire front side, opening it to pull, rotate, or check meats lets out a ton of heat. This is why a viewing window is almost essential on vertical smokers. Of course, you can’t check everything through a window; not a total fix, but a fix nonetheless.
Why It Made the Cut: As easy to use as an oven, but it gives you that deep flavor you can only get from smoking.
- 19.88 x 20.66 x 33.46-inch external size
- Easy to use “Set it and leave it” thermostat control
- Bluetooth capable
- Side loading wood chip system
- Same as the last, full-front door
For some people, the smoking process—setting up the smoker for the perfect low-and-slow burn—is just as important as the flavor of the food. But for many other people, it’s the results that matter, and electric smokers deliver. Electric smokers use a heating element to raise temperatures and get the wood chips smoking. The controls on electric smokers are either analog or digital. Some even give you the option to control the smoker remotely from your phone via an app. Because it’s so simple to use, an electric smoker is the best choice for beginners.
This electric smoker from Masterbuilt features four chrome-dipped racks, a built-in food temperature probe, and a wood-chip loader to make smoking food as simple as possible. A glass door allows you to see the food as it smokes. Same as with the Pit Boss model above, opening the door will let out a lot of heat. But, with the precise control you get with an electric smoker, that’s less of a problem. On this one, you set your temp and leave it alone.
Seamlessly move between smoking and grilling, and keep that fire going for a long time, with this egg smoker. Kamado Joe
Why It Made the Cut: Kamado grills are the pinnacle of charcoal grilling, but in the right hands they are also perfect for smoking.
- 22 x 28.5 x 33-inch external size
- Durable ceramic build
- Timeless and efficient design
With charcoal, there’s a whole art to setting up the briquettes properly to ensure they maintain just the right temp—between 225 and 250 degrees—for hours. This allows the tougher connective tissue in the meat to hydrolyze and dissolve without getting the proteins too hot. You’ll need to check the temperature regularly (without opening it too much) and add fuel or adjust the vents as needed. That’s why it pays to invest in a quality charcoal unit, one that will hold heat well and allow for easy adjustments.
For true multitasking, a ceramic egg is both the best charcoal smoker you can buy—and is a killer grill. The thick walls of the Kamado Joe hold heat for a very long time, making it a super-efficient charcoal smoker. It has a fiberglass gasket to keep heat and smoke in, and an aluminum rainproof control tower top that won’t rust.
Choose between traditional and reverse flow smoking with this versatile design. Oklahoma Joe’s
Why It Made the Cut: This is what pops into your head when someone talks about a smoker. The Oklahoma Joe Smoker is as classic and functional as it gets
- Offset firebox
- 35.5 x 64.25 x 55.5-inch exterior size
- 751 square inches of smoking space
- Requires more time and practice than other types of smokers
When most people picture smoking, they imagine one of two things: those giant drum smokers you see at festivals or big cookouts and the offset smoker (cue heavenly music). So, let’s talk about what makes an offset smoker a big deal.
These have a large, horizontal grilling and smoking chamber and a separate firebox set off to the side. This firebox can also work like a grill or warming rack as a bonus, but the real magic is that it allows you to customize how the smoker operates.
That’s because it can do something called reverse flow, which is basically funneling the heat from the firebox to the bottom of the cooking chamber. This design forces the heat to travel the full length of the chamber before rising upward, resulting in consistent heat distribution to your food no matter where it’s located on the grill top.
Traditional offset? Reverse flow? This Oklahoma Joe smoker allows you to choose your smoking method. Plus, the cooking surface is a massive 1,060 inches, including both the primary and secondary cooking spaces.
Control combustion and thus the temperature from your phone. Traeger
Why It Made the Cut: A great middle ground between traditional offset smokers and easier-to-use models, Traeger makes the perfect pellet smoker.
- Precise temperature control
- Pellet fed smoker
- Chorded electric powered
- Easy to use
- Great at mimicking a traditional smoker
- Wi-Fi compatible
- None, really, it’s a great compromise
Some smokers use wood pellets as a fuel source, and we have an entire roundup of the best wood pellet smokers. These smokers are super efficient and rely upon a feeder to feed the pellets from a hopper to the combustion chamber. The pellets used by a pellet smoker serve as both the fuel source and the source of the smoky flavor, eliminating one step. The feeder regulates the amount of wood pellets being fed into the combustion chamber, providing excellent control of the temperature.
The Traeger Wood Pellet Grill and Smoker features a feeder that you can control via home Wi-Fi and an app on your phone. You get the authenticity of wood combustion combined with ease of digital operation. You can smoke, grill, bake, and roast food on this multi-function unit.
It doubles as a fire pit, or two charcoal grills. Realcook
Why It Made the Cut: Inexpensive and no nonsense, this little guy gets the job done.
- 18.5 pounds
- 22 x 17 x 35-inch external size
- Both a grill and a smoker
- Compact Size
Inexpensive smokers are typically charcoal smokers. Look for an option constructed with solid materials, which will hold heat. Smaller smokers will be less expensive, too, and may include features like internal hangers that help you maximize your space.
The layers of this Realcook charcoal smoker come apart for easy portability, or for use as grills or a fire pit. The grids provide 450 square inches of smoking surface, and the lid’s crossbar and hangers yield a customizable smoking experience.
Q: What is the best smoker for a beginner?
An electric smoker is best for a beginner, because it requires very few steps to get going, and the heat level is very easy to control. To get started, just plug it in. Setting an exact temperature usually only involves pushing a few buttons. Throw in a few handfuls of wood chips and you’re well on your way to delicious smoked meat. In fact, you can expect your first attempts to be delectable and flavorful.
Q: What should I look for when buying a smoker?
When buying a smoker, you should look for the type of fuel the smoker uses, the size and shape of the smoker, the robustness of the smoker itself, and the amount of food it will hold. Bigger is often better, especially if you enjoy having large get-togethers. Remember, you don’t always have to fill the box, but you can’t add capacity later. Make sure you pick up a durable unit, as you’ll be hooked on creating delicious smoked meals in your backyard soon enough.
Q: What smoker do pitmasters use?
The smoker pitmasters use most often is an offset smoker. These have the traditional horizontal barrel-shaped chamber plus a firebox to the side. These allow heat and smoke to circulate around the food, providing excellent cooking consistency. Take a look at the winner’s circle at many competitions and chances are you’ll find meat cooked on an offset smoker. Pick one of these up if you want to take your smoking to the next level.
Q: What is the best home smoker to buy?
Like most things, smokers are series of compromises. There are a lot of different approaches to creating delicious smoked dishes, so there are a lot of different models on the market. To decide what is the best smoker for you from the many excellent options available on the market you need to decide what features are most important to you. If ease of use is your primary concern, then pick up an electric model with Bluetooth connectivity. But if you want big flavor, your best bet might be an offset smoker.
A Final Word on the Best Smokers
The best smoker is for you isn’t the biggest or the most complex. It’s the one that gets you excited to crank up the smoke. Whether that’s traditional charcoal or one you control with your phone, the combination of low-and-slow heating with the magic of wood smoke is sure to take your basic barbecue to the next level.