Advantages of having a smoker
- A smoker allows you to enjoy homemade smoked food whenever you need it. You can cook meats like ribs, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, bacon, ham, pastrami; cheese; pies, pizza, and all kinds of breads; vegetable dishes like tomato pasta, mushroom, eggplant, smoky potatoes, spinach, collard greens, chickpeas, beans, and lentils.
- Smoking gives food a distinct flavor that is rich and tasty. You also get to customize the flavor as you like using sauces, herbs and spice and allowing the smoke from specific woods to pierce through the flesh of the food.
- Most smokers can be used all through the year, making barbecuing an all-season affair.
- Nothing says welcome like gifting friends and family with homemade smoked delicacies. It can make them forget they had a grudge with you just last week.
What should you expect from a $500 smoker’s work?
If it’s your first time buying a smoker, you may be worried about the low price tag. Understandably so. We often think that a higher price on cooking equipment indicates quality and better results. This isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes smokers cost less because they’re smaller, not because they’re inferior in quality or made from poor materials. The mechanism behind the workings of the smoker is the same, whether you’re looking at a $100 piece or an $8,000 charmer.
Thus, a $500 smoker can perform just as well as a more expensive unit. As you’d expect, the more expensive smokers will have higher quality shells and be made from higher gauge metals. But this doesn’t make the lower cost models insignificant. The $500 won’t have gold etchings and stunning chrome buttons and details, but it gets the job done.
Some $500 will be sturdier, better insulated, more efficient, and give more smoke than others. That leaves you to use your judgment wisely when choosing between models. But when it comes to how well it smokes your food, you can expect acceptable to above par results, depending on model.
Features to consider while choosing a smoker
Here now, we look at the specific features that are important in a smoker and the properties that distinguish the best smokers from the not-so-great ones.
What material is better?
Cheaper smokers are largely made from stainless steel. However, stainless steel comes in a range of grades, and this makes all the difference. Look for industry-standard stainless steel as it is thicker and stronger. Lower gauge stainless steel will be thinner and more prone to losing heat, which can affect the efficacy of the smoker.
Where possible, choose coated steel over plain stainless steel and its alloys. It retains heat better than stainless steel and may not rust if done well. It’s also cheaper. Anytime you’re choosing between two materials, pick the material that is thicker for greater durability and heat retention.
The common sources of energy in smokers are gas, charcoal and electricity.
Most gas powered smokers use propane gas, but there are models that also use natural gas. Some manufacturers have designed their smokers for use with both propane and natural gas, which can be an advantage if you lean more towards using natural gas. One such example is the Camp Chef Smoker.
Charcoal smokers are touted to have the strongest flavors. You’ll have to try this and come to a verdict. In our experience, the type of fuel doesn’t really dictate how great the flavor is. Remember that the type of wood you use plays a bigger role in releasing the kind of smoky flavor detectable in smoked food. Charcoal smokers are also the slowest of the three types.
Electric smokers are the no-fuss queens. Their easy plug-and-go system of operation makes it a welcome alternative for anyone looking for a stress-free way of cooking.
Pick the power source you feel is best suited for your lifestyle. If you’ll be using the smoker out in the woods most of the time, it makes sense to go with a gas or charcoal smoker. If you plan to use the smoker in your backyard where you can easily connect it to a socket, an electric smoker may a good choice.
Do you really need a big temperature rate?
It helps if the temperature range is big. That way, you can easily sear your foods at high temperatures and tune it up to the high degrees needed to caramelize and sizzle dishes. Likewise, you can bring it to a low for a slow cook.
If the smoker does not have a wide temperature range (above 250° F, for example), it won’t be possible to cook some meals in it.
Size and Capacity
How big the smoker is determines how much food you can cook in it at once. Bigger smokers can hold as many as 12 whole chickens or 2 whole turkeys or up to 4 large vegetable casseroles. In smaller smokers, you may be able to smoke a whole turkey, which would mean you can do the same with 5 or 6 whole chickens. Bigger smokers can hold four racks of ribs with ease.
Look at your smoking needs when choosing the size of your smoker. If you’ll need to smoke lots of food often, go for a bigger smoker with a higher capacity. Most smokers come with adjustable racks, which gives you leeway to move them around to create the space you need for bigger cuts of meat, or whole pieces like chicken and turkey. Some may also come with a hanging rack for sausages, and this frees up your racks for other foods.
Majority of smokers for home use are lightweight and can be moved from place to place with ease. Be warned, though, that a few are quite bulky and don’t make good portable smokers. Always check the weight before buying. You wouldn’t want to end up with a smoker that can only be set up in one location because moving it is impossible. Some smokers have wheels to ease the task of relocating them, like Masterbuilt 20077515.
The fuel box or firebox is where your wood chips, pellets or charcoal goes. The best smokers are built in such a way that you can add wood or water to the water pan without opening the cooking chamber and thus allowing heat to escape. This typically happens in two-door designs, so check if you can find one. Some models like the Masterbuilt 20071117 have a side wood loading mechanism that allows you to load wood chips without opening the smoker door.
The water pan goes between the heat source and the cooking chamber and is typically filled with water. It acts as a go-between, absorbing heat when it’s excessive (so it doesn’t all go into the food and burn it) and maintaining the heat at optimal temperature when the heat from the source dampens. It also keeps food moist. The better the water pan, the more efficient it is.
You need vents to control how much air is coming and going out of the smoker at any given time. The best smokers have a minimum of three vents at the bottom and at least one vent at the top. The bottom vents allow air to make its way into the smoker, fanning the fire to keep the heat going. When a lot of heat accumulates, opening the top vent lets the hot air escape, helping to regulate the temperature inside the smoker.
Go for a smoker with a thermostat. Many come with a built-in thermostat that lets you know the temperature in the smoker during cook time. Some may also have a thermometer affixed to the door. The thermometer may not be precise, and it’s advisable to use a third-party thermometer just to ensure that you get the temperature range right when cooking.
It’s important to buy a unit that’s covered by a warranty. Many of these warranties don’t go beyond 3 months, but short as they are, they can be a lifeline when something like the heating element malfunctions or the racks sag and get warped. Still, you come across rare gems with a 10-year warranty, like the Weber 731001. If you intend to smoke your foods for a decade, this is a steal.