People love to brag about cooking with charcoal.
You’ve got to admit, there’s a certain amount of romance with firing up the charcoal smoker. Maybe it’s the more interactive nature and the fact it requires a little bit of skill to work with.
While we all love to tell stories about “slaving over the coals for 12 hours”, smoking with charcoal doesn’t have to be an epic task. A well-built charcoal smoker can hold a steady temperature for hours without much attention.
After testing a range of charcoal smokers we recommend the Weber Smokey Mountain. It’s easy for beginners to learn on, but versatile enough that you see them at barbecue competitions. If you want to try something a little different the Pit Barrel Cooker is definitely worth checking out.
Depending on what your needs are there are a few other good options so be sure to read through our full list of the best charcoal smokers across a variety of price points.
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10 Best Charcoal Smokers Reviewed
The best all around charcoal smoker – Weber Smokey Mountain 18-Inch
Read our full Weber Smokey Mountain review.
With a rich history dating back to 1981, the Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) still holds the crown for best all around charcoal smoker. While the 18″ model is a good size for most people, everything in this review applies to the 14″ and 22″ models as well.
Over the years
The success of the Smokey Mountain comes down to superior construction quality and ease of use at a price point almost anyone can afford.
Bullet or water smokers like the WSM are easily the most popular type of charcoal smokers, due to their small footprint and ability to hold a steady temperature for hours.
The Smokey Mountain is made up of three main sections:
- Lower section that contains the charcoal ring where the charcoal & smoke wood go. This section also has three adjustable vents to control airflow (which controls your smoker temperature).
- The middle cooking section that contains your water pan, two cooking grates and an access door for adding charcoal or wood.
- Dome lid with built-in thermometer.
What we like:
- Construction quality – Everything about this smoker screams of quality. From the long lasting porcelain and chrome coating to the sturdy legs you can tell this smoker is built to last
- Ease of use – While people think charcoal is more difficult to cook with, this smoker is as close to ‘set it and forget it’ as you can get without investing in a automatic temperature controller. I’ve put a brisket on at 11 PM and let it go until lunchtime without having any problems with temperature fluctuations.
- Cooking capacity – We mentioned earlier this smoker has a small footprint, but that doesn’t mean you are limited in space. On the 18″ model you get two 18 and 1/2 inch wide cooking grates for a combined 481 square inches of cooking space, so you can fit a tonne of food.
What we don’t like
- Cheap side door – The only knock against the WSM is the cheap aluminum door that it ships with tends to leak pretty badly. This naturally stops over time as the build up from smoking forms a natural seal. You can also get a gasket kit and fix this problem for quite cheap.
Other than that there isn’t a lot to complain about.
The size might feel restrictive, but there are plenty of ways to fit even more food as well.
I was a bit worried when I tried to fit an 18lb brisket on to my 18″ Smokey Mountain but using the tin foil trick I was able to get it on. You can also invest in rib racks to fit way more food on in one smoke.
The best way to get a feel for cooking on the WSM is to see it in action. T-ROY COOKS has a great YouTube channel, and in this video you can see all the steps for cooking with the Minion Method including firing it up, adding wood and using vents to control your temperature.
While we picked the 18″ model for this charcoal smoker guide, choosing the right size can be a bit of a pain in the butt. Since 2014,
- 14.5″ – 276 sq in – $0.72 per sq in
- 18.5″ – 481 sq in – $0.62 per sq in
- 22.5″ – 726 sq in – $0.55 per sq in
So you can see that each model get’s a bit cheaper per square inch. The larger model does use a bit more charcoal, so if you’re not cooking for a large group regularly the 18″ or even the 14″ should be a safe choice.
The only real issue you’re likely to encounter is some minor air leaks. The aluminum door could be a bit better insulated. On my model, I do get some smoke coming through the door, but it doesn’t seem to affect performance.
There is also an easy mod you can to do to the door using a gasket kit that cuts the leakage way down.
Other than that minor issue the
Runner up – Pit Barrel Cooker
Read our full review.
If you’re on a tight budget, or just like the DIY approach, then building your own ugly drum smoker (UDS) is a great option. While it shares the same vertical design as a
These DIY smokers have become incredibly popular due to their low cost and excellent (when created correctly) performance.
But if you can’t get your hand on a drum or don’t have all the tools to DIY, then the Pit Barrel Cooker makes for an excellent alternative and a clever twist on the UDS.
We recently named the PBC our top choice for the best drum smoker.
Instead of placing your food on grill racks, the PBC uses metal hooks to hang meat vertically inside the smoker.
Made out of a 30 gallon 18-gauge steel drum and lid. It can handle high temperatures whilst the cooler external temp creates condensation in the barrel for added moisture. The cylindrical shape allows for convection heat to be distributed evenly throughout the cooker.
These smokers have been around since 2010 when they were created by a family owned business in Colorado.
What we like:
- Unique meat hook system – Cooking vertically allows for more space and has gravity lending a hand, basting the meat with its own juices and creating a “smoke fog” that negates any need for a water pan.
- No hot conduction points – With conventional smokers, you may get hot points due to fire placement or which part of the meat is touching the grill. By hanging meat from hooks the surface can develop a more even bark
- Less messy clean up – Because the meat juices fall directly on the hot coals there’s no need to spend time cleaning up a dirty water bowl once you’re finished cooking.
What we don’t like:
- More expensive – This option will set you back much more than the DIY ugly drum smoker option. The
Pit BarrelCooker is around the same price as an 18″ Smokey Mountain which has slightly superior temperature control
- Can run hot – To ensure low and slow temperatures you need to be careful you don’t add too much lit charcoal at the start of the cook.
While it’s only been around for 7 years, the
For the price, you’ll get a reliable smoker that’s forgiving on beginners and doesn’t require any customization.
The best budget Kamado Smoker – Char-Griller Akorn Kamado Charcoal Barbecue
We have a whole guide dedicated to the best kamado style grills. While they do fit into their own family of grills, Kamado grills make excellent charcoal smokers.
While Char-Griller has gained a bit of a reputation for mass produced, cheap grills that are difficult to cook with, the Akorn Kamado style smoker hits the cost to value sweet spot.
In order to make the Akorn more affordable, the manufacturer has replaced the traditional heavy duty ceramic with a much lighter double wall insulated 22 gauge steel. This makes it more durable and much less expensive than typical Kamado cookers.
The exterior is finished in powder coated steel, while the interior uses porcelain coated steel.
With 314 square inches of cast iron primary cooking space and a 133 square inch warming rack, you get a combined 447 square inches of cooking surface to play with.
What we like:
- Price to performance ratio – While a Big Green Egg will set you back $1000+, for a fraction of that cost the Akorn is still an excellent smoker. It’s easy to assemble, everything fits well which means well insulated, leak free cooking.
- Quality cast iron cooking grates – The main cast iron grate is extremely sturdy, and has a handy removable section in the center that allows you to drop wood chunks on to the coals as needed. While the warming grate isn’t as solid, it should easily handle an 8lb piece of meat.
What we don’t like:
- The extra cost for smoking stone – While there are some cheaper DIY options, most people will need to buy the smoking stone to set up for low and slow cooking. On the plus side, this doubles as a pizza stone!
- Cheap gaskets can leak – If you cook at very high temperatures that gaskets can get damaged, causing a bit of smoke leakage. Luckily some Nomex high temp replacement gasket makes this a very cheap fix.
Other than the extremely inaccurate dome thermometer (even more than usual so get yourself a decent thermometer setup), there isn’t much else to fault the Akorn on.
For the same price as a
You also get your choice of black, red or brown when you order online.
Get the latest price on Amazon.
The best charcoal grill smoker combo – Weber Original Kettle Premium 22″ Charcoal Grill
Read our full Weber Kettle Premium 22″ review.
You may be surprised but with a few simple tricks a standard Weber Kettle can be turned into an excellent smoker.
If your main goal is smoking, you should still buy a dedicated smoker. But maybe you’re just getting into smoking meat and you’re not sure if it’s worth spending a few hundred dollars only to discover you don’t like it.
Or maybe you want the flexibility of a grill that can double as a smoker from time on time.
Either way, your best option is an original premium Weber Kettle. We named this our best charcoal grill thanks to its great price to value ratio, which gives you an excellent grill from one of the most respected brands in barbecue.
And then when you’re ready for barbecue just follow one of many extensive guides for setting up a kettle grill for smoking.
What we like:
- Durable construction – The body of the
Weberis made from pressed sheets of steel which are then coated with porcelain enamel. This means you should get many years of grilling out of it without any rust. Just make sure you invest in a grill cover if you leave it outside.
- Well-sealed and airtight – Part of the reason this grill can double as a smoker is due to the excellent heat control which allows you to maintain stable temps for a long time while burning less fuel
- Light and portable – The two wheels attached to the base of the legs makes this grill very easy to move around.
What we don’t like:
- Limited size – Hard to knock the kettle because it wasn’t specifically designed for smoking, but you will pretty quickly run out of space if you want to smoke multiple items.
The other main advantage of the
As the name suggestions this stainless steel basket clips on to your
You can also buy attachments that turn your
And for much less money, and much more flexibility, it’s an excellent option if you want to dip your toes into smoking without spending several hundred dollars on a dedicated smoker.
The best cabinet charcoal smoker – Dyna-Glo 36″ Vertical Charcoal Smoker
Packing a whopping 784 square inches of cooking area, the 36″ Dyna-Glow vertical smoker is a rare example of an affordable charcoal cabinet smoker.
While this style is common for gas & electric style smokers, it’s unusual to see a vertical charcoal smoker. The main advantage of this style of smoker is that the food is all very easy to access. Unlike a smoker like the Smokey Mountain where you can’t access a whole level without taking grill racks off, you can easily access all 4 racks.
Assembly is very straightforward. The main box is already assembled so less fiddling with bolts required. The racks feel sturdy and well made.
What we like:
- Vertical style door – Being able to open the top door and access all four grill racks is incredibly convenient.
- Plenty of temperature control options – You control your temps by adjusting the side dampers which will take a bit of practice but once mastered, gives you a lot of control over your smoker.
What we don’t like:
- Cheap wood box – The wood chip box that comes with the unit is cheaply made and the lid does not fit securely
- Tends to leak – This should come as no surprise for a smoker in this price bracket. In order to keep the costs down, some corners have been cut when it comes to insulation so expect some smoke leakage.
While you will get a bit of smoke leakage, temperature control is fairly straight forward with this unit.
If you really want to go with a cabinet style charcoal smoker on the cheap, this is a solid choice.
It won’t perform as well as a vertical smoker like the Smokey Mountain, but the price to cooking area is hard to beat. If you can pick it up on sale then go for it!
Get the latest price on Amazon.
Best offset smoker – Oklahoma Joe Highland Reverse Flow Smoker
Offset smokers, commonly also called stick burners or wood burning smokers ooze old school cool, and are where most people start when looking for a smoker.
While the common perception is that these smokers use wood as the primary fuel source, most pitmasters agree that charcoal should still form the base of your fire, with smoke wood added regularly for flavor.
There aren’t many offset smokers worth buying under $1000. The Oklahoma Joe Highland Smoker is one of the few exceptions.
Unlike a lot of cheap offset smokers, the Highland uses the superior reverse flow design. This means smoke is directed to the far side of the cooking chamber before it travels across the food and out the chimney.
This gives you a more even result when cooking. You could save some money and get the conventional design where the chimney is on the far side.
You get 619 square inches of cooking space in the main chamber, plus 281 in the firebox chamber which you could use for searing.
What we like:
- Reverse flow design – Lots of pros to this design including fewer temperature spikes and more even smoke distribution
- Heavy duty construction –
What we don’t like:
- Requires some mods to make it airtight – Even though this is more expensive than other smokers in this guide, it’s still cheap compared to other offset smokers and will leak. Luckily there are some simple fixes you can make with a gasket around the door to make your smoker airtight.
So long as you know you aren’t getting a high end smoker with the Oklahoma Joe and are prepared to do some simple mods then it’s a good entry offset style smoker.
Just be prepared to use a fair bit of fuel!
Check the latest price on Amazon.
The Rest of the Competition
Of course, there are more decent charcoal smokers than we covered above. Have a look at these, there might be one that seems just right for you.
This charcoal smoker from Cuisinart seems to have struck the balance between affordability and reasonable build quality. Of course, the quality of the product will take a hit the cheaper it gets, but we think this smoker is still a good deal considering the price.
This cooker has two 18” stainless steel cooking grates and has a total cooking area of 510 square inches, which lines up roughly with the size of the 18”
While this smoker can produce decent results, it is not an ‘out of the box’ kinda deal. To really get this smoker cranking, you will have to get a little creative and make some modifications.
This unit does not struggle to hold temperatures, especially around the 225°F range. With some modifications, this smoker holds its own at higher temperatures, just like more expensive models.
Strangely, it doesn’t come with any guidebooks or a user manual (other than assembly instructions). So you will have to be prepared to google and fiddle a bit to work out how to use it.
Neither of these are deal-breakers for those who like to tinker and love the feeling of getting a bargain. At around half the price of some other smokers, it might just be worth the effort.
Get the latest price on Amazon.
This compact smoker offers 365 square inches of cooking space across two racks. Similar to the Cuisinart smoker above, with some modifications, this unit has the potential to be a great smoker.
Most notably, the addition of a seal around the door, the installation of additional racks, and replacing the charcoal tray with a veggie roaster (to allow for more airflow) are some cheap and simple modifications that turn this ‘good value’ smoker into one that you will get loads of use out of.
We have found the front loading doors on this unit are more user friendly than top loading options, and then pull out ash catching system makes cleanup nice and easy.
For smoke, this unit will take both chunks and chips, but smoking a log will be a bit of a push for this little unit.
The smaller size of this smoker is a plus if you don’t have much space.
Especially for beginners, this smoker offers a great introduction to smoking that will not leave a dent in your wallet, or take up too much space on your patio.
Get the latest price on Amazon.
The adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” applies perfectly to this grill. Let’s be honest, the old smokey looks pretty flimsy. Homemade even. But it sure can cook.
Originally only heard of in the southern states, the Old Smokey is slowly making a name for itself further afield thanks to its seriously affordable price point, and amazing results.
This unit is made of aluminized steel. Therefore it is lightweight and easily transportable. However, it is not small. This is a 22” grill, so if you plan on taking it on the road, you will have to make sure you have somewhere to store it when it is not in use.
We refer to this as a grill, as that is what it is designed to be. But it can also be effectively used as a smoker too, using the indirect method.
The high dome lid means you can cook beer can chicken or large pork shoulders with ease.
The grill grate on this model is not hinged so when you do use it as a smoker, refueling can be a bit of a pain. You will have to lift the entire grate, with food on, to add more charcoal.
This unit also has the tendency to rust a little quicker than some units made of thicker materials.
But fans of this smoker will agree that these are minor issues considering the price and performance you can expect from the Old Smokey.
Get the latest price on Amazon.
If you are new to smoking, or only use the smoker a couple of times a month, this is another smoker worth considering.
As the most affordable option we have looked at so far, with a couple of easy modifications this is a great option for those on a budget.
This unit offers 395.4 square inches of cooking space. So it is not a big unit, but if you don’t cook for a crowd, or you only smoke occasionally, this is quite a convenient size.
Straight up, this smoker does need some adjustments made to the charcoal tray. There is nowhere for the ash to fall, and as a result, the fire gets smothered. An easy fix is to place a grate in the charcoal pan. If you still find you want more airflow, you can drill a hole in the bottom of the charcoal pan.
The addition of some legs to make the entire unit sit a little higher off the ground is another easy modification which makes life easier.
You will need to look into getting a thermometer other than the one that comes with the unit, but this is standard practice even if you have purchased a high end smoker.
Get the latest price on Amazon.
If you have a slightly bigger budget, the Broil King is a well made smoker that produces great results. Made in Canada from quality materials, from the moment you take this smoker out of the box you can see the value in the extra dollars laid down.
If you want to learn more about the brand go through it in more detail in our Broil King vs Weber guide.
With a generous 770 square inches of cooking space, you will be able to feed a crowd with this smoker. There are four stainless steel cooking racks that are fully adjustable, along with 16 stainless steel meat hooks.
Not only is this smoker designed to cook for a crowd, but it is also designed to be easy to use. There is a secondary door that makes accessing the water tray and smoker box nice and easy. The water bowl and smoker box themselves are also generously sized.
The smoker is built with double walls and as such does not require insulation. It keeps its heat nicely over long cooks.
If you choose to save some cash and put the unit together yourself, you should not find this task too challenging. The company even provides some spare screws just in case one falls down between the slats in your deck.
Yes, you will pay more for this product. But if you are not a fan of DIY modifications, you can take this one straight out of the box and you will have yourself a good quality smoker ready to go.
Get the latest price on Amazon.
That concludes our picks for the best charcoal thermometers. But if you’re still not convinced that charcoal is right for you, we’ve pulled together a guide to help you make the right decision.
Who charcoal smokers are best suited for
For others, the thought of managing a pit sounds like the worst thing in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a “set it and forget it” style like a pellet grill, propane or electric smoker. It’s a personal choice.
The charcoal debate has raged for years, but we’ll leave the debate with some wise words from amazingribs.com. The general consensus is that while other types of smoker can come close, charcoal gives a flavor that just can’t be replicated.
Pros and Cons of Charcoal Smokers
- Flavor: This is the undeniable advantage of cooking with charcoal. For many, the flavor a charcoal smoker produces far outweighs just about any extra work cooking with charcoal entails. From heavy flavors to light, subtle licks of smoke, you can control just what flavor you like, and how much of it you want when using a charcoal smoker.
- Ability to Customize: While this may not appeal to some, there is room to fiddle with charcoal smokers and get them working just the way you like them. More ‘techy’ smokers can’t really be fiddled with without rendering it useless.
- Portability: When you cook with charcoal there is no need for power, and no need to carry around heavy propane tanks. Of course, the size of your charcoal smoker will partly determine how portable it is, but generally, charcoal smokers are the most camping friendly option.
- Versatility: With some hacks, charcoal smokers are able to generate intense heats that are perfect for searing, can sit at the perfect temperatures needed for smoking, and with some modifications can also be set up to cold smoke.
- Cleanup: There is going to be ash and leftover charcoal which you have to clean up. This is a universally disliked job.
- Ease of Use and Temperature Control: Once you have learned a few tricks and become familiar with your smoker this will not be so much of an issue. But initially, there is a steeper learning curve involved to master temperature control when using a charcoal smoker.
- Accessories: Charcoal smokers, being ‘old school’ by nature, tend not to come with as many bells and whistles as some other types of smokers.
Generally, charcoal smokers cost less (although there are hugely expensive models out there).
However, charcoal itself is not the cheapest fuel to burn.
When weighing this up, take into consideration how often you plan to smoke, what your initial budget is, and where you plan to source your charcoal or smoking wood.
But remember, year in year out, charcoal will be more costly than gas or electricity.
How the main types of charcoal smokers work
While charcoal smokers come in a variety of different styles, they all work in a fairly similar way with some minor differences.
It’s worth spending a little bit of time to understand how these various designs differ.
example smoker Weber Smokey Mountain
The most popular style of charcoal smokers is water or bullet smokers like the ubiquitous Weber Smokey Mountain. In this design grill racks for holding your food are stacked above a water pan, which in turn rests above a ring that holds your charcoal and any smoking woods.
Unlike some other charcoal smokers, this style is used as primarily used as a dedicated smoker and doesn’t do a great job at grilling.
Streven Raichlen explains some of the many benefits of water smokers.
I might be a little bit biased because the
Although it might be more accurate to call it a bullet (due to the bullet shape). In many cases, you end up not actually using water! When you are cooking at high heat in the 325-375°F range you leave the water pan empty.
Some people have even experimented with filling the pan with sand, rocks bricks, and even beer. That last one sounds like a terrible waste to us though.
Luckily the fine folks over at virtualweberbullet.com agree. “Beer Is For Drinking, Water Is For Pans Don’t waste beer, wine, juice, onions, herbs and spices, or other stuff in the water pan. These things may smell good while cooking, but experience shows they impart little or no flavor of the meat. Well said.
example smoker – Kamado Joe
This style of smoker (named after the Japanese earthen cooking urn) fall into the grill/smoker combo. Unlike your typical bullet smoker which is made out of heavy-gauge steel, most Kamado style cookers are built from ceramics.
This makes them fantastic outdoor ovens that perform just as well as cooking a pizza as they do smoking or grilling.
Because ceramics are so insulated they radiate heat evenly and can hold a steady temperature over a long period of time. The extra insulation means less charcoal use and better performance in extremely cold or windy conditions.
You do end up paying a lot more for the versatility though. The mid-priced Kamado Joe costs 3x as much as a
The famous big green egg can cost even more. And that’s before you add in the extra accessories you need. For example, to even consider indirect style cooking (e.g. smoking) you need to buy a deflector plate.
The bottom line, if you want a versatile grill/smoker and don’t mind paying extra then Kamado style smokers are a great choice.
Offset barrel smokers
example smoker – Oklahoma Joe
The granddaddy of smokers and a surefire to establish yourself as a “true” pitmaster.
You could argue that this isn’t really a true charcoal smoker. Some pitmasters like Aaron Franklin insist on burning a wood fire to produce an authentic taste and don’t use any charcoal at all.
But if you’re not a total purist, there’s nothing wrong with using charcoal in an offset smoker. Many experts even recommend it.
This style of smoker follows the same general design principles. A horizontal barrel shaped cooking chamber with a lid. This is connected to a smaller chamber or firebox on one end. This is what the “offset” in the name refers to.
We have a detailed guide on how to use an offset smoker.
One of the advantages of cooking with an offset is that your fire is much more accessible. And it needs to be if you plan on tending a wood only fire all day. The firebox is connected to the cooking area which in turn has a chimney for venting smoke. This design pulls smoke from the firebox, into the cooking chamber, flavoring your food before it leaves through the chimney.
You control this by adjusting the air intake vents. This all goes wrong if you go against common barbecue wisdom and buy a cheap horizontal smoker. While it may be tempting to grab a Char-Broil offset for well under a hundred bucks, you’ll be regretting it when your new smoker is leaking so badly it’s impossible to control airflow or temperature.
For this reason, we would strongly recommend going for a better bang for your buck style of smoker unless you’re prepared to spend at least over $300 and preferably $500 plus.
Vertical cabinet smokers
example smoker – Dyna-Glo Vertical Charcoal Smoker
While most cabinet style smokers run off electricity or gas you do come across the occasional charcoal model. A nice advantage of this style of smoker is that you get much easier access to both your food and your charcoal than with the bullet or kamado style.
These aren’t super common though, so we won’t spend much time on them. If you want to learn more, we have a whole post with all our Dyna-Glo grill reviews.
What You Need to Know About Charcoal
We’ve talked a lot about smokers. Let’s briefly look at the stuff you load them up with – the charcoal.
The main two types of charcoal you’ll hear about are briquettes and lump charcoal.
It is important you get your head around the differences between these two fuel sources. When entering the world of charcoal smokers, you will more than likely be drawn into the never ending debate about the hows and whys of using lump or briquettes.
Put simply, briquettes are user friendly. They burn longer, cost less, are uniform in shape making them easier to stack, and maintain steady temperatures.
But this convenience comes at a cost.
Briquettes are made from sawdust and scrap woods which have been burnt down and held together with the help of additives. So they are not a ‘chemical free’ option.
They can be harder to get started, but some varieties will have lighter fluid added to help start them up. These should be avoided though. Use a charcoal chimney starter instead.
Briquettes also don’t burn as hot as lump charcoal, and they will produce more ash.
Lump is for the purists out there. As respected pitmaster Meathead Goldwyn puts it:
“I see lump charcoal as an extension of the organic movement”
It is literally made by burning down wood in the absence of oxygen, leaving little more than charcoal.
Chemical and additive free, lump charcoal burns hot and clean. It is also quick and easy to light up.
Lump is nice and responsive to the amount of oxygen it receives, so it is important you know what you are doing with your vents, as it will burn out quickly if it is given plenty of oxygen.
Lump charcoal is also irregular in shape, so you will need a little patience when stacking it.
However, you will not get any chemical aftertaste, and you will be cooking knowing that your fuel is all natural.
Coal vs Charcoal:
While these terms tend to get used interchangeably, there is a big difference. This chart from pediaa.com does a good job of clearing it up.
Coal is fossil fuel that is created when organic material is compressed and solidified of many many years. It is not renewable and is prohibitively expensive.
But most importantly, it will poison your food if you use it to heat the food directly, as it emits sulfur dioxide. Even more alarming, if it comes in contact with water, it produces sulfuric acid.
All in all, it is a no go for your average backyard barbecue.
In some cases, coal is used to produce heat, which is then transferred to a completely separate cooking surface. But the coal fire has to be 100% isolated from the food. Clearly, this is way to much hassle than it’s worth and involves specialized equipment.
The bottom line is this: Sometimes the term ‘coals’ is bandied around when we talk about charcoal barbecues, but we are not actually using coal. In fact, it’s very dangerous to cook with.
This is the stuff we are talking about when we discuss grilling and smoking.
Charcoal is wood that has been burnt in the absence of oxygen to rid it of any impurities, leaving carbon. It burns clean and hot. Really pure charcoal will not produce much of a visible flame or smoke, and there will be little ash left over after it has been burnt.
As we discussed above, you can find charcoal in the form of lump and briquettes, lump being the purest form.
What is the Difference Between a Smoker and a Standard Grill?
To answer this question we first need to address the difference between grilling and smoking.
Smoking relies on smoke and low, indirect heat to cook your food. Because the temperature at which you cook your food is lower, food typically takes hours to cook.
There are a couple of reasons why smoking food is popular.
- For one, as meat is smoked over long periods at low temperatures, the collagen breaks down making it super tender.
- The smoke also imparts a unique, smokey flavor to the food.
Although smoking takes a long time, once you have set your smoker up, you don’t need to sit and watch it all day. Just check on it every now and then and the smoker does the work for you.
Dedicated smokers are designed to stay at constant temperatures for long periods.
Depending on the type of smoker you purchase, grilling with your smoker is not out of the question either.
Especially charcoal smokers are capable of reaching the higher temperatures required to grill and sear food.
Most other cabinet style smokers are designed to keep the temperature within the ideal smoking range. If all you want your smoker to do is smoke food, then these types of smoker are fine.
Grilling is all about high direct heat over a short time period
While smoking is all about low heat over long periods of time, grilling is the exact opposite. When done correctly, grilled meat is juicy on the inside, and dark and crispy on the outside.
There is more involved than just cranking up the heat full bore and hoping for the best, however. Techniques such as the reverse sear, for example, ensure your meat does not end up burnt.
Grills are set up so the heat source is directly under the food, allowing for direct cooking. In the case of charcoal grills, this heat source would be the charcoal bed.
Vents still allow you to control the temperature, meaning you can use different grilling techniques.
6 Features to Consider When Buying a Charcoal Smoker
Running through these factors will help you understand what type of smoker you should buy.
How much can you spend?
It is a good idea to decide what you can afford to spend before you set out to buy a smoker. It is easy to get swept up into buying a smoker that is feature packed, but over your budget.
Particularly if it is your first smoker, or you don’t use a smoker regularly, you may not need all the extra features. You can pick up a decent, basic charcoal smoker at a very affordable price.
Don’t forget to take into consideration the running costs of the smoker. Charcoal, for instance, is the most expensive fuel you can burn. So when calculating your budget, take into account what the smoker will cost to run over the course of a year as well.
How many people will you be cooking for?
It is not always the case that bigger is better. If you rarely, if ever, cook for a large crowd it is going to be a real pain, not to mention a waste of time and money, to light up a huge smoker in order to cook two chicken breasts.
Smokers are available in a whole range of sizes, so you should be able to find one that is just the right size for you.
Think about how many you cook for on average and buy a unit that has that capacity. Most manufacturers will give you a size in square inches, but will also translate the size into a “number of burger patties” figure, which is a much more tangible way to picture how much space you need.
Do you need a dedicated smoker or combo grill?
Bear in mind that some charcoal smokers will only smoke, while others can be used a grill as well.
Be prepared that you will pay a bit more for a more versatile unit, but it might save you from buying a grill down the track.
Are you going to want to move your smoker?
Portability and size often go hand in hand. The larger your smoker, the less inclined you will be to pack it up and take it camping.
Having said that, charcoal smokers are camping friendly as you don’t need a power source, and you don’t need to lug a gas bottle around either.
Heavier types of barbecue, such as kamados, are difficult to move from one spot to another in your own yard – let alone on a camping trip.
If you are an avid outdoors person, you might even be able to build a case for getting a second, smaller smoker specifically for your adventures into the great outdoors.
Brand and Build Quality
While a known brand is not always a guarantee that the product you buy will be good quality, it is still worth becoming familiar with what brands are out there and what their reputation is.
If you come across a brand of smoker that you have never heard of before, it is worth taking some time to do research into what kind of customer support (if any) they provide, and learn a bit about where the product is made, and what level of workmanship you can expect.
Online reviews and barbecue forums are a great place to find these sorts of details.
It is easy to forget to ask about the warranty on a product when you are excited to get your smoker home and try it out.
However, the length of the warranty a manufacturer gives is often a good indicator of the quality of the product.
Do a little extra digging and see what other customers have said about dealing with the company. Unfortunately, some companies offer decent sounding warranties, but getting them to honor them is like pulling hens teeth.
Starting a charcoal smoker
So you’ve finally bought yourself a charcoal smoker and you’re ready to fire it up. Hold on a second though.
Unlike gas or electric smokers that can be started with the press of a button, charcoal actually requires a few steps to get going. By far the easiest way to get your charcoal smoker ready is with a chimney starter.
This cheap device is a must-have item and will get you ready to cook in about 15 minutes with almost no effort. We’ve put together a guide to using your chimney starter.
Managing temperature on a charcoal smoker
Before you can start worrying about managing the temp in your smoker, you need to get it set up correctly. Assuming you want to cook low and slow, the best way to set up your smoker is going to be the minion method of one of its many variations.
This involves filling up your firebox with unlit charcoal and then firing up a small number of briquettes, allowing them to ash over for about 15 minutes and then spreading them over the top of the unlit coals.
This allows you to smoke for many hours at a low, steady temperature. As the lit coals burn they slowly ignite the coals below them, without too many coals ever being lit at once.
Feature CC Image courtesy of Bryan Adams on Flickr
Once you’ve set up your smoker for success, you can make adjustments by opening and closing the intake dampers.
- Keep track of how fast your temps are rising and make small adjustments BEFORE you overshoot your target temperature
- You almost always want to keep the top exhaust damper or flue fully or partially open. This will help keep your fire burning clean. Shutting off oxygen can cause a ‘dirty fire’ which can lead to a build of creosote, a nasty bitter tasting by-product.
- Try and avoid making too many changes to your vents. Make a minor adjustment then give it plenty of time to work it’s magic before you make any more adjustments.
Controlling your temps does take a bit of practice. We have a more in-depth guide to fire management that explains how to get perfect thin blue smoke. This is one of the reasons we always recommend starting off with a cheap and forgiving piece of meat like pork butt, before attempting brisket.
Care and Maintenance
If you maintain your smoker correctly, it should last for a long time. Maintenance needn’t be too time consuming or complicated. Consistency really is the key to making sure your smoker lasts.
Let’s have a look at some basic maintenance you can carry out to lengthen the life of your smoker.
Disposing of Ashes
Ashes left sitting in your smoker will attract moisture, and will result in it rusting out. It is important that you clean out the ashes after each use.
However, ash and burnt down charcoal can retain heat for longer than you imagine. So make sure everything has cooled completely before you clean it out, and dispose of the ash in a metal bin.
Cleaning Grill Grates
Grease left of the grates will go rancid and make your food taste bad. Similarly, black charcoal on the grates will stick to you food and make it taste bitter.
Therefore, no matter how you look at it, dirty, crusty grates are not going to lead to good results.
You can clean your grates straight after you have finished cooking by letting the charcoal burn itself out, thus smoking off any residual food left on the grates. After this, scrape the grates with a scraper or a wire brush.
Read our article about the dangers of wire brushes and what you can use instead here.
If you are likely to forget that you have left the vents open, or you want to save your charcoal, then you can shut down the fire when your food is done and clean off the grates before you start your next cook.
Do this by cranking up the fire full blast for about 15 minutes and let the grease smoke before you throw on your food. Once the smoke subsides, scrape or scrub the grates.
If you decide to use a wire brush to scrub your grates, you may want to dip it in water to create some steam to clean off even more grease.
If you do this, however, be sure to wipe your grates down with a damp cloth after using any wire brush, and inspect the cooking surface thoroughly. Injected wire bristles can be fatal if they end up lodged in a vital organ.
Cleaning the Cooking Chamber
When the inside of your cooking chamber has built up a layer of crustiness that is curling up and flaking off into your food, it is time to take action.
If you just need to do a light clean, you can scrape off loose bits with a plastic putty knife (when the smoker is cool). Have a vacuum handy to suck up the bits that have flaked off.
Even better, cleaning up the inside of your cooking chamber periodically will save you having to undertake a cleanup of industrial proportions.
If you think a more thorough clean is warranted, grab some steel wool or a wire brush, some grease cutting dishwashing liquid (don’t ever use oven cleaner, it’s too harsh), a bucket, gloves, a softer scrubbing brush, paper towels, and a garden hose.
Go with your instincts on this one. Scrub, rinse and wipe your way to a clean cooking chamber. Again, if you use a wire brush, just be mindful of where any loose bristles may have ended up.
You don’t need a vivid imagination to realize that this job could get messy. A tarpaulin or drop sheet might save your driveway or grass from becoming a greasy mess.
Wrapping it up
There’s a good reason that charcoal smokers are still one of the most popular choices by backyard barbecue enthusiasts. While you can argue about the degree that charcoal imparts flavor, there’s no doubt that this method of cooking results in better bark and smoke ring and unique smokey flavor that other styles struggle to replicate.
Because of the way these smokers work is relatively simple, you can grab a really well made smoker for under $300. Unlike with pellet smokers where a lot of money goes into manufacturing the parts and tech, with charcoal everything goes into producing well designed smokers with quality components that will hold steady temps and survive for many years.
So if the thought of tinkering with air valves and managing the coals doesn’t fill you with dread, then you should seriously consider picking up a charcoal smoker.