So you’ve decided to buy your first smoker but your head is starting to spin just thinking about all the options out there.
This guide will help you find the best beginner smoker for your situation. You’ll also learn all about the different types of smokers. Each type of smoker has it’s own pros and cons so read on to avoid the frustration of buying a crappy smoker.
Best charcoal smoker for beginners
For the price you cannot beat the Weber Smokey Mountain for your first smoker. The build quality is excellent. These things last FOREVER.
You can choose from three sizes starting at 14″ then going up to 18 and 22 inches.
The 18 inch model gets the nod for this guide because it’s slightly easier to hold a stable temperature. The 22″ can run a bit hotter.
The bullet design gives it a small footprint and while it does look pretty slim, you get two cooking racks which doubles your cooking area to 481 square inches. You can can easily feed groups of of up to 12.
These smokers have been around FOREVER. Introduced in 1981 the design has gone through several improvements over the years. The Weber brand is well regraded and the 10 year warranty is very generous.
Reasons the Smokey Mountain makes a perfect beginner smoker:
- Water smoker design makes temperature control easy for beginners – The water bowl sits between the coals and the cooking grates. This acts as a heat sink while adding humidity to the smoke chamber all help stabilize temperatures.
- It’s a super versatile smoker – While it makes a great first smoker, lots of more experienced cooks upgrade to the Smokey Mountain after they are sick of screwing around on a cheap offset smoker.
- Used by the best – It’s not often a product aimed at backyard amateur smokers is still used by the pros. Like the competition barbecue teams who go up against smokers costing $15,000+ and can still win awards and thousands of dollars in prize money
- Third party enhancements – There are lots of clever ways to mod and enhance your WSM
The Smokey Mountain makes the learning easy (and fun if you’re like me and enjoy playing with fire outdoors). It can hold incredibly steady temperatures for hours with very little baby sitting. I’ve put a brisket on at midnight and got up 7AM to find the temperature sitting at exactly 225°F.
The only potential problem with this smoker is the flimsy aluminum door that can cause smoke to leak out. It’s not a major problem and can easily be fixed with a gasket kit.
If you can commit to buying a charcoal smoker the decision isn’t really what smoker to buy. Most people spend their time agonizing over what size Smokey Mountain to buy instead.
Best charcoal alternative to the Weber Smokey Mountain
There really isn’t a lot of competition out there in the $200-$400 price range that gives the Weber a run for it’s money in the charcoal smoker family.
Anything really budget like the Char-Broil Vertical Smoker will require a lot of modifying it, unless you want to deal with a poorly insulated, difficult to use smoker.
That’s where the Pit Barrel Cooker comes in. A variation on the Ugly Drum Smoker style, the Pit Barrel Cooker uses a unique system of hooks to hang everything. You also get a chrome plated grill grate for when you don’t want to use the hooks.
The meat hanging method gives you excellent capacity (you can easily fit 8 racks of ribs). The hanging method also causes the meat to heat more evenly as there are no hot conduction points from the meat lying on a grate.
What we like:
- Unique hook design – We’ve already mentioned the extra capacity this gives you, but there are some other benefits. Because the meat isn’t sitting on a hot grill rack it cooks more evenly, and as the meat hangs directly above the coals as it cooks the juices from the meat drip creating extra smoke and flavor
- Very stable temperatures – The drum is very well insulated making temperature control very
- Build quality is top notch – Sturdy 18-gauge durable steel with porcelain enamel coating.
If you want to see how the unique meat hanging system works then check out the video below.
We did find the Weber Smokey Mountain gives you more flexibility to control your temperatures. You’re also able to hit lower temps while the PBC runs hotter.
Other than that It’s easy to fire up, the option to use hanging hooks or grill grates and the simple temperature control make this a great alternative charcoal smoker for beginners.
Best affordable electric smoker
The Masterbuilt digital smoker is a great entry point for someone just getting started smoking meat.
The built in digital thermometer allows you to select your preferred temperature without worrying about maintaining charcoal or fire.
Just need to plug it in to an electrical outlet and you’re ready to cook.
This smoker is available in a range of different configurations. You can choose between 30″ or 40″ and with or without a window.
The front window sounds like it would be useful, but in our experience it just gets dirty. The window is also a bit pointless as the only safe way to know if your food is cooked is with a good temperature probe setup.
But your neighbor will probably think it looks cool so we wouldn’t knock you for getting it anyway.
Unlike some other cheapo smokers the Masterbuilt is reasonably well insulated and should perform OK in colder weather.
What we like:
- Generous amount of cooking space – The 30 inch digital model comes with a generous 730 sq inches of cooking space, almost the same as the largest 22″ Smokey Mountain for a fraction of the price.
- Simple temperature controls — You can smoke your meat from 100 to 275°F, a nice range that makes the unit useful for a variety of smoking situations.
- Pimp your smoker – Masterbuilt sell a range of optional accessories including a cold smoking attachment. Great if you want to give cold smoking a go.
You can buy any kind of wood chips from your local hardware store, or order different types form Amazon including apple, cherry, hickory and pecan. While the effect of different types of wood chips are up for debate, it’s fun to see how tweaking small elements can effect the flavor.
The main issues you’re likely to encounter are the inaccurate temperature probe. These are pretty common issues as most manufacturers use cheap probes so you may want to invest in your own thermometer.
An electric smoker like this is going to have more parts that can break down than a charcoal smoker, so there’s more risk you’ll encounter problems with buttons breaking or calibration errors.
The Masterbuilt isn’t a perfect smoker, and it definitely wouldn’t impress a traditionalist. But if you want to eat barbecue without the fuss it’s a good cheap option to get started.
Best pellet smoker for beginners
Pellet smokers are among the most expensive type of smoker. Most model are outside our amateur price range.
But the promise of “set it and forget it” cooking without some of the drawback of gas or electric can be very appealing to first time smokers.
The Traeger Junior Elite gives you all the advantages of a pellet grill without breaking the bank.
It’s built tough but still plenty portable.
At 300 square inches of cooking surface, this isn’t the largest smoker on our list. If you need to cook for a large group then we suggest considering another option.
For most of you, this will be more than large enough. What you give up in space you get back in portability.
What we like:
- Thermostatically controlled – This makes the smoker more accurate so you can safely leave it cooking all night without worrying about temperature spikes. Equipped with a built-in, digital thermostat, this grill produces easy-to-see and accurate temperature readings in real time.
- Extremely Portable Design – Weighing in at just 60 pounds, and measuring in at 36 inches x 18 inches x 37 inches, this grill is exceedingly easy to store and transport from place to place.
- Comes with a 3-year Warranty – Traeger shows that they stand behind their product by including with it a 3-year warranty. This warranty covers all aspects of the grill as well as its various parts.
Construction wise the Traeger is made out of heavy-duty steel and should withstand plenty of wear and tear.
The main issue we have with the Traeger is that the legs could use some more stabilisation, so be careful if you plan on moving it.
This isn’t a knock against the Traeger, but smoker pellets can be hard to find. Unlike charcoal you can’t always get a back them at your local hardware store or gas station.
That said it’s easy to stock up online on a variety of different types of wood pellets. You can also choose from a variety of different types of wood if you feel like experimenting with different flavors.
The ease of use is really what you’re paying for. Just connect the electricity, choose your temperature and add pellets and you can be smoking in a few minutes.
Best gas smoker for beginners
The Smoke Hollow comes in a range of sizes (from the compact 26″ all the way up to to a beastly 44″). For this guide we like the 36″ model with a window.
For a medium sized smoker you get excellent temperature control. The ability to easily maintain a stable temperature is so important. Especially if you’re just getting started, poor temperature control can ruin a lot of barbecue while you learn how to manage a charcoal or wood burning smoker.
The window is a bit of a gimmick (who wants to sit and watch meat for 8 hours), but being able to check the appearance of your meat without opening the door can come in handy.
What we like:
- Flexible cooking arrangement – With 4 adjustable chrome-plated cooking racks you can make the most of the 3 cubic feed of cooking space no matter what you’re smoking. For example if you’re smoking something large like a brisket or turkey just move the racks and then fit ribs or sausage on the other racks.
- Holds temperature well – Temperature control is easy, but you have a lot of wind you may need to position it carefully or create a wind break. It’s not as well insulated as some more expensive smokers.
If we had to complain about anything the gas regulator can cause problems not connecting to the tank correctly. This can lead to the flame going out.
This should be easy to fix by making sure to follow the assembly instructions correctly. Where the burner meets the regulator there’s a little screen and screw you can use to close off air.
The Smoke Hollow range of gas smokers has been around since 2005. It”s always good to buy from a company that you know will be around.
The 1 year warranty is fairly standard but should give you enough piece of mind should something go wrong.
A budget gas smoker for bargain hunters
While at full price you can get better value with other smokers, the Vertical Gas Smoker from Char-Broil often goes on special (unlike Weber).
If you can grab it at 20-40% off then this is a decent first smoker.
This is a classic cabinet design with one door to access the cooking chamber (3 racks + a warming rack), and another door to get to the water pan and wood tray.
Char-Broil are based in the US and are well known for producing budget smokers and grills.
Some people report issues with heat and smoke leaking out of gaps in the door. This shouldn’t cause any real problems (beside costing you a little more in fuel). Luckily the 16,500 BTU propane burner is reasonably efficient .
What we like:
- Large capacity – At 595 square inches of cooking surface you get somewhere between the 18″ Smokey Mountain and the 22″ to work with. That figure is a bit deceptive though. This is a relatively compact smoker width wise, you can struggle to hold a full slab of ribs so definitely consider what you plan on smoking.
- Value for money – For a budget price you still get a decent sized smoker with a warming rack and 3 cooking grates.
This unit is heavy so not the most portable if you plan on travelling with it.
In terms of quality you’re getting decent steel and reasonable insulation. On the other hand the thermometer is even worse than normal for built in thermometers, so definitely make sure you get a proper thermometer setup.
We’re also not totally sold on the water tray design with space for wood in the middle. Unless you’re careful you can end up with a wet mess inside your smoker.
You can easily get around this by placing a bowl of water on the bottom rack instead.
For the price it’s hard to fault the Char-Broil smoker too much though. Especially if you can get it on special.
How to choose your first smoker
Each of the smokers covered above is a solid choice for the amateur pit master. But how do you choose which one is right for YOU?
The answers easy if you want to be traditional. Just get yourself a charcoal Weber Smokey Mountain and then get on with it.
But if you’re still not sure we’ve broken the process down into 3 steps.
Step 1: Determine your budget
Since this is your first smoker, budget is likely one of your top concerns. Some of you may already have a price point in mind.
When it comes to budgeting for your first smoker there are two schools of thought.
Option 1 – Buy a cheap smoker to learn on then upgrade later
You could go down to your local hardware store and pick up a cheap smoker for $50-$100. If you’re still using it and having fun after a season, then you can invest in a better quality smoker.
The problem with doing this is that cheap smokers kind of suck.
With a cheap smoker you’re going to spend more time struggling with temperature control due to poor heat retention.
Think about it like this. Is there any point buying the cheapest guitar to learn on, when even Santana himself couldn’t make it sound good?
We don’t think so. That’s why we haven’t recommended any cheap smokers. The good news is that if your budget absolutely can’t stretch, then you can still get a high quality Weber Kettle and use it as a combo smoker / grill.
Option 2: Spend a little bit extra to start with
If your budget can stretch past $200 then your options for a good first smoker open way up. At this price point you can even get a smoker that’s good enough to compete with.
If you absolutely can’t stretch your budget, keep an eye out on Craigslist or eBay. Old smokers still work great especially after a clean up.
Now you can have your budget sorted, it’s time to learn what type of smoker is right for you.
Step 2: Determine your main source of heat
Throughout this guide we’ve refereed to different types of smoker like “gas’, “charcoal”, “pellet” and “electric.
These are all really just different types of heat.
Each of these types of smoker have different characteristics and require different skills to master.
Maybe it’s because barbecue attracts a lot of old school types, but there’s some silly notions out there that unless you’re slaving over an offset barrel smoker for 16+ hours using aged hickory logs, then you’re not cooking “real barbecue”.
Let’s get something straight.
All kinds of smokers can produce delicious barbecue. Charcoal, electric, gas and pellets are all just sources of heat. There’s really no such thing as the best type of smoker for a beginner. Each has it’s own pros and cons.
We’ve outlined the main types of smoker below.
Charcoal, electric, gas and pellets are all just sources of heat. There’s really no such thing as the best type of smoker for a beginner.
Think about how involved you want to be in the smoking process. A lot of people (including us) love the interactive nature of charcoal.
From the ritual of filling up your chimney starter, to controlling the oxygen and managing the temperature you are more involved in the cooking process.
Pros of charcoal smokers:
- It’s practically accepted wisdom that charcoal gives the best flavour
- Cooking with charcoal is the best way to achieve a great bark or crust, and can produce the best smoke ring out of any method
- Get to have fun being outdoors
Cons of charcoal smokers:
- Requires more attention and effort than using an electric, gas or pellet smoker
- Requires some effort up front to light the charcoal
- Cost of buying charcoal can add up
Smoking with charcoal doesn’t have to be an epic task either. A good water smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain can hold a steady temperature for hours and will only require minimum attention.
Cooking low and slow is all about taking the time to do things properly. Buying a charcoal smoker is a great way to learn everything there is to know about barbecue.
Gas / propane smokers
Gas (also known as) propane smokers fall into the “set it and forget it” family of smokers. They’re easy to use and very consistent.
Pros of gas smokers:
- Easier to manage than charcoal
- High degree of control over temperature
- One tank of propane can easily last for a 15 hour smoke
Cons of gas smokers:
- Like electric, you won’t get a great smoke ring or generate as rich a bark
- Some models can be too narrow to fit a full rack of ribs or large brisket or turkey. You’ll either need to portion your meat or cook smaller cuts.
- Cheaper models with poor build quality can leak smoke and do not hold temperature in cold weather
You can easily run out of fuel during a long cook so make sure you start with a full tank. And it doesn’t hurt to have a back-up. This is true for charcoal as well though so we wouldn’t consider this a con.
Learn more about gas smokers in our guide to the best gas smokers.
If you’ve been doing your research you probably noticed a huge uptick in people talking about pellet smokers. It seems like everyone is either thinking about or has just bought a pellet smoker.
Falling directly into the “set it and forget it” variety of smokers it’s easy to see why they are becoming so people with new smokers.
Pros or pellet smokers:
- Thermostatically controlled which means you can select your desired temperature and the controller handles the rest for you by feeding wood pellets into the fire.
- You don’t have to worry about temperature control or fire management, as the smoker automatically feeds the right amount of pellets.
- Add a brisket and then jump into bed, knowing that by the time you wake up delicious barbecue will only be a few hours away.
Cons of pellet smokers:
- You’ll have to pay a bit more for the convenience, even average pellet smokers will cost more than a great quality charcoal smoker like the Smokey Mountain.
- While a great “lazy mans” barbecue, you will struggle to achieve the same level for bark, smoke ring and flavour you get from charcoal unless you spend over $1000.
Some people love to poke fun at pellet smokers because they’re considered so ‘easy’, but there’s a large number of professionals who swear by them.
There used to be a great community website called “pelletheads” but unfortunately that seems to have shut down. One of the member from that website has setup pelletfans so check that out for more tips and advice.
While most products use the word ‘pellet grill’ in the name, they are really better used as dedicated smokers with some limited grilling ability.
Learn more in our guide to the best pellet smokers.
Electric smokers take a lot of the hassle out of smoking meat. They are a great option for long smokes like brisket than can take well over 12 hours, and generally keep your meat moist and temperature stable.
Pros of electric smokers:
- Electric smokers fall into the “set it and forget it type of smoker” which can be a pro or a con depending on what you enjoy and what you hate about barbecuing
- Great at other types of smoking like fish, sausage, bacon and cheese
- If the thought of monitoring your barbecue over a 14 hour smoke fills you with dread, you might want to consider an electric although you do still have to add wood every so often
Cons of electric smokers:
- You’ll need a readily available power outlet or weatherproof extension cord
- Unlike more conventional smokers, electrics rely on electronics. When they go bad they can leave you with expensive repairs
- Issues are even more likely if you’re buying a cheap electric smoker
- You won’t get a smoke ring which can be a deal breaker for many people (although there are some hacks out there for getting a smoke ring on an electric smoker)
- While perfectly capable of making delicious food, other types of smokers can get an even better result
They are also kind of boring. Switch em on, and then go do something else doesn’t sound like much fun to us. You don’t get any of the joy of firing up charcoal, tinkering with air flow or perfecting your smoke ring. If the end product is all that’s important to you then go ahead and consider an electric for your first smoker.
Just know that it’s not going to impress any of your friends.
You can learn more in our guide to the best electric smokers.
Other types of smoker
What about offset wood burning smokers? While these can use charcoal or wood, we’ve left them off this list for a good reason. They don’t make good smokers for beginners to learn on.
Step 3: Can you commit to a dedicated smoker or do need the versatility of a grill and smoker combo
If you’re just getting into smoking meat then buying a dedicated smoker is a big commitment. We understand wanting something flexible that can double as a grill.
But for a beginners budget, we would urge you to consider a dedicated smoker.
While most smokers CAN be used to grill on in a pinch, a dedicated smoker will a hold a low temperature better, will be better insulated and give you more features.
With that being said, we’ve put together a guide to the best grills that can double as a smoker.
If you’re just dipping your toes into smoking meat, your best option is a classic original Weber Kettle. This is a great inexpensive option, and will get you a great quality grill from one of the most respected brands in barbecue.
The Kettle has a huge online community of enthusiasts, and you’ll find lots of great advice and recipes around. We also have a guide for setting your Kettle up for smoking.
There are also several accessories you can buy to make your Kettle a more versatile smoker.
Other important factors to consider
While your price point, type of fuel and dedicated smoker vs combo and the main factors that go into choosing the best first smoker, some other things to consider include:
- What type of foods do you think you’ll be cooking? Most enthusiasts focus on smoking pork butts, ribs, brisket and the occasional chicken or turkey. You need to make sure the smoker you decide on is large enough to fit the type of food you’ll be cooking.
- How many people do you typically cook for? Some of the smokers we recommend in this article like the Weber Smokey Mountain come in a range of sizes so you want to think about your typical usage, and then allow for a bit of extra room if you have friends over.
- Is portability important to you? If you want to take your new smoker camping or trailgating, you want a smoker that travels well. Size and easy setup will be an important consideration.
- Do you plan on cold smoking? – Some smokers can be converted into cold smokers with a lot of work, while others like the Masterbuilt come with ready-made cold smoking attachments.
Since this is a guide for beginners we thought we should explain some of the basics of barbecue. We don’t want you to get your new smoker home and have no idea what to do with it!
What’s the difference between smoking and grilling?
Smoking is all about low and slow. Think temps between 225 and 275°F for long periods of time (from 3 hours up to 15+ hours).
Usually it involves burning wood chips, chunks or pellets to impart smokey flavors.
Grilling is higher temps (350°Fish) but shorter duration. May or may not include wood smoke depending on what you’re doing.
May or may not involve closing the dome, once again, depending on what you’re cooking.
How does smoking work?
Old fashioned “low and slow” barbecue is simple to understand and hard to master. You start with a fuel source like charcoal, gas, wood pellets or electricity.
Flavor is added to the meat by adding wood chips or wood chunks to the heat source to create smoke.
By controlling oxygen, you can achieve steady low temperatures which gives the cooking method it’s nick name “low and slow”.
Essential barbecue accessories
Other than the actual smoker there are only a few accessories you absolutely NEED before your first smoke.
While some people love to obsess over the ideal smoking gear setup, when you are first starting out just focus on nailing the basics.
- You need to know how hot your smoker is running (the built thermometers is next to worthless), and what temperature you meat is so you know when to pull it of. Invest in a good dual probe wireless thermometer setup.
- If you’re cooking with charcoal you’ll need some fuel. You can’t go wrong with Kingsford briquettes, or check out our guide to lump charcoal.
- You’ll also need wood chunks or chips to provide the smoke. People love to obsess about type of wood but it really isn’t a big deal. Fruit woods like apple and cherry work well for everything.
- There are several other nice to have accessories like good knives of slicing and trimming meat
- BBQ gloves and maybe even some bear claws for pulling pork (and looking bad ass).
Check out this list of essential smoker accessories for more ideas. It’ll make your life a lot easier if you don’t try and handle charcoal with your bare hands. Trust us…
Tips for your first smoke
Smoking is all about having a go, experimenting and learning from your mistakes. Remember than even if you screw up a few things the end result will still taste better than pretty much anything else you would put in your mouth.
That said for your first smoke consider starting with a couple of pounds of cheap pork butt. The meat is pretty forgiving and great for learning the kinks of the smoker you decided on.
From there invest in several different types of rubs and barbecue sauce (or learn how to make your own). Lastly you might want to check out this list of beginner smoker mistakes to avoid (you can thank us later).
Wrapping it up
Remember that the key to really great BBQ is to have fun, enjoy the company of your friends and family, and make delicious food. You don’t need an expensive smoker or the latest gadgets to do that.
If this guide has helped take away some of the anxiety over buying your first smoker we would love it if you shared it around. If you’re a bit more experienced and you disagree with one of our selections, or think we’ve missed out a great smoker for beginners then let us know in the comments below.
Feature CC Image courtesy of Bruce Martin on Flickr
Last update on 2018-12-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API