There are a lot of smokers on the market and as many things to consider when buying a smoker. Most smokers can produce great food if used correctly. Some require more micromanagement than others and each have their own quirks and characteristics. We believe that no matter which smoker you choose, BBQ should be fun and therapeutic, not frustrating. There are several things to focus on at the beginning so that you can avoid stressing out later.
The first thing to know is your budget. You can make incredible BBQ on a smoker of almost any budget, but it will come at a potential cost of things like convenience and longevity. Smokers range in price from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand. Many things contribute to this vast range in price. You have to understand these tradeoffs and contributing factors so that you can make the best decision for your needs.
The majority of smokers are made of carbon steel. The thicker the steel, the more expensive the cost of materials and the final product will be. The biggest drawback of carbon steel is the vulnerability to rust. Your ability to prevent oxidation and rust will be the number one determining factor in the life of your carbon steel smoker. In order to prevent rust, manufacturers often include a layer of heat-resistant paint or powder coating to protect the steel from exposure to weather. Even high-temp paint can flake off after prolonged heat exposure and requires constant maintenance and vigilance to prevent rusting. Powder coating is less vulnerable but abrasive chemicals can still harm it..
Rust proof materials such as aluminized steel, stainless steel, and ceramic can alleviate a lot of stress, but will likely increase the initial cost considerably. Remember that a unit is only as strong as its weakest point. A stainless lid might look nice, but it will be of small comfort if the body of the smoker or the hardware that should be holding it together rusts away.
Some smokers contain a number of mechanical and electrical components. Are they bells and whistles that add novelty, or are they practical features that improve the outdoor cooking experience? Every added component increases the price and represents one more part that can potentially break or fail. Components should be chosen with care, for their longevity and performance.
Materials are only as good as the standards and practices that create and form them. Components made hastily in bulk with few quality control standards will break down and fail as quickly as they are formed.
Some great products are made overseas in places like Japan and South Korea. The hastily constructed parts which are made and shipped into our country by the tens of thousands, are not among them. They are designed to ideally last through the warranty period and no longer.
Like many things in life, you get what you pay for.
You can potentially save money upfront buying products made overseas, but this will absolutely come at the cost of build quality, material quality, and quality control oversight. As a consequence you will likely experience more downtime and spend more on replacement parts, if not entirely new units. For this reason, we do not recommend buying gassers, pellet smoker-grills, or similar smokers that are made overseas if lasting build quality is your primary concern.
Kettle, bullet, and drum smokers are simple but effective devices. They demand skill and lack the mechanical and electrical features that create a forgiving and convenient cooking experience. This drastically reduces their cost and makes them a great option for lower budgets.
If you’re looking for a great smoker at the cheapest possible cost (or just feeling nostalgic!), a drum smoker might be just what you’re looking for. You can buy a kit that will allow you to turn any drum into a great smoker or spend a bit more and get a drum with the kit. At less than $500, drum smokers won’t break the bank and will allow you to use charcoal, wood logs / chunks, or a combination of the two.
The money you save will come at the cost of time and energy. You will have to learn how to manage a fire and pay close attention to it throughout your cook in order to get the results you want. While the learning curve and costs in time and energy may be steep for some, it will be therapeutic for others who are looking for a hands-on hobby.
Pellets, gassers, and in some cases offsets are often more complicated in design and rich in features. The costs to design and produce them tend to be much higher. As a result, they command a higher price. You can find solid pellets, gas grills, cabinet smokers, and offset wood smokers in the $600 to $2000 range that should provide some degree of quality and reliability.
Kamado-style smokers like the Big Green Egg can also be found in this price range. They marry the simple design of bullets with a ceramic body that won’t rust and will hold and distribute heat much more reliably.
On the higher end you can find smokers that are made in the United States using domestically sourced materials, and that is where build quality, material quality, and high performance features really stand out.
Top of the line smokers can cost several thousand dollars. That price reflects the use of the highest quality materials, a wealth of practical features, exhaustive R&D for performance and reliability, and often the costs of labor, machinery, and domestically sourced materials associated with U.S. manufacturing.
MAK Grills is proud to stand among the few remaining truly Made in the USA brands. Many claim to be made in the United States, but at best assemble parts made overseas with no oversight.
The steep learning curve and hands-on requirements of a stick-burner might be a rewarding challenge for you. Do your research. There are many different kinds, and even among offsets there are variants like reverse flow smokers that you’ll want to consider.
After you’ve chosen a smoker you will doubtlessly find that there are many ways to use and maintain it. Temperature control alone can be approached in different ways. Some control temperatures by balancing air flow, using water pans, limiting fire size, or all of the above. Every machine and every cook will have its idiosyncrasies and it will take plenty of time to learn them all.
You can even take it a step further and harvest and cure your own wood if learning to properly manage a fire isn’t enough excitement for you.
On the other hand, you may want something more convenient that lets you focus on creativity, recipe creation, and perfect time and temps rather than the fire itself. Take the fire out of the equation and you are left with thousands of ingredients and thousands of ways to prepare each of them. BBQ is a hobby which you could truly spend a lifetime perfecting.
You need something that is built like a tank and has a small enough footprint to be easily moved across the country in a trailer.
Travel shouldn’t be your only consideration though, nor is it the most important. Competitions demand precise timing and results every single time from both the competitors and their chosen equipment. Competitors must come to know and trust the equipment they use to the point that it is an extension of themselves. That is why the best smoker for competitor use is the one that has proved itself to be the most reliable performer in your experience.
Sponsorships play a role, of course. Companies frequently incentivize competitors to use their brand of smoker. Consequently, you will find a lot of the same equipment on competition trailers.
Competitors won’t use whatever people pay them to use though. Competition BBQ is an expensive endeavor. With the costs of travel, prime grade meat, high quality ingredients, rubs, sauces, tools, and equipment, competition BBQ is expensive. There are few winners and losing is costly.
Competitors use a lot of the same equipment because those brands set themselves apart by establishing their products as high quality, reliable performers.
You will find high end bullet, drum, offset, and pellet smokers like the MAK Two-Star General, on the back of many competition trailers.
Among the teams that MAK sponsors are American Royal World series of BBQ winners Big Poppa Smokers and Iowa’s Smokey D’s BBQ as well as Jack Daniel’s competitors Maddog’s BBQ & Wine Country Q.
In that case, capacity will be king. You’ll want to find something reliable that can feed an army. Brands like Ole Hickory Pits specialize in commercial units and are NSF certified.
Reliability and the trust it brings are again key here. Most restaurants or caterers will own multiple large smokers, but one of them malfunctioning can still be catastrophic. People are counting on you to deliver, often during important events. Unexpected downtime can be devastating to your business. Take care to faithfully maintain your smokers according to your owners manual and best practices.
More than likely, you just want to make great food for your friends and family. This is where the convenience, flavor, and versatility of pellet smoker-grills are unmatched. There are many advantages of pellet smoker-grills, but in short they allow you to achieve the flavor of smoking real hardwoods, with unmatched safety and convenience. A computer does the work for you and stainless-steel between your food and the fire, reduces the risk of flare-ups and grease fires.
Charcoal has a distinct flavor profile. Briquettes burn uniformly and are created by artificial means, often involving chemicals. These chemicals can create a strong, unpleasant flavor profile on your food. It is common practice to start charcoal with lighter fluid. Avoid this at all costs. Kerosene will flavor the food and constitutes a real fire hazard.
Gas and electric smokers do not create smoke on their own. They are essentially just heat sources that smoke when you add wood chunks, lump charcoal, or pellets to them. Gas grills that malfunction or burn inefficiently for any reason may also impart unwanted flavor to your food.
Stick burners will produce a strong smoke flavor profile that can be overwhelming if not tended by skilled hands. Many find this flavor particularly delicious, however.
Pellet smoker-grills burn with 98% efficiency, creating a clean blue smoke. This eliminates almost all creosote and other particulates and as a result, the smoke flavor will be pleasant, but lighter. If you are looking for that creosote heavy flavor, you won’t find it from a pellet smoker-grill. MAKs create clean blue smoke and won’t create billowing white smoke or the resulting flavor profiles.
Ultimately, the best smoker is the one you can afford, that suits your lifestyle, and that you enjoy using. BBQ should be fun! By imparting smoke, you’re probably going to enhance the flavor of your day-to-day meals no matter which way you go. Do your research and make the right decision for you and your family.