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Choosing a Smoker

If you are new to the world of real barbecue you are likely to be astonished by the wide array of smokers available to the home enthusiast.  I know I certainly was when I made my initial forays into a world of terminology, contraptions and heated argument, all of which sounded completely foreign to me.  Once you learn a few of the basics however, you will readily able to distinguish among the different types of hardware and make a choice as to which is the best for your needs.

The Basics

Smokers, the generic term applied to the box in which the meat is cooked, consists of the same essential elements even though they may be configured differently to suit conditions, quantity, heat source, aesthetics, etc.

  • They all contain a heat source.   The source may be a firebox for burning wood, a container for charcoal or electrical heating elements.
  • They all have a cooking chamber.   The cooking chamber is where the meats will sit, usually on grates or spits, during the smoking process.  It must be capable of temperature regulation and it must be positioned so that smoke can enter the chamber and surround the meat.
  • Another aspect of a smoker is that the heat source and the cooking chamber are always configured such that the meat is cooked indirectly.   In a smokehouse configuration the firebox (heat source) is usually on one side of the smoker while the cooking chamber is on the other (horizontal design.)  In a water smoker, the meats sit above the heat source, but are separated by a water pan. The heat is directed to the cooking chamber through the use of baffles and vents.  The meats never are in direct contact with the heating source.
  • The cooking chamber must have adequate ventilation.  Properly configured a smoker will have a ventilation system that allows smoke to be drawn from the heat source, pulled into the cooking chamber where it surrounds the meat and vents that allow the smoke and moisture in the cooking chamber to be vented out in a controlled fashion.  Beyond those basic elements everything else relates more to convenience, capacity and the personal whims of the pitmaster than to the results it will yield.

Most smokers made for the home come in two varieties:  those that are designed horizontally (often referred to as wood smokers), and those that are designed vertically (water smokers.)

Wood Smokers

Brinkmann SmokerSo called because the size and design of these smokers allow for using wood logs as the heat source.  This is both in keeping with tradition as well as allowing the pit master to harvest, or at least select, the fuel with just the right burning and flavoring qualities to suit his or her particular taste.

The picture to the left is a smoker made by the Brinkmann Corporation and is quite typical of the "portable" smokers available to backyard barbecuers.  The firebox (heat source for this type of smoker) is located to the left.  Note that it is configured so that the fuel can be accessed without opening the cooking chamber, thus allowing heat to escape.  The single level cooking chamber is obvious by the goodies currently on the cooking grate and the chimney (cooking chamber vent) can be seen on the right rear of the unit.

To the right is the "Wilbur D. Hog".  A do-it-yourself project that is much fancier and, obviously, a lot less portable than the Brinkmann, but essentially the same.  Note the fireboxThe Wilbur D. Hog Pit door on the left and the door to the cooking chamber is to the right.  The chimneys provide ventilation.  Beside these two examples there are dozens of manufacturers of home smokers, including many do-it-yourself kits for the truly dedicated.   They can range from a couple of hundred to many hundreds of dollars.

They will all get the job done.  Some factors to consider are:

  • portability - do you want to take the smoker to the next family reunion?  Or forever host it at your place?
  • capacity - 8-10 pounds of spare ribs will easily fill up a cooking grate.  The same space should allow room enough room for 3-5 pound butts or 4-31/2 pound chickens.  This may sound like a lot but doesn't cut it for a large gathering.
  • flexibility - having a second cooking grate in the cooking chamber is great.  It expands your capacity and increases flexibility.

Water Smokers

Arguments have raged for decades as to the necessity of introducing additional moisture into the smoker (see Barbecuing Techniques).  While it may seem that water smokers would be the invention of the pro-moisture set, they were really designed to provide a highly portable, inexpensive, space saving alternative to wood smokers.Brinkmann Sportsman

In a water smoker, such as the Brinkmann Sportsman pictured to the left, the essential design is vertical rather than horizontal.  The heat source, either a charcoal container or electrical coils are located at the bottom.  Above that sits a water pan separating the heat from the cooking chamber above.  The water pan prevents the meat from being exposed directly to the heat source (remember indirect cooking?) and makes this vertical design possible.  These smokers have a smaller footprint than regular grills, which make them ideal for decks or back porches.  They are also modular and break apart easily for transporting to your next outing.  By the way they can be reconfigured to function as grills (except the electric models).

Aside from design considerations the water pan ensures a constant amount of moisture in the cooking chamber.  This combines with the smoke particles to coat the meat, sealing in the juices, while providing the meat with constant basting.  The water can be spiked with, or replaced by, all sorts of flavorings from herbs and spices to beers and wines.  A very nice added benefit.  The capacity of the water smokers is certainly adequate although it cannot approach the wood smokers in this regard.  The Brinkmann Sportsman claims a 50 pound capacity but my experience suggests 30 pounds is more like it.  Nevertheless, that feeds a lot of hungry people.


Want to play around first?  Before you decide?  Well, if you have a kettle grill (see Grilling) you can produce some satisfying barbecue without anything else to purchase.  You can't barbecue large quantities, but you can certainly determine if this is something worth further investment.  Set up your kettle grill for indirect cooking with the coals to the sides, meat in the middle set over a water/drip pan placed at the bottom of the kettle.  Adjust your vents to get the temperature down into the smoking range (200 to 225 degrees), sprinkle some soaked wood chipsWeber Smokey Mountain on the coals, close the lid and, viola!   Mock barbecue!

Of course it won't duplicate all of the advantages of a real smoker, but for small quantities you'll be wonderfully surprised.

Pictured to the right is the Weber Smokey Mountain water smoker, and this is what I've used for years.  It is considered to be a Cadillac among water smokers and costs about three times what the Brinkmann Sportsman (above) costs.  I have had nothing but success, and would recommend it to anyone.

With that said, however, it is not what I generally recommend to people just starting out.  Learning to smoke food properly is a commitment, and it's not just the learning process.  Many enthusiastic first timers find themselves put off by the time it can consume.  It's not that you have to tend a smoker every minute, but it does take a lot of minutes.  One 3-1/2 pound chicken takes 3-4 hours not including setup time.  Want to have pulled pork barbecue for dinner?  Most of your Saturday will be consumed.  For this reason I direct first timers to the best combination of easy-to-use and low price.  If you find yourself losing interest you don't want hundreds of dollars tied up.

For the tentative among you I recommend an electric fired water smoker.  Brinkmann makes an excellent, entry level model for about $100.  Using an electric model takes the guess work out of controlling the temperature (the critical factor in good barbecue, and the hardest element to master) while minimizing your investment.  It is highly portable to boot.  If you find yourself in barbecue-love you can always go hog wild (sorry, couldn't help myself) later, and build the ultimate pit in your backyard.   You'll still find yourself using the water smoker from time-to-time.

Still have questions?  You can e-mail me and I'll be glad to answer them for you if I can.

Good Barbecue To You,
Big Daddy  

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