Last updated: August 11, 2021

When it comes to grilling meat, there are many different options. Whether indoors or outdoors, slow or fast - there is a suitable grill for everything. One variation is to cook the meat in a smoker using indirect heat. This cooks it over a longer period of time and makes it very tender in the end. In our smoker test 2021 we introduce you to the different types of smokers. You can distinguish between barrel / offset smokers, reverse flow smokers, water / bullet smokers, pellet smokers and digital / electric smokers. Each type of smoker has its own advantages and disadvantages. Furthermore, you will find a lot of important information about smokers in this article, for example how a smoker works, what sizes there are and what you should consider when you want to buy a smoker.




The most important facts

  • With a smoker, you are able to cook the food slowly by indirectly supplying heat. In contrast to a conventional grill, meat can be prepared very tenderly in a smoker.
  • Depending on the type and preference, you can choose a barrel and offset smoker, reverse flow smoker, water and bullet smoker, pellet smoker or digital and electric smoker.
  • The dimensions, weight, size of the grilling surface, workmanship and additional functions are decisive factors and criteria that you should consider when choosing a smoker.

Smoker: Our Picks

Guide: Questions you should ask yourself before buying a smoker

Before we explain in more detail which types of smokers you can choose from, we will show you what makes a smoker. You can also find out more about the cost of a smoker and where you can buy one.

What is a smoker grill?

A smoker is a type of cooking oven. The special feature is that the food is not cooked directly over an open fire, as is the case with barbecuing, but is cooked by the smoke in the hot chamber. Although the construction of smokers differs depending on the type and model, each barbecue smoker basically consists of a heating chamber, a cooking chamber and an exhaust.

If you use a smoker, you may have to wait a little longer for your barbecued food, but you will then be rewarded with extremely tender and juicy meat. Thanks to the gentle cooking method, which uses less heat than normal grilling, a unique taste is created. (Image source: akwsys / pixabay.com)

How these three components are finally processed in the appliance varies greatly from type to type. Barrel smokers and reverse-flow smokers rely on two chambers, side-fire box and pit, which are lined up next to each other. Devices such as the Water-Smoker or the Electric-Smoker are designed in such a way that the heating takes place in the cooking chamber. Thus, the heating chamber is incorporated into the cooking chamber in a modified form.

How does smocking meat work and what advantages does it have over other types of grilling?

Grilling is especially popular in the warmer months. But there are different ways you can prepare your grilled food. The different options have various advantages and disadvantages and ultimately also influence the taste of the meat. Smocking is a preparation method that is becoming more and more popular. Conventional grills use a very simple method of cooking the food directly over a heat source. However, when grilling, there is a risk that the heat is too high and the food will burn on the outside while it is not yet cooked on the inside. This problem is eliminated with a smoker, because smocking uses indirect heat. The meat and other ingredients are only surrounded by hot smoke gases and thus gently cooked. The smoke penetrates the fibres and develops its unmistakable aroma there.
Cooking method Description
Grilling When grilling, the food is cooked directly over an open heat source, which is why this method often requires only a few minutes for preparation. However, due to the increased heat (approx. 200-300 degrees), it is not uncommon for the food to burn on the outside while it is not yet fully cooked on the inside. In addition, the burning of dripping liquids releases harmful substances.
Smoking Unlike grilling, smocking uses indirect heat (approx. 90-130 degrees). The food is cooked evenly by hot smoke flowing around it, which on the one hand creates unique flavours and on the other hand prevents the problems of grilling with direct heat. On the negative side, the indirect heat and lower temperature mean that much more time is needed for cooking than with conventional grilling. Simply
Smoking When smoking, a distinction is generally made between hot and cold smoking. Here, too, indirect heat is used, which is generated by burning dry wood in a firebox. The decisive advantage of cold smoking (approx. 20-26 degrees) is that the food is preserved by the antibacterial effect of the smoke and thus has a longer shelf life.

The temperature generated in the smoker, at around 90-180 degrees, is also significantly lower than that required for grilling. This means that the cooking process takes a little longer, but this is rewarded with tender, juicy and aroma-intensive results.

Which smoker is suitable for which purpose?

The intended use of your smoker should also play a role in the purchase. Before buying, you should know what fuel you want to burn and how many people you usually want to feed. The fuel can technically support the tasting process and provide different flavours. Smokers are usually large and have enough space to serve 6-10 people. Most models come in different sizes, so you can decide for yourself whether you want a space-saving or very large model. For private use, commercially available models are sufficient in most cases.

How big should a smoker be?

As already mentioned, you have a wide choice of models on the market, which come in various sizes. To make your decision easier, you should consider in advance where you want to place your smoker and how much space it can or should take up. This will help you to narrow down your choice, as horizontal smokers usually take up a lot of space. If there is a lack of space, we recommend a smoker with a vertical design (e.g. water smoker). If you want a large model and don't have to worry about the dimensions, then there is nothing to stop you buying a horizontally constructed smoker (e.g. barrel or reverse flow smoker).

How much does a smoker cost?

If you are thinking about buying a smoker, the question of price quickly arises. Smokers are available in all price ranges, from small devices for the hobby grill master to professional devices for top caterers. Inexpensive models start at around 30 euros. If you would like to invest more money in the long term, the sky's the limit. A mid-range appliance that also meets higher quality standards and reliably delivers solid results is available from about 150-250 euros. But of course you can go even more luxurious and the price of a smoker increases with size and additional functions. Top devices are also available around 400-650 euros or even more. In addition, the technological range of functions and the type of smoker play a role in the price. The higher the range of functions, the higher the price. For example, classic barrel, reverse-flow and water smokers can be found in the two-digit range, while electric smokers cost at least three figures.

Can I also rent a Smoker Grill?

Hiring a smoker is also a good option if you want to use it for a one-off or annual event but have no other use for it. If you don't want to buy your own smoker, you can simply rent one. Rental devices are usually expensive professional devices that are quite expensive to purchase. It can therefore be worthwhile to only rent them temporarily. If you decide on this alternative, you have to reckon with the fact that you will have to pay cleaning and delivery costs in addition to the actual price.

What alternatives are there to a smoker?

As an alternative to smocking, you still have the conventional barbecue with wood, coal or gas or smoking. With smoking, the food is cooked by the smoke, just like with smocking. The biggest advantage of grilling with a charcoal or gas grill is definitely the speed. This is much slower than cooking with smoke. In addition, grills are usually smaller than smokers and smoke ovens, although space-saving alternatives are already available. An open fire, such as a campfire, is also a good alternative for a smoker. If you don't have a garden or a fireplace, you can use public fireplaces or barbecue areas or buy a fire bowl or fire basket. Fire bowls are particularly popular because they create a romantic atmosphere in addition to the barbecue.

Decision: What types of smokers are there and which is the right one for you?

Basically, there are different types of smokers:

  • Barrel / offset smoker
  • Reverse-flow smoker
  • Water / Bullet Smoker
  • Pellet smoker
  • Digital / electric smoker

These types differ mainly in their construction, technology and the fuel they require. From manually operated grills to fully automatic devices, you can find a wide range of products nowadays. If you enjoy the unmistakable smoky taste of food from a smoker and would like to try your hand at it yourself, it is important to find the device that meets your requirements. (Source: barbecue-smoker-grill.com) In the following section, we would like to help you find out which is the right smoker grill for you. For this purpose, we will introduce you to the above-mentioned types and clearly present their individual advantages and disadvantages.

What distinguishes a barrel smoker and what are the advantages and disadvantages?

The barrel smoker is the most common type of barbecue smoker. Also known as an offset smoker, the barbecue grill is composed of two chambers: a large, horizontal cooking chamber (pit) and a smaller, side-mounted heating chamber (side-fire box). It is usually made of thick-walled steel pipes with a diameter of about 40-60 cm. The heating chamber is filled with the desired firewood and fired. From there, the resulting smoke is directed into the interior of the cooking chamber. This usually contains one or more grills on which the food to be prepared is placed. Once the smoke has passed through the entire cooking chamber, it escapes via a chimney, which can be attached in various ways depending on the design. Barrel smokers are available in many different designs. From small barbecues for the home to metre-long professional devices for the catering sector, everyone can find a device that meets their individual requirements.

Advantages
  • Robust construction
  • Simple design
  • Large selection of models
  • Variety of flavours
  • Plenty of space for cooking food
Disadvantages
  • Heavy weight
  • No automatic temperature control
  • High cleaning effort
  • Uneven temperature distribution

Since the temperature cannot be controlled electronically, but depends on the type and amount of wood burnt, the heating and heat distribution must be monitored and adjusted during the cooking process. This requires a little know-how and practice - then nothing stands in the way of the optimum result!

What distinguishes a reverse-flow smoker and what are the advantages and disadvantages?

Similar to the barrel smoker, the reverse flow smoker consists of two chambers: a large, horizontal cooking chamber (pit) and a smaller, side-mounted heating chamber (side-fire box). The special feature of the reverse-flow smoker is the built-in baffle plate, an intermediate plate that deflects the incoming hot air and thus ensures a more even temperature distribution in the cooking chamber. The smoke produced in the side-fire box is directed into the cooking chamber. There, it must first flow past under the baffle plate before it is distributed throughout the entire chamber. In the process, the plate heats up and ensures stable temperature conditions. After the hot air has passed through both chambers, it exits through a chimney on the side of the heating chamber. Reverse flow smokers offer you the possibility to freely choose which wood you use for heating. This allows you to influence the taste of meat and other cooked food and to approach completely new taste experiences. Although there is no electronic temperature control, the design ensures even temperature distribution in the cooking chamber. This way, you don't run the risk of some delicacies burning while others are still undercooked.

Advantages
  • Robust construction
  • Variety of flavours
  • Even temperature distribution
  • Plenty of space for food
Disadvantages
  • Heavy weight
  • No automatic temperature control
  • High cleaning effort

However, the temperature depends on the amount and type of wood used. This means that as a grill master, you often have to be on hand to detect and compensate for temperature fluctuations.

What distinguishes a water smoker and what are the advantages and disadvantages?

The water smoker is also called a bullet smoker because of its shape. Common models consist of a vertical, cylindrical steel body, which is closed with a hemispherical lid. The footed lower part houses adjustable vents and a basket in which the fuel is fired. Usually, charcoal is used and pieces of wood are added as desired to give the smoke a special flavour. Thanks to the vertical construction, the smoker can be adapted to your own needs. Water bowls and grill grates can be inserted in stages thanks to ring-shaped elevations (stackers). In this way, you can decide for yourself on how many and which levels your delicacies are cooked. In most cases, both the smoker and the individual stackers have side flaps that make it easier to refill the fuel and water.

Advantages
  • Space-saving due to vertical construction
  • Efficient use of the entire cooking chamber
  • Stable temperature conditions
  • Long running time
  • Mobile use due to size and weight
Disadvantages
  • Charcoal may adulterate the taste
  • High cleaning effort
  • Many accessories that can be stored

This BBQ grill is ideal for grilling pleasure to go. Its size and weight make it easy to transport and set up wherever you want to use it - at home, in the park or even on the beach.

What distinguishes a pellet smoker and what are the advantages and disadvantages?

The pellet smoker is a variation of the classic smoker. The pellet smoker is heated with specially produced wood pellets. It consists of a cooking chamber (pit) and a storage container in which the fuel is stored. The classic side-fire box is replaced by a power-operated ignition. The pellet smoker takes over the responsibility for heating! Before use, you simply enter the desired temperature and place meat and fish in the smoker - from here on, the processes run fully automatically. The temperature and combustion are monitored and controlled electronically. This ensures that the right amount of pellets is always transported to the heating chamber and burnt at the right intervals, so that the cooking process delivers an optimal result. So you don't have to worry about anything except taking the food out of the smoker as soon as it has reached the desired cooking stage!

Advantages
  • Automatic temperature control
  • Tasteful variety of flavours
  • No need to continuously add fuel
Disadvantages
  • Electricity connection required
  • Purchase of special pellets required
  • High entry price

The pellet smoker offers you an electronically controlled alternative to the classic version. Thanks to the closed system, you only have to make sure that enough pellets of the desired type of wood are stored and the smoker can do its work. Depending on the frequency and intensity of use, it is not necessary to refill the pellets before each use. A temperature sensor constantly monitors the heat inside the grill and adjusts the processes if necessary to ensure that your desired setting is carried out exactly. Unlike simpler designs, the pellet smoker needs to be connected to electricity. Once this is done, the barbecue (BBQ) can begin!

What distinguishes an electric smoker and what are the advantages and disadvantages?

Another option for smocking is the electric or digital smoker. As a modern version of a smoker grill, it is digitally controlled and generates the perfect temperature in the cooking chamber fully automatically. So if you can confidently do without the work involved in smocking food, but not without the typical smoky taste, the electric smoker offers you a time-saving alternative. Once the desired temperature and cooking time have been set, the ingredients are cooked - all by themselves! The digital smoker consists of a cabinet in which several grids are placed on top of each other. The ingredients are placed on top, wood chips and water are filled into the containers provided and the appliance is started - from this point on, the smoker does all the work.

Advantages
  • Fully automatic control and regulation
  • Stable temperature conditions
  • Effective use of the cooking chamber
  • Low cleaning effort
  • Variety of flavours
Disadvantages
  • High entry-level price
  • Electricity connection required
  • No typical smoker flair

Digital presetting, automatic control, electronic monitoring and regulation - the electric smoker offers an all-round carefree package. Depending on the model and version, the range of features is extended by further technical gadgets, such as control via WiFi connection. In favour of the many advantages, you forego the visual flair of a cosy afternoon with sizzling spare ribs and steaks on the grill. If you don't particularly value this, nothing stands in the way of enjoying a smoky, aromatic delicacy thanks to the Electric Smoker!

Buying criteria: Use these factors to compare and evaluate smokers

In the following, we would like to show you which factors you can use to compare and evaluate BBQ smokers. This will make it easier for you to decide whether a particular appliance is suitable for you or not. In summary, these are:

  • Size of the grilling surface
  • Overall dimensions
  • Weight
  • Material and material thickness
  • Division of the grates
  • Shelves
  • Accessories and functions

In the following paragraphs you can read about the individual purchase criteria and how you can classify them.

Size of the barbecue surface

You're throwing a barbecue party and there's no shortage of guests or food. You want to offer your friends delicious treats from the smoker. But disillusionment soon follows - you prepare the individual dishes one after the other, but just as you are taking the last spare ribs out of the barbecue grill, you notice that the rest of the food is already ice cold. When choosing a suitable barbecue smoker, it is important to choose the right size of grill surface. The larger it is, the more you can cook at the same time. Especially if you plan to feed larger groups on a regular basis, you should choose a smoker with an appropriately large grilling surface. This way, you can achieve a high production capacity during one cooking cycle and save a lot of time. If you are thinking of smocking for yourself or catering for just one or two other diners, smaller models are usually sufficient.

Overall dimensions

In addition to the dimensions of the grilling surface, the overall dimensions of the smoker grill are also decisive when buying. Usually, even small models measure at least 50 cm in width and depth. As already explained, vertical models are particularly suitable if you have less space available. If you have a balcony or a small terrace and still want to be able to stand at the smoker yourself, water smokers are recommended. Their interior can be used very efficiently, allowing you to cook relatively large quantities at the same time. However, if you prefer a classic barrel smoker, you will also find smaller models in this range that are in no way inferior to larger devices. Barrel smokers are offered in numerous sizes and designs. With various additional chambers and smoke towers, there are hardly any limits to the size of the barbecues. If you are of the opinion that bigger is always better, then there is nothing to be said against a barbecue smoker several metres long, which will amaze every barbecue fan!

Weight

Before buying a smoker grill, you should also consider the weight of the appliance. If the appliance has a fixed position and is not usually moved from there, the weight is probably of secondary importance. However, if you want to be mobile and decide spontaneously where to fire up the grill, you should make sure that the model of your choice is also designed for this.

A low weight is crucial for rollable smokers.

Smoker types such as barrel and reverse flow smokers are characterised by their robust construction. However, this is accompanied by a large amount of steel, which usually adds up to a very considerable weight. However, most models are equipped with wheels or tyres that make it easier for you to move the smoker to its place and back again if necessary. Other types, such as the water and digital smoker, are characterised by their comparatively smaller size. In most cases, devices of these types only stand on fixed legs and not on castors. If you want to move the smoker, this is not made any easier and depends on your muscle power.

Material and thickness

Most smokers are made of (steel) sheet metal. However, this is rarely used untreated; heat-resistant coatings are intended to make the material even more durable. During the smoking process, the material is constantly exposed to high temperatures. It not only has to withstand these temperatures, but must also be able to withstand them. You should therefore make sure that the walls of your smoker are not too thin. A thickness of about 5-7 mm would be ideal. In the end, however, it also depends on how intensively you want to use the barbecue grill. If you only want to cook a few steaks now and then, you should have no problems with thinner materials. If, on the other hand, you want to use the smoker extensively or even professionally, you should consider investing in a model that is in the optimal range. In addition to the running time for the individual cooking processes, the lifetime of the appliance should also be longer than with the thin-walled competition.

Partitioning of the grates

The interior of your smoker can be as large as you like, but if the grill grates are poorly distributed, you won't be able to use it optimally. And what good is a large grilling surface if you can't use it efficiently? Most smoker models do not rely on a single continuous surface, but rather on a system of multi-piece grill grates.

Bullet and electric smokers are basically designed to distribute and cook meat on multiple levels. Barrel and reverse flow smokers do not always have the option of adjusting the height of the grill grates.

If it is important for you to be able to decide for yourself at what distance from each other and from the smoke source your ingredients should be smoked, you will find numerous models in the higher-priced segment that are equipped with corresponding devices. In many appliances, you will also find a warming rack that is mounted at a higher level. You can place your finished food on this. Surrounded by the residual heat in the smoker grill, they remain pleasantly warm and fresh. Typically, (especially) barrel and reverse flow smokers have a separate heating chamber (side-fire box). Many models are equipped with an additional grate. This allows you to use the fire box for cooking in addition to the main grilling area in the cooking chamber.

Shelf

Before the grilled food finds its way onto the plate, it usually needs to be stored temporarily, for which a shelf next to the smoker is ideal. There you can easily store your ingredients, spices and grilling tools and always have them within reach. You should make sure that the shelf is large enough to be useful, but not too large and only gets in the way when barbecuing.

Accessories and functions

Especially smokers in the higher price segment shine with many extra features. From additional cooking chambers to smoke towers and special inserts, everything is available. Height-adjustable smokers offer the possibility of further adapting the appliance to one's own wishes and making the cooking process more pleasant.

Accessories and extra equipment can make your purchase decision easier.

In recent years, some smokers have developed into high-tech electric appliances. Electric smokers do almost all the work and offer additional gadgets, such as control via WiFi. If you're into technical gadgets, you should definitely consider a digital smoker. If not, take a closer look at the features of each grill and see if there is a particular feature that makes a model stand out and better suited to you and your purpose.

Interesting facts about smokers

Should a smoker be baked?

You should burn in most types of smokers before using them for the first time in order to enjoy your smoker for as long as possible. Baking allows the coating on your smoker to soak in properly and makes the coating weatherproof. To burn in your BBQ smoker properly, it should be heated for about two hours at 120-140 degrees. After it has cooled down completely, the smoker should be coated with oil and then fired up again for about an hour at 140 degrees. The temperature should not exceed 140 degrees.

How did today's smoker come into being?

Barbecue smokers, as we know them, go back to a technique that was developed and used as early as the 18th century. At that time, slaves and poor families could not afford comparatively expensive kitchen appliances. In order to be able to cook meat anyway, they heated pits with embers and placed the perishable food in them. Over several hours, the meat was finally cooked and ready to eat. Even then, the smoky taste played a major role - supposed meat scraps that were impossible to roast over direct heat suddenly became edible food. This method has been handed down over the course of time and has been constantly improved; necessity has become virtue. Nowadays it is still possible to enjoy the unmistakable aroma of smoked meat without the great effort that was involved in the past.

Can I build a smoker myself?

In the USA in particular, it is very common to build a smoker yourself. In the land of unlimited possibilities, barbecue is a true passion for many barbecue fans. There are many creations of their own that go beyond the usual commercial dimensions - metre-long smokers (e.g. as trailers) can be seen not only at barbecue events. But homemade does not have to mean big! Simple smoker constructions can be made without great physical and financial effort. Basically, all that is needed is an empty steel barrel into which a charcoal basket and grill grates are installed. In the trade, these homemade smokers are also called ugly drum smokers. If you have mastered your craft, it is also easy to build your own barrel smoker. Building instructions can be found very quickly on the internet! If you can't find what you're looking for among the commercially available models, but want to rely on the expertise of a professional when building a smoker, you can also have a personalised barbecue grill designed and built for you by some suppliers.

Which fuels are suitable for smokers?

Different fuel materials can also be used for smokers. These have different advantages and disadvantages and influence the taste of the food.

Fuel Advantages Disadvantages
Charcoal Unique taste, Burns easily and glows quickly Glows quickly, Produces a lot of smoke, Time-consuming, Long cooling time
Barbecue briquettes Long, constant and even glow, High temperatures, Economical consumption More expensive, larger and more compact, Produces a lot of smoke
Gas High temperatures very quickly, Easy temperature regulation, Easy cleaning, Little smoke No smoky aroma, Higher purchase price, Little mobility

When it comes to the different fuels, you should be guided by the type of smoker you have and not choose arbitrarily. For example, heating with pellets is best suited for a pellet smoker. It is best to stick to the recommended fuel for your smoker.

Picture credits: unsplash.com / Scott Madore

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