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What Is a Barbecue Smoker?
A smoker is an outdoor cooking device that adds smokey flavor to barbecued foods, like Texas-style brisket, Southern pulled pork, and smoked veggies. Smokers either rely on wood as their sole fuel source, gently cooking meats with the indirect heat of smoke over long periods of time, or make use of wood chunks, chips, or pellets in combination with another source of fuel.
6 Different Types of Barbecue Smokers
Smokers differ not only in fuel source but in shape, materials, and more, with each type of smoker having its own advantages and disadvantages.
- Stick burners. As the name implies, these smokers rely solely on wood as their fuel source. They require near-constant attention during the cook and also have a steep learning curve. High-quality offset smokers are often custom-made with heavy-duty materials and quite expensive. There are also prefabricated models available from manufacturers online. Inexpensive offset smokers sold at hardware and department stores are notoriously flimsy, leaky, and bad at retaining heat, but they can work with a few meaningful modifications. (More on that below.)
- Charcoal smokers. This category includes bullet smokers (like the Weber Smokey Mountain), ceramic kamado ovens (like the Big Green Egg), and drum smokers (like the Pit Barrel Cooker). While not totally hands-off, charcoal smokers don’t require nearly the level of attention as a stick burner. Once the coals are lit, you adjust the temperature with built-in dampers that control airflow. While most of the smoke comes from the charcoal, you can add wood chunks or chips for extra flavor, but because the wood smolders rather than combusts, its smoke isn’t quite as clean and flavorful as the smoke from a stick burner can be.
- Pellet smokers. Like a kitchen oven, a pellet smoker is thermostatically controlled. Plug it in, set the temperature, and the smoker does the rest, automatically feeding pellets of compressed sawdust into a fire pot to combust as needed for smoke and heat. Pellet smokers are easy to use but the advanced tech also means they’re breakable in a way other smokers aren’t.
- Gas smokers. Gas provides consistent cooking temperatures but doesn’t produce smoke, so the addition of wood in the form of chips or chunks is mandatory for barbecue. For longer cooks, make sure you have multiple tanks of propane on hand, as a single tank might not suffice.
- Electric smokers. An electric smoker uses wood chips, water, and a heating element to produce smoke rather than an open flame, and the lack of combustion gives its smoke a much different flavor than a live fire.
- Kettle grills. The live-fire cooking apparatus that home cooks are most used to seeing (and owning) is the standard kettle grill. Kettle grills aren’t really built for slow smoking, but they will absolutely work if you approach them thoughtfully. You’ll need to set up the grill for indirect heat by restricting the charcoal to one side of the grill. Your smoke will come from wood chunks or chips that you add to the charcoal. Make sure you have a thermometer set up close to where the meat sits in order to get an accurate temperature reading.
How Do You Choose the Right Smoker?
All smokers fall into one of two broad categories: direct heat and indirect heat.
- If you’re using an offset smoker, then your cooking method is always going to be indirect.
- If, on the other hand, your smoker is designed with the heat source directly beneath the grate, you’re cooking with direct heat.
- Neither is better or worse than the other. The main thing with direct heat is making sure there’s enough space between your fire and your food. Put them too close together and you’ll end up grilling rather than barbecuing.
Smokers can also be categorized according to how they generate heat. Some believe the best, most authentic central Texas barbecue is cooked on smokers that generate both their smoke and their heat exclusively from burning wood. That’s not to say you can’t make great food on a smoker that runs on charcoal or gas.
When choosing a smoker, keep in mind a few things.
- Size. Will you be barbecuing for a large crowd, of a family of four? Bigger cuts require a bigger smoker.
- Time commitment. Some smokers require near-constant attention, whereas others are more hands-off.
- Budget. Smokers come in a wide range of prices. High quality offset smokers are often custom made with heavy-duty materials and quite expensive. If you know how to weld or know someone who does, you can find instructions for building an offset smoker. Inexpensive offset smokers sold at hardware and department stores are notoriously flimsy, leaky, and bad at retaining heat, but they can work with a few meaningful modifications.
8 Ways To Modify a Barbecue Smoker
With or without modifications, a cheaper smoker can absolutely get the job done. You’ll build experience with each cook and decide for yourself if and when you need to upgrade to a more expensive model.
- Temperature gauge. One of the easiest and most common modifications to make, this could be as simple as swapping out the factory part that came with your smoker for a dial that’s bigger or more to your liking, or even installing a Wi-Fi-enabled device that allows you to keep track of the temperature from inside your house. You may also realize over time that the temperature gauge is situated too close to your fire or too far from where you normally place your meat. If so, drill a hole and install another gauge wherever you want it. Having multiple gauges at different ends of the cook chamber also comes in handy if you regularly cook multiple briskets or racks of ribs at the same time.
- Water pans. Adding warm water to a container inside the cook chamber adds moisture and humidity to the environment, which can help keep the meat from drying out. A disposable aluminum pan is all you need.
- Drip pans. Over the course of a long cook, your meat is going to drip grease and rendered fat into the bottom of your cook chamber. It’s messy and can turn rancid if it isn’t dealt with. It’s also a fire hazard. Some smokers come equipped with a drain or drip pan already installed, but if not, you can add a large, shallow pan beneath the grate of your smoker. Even a disposable aluminum pan will do in a pinch.
- Baffle plates. An offset smoker cooks food via convection, pulling air from the firebox through the cook chamber and then out the smoke stack. Air and smoke is hot when it leaves the firebox, and because heat rises, the air and smoke naturally wants to rise to the top of the cooking chamber. If, on the other hand, you install a steel baffle plate (a.k.a. tuning plate) right where the air and smoke enter, you effectively guide the flow of the smoke, forcing it down before it eventually rises up, thus distributing the heat and smoke more evenly. You can permanently install a baffle plate or even just insert temporary piece of metal at the opening of the smoker. When the chimney and the firebox are on the same side of the smoker, and a baffle plate directs smoke from the firebox through the cook chamber and then back out the chimney, the action of forcing smoke back around the system is called “reverse flow.”
- Sealant. Gaps in between parts on an inexpensive smoker can cause heat loss. To prevent this, you can install a gasket (such as LavaLock) to the bottom of the cook chamber door and use high-temperature silicone sealant around other spaces.
- Charcoal basket. Putting your fuel in a charcoal basket can help manage temperature, making it easier to remove ash from the firebox and maintain airflow.
- Fire bricks. Adding fire bricks—they look just like regular bricks but are really good at holding heat—to the cook chamber can help with heat retention, keeping the cook chamber temperature stable.
- Cast iron pan. Gas or electric smokers that rely on wood chips to add smoky flavor often come with a cheap chip pan to hold wood chips. An easy upgrade is to replace it with a cast iron pan, which can reach very high temperatures and retain heat.
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