Culinary Arts

What Is a BBQ Smoker? 6 Types of Meat Smokers and the Best Smoker for Texas-Style Barbecue

Written by MasterClass

May 24, 2019 • 3 min read

James Beard Award-winning barbeque pitmaster Aaron Franklin barbecues exclusively on wood-burning offset smokers. He firmly believes that the best, most authentic central Texas barbecue is cooked on smoker grills that generate both their smoke and their heat exclusively from burning wood. That’s not to say you can’t make great food on charcoal grills or gas or propane smokers. It’s just fundamentally different from the Central Texas style of barbecue Aaron cooks with a wood smoker.

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What Are Smokers?

Smokers are the cooking apparatus for barbeque: they allow you to cook food at low temperatures in a controlled, smoky environment. There are all kinds of smokers—from huge custom-made offset smokers that cost thousands of dollars to ceramic outdoor ovens to flimsy smokers you can take on a camping trip.

Types of Smokers: Direct vs. Indirect Heat

All smokers fall into one of two broad categories: direct heat and indirect heat. Offset smokers allow you to cook with indirect heat. This diagram shows how the airflow in offset smokers work:

Diagram of bbq smoker design

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By contrast, meat smokers designed with the heat source directly beneath the grate allow you to cook with direct heat.

Neither is better or worse than the other; in fact, you’ll find both are used at barbecue restaurants throughout Texas as they both offer temperature control. 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.

6 Types of Smokers: Wood-Burning or Otherwise

Smokers can also be categorized according to how they generate heat—with wood pellets or with other materials:

  1. Stick Burners. As the name implies, these smokers (like the offsets Aaron uses) 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 like Aaron’s are often custom made with heavy-duty materials and quite expensive. 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. Aaron cooked his first brisket on an offset smoker he bought for $100 at a sporting goods store. You’ll build experience with each cook and decide for yourself if and when you need to upgrade to a more expensive model.
  2. Charcoal Smokers. This category includes bullet smokers (like the stainless steel 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.
  3. Pellet Smokers. Like a kitchen oven, a pellet smoker or pellet grill 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. And while pellet smokers have their proponents, Aaron personally believes a live, active fire can make the difference between barbecue that’s great and barbecue that’s merely good (or even bad).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 meat, 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.

Learn more about smokers and Texas-style barbeque in Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass.