There are all sorts of smokers on the market, but charcoal and wood create a rich, smoky flavor that can’t be replicated. It takes a little bit of effort to nail down temperature control with charcoal, but once you master your fire, the results are totally worth it! Let’s dive in so you can choose the best charcoal smoker for your backyard.
Quick Summary | 5 Best Charcoal Smokers
- If you’re familiar with charcoal smokers at all, then our top pick is probably no surprise to you: Weber’s Smokey Mountain is the gold standard due to its durable design and ability to maintain consistent temperatures over long periods of time.
- In the second spot is Dyna-Glo’s 36″ Vertical Charcoal Smoker. With 4 cooking grates and 784 square inches of cooking area, it’s the largest of the bunch and can handle enough meat to feed a sizable crowd.
- Similar to the Weber Smokey Mountain in design, but lighter in build, Cuisinart’s COS-116 is another solid bullet-shaped model.
- The Char-Broil Bullet Charcoal Smoker, which features a numbered temperature control, is great for absolute beginners.
- If you want something that’s portable and also functions as a grill, the Dyna-Glo Compact Bullet Charcoal Smoker is for you.
What to Consider Before Purchasing a Charcoal Smoker
Here are some factors to consider before choosing a smoker:
Size and Cooking Area
Not all smokers are created equal, and if you’re cooking for a large crowd, a compact smoker isn’t for you. However, there’s more to size than just dimensions and weight – be sure to check out how many racks a smoker has and the total cooking area. Generally one rack has enough room for a whole brisket or 2-3 slabs of ribs, but obviously it varies by model.
Avoid thin metal when choosing a charcoal smoker. You might find a lightweight smoker appealing initially, but it can be a sign of flimsy design. If parts of your smoker bend, it can become difficult to put the various pieces together (base, main chamber, and lid).
Keep an eye out for portability features if you want to travel with your smoker. Some charcoal smokers come with latches so that you can move around all of the sections together, and some have side handles to aid mobility.
Do you want a smoker that can double as a grill? Some smokers are specifically designed with this capability, but really any one can be modified to function as a grill with a little ingenuity – it’s just a matter of getting a grate close enough to the hot coals.
Top 5 Charcoal Smokers | Individual Reviews
Here are the in-depth reviews of our top five charcoal smokers:
1. Weber Smokey Mountain Review
The Weber Smokey Mountain comes from a classic brand and has something of a cult following. It’s even used in competition by decorated pit-master Harry Soo. The Smokey Mountain is known for two things: superior build quality and the ability to maintain ideal barbecue temps for hours on end.
The WSM comes in three sizes, with the medium model (18-inches) being the most popular by far. The community around this model means there are a ton of resources online when you’re first learning. Perhaps the only negative is that it requires a lot of charcoal, but that can be said for almost any charcoal smoker in this size range.
2. Dyna-Glo 36" Charcoal Smoker Review
The Dyna-Glo Vertical Charcoal Smoker is what you want if you need a ton of space. With four cooking racks on the standard size, and even more on their large and extra-large sizes, it has a whopping 784 square inches of cooking space. The smoker can be used with or without the woodchip tray, and it comes with a special temperature gauge for optimum smokiness.
You can stoke the fire by opening the small bottom door, which is one thing other models lack. This not only helps with temperature control, but also allows you to add more wood if the smoke dies down.
Note that you do pay a price for all that space. At 56 pounds for the standard model, this is the heaviest smoker in our list – it’s definitely not meant to be a portable model.
3. Cuisinart COS-116 Vertical Charcoal Smoker Review
Cuisinart’s Vertical Charcoal Smoker is quite similar to the Weber Smokey Mountain in the top spot, and it comes in 16-inch and 18-inch options. With an included porcelain enamel water bowl, your meat will stay nice and moist. There are also top and bottom vents that allow the air to flow better, which means there’s less chance of the smoker overheating.
Note that the COS-116 is only 23 pounds, so it’s lighter than the WSM by a considerable amount. It also has side handles and latches around the base, both of which make it easier to transport. One negative is the temperature gauge, which is known to give inaccurate readings.
4. Char-Broil Bullet Charcoal Smoker Review
The Char-Broil Bullet Charcoal Smoker is a great smoker for those just starting out. It includes a thermometer with numbered damper settings, making it extremely easy to operate and master. It includes a removable ash pan for wood chips, which makes it easy to clean up. Also, there is a fire access door that allows you to stoke the ashes without having to open the lid and lose all of your heat.
The air vents are easy to control, and while it’s not a set-and-forget model, it doesn’t need too much intervention thanks to the damper settings. At 16.5 pounds (for the 16″ version), it is the lightest model on our list, and it does have handles for moving it around. This, of course, means that the metal is quite thin.
5. Dyna-Glo Compact Bullet Charcoal Smoker Review
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Dyna-Glo’s Compact Bullet Smoker is a two-in-one option for anyone wanting a smoker that can be used in the backyard or on the go. Though it’s compact, it features 390 square inches of space, which is comparable to the majority of upright smokers. This smoker can also be used as a charcoal grill – all you have to do is remove the middle section.
The temperature gauge has a side for smoking and a side for grilling, and there’s a removable ash pan to make the switch from smoking to grilling easier. The chrome plates are stackable and allows you to grill more meat in one session.
Advantages of Charcoal Smokers
Here are a few advantages of charcoal smokers compared to other types:
Authentic Smokey Flavor
If you want your smoked meats to rival what the pro pit-masters cook up, charcoal and wood chunks are a winning combination. While everyone can appreciate electric and propane smokers for their convenience, they simply do not produce deeply smokey flavors. Simply put, you will get a far better bark and more smoke taste with a charcoal smoker.
Long, Consistent Temperatures
Unlike true wood-burning offset smokers, which need to be monitored and replenished every ~45 minutes, charcoal smokers can be left alone for 10+ hours. Weber Smokey Mountains are known to keep consistent temperatures for up to 16 hours, which makes them great for overnight cooks.
Note that while traditional charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal both work, you should opt for briquettes if you are aiming for a long cook. They burn at a lower temperature than lump charcoal. Also, the uniform shape of briquettes leads to more consistent burns.
Simple Design with No Electrical Components
Charcoal smokers don’t have any complex components. Typically they just have a space for charcoal, possibly a water pan, and at least one grill grate. There is nothing for you to manipulate aside from the dampers that control airflow. This means you won’t get frustrated reading through a manual, and you’ll never have to worry about electrical components failing (or hooking up your smoker to an outlet in the first place!)
Electric vs Charcoal Smoker
Are electric smokers better than charcoal? It depends on what you value in a smoker, but charcoal smokers definitely have a few advantages over electric smokers.
- Electric smokers, which generally have a relatively small pan strictly for wood chips, don’t product as much smoke as charcoal models. It’s much more difficult to get a nice bark and smoke ring with an electric smoker.
- Electric smokers (obviously) require a plug, and they are generally heavier and harder to transport.
- Charcoal smokers can often double as a grill, while electric smokers never can.
On the flip side, electric smokers are easier to use due to “set it and forget it” design. With a typical electric smoker, you just select the temperature you want, and the machine takes care of the rest. If you’re interested in learning more about electric models, check out our article covering the best electric smokers on the market.
How to Use a Charcoal Smoker
Learning to use a new smoker can be a daunting task. The biggest concern is maintaining your fire. If the temperature gets too high, your meat will dry out and cook too quickly. You’ll want to keep your smoker in the 225° – 275° F range.
Here are the general steps for using a typical charcoal smoker:
- Completely open the smoker’s vents (dampers) to start.
- Fill the firebox area with charcoal and wood chunks.
- Fill the water pan, if your smoker has one.
- Use a chimney starter to light ~20 additional briquettes.
- Pour the lit briquettes into the center of the firebox area containing the unlit charcoal and wood.
- As you wait for the temperature to rise, place your meat on the rack and position your thermometer, if necessary.
- When the temperature rises to within 25 degrees of your target, partially close the vents to stabilize the temperature.
- After the temperature stabilizes, you should be able to smoke for upwards of 10 hours with a medium/large-sized smoker. Make small adjustments to the airflow if you need to raise or lower the temperature.
Aside from controlling your temperature, you’ll also want to make sure you’re getting clean smoke. Contrary to what many beginners believe, you don’t want to see thick white clouds billowing out of your smoker. Rather, you should see nearly clear air, often called “blue” smoke.
To achieve this, make sure you’re using seasoned chunks of firewood, rather than fresh-cut wood. Also, don’t overdo it on the amount of wood. You don’t need a whole layer of wood – or anything close to that – on top of your charcoal. Just 4-5 wood chunks can go a long way!
Using A Kettle Grill as a Charcoal Smoker
Rather than buying a dedicated charcoal smoker, a nifty alternative is using a common Kettle grill as a smoker. This is done with “two-zone” or “indirect” cooking, which is essentially keeping all of your coals on one side, then putting your meat on the other. Once you get a handle on controlling airflow with your grill’s dampers, you can achieve surprisingly steady, low temperatures. For added consistency, a product like the Slow ‘N Sear can help keep all of your charcoal in one place (and provide a water reservoir for moisture).
The main drawback of smoking on a Kettle is its size. Since about a quarter of your grill’s area will be the “hot zone,” you’ll only have room for two racks of ribs or one brisket. Many of the smokers above, especially those with multiple racks, can accommodate a lot more food. However, if you’re planning on cooking for smaller groups, using your Kettle grill is a perfectly fine option. Just make sure you have a smoker thermometer, since unlike many smokers, Kettle grills do not have built-in gauges.
Summing Things Up
While Weber’s ultra-popular Smokey Mountain is our top recommendation, we hope this article has introduced you to a few other viable options. Depending on your needs, one of the other models could be the best charcoal smoker for you.
Do you have experience with any of these charcoal smokers? Questions about them? Please feel free to leave a comment below!