Ready to take the plunge into the world of true, low-and-slow barbecue? Let me be the first to congratulate you on making a wonderful decision! In no time at all you’ll be making ribs just like those pictured above – along with brisket, pulled pork, and a ton of other amazing smoked meats. But first you have to tackle the difficult task of choosing your first smoker. This article will take a look at the best smokers for beginners and clue you in on everything you’ll want to know before making a decision.
Types of Smokers
The first step in choosing a smoker is determining what kind you want. Smokers are generally classified by their fuel source, and there are a handful of types to choose from:
1. Electric Smokers
In my estimation, electric smokers are the most common choice for beginner BBQ enthusiasts. They are extremely easy to use and provide great value. With a typical model, you just plug it in, add a small amount of wood chips, and set the temperature you want. “Set it and forget it,” as they say. While electric smokers do a great job of maintaining temps and creating deliciously juicy BBQ, note that they are quite light on smoke and don’t produce the same flavor of a true fire.
2. Propane (Gas) Smokers
Gas smokers typically look just like electric smokers, but rely on propane tanks for heat. Like electric smokers, they have a dedicated area for wood chips or chunks. They are “set it and forget it” style, but you won’t typically be selecting a specific degree temperature. Instead, most models have more vague high/low-style dials that regulate gas flow. They can take a bit of tinkering to get comfortable with, and a common complaint with gas smokers is that chips/chunks burn up too fast.
3. Pellet Smokers
Like electric smokers, pellet smokers are of the “set it and forget it” type. They maintain your desired temperature by burning wood pellets as needed. As an added bonus, they can also get quite hot, sometimes up to 500° F, so they can be used like traditional grills. As for negatives, they are a bit weak on smoke flavor compared to smokers that rely on true fires. However, they still produce more smoke than electric smokers, and you’ll have no problem getting a nice smoke ring with a pellet smoker.
4. Charcoal Smokers
Charcoal smokers are typically shaped like vertical cylinders, with the heat source directly below your food – but at a decent distance. The combination of charcoal and wood chips/chunks means these smokers can create amazingly deep smoke flavor. The main negative of a charcoal smoker is that you will have to maintain temperature on your own, although many folks find that aspect of smoking really fun. Controlling the temperature is mainly done through adjusting airflow dampers, and it can take a bit of practice to get the hang of it.
5. Offset Smokers
Offset smokers rely on real wood fires, which are positioned aside or “offset” from the main chamber. Pitmasters love these models because of the intensely smokey flavor they create, but they aren’t recommended for beginners for a few reasons:
- Controlling the fire and temperature on an offset smoker can be very difficult.
- Quality models are made from thick steel, which makes them extremely heavy.
- As these are made for seasoned pitmasters, they can put quite a dent in your wallet.
6. Combo Smokers
Combo smokers, like the name implies, are smokers that can also be used to grill at higher temperatures. Kamado grills, such as the Big Green Egg, are one popular type of combo smoker. Pellet smokers also qualify as combo smokers. Additionally, some offset smokers allow you to cook directly over the fire. As you can see, the term ‘combo smoker’ isn’t so much a class of its own as it is an additional label that applies to some smokers.
Best Type of Smoker for a Beginner
So, out of the different types above, what one is the best for a beginner? I would recommend getting an electric, charcoal, or pellet smoker. Offset smokers aren’t great for beginners, as mentioned above, and I really view propane smokers as inferior versions of electric smokers.
Why electric? They are dead simple to use and consistently produce great results.
Why charcoal? They deliver true smokey flavor without being too large, heavy, or difficult to use.
Why pellet? They are versatile and easy to use. Note, however, that they are generally a bigger investment than other types of smokers.
Top 3 Best Smokers for Beginners
If you’re looking for specific models, I’ve got you covered with our top three:
Overall Top Choice and Best Charcoal Smoker for Beginners - Weber Smokey Mountain
The Weber Smokey Mountain is a classic in the world of barbecue. It gives your meat the big smokey flavor of a professional rig, but it’s extremely simple in design. Also, its vertical design means it doesn’t have a big footprint in your yard of patio.
This model generates heat mainly from charcoal, with wood chunks added in. You have to use a good amount of charcoal, but the limited airflow means that the fire will burn for several hours. Speaking of airflow, that’s something you’re in control of with the adjustable dampers. It’s something that takes a little practice, but just keep in mind that more oxygen equals higher temperatures.
The Smokey Mountain is available in 14, 18, and 22-inch diameter models, so you can choose an appropriate size based on how much you plan to cook.
Best Electric Smoker for Beginners - Masterbuilt 40-Inch Electric Smoker
If you’re not interested in building a fire with charcoal and wood chunks and would rather have your smoker do more of the work, check out this Masterbuilt electric smoker. Electric smokers are extremely popular with beginners because they are so easy to use. Essentially you just plug it in, add some wood chips, and set your temperature.
Another benefit of this model is the total cooking area. It has four nice-sized racks, which are chrome coated. According to the manufacturing, you can fit up to 12 whole chickens, 4 racks of ribs, or 4 pork butts!
This smoker also comes with a handy remote, and unlike the two other smokers in our top 3, this model allows you to check on food without heat escaping.
Best Pellet Smoker for Beginners - Camp Chef SmokePro DLX
If you want to jump into barbecue with a top of the line smoker, consider Camp Chef’s SmokePro DLX PG24. First let me tell you that I use this model constantly and wrote an in-depth review of it here.
This is a pellet grill/smoker, so it generates heat by burning wood pellets. Specifically, it has an auger that feeds pellets from the hopper into a ‘fire pot’ area. It’s great for low and slow smoking and traditional grilling, as it can maintain temperatures between 175° and 500° Fahrenheit. Just set whatever temperature you want on the dial, and it takes care of the rest.
One nice feature on this model is the ash clean-out system, which allows you to empty ash and pellet bits with the pull of the lever. That means you won’t have to bust out the vacuum, like you would with other pellet smokers on the market.
Getting Started - What to Smoke First?
So you’ve decided on a smoker, and now it’s time to barbecue. What do you start off with?
I always recommend ribs for a first cook. They don’t take a terribly long time, and if you follow the 3-2-1 method, you’re almost guaranteed great results.
Pulled pork is pretty forgiving because it’s so fatty, and because it’s typically covered in sauce.
Brisket can seem intimidating due to the long cook time, but if you can maintain your temperature at ~250° it shouldn’t be too difficult. If you’re looking for a warm-up, slow-smoking tri-tip and even chuck roast can create some surprisingly delicious meat.
If you’re looking for a unique recipe, check out my pork belly burnt ends.
Essential BBQ Accessories
In my opinion the #1 most important BBQ accessory is a good thermometer. Ideally you will want a dual-probe thermometer so you can keep an eye on your meat’s internal temperature as well as the cooking chamber’s temperature. Yes, many smokers have thermometers, but they can be inaccurate. Most smokers also have warmer and cooler spots, and it’s a good idea to get to know those areas.
You’ll also want some gloves. Black nitrile gloves with cotton underneath are common because they allow you to really handle something. For example, you can pull apart pork or beef, which isn’t possible with bulkier gloves.
Pink butcher paper is common for wrapping, particular brisket after it gets enough smoke on it. Unlike foil, butcher paper gives your meat a bit of room to breath. This will allow the bark to remain in good shape while minimal moisture is lost.
Lastly, you’ll want a good knife for slicing meat. Mercer Culinary makes a great one.
Summing Things Up
I hope this article was able to give you an idea of what to consider when choosing your first smoker. It’s tough to nail down a single best smoker for beginners, since there are a few great choices based on how involved you want to be in the cooking process. If you’re looking for a set and forget model, check out this Masterbuilt electric smoker or this awesome Camp Chef pellet grill. If you wanted a more authentic BBQ experience where you control the fire, go for Weber’s Smokey Mountain charcoal smoker.
And let me know in the comments which model you will choose, and if you have any questions!