When it comes to the world of barbecues, charcoal reigns supreme when it comes to flavor. A lot of people like to brag about cooking with authentic charcoal. We have to admit, firing up a charcoal smoker is a very interactive process and requires some skill to do properly. Unlike grilling, smoking will take time and lots of patience.
While it can seem daunting at first glance, using a charcoal smoker doesn’t have to be very stressful. High-quality charcoal smokers can hold your desired temperature consistently for hours on end without the need for your attention all of the time. If you’re a newbie who wants to dip your toes in the world of smoked meats, we’ve got your back. In this article, we’re going to help you learn more about charcoal smokers; what to look out for when shopping for one, different types and features, and a list of the best charcoal smokers currently available in the market.
We believe that one should invest in the right equipment depending on one’s needs and preferences. It is also equally important to understand how the equipment works. So, if you’re interested in starting your BBQ journey with a charcoal smoker, you’ve come to the right place.
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Things to Know About Charcoal Smokers
Charcoal smokers can create very rich smoky flavors. It will also tenderize the meat through slow and low cooking. You can make even the toughest cuts of meat fall off the bone easily. This is why, unlike grilling, smoking takes plenty of time, a lot of patience, and skill. You can even consider it as an art. The top BBQ joints in your area are most likely using charcoal smokers themselves.
Hosting a BBQ smoking session not only produces mouth-watering food, but also encourages you to slow down, gather with loved ones, and create long-lasting memories together.
Types of Smokers
There are plenty of designs when it comes to charcoal smokers. However, the Texas-style offset smokers have been the traditional go-to model for years now. In this section, we’re going to look at the different types of smokers you should familiarize yourself with. There have been plenty of advancements in the technology of charcoal smokers over the years.
From digital control systems to highly improved airflow, plenty of people can now smoke food with fairly little experience. You should understand how much knowledge and effort is needed for the different types of smokers; doing so will help you narrow down the right model for your needs.
Offset smokers are the O.G. charcoal smokers. These traditional smokers feature two compartments. The first is the horizontal and cylindrical-shaped main compartment. The second compartment is a smaller one, usually found to the right or left of the main compartment. The charcoal is burned in the smaller compartment, then the heat and smoke move to the larger compartment via a vent. The main cylindrical compartment is where the food is placed and cooked/smoked.
Offset smokers mostly use charcoal to burn, but you can also use wood. Dampened wood chips are recommended to produce more smoke and thus smokier flavors. Offset smokers will require a lot more attention to their airflow and fire. You’re going to need a lot of practice and patience to get everything perfect. This is why offset smokers are widely used amongst barbecue experts.
Cabinet or Box Smokers
Cabinet smokers are designed to have the charcoal located at the bottom with a water pan above it, and racks for the food at the top. Cabinet smokers also feature front-load doors. Some models have glass windows on these front doors so that you can see the current situation of your food without opening the doors, thus avoiding wasting valuable heat.
Cabinet smokers may also have a separate pan to hold wet wood chips over the hot charcoal – if not the wood chips are placed right on top of the charcoal. Managing everything from airflow, the fire, and the exhaust on top is critical in keeping consistent heat on a cabinet smoker.
Barrel, Bullet, or Vertical Smokers
Vertical or bullet smokers are named so because of their shape. They are tall and narrow but larger models may resemble more of a metal drum, than a bullet shape. In a vertical smoker, the charcoal fire is stoked at the very bottom, similar to the cabinet smoker. The heat and smoke travel upwards, to the top where the food sits on one or more racks to smoke.
Vertical smokers are also alternatively known as water smokers. This is because a pan or bowl of water is placed between the heat source and the food. The water pan acts as a shield for the food from direct heat, cooking it a lot slower. The size of the fire, temperature, and smoke output is controlled by managing the airflow coming in from the bottom and limiting the exhaust at the top of the smoker. Vertical smokers can require a moderate amount of experience and attention.
Types of Charcoal
It is also important to know what type of charcoal you are cooking with, as it is a key component in a smoker. Let’s look at the different types of charcoal you’ll likely come across when using a charcoal smoker.
One of the top favorites of smoking enthusiasts and experts is the lump charcoal. It looks like blackened chunks of broken wood. To make lump charcoal, pieces of wood are burned within a very low-oxygen environment. This results in volatile compounds such as hydrogen, water, and methane being released. What is left after the process is pure carbon. Lump charcoal burns without flames and is almost smokeless. It also reaches higher temperatures compared to ordinary wood.
Because most of the wood has been burned off during the making process, lump charcoal doesn’t produce as much ash compared to raw wood. Seeing as lump charcoal doesn’t produce an adequate amount of smoke, dampened wood chips are added on top of the charcoal to achieve the desired amount of smokiness.
On the other hand, we have charcoal briquettes. These are made from wood byproducts, sawdust, and binders. The ingredients are processed and compressed into cube, pillow shapes. Some briquettes brands may add chemicals to bind them more efficiently and make them easier to light up; so be sure to read the labels when you’re out shopping. Like lump charcoal, most people add wood chips to achieve their desired amount of smoke.
Differences Between a Grill and a Smoker
The biggest difference between a smoker and a grill is that a smoker separates the food from facing direct heat. A charcoal grill has the fire, typically raging, right below the meat, only a few inches away from each other. On the other hand, a smoker separates the fire so that only the smoke and heated air circulates in the chamber, cooking the meat slowly.
Another main difference between the two is the cooking temperature used. When grilling burgers or steaks, you’re going to require high heat to cook them fast. You’re going to need temperatures of at least 500⁰F (260⁰C) or higher if you want to cook a medium-rare steak perfectly.
Smoking, however, takes plenty of time and patience. Beef briskets and pork butts can take around 12 hours or longer to reach a melt-in-your-mouth texture. The fire in charcoal smokers is offset, some models shield the food from the fire using a deflector with the air vents damped down. The temperature inside charcoal smokers tends to stay around 225 to 250⁰F or 93 to 107⁰C.
If you want to cold smoke cheese or salmon, you’re going to need lower temperatures, down to 160⁰F or 71⁰C. You can even turn a charcoal grill into a smoker, how? You can build a heat source on one side of the grill and put the meat on the other side. This is called the two-zone fire method. You can use this method during large BBQ parties if you don’t have a smoker available.
Factors to Consider When Shopping for Charcoal Smokers
There are plenty of models of charcoal smokers out there, with differing features, quality, and more. In this section, we’re going to look at the different factors you should consider if you want to buy a new charcoal smoker.
The performance of a charcoal smoker is essential if you want to produce high-quality smoked meals. You’re going to want a wide heat range, high fuel efficiency, tight seals, and even cooking. You want your smoker to take advantage of the heat you’ve produced.
The overall build quality is something you should consider. A well-built charcoal smoker will have you come back season after season. This is why you should pick out a model that can last for years. Models that are made with premium stainless steel or hand-welded construction will have solid endurance. Investing in your smoker will pay itself in years of amazing smoky food.
In its most basic and primitive form, charcoal smoking was just an earthen pit and some charcoal. Now, advancements in technology have provided various features that enhance performance and convenience. Look for models that have quality-of-life features that make smoking your favorite foods a lot easier.
Best Charcoal Smokers for 2021
After hours of testing and research, we’ve compiled our top list of charcoal smokers available in 2021 today. You can use this list as a reference when you’re trying to find the right charcoal smoker for you. Let’s get right into it!
Best Overall Charcoal Smoker – Weber Smokey Mountain 18-Inch
Our first entry is a model from Weber, a very reputable manufacturer when it comes to everything barbecue-related, the Smokey Mountain 18-inch charcoal smoker. The 18-inch model is an adequate size for a lot of people, but there are 14-inch and 22-inch models as well. This review also applies to those sizes.
Weber has consistently provided high-quality charcoal smokers throughout the years, improving on each iteration. The Smokey Mountain is no exception. It is a very popular model for both expert and beginner pitmasters. This model is very successful because of its impressive construction quality and ease of use while having a price tag that the majority of people can afford.
Best Cabinet Charcoal Smoker – Dyna-Glo 36” Vertical Charcoal Smoker
This vertical charcoal smoker from Dyna-Glo features a huge cooking area, around 784 square inches. This very affordable model will feed a whole party of people with ease. Gas or electric vertical smokers are a lot more common compared to a charcoal one, this is why this model from Dyna-Glo is on our top list. The biggest advantage of vertical smokers is that they allow easy access to the food you’re cooking. Unlike other smoker types where you need to remove the grill racks, vertical smokers let you access the food without removing the racks.
The assembly for this smoker is also very straightforward, the main box is already assembled so that’s taken care of for you. This model’s racks are also quite sturdy. If you’re looking for a cabinet-style charcoal smoker that’s very affordable, then this may be the model for you. This model is also the best budget charcoal smoker currently available in the market. So if you’re on a tight budget, then this model may be the best for you.
Best Offset Charcoal Smoker – Oklahoma Joe Highland Reverse Flow Charcoal Smoker
Also known as wood-burning smokers, this offset charcoal from Oklahoma Joe is a classic choice for your next charcoal smoker. This is the most common type of charcoal smoker. A lot of pit masters agree that charcoal should form the base of your fire instead of wood. For the added smoky flavor, pitmasters recommended using smoke wood chips on top of the charcoal.
What we like about the Oklahoma Joe Highland is its price. There aren’t that many offset charcoal smokers that you can get for less than $1,000; this model is an exception. Its build quality is very impressive and heavy-duty for its price point. It also features 619 square inches of cooking area and 281 square inches in the firebox chamber for high heat searing.
This concludes our buying guide for the best charcoal smokers in 2021. We hope that you’ve learned something new about charcoal smokers. For beginner BBQ smokers, we hope that our list gives you a great reference guide on the prices and features of charcoal smokers in the market.