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What are the Different Types of Smokers and Which Are Best? Our Complete Guide

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Smoking BBQ to me is the ultimate outdoor cooking experience.

Build your fire, choose which wood you want to flavor your food with, then sit back while your masterpiece cooks low and slow.

Do it right, and the end result of your cook can be the stuff of legend amongst your family and friends.

There are a few different types of smokers out there – and which one you choose can make all of the difference.  In this article, we’ve created a guide to all of the different types of smokers.  We’ll go over the pros and cons of each, and talk about a few situations that each different type is best for!

So whether you’re a beginner looking for your first smoker, or a seasoned pro looking to see what all of your options are, read on to find out which types of smokers are best for you!

What is a Smoker?

A smoker is an outdoor piece of cooking equipment that’s designed to cook foods low and slow for long periods of time.  They’re also meant to add smokey flavor to your food by exposing your meats and foods to the smoke generated by your fire.

As far as types of smokers go, there are a lot of different ones!  Some are best suited for beginners, and some for experts.  They come in all different shapes and sizes too.  Read on to figure out which one is the best fit for you.

What Are The Different Types of Smokers?

Horizontal Offset Smokers

Horizontal Offset Smokers are what come to mind for me when I think about smokers in general.  They just have that classic look and are often the types of smokers you’d find outside of a BBQ joint.

These smokers are the preferred choice of pit masters, and they have a little bit of a learning curve associated with them.  If you’re a total beginner, it might take a few tries to start to get your fire and smoke right.

Of course, if you can tame the horizontal offset smoker, you’re handsomely rewarded with deeply complex and delicious BBQ.  They have the ability to impart the sort of smokey flavor on your food that will satisfy even the keenest taste buds for smoked meat.

Horizontal offset smokers are made up of two main parts.  First, there’s a main cooking chamber that’s typically pretty wide and has grates for placing your food.  Typically, there are exhaust and intake vents on the main chamber that allow you to adjust your smoker’s airflow and temperature.  There’s also a door that you can open to rotate your food and let out excess smoke if you need to.

The second main component is the firebox, which is offset to one of the sides of the main cooking chamber (hence the “offset” name).  It has an access door and typically some vents built in as well.  You light your fire in the firebox, and the generated heat and smoke is funneled to the main chamber.  This indirect heating method will slowly cook and flavor your food with the smoke that comes off of your fire.

Some horizontal offset smokers will also have a grate on the firebox for direct heat grilling, turning your smoker into a smoker grill combo.

It’s worth noting that you can definitely find horizontal offset smokers out there for $300 or less – we’ve just found that these lack quality and often don’t retain heat as well as they should.  Offset smokers also have a subset called reverse flow smokers.

Horizontal Offset Smoker Pros

  • The best type of smoker for professionals and experienced pit masters
  • Easily add more fuel or flavoring wood chips to your fire without opening the main cooking chamber.  This is a HUGE feature that helps you maintain consistent temperature
  • Many double as smoker grill combos, all you need is a grate installed over your firebox
  • Built in ventilation systems let you control your temperature and smoke levels
  • Can easily use for cold smoking
  • Ideal for cooking lots of foods at once or large cuts like brisket and beef ribs
  • Ongoing fuel costs are pretty low – these smokers are efficient users of heat
  • Quality offset smokers are built to last a lifetime with proper care

Horizontal Offset Smoker Cons

  • Well built units can cost quite a bit of money, typically in the $1,000s
  • Learning curve for temperature and smoke management is steep compared to other types of smokers
  • Smoking in colder weather or climates can be a challenge
  • They’re pretty big and heavy, so you need to make sure your patio or deck can accomodate

Vertical Offset Smokers

Vertical offset smokers are somewhat similar to a horizontal offset smoker in design, with a few key differences.

Most notably, the main cooking chamber on a vertical offset is set up with multiple cooking grates (often 4 or 5) stacked on top of each other in a chamber that’s fairly narrow but pretty tall.  Heat and smoke travels through the main chamber vertically.

The offset box is to the side of the vertical main chamber and typically functions just like a horizontal offset firebox.  This is where you start and manage your fire, and can even grill with direct heat if you have a grate installed.

The main chamber will have vents built in to help with temperature and smoke control, and also a front door for access to your food and the main grate areas.

One of the best things about vertical offset smokers is how much cooking area they provide considering how small their footprint is.  Since all of the grates are stacked vertically, you can actually get a lot of food cooked at once on a smoker that doesn’t take up a lot of ground.

Vertical Offset Smoker Pros

  • You can cook a TON of food with a smaller footprint thanks to the vertical main chamber design
  • Can last for decades if looked after properly
  • Not very many different parts are used in the construction of these smokers – which reduces your risk for breakage
  • Ongoing fuel costs are low
  • Many can double as a smoker and grill

Vertical Offset Smoker Cons

  • Well made units are on the pricey end of the spectrum
  • The large cooking chamber can be overkill if you don’t plan to cook for lots of people
  • These are more of “specialty” types of smoker – other than a couple of models available online, they’re tough to find

Water Smokers

One of the best smokers for beginners and one of the most widely owned types of smokers on the planet is the water smoker.  It’s because they’re really simple to use, take up minimal space on your patio, and produce some super delicious results.

The anatomy of a bullet smoker is really interesting, and sets you up for success as the pit master.  At the bottom of the “bullet” is a charcoal tray where your charcoal and wood chip fuel goes.  Right above your fire is a water pan which is there to evenly distribute heat across the cooking chamber.  It also catches drippings from your food and helps to keep your smoked meats moist.

(Check out our detailed review of the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker here)

From there, you have either cooking grates, racks, or hooks where your food is placed while it cooks.  Bullet smokers typically have an easy open lid and some kind of ventilation system to let you control the airflow into your unit.

These smokers are the ideal type of smoker for your back yard, and have the perfect amount of capacity to cook for small and medium sized gatherings.

Water Smoker Pros

  • Very inexpensive – bullet smokers are on the cheap end of the spectrum and still offer really nice quality
  • Small footprint, the compact size is ideal for almost every type of patio
  • Widely available, there are lots of brands and models to compare and choose from
  • Great for on the go smoking.  It’s not too hard to take bullet smokers on the go for your next camping trip or tailgating outing

Bullet Smoker Cons

  • Lots of cleanup involved, the water pan needs to be thoroughly cleaned after each use
  • Not a lot of cooking capacity compared to other types of smokers
  • Not great for direct heat grilling

Kamado (Ceramic) Smokers

The kamado grill is one of my absolute favorite pieces of cooking equipment, regardless of type.  A good kamado grill is an outstanding smoker, and it’s got the versatility to be an outstanding grill and wood fired oven too.

Kamado grills aren’t a bargain.  A typical quality one that’s made of ceramic will run you at least $1,000 and likely more.  But these things are built to last forever, and they are of the utmost quality in terms of cooking ability and integrity.

A kamado ceramic cooker relies on millenniums old technology that’s tried and true.  Ceramic is an outstanding insulator, and built in dampers and vents let you precisely control the amount of airflow that goes into your grill, and by extension temperature.  The ceramic construction and egg shaped design let you maintain a constant low temperature for very long periods of time – perfect for smoking.

All you need to convert your kamado grill between a smoker and a grill is a heat deflector plate.  Most nice kamado grills come standard with one.  All you have to do is place the deflector in for indirect heat smoking, and remove it for direct heat grilling.

Kamados are great because they’re designed to maintain temperatures as low as 200°F for smoking and as high as 700°F for searing and baking.

These kamado smokers are best fueled by lump charcoal, and you can achieve some of the absolute best flavoring by smoking in a kamado grill.

Kamado Smoker Pros

  • The ultimate premium versatile grill and smoker.  You can smoke, sear, grill, and bake the most delicious foods on a smoker
  • Made of the highest quality materials.  Kamado Joe and Big Green Egg in particular both use some of the most premium quality ceramic to make their grills
  • Easily maintains constant temperatures for extended periods of time with minimal work
  • Smaller profile compared to some other smokers – they are pretty easy to make custom built cabinets for too
  • Great for smoking in cold weather thanks to ceramic insulation

Kamado Smoker Cons

  • One of the most expensive types of smokers on this list
  • It can take a while to get your temperatures down.  While temperature management is fairly easy on a kamado, if you crank it up too high it can take a super long time to get it back down
  • Very heavy, don’t plan on taking a kamado smoker on the go with you

Pellet Smokers

Pellet smokers are another type of smoker that offer tons of versatility – but they’re quite different from kamados.  Instead of 3,000 year old technology, pellet smokers rely on newer innovations to the grilling space.

Most notably, they rely on electronics and an automatic feeding system to feed wood pellets through an auger that then get ignited to cook your food.  All of your temperatures, smoke levels, and other aspects of your cook can be controlled from a built in LED display – or even a phone app for some brands.

Because of that, pellet grills are known as “set it and forget it” style cookers.  That is, you can choose your temperature and smoke settings and kick back while your smoker gets to work for you.  Minimal to no babysitting is required.

Pellet smokers utilize wood pellets designed for smoking.  They’re repurposed wood and sawdust that get compressed into little wood capsules – which are then ignited in the pellet grill.  It’s a super high tech and sustainable way to get to enjoy wood fired taste!

Instead of a firebox, pellet smokers have a hopper where you load your pellets.  It’s from the hopper that they are fed through the auger.

Pellet Smoker Pros

  • Super easy to use and a great option for beginners and pros alike.  The easiest way to get wood fired taste
  • Versatile and great for both smoking and grilling
  • Wood pellets for smoking are cheap and widely available
  • Lots of brands, sizes, and prices to choose from

Pellet Smoker Cons

  • Nice pellet smokers can get a little pricey
  • If you don’t have a big hopper, you can run out of fuel mid cook if you aren’t careful on longer smoking sessions
  • You’re relying on electronics that are more prone to break

Electric Smokers

Electric smokers are another type of smoker that falls into the set it and forget it category.  They rely on an electrical plug in connection that heats an electric heating element, similar to what you’d find in your oven.

Electric smokers are as hands off as they come.  You literally just have to plug it in and turn a dial to get going.  If you want to add wood flavor, most electric smokers have a drawer or tray where you can add wood chips for extra flavoring.

With electric smokers in particular, you have to be careful about what you buy.  There are a lot of cheaply made units out there that are a complete waste of money.  You’re buying a unit that relies on electronics, and you want to make sure you buy something that’s going to last.

The other consideration with electric smokers – even with wood chip flavoring, your food won’t pick up the same level of smokiness as it would in a charcoal smoker.  It’s just a slightly less authentic smoking experience.  The food from electric smokers is still delicious!  It just lacks some of that traditional smokey BBQ flavor.

Electric Smoker Pros

  • Small, compact profiles compared to many other types of smokers
  • Incredibly easy and straightforward to use
  • Despite the small profile, the vertical design of electric smokers means multiple grates and lots of cooking surface area
  • Typically on the cheaper end of the spectrum

Electric Smoker Cons

  • You have to store your smoker under a cover or indoors to protect the electronics
  • Can’t use these units as a grill, no direct heat option
  • Food lacks the deep flavor and complexity of charcoal and wood fired smokers
  • Lots of cheap units are out there in the marketplace that are a total waste of money

Drum Smokers

From a general design perspective, drum smokers are about as simple and basic as it gets.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, as some incredible award winning BBQ has been made from drum smokers before.

At the bottom of a drum, you have a basket for your heat source of charcoal and wood.  Above the charcoal basket, you have a grate, racks, or hooks where your meat is placed while it smokes.  There’s also vents built in to the top and bottom of the drum to help you control your temperature.

Since drum smokers are so simple, you actually see quite a few homemade iterations out there!  If you want something that’s professionally designed and made, there are plenty of drum smokers out there on the market too.

Drum Smoker Pros

  • Simple and straightforward design, also typically pretty cheap
  • Small footprint means it won’t take up too much space on your patio
  • Great at maintaining temperatures for long periods of time
  • You can make your own drum smoker at home with only a few parts
  • Most can be converted for direct heat grilling

Drum Smoker Cons

  • Not the most aesthetically pleasing type of smoker – in fact, these are fondly (or not so fondly) known as ugly drum smokers by some in the outdoor cooking community!
  • Not the most cooking area compared to other smokers

Propane (Gas) Smokers

If you’re in the market for a set it and forget it smoker – the propane smoker is another type of smoker that could be a great fit for you.  Functionality wise, it’s pretty similar to an electric smoker.  Instead of a plug in, there’s a hose that connects to a propane tank.

All you have to do from there is open your propane tank, turn a knob on your smoker, and you’re rocking and rolling from there.  A gas burner ignites the propane to heat and cook your food.

The frustration with these types of smokers is that most don’t come with a temperature gauge built in.  So it might take a couple of tries to get used to how far you need to turn the dial to achieve certain temperatures.

Propane Smoker Pros

  • Ongoing cost of propane fuel is fairly cheap
  • A true set it and forget it style of smoker
  • Doesn’t take up very much space
  • Easy to use and very cheap to acquire one

Propane Smoker Cons

  • Some of the cheaper units leak heat and lead to poor results
  • Refilling your propane tank can become a hassle
  • You can’t convert these smokers for direct heat grilling

Types of Smokers – Other Considerations

Here are a few things you should think about before you choose the right smoker for you!

Which Types of Foods Can I Smoke?

You can smoke a lot of foods!  Smokey flavors interact really well with a wide variety of foods.

In fact, we’ve dedicated an entire post to our favorite meats for smoking, and also listed out some of the best foods to cold smoke in our post about cold smoke generators right here.

Fuel Type

Smokers are fueled by any of the following fuel types:

All of these types of fuel have their pros and cons too.  Typically lump charcoal, briquettes, and wood will lead to the tastiest, most flavorful results.  These types of smokers typically have a learning curve and will take some practice to master.

Gas and electricity fueled smokers on the other hand will be much more convenient to use and won’t require any ongoing fire management while your food cooks.  Because of that, they’re great choices for beginners.

Versatility

Unless you have a ton of space on your patio, you may be looking for something that’s versatile and will allow you to grill in addition to smoke.  Electric smokers and gas smokers in particular are completely unable to convert to direct heat grilling.

If versatility and quality are important to you, kamado grills and pellet smokers are a great place to start.  Both do a spectacular job of both smoking and grilling, and kamados are even fantastic pizza ovens as well.

How Big Is Your Crowd?

How many people do you typically cook for?  Is it just for small groups of friends and family?  Or are you the type to host massive cookouts and family reunions?

The thing to keep in mind with smokers is that your food takes a long time to finish cooking.  On a grill, your food will cook quickly and you can grill in multiple batches to get away with a smaller cooking surface for a larger crowd.

That’s not the case for a smoker.  If you’re smoking your favorite type of meat for 6+ hours, you can’t just throw another batch on if your guests are still hungry.  You need to have enough cooking area from the start to handle all of the food to feed your crowd.

Types of Smokers – Final Thoughts

Hopefully by now you have a solid understanding of the types of smokers out there!  If you were on the fence about a certain type, maybe now the best choice for you is more clear.

In any event, it’s great to know what all is out there in the world of smoking.  Which type of smoker do you have at home?  Let us know about it in the comments section below and which one is your favorite!