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What is a Barbecue Smoker?

What is a smoker? It is an outdoor cooking device, that adds a wonderful smoky taste to low n slow cooked meats. Learn how they work, and the different types available in this guide.

Last Updated: October 12, 2020

Racks of ribs laying flat in a barbecue smoker

In this article we answer the question: What is a smoker? The type that smokes delicious meat, not the nicotine inhaling kind.

For most backyard chefs, their first exposure to cooking with fire was with a charcoal or maybe a gas grill.

Eventually, though, you start to hear about other ways to cook. Or, you go out to a rib joint, and you realize that juicy rack did not come off a 2-burner propane grill.

Today we’re looking at smoking, and specifically the rig you need to smoke meat. That would be a smoker if you didn’t guess.

Dive in and learn the different kinds of smoker and how they work.

Welcome to a new world of flavor.

What is a Smoker – A Definition

Just so we know what we’re dealing with, here’s what a smoker is in a nutshell.

From the website, The Spruce Eats:

“A smoker is an apparatus for cooking at low temperatures in a controlled, smoky environment for the smoking of food.”

The heat source varies by type, but in all cases, the heat causes wood to smolder, releasing smoke into the cooking chamber. As the food slowly cooks in the ambient convection heat, it is infused with smoke for additional flavor.

Cooking is generally done at around 225F to 250F.

How long a cook lasts depends on the size of the food. Small cuts of meat may take 2 hours or less. A whole packer brisket could potentially smoke a whole day.

Types of Smokers

Nothing with barbecuing is ever straightforward! And that includes there many, many different types of barbecue smokers.

Here are the six main categories of smoker, what makes each one unique, and how they work.

Stick Burners – Offset Smokers

Offset smoker with fire box open and flames licking out

Typically quite large, offset smokers use full-size hardwood sticks and logs as the primary fuel source.

The fire burns in a separate compartment attached to the side of a larger smoke chamber. Smoke and heat from the burning logs travel from the firebox into the smoke chamber underneath the cooking grate, enveloping the food in low heat and wood smoke.

Offsets are available in a range of prices and quality from high-cost units made with heavy-duty metal to cheap models that leak smoke from every seam.

There are both vertical and horizontal offset smokers, but both function in the same way. They tend to be huge units, suitable for smoking massive amounts of meat, including full-size racks of ribs, briskets, shoulders, and so on.

No less an authority than Aaron Franklin tells us in his MasterClass that the learning curve is steep with an offset, and a low-grade cooker may be especially challenging. You have to keep your fire going, and you’ll spend a lot of time controlling the airflow to raise and lower the temperature.

But, they are also immensely satisfying to the primal urge to cook meat with burning wood.

Charcoal Smokers

Close up of red Kamado Joe grill and smoker

One could write an entire article just on the different types of charcoal smokers. (In fact, I have.)

They break down into 3 main categories: Drums, kamados, and bullets.

What they all have in common is the use of charcoal. Burning charcoal creates its own smoke, and you can purchase “flavored” charcoal to enhance it.

Adding wood chips or chunks to your charcoal pile, though, really bumps up the delicious smoke taste you’re after.

As with a stick burner, you’ll need to adjust vents and dampers to control the flow of air into (and out of) the smoker. Allowing more air at the charcoal makes it burn hotter, and choking it off does the reverse.

If you already know charcoal grilling, the adjustment to smoking won’t be too difficult.

Charcoal doesn’t burn as cleanly as actual wood, and the smoky taste is sometimes less intense. Nevertheless, this is the smoker of choice for many, and the results can be excellent.

Pellet Smokers

Close up of a bronze colored Traeger pellet grill

Enter the world of set-and-forget smoking – more or less.

Pellet smokers require electricity to run an automatic thermostat. You set the temperature, and an auger delivers compressed smoking wood pellets into a small cup. There, an electric heating element sets the pellets smoldering. The resulting heat and smoke rise up to cook and flavor your food.

Pellets are available in stores and online and come in a variety of flavors. They burn efficiently down to ash, and as long as you keep the external hopper full, you’ll never need to lift the lid during a smoke session.

Pellet smokers are easy to manage and deliver tasty food with ease. They are, however, far more technically complex than most other smoker types. That means they are subject to issues other smokers never experience and may be more expensive to fix if things go haywire.

Don’t be discouraged, though; those who own them almost universally love them. You’ll find a passionate community online, should you choose to join their ranks.

Gas Smokers

If you can grill with gas, why not smoke, too? For one thing, a gas fire doesn’t make any smoke! No worries – gas smokers include a receptacle for wood chips, thinly sliced bits of flavor wood that burn readily when heated.

Gas smokers deliver consistent heat and don’t require the same level of babysitting as charcoal or stick burners. Overall, they are economical and straightforward to run, and many owners love the ease of use.

The one drawback is the need to keep extra propane on hand. You don’t want to run out mid-cook and not have a spare tank at the ready.

Electric Smokers

An electric smoker being seasoned, with smoke coming out the top

Similar to pellet smokers, electric smokers use a heating element to ignite wood chips. There’s no direct contact, however, the chips go in a pan immediately above the element. You could slow cook without smoke in an electric smoker, but then it wouldn’t be doing anything an oven doesn’t do just as easily.

Since there’s no real combustion, the level of smoke is quite mild compared to charcoal and stick burners.

Electric smokers are straightforward to use, though, with the thermostat controlling the temperature automatically. Of course, you will need easy access to an electric outlet where you plan to smoke.

Many think of electrics as introductory smokers, but the convenience factor makes them very appealing for casual users.

Cold Smokers

The optimal temperature for cold smoking is below 90F. To achieve this, you need to add smoke without heat to your food. Doing so requires burning wood far from the smoke chamber and channeling the smoke while the heat dissipates.

Cold smoke generators can be added to many standard smokers. Take note that cold smoking meat is very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, due to the low temperatures.

What Kind of Foods Can You Cook on a Smoker?

Just about any kind of meat will turn out delicious after a turn in the smoker.

The best results, however, usually come from tough cuts that need time for tenderizing, and fatty cuts that become increasingly juicy as the fat renders. Lean cuts should be left out of the smoke.

Some of the best options include:

  • Brisket
  • Tri Tip
  • Beef ribs
  • Pork ribs
  • Pork shoulder
  • Ham
  • Leg of lamb
  • Lamb shoulder
  • Rack of lamb
  • Whole chicken or turkey
  • Most kinds of game

Is that enough choice to keep you busy?

Final Thoughts

You’re here because you’re interested in smoking food. At a guess, you’re at the very beginning of your journey.

If you love the taste of barbecued meat, and you enjoy taking the time to learn new skills, smoking is an incredibly rewarding endeavor. Whether it becomes a hobby or a passion, you won’t regret your decision to take it up.

Be sure to look around the site (try out that handy search function) for lots more content on smokers to help you on your way.

Thanks for picking FoodFireFriends as your source for BBQ info.

Hi, I’m Jim! I’ve been grilling for nearly 20 years over charcoal, wood, and gas. Now I’m happy to share my experience and discoveries with you.

When I’m not writing about barbecue, I’m usually writing about food anyway, at a food marketing agency. Aside from my family and the perfect steak, my passions include travel and all things Disney.

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