Your Guide To Smoker Grills
The right smoker grill can greatly enhance your outdoor cooking game. Find the one that's right for you and you'll wonder how you cooked without it.
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Many barbecue enthusiasts consider smoking meat an art form that requires craftsmanship, patience and dedication to create a culinary masterpiece. But if you don’t have all day to stoke a fire like a professional pit master, today’s smoker grills can help you achieve the taste you love and still leave you free to enjoy your cookout. Curious? Read on.
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What Is a Smoker Grill?
A smoker grill is an outdoor appliance that can smoke and grill food. When functioning as a smoker, it cooks at a low temperature without the heat source directly touching the food. The smoke enhances the flavor based on the type(s) of wood burned. When it’s functioning as a grill, the food cooks directly over an open flame.
Fuel Sources for Smoker Grills
The explosion in popularity of smoker means that not only are there a variety of models to choose from, but you’ll also have to consider the fuel source for the smoker that works best for you.
Electric Smokers: These grills are easy to work with because it automatically regulates the temperature once you set it. An electric heating coil burns wood chips in the grill, creating the smoke. Your job as chef is just to regular the air flow and smoke each time you cook.
Gas Smokers: As you may have guessed, with these kind of grills, a gas burner does the work, burning the wood chips to create smoke. They generate a stable heat and steady temperature that you don’t have to worry about, which makes them just as easy to cook with as the electric versions. There are air vents to control the air flow. Like a gas grill, you hook up a tank of propane or natural gas for the fuel source.
Wood and Charcoal Smokers: This is probably the image that comes to mind when you think of a smoker, with the fuel burning in an offset compartment next to and slightly below the cooking surface itself. Purists may contend that wood gives you the best flavor, but you’ll have to verify that for yourself.
These types of grills take some work because you have to constantly monitor fuel levels and smoke to control your temperature, but practice makes perfect. You can use cherry wood, mesquite, pecan, hickory and many, many other kids of wood, depending on your flavor preference.
Pellet Smokers: These might be the most popular kinds of smoker grills on the market right now, because they’re easy to use and still give you the flavor you get from burning actual logs. Most pellet grills automatically monitor the fuel levels and temperatures, and you can use a variety of presets programmed for what you’re cooking, size, etc.
How To Pick the Right Smoker Grill for You
Brian Wheelis, assistant store manager at BBQ Outfitters in Austin, Texas, says the key question to start with is, “How much do you want to babysit your meat?”
Some smoker grills require constant monitoring for the entire cooking process, which can be from 10 to 20 hours, depending on how many pounds of meat you’re smoking. With other smoker grills, Wheelis says, “You can watch the football game and know the meat is cooking.” (He likes to call these types of smoker grills “outdoor Crock-Pots.”)
Additional considerations Wheelis recommends when buying a smoker grill:
- Fuel source. Do you want an electric smoker grill, or do you want to burn wood or charcoal?
- Size/Capacity. If you entertain regularly, get more rack space.
- Versatility. Are you purely smoking, or do you want an all-in-one appliance that grills, sears and bakes?
Types of Smoker Grills
The three major types of smoker grills are pellet, ceramic and offset. All deliver delicious food but differ in fuel source, setup and hands-on time.
Pellet Smoker Grills
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Pellet smoker grills use wood pellets and electricity to create a steady temperature and smoke. A metal corkscrew called an auger feeds the pellets from the hopper on the side to the fire pot below the grates. A hot rod in the fire pot ignites the pellets, and smoke comes out the chimney top. This setup creates more of a smolder instead of a fire, Wheelis says.
Pellet smoker grills take about 10 to 12 minutes to reach your selected temperature, and they burn through about three pounds of pellets an hour. Pellets are made of compressed sawdust and are typically sold in 20 pound bags that cost $10 to $20. The max temperature in pellet smoker grills is about 500 F to 550 F, so they can handle most grilling tasks as well as smoking.
Pellet smoker grills are great if you have little ones to keep an eye on as you grill. They’re often WiFi-enabled, with control panels that resemble indoor ovens. With their simplicity, Wheelis says, pellet smokers “have democratized grilling.”
- Little to no hands-on fire management;
- Computerized settings for simplicity;
- Good for large cuts or quantities of meat.
- Wood pellets may not provide as much smoky flavor;
- The 500 F to 550 F max temperature makes it hard to get a true sear;
- Thinner steel may make it harder to smoke in colder climates.
Ceramic Smoker Grills
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Ceramic smoker grills (also called Kamado grills) use lump charcoal and wood chunks for heat. They’re set up vertically, with the firebox on the bottom. Managing oxygen flow with the bottom vent and releasing heat out of the top vent maintains the temperature. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes for the charcoal to heat up.
Ceramic smoker grills can get as hot as 900 F, so you can smoke, grill, sear and even bake a pizza with the right accessories. They can take longer to cool down and require a decent amount of active, hands-on fire management. But the ceramic material and rounded shape creates uniform heat distribution. These come as small as 10 inches in diameter or as large as 29 inches in diameter.
- High max temperature for various cooking styles;
- Easier to maintain temperature in colder climates;
- Fuel efficient. Some customers report smoking meats without additional charcoal/wood or even have some leftover for next time.
- Requires more hands-on fire management;
- Heavy ceramic material means it’s less portable;
- Takes longer to cool down, which can become a problem if you need to bring the temp down during the smoking process.
Offset Smoker Grills
Offset smokers are for barbecue purists who relish the hours-long process and experimenting with flavors. Made of thick steel (usually about 1/4-in.), wood or charcoal goes in the fire box on one side of the barrel-shaped cooking chamber, and smoke comes out the chimney on the other side. Vents must be opened and closed to keep a steady temperature, similar to a ceramic smoker grill.
Because the heat is distributed from one side to the other, there will be temperature variations within the cooking chamber. You might need to rotate your food as well as manage your fire. While these smokers are the most hands-on, they often yield the most delicious results, like deep-red smoke rings on ribs, and pork and crispy crusts on brisket.
- Produces the richest, smokiest flavor profiles;
- The fire can be managed without opening the cooking chamber;
- Easiest to customize and find in large sizes.
- Takes the longest to heat up and cool down;
- Requires the most hands-on fire management;
- Temperature will vary within the cooking chamber.
Smoker Grill Costs
Smoker grills can cost from $200 to $2,500-plus, if you want a customized offset smoker to haul across the country to barbecue competitions.
Pellet smoker grills cost about $1,000, with portable, suitcase-like versions available for around $300 to $500. Popular brands include Traeger, Memphis Grills, Coyote Outdoor Living and Twin Eagles.
Big Green Egg and Kamado Joe are the most popular ceramic smoker grill brands. A 10-inch version can cost about $400, and anything 22 inches or more starts at about $1,200 and goes up to $2,500. Wheelis says Kamado Joe smoker grills include more accessories than the Big Green Egg version, which could influence what you spend up front versus down the line.
An offset smoker is going to run you about $1,000 for a basic model. But really, the sky’s the limit with size and customization.
Smoker Grill Accessories and Utensils
The extras depend on the type of smoker grill, but in general, accessories to create additional cooking space and maintain a steady, even temperature are available for all types.
A few basic tools that come in handy for all kinds of smoker grills:
- A wireless meat thermometer gives you the flexibility to walk away from your smoker grill while still keeping an eye on the meat’s internal temperature.
- Water pans help keep the meat from drying out.
- For ceramic smoker grills, an ash rake helps remove the ash from the fire box, which can be tricky to do without making a mess.
- For pellet and offset smoker grills, an ash vacuum can handle that mess.
Smoker Grill Maintenance
Wheelis says all smoker grills need their grease traps and/or liners cleaned every three to four uses and their grates brushed and wiped down about three to four times a season.
Pellet smoker grills need ash vacuumed out between uses, preferably with a shop vacuum or dedicated ash vacuum — don’t use your household vacuum or you’ll go through filters too fast. Ash from charcoal and wood chunks needs to be carefully scooped out.
Some smoker grills have an ash tray built in, or you can buy an ash remover that fits your smoker grill’s fire box. Don’t use water to wash out the fire box because the ash will turn to mud, making an even bigger mess.
Ceramic grills will turn black on the inside, but Wheelis says there’s no need to clean it away. “You want that extra flavor,” he says.
Wheelis also says chemicals should never touch your smoker grill. He recommends food-safe smoker grill cleaners.