Curious how a smoker works and what makes each type different? We’ll stoke you with knowledge about the best smokers, including pellet smokers, water smokers, dry smokers, and more. And if you don’t want to invest in one of those different types of smokers, we’ll teach you how to use your grill to smoke foods.

By Karla Walsh
Updated April 23, 2020
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Don’t let your fear of this barbecue technique make your dinner plans go up in smoke. The skills required for smoking and grilling are remarkably similar. So how does a smoker work? The best smokers help you cook food slow and low (180°F to 220°F) in a smoky chamber to infuse foods with flavor. Unlike the typical grilled recipe which cooks at 400°F to 550°F, smoked recipes involve cooking at a low heat created by the smoke itself as the wood chips or chunks smolder rather than burn. (Don’t miss our complete guide for how to smoke food for the ultimate cookouts.)

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The Different Types of Smokers

There are two main styles of smokers: Wet smokers and dry smokers. From there, the different types of smokers vary based on materials used to construct the smoker and the cooking method. They include:

  • Propane Gas Smokers. These vertical smokers look a bit like a heavy-duty safe with a temperature gauge on the outside.
  • Charcoal Smokers (including cabinet-style, firebox, barrel and drum, and bullet). These can be either vertical or horizontal. Vertical charcoal smokers come in a variety of shapes like large drums, heavy-duty safes, and large eggs. Horizontal charcoal smokers look much like a grill with a chimney.
  • Pellet Smokers. These horizontal smokers look much like a grill with a chimney.
  • Ceramic Smokers, such as the Big Green Egg Smoker are vertical smokers and shaped like a large egg.
  • Electric Smokers. These vertical smokers may resemble a small fridge with various shelves, a heavy-duty safe, or a big drum depending on the brand.

You can also easily convert your current gas or charcoal grill into a smoker.

How Does a Smoker Work?

Water smokers add moisture to the smoking process and are substantially less expensive than most pit smokers. They feature a cylindrical barrel about 2½ to 3½ feet high and about 18 inches in diameter, and are set on a base that acts as the heat source, either charcoal, gas, or electric. Wood chips or chunks (and sometimes other aromatics like fresh herbs and citrus peels) are placed above the heat source to enhance desired smoky flavor, then the water pan goes above that. Lastly, a grill rack is the final element. That's where you'll put the food you’re smoking, such as salmon, ribs, or brisket. 

Dry smokers cook food by indirect grilling. These smokers have two chambers—one large one where food is placed, and a smaller offset fire chamber where the fuel source (again, charcoal, gas, or electric) heats the food chamber indirectly. Compared to most wet smokers, you can cook more food at one time.

The Best Smokers for Beginners

There are almost as many smokers on the market than there are delicious smoked recipes to cook on them. So how do you know what is the best smoker to invest in as you enter into smoking meats, fish, and more at home? Look for these features, the qualities of the best smokers for beginners and beyond.

  • Heavy-gauge metal, usually steel
  • Smooth porcelain enamel inside and out for durability
  • Tight-fitting lid to hold in smoke and heat
  • Built-in temperature gauge to monitor heat inside 
  • Access to lower half of barrel for ease of adding wood, water, or charcoal as needed
  • Trays for catching and disposing of ashes
  • Sufficient vents to help regulate heat and smoke

Now that you know more about the different types of smokers and what makes them different from a basic barbecue grill, you’re all set to order your new toy (or convert your grill to a smoker) and become a pro-level backyard pitmaster.

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