The Best Charcoal Smoker - Give Your Meat the Ultimate Charcoal Flavor
low-smoking meat epitomizes the old adage “good things come to those who wait”. Your favorite cuts cook slowly and steadily, absorbing the deep flavor of smoke from your choice of wood. The steady heat breaks down hard fats and connective tissue, turning even the toughest cuts of beef buttery and tender.
If you want the biggest flavors out of your barbecue experience, smoking is the way to go. Muscles that see a lot of us, like brisket cut from the chest muscle of a cow, develop stronger, denser flavors than their more tender neighbors.
The steady flow of smoke around the meat adds further layers of nuance. It takes time, but the payoff at the end is irresistible.
In this roundup, we’ll be looking for the best charcoal smoker so that you can get set up in your own yard and reap the benefits of this delicious technique. We’ll compare the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker, the Dyna-Glow 36” Vertical Charcoal Smoker, the Dyna-Glow Wide-Body Vertical Offset Smoker, and the Masterbuilt Charcoal Bullet Smoker.
Human beings have been smoking food almost as long as we’ve been cooking it. In the majority of our history, refrigeration didn’t exist. We needed ways to prepare food that would make them safe to eat and keep them safer during storage. Smoking meat reduces the opportunity for insect activity and acts as a preservative. Those qualities were extremely valuable before modern food preservation techniques developed in the last century.
Sure, you’ll store your food safely in the deep freeze and don’t need to preserve it for long journeys. But that doesn’t rob the process of a sense of ancient connection, a tradition we carry on through generations of the human family. Whether your own relations have a beloved barbecue tradition or not, you can be sure you are descended from people who relied on this style of cooking at some point.
Smoking meat is also a delicious, satisfying, and economical way to cook for a crowd. Slow-cooking tenderizes tough meat. The best cuts for low-and-slow smoking are often less expensive. The collagen and connective fibers that make these portions undesirable for steaks and stir-fry transform into tender, silky, flavorful morsels when they’re cooked with patience.
Also, when you’re cooking one or two big pieces of meat, you have the opportunity to focus more closely on the details of the process. That’s not really the case when you’re juggling a hundred hamburger patties.
Mythbusting: Meat Smoking Truth and Fact
Myth: Smoking Your Own Meat is Complicated and Difficult
Fact: Smoking is an ancient and relatively simple cooking technique. However, like many things that are worth investing your time in, the method can be quick to learn but take a long time to master.
Give yourself plenty of time and monitor temperatures closely. These two key points will help set you up for success. Beyond that, many of the details are down to personal preference, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Bon Appétit magazine has a great in-depth article that describes smoking a great rack of ribs step by step. If you’re new to the art, consider trying out this recipe to get your feet wet.
Myth: More Smoke Means More Flavor
Fact: Much of the flavor develops from volatile compounds in the smoke that are invisible to the naked eye. Quality smoking actually requires a somewhat more delicate hand. You want to see thin, translucent white or blue-grey smoke rising in silky streams from your wood.
Clouds of black smoke mean there’s too much soot. The wood may not be dry enough or food drippings could be burning on the chips. Remember, never use softwoods like pine when smoking. They contain sap and resin that produce unpleasant flavors and some toxins.
Adequate ventilation is also essential for getting the good flavor out of your smoker. The smoke should travel freely around the food and then escape. Trapped smoke will cause bitter, acrid-tasting creosote to build up on the interior of your smoker and the food.
Finally, you won’t use smoke the entire cooking time. It is possible to over-smoke your meat, which will taste bitter. Plan on having active smoke from wood chips or pellets for no more than half the total cooking time.
Myth: You Can “Set and Forget” Your Smoker Because it’s a Slow Cooking Method
Fact: A charcoal smoker is not the same as a crockpot. While some models of electric smoker allow for very hands-off cooking, a charcoal smoker requires some attention. The results from chemical reactions unique to combustion give a flavor you can’t get out of any other cooking method, however. The extra effort is very worthwhile.
It does take some time. You don’t have to stay bolted to it every moment. But you should stick around and keep a close eye on the temperature. We suggest using a quality probe thermometer stuck in the meat as well as a thermometer for the temperature inside the grill. Additionally, especially if you’re cooking a great big pork butt or something else that takes a long time, you’ll need to add coals to keep the fire burning.
And remember: never leave a fire unattended!
What to Look for in a Charcoal Smoker
Smoking takes time and requires a steady temperature throughout the cooking process. In order to achieve this, you want your smoker to be made of heavy-duty materials. A good solid construction will help the smoker retain stable heat, and quality coatings will prevent it from rusting or peeling.
Because you’ll be maintaining the fire for a long time, make sure it’s easy to add more coals or wood chips as needed.
The best way to control the heat inside your smoker is by controlling the airflow. Vents, usually in the top and bottom of the smoker, allow you to increase and decrease the amount of air available to the fire. More oxygen will make the fire burn hotter, while restricted oxygen will cool things down. Keep in mind, if you suffocate your fire completely, it will go out. On the other hand, it’s faster to raise the temperature than it is to lower it.
Look for vents that are easy to adjust and hold their position. Then, when smoking, start with small adjustments and pay close attention to how they affect the temperature inside.
Smokers cook with indirect heat. Therefore, their cooking space may not be arranged in one flat layer like the inside of a grill. Think about what kind of meats you want to smoke and look for a smoker that will accommodate large cuts, multiple food types, or full racks of ribs.
The Best Charcoal Smoker
At a glance:
- Two cooking grates
- 286 square inches of cooking space
- Porcelain-enameled steel lid and body
- Glass-reinforced nylon handles
Weber has earned a sterling reputation in the grilling world for producing quality products that are fun and easy to use. The Smokey Mountain Cooker doesn’t fail this task. This round smoker, a petite 14 inches in diameter, is the smallest member of the Smokey Mountain series.
An upper and lower cooking grate provides enough room to smoke a couple of good-sized roasts. It weighs less than 25 pounds and stands less than three feet high, so you’ll have no trouble tucking it in the trunk of your car and taking off on an adventure. After all, the best adventures have good food.
Don’t let the size and weight fool you, however. Weber’s built a solid smoker, here. The durable coating will stand up to the heat and the pieces fit well together to keep the heat where you want it. Four vents located on the top and bottom of the smoker give you precise control over the airflow. The fuel door and water pan are easy to access so you can keep the fire managed all the time. This smoker is versatile and portable while still enabling you to cook up a fairly impressive amount of meat.
At a glance:
- Four cooking grates
- 784 square inches of cooking space
- Separate doors for food and fuel
- High-temperature powder coated body
This big, beefy cabinet-style smoker is ready for a job of any size. All four racks are height-adjustable, so you can set up your kebabs as easily as your 25-pound holiday turkey.
The fuel tray, water pan, and ash management system are located in the lower chamber behind their own locking door to minimize heat loss when you need to add more coals. The adjustable flue in the chimney enables you to control the airflow and adjust the internal temperature. It’s a robust unit that weighs 56 pounds and stands 50 inches high. The handsome matte black coating looks great and stands up to use.
At a glance:
- Six cooking grates
- 1,890 square inches of cooking space
- Spacious offset firebox
- High-temperature powder coated body
This smoker has a mammoth amount of cooking space. With almost 2,000 square inches, you could nearly barbecue for the population of a small town. If you’re the pitmaster for a big neighborhood block party or the entire company’s yearly picnic, the Wide Body Vertical Offset Smoker from Dyna-Glow should be in your radar.
All of that space would be wasted if the smoker didn’t perform. Fortunately, Dyna-Glow knows how to build them. Like the cabinet smoker reviewed above, this unit is made out of sturdy powder-coated steel in an attractive matte-black finish. Inside, the coal tray is also powder-coated for years of durability.
This design combines the best features of vertical and horizontal style smokers. The offset firebox offers easy access and a large capacity. The vertical smoking cabinet takes advantage of smoke’s natural direction of travel: up. It’s a great setup with an unbeatable amount of room and a dependable build.
At a glance:
- 50”H x 62”W x 29”D
- 580 square inches of primary cooking area
- 830 square inches of total cooking area
- 250 square inch firebox
While a lot of charcoal grills can be rigged up to smoke food, the Char-Griller Smokin’ Pro Charcoal Grill comes ready to star in both roles. A side firebox provides outstanding smoke flavor for when you want to go the low-and-slow route with your barbecue.
This grill offers an enormous 830 square inches of total cooking area. Platforms on the side and front provide easy access to tools and accessories. The Smokin’ Pro has a sturdy steel construction and durable powder coat for rust resistance.
While it does have wheels, this 118-pound piece of equipment is better suited to get set up in one place and then left there. It’s a reliable and versatile barbecue tool with more than enough space to take care of big cooking jobs.
At a glance:
- Two cooking grates
- 395 square inches of cooking space
- Porcelain-coated cooking grates
- Front access door for fuel
This short and sweet smoker weighs just over 15 pounds and stands 31.5 inches high. It’s an affordable smoker with a small footprint. If you’re just dipping your toe into the method for the first time or you’ve got a tight budget for yard or patio space, look into this one.
The porcelain-coated cooking grates are sturdy, rust-resistant, and easy to clean. There’s enough space inside to cook for a family and a few friends, and it’s small enough to relocate if the party isn’t at your place. A door at the bottom provides easy access to the fuel chamber, though some users have found improved performance when they added a grate to elevate the live coals over the spent ash.
Worth the Wait, Every Time
We love barbecue. We love tender, smokey, succulent meals made just right. The Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker lines up all the right features and produces tremendous results. The 14-inch little brother of the line is perfect for small, casual gatherings. Think lingering evenings with the smell of your pork roast drifting through and your best pals roaming the yard. We also like the bigger sizes available for folks who need to get down to business for a larger crowd. This is a smoker that can satisfy any appetite.