- A smoker is a great way to preserve food and spend some quality time outdoors.
- Our favorite smoker for most people is the Traeger Pro 575 Pellet Grill.
- It offers steady temperature regulation and has a small learning curve, but the right one for you might vary.
Smokers can be a lot of fun, and as involved or hands-off as you like. These days, you can even tend (at least in part) to your smoker via WiFi from the comfort of your couch while your food fumigates and your pellet grill feeds itself and changes temperature and smokiness at your command.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are barrel smokers, otherwise known as stick burners, which are traditionally cut out of 55-gallon steel drums. These require meticulous oversight and tending, over which many professional careers have been spent.
In between, there are charcoal, electric (sans pellets), and propane smokers. The thing to keep in mind when purchasing one is how much time you want to spend hunched over or standing beside it, and how smokey you really want your food. They’re all great options according to Steven Raichlen, TV host of Barbecue University, Project Smoke, and author of dozens of books on barbecuing (including his forthcoming release, “How to Grill Vegetables“).
Before testing out smokers, we sifted through countless reviews, spoke with several other chefs, and walked the floors of The Home Depot and Lowe’s to get a feel for what was out there.
Below, we offer recommendations across each of the categories listed above, and while we haven’t yet tested enough stick burners (smokers that use log splits or “sticks”) to determine our top pick in that category, we managed a few recommendations for those looking to dive headfirst into wood-smoking.
Here are the best BBQ smokers in 2021
- Best smoker overall: Traeger Pro 575 Pellet Grill
- Best charcoal smoker: Weber 18″ Smokey Mountain
- Best propane smoker: Cuisinart 36″ Vertical Propane Smoker
- Best electric smoker: Masterbuilt 30″ Electric Smoker
- Best versatile smoker: Camp Chef Woodwind Wifi 24
If you’re going to buy just one grill for barbecuing, Traeger’s Pro 575 is a tank built to maintain perfect temperature and last well over a decade.
Pros: Excellent temperature control, WiFi-equipped, hefty steel built to last
Cons: WiFi connectivity could be better, LCD interface not as intuitive as others, not modular like some other brands
Whether you’re just getting into barbecuing or you’ve spent more days than you can count hunched over a stick burner, a pellet grill like Traeger’s Pro 575 is hassle-free and offers steady temperature and smoke. It’s also the heaviest-duty grill we’ve found for less than a thousand dollars.
One of the most important things about a smoker, or any barbecue grill that you’re going to operate for hours at a time, is heat retention. If you can’t keep steady heat, you’re really going to struggle to time and cook your food to perfection. We’ve tried multiple pellet grills (see more below), and while they’ve all done their job swimmingly, the Traeger is built with the thickest steel and maintains a temperature within about five degrees of your target. Try and do that with a manual charcoal or wood-burning grill and you’ll have your work cut out for you (you’ll also learn quickly why Pitmasters earn their distinction).
Frankly, apart from the quality of the steel, all pellet grills follow the same design, more or less. Traeger might be the original, but there are plenty of other brands that come close, and if you want to save some money, Raichlen suggests looking to Green Mountain Grills’ models.
We had some trouble connecting to WiFi using this grill. Our router was on the other side of two brick walls, and it couldn’t hold a connection. Though since relocating it, a lone wall hasn’t been a problem.
Traeger, like many other brands, falls short in the way of accessories. Camp Chef’s Woodwind WiFi series, which we also recommend, is modular; you can add on grill boxes, a 28,000 BTU side-burner (great for searing, boils, and clam bakes), a pizza oven, and much more.
If all you want your pellet grill to do is smoke and grill (they all max out at around 500 degrees Fahrenheit, so you won’t necessarily pull off any high-heat searing), Traeger’s is the one that’s built the best and made to last the longest, which is why we think it’s worth spending a little extra.
The best charcoal smoker
Weber’s 18″ Smokey Mountain has the same timeless and sturdy design as its Original Kettle, only better-equipped for smoking.
Pros: Simple but effective, full manual control, small but plenty of cooking area
Cons: Labor-intensive, difficult to maintain temperature control
When it comes to charcoal smokers, there are almost too many designs to consider. That said, unless you’re throwing massive backyard barbecues, smoking multiple briskets, or dealing with entire hogs, you probably don’t need a ginormous offset barrel smoker (however alluring it may look).
We find that Weber’s Smokey Mountain series’ 18-inch smoker offers the most for the casual at-home smoker. It has a relatively small footprint of about 20 inches, is made with the same solid steel and porcelain enamel as the brand’s Original Kettle grills, and it will outlast most charcoal smokers on the market for the same price.
If you do want a large offset smoker, Raichlen says look to Horizon, Yoder, or Lang — I’d also add Texas Originals to the list — but know that they’ll all weigh hundreds of pounds, and cost you four figures. We plan on testing these larger grills soon.
Depending on the amount of cooking surface area you require, you can size up to 22 inches (726 square inches) or down to 14 inches (286 square inches), but we think the 481 square inches offered by the 18-inch model (between two vertically integrated grates) is plenty for most.
Setting this grill up is easy and straightforward, and once assembled, a pile of charcoal (we recommend hardwood charcoal), some wood-smoking chips (or split wood), and a basin (included) filled with water are all you need. You’ll have to keep on top of the fire and airflow throughout to find the perfect balance — and make no mistake, that is an art unto itself, but also part of the fun.
I’ve spent the better part of a decade tinkering with and smoking all sorts of things with this very grill, and looking back on that experience I can say this: my most monumental successes in smoking have occurred on this very smoker, but so too have my greatest failures. If these prospects don’t appeal to you, save yourself the anguish and consider a pellet, propane, or electric smoker instead.
Approach this grill for what it is knowing that while it’s in some ways a starter smoker, and one that you can easily store away or station in tighter spots, it will allow you to produce a wide variety of superb smoked goods.
The best propane smoker
Cuisinart’s 36″ Vertical Propane Smoker is easy to use, maintains steady heat, and fits anywhere a mini fridge would.
Pros: Convenient, consistent, efficient, portable
Cons: No timer, requires regularly adding wood chips, no casters
Propane smokers are among the easiest and most efficient to operate and assemble. They might not impart the same amount of smokiness (adding dry or soaked wood chips hourly helps), and certainly don’t create the same ambiance as a fire, but they’re convenient and maintain impeccably steady heat.
We like Cuisinart’s 36-inch Vertical Propane smoker because of its basic but robust steel design. There are very few moving parts, and there’s only one control knob. And while this smoker lacks a timer or programming, it’s propane, which you’ll always need to shut off manually anyhow.
If you’re willing to forego the element of fire, a propane (or an electric) smoker is a great way to go. It requires almost no input from you beyond adding wood chips and igniting a burner. There’s also plenty of surface area spread out between four roughly 200-square-inch porcelain-coated stainless steel racks, which is comparable to the cooking surface area of a medium-sized barrel grill. And because it runs on propane, you can load it into the back of a truck for car- or off-grid camping, should you be so inclined.
The size of Cuisinart’s 36-inch Propane Smoker is also convenient for small spaces or those who prefer to store it in the garage. And thanks to the side handles, it’s much easier to put away than some other models. Still, we do wish it had casters because it’s a bit heavy for many people.
Even with an electric grill, this is as easy as smoking gets, and about as compact as well. So, if you don’t want to tend to a fire and would rather not pay for wood pellets, this is your best and most efficient option.
The best electric smoker
Masterbuilt’s 30″ Electric Smoker operates with nothing but electricity and wood chips, and is as easy and predictable as smoking gets.
Pros: Intuitive, glass door to check progress, efficient
Cons: No casters or handles, short warranty
Electric smokers are among the easiest smokers to operate. They’re insulated, maintain almost perfect temperature control, and can cook for hours and hours without much attention (save for adding wood chips).
Masterbuilt’s 30″ Electric Smoker comes practically preassembled (attach the legs, the digital monitor, a latch, and it’s ready) and will be up and running with the press of a few buttons.
There’s no fussy fuel to deal with, and all you have to do is remember to deposit a handful (half-cup) of either dry or pre-soaked wood chips, which you’ll want to replenish about every hour or so, depending on the temperature you set.
Vertical electric smokers are the same shape, size, and every bit as straightforward as propane smokers, but without the hassle of dealing with propane (namely, running out of it). The size lets you cook just about everything you would on a mid-sized barrel grill or smoker, and a glass window in the door is a nice touch that allows you to keep an eye on things without having to open it up and lose heat.
We wish this grill had handles because we have had to move it quite a bit, and there’s no great place to get a grip on it. Plan to keep this grill more or less where you park it, and know that you’ll need a solid electrical source.
Adding wood chips might also be sort of a nuisance if you’re not familiar with smoking, but it’s incredibly easy compared with maintaining a fire, and it also helps you keep things from overcooking. Otherwise, there’s not much to worry about with this smoker. We smoked fish, meat, and a pile of vegetables in it and everything came out perfectly, evenly browned and cooked through. This is as fail-safe and as effortless as smoking gets.
The best versatile smoker
Camp Chef’s Woodwind WiFi lets you monitor your grill from inside, and it’s compatible with many attachments.
Pros: Modular with several options for attachments, easy to move, industrial-style casters
Cons: Doesn’t maintain temperature as well as our top pick (but only a matter of 15 degrees)
While we like the Traeger Pro series for people specifically looking to smoke and grill (with smoke), we haven’t found any pellet grills as versatile as those in the Camp Chef Woodwind series, which we’ve been testing for nearly two years now.
Apart from offering remarkably user-friendly interfaces, the smokers in the Camp Chef Woodwind series (we think the 24-inch model with 800 square inches of cooking surface area is best for most people) are compatible with multiple accessories, and it’s hard to imagine something you couldn’t cook.
As far as attachments, we recommend Camp Chef’s 28,000-BTU Sidekick, an extremely powerful propane burner capable of searing anything and boiling massive stock pots of seafood (we put the latter to the test twice). The Sidekick also comes with a flat-top griddle and a grease catchment system, and you can add on the “Outdoor Oven” which is really a stainless steel pizza oven. There’s also the Sear Box, which works like a miniature propane grill with cast-iron grates and a stainless steel cover.
While this grill isn’t made of the same hefty steel used in Traeger’s Pro series, we haven’t encountered any issues with it, and it’s already been through two winters, accidentally left uncovered through snow, rain, and even hail, and is no worse for wear. We also really love the casters, which seem to be the same kind you’d find on industrial stainless steel carts.
If you want a do-it-all outdoor smoker (or grill for that matter) that lets you smoke, grill, braise, bake, boil, and more, this is our favorite modular option.
We recently retested three of our top picks and, paying careful attention to the heat retention, temperature fluctuations, general ease of use, and the overall quality of the materials and design.
We also walked through Lowe’s and The Home Depot opening and examining every smoker there. We looked at fittings, the quality of the seal between the lid and the grill, and the thickness of the steel.
Here’s what we looked for in our top picks:
Smoking method: While smoking over hardwood is probably the most fun experience, we all agreed, not everyone wants to spend the better part of a day hunched over a fire. And while pellet grills might not offer the same flavor charcoal and wood-burning grills do, they come mighty close and are almost entirely hands-off.
Ease of use: Inextricably linked to the smoking method is the ease of use. The learning curve on wood-burning grills is stratospheric. Pellet grills offer a great balance between smokiness and user-friendliness, but some don’t hold a steady temperature all that well, which presents another set of problems.
Material quality: Most smokers have to live outside, and while a cover is a worthy investment, a grill is still going to have to withstand the elements. Flimsier metals and cheap wheels were immediately disqualified. Thicker steel and industrial-grade casters were positive points, especially on competitively priced smokers.
Performance: Because heat retention and maintenance of a consistent temperature is so paramount to smoking, we chose grills that excelled in those areas with little oversight. In the case of charcoal or wood-burning, you are entirely on your own.
Warranty: We considered warranty to a degree, and looked for at least two years, but in the case of some picks we made concessions. In the end, the grill is only so good as the quality of the materials and build, and it’s hard to call in a warranty on something like a grill or smoker because “normal wear and tear” involves starting fires and spilling grease. Plus, it’s going to live outdoors. We find that investing in a grill that’s built to last is ultimately the better consideration.
What else we tested
Dyna-Glo Wide Body Vertical Offset Charcoal Smoker: The Dyna-Glo is a fine grill in design, but we’re not convinced that it will last more than a few seasons based on looking at the materials used. Expensive as it is, there are plenty of options that will probably well outlast it for a little more money.
Nexgrill 29-inch Barrel Charcoal Grill/Smoker: If you’re on a tight budget or you just want a charcoal grill (and smoker) in a pinch, this is the best you’re going to do. Our hesitation is that this is one of those grills that you could outfit with gaskets to function very well, but the quality of the parts means it’s not destined to survive past a couple of years with moderate use.
What we’re testing next
Broil King Offset Smoker: Based on inspection in-store and in a neighbor’s front patio, this grill seems like it will last a while and costs less than most higher-end brands. We’re planning to have a better look and try it out soon. All that said, keep in mind that charcoal smokers require a lot of attention, and you have to dedicate yourself to maintaining the right temperature.
Green Mountain Grills: We’ve been hearing a lot about Green Mountain Grills’ pellet grill as a great budget option, and Steven Raichlen tells us he’s a fan, too. We’ll be trying one as soon as we can.
Masterbuilt Gravity Series 1080: A self-feeding charcoal grill is enticing; it offers all the flavor of a charcoal fire without having to maintain the right balance of coals (and temperature) on your own. We’ve heard good things, and we’ll be trying one out soon.
What is the easiest type of smoker to use?
The easiest smoker to use is far and away an electric smoker, followed by a propane or pellet smoker. This is because each of these smokers maintains temperature automatically, so as long as you have your fuel (wood chips, propane, or pellets, respectively), you don’t have to do much of anything at all.
When it comes to charcoal and wood- or stick-burning smokers, you have your work cut out for you, and have to maintain the right amount of fuel to keep the temperature as close to your target as possible.
What can I put on a smoker?
You can put just about anything you’d eat on a smoker. Meat is what most of us associate with smokers, but vegetables, fruits, and all types of seafood can be extraordinary on the grill. Figuring out the endless options and recipes is part of the fun of taking up smoking as a hobby.
How do I make a brine?
When you want to smoke food, oftentimes a recipe will call for a marinade or brine. You can do this any number of ways, and arguments will abound until the end of time over how to make the perfect brine, but here’s a basic recipe for preparing and smoking with a brine, start to finish:
Note: You’ll want to start this process between about four and 24 hours ahead of starting your smoker.
- Add a 1:1 ratio of salt and sugar into a gallon of water in a stock pot.
- Heat up to a boil, or until the salt and pepper dissolve.
- Add any herbs or other seasonings.
- Let it cool for at least an hour or two, then place it in the fridge.
- Once cool, add food and let marinate for anywhere from a couple of hours (vegetables, lighter meats and seafoods) to 12 or even 24 hours (beef, pork).
- Remove food from the brine, pat dry, and light the grill.
- Add any dry rub or glaze you want to put on.
- Wipe or spray grill with a little cooking oil. You can use olive oil or any oil of your choice, and because you’re cooking at low heat, you don’t have to worry about smoke or burning points.
- Apply food, checking regularly to make sure fuel and temperature remain consistent.
- Remove when ready (a thermometer helps).
Check out our other grilling guides