As a beginner, getting started with smoking meat can be super intimidating. Apart from wondering how to smoke certain cuts of meat, you'll find yourself primarily concerned with the apparatus you choose to smoke with.
An issue I have with a number of other resources is they will seemingly recommend inferior products with the sole intention to monetize your visit to their website. Unlike these other resources I actually own a number of these smokers and have physically used them.
Like you, I was also a beginner once - technically I still am; As the saying goes in barbecue, there is always more to learn. My goal is to simply steer people in the right direction on their journey into barbecue.
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The main thing that separates smokers is their price. As a beginner, you want a smoker that's easy to use (the results are also repeatable), will last (quality materials combined with regular maintenance), and is relatively inexpensive.
It doesn't make sense as a beginner (or even as an experienced cook) to invest thousands of dollars into an offset smoker when you may only barbecue every other weekend. Or worse, you invest the money and find out that you don't enjoy it.
The word "beginner" also has such a negative connotation; These smokers being referred to as beginner or entry-level has nothing to do with their ability to cook food. Truth be told, as you start to learn more about barbecue and what the professionals use - you start to realize they use these smokers too.
Note: I have an entire article that discusses the different types of smokers and how they function. Before reading this article, it might be worthwhile to read that article and then come back to this one as some assumptions will be made in terms of your smoking knowledge.
Weber Kettle / SNS Grills / Drum Smokers / Water Smokers
In my opinion, the Weber Kettle is the first Grill/Smoker that every person who is remotely interested in Barbecue should purchase.
My Weber was given to me by my father and has lasted what seems to be forever - My model is so old that it doesn't even have what I'd deem "newer" features like the heat deflector on the handle, the thermometer on the lid, or the tuck-away lid holder.
While those features would certainly be great to have, it just goes to show how long the Weber kettle can and will last. Not to mention, Weber is essentially synonymous with grilling.
I can hear your thoughts now - Grilling implies high-heat (350F+), which is the opposite of low and slow smoking temperatures (225-275F) - How can a charcoal grill be a smoker?
Through the strategic placement of charcoal, the Weber kettle can be transformed into a smoker. I have dedicated articles that go over the primary methods that people make use of - namely the Minion Method and the Charcoal Snake.
The short of it is - You're essentially taking unlit charcoal and placing them inside the kettle. You're then taking a few hot coals and placing them on or around the other coals. You're then taking wood chunks and placing them on top of these coals. The lit coals will light the unlit charcoal over-time as well as the wood chunks. The result is a fire that will last several hours (5+) while maintaining 225-275F.
You could even introduce a water pan above the coals to help with temperature stabilization (it adds thermal mass); A water pan also adds humidity to the smoker.
Absolutely. However, Weber is one of the most affordable brands out there; There's a reason they've been around forever.
With that said, other Manufacturers do exist. A good example is Slow N' Sear (SNS). SNS is famous for their add-on they created for kettle grills (like the Weber kettle) in order to make smoking easier (or searing easier) - essentially it makes a quintessential two-zone fire.
The SNS drops into the kettle and features a "trough" where you place your unlit charcoal. Then on one end you place your lit coals. They also have a designated area to act as a water pan (reservoir) and a perforated bottom (recent advancement on the deluxe version) to allow ash to fall away from the charcoal.
Apart from this add-on, SNS started to manufacturer kettle grills in 2020. Their kettle grill is roughly $100 more (without the SNS add-on) than a Weber kettle. However, they certainly thought about what other kettle grills - like the Weber - lack.
Something I remember hearing and reading about when Slow N' Sear created their product was that while the product was engineered well, it was too expensive. It essentially came down to the fact that SNS over-engineered the product and were able to reduce prices by switching to 430 stainless steel (still great).
It's always nice to see brands that actually care about their product by way of the materials being used. Rather than brands that look to maximize profits through inferior materials.
There is a reason why SNS has a comprehensive warranty that covers each individual part of their kettle.
Kettle grills are great in that they can be transformed into a smoker, however if you're after a beginner-friendly charcoal option that's a sort of step-up from a kettle, Drum smokers are a good option.
Of the brands that exist, the most popular are Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC) and Gateway Drum Smokers.
PBC is more so beginner friendly and certainly more affordable. I have an entire article where I reviewed the PBC - You can read my review here.
PBC is owned by Noah and Amber Glanville; Essentially their goal with the PBC was to make smoking food more approachable - I'd wager to say they accomplished their goal.
The Gateway Drum Smoker (learn more about the Gateway Drum here) is almost double the cost of the PBC. However, it is similarly raved about by those who own it. Gateway regularly updates their Facebook where you can even see Gateway pits being used to win Barbecue Competitions.
Apart from Drum smokers, there are also water smokers like the Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) also called "Bullet Smokers." These smokers are so popular they even have entire forums dedicated to them.
Famous barbecue competitors even use the WSM (learn more about the WSM here) because the results are consistent and repeatable. Harry Soo from Slap Your Daddy BBQ is someone who regularly mentions the WSM as he uses it for competition brisket. A lot of barbecue teams even make use of several WSMs when competing.
To quote Harry Soo:
Grilla Grills, Camp Chef, Weber, Traeger, etc.
Pellet grills are a relatively new in terms of their offerings - Traeger's original patent on the pellet grill expired in 2006, meaning innovation has really only started taking place.
Pellet smokers work similarly to a kitchen oven - they're thermostatically controlled. Meaning, you plug it into an outlet, set/dial a temperature on the grill, and the smoker cooks the food.
Most pellet grills/smokers are engineered in the same way. They feature a pellet hopper to the left, an auger, firepot (igniter rod), intake fan, heat baffle, heat deflector, a chamber where food is cooked, and a smokestack.
Essentially, the consumer puts "food-grade" wood pellets into the hopper. The hopper is vertically aligned meaning gravity feeds an auger mechanism that pulls the pellets into the firepot. In the firepot an igniter rod ignites the pellets and an intake/combustion fan feeds the fire with oxygen. As the pellets combust, the heat baffle and deflector create a convection of heat that then cooks the food atop the grill grates. The heat and smoke then exit the chamber via the smokestack.
To quickly comment on "Food-grade" wood pellets. In my article on wood pellets for smoking, I bring up this concept as the term "food-grade" is seemingly made up. In my opinion it's more or less used as a way to differentiate heating pellets and cooking pellets - as there is a difference in composition.
The first pellet grill I bought was a Camp Chef - the model is so old they no longer make it. With that said, Camp Chef is a brand that has continued to push innovation through features like WiFi/Bluetooth connectivity, a sear box attachment, and ash clean-out system. Needless to say, Pellet smokers have vastly improved since 2006.
My current Pellet grill/smoker is the Grilla Grills Silverbac - You can read my full review here.
Most if not all Pellet smokers will make use of what are referred to as "modes" of cooking through a "controller." Typically they're simply PID or non-PID.
PID or proportional-integral-derivative is simply a control mechanism. You set a control, in this case a desired temperature and the controller will monitor a measurement or Process Variable (PV). The controller will then attempt to maintain the PV based on the PID terms of an equation.
Essentially, a PID controller will automatically apply a response/correction to your control function - the temperature. The way in which the temperature is controlled is via the pellets being dumped by the auger.
When the mode is set to PID, the controller will adjust the amount of pellets to feed to the firepot as the smoker approaches the set temperature. In most cases a PID mode will be +/- 5F in accuracy.
When in non-PID mode, the smoker will simply dump pellets into the firepot until the grill reaches the desired temperature. Once it reaches the set temperature it will stop feeding pellets and allow the smoker to come down in temperature and then repeat this process. These modes typically result in more smoke as the pellets smolder. Manufacturers will refer to this as "temperature swing" and advertise a swing of +/- 15F.
A quick note about pellet smokers: Most if not all pellet smokers will have a combination of the same features. However, a number of companies will simply slap on a gimmicky term in order to entice your purchase. Be sure to look for quality materials being used and PID/non-PID controllers - these features should always be your primary consideration.
If you're someone who is looking to get into smoking meat and your only experiences with grilling are gas grills, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how easy a pellet grill is to use - and clean.
The first smoker I ever purchased with my own money was an electric smoker (I've since replaced back in 2018 - pictured below). My primary intention was to make beef jerky as well as a few other meats - like ribs. Electric smokers, are in my opinion, the closest resemblance to a regular kitchen oven.
They're thermostatically controlled - you set a temperature and it will maintain that temperature precisely. The smoking component is fairly straightforward too - you put wood chips into a "tube" that drops into a tray. The electric heating element then causes these wood chips to smolder resulting in smoke (pictured below).
A big advantage of electric smokers is their ability to maintain super low temperatures which a lot of other types of smokers struggle with. For instance, cold smoking cheese requires you to smoke at roughly 90F for 2-3 hours - without the use of an add-on like the A-MAZE-N (AMNPS) you will not be able to achieve low, consistent temperatures like that.
To this day, I still use my Masterbuilt electric smoker for jerky, cheese, or even ribs/pork butt if I'm out of wood chunks, charcoal, or pellets; I almost always have wood chips on-hand.
Electric smokers will teach you the importance of both how much smoke is too much and how exhaust vents play a big roll in airflow. My first time using an electric smoker I made beef jerky and pushed way too much smoke at the meat and nearly had my exhaust vents entirely closed - the result was acrid creosote flavored meat.
I also grew up in a house where you eat what you make so I choked it down and learned my lesson.
Electric smokers are super cost effective; Most range from $150 - $250 and will last a long time. More often than not the part that fails first is the heating element (also fairly inexpensive to replace if need be).
If you're someone who is super into jerky or smoked cheese an electric smoker is essentially unmatched. You can also easily smoke larger cuts of meat like pork butt.
The question sort of becomes, which of these options is the best?
This question is super hard to answer only because there are a number of limiting factors. However, in my opinion, the Weber Kettle is a great entry-level smoker that will output wonderful food. It also has the least amount of limiting factors and is the most cost effective.
While pellet grills and electric smokers are wonderful, they also sort of imply that you are in proximity to an outlet. If you don't have an outlet near you, you won't be able to use the smoker.
Aside from Kettles, the Pit Barrel Cooker, the Gateway Drum, and the Weber Smokey Mountain are also great smokers that can output awesome food; However, all of these options also cost significantly more than a Weber kettle grill.
I've attempted to be as thorough as possible in terms of the latest offerings in the barbecue world. However, not much has really changed in the past decade. Even asking my father for his input on this article, he'd make the same sort of recommendations to a beginner - the Weber Kettle or the WSM.