If you’re tired of throwing money away, going out and enjoying smoked brisket, ribs, and other types of fall off the bone tender meats and you want to save cash and smoke your own meats, then the best charcoal smoker is the right tool for the job. Smoking offers a distinct, unique flavor that you just can’t get with other cooking methods. The process of slowly cooking meat using a low temperature breaks down collagen, which is why the meat turns out so tender. Additionally, it melts fats and enhances the flavors in the meat. Using the right type of smoker can allow you to slow cook your favorite meats and veggies to perfection, right in your own backyard.
But if you’ve spent any time shopping around online, then you know finding the right type of smoker isn’t exactly easy. There are a wide variety of smoker types to choose from, which can make your decision even more difficult, especially if you’ve never used a smoker before and don’t know what to expect or the features to look for. I decided to review many of the best-selling smokers on the market, checking out their efficiency, durability, cooking surface space, and overall design and I have narrowed it down to six charcoal smokers that have what it takes to deliver the type of results that most smoking enthusiasts are looking for.
Below, you can take a look at my comparison chart that lists each of these products. You’ll notice there are some similarities and differences between each model, which will make it easier for you to pinpoint which type and style will work the best for you and your smoking needs.
Table of Contents
Charcoal Smokers Comparison Chart
Best Under $500-Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker
This model features plated steel cooking grates for increased durability, and rust-resistant metal legs that allow you to leave the grill outdoors, without the fear of it rusting due to exposure to the elements. The built-in lid thermometer is designed to show you the precise internal temperature, so you can make adjustments to the damper system as needed. It also comes with an extra-large water pan, which works to maintain a consistent temperature if you’re smoking bigger cuts of meat such as a roast or brisket.
The porcelain lid, center section, and bowl will work to retain heat and will not peel or rust over time. This model comes with two cooking grates that give you more cooking space so you can cook two large cuts of meat simultaneously. Using the adjustable damper system, you can control the internal temperature, just keep in mind that precise temperature control can be difficult for people who have no prior experience with charcoal. The removable fuel door will make it easier to add wood and charcoal, for a faster setup time. In total, the grill offers seven hundred and twenty-six inches of cooking space, which is perfect for smoking a higher volume of food or whole chickens, a turkey, or a brisket.
Best Under $300-Dyna-Glo DGO1890BDC-D Wide Body Vertical Offset Charcoal Smoker
This model is perfect for the buyer looking for a model that offers the ultimate cooking space. The smoker comes equipped with a total of six cooking grates and has a cooking surface that measures in at one thousand, eight hundred and ninety square inches. The ash and charcoal management system include a charcoal removable ash pan and charcoal chamber. The design of the smoker works to optimize indirect heat flow, so it’s perfect for infusing a smoky flavor and slow cooking meats. Each of the six grates is height adjustable, so you can lower or raise the grates based on the type of food you’re cooking and the temperature you want to maintain. The charcoal chamber is designed to keep the charcoal tightly stacked for improved burning efficiency, which is a huge plus for any buyer.
Best Under $200-Realcook Vertical 17 Inch Steel Charcoal Smoker
This model by Realcook comes with two grates, so you can cook two different cuts of meat at the same time, and offers a total of four hundred and fifty-three inches of cooking space. The design of lid and the crossbar make it possible to smoke meats of all shapes and sizes. The lid is equipped with heat-resistant handles that stay cool, which is a must-have safety feature that most smokers lack. This multifunctional model can be used for hot or cold smoking, in addition to allowing users to braise, bake, roast, steam, or grill a variety of foods. The two access doors make it easier to check on foods, clean the grates, and add more charcoal. The lightweight design of just twenty-two pounds makes this model highly portable and a great option if you’re looking for a model you can take with you on your next camping trip.
Best Budget Smoker-Dyna-Glo DGX780BDC-D Charcoal Smoker
This is an excellent buy for the family on a tight budget. It comes with a total of four cooking grates and features seven hundred and eighty-four inches of cooking space. It also has a top of the line ash and charcoal management system that includes an ash pan and large charcoal chamber. The built-in temperature gauge is made out of stainless steel and allows you to keep a close eye on the food’s temperature while it slow cooks to perfection. Each of the cooking racks is height adjustable, so you can raise or lower the grates based on the size and type of food you’re smoking. The included large capacity water bowl ensures your meats turn out tender and juicy while improving the natural smoky flavor. The large wood chip box can allow you to slow cook meats for up to four hours, meaning it can handle larger cuts including briskets and roasts.
Best for Smoking Meat-Char-Broil Offset Smoker
Compact, versatile, this model by Char-Broil features four hundred and seventy-seven inches of cooking space. The three-piece smoking chamber works to reduce air loss while helping to improve temperature control and consistency. The cooking grate is porcelain coated to improve durability and prevent food from sticking to the surface. The firebox comes complete with a side shelf and a large door, which will make cleaning out the charcoal fast and simple. Since the included stand comes equipped with caster wheels, moving and transporting the smoker is a cinch, and also makes it highly portable, making the smoker a great option for camping trips and RV’ing adventures.
Dyna-Glo Signature Series DGSS1382VCS-D Heavy-Duty Vertical Offset Charcoal Smoker & Grill
This model comes with five cooking grates that are chrome plated and highly adjustable. It also features a total of thirteen hundred and eighty-two inches of cooking space. The body of the smoker is made out of heavy-gauge steel. The temperature gauge, complete with a smoke zone will alert you when the grill has reached the perfect temperature for infusing a smoky flavor. This smoker and grill combo comes equipped with large wheels that make it highly portable and much easier to transport from the garage to its designated place in your backyard. Overall, this is one of the most versatile charcoal smokers on the market since it allows you to smoke and grill up your favorite meats and veggies and provides plenty of cooking space, making it perfect for the buyer who loves to host dinners and backyard barbeques.
Charcoal Smoker Buyer’s Guide
A charcoal smoker can be difficult for the beginner to use since you’ll need to know how to maintain a precise temperature throughout the duration of the smoking process. But even though this type of smoker isn’t exactly the most beginner-friendly, many people choose this style over others because of the type of flavor it offers. Just keep in mind, when it comes to heat management, charcoal smokers can be more difficult to handle.
The size of the cooking surface will really matter here, since not only do you need to be able to cook enough food for your family and/or friends, but if you want to cook a whole chicken, brisket, or turkey, then the inside of the smoker should be large enough to accommodate these types of foods. Look at each model’s spec sheet to learn how large the cooking surface is. If you don’t plan on cooking for a lot of people and you mainly want to stick to smaller cuts of meats, then you won’t need a smoker that comes with a larger cooking surface. Fortunately, smokers are available in a wide range of sizes, so you should have no problem finding a model that’s large enough to accommodate your smoking needs.
A charcoal smoker is highly portable, at least when you compare it to a standard gas smoker, which comes with a large propane tank, or an electric smoker that must be plugged into an outlet. Charcoal smokers are often much lighter and some come with caster wheels, which will make it easier to move the smoker from one spot to another or store it away after use. If you don’t plan on moving your smoker, then how portable it is won’t really matter, but if you’re also looking for one that you can take with you on vacation, then portability will definitely be something you want to pay attention to.
The dampers are small vents that are located all over the smoker and they’re what you’ll use to control the internal temperature. If you want a higher temperature, you’ll need to experiment with how much they should be closed, in order to crank up the heat. You can do this by keeping your eye on the built-in thermometer on the lid. If the temperature is too high, open the dampers slightly and check the temperature in fifteen minutes. If you want a lower temperature for slow-cooked meats such as brisket, then open the dampers more. These days, many models come with an extensive damper system, which will give you more control over the temperature, but it can be difficult to know how to adjust if you have no prior grilling or smoking experience.
The goal will be to keep track of how quickly the temperature rises, so you can make small adjustments before you end up overshooting the target temp.
Typically, you’ll want to keep the top exhaust damper open at all times, either partially or fully, since this helps to keep the fire burning clean. If you shut the top exhaust damper completely then this will cause a dirty fire, which can lead to meat that tastes bitter and a buildup of creosote.
You must also avoid making too many adjustments to the dampers. Go slow and make a small adjustment, then give it time to take effect before you make another one.
As you can see, controlling the temperature can take practice.
Most models will come with some type of warranty. Warranties tend to run an average of six to twelve months for most models, although there are some higher-priced smokers that have a lengthy two to three-year warranty. A product that’s covered by a warranty will always give people an incentive to buy since it shows that the manufacturer believes in and stands behind its product. Make sure the model you choose comes with a lengthy warranty that will cover the grates, body, and one that covers any manufacturing defects.
Using Your New Charcoal Smoker
This type of smoker is designed to cook food under direct heat, unlike offset smoker boxes, which you can find on some standard charcoal grills.
To begin using your new smoker, the first step will be to get the fire going and the charcoal ready. Start by opening the lid and removing the grates. Next, you’ll pour some charcoal in the fire area and light it. Learning how to start a charcoal grill is a fairly straightforward process, but you’ll need to be patient and wait for all of the charcoal to ignite. Once you’ve got all of the charcoal going, you’ll need to focus on managing the heat. As I mentioned earlier, this technique can be tricky.
- The way you place the coals can have a lot to do with managing the temperature. Some pros recommend one-sided filling. This style gives a complete balance of cold and hot charcoal. To do, you’ll arrange the coals on one side of the fire area, leaving the other side completely empty. The point behind this technique is to allow you to move the food from the hot side to the cold area to better control the temperature. You can also add an aluminum bowl on the empty side of the fire area to help cool down the heated food.
- Double-sided filling is another popular way to arrange the charcoal and it requires you to spread the lighted charcoal on both sides of the fire area, leaving the middle portion of the fire area empty. This charcoal placement trick should be used when you’re cooking larger meats such as brisket, since it can create more heat compared to the one-sided filling method.
- For this last method known as all-across filling, you’ll equally distribute coals across the entire fire area. But if you want to have more control over the charcoal grill temperature when using this method, then the charcoal must be spread evenly across the surface to create the perfect balance of heat needed for smoking.
For added flavor, try smoking some flavored wood chips for half an hour, then add them to the lit charcoal. The goal of using wet wood chips is to add a sweeter, smoky flavor to your food.
After you’ve decided on how to arrange your charcoal, you can get started cooking. Replace the grates and place the food on the grill to get started. Quickly shut the lid and allow your food to cook for an hour before you return to check on its progress. Avoid opening the lid frequently to prevent the smoke from escaping.
When it’s time to check the food, make sure you alternate it over the coals to manage the level of heat that goes into the food, based on what you’re cooking.
All charcoal smokers will come equipped with a damper system. The dampers are located on the sides and top of the smoker and are what controls the airflow, which can increase or decrease the temperature inside the smoker. Use a thermometer to keep a close eye on the internal temperature. Many models will come with their own thermometers attached to the lid. This is a convenient way to monitor the internal conditions as the food cooks, ensuring the smoker reaches the perfect temperature.
Keep the Grates Oiled
To prevent food from sticking to the grates, even for models that have a porcelain coating, make sure you use a little oil. Brush a little vegetable oil directly onto the grates before cooking. Avoid using too much.
If you’re new to smoking, the best meats you can smoke are short-back ribs. These smaller ribs are not quite as challenging and cook in a fraction of the time compared to a brisket or whole chicken. Over time, you can take on these more challenging meats, once you get the hang of adjusting the damper system to control the temperature.
The biggest reason people switch to a charcoal smoker is the flavor. The flavor that charcoal produces easily outweighs any of the extra clean up that you’ll have to deal with when using this type of smoker. From light to heavy flavors, you can easily control the flavors you want and how smoky you want your meats to taste.
These smokers are also very portable since you don’t have to plug them in like with an electric smoker. You also won’t have to worry about running low on propane or having to haul around heavy propane tanks. The size of the smoker will really be what determines how portable it is, but models that are equipped with wheels will allow you to easily transport the smoker around the yard or bring it with you on your next RV or camping adventure.
With proper use and a little experimentation on your part, your smoker will be able to generate intense heat, which is perfect for searing, allowing you to instantly sear in the flavor.
The amount of care and maintenance required is by far the biggest drawback. Figuring out how to clean charcoal grill grates quickly and efficiently can be time-consuming considering the grates can get filthy pretty quickly, not to mention having to deal with the leftover ash once you’re done smoking.
Temperature control and the difficulty that can come with it can make using this type of smoker difficult for beginners. If you’re not familiar with charcoal grills or how to use dampers, then you can definitely expect a learning curve in the beginning.
There are a couple of main types of charcoal that you’ll use in your smoker: lump and briquettes.
Before you get started smoking, it’s important that you know the difference between these two fuel sources and the pros and cons for each type.
Briquettes are considered more user-friendly. They’re also more affordable, burn longer, and have a uniform shape, which is why they’re also easier to stack. Additionally, if you’re new to smoking, then you’ll want to opt for this style since it’s also easier to maintain a steady temperature with this option. They’re made out of scrap wood and sawdust that has been burnt down and are held together with the use of additives. Because of this, they’re not considered a chemical-free option. Additionally, they don’t burn as hot compared to lump charcoal and they tend to produce more ash.
Lump charcoal is designed for the smoking purist out there. This fuel source is made by burning wood in the absence of oxygen, which leaves little more than charcoal. It’s additive and chemical-free and burns clean and hot. It’s also easier to light and tends to light faster than briquettes. Lump charcoal is responsive to the amount of oxygen it receives and because of this, it’s important to determine what you’re doing with the dampers since it can burn out quickly if you give it too much air. This type of charcoal is irregularly shaped, so when it comes to stacking it, you’ll need to have a little patience. But aside from issues with stacking, what you’re left with is a fuel source that will not cause any type of chemical aftertaste, and you’ll be cooking with fuel that’s all-natural.
What’s the Difference Between Smoking And Grilling?
When you’re grilling, you’ll cook the food on high heat, directly over the heat, for a short period of time. When you smoke food, you’ll cook meat over indirect heat for longer. When you smoke your meat correctly, it will be crispy and dark on the outside and nice and juicy on the inside.
A model that can do double duty and grill as well as smoke will give you more options concerning how you prepare food, but it can also come with a higher price tag. Both cooking methods have their own pros and cons, but a smoker is one of the best ways you can easily add serious flavor to meats and veggies.
When maintained correctly, a smoker can last for a very long time. Maintenance doesn’t have to be time-consuming or too complicated, as long as you stay on top of it.
After each use, your smoker will need some basic maintenance. You’ll need to empty the ashes out of the ash pan after, since ashes that are left sitting inside the smoker can end up attracting moisture, which can result in the smoker rusting. Keep in mind that burnt down charcoal and ash can retain heat for a long period of time. Because of this, you’ll need to ensure that everything has cooled down completely before you attempt to clean out the smoker.
Grease that’s left on the grates will quickly go rancid and can make your food taste terrible. Black charcoal on the grates can also stick to your food and can cause it to taste bitter.
The grates can be cleaned immediately after you finish smoking. Allow the charcoal to burn itself out in order to remove any food that has stuck to the surface of the grates. Once this process is complete, you can use a scraper and scrape the grates to remove any ash or remaining food particles.
The cooking chamber is also going to need plenty of care. While it doesn’t need to be cleaned as often as the grates, once you have noticed that it has a built-up layer of crud that’s flaking and crusty, it’s time for a good deep clean. Cleaning the inside of the chamber periodically can also save you on cleanup in the future. If it simply needs a light clean, then all you have to do is take a putty knife and use it to scrape off any loose bits of food. You can also use a shop vac to speed up the process as it sucks up any old food and debris.
For a deeper clean, use a wire brush or steel wool, a type of grease-cutting dishwashing liquid, a soft scrubbing brush, gloves, a garden hose, and some paper towels. Scrub down and wipe out the chamber until the surface is smooth. Then use a clean wet sponge to remove any soap residue.
Once you have the right smoker for the job, you can use the following tips to ensure your food is smoked to perfection.
- Before lighting the charcoal look at the recipe you’re using to determine how much wood chips you’ll be using in the charcoal chamber. Some recipes will suggest soaking the wood chips in water in order to cause them to smolder instead of flame up and smoke. Drain the wood chips and evenly place them over the charcoal.
- For smoking purposes, you only need to use a small bed of charcoal, especially if you’re cooking small cuts of meat such as chicken breasts. You can fill up the fire area if you want the food to reach a hotter temperature, but for small cuts of meat this really isn’t necessary. You can always add more charcoal later, if needed.
- If the recipe calls for more than half an hour of cooking time, then pay closer attention to the internal temperature to ensure you don’t overcook cook the food. This is fairly common with smaller cuts of meat.
- If you have a smaller smoker and the recipe requires more than thirty minutes of cooking time, then you may need to add more charcoal during this time. If you’re using charcoal briquettes, made sure they are fully lit before adding them to the fire area. If you don’t light them and have them ready and waiting, then the taste of your food will suffer and you may end up with food that’s unevenly cooked.
- If the temperature in the smoker is running too hot, close the lower vents in order to cut off the oxygen supply.
- If you need to boost the heat in a hurry, you may need to add more coals, especially if you’re cooking something large such as a turkey or ham.
- If you’re dealing with a twelve-hour cook, make sure you knock the ash off the coals in order to reawaken them.
- Unlike when you use a gas grill. The temperature changes in a charcoal smoker can take around fifteen minutes to register, so be patient.
- Once you have the smoker at the correct temperature and it’s finally stabilized, clean the grate with a grate brush before you add the meat.
- If the smoker has lower and upper grates place the food that cooks faster on the lower grates and food that must be smoked for a longer period of time on the higher grates. Make sure the higher grate is positioned at the very top bracket.
- Keep the lid closed and write down the time you added the meat, checking once an hour, noting the temperature and adjusting the vents accordingly.
- Never smoke meat without the lid on. Try to avoid the temptation of removing the lid to check on the food. This can cause the temperature to fluctuate.
- There should be a steady, thick stream of smoke surrounding the meat at all times in order for it to be properly infused with the smoky flavor. The smoke must be moving in order to prevent the meat from tasting bitter, which is a result of creosote. This is why it’s important to keep the dampers open as much as possible.
Most beginners are unsure of how much charcoal they should use, but this will ultimately depend on what you’re cooking, what temperature you’re trying to reach, and even wind conditions. If you’re not sure how much charcoal to use, then it’s always best to just fill up the fire area based on the manufacturer’s recommendations.
How long a smoker burns per use is another important question since there are certain cuts of meat that can require a longer smoking time. On average, a standard-sized model will burn for three to four hours, while smaller smokers can burn for up to two hours. You should choose the best meats to smoke based on the size of your smoker and the manufacturer’s recommendations. You won’t be able to smoke large cuts of meat such as a brisket, or a whole turkey, in a smaller smoker.
Charcoal will never go bad. However, if you’re using briquettes, then the chemical additive content can dissipate over time, especially if you’ve stored it for several months. Once the chemical additives wear off, the briquettes will not be able to burn.
The best charcoal smokers are versatile, highly adjustable, and allow you to smoke different types of meats, poultry, fish, and veggies, to perfection. As I mentioned earlier, a charcoal style smoker can be difficult for a beginner to use, simply because learning how to adjust the damper system in order to maintain the correct temperature can be tricky. But over time, making the proper adjustments will feel like second nature.
This buyer’s guide is designed to help make your search for your next charcoal smoker a little easier, especially now that you know what features to look for and what you can expect in terms of ease of use, care and maintenance, and adjustability. The reviews of the top-selling models on the market will also allow you to make an informed decision when it comes time to hit that buy now button, so you can find a model that’s suitable for all of your smoking needs.