People love to brag about cooking with charcoal.
You’ve got to admit, there’s a certain amount of romance with firing up the charcoal smoker. Maybe its because of the more interactive nature, and the fact is requires a little bit of skill to work with.
While we all love to tell stories about “slaving over the coals for 12 hours”, smoking with charcoal doesn’t have to be an epic task. A well built charcoal smoker can hold a steady temperature for hours without much attention.
To make your job of choosing a charcoal smoker easy, we’ve pulled together a list of the best charcoal smokers available in 2017 across a variety of price points. We’ll also guide you through the pros and cons of the 4 main types of charcoal smokers.
Table of Contents
- #1. Weber Smokey Mountain 18-Inch
- #2. Classic Pit Barrel Cooker Package
- #3. Char-Griller Akorn Kamado Charcoal Barbecue
- #4. Weber Original Kettle Premium 22″ Charcoal Grill
- #5. Dyna-Glo 36″ Vertical Charcoal Smoker
- Who charcoal smokers are best suited for
- How the main types of charcoal smokers work
- Starting a charcoal smoker
- Managing temperature on a charcoal smoker
With a rich history dating back to 1981, the Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) still holds the crown for best all around charcoal smoker. While the 18″ model is a good size for most people, everything in this review applies to the 14″ and 22″ models as well.
Over the years Weber have continued to tweak and improve the smoker, making it a hit with both pro and amateur pit masters. While we named it our best charcoal smoker for beginners, the WSM can even hold it’s own at barbecue competitions where other competitors are cooking on $2000+ setups.
The success of the Smokey Mountain comes down to superior construction quality and ease of use at a price point almost anyone can afford.
Bullet or water smokers like the WSM are easily the most popular type of charcoal smokers, due to their small footprint and ability to hold a steady temperature for hours.
The Smokey Mountain is made up of three main sections:
- Lower section that contains the charcoal ring where the charcoal & smoke wood go. This section also has three adjustable vents to control airflow (which controls your smoker temperature).
- Middle cooking section that contains your water pan, two cooking grates and an access door for adding charcoal or wood.
- Dome lid with built in thermometer.
What we like:
- Construction quality – Everything about this smoker screams of quality. From the long lasting porcelain and chrome coating to the sturdy legs you can tell this smoker is built to last
- Ease of use – While people think charcoal is more difficult to cook with, this smoker is as close to ‘set it and forget it’ as you can get without investing in a automatic temperature controller. I’ve put a brisket on at 11PM and let it go until lunch time without having any problems with temperature fluctuations.
- Cooking capacity – We mentioned earlier this smoker has a small footprint, but that doesn’t mean you are limited in space. On the 18″ model you get two 18 and 1/2 inch wide cooking grates for a combined 481 square inches of cooking space, so you can fit a tonne of food.
There are plenty of ways to fit even more food on as well. I was a bit worried when I tried to fit an 18lb brisket on to my 18″ Smokey Mountain but using the tin foil trick I was able to get it on. You can also invest in rib racks to fit way more food on in one smoke.
The best way to get a feel for cooking on the WSM is to see it in action. T-ROY COOKS has a great YouTube channel, and in this video you can see all the steps for cooking with the Minion Method including firing it up, adding wood and using vents to control your temperature.
While we picked the 18″ model for this charcoal smoker guide, choosing the right size can be a bit of a pain in the butt. Since 2014, Weber has made three sizes of Smokey Mountain. We did a quick analysis on the price per square inch for each model.
- 14.5″ – 276 sq in – $0.72 per sq in
- 18.5″ – 481 sq in – $0.62 per sq in
- 22.5″ – 726 sq in – $0.55 per sq in
So you can see that each model get’s a bit cheaper per square inch. The larger model does use a bit more charcoal, so if you’re not cooking for a large group regularly the 18″ or even the 14″ should be a safe choice.
The only real issue you’re likely to encounter are some minor air leaks. The aluminium door could be a bit better insulated. On my model I do get some smoke coming through the door, but it doesn’t seem to effect performance.
There is also an easy mod you can to do to the door using a gasket kit that cuts the leakage way down.
Other than that minor issue the Weber Smokey Mountain is a reliable, easy to use charcoal smoker that can produce outstanding barbecue whether you’re a total beginner or a seasoned pit master.
If you’re on a tight budget, or just like the DIY approach, then building your own ugly drum smoker (UDS) is a great option. While it shares the same vertical design as a Weber Smokey Mountain, the main difference with an UDS is the lack of a water bowl.
These DIY smokers have become incredibly popular due to their low cost and excellent (when created correctly) performance.
But if you can’t get your hand on a drum or don’t have all the tools to DIY, then the Pit Barrel Cooker makes for an excellent alternative and a clever twist on the UDS.
Instead of placing your food on grill racks, the PBC uses metal hooks to hang meat vertically inside the smoker.
Made out of a 30 gallon 18-gauge steel drum and lid. It can handle high temperatures whilst the cooler external temp creates condensation in the barrel for added moisture. The cylindrical shape allows for convection heat to be distributed evenly throughout the cooker.
These smokers have been around since 2010 when they were created by a family owned business in Colorado.
What we like:
- Unique meat hook system – Cooking vertically allows for more space and has gravity lending a hand, basting the meat with its own juices and creating a “smoke fog” that negates any need for a water pan.
- No hot conduction points – With conventional smokers you may get hot points due to fire placement or which part of the meat is touching the grill. By hanging meat from hooks the surface can develop a more even bark
- Less messy clean up – Because the meat juices fall directly on the hot coals there’s no need to spend time cleaning up a dirty water bowl once you’re finished cooking.
What we don’t like:
More expensive – This option will set you back much more than the DIY ugly drum smoker option. The Pit Barrel Cooker is around the same price as an 18″ Smokey Mountain which has slightly superior temperature control
Can run hot – To ensure low and slow temperatures you need to be careful you don’t add too much lit charcoal at the start of the cook.
While it’s only been around for 7 years, the Pit Barrel Cooker has quickly built a reputation as a serious smoker and challenger to the Weber Smokey Mountain. For the price you’ll get a reliable smoker that’s forgiving on beginners and doesn’t require any customization.
While Char-Griller have gained a bit of a reputation for mass produced, cheap grills that are difficult to cook with, the Akorn Kamado style smoker hits the cost to value sweet spot.
In order to make the Akorn more affordable, the manufacturer has replaced the traditional heavy duty ceramic with a much lighter double wall insulated 22 gauge steel. This makes it more durable and much less expensive than typical Kamado cookers.
The exterior is finished in powder coated steel, while the interior uses porcelain coated steel.
With 314 square inches of cast iron primary cooking space and a 133 square inch warming rack, you get a combined 447 square inches of cooking surface to play with.
What we like:
- Price to performance ratio – While a Big Green Egg will set you back $1000+, for a fraction of that cost the Akorn is still an excellent smoker. It’s easy to assemble, everything fits well which means well insulated, leak free cooking.
- Quality cast iron cooking grates – The main cast iron grate is extremely sturdy, and has a handy removable section in the center that allows you to drop wood chunks on to the coals as needed. While the warming grate isn’t as solid, it should easily handle an 8lb piece of meat.
What we don’t like:
- Extra cost for smoking stone – While there are some cheaper DIY options, most people will need to buy the smoking stone to setup for low and slow cooking. On the plus side this doubles as a pizza stone!
- Cheap gaskets can leak – If you cook at very high temperatures that gaskets can get damaged, causing a bit of smoke leakage. Luckily some Nomex high temp replacement gasket makes this a very cheap fix.
Other than the extremely inaccurate dome thermometer (even more than usual so get yourself a decent thermometer setup), there isn’t much else to fault the Akorn on.
- For the same price as a Weber Smokey Mountain, you get an extremely versatile grill, oven and smoker combination. While it can’t match the WSM for dedicated smoking, and it won’t beat a Big Green Egg for all around cooking, you can pay a fraction of the price still get a quality, versatile cooker.
You also get your choice of black, red or brown when you order online.
You may be surprised but with a few simple tricks a standard Weber Kettle can be turned into an excellent smoker.
If your main goal is smoking, you should still buy a dedicated smoker. But maybe you’re just getting into smoking meat and you’re not sure if it’s worth spending a few hundred dollars only to discover you don’t like it.
Or maybe you want the flexibility of a grill that can double as a smoker from time on time.
Either way your best option is a classic original Weber Kettle. This is a great price to value option, giving you an excellent grill from one of the most respected brands in barbecue. And then when you’re ready for barbecue just follow one of many extensive guides for setting up a kettle grill for smoking.
What we like:
- Durable construction – The body of the Weber is made from pressed sheets of steel which is then coated with porcelain enamel. This means you should get many years of grilling out of it without any rust. Just make sure you invest in a grill cover if you leave it outside.
- Well-sealed and air tight – Part of the reason this grill can double as a smoker is due to the excellent heat control which allows you to maintain stable temps for a long time, while burning less fuel
- Light and portable – The two wheels attached to the base of the legs makes this grill very easy to move around.
The other main advantage of the Weber Kettle is that number of different ways you can configure it. You can set it up for 2-zone cooking by adding a cheap aluminium water pan, or you can invest in a Slow ‘N Sear.
As the name suggestions this stainless steel basket clips on to your Weber and turns it into an efficient water smoker. Check out how Adrenaline Barbecue use the Slow ‘N’ Sear to cook ‘Last Meal Ribs’ on a Weber Kettle in this video.
You can also buy attachments that turn your Weber into a Pizza oven.
The Weber Kettle won’t quite reach the levels of quality you can get to with a dedicated smoker like the Smokey Mountain. But it will get you damn close.
And for much less money, and much more flexibility, it’s an excellent option if you want to dip your toes into smoking without spending several hundred dollars on a dedicated smoker.
Packing a whopping 784 square inches of cooking area, the 36″ Dyna-Glow vertical smoker is a rare example of an affordable charcoal cabinet smoker.
While this style is common for gas & electric style smokers, it’s unusual to see a vertical charcoal smoker. The main advantage of this style of smoker is that the the food is all very easy to access. Unlike a smoker like the Smokey Mountain where you can’t access a whole level without taking grill racks off, you can easily access all 4 racks.
Assembly is very straightforward. The main box is already assembled so less fiddling with bolts required. The racks feel sturdy and well made.
What we like:
- Vertical style door – Being able to open the top door and access all four grill racks is incredibly convenient.
- Plenty of temperature control options – You control your temps by adjusting the side dampers which will take a bit of practice but once mastered, gives you a lot of control over your smoker.
What we don’t like:
- Cheap wood box – The wood chip box that comes with the unit is cheaply made and the lid does not fit securely
- Tends to leak – This should come as no surprise for a smoker in this price bracket. In order to keep the costs down, some corners have been cut when it comes to insulation so expect some smoke leakage.
While you will get a bit of smoke leakage, temperature control is fairly straight forward with this unit. If you really want to go with a cabinet style charcoal smoker on the cheap, this is a solid choice. It won’t perform as well as some of the other smokers in this guide, but the price to cooking area is hard to beat. If you can pick it up on sale then go for it!
That concludes our picks for the best charcoal thermometers. But if you’re still not convinced that charcoal is right for you, we’ve pulled together a guide to help you make the right decision.
Who charcoal smokers are best suited for
Since humans lived in caves we’re always loved playing with fire. And pressing the gas ignition doesn’t quite scratch the cave man itch like firing up a fresh chimney of charcoal does.
For others the thought of managing a pit sounds like the worst thing in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a “set it and forget it” style like a pellet grill, propane or electric smoker. It’s a personal choice.
The charcoal debate has raged for years, but we’ll leave the debate with some wise words from amazingribs.com. The general consensus is that while other types of smoker can come close, charcoal gives a flavor that just can’t be replicated.
Meathead Goldwyn, Charcoal Grill vs. Gas Grill Throwdown
Charcoal makes more smoke than gas, with a broader range of tasty flavor molecules, because it is burning complex organic molecules, among them cellulose and lignin.
If you use your grill for long low and slow smoke roasting, there is a more noticeable difference in flavor. The combustion gases from charcoal when mixed with smoke from wood chips or chunks makes a distinctive flavor typical of traditional Southern barbecue.
On a propane grill, the flavor is milder and a bit more bacon-like.
How the main types of charcoal smokers work
While charcoal smokers come in a variety of different styles, they all work in a fairly similar way with some minor differences.
It’s worth spending a little bit of time to understand how these various designs differ.
Water / bullet smoker:
example smoker Weber Smokey Mountain
The most popular style of charcoal smokers are water or bullet smokers like the ubiquitous Weber Smokey Mountain. In this design grill racks for holding your food are stacked above a water pan, which in turn rests above a ring that holds your charcoal and any smoking woods.
Unlike some other charcoal smokers, this style is used as primarily used as a dedicated smoker and doesn’t do a great job at grilling.
Streven Raichlen explains some of the many benefits of water smokers.
Steven Raichlen, A Guide to Charcoal Water Smokers
Much of the water smoker’s appeal is ease of use. You light charcoal in a chimney starter and pile the embers in the charcoal ring at the bottom. You place the center section on top, filling the metal bowl with water, beer, cider, or other liquid.
The food goes on wire racks over the water bowl (place lean foods, like turkey, on the bottom rack, so richer foods, like shoulders or ribs, can baste them with dripping fat).
Add wood chips or chunks to the coals and adjust the vents on the bottom and top (start with the former wide open) to obtain your desired temperature—225 to 250°F for traditional barbecue.
I might be a little bit biased because the Weber Smokey Mountain I predominantly cook with is a style water smoker.
Although it might be more accurate to call it a bullet (due to the bullet shape). In many cases you end up not actually using water! When you are cooking at high heatin the 325-375°F range you leave the water pan empty.
Some people have even experimented with filling the pan with sand, rocks bricks and even beer. That last one sounds like a terrible waste to us though.
Luckily the fine folks over at virtualweberbullet.com agree. “Beer Is For Drinking, Water Is For Pans Don’t waste beer, wine, juice, onions, herbs and spices, or other stuff in the water pan. These things may smell good while cooking, but experience shows they impart little or no flavor of the meat. Well said.
example smoker – Kamado Joe
This style of smoker (named after the Japanese earthen cooking urn) fall into the grill / smoker combo. Unlike your typical bullet smoker which is made out of heavy-gauge steel, most Kamado style cookers are built from ceramics.
This makes them fantastic outdoor ovens that perform just as well cooking a pizza as they do smoking or grilling.
Because ceramics are so insulated they radiate heat evenly and can hold a steady temperature over a long period of time. The extra insulation means less charcoal use, and better performance in extremely cold or windy conditions.
You do end up paying a lot more for the versatility though. The mid-priced Kamado Joe costs 3x as much as a Weber Smokey Mountain.
The famous big green egg can cost even more. And that’s before you add in the extra accessories you need. For example to even consider indirect style cooking (e.g. smoking) you need to buy a deflector plate.
The bottom line, if you want a versatile grill / smoker and don’t mind paying extra then Kamado style cookers are a great choice.
Offset barrel smokers
example smoker – Oklahoma Joe
The granddaddy of smokers and surefire to establish yourself as a “true” pit master. You could argue that this isn’t really a true charcoal smoker. Some pit masters like Aaron Franklin insist on burning a wood fire to produce an authentic taste and don’t use any charcoal at all.
But if you’re not a total purist, there’s nothing wrong with using charcoal in an offset smoker.
In this style of smoker follow the same general design principles. A horizontal barrel shaped cooking chamber with a lid. This is connected to a smaller chamber or firebox on one end. This is what the “offset” in the name refers to.
One of the advantages of cooking with an offset, is that your fire is much more accessible. And it needs to be if you plan on tending a wood only fire all day. The firebox is connected to the cooking area which in turn has a chimney for venting smoke. This design pulls smoke from the firebox, into the cooking chamber, flavoring your food before it leaves through the chimney.
You control this by adjusting the air intake vents. This all goes wrong if you go against common barbecue wisdom and buy a cheap horizontal smoker. While it may be tempting to grab a Char-Broil offset for well under a hundred bucks, you’ll be regretting it when your new smoker is leaking so badly it’s impossible to control air flow or temperature.
For this reason we would strongly recommend going for a better bang for your buck style of smoker unless you’re prepared to spend at least over $300 and preferably $500 plus.
Vertical cabinet smokers
example smoker – Dyna-Glo Vertical Charcoal Smoker
While most cabinet style smokers run off electricity or gas you do come across the occasional charcoal model. A nice advantage of this style of smoker is that you get much easier access to both your food and your charcoal than with the bullet or kamado style.
These aren’t super common though, so we won’t spend much time on them.
Starting a charcoal smoker
So you’ve finally bought yourself a charcoal smoker and you’re ready to fire it up. Hold on a second though.
Unlike gas or electric smokers that can be started with the press of a button, charcoal actually requires a few steps to get going. By far the easiest way to get your charcoal smoker ready is with a chimney starter.
This cheap device is a must-have item and will get you ready to cook in about 15 minutes with almost no effort. We’ve put together a guide to using your chimney starter.
Managing temperature on a charcoal smoker
Before you can start worrying about managing the temp in your smoker, you need to get it setup correctly. Assuming you want to cook low and slow, the best way to setup your smoker is going to be the minion method of one of it’s many variations.
This involves filling up your fire box with unlit charcoal, and then firing up a small amount of briquettes, allowing them to ash over for about 15 minutes and then spreading them over the top of the unlit coals.
This allows you to smoke for many hours at a low, steady temperature. As the lit coals burn they slowly ignite the coals below them, without too many coals ever being lit at once.
Feature CC Image courtesy of Bryan Adams on Flickr
Once you’ve setup your smoker for success, you can make adjustments by opening and closing the intake dampers.
- Keep track of how fast your temps are rising and make small adjustments BEFORE you overshoot your target temperature
- You almost always want to keep the top exhaust damper or flue fully or partially open. This will help keep you’re fire clean. Shutting off oxygen can cause a ‘dirty fire’ which can lead to a build of of creosote, a nasty bitter tasting by-product.
- Try and avoid making too many changes to your vents. Make a minor adjustment then give it plenty of time to work it’s magic before you make any more adjustments.
Controlling your temps does take a bit of practice. This is one of the reasons we always recommend starting off with a cheap and forgiving piece of meat like pork butt, before attempting brisket.
Wrapping it up
There’s a good reason that charcoal smokers are still one of the most popular choices by backyard barbecue enthusiasts. While you can argue about the degree that charcoal imparts flavor, there’s no doubt that this method of cooking results in better bark and smoke ring and unique smokey flavor that other styles struggle to replicate.
Because the way these smokers work is relatively simple, you can grab a really well made smoker for under $300. Unlike with pellet smokers where a lot of money goes into manufacturing the parts and tech, with charcoal everything goes into producing well designed smokers with quality components that will hold steady temps and survive for many years.
So if the thought of tinkering with air valves and managing the coals doesn’t fill you with dread, then you should seriously consider picking up a charcoal smoker.